"I had no use for nostalgia if it took up space"

This past weekend I exchanged a war romance novel in the free little library for Coming Clean, a memoir by Kimberly Rae Miller. Dodger, the Border Terrier sitting guard by the structure in the fenced front yard, wagged his tail and furrowed his sun kissed brows as I opened the little wooden door to swap the books. The title written in black chalk on the spine caught my attention. The cover has a small paper heart in gradual stages of crumpling, laid out in a grid of twelve against a white background. It leads to believe two scenarios, either the paper heart was whole and crumpled into a tiny ball by the time it reached the top of the left corner or it started out crumpled and was unfolded and made whole again- the smoothed heart bearing the words "a memoir" on the bottom right corner. I see it this way: No matter what happens, the creases and wrinkles can be carefully undone to restore the heart to its original shape.

I read the book in almost one sitting. The writing style isn't remarkable, but the story is captivating and kept me alert and wanting to know what comes next. It is a coming of age story unfolding in chronological order about growing up in a household drowning in material possessions and shame. Kimberly's father barricades himself behind towers of papers and knick-knacks. Her mother follows in the same footsteps, buying products from infomercials that serve as a boxed surface to stack more objects that are never used. The living conditions she describes are horrible and brought up images I had seen in documentaries and films featuring hoarding and homelessness. 

She tells her story with utmost honesty, and humor at times. The experiences she went through made her grow up fast, and certain memories she unveiled made me feel conflicted with stifling a laugh while simultaneously feeling incredibly sad. The problem with hoarding is there is no end to it. It is a mountain of stuff covering undealt with emotions and trauma, building more trauma in the endless cycle of collecting and cleaning, like coming up for air to rapidly descend to the bottom over and over. I often felt claustrophobic reading about the condition of her childhood homes, the despair she felt living with her parents and taking care of them in her adult life. 

Thin pink strips of sticky notes pop out from the fore-edge like a fan. There were so many passages that questioned and answered each other. Her father's eyes looking out in the distance, somewhere out of reach. She writes he "wandered off" buried in the ceiling high piles of accumulated stuff, "his body just hadn't gone anywhere" (p. 40). Observing him sitting in the hospital waiting room when her mom was in a life saving surgery, he was holding onto a newspaper but instead of reading it, "running his fingers through the pages, touching the corners, feeling around the headlines, the paper soothing him" (p. 173). After their first house burned down and her parents purchased a larger house, she "was sure there was no way [they] would be able to find enough paper to fill it up with" (p. 57). But they did, time and time again, and she came to clean it up over and over because they were too ashamed to ask anyone else for help. 

She managed to keep the hoarding a secret throughout her childhood and teenage years, even through college, but the secrecy of her family's shame haunted her adulthood and manifested itself in PTSD-like nightmares. When she was living with her parents, she bought them wedding bands for their anniversary and they lost them immediately. "Things were always getting lost," she writes, "it was never worth the trouble looking for them for fear of what else we might find" (p. 175). Looking that fear in the eye and coming clean, as the title suggests, is what it takes to move forward. 

Capturing time

We were sitting on the bench at the front of the pond, holding each other's hands, our legs crossed in the same direction, enjoying the warmth of the sun on our backs. A shadow of a hawk flew above us and we tilted our heads up to watch at the same time and my husband said, "That's a good shot." A capture, I thought, that wasn't photographed. 

Whenever I see something beautiful or remarkable, there is an itch to reach for my phone to take a picture. This used to be instinctive but something I notice hasn't been my immediate response anymore. My husband says we have a tendency to want to take photographs because memory is fallible. Sometimes I think that is precisely why I don't reach for my phone, because I want to remember having felt something memorable rather than the actual thing itself. That is not to say that I am not a prolific photo-taker. I recently switched to a new cell phone after holding on to my old Motorola model for six years. The camera on the new phone is impressive and I've been having fun taking photos, in awe of the sharpness compared to the blurry pictures I'm used to. 

Looking through my recent gallery, there are photos of blue skies and tree branches coming in from the bottom, closeups of pink buds on the cusp of opening, a red tulip in macro, a cherry tree with a green house with white window panes in the background, a view of my bookshelf with the string of lights turned on, a Joan Didion book and its title mirrored upside down on the glass on top of the dresser, a sunny side egg and turkey bacon on a plate, a heart shaped pot on the stove with dumplings in boiling water, a round cake with a bunny tail made of white frosting in a display case, the tip of a fountain pen, a Tudor style house with a 19th century church golden in the light to its left, a ginger cat looking out from a window, a tabby cat on a window, the back of my favorite black and white spotted little cat sitting on the sidewalk, my mom taking pictures of me on her cell phone, the picture she took of me that she sent me, my husband's profile while reading a book, a series of selfies of the two of us, a solar powered lucky cat waving his hand in a window with a reflection of me in a baseball hat taking a photo and my husband looking to the side behind me, a window with a large photo of Audrey Hepburn holding a long cigarette in a frame on the wall inside, bare trees reflecting in the glass. 

Why do I take photographs? To capture a moment. Why do I choose not to? To capture it with words. When I was a child I had a tape recorder and then a video camera. I annoyed my parents incessantly with both, but can't remember the last time we rewound those tapes as a family. But when I read a page in an old diary, the memories appear as vivid as any picture - still or in motion. They say a photograph can speak a thousand words, but I've always thought a written record can speak even more and sometimes a sentence is all it takes. I don't remember when or how I changed my photo taking habits. Gradually, over the years, I found I wanted to put less effort into photographing moments and started writing about them instead. I do remember a particular vacation trip when I brought along a larger sized journal, some picture corners tucked in the back, and a glue stick. Instead of taking photos all the time, I became more attentive to collecting little trinkets I could glue in the journal and write around them - pressed leaves, receipts from coffee shops, a torn sugar packet, crinkly candy wrapper, a postcard. Looking back on these entries makes me relive those memories more than their photographs. 

I've come to understand, reliving memories through recording them is what this blog is all about. As tempting as it is to share a photo, I want to write about what it meant to me. I've often wanted to post photos alongside these blog entries but feel it wouldn't be right, because these posts are my way of digging deeper. I want to capture what I see and experience with words. That is why I started writing, that is why I write.


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