in an effort to resist leaving every piece "untitled"
so, let me first say that i believe in the list. my belief has been steady throughout my childhood, in which i’d become enthralled in the making of lists for kindergarten homework: find all the words that start with g, everything that’s blue, everything a butterfly adores.
the list is a dominatrix. the list is a bitch.
what i’m wondering is quite simple: can one follow the paths of one’s lists throughout the corridors of one’s life? of existence?
lists act as lieutenants, misering and ruling collections of our nebula, our scatterings of schedulae.
or, this habit that i have, to compile these notebooks of everything, writing everything into them, taping select scraps of paper--receipts, movie tickets, braves tickets, museum tickets. cards: one from a coworker, a quiet kindness. one from my grandmother, an unsolicited well-wishing, a bell tower in sun. a document of days. in a move towards forgetting nothing, a collection of everything.
in grief, it is not uncommon for one to become fixated upon the lost loved one’s items, their clothing, their possessions. we find ourselves unwilling to part with the hairbrush,
￼the perfume bottle, the loafers. we leave these items untouched, or we touch them regularly. a shrine to the dead. a collection of everything.
my grandmother’s grief had weighed in on her, bent her back; her breasts, like sighs upon her chest.
this inability to part with the things of the deceased, this thrusting out of one’s arms, opening them wide and pulling all the minutia of the person’s life to them, pulling it tight and pulling it close. this is often a form of resistance, a kind of magical thinking.
in grief, we go back to that old childhood idolatry. we attempt to be magicians.
if i never let anything go, and if i keep everything documented, and ordered, then perhaps i will not forget the life i have led, the way my mother forgets hers.
the death of my mother’s brother, my grandmother’s son, my mother’s favorite brother, left a crack in the vase of my mother, running parallel to the sky, open to the sun. venus fly trap.
his funeral, my grandmother’s son’s, was held in a church situated upon a steep hill. when we drove up the sloped driveway, the car leaned backwards, climbing vertically. the force pushed me into my seat. some stray lingered outside the squat church, just beyond the french doors housing his eulogy, perhaps drawn by the allure of us, we mourners, congregated in grayscale huddles.
or perhaps there is a scent to our grief, a pheromonious arch of despair.
in its smallest form, if we rolled it and compressed it and stuffed it into our shoes and jacket pockets, how many suitcases could we fit our grief into? could we augment and segment and shrink our grief into its most concise? bring it in our carryon?
organize it. list it. something i can read again and again, while i’m standing in line at the drug store, or recite during a traffic jam, or sing about while i’m shampooing my hair.
at least we can all agree that there is nothing quite so enjoyable as crossing something
off a list.
after the death of my father, after rolling my grief into its tightest form, i etched lists into my skin. so yes, perhaps i am not unbiased. i have an affinity.
all of this, from rooms with dining chairs on waterbeds. all of this, and i’m still writing about you.
when my grandmother’s son, my uncle, died in a car accident, i was eleven years old.
my grandmother’s grief, a heavy cloak around her. in my concern for her, in my childish attempt to protect her from any mentioning of her lost son, i erased the pencil writing on his birthday in her wall calendar. when she saw it, her voice was accusatory, why did you do this? i floundered. i don’t know, i said.
what is this relentless collection of objects, this incessant need to hold everything close to oneself, a fear of letting things go, if not a form of grief?
it is what we are grieving over that is the question.
perhaps, then, my notebooks are trappings of this grief in miniature. a grief that has never left me, a grief that i have battled before, a grief that has singed its mark into me, a grief that is stingy in its captivation of my attention.
and what of lists now? compilations of things to do? things done? things needed? synopses of life? synopses of me?
my grandmother’s home: a giant closet to hold her tidal-piles of things. the grand tour: a small canoe in a sea of waste.
shit on stovetop.
but can we, reader, call this a form of grief?
i am a collector of found objects, of serendipitous memorabilia. my grandmother is a connoisseur of the sad story, so abundant and alone is she is in her mourning that she
￼can only connect with tragedy. her repertoire of the worst kinds of buzzkills has always been nothing short of remarkable. recitations of noonday news stories like hail marys.
i see this potential in myself, the potential for obsession, for fixation. i see this potential in my drawer of miscellany. i see it in my file folder of letters. i certainly see it in my notebooks, waterlogged, but saved. the magicality of our objects.
and here i deleted a line drawing these things together, because i think the reader can see how they connect.
my grandmother’s advice: i don’t never give a shit what people think about me. a story she tells me, of a woman i have never heard of, who met my grandmother and her husband twenty years ago, and said to her, he could’ve done better.
why would she say that to me?, my
grandmother asks me, her eyes watery and pleading.
the hurts we carry with us.
the hurts i have carried with me, draped over shoulder blades like the accoutrements of backpackers, gunslinger of stones and boulders and bowling balls. the daily griefs, spelled out in minuscule, a small death relived ritualistically.
what a hard thing it is, to be human. a wonderful thing, but sometimes.
my lover is a fellow collector, a collector of the colorful; like a bird forging one bright, dynamic trick to attract a lover (the desperate need for a lover a desire stronger than all others), coveting and thieving, rendering its nest aglitter. walking into that bedroom was like walking into a kaleidoscope, the pinks and reds and greens, an optomological orgasm.
perhaps the dividing of it, the labeling, the listing, the numbering, perhaps it doesn’t do what we think it does.
or, maybe it does exactly what we want: lays everything bare, straightens things out, nice and loudly.
in their grief, people have done things both strange and sad in attempts to coax truth out of fog. i may not have collected as many things in stacks in the corners of rooms and closets, but i have collected memories like the cognitive miser i’m sure that i am. i have been shoring away bits and pieces of you like the mice in fairy tales.
i have written about you in my grief. i have written about you in my grief. i have written about you in my grief.
it was my grandmother and i, together running errands in jonesboro, who pulled into the driveway and saw the police officer first. we have been trying to reach you, he said. we need you to go to the hospital, he said. the rush, heartbeat picks up, catches up with breath, panting. the scuffle, someone to watch eleven-year-old me.
￼the news, later on, at my home.
less than two years after my father’s death, i sobbed, not again.
my grandmother has not walked away from her grief unscathed. in order to make room for it to home with her, to hunker down, there has been a certain accumulation of things. she is not without it. her home is cluttered with ancient souvenirs, reclaimed from lives she’s never lived.
my mother and grandmother seem peculiar examples of inner grief twisted, and like magnets you’ve held the wrong way, propel. the one, dependent upon yet incredibly condescending to the other. the other, benignly frightened of the one.
the worst part of grief is the going to bed, and knowing your sorrow will not contort overnight. you will awaken, not with a hurt that has double-jointed itself into a small glass box. you will awaken, and know immediately in your heart that nothing has changed, because nothing can change, and things are as worse as they’ve ever been. this is a particularly lonely moment.
or, perhaps it was the effect of war on all of us, and hot georgia sun. to know that, as one grieves, a war rages. to be humbled, and hopeless. to have the sun forever in one’s eyes, blinding, searing. headachy.
yet sometimes, grief provides.
if there were a to-do list of our grief, what would my grandmother put on hers?
￼ dismantle the basketball goal my son played with
cling to his old plaid shirts
frame every photograph
and what would be on mine?
there is a trick of the mind. the dirtiest trick of the mind. it happens after you have lost the one you have loved, the one you thought that you could never lose. it happens after that sore blow in the dark, that quiet moment of thunder. it has happened to me twice in my grief over you. perhaps it is not a trick of the mind (generalities), but a trick of my mind, something harbored by the old masochist in me. it is when i am walking, or driving, and i see the back of a head, or a pink tank top with wide arm holes like hungry, gaping mouths. suddenly, my synapses are firing faster than before. my breathing speeds up. my heart becomes skittish. i reach out a hand, i pull over. i turn around. i know you, i think. i would know you amongst all others. once, i ran. i actually ran to a stranger, thinking him, you.
let’s not even begin a discussion of dreams.
i have left records of you impeccable. i have documented your very existence, if only for a decade, if only because i have spent over a decade trying to decipher what’s written in a strange strain of braille upon your tombstone.
all hail the list, its transparency a gift. nowhere to hide.
what we often mistake for obsession, for the inability to unclench one’s fist, for lack of self control, is not this, but the utmost of care. it is not the inability to control oneself that keeps the fingers moving, the eyes from settling, the accumulation of objects leaving less and less room on your favorite love seat. my grandmother has known this. we, collectors of lost objects, or found objects, or collectors of things that shall never become lost.
we are historians. we are documentarians. we are the dictators, and we are the dictated to. forever taking notes in longhand, desperate work in the dark.
About the author:
Kayla Miller is an MFA Fiction candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her work has appeared in Analecta, Aurora, and the Battered Suitcase. She hails from the southside of Atlanta, Georgia, and her creative nonfiction attempts to navigate the strange waters of Southern families. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and pretends she's John Wayne in this Wild West.