nyc travelogue: everything, illuminated

An illustration of a bright pink box, tied up with a pink string. A single rubber band on a field of palest green. A shoe box that once held size 7.5 B shoes now holds, as the handwritten label indicates, a collection of “Mosses of Long Island.” A box, it is explained, that was purchased from an antique sale. 

The paintings I loved most at the Maira Kalman exhibit, “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” at the Jewish Museum of New York, were the ones of simple objects. And I loved also, seeing the objects themselves, on display from her own collection.

She is perhaps best known for a cartoon map of New Yorkistan, a collaboration with illustrator Rick Meyerowitz, that appeared on the cover of The New Yorker in December of 2001. 

But it was the objects - a installation within the exhibit, called “Many Tables of Many Things,” which showcases the whimsical, unexpected and unusual items from her own collection - that moved me to tears. 

A jar of buttons. A white enamel funnel. A plastic bag that holds neatly-wound skeins of green yarn. Many of the items are accompanied by typewritten index cards. A stack of brightly-colored napkins has a card that reads: “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”

I moved through this collection thinking hard about the things we keep and the things we discard. The emotional weight we give the things that surround us. I look at my own desk, my workspace, where I am writing this. It is a mess of paper and books mostly, but a few objects have migrated into the area. 

When I was thirteen, my sister gave me a single (fake) red rose for my birthday. It came in its own plastic tube, and even had what was meant to be “dew” - a few hard plastic drops - on its petals. 

I loved this hideous object. It made me cry. I was on the brink of transformation from childhood to something else - I won’t call it womanhood yet - but that point at which young girls tremble near the precipice of something unknown - exhilarating and terrifying. The physical and emotional onslaught of that time - the rush of what I attributed to this single rose (blame it on overly romantic movies, or on the paperback Harlequin romances I devoured as an adolescent) made me powerless in the face of this hackneyed symbol of love. I wanted it all - everything, everything, everything.

What does it say about a sensibility that finds beauty in cones of cotton thread? A can holding “mushy peas”? A collection of onion rings? (“Tibor and Maira collected onion rings. First in collection 1969”).

I think a look at the objects I hold on to would say more about sloppiness than about identifying beauty or grace, or about seeing the narrative thread of a thing (I can’t help but wonder about the owner of that “Mosses of Long Island” box - the project conceived, begun, never finished, and ultimately, abandoned with the rest of the owner’s possessions, to be sold.) I’ve always held on to more than I need, always loved the feeling of things around me. I go through an occasional purge, perhaps, but the piles and objects quickly accumulate, again, and the cycle starts anew.

But ultimately, I think, I am a collector, too. This does not come from an aesthetic impulse, but more from a fear of want. I crave fullness, excess. I want visual markers of my emotional state. I want the things around me to make meaning and reflect it back to me, so that I can understand. 

I love a line in a poem, so I want the book of poems, so that when I see the book of poems, I understand, “I am a person who loves poems.” I admire the pods of the false indigo bush after flowering. I want the bush in my front yard, in my backyard, along the side fence, so that I can look at them and say, “I am someone who appreciates not just the flowers, but the seeds.” I see a notebook that is beautiful in its simplicity and I want more of them than I could ever fill in a dozen lifetimes, so that I can look at them, and say, “I am someone who writes in beautiful notebooks, who has things to say." 

In "Many Tables of Many Things,” a spool of white string is perched on top of a pie chest that is filled with crisply-pressed linens. The spool is so large that you can imagine it wrapping around whole buildings, whole city blocks, whole urban centers wrapped in white string. 

I find myself wanting that spool of string. I will wrap everything that I own with it.