“How many lifetimes does it take to learn the facts of life? (And how long do you have to live to recover from them…?) Is it fact that helps us recover – or is it metaphor? Is it the hard knowledge of what really happened, like actual botanical material? Or is it the flesh of comparisons between what happened and what that was like, the blooming of explanations?” --Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: An Artist [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72
I was cleaning the basement as I wrote this. Or I should say, I was supposed to be.
I had stared at that quote by Molly Peacock off and on for weeks, since the first time I came across it on page 63 of a book I was reading for work. That is how life, and grief, catch you: when doing or supposed to be doing something else, getting on with this flimsy business of living. For the first few weeks of spring 2015, as Dead Housekeeping launched to a stunning response of gratitude and warmth, it happened almost out of the corner of my eye, done mostly with my left hand while my right hand continued….whatever it is a right hand does. In my case, I was reading dozens of books for a client in education, skimming the cream from thousands of years of human culture and serving it up for educational assessment in a dry state a long way from where I sat.
This book of Molly Peacock’s was on an approved, pre-licensed list of materials, and so I checked it out of the library and brought it home. That was all. Just a day in the life of a worker and survivor.
But then it subtly blew my mind.
The story behind The Paper Garden is a story of how housekeeping and care can have a fragile but definitive triumph over loss. Poet Molly Peacock weaves her own story of loss and creative life with that of Mary Delany, the 18th-century British artist who seems to have invented the modern paper collage. That’s sort of our story, too: The story of this website and this human project, this pixel garden, this well-kept House of the Dead.
It started, as many important human events do, late at night, between two people, in the dark.
Meredith Counts and I were shooting the breeze with a host of other shouty humans we like to hang out with on Facebook, leaning hard on our ALLCAPS buttons, when I happened to tell about my first husband’s technique for folding towels. It’s more impressive in caps, really: “MY DEAD HUSBAND TAUGHT ME A TECHNIQUE FOR FOLDING TOWELS I WILL NEVER FORGET.”
Off-list, Meredith came to me with an idea: A literary project devoted to these sacred daily gestures, the preserved and re-enacted memories of the dead through what they did with their hands while they were here. Thus was born Dead Housekeeping.
Which brings me back to The Paper Garden, and to my life as it was when I wrote this: my messy basement full of inherited and broken things, my paying projects beckoning, my sleeping family upstairs, my dead husband relentlessly still dead, my living husband very much alive…And meanwhile, too, the birds in my yard, the friends and colleagues and the contributors who have helped us breathe life into this project, their trust and enormous concentration toward telling the ways and habits of their loved ones, alive despite the unfairness of their loss…even so, sometimes, these we loved who cared for us do live again as we stir at our stoves or plump up a pillow or put on the music…meanwhile the messy, absorbing business of making home and keeping on, even in the face of such loss and such waste.
How? How can we live on? And how can we not?