Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ephemeral Lives

Ellen Jo Roberts
The Outs
December 2011
The Noise

Ephemeral: (from the Greek "ephemeros:- lasting a day, daily) Short-lived, transitory, fleeting, evanescent.

         Year’s end is always a time feel compelled to make sense of our lives, taking stock of things in meaningful ways.  Word on the street is the world is going to end come 2012. Perhaps it's just the end of the world as we know it. Some believe a “new age” is coming. A renaissance.
According to astronomers the actual "Age of Aquarius" isn’t due to arrive until the 26th century sometime.

         Each year I spend on this planet the Christmases arrive closer and closer together. Every year more memorabilia is collected: Paper and plastic, metal and ceramic, bric-a-brac documenting adventures and events, gathering dust on shelves and taking up room in boxes. Everyone has keepsakes, souvenirs, tchotkes... a favorite childhood toy; some bits of ephemera: photos, special cards, old love letters, books, newspaper clippings. It is the rare person who is blissfully free of “stuff”, living in spacious minimalism, and breezily traveling carry-on. Such a person consciously refuses sentimentality, and actively avoids allowing things to collect in the corners.

  On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the “hoarders”, pathologically collecting cast-offs and ending up crushed dead under 140 tons of newspapers in a booby-trapped NYC brownstone, like eccentric brothers Homer and Langley Collyer did in 1938. Hoarding has become a hot topic of late, with reality shows devoted to the habit and attempts made to break it.

7:35pm clarkdale kitchen

          Me, I fall somewhere in between the state of blissful breeziness and minor league hoarding. There are no empty shelves at our house. We're a museum of kitsch. My Scorpio rising sign causes sentimentality. I’ve been this way since childhood, imbuing cheap little trinkets with magic.
Having been born on “The Day of the Observer” also makes me prone to documentation, archiving pieces of my time on earth. In my file cabinet I still keep the first love note my husband ever wrote me, though he did not write it. He enlisted his English major buddy to “put to words” his feelings after a brief hallway conversation with me in the college boarding house we shared.

      I carry home found items, broken toys, ancient Shasta pop cans unearthed by rain, oddly shaped sticks. But there’s no need to call the TV crews or send in hoarder-rehab. The collection is culled now and again. Though the more years I live, the more photo albums, vintage cameras, iron-on patches, the more stones and sea shells.

more shells than ever

          Andy Warhol was a famous documentarian, keeping extensive diaries, and archives of cards, sketches and letters; filming, recording and photographing everyone around him all the time. Frequently his observations became famous art. The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh celebrates his habit for documentation, inspiring me to step up my archives and observation-making. It may provide useful information to someone someday.
        It’s a good thing we didn't have Facebook when I was a 20th century teen. All of my embarrassing youthful angst is hidden in a box of hand-written journals under the bed. Eccentric folkie Daniel Johnston tape recorded every day conversations, created Super-8 movies, and flimsy paper drawings. If he had not, the fascinating documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” could never have existed. There is something precious in the fleeting nature of ephemera. Most of what we consider art is made of materials requiring special preservation. Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger created an epic 15,000 page tome called, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion”, on paper, newsprint, tracings, copies and collages and undiscovered until after his 1973 death.

          During visits to second-hand shops you will always encounter special keepsakes, so unbearably personal that it’s shocking they have been given away. On a recent thrift store excursion I found framed baby photos, and an original watercolor portrait depicting someone’s home. On my bookshelf there is a 1930s family photo album. It’s a treasure but I do wish I could find its rightful owner. My precious artifacts will one day suffer the same fate: scrutinized and rescued by thrift store hipsters-- that is, if they're lucky enough to avoid the landfill.

         Since I was 5 years old, I’ve owned a small plastic figurine of a dog, wearing a dress and carrying a bag of groceries. She's a Richard Scarry® character, given to me in kindergarten. In 1977, our teacher gave one of these animal totems to everyone in the class. The grocery dog has been with me ever since. She has become a “guardian angel” of sorts, still here with me as a common thread though most of my years.
1977 was the year my father died, and somehow heavy energy still emanates from it. Suffused with intense memories, the inanimate somehow comes alive.

happy valentine's day

    I begin to wonder what kinds of things other people keep hold of, and why. I asked people, “What item have you owned the longest, and why is it important to you?”
“I really like this question because it brings to light how objects attain significance in our lives,” replies Eva Romero of Tucson, “I'm thinking about Christmas presents, you know. My little niece is turning one. I think I'm going to get her an ornament so we can start a tradition that lasts every year of her childhood, maybe her life. The idea warms my cockles.”
Holiday memories always seem fragrantly fervent.
“I have two Christmas ornaments that I painted with my mom when I was 5 years old, ”said Tracy Henton of Cottonwood.  Early creative ventures hold a strong importance. Photographer Jason Gullo lives in New York State. His most precious artifact is one of his early artistic expressions, “Some pottery I made in, like, 1973. We had a wheel in my hippie alternative school.”
I have some very early grade school artwork from my childhood, as well as some stories I wrote about Elvis, a character called “TV Man”, space men, my brother, and “Fly and Bee’s Honeymoon”, a tale of two star-crossed bugs in love.
Jerome resident Nikki Czech keeps hold of “a small pink dragon sock puppet my best friend from preschool made me. It’s sooo cute!”
Noise contributor Sarah Irani, is also the chief seamstress of Bitchin' Bloomers She began her creative ways with fabric at a young age with a “ratty old teddy bear” she’s owned since infancy. “It's important,” she explains, “‘cause it has the story attached to it of when I halfway cut off its plastic nose and then tried to glue it back with honey, because, hey, bears like honey.”

first bear

bedroom 1972

        I still own my first teddy bear, the one that slept in my crib with me. It's threadbare in the closet, a pale shadow of its glossy newborn days.
“Mother Teddy,” shares Laura Jones of Clarkdale, “She was given to me on my first Christmas.”
Jan Miller from Scottsdale's Liberty Wildlife still has "Sugarboots", a stuffed Siamese cat from her childhood, "My grandma had repaired him so much and he barely has and fuzz left, but he was my fave out of all of my stuffed animals."
       Kira Knapp of Cottonwood considers her little stuffed animal dog “Cutie” to be a treasure. “It’s important to me because I got it in Jerome when I was 4 and have kept it ever since.”
My Mom still has all of my brother’s battered 1970s Winnie the Poohs, each more loved and more ruined than the next. When she brings out the box to show us, they’re so heartbreakingly cute we laugh and cry at the same time.

    Books, papers, tickets, magazines and posters can be classified as true “ephemera.” I keep concert tickets, yearbooks, letters, and a fair sized collection of Mad Magazines.
"Brother Aaron" Levy, formerly one of The Noise's rowdiest contributors, has managed to hang onto a little book of Edgar Allen Poe poems since he was 12, '"ordered out of one of those Scholastic Books catalogues when I was in the sixth grade. Somehow it's stayed with me all these years."
Clarkdale resident Lisa O’Neill, a bibliophile married to Cottonwood’s recently retired chief librarian, counts the book "Alicia en el PaĆ­s de Wondrelas" as a long-cherished possession.
Chicagoan Laura Litman feels connected to the written word as well. “When I was seven I learned how to write and mail letters and cards,” she explains, “and I have some stationery from around that time that every time I come across I just touch the paper and remember.”
     Carlos Godina of Clarkdale is an athlete and a sports nut. When asked what ephemeral goods he’s owned the longest he says, “My baseball cards I’ve been collecting since I was a small kid, and my baseball mitt.” (I have a collection of baseball cards, too, though basically worthless, populated mostly by terrible Cubs players who I loved despite their lackluster careers and lousy battings averages.)
  Jen Romero-Higgins of Phoenix still has all of her grade school and high school report cards. “I was a very organized kid and was proud of my grades,” she says, “And all my baby teeth too. Can you say ‘hoarder?’”
The Tooth Fairy isn’t the only one who keeps collections of teeth. Anne Miranda of Clarkdale still keeps her baby front tooth.  I’m sure our parents still have all of ours in cigar boxes in their closets. I keep several of my Chihuahua’s baby teeth in a tin, as well as a couple of old pieces of my orthodontia.

  People like to be reminded of their early days. We romanticize our careless youth, as well we should.
Jerome potter Tony Schadegg still has his 1939 Plymouth coupe, which he’s owned since he was 18. “Bought it for $250. Now it's in pieces but someday I'll be driving it again, up and down the mountain.”
Photographer Susie Beach, of Cottonwood’s Beaches on Location, still keeps a dress she wore when she was a junior at Schurz High School in Chicago. “I wore it again at a Rotary ‘‘50s dance’ in 1993. I was still able to get into it 30 years later.”
       For women who were children of the 1970s, Wonder Woman rates high.
Nena Barlow, of Sedona’s Barlow Jeep Rentals has a sentimental fondness for the comic book heroine. In her artifacts, “My Wonder Woman costume that was made for me when I was 4, by a famous Hollywood costume designer, whom my uncle was dating at the time.”
The Noise’s own Natasha Shealy still gazes into her vintage Wonder Woman mirror, “Because I am Wonder Woman,” she adds with a wink.
   “I've had a troll doll since I was about 5 and have schlepped it with me all over the country,” says Susan Baker of Jerome’s Skyfire, “Guess it reminds me of happy days in my childhood.”
Happy days of childhood can indeed be captured inside an object.
      Krysta Dehnert of Clarkdale owns a red fold-up booster chair from her family’s restaurant in Promised Land, Arkansas. “It was actually the living room of our house,” she explains, “When I was 3 years old I used to plop it down on the floor next to customer's tables and sing to them. Sometimes they would give me a quarter!” Clarkdale’s Town Manager Gayle Mabery owns the cradle she slept in as a baby. “It is made from the headboard of the bed my mom was born in. Both my daughters slept in it too!”
Family history represented in furniture, photos, or hand-me-downs is truly priceless.

ivan schwinn

         My grandfather purchased his big gorgeous Black Panther Schwinn in Chicago in 1970. It has a buzzer horn in the frame, and when my brother and I were kids we’d beg him to take us down to where he parked it, in the basement, so we could press the buzzer. In 1988 my grandpa gave me the Schwinn, though it was still always HIS BIKE, as in, “Are keeping MYYYY BIKE polished up, Ellie?”
In 1994 my grandfather died, and in 1995 I moved to Arizona. The Schwinn, all 85 pounds of it, remained in my mother’s Chicago basement for nearly 10 more years until she shipped it west for me, disassembled and boxed up by her neighborhood bike shop. Chad reassembled it, and even managed to get the long-silent horn to beep again. This bike is a family treasure. When I ride it, my grandpa is riding along with me, and I can hear him in my ears, “Are you taking good care of MYYYYY BIIIIKE, Ellie?”
 Like any object, the bike’s magic exists only in my own mind and memories. Its existence is fleeting, ephemeral, as are we all. It is the constraints of time and the brevity of life that makes each day a treasure.

Thanks to all who shared stories of your precious memories.
Happy New Year to all from your friends at The Noise!

Ellen Jo Roberts drives a 38 year old car, and lives in a 97 year old house with a 39 year old man, an 8 year old Chihuahua, a 7 year Boston Terrier, and a 8 month old cat. You can read more about it at