Ephemera

I come from a long line of collectors. I used to be one myself but now I’m almost the opposite. Is that a destroyer? Maybe. I might be a destroyer now. But, as I said, I come from a long line of collectors.

My mother collects Elvis LPs. My grandmother collected pens and my grandfather collected, of all things, postcards. I believe my great-grandfather collected stringed instruments until he was compelled to pawn them. I’ve collected comic books. Mrs. Blackwelder will tell you I currently collect board games but I don’t agree. Just because I buy them, play them once or twice, and shove them in a closet doesn’t mean I’m a collector. There’s no intent to preserve and I think that intent is necessary.

I find that urge to collect and preserve objects fascinating especially when it comes to those things that were never intended to last — like pens and postcards. Sure, there is some drive to profit from those things that jump from worthless to valuable. But there’s something deeper – an impulse to capture an emotion or a memory – that really push many of us to fill our attics and garages.

An unused ticket for the Titanic, think of the weight of emotion connected to that slip of paper.

How about JFK’s lip balm? Things touched by the famous take on magical properties.

What about the old slippers my grandmother used to wear? The thin soles still show the dusty gray impressions of her toes after all the years of being gone. Somehow, throwing those ratty things away feels disrespectful, like choosing to forget. I know many people embed physical objects with vivid memories – sights, sounds, smells, and emotions. They can re-live that moment just by holding the object. I’m not sure I can anymore. There’s a cost-both physical and emotional-to preservation. How long must one keep the slippers and the postcards and the pen? After I’m gone, do those slippers finally become trash?

I said at the beginning that I may be a destroyer. That’s an overstatement. As I’ve moved past some of the urge to collect, I discovered ephemeral art. When I first learned about Buddhist sand mandalas, I was dumbfounded and looked around to see what else I could find – Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures are a marvel. The most popular recent example of ephemeral art is probably Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon.” Which, I have to admit, gave me much joy on several levels.

That joy in seeing something beautiful that absolutely will not last… that has become precious to me. Something as simple as the curls of steam coming from my cup of morning coffee has become a kind of ephemeral art that reflects the Buddhist idea of impermanence. But…

There’s that damn urge to take a photo and put it up on some social site. Why? Do I want to brag about the excellent fair-trade Ethiopian beans? Do I want to preserve the idea of a great cup of coffee for all the ages? The simple joy of seeing a curl of steam turns into enough discontent that I decide to write a post about it.

And now I realize I’m writing a post about the ephemeral. Like every writer, I’m preserving my thoughts and feelings at this moment in time like a lexical photograph. The urge to preserve seems to be inescapable. I’d like to be able to say that, as a modern minimalist, I resist the urge to preserve stuff. But when I really look at it, it’s hard not to shout, “This stuff is mine. It’s important. Don’t throw it away.”

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