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Unpacking--the artist journey

This time the suitcase is grey, overhead comparment sized with a wobbly extender arm that I pulled around several airports. Sometimes, depending on its weight, it tips forward when I try to brace it against my leg while getting my boarding pass at the automated check - ins.  But not now, now it sits open, its edges spilling over with clothes, one black shoe and escapee hotel complementary toiletry products jumbled on the pile. 

I hate to unpack and now four days after I arrived home, the suitcase still waits, and I walk around it, reach across it as if it can't be moved or removed. The bag has transformed in to a traffic circle I must circumvent to get from one place to the next. Ironically, I am a methodical packer. My routine is well-planned; I make lists, have post it notes that say Ipod! and Medicine! on the outside of the suitcase so the last minute items are not left behind. Packing starts several days before my trip so I don't wear anything that will need to be rewashed in the last week. 

Unpacking on the other hand equals the pain of emptying the dishwasher; i don't want to sort, fold, or throw things in the laundry after they have been so meticulously arranged. The orderliness of the lined up dishes, the folded shirts beg not to be disturbed. But after days of pulling out things I've needed, it's a salad of exhausted clothes. Sometimes I drag it from the bedroom to the den to be closer to my closet, but it doesn't help. Unpacking is a process. Loathe.

Which weirdly enough shows up in writing too. Often in reading a writer's work where a scene is particularly impacted with suggestive detail, I margin "unpack this scene". I want to know about the twice divorced neighbor who sometimes takes care of the baby sister accidentally backing into the car that prevented the family from leaving before the police arrived.  Unpack this scene, I tell the writer, make us feel like we're there; that we know these people. Many a writing mentor has noted this on poems and stories, memoirs, novels, essays--we want to tease out the detail, have the experience.

Of course in the field I teach, memoir, a nicely packed suitcase is so much easier to carry, to keep and to live with than the one with all the details, emotions, sensory descriptions unravelling. If a writer unpacks the reference to the father who only showed up to dinner a couple of times a week, or the sullen tired moments where she couldn't go on, so she sliced her vein with a letter opener, then she would have to re-live those moments for us, and let us live them. Each blouse would be shaken out, the socks unbundled, the jeans pressed and the shoes matched up until we recognized that nothing matched at all. All of it is turmoil, tension of the story. 

Unpacking a scene requires hand drawing experience, opening a lense, positioning the players, threading emotion through  and displaying it with invitation. Come, come sit with my dying grandmother, feel her cold papery hands, the spray of her stifled breathing, hear the chest moan, eavesdrop on her memory fading, clench my anxious shoulders.  Goes in so much deeper than my grandmother is dying. We are positioned in the story. The writer has gone there. Unwrapping emotions that have been processed, integrated into our psyche is a brave act and writers (as well as other artists) put their hand over the fire of their own making when they are willing to electrocute those emotions and details into being.

At a conference I just attended DIWAN: A Forum for the Arts, sponsored by the Arab American National Museum, an artist named Reem Gibriel showed us a photograph of a Palestinian woman alone holding her dead baby wrapped in a shroud (kafan). She was not simply moved by the picture, but entered in body and soul, stood in the mother's place, felt the eyes on her as she stood in the middle of the street holding her dead child.

Reem wanted to create an exhibit that illustrated the pains of these mothers and began to create clay molds of the babies that she would then wrap in the kafan for the exhibit. But the unpacking of the experience, the actual creation of these children became terrifying, too  real. She couldn't continue and traveled to other projects.

The act of recreation of moments of our own lives as well as others, may not hold the primary experience that is new and discoverable but it does flare up sticks of emotions that may not have been lit. Reem is a mother, she is not Palestinian, she is Libyan and so the probablity of emotional connection is closer than mine to the Palestinian mother. So of course, the entry into the experience is explosive in the sense of the thousand possibilities of the mother's life and the artist's connection to it.  

By the end of the presentation, we learned how Reem successfully returned to the installation and created a series of sculptures that represented the babies, wrapped ancient apothecary jars, that in their cases, diminished and by the end of the exhibit, each of the "babies" was nothing but dust.  It was a devastating and thoroughly amazing feat. Reem dictated her experience with a soft voice unconciously giving us time to weep and turn away when we needed to.

Sometimes I know I'm a cowardly writer. I don't avoid the confrontation of the past but deflect it with lush language and moving the camera in soothing ways for the reader so they don't end up turning away, or I don't. I leave the suitcase intact. But it bothers me. The unpacked, the unwritten haunts me more than what i already know or have already offered. So I need to face the suitcase. Kneel beside it respectfully. Free each item, object, bottle, camera, cord, earring, scarf, sock, glove, receipt, itinerary, and move my hands into the lining as if I expect to find more, a surprise, some contraband.

The strength to do it comes from the story needed to be told, but also in witnessing Reem and so many other artists who take their pain and the pain of others' into themselves as if they are an endless repository and enough space is available to the stories that matter.  I depend on this bravery, work on steeling my courage and diving inside, inside. 

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an amazing post, Elmaz.

an amazing post, Elmaz. craft essay on "unpacking" + unpacking itself, all in one. i learned so much. thank you.

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what will come next

since I have always been so moved by your writing, I wonder what shape it will take as you unpack yourself more. Anticipation.