Let me start from the middle.
It was in San Francisco in July this year that I experienced life profoundly during a visit to the Minnesota Street Project, housed in three warehouses in Dogpatch district. The warehouses themselves, while they looked newly refurbished, still “betrayed” an air of abandonment from their previous lives. There was something deeply attractive and not-so. Something coming into being, evident potential on top of the former layers. In short, something artistic.
Many exhibitions I loved, but the one that struck me the most was Kerry Mansfield “Expired Books” project. In my mind, I wondered what it could possibly mean for a book to expire. Was it like stepping out of time or running out of time? Knowing that books essentially contain memories and stories that could as well be timeless, it seemed unfair that some libraries would consider certain books expired. In a flash, I thought of my father whose heart had stopped beating in May last year. After burial, I kept his watch and its timely ticking comforted and annoyed me at the same time. How could it go on ticking when the wearer wasn’t? Eventually, it stopped, as though it had become aware that its life was closely tied to my father’s. It did not disappear though. It did not dissolve. It remained on my table and has continued to be. I leafed through a few expired books and realized that just like the watch, just like my father, just like pretty much everything else, they would continue to exist, if only in a different form than we’re used to.
Fear of dissolving is only one aspect of perception.
Kerry Mansfield shares her inspiration for expired books: “As an artist, I’ve always been fascinated by how cultural objects are used and thrown away with ease. While studying architecture in school, I learned the Japanese term “wabi-sabi”—the art of finding beauty in imperfection and acceptance of the natural cycle of growth, decay and death. Unlike the American cultural focus on spectacle, wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. For me, it’s found in the time-worn jackets of expired library books that have traveled through many hands and across county lines until they have reached their final resting place: warehouses where safe harbor can be found in Costco-sized rows of “discards” and “withdrawns” that rise within inches of the ceiling.” Kerry’s mission is to seek out expired books and document them in new media form. Her aim is to appreciate and celebrate not only the longevity and love she has for these books, but also the shared history of the readers, who across time and generations have written their names on the check-out cards that are normally stuck at the front or back of the books.
Normally, when I borrow library books, I’m often delighted to find between the pages an invitation card to a wedding that took place nineteen years ago, a shopping list, accounts expenditure summary, and so on. I’ll spend some minutes thinking about the couple, where they might be, and sometimes I’ll visualize the wedding. I’ll add up the accounts and imagine what the total could have meant for the person generating the list. Then I’ll get back to the page and read the ongoing story, without ignoring the fact that all the stories that have spilled out of the book and entered it from my musings give me a sense of personal and communal sharing. Endless possibilities.
Which leads me to say that expired, dead, deceased, endings, are only words. No wonder the Ancient Egyptians called such “The Afterlife,” not non-life or non-being. The afterlife, of course, is larger than the life we currently know. Beyond what we know is more life re-happening all over again. If we can comprehend that, in spite of our often narrow and limited viewpoints of our physical reality, we would transcend and embrace the new forms.
I am embracing a snowy day as I write this blog. Usually, my arms go easy around sunshine. But given the peace and deep comfort of this moment, a pot of tea on my table, a pile of students’ papers I’ve been grading, I am enjoying feeling anchored. I am right where I need to be, this moment in time. Everything feels perfect, like there’s no end, like a good end. Sylvia Plath’s quote on my bookmark makes perfect sense: We stayed at home to write, to consolidate our outstretched selves. I’ll add, to gather our thoughts, our memories, our stories, our bones.
I feel a sense of completion and evolution after reading my students’ fiction writing workshop portfolios. I’m amazed at the worlds they’ve created and their trust that I can attend to their work, if not with understanding, then appreciation. Their efforts and beautiful creations compound to make this day, the clarity of this moment, special. I think of my loved ones near and far and feel blessed to know them. To gather them in this moment and feel no separation. At some point, perhaps, I’ll step out of this moment and everything will be changed. But for now, savor, savor, savor.