I met Mary years ago, and we would meet to hike and she would talk about what it was like to be a social worker who worked primarily with children from low-income families. If anyone could explode from carrying memories that weren’t even hers, it would be Mary. Her beautiful face was almost always flushed, as if living were an extended workout regime. She’d had a rough childhood herself, rough as in probably rougher than yours. Possibly rougher than anyone else you know. That kind of rough. So she also carried those memories.
Usually I suggest that people write down what they carry, their stories, as a way to make linear the thoughts that circle in their head, but I felt that for Mary turning these stories to words wasn’t the answer. The memories were poison going in—I wasn’t sure that validating them and concretizing them by making them solidly attached to language was the most creative solution. I imagined that what she carried were images, and so I asked if she was interested in making collages.
I wanted to see what the world would look like when it came through Mary in pictures.
Boy did she run with the idea. Mary has thrown herself off snowy cliffs in Switzerland for sport, so when she goes for something, she goes big.
She started making angels. She would send a select group of people (including me!) an email with her new angel and a page or so of writing that described what she was feeling. Mostly she wrote about trying to figure out how she was best supposed to serve the world, a place that seemed bottomless with grief.
But know this: Mary is a laugher, and she looks like an angel. She’s young and blonde and beautiful and strong and smart. The order of those adjectives are random. She is mightily all of those things and everything else a human being who dedicates herself to relieving the suffering of others is—if she were a car on a lot her sticker would be “one of a kind”. Yes, I live in San Jose. Yes, I am reduced to that kind of ridiculous comparison.
What I am saying is that because of her ability to live in both grief and joy, each of her angels is a treasure. The whole ends up being so much bigger than the parts. I get to look at the angels, see the pictures, read the words, and then I get to feel the angel.
She has been doing the angels for more than a year now, and every time I get one, I feel blessed. I don’t know how else to say it. There is a person on the planet who every few weeks sends me a version of her life in angel form. I love Mary more because of her angels. I just do.
Maybe it’s partly because I think she loves herself a little more because of the angels.
In graduate school, my teacher Ehud Havazelet taught that Flaubert got us to love Madame Bovary by the deep attention he gave to describing the town in which she lived, the house, the room. Flaubert describes Madame Bovary sitting in her chair and then he describes the curl of hair around her ear, and it’s all over. We have looked closely. We see her and we love her.
The angels give Mary a new mirror in which to see herself.
I think collage is such an interesting way to deal with feelings we can’t articulate. As an adoptee who wants to help other adoptees figure out how to articulate how they feel, collage is such an interesting tool. Adoptees can make two collages: one that represents who they are right now and one that represents who they feel they might have been if they hadn’t been relinquished. Maybe the collages would be exactly the same. Maybe not. The cool thing is that the adoptee wouldn’t have to use words, and for a group of people that is often shamed into silence (But you were adopted by good people. You are lucky. Why are you still talking about this? It happened when you were young. You are an adult. Get over yourself. Grow up. The victim role is not flattering. Etc.) this could be powerful.
If you feel like it, make your collages and send them to me. I’ll post them here. I’d love to see you.