Relics of the past are everywhere. They haunt us, tease us, and intrigue us. Most any relic becomes valuable if it gets old enough. Anthropologists find their most valuable stuff in ancient garbage heaps. But, it’s not the preciousness of antiques that interests me here. I am most intrigued at the moment with the oppressiveness of our past.
We are taught by those wiser than we that the only thing we have is the present moment. All else is an illusion, projection, or abstraction. Yet, as if we were stars of a particularly bad, B-grade science-fiction flick, our past keeps popping up along our path. Old photos jump out of shoe boxes, old songs tug at our heart, old friends remind us of where we’ve been. The weathered recordings of our life keep playing in endless loops inside our psyche.
Many memories soften with time, become rounder and more mellow. Sometimes memories get darker and more menacing. They haven’t been resolved so, as if they were an old ghost who’d died in an untimely or unseemly way, they rattle around the house in the middle of the night. This is fertile ground for an artist.
Duane Michals’ work is particularly powerful in evoking conflicted memories. His book, The House I Called Home, has profoundly influence my own work. In it, Michals juxtaposes the photos of his youth with images of the now-dilapidated house in which he was raised. It is a poignant reminder of the impermanence of everything and nature of memories, both good and bad.
Working one’s way through the tangle of old memories can be a fascinating process. It’s not as if we must live in the past to do so. Perspective can be maintained, even enhanced by the experience. The power of these old ghosts comes with lack of resolution. Most often life does not tie itself into a neat package like the arc of a well-written film. Endings are messing, inconclusive, and most often, not endings at all. Sometimes an old memory simply needs to be tucked into bed.
This morning, in the low, dark light of late autumn, I find the need to work, yet again, with my ghosts. And whenever I get the inclination to do so they seem as eager as I to get on with the job.