The Things She Left Behind
The heat of the sun bounced off the metal of the storage sheds as we spread bits and pieces out on the concrete—emptying dusty cardboard boxes barely held together with duct tape, heavy trunks made of wood and metal, bulging suitcases, stuffed rubbermaid totes, and overburdened shopping bags. It was a Saturday in late June, and the gas fumes and rough muffler noises coming off the highway just outside the storage facility made the task of sorting Bronwyn’s things all the more unpleasant.
Our plan was to sift out the garbage first—broken things, clothes stained and torn, mouldy books, picture frames without glass, elementary school notebooks, punk rock show posters, train tickets, movie stubs, scrawled notes to no one. Collectables were set aside for later consideration, or claimed on the spot by those who wanted them. Letters and photographs from her most significant loves were put aside to mail back to them later. Once we had cleared out much of the debris, we sorted what we had come to save into piles: writing, photography, negatives, artwork, letters. Despite our desire to be efficient, we spent a lot of time in debate about what we should keep, and because we were still in the early shock of her death, a lot more got packed back into boxes than should have.
The group of us gathered were the women who had known her the longest, and not only that, each of us had stored her belongings on one or more occasions. Now gathered a month after her overdose in a one-room flat in Berlin, it seemed fitting that we should handle Bronwyn’s things after her death.
Bronwyn cached hoards of boxes in Victoria, Vancouver, New York, Amsterdam, Berlin, and probably other places I’m unaware of. She was restless from the first time I saw her dancing behind a curtain of waist-length chestnut hair on the banks of the River Carmanah where we met as fifteen-year-olds protesting the logging of the valley. Over the course of her life she switched up cities, countries, and continents as easily as one moves across town. And yet she was convinced that eventually she would settle down in one place for good—possibly not until she was quite old—but one day she would have a place to stay put and spread out her stuff.
I don’t know how Bronwyn behaved in relation to her things everywhere else, but when she came back to Victoria her modus operandi was always the same: land; find a place to stay or rent for awhile; get her ragged boxes from whoever had been storing them and immediately open them up in search of something (a particular set of film negatives, a stuffed monkey, her train lamp); find treasures along the way which would get pulled out for display and use; then box the rest of the stuff up and leave it in the corner of her room until she declared that Victoria was a terrible town and it was time to go back to Europe. At that point, she would hastily arrange a plane ticket, cram the boxes shut again, and impose them on a friend with a closet or basement for storage. Occasionally, she wrote asking for a specific item to be sent to her, but otherwise she would not set eyes on them until she came back a year or two later.
Over the years we rolled our eyes, familiar with the pattern. Though, what was faintly amusing at age eighteen with five boxes, became frustrating by the time we were forty and Bronwyn had many more boxes, and once, an infestation of bed bugs. The continual rotation of her things through friend’s homes took a toll and eventually no one on the west coast would store them for her any longer. That’s when she rented the storage locker. From that point on, visits always included prevailing on someone to drive her out there so she could “sort” her belongings. Sorting didn’t result in anything being discarded, it was a way for her to put her hands on the possessions that told her life story before locking them away until the next visit.
That day in June, our skin raw from kneeling on hot pavement as we opened up envelopes and zip lock bags, we asked each other why she has saved so much her life in these boxes? It seemed there were many motivations: to prove she existed; in case she became famous; to have a reason to return places; as weapons against her family; to prove that people had loved her. She kept her art in case it could be sold or became sought after. She kept bits and pieces to make art out of. She kept photographs of people to remember them and writing so she wouldn’t forget where she had been.
But why did we save her things? Because at her best Bronwyn was brilliant. She took photos and wrote extensively, documenting the train hopping kids of the nineties and early oughts. She lived widely and met many—so many—people whose pictures she took. She went on adventures, and took a lot of drugs that fueled all night writing and scavenging binges. We had always believed in Bronwyn’s artistic gifts, even as it became apparent over the years that at least some of what drove her was mental illness, and her long nurtured drug habit had dampened her wild genius, rendering her art increasingly incomprehensible and sloppy. Even then we believed in her work, and that it would one day be meaningful to someone besides just us. And so, we saved things because we wanted to mount a show, write a retrospective, publish a collection. In other words: we were not immune to her mythology.
On some of her days, everything had a place. On others, she lived in the den of a hoarder. But no matter her state on any particular day, when you arrived she was always eager to show off her collections of bottles and trinkets, feathers and bone. She put tattered books in your lap, made a great show of using a perfect silver spoon to take jam from a pot, and pulled out little drawers above her work bench filled with miniature screws, fairy lights, and bits of wire. Everything had potential, including garbage. A fork with bent tines; a picture album with half its pages torn out; the mangled wing of a bird found in an alleyway after a cat got it. If it caught her eye she stuffed it in her bike bag and brought it home. Garbage or not, Bronwyn had a way of making you feel jealous about her stuff, of so proudly proclaiming its uses that you too wished you had that fork with broken tines, but you really coveted the special jam spoon.
Bronwyn wasn’t stingy though, especially with things she made. After her death, I enumerated all the items in my life that came from her: my nose ring, two large photographs from her Amsterdam days including a self-portrait, a smaller photograph of crows in the train yards of East Vancouver, a lit frame for some Chinese bamboo carvings, a long and low bookshelf made from reclaimed wood, a pair of silver candleholders with her initials soldered onto them, a chapbook she made of her prints and poetry, and a handful of notes and cards. Some of these items I bought, others were given.
Each of these things, of course, has a story. There is the story of Bronwyn piercing my nose in that shitty rental house where the floor rotted out in the bathroom and the landlord ripped out the tub and refused to replace it. I paid with a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey, which we proceeded to get royally drunk on after she put the needle through my flesh. The story of the Christmas she gave me the crow photograph, when it snowed so hard that Brian and I never made it out of the city to visit family. Instead, Bronwyn came to our house on Salsbury Street and we ordered Chinese takeout. The story of the photographs I bought from her, choosing my all time favourite, the self-portrait in which she is taking a picture of a mirror. It now hangs in my living room and when I lie down on the couch it appears as though she is forever focusing her camera on me.
That day in June we whittled Bronwyn’s stored belongings down by half. A year later, I drove back down to Victoria and picked up the lot from the friend who had taken them and was now moving North. When I got them home to Gabriola, I opened all the containers again, throwing out more refuse and packing the remainder more efficiently for stowing in my crawl space. As we laid her things out on my deck, I was struck by how flat and uninteresting many of Bronwyn’s belongings—even the artwork and photographs—had become without her presence, charm, and stories to enliven them. It was like that moment when you walk into a funeral viewing and recognize that the body without its animating spirit isn’t anything at all.
I am the reluctant caretaker of these objects now, which I keep out of sight in order that their burden is kept out of mind. If I had my way, I would make a bonfire of it all. Or, I’d send the material of potential value to an archivist who cared about the life of train-hopping punk rock kids, or ship it to someone who wanted to own it. None of these things are possible at the moment, and it is not up to me alone. I suspect that in keeping her things, we are not unlike Bronwyn who I remember best sorting through her belongings on the floor of my home, rifling through a backpack always in search of something she was sure she once had but was now lost.
In memory of the Reverend Bronwyn Pandaemonium, June 1973 - June 2016.
May recipe: Farmers market spring pesto
Farm season has begun and that means once a week I'm off to my neighbourhood farm, Watercliff, to pick up my community supported agriculture (CSA) share. In this part of the world we're getting a lot of greens right now, along with some early garlic and of course, rhubarb. Spring greens pesto, with or without the basil, is a favourite of mine on pasta, rice, or toast. It freezes well for later use when you have a surplus.
4 garlic cloves, peeled (or two stalks of green garlic)
1/2 cup raw walnuts
4 cups baby kale, spinach, arugula
1 cup of basil (if you have it)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper
chop garlic with the food processor, followed by walnuts and then the greens
add liquids (lemon juice and olive oil) to your taste and process until smooth, scrape the sides of the bowl as you go
add Parmesan and salt and pepper last, pulsing just one or two times to mix
In the studio
Though it's not very summer-y, I am obsessed with weaving wool blankets right now. I've just finished a lap blanket (pictured on the loom) and am preparing the warp for another. My loom is only 45 inches wide which makes for a narrow blanket, so I think I'm going to have to learn about doubleweave (which allows for weaving double widths of cloth) sooner rather than later. This is the second project I have put on this loom, and I am still working out live-tensioning with weights because the brake is broken. Live-tension is about as old school as it gets and many weavers around the world still use rocks or other heavy objects to tension their warps. Weaving is as much about the tools as it is about the finished product!
Autonomy.Work. One way to reduce our ecological impact is to work less. Autonomy conducts research into what a post-work future might look like and it is fascinating. One thing we can advocate for right now is a four-day work week, which has the potential to lower our carbon footprint while creating better workplace conditions. I say hell to the yes on this.
In 2001, Boris Kovac, a Serbian composer living in midst of war, brought together a group of musicians under the name La Danza Apocalyptica Balcanica and created two albums of incredible ballroom music (including The Last Balkan Tango) in an attempt to "exorcise the madness of war". Making art in overwhelming circumstances may seem secondary, but I believe it's essential to our humanity, and a powerful site of transformative action. The hashtag #culturedeclaresemergency is a response by artists coming out of the UK, and I hope to see more people using it as we make art in response to the climate crisis.
Another month, another podcast recommendation. I've just discovered the intermittent project Planet Potluck which focuses on "hopeful stories for climate action". It's hosted by UBC doctoral student Grace Nosek, who recently went viral with this Game of Thrones/climate change video, and features interviews with some really interesting folks (all women so far!)
I reached just over 100 subscribers this month which I'm very excited about! To encourage you to keep sharing this mailing and to say thanks - I am going to run a draw when we hit 150 subscribers. Prize winner will receive a jar of Birdsong rhubarb ketchup and a tea towel from the weaving studio (I'll mail anywhere). If you want a chance at the draw, keep forwarding this newsletter on to others and help me reach my next subscriber milestone.
Also in the last week, I've launched my new personal website: All Things Megan Adam. Check it out if you want to know more about me or to get in touch.
See you next month and if you want to read more by me in the meantime you can find me at red-cedar.ca.