By Martin Magee, special to The Content Wrangler
I’m a member of a gay men’s writer’s group called “Guywriters,” a group whose membership numbers seven. We’re very dedicated, meeting monthly, even in December and January, as well as during the pleasant summer months. The talent in this group is pretty amazing. Almost everyone has been published and all have written some beautiful stories. We’re not competitive with each other; we enjoy each other’s successes. When I first joined the group, I was so intimidated by the talent that I considered leaving the group. I quickly realized that was the reason I should stay.
Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, whom I am friends with on social media, sometimes posts a random collection of words to Facebook with the suggestion that these words might—or might not—belong in a sentence together. He calls this challenge “Sentence Slam.” I took his idea and built upon it for my story today. Randomness somehow has a way of helping us make sense of the world. I thought I could get some ideas for stories and novels from doing this.
It wasn’t easy. Most of the sentences I created ended up being run-on sentences, horribly clumsy, and sounding rather awkward. But I made the best effort I could to compose something interesting out of what I was given. It was fun. A bit like taking on the hardest New York Times Crossword and seeing if you could beat it.
Around the same time, Scott began to post photos of a street corner he lives near. Noe Valley is known for being one of the nicest and most family-friendly parts of the city of San Francisco. The main thoroughfare is 24th Street — lined with small, fashionable boutiques, gourmet groceries, unique bistros, and coffee houses where the tech elite of the city concentrate on the screens of their MacBook Pros. The quieter, more ‘neighborhood’ sections of the area are colorfully painted Victorians, with bright flowers in drought-friendly gardens, making walks through it quite pleasant. It’s one of the most picturesque areas of the city.
On one of these corners in Noe Valley, where Elizabeth and Sanchez streets cross, is apparently where neighborhood folk, perhaps those who are moving, or maybe those who are doing the “100 things” divestment to simplify their lives, cast off whatever possessions they no longer need, simply abandoning them at the corner. Surely there are other corners of the city where this is done, but the objects that come to rest out of the whirl of people’s lives seem to settle here for a bit longer, undisturbed. You’re allowed to contemplate the strangeness of the still lives left there by some unknown other. They linger for a bit before disappearing, either through city cleanup or perhaps someone deciding to make use of them.
The items range from outdated computer books, banged-up used furniture, to newish looking kitchen appliances, and attractively framed posters… some things appearing useful and interesting, other things seem like junk that nobody would want.
After Scott began posting these miscellaneous tableaux, I switched from using random words and phrases as a writing exercise to using the photographs Scott posted as inspiration. At first, when I’d check my phone during work and saw that a new photo had posted, I would dash off a super-short flash fiction story. ‘Flash Fiction’ is described as a very short story, but there is no certain agreement on length. The story may be only a few sentences, or it can be a thousand words. There is a story (unproven) about Ernest Hemingway, that in order to win a bet, he wrote what is considered one of the smallest stories ever—just six words. It reads: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” I tried to keep the stories I wrote to just a few sentences, or even just one sentence, so I could get the story posted and go on back to work. I usually wrote them during my lunch break.
The discipline of writing as fast as I could and making something complete energizes my creative juices, forcing me to do a better job on my writing projects. It quickly began to feel like a game, and it was fun. I enjoyed writing something entertaining and funny, or dramatic and heartfelt. The freedom from commitment to a longer tale felt creatively stimulating. It was flash fiction. Short, short stories. The briefness of each story made it feel less scary to dive in and start. I could try things out. Experiment. I hoped that those who subscribed to Scott’s Facebook feed would enjoy them.
One such photograph, of what looked like a loose paint dripping in the vague form of a human shape, was different from the others. It wasn’t a picture of an abandoned, broken blender, or a massive flat-screen television, or a pile of discarded, dog-eared books. It looked like a Picasso-esque, childlike drawing, with curving waves coming off of the shoulders and a strange face-like set of shapes inside the figure. It looked like someone making a snow angel. It was, I suppose, the angle of the image that made it look like a very simple drawing of a person. Of course, I couldn’t turn it over and see what it looked like on the reverse side. As with all the other photographs, I thought contemplating the image would start to slow creativity. It was better to just launch into the story, going with my first instinct, taking as wild of a leap into the inspiration from the image as I could.
A picture of a dark-skinned, heavyset woman raising her arms upward flashed into my head, so I began to write:
She wouldn’t feel sad to leave behind the world. She would miss it, though. It was far more beautiful than she or anyone else she knew realized. The spell she’d gotten from the seer on Valencia Street began to work. LaWanna reached the corner of Elizabeth and Sanchez streets when, in a short but powerful burst of light, she became ash. Scarves and streaks of vaporized human bone and blood, and worry and regret were left on the sidewalk in a pale blue chalk line.
Suddenly the thing that I try to create during my writing happened. I felt as if I was in that woman’s head—while it was happening. I imagined her, for a reason I didn’t know yet, disappearing into a huge pulse of light, her body evaporating in the heat and her energy released. It felt like a cathartic burst. She was releasing herself from her own form and from the bonds of earth. I felt as if I knew her, felt what she was feeling, walked in her body as she walked toward her unearthly fate at the corner of a neighborhood street in San Francisco.
One thing I now understand about writers of fiction is that when they create, they are as much caught up in their own story as they hope the reader will be. I picture it like a snow globe; we writers are the hand that shakes the globe and sees the snow swirl, fall, and finally settle on our creation, but we secretly enjoy setting the snow in motion.
From that moment on, every image became important. Who had owned that dresser drawer set? What clothes had they filled it with? What did it mean to them then, and how had they lost the need for it? Who had used that camping chair, loved it until it had fallen apart, then discarded it without a thought? Whose floor had those rugs lain on? Who had once used that iron? These mysteries would nag me late at night. These objects had been in such closeness with someone, someone who had broken that bond and put them back into the world. I wanted to picture what all this meant to someone, and what it might mean for someone else.
Things remind us of memories, of lives lived, of hopes and dreams yet to be. They can call up, in an instant, that moment when your first child was born, when she took her first cry, when she was warmed in your arms and began to be soothed and quiet. Things can become invisible—just part of the background, and something you no longer notice, until you prepare to put them into a trash can or otherwise discard them. Then, you suddenly remember when your son held that plastic superhero toy while he ate cereal, that son who is now grown and has children of his own.
Seeing the things that people discard, and imagining the story lines tied to their disposal, made me think, “what are the things that, instead of ridding ourselves of them, what things do we keep close, and why?” How do they come to have meaning and value? A wedding ring, a photograph, a religious document, a flag. Marks on a paper become a book. Paint on a canvas becomes art. Some have sentimental value; some have monetary value.
Here are a couple of examples.
In 1987, the painting “Irises” by Van Gogh became, at the time, the most expensive painting ever sold, auctioning off for $54 million dollars.
In 1889, in the last year before he died, Van Gogh painted a large number of canvases, including “Irises.” The flowers of the painting sprawl across the horizontal image, their sword-shaped leaves swimming in a loose green and blue wall of color. The blue petals are outlined in a dark ultramarine line, the curves and falls of each flower contrasting against the bright orange calendulas further behind.
Van Gogh referred to “Irises” as “the lightning conductor for my illness,” asserting that painting it prevented him from falling into madness. Art historian and critic Robert Hughes said of Van Gogh, “Did ever an artist have a less promising start than Vincent van Gogh? People love to imagine that if only they had had the chance to see his early work, they would have recognized his talent, coddled it, saved him from neglect and suicide.”
It’s a painting, like many before it, and so many since. Brightly colored pigment on a canvas, illustrating in color what the artist saw in life. How is this painting different from all the other ones throughout history that have come before it, and those that have come afterwards?
The value of “Irises” is shown through the respect it commands in the world of aesthetics, and by the monetary price it has been able to obtain. The painting shows the talent and original vision Van Gogh brought. It’s still one of the most valuable paintings in the world. Its value, however, is what has been given to it. It’s valuable and meaningful because there’s an agreement that it is. That might have meant so much to Vincent Van Gogh, and perhaps comforted his stormy mind, had he known in his day, that eventually one of his paintings would go on to fetch one of the greatest auction prices ever recorded.
Another story comes to mind.
A number of years ago, Linda, a close friend from my hometown, called me up out of the blue and asked if I’d like to come see her. I had been so busy that I never had a chance to drive down the coast and visit her. Linda and I had been close friends since high school, and I missed her very much, so I agreed to go see her. Once I said yes, she told me it was going to be during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for her nephew at the Botanical Gardens in Berkeley, California. I felt a bit wary. It was an important religious occasion. I didn’t know her brother’s family or the young man whose transition into adulthood was being celebrated.
The gardens themselves were breathtakingly beautiful, but I only caught a glimpse of them when I arrived at the site and then dove into conversation with my friend while enjoying the wonderfully prepared broiled salmon for the catered meal. I took my seat once the ceremony was to begin, and I waited nervously to see what would happen. Linda’s family isn’t Jewish, but her sister-in-law requested to raise her son in the faith, allowing him to choose if he would continue with it once he came of age.
I had expected something solemn and serious. The rabbi bounced into the room, a handsome bearded middle-aged man, wearing a blue and white tallit around his shoulders and a crocheted yarmulke. There was a happy spring to his step, and a broad smile. He shouted happily to the crowd, “This is a GREAT DAY for a Bar Mitzvah, don’t you think?” Everyone roared in agreement. There were cheers and applause. I’d never been to a religious ceremony like this before. His enthusiasm carried everyone along, and soon we were all feeling excited for the event.
When the rabbi turned my way, I saw in his arms a rolled-up scroll with ornate wooden handles, and a beautifully embroidered cover, in deep blues and jewel tones and bright gold and silver thread. It was the Torah. The rabbi told the story of the Torah he held in his arms. That it was about two hundred years old. How during World War II it was buried in a secret place known only to a few people, and how the lone surviving member of that group came back to the hiding place after the war, removed it from the ground, and reinstalled it in a temple. He told us not to be afraid of it. “This Torah wants to be touched, and loved. It was buried in the earth for so long, it missed the loving contact of people. Please touch it.”
With that, he walked around the room, through all the seats, leaning forward to each person who reached out to feel the soft embroidered cloth, the polished handles, the history. Elderly hands, dry and wrinkled with age, reached out as well as the small hands of children and the tentative, shy hands of adults.
It surprised me that the rabbi had said that the Torah wanted to be touched. Because of my awkwardness and fear of embarrassment, when he passed me, I was too afraid to touch this holy relic, despite his friendly invitation. When he walked near, I stayed still. The rabbi turned away. I called out, “Wait!” and he swiveled backward to face me. I reached out and gently touched the cloth and then smiled to the Rabbi in thanks.
I felt tears come to my eyes. It never occurred to me how I’d feel when I touched the document. Touching the Torah, being in contact with something that had been revered, loved, cherished, hidden away, and subsequently rediscovered… I felt the many years of its long life, the awe and reverence people had given to it. I felt the people through the ages who had loved it, held onto it, and kept it safe.
I’d touched the Torah, and somehow… the Torah had touched me back.
A centuries-old Torah—a roll of parchment painstakingly illuminated with calligraphic strokes, brilliant colors of paint and sparkling bits of gold leaf as light as a breath—it becomes so much more than this. The ancient document is, all together, the collective dreams and beliefs of men and women throughout the ages of its existence.
A canvas painted in the brilliant blue colors of irises in a garden on a spring day, by an artist who had only sold one painting in his life becomes one of the most valued pieces of art ever created.
Ultimately, the things we give meaning to are like the words we coin. Value and meaning are mutable. Sometimes old meaning falls away like a veil. Sometimes it changes over time. Sometimes we hold on to the things we find important; sometimes we toss them aside without another thought. Sometimes those things end up on a street corner, with a parting wish that they become useful in someone else’s life.
Sometimes, it’s just a streak of light blue paint left on a neighborhood sidewalk corner, glanced at for a moment, lasting maybe a few days, or at most, a few weeks, and yet it lingers in our memory longer than expected.
Spotted at Elizabeth and Sanchez: The Book
The stories I wrote have now been collected into a small book I am designing. The short-short stories I wrote for Scott’s photos have all together become something of their own; a brief visit into the lives of others. The book is illustrated with the pictures that Scott took when he first embarked on posting these images to Facebook. I’ve added some ones of my own that show off the beauty of the neighborhood in Noe Valley where he took them. Once the design is complete, it will join two other books I’ve created on iTunes, Amazon, and Blurb.com, available to anyone.
My writer’s group reviewed the stories. I received some wonderful comments made about them, and some useful criticism. There was interest in what I would do with them, and the members of the group wanted to read even more. I’ve tried to make each one unique, to tell a different story each time. Scott has told his followers on Facebook I’m working on this project, and his friends have said they’d like to see it when it’s done.
The photographs of the castoff items from corner of Elizabeth and Sanchez streets in San Francisco are themselves, mostly unremarkable, except for the stories I’ve attached to them. All the stories are completely made up. I have no idea who the real former owners of these things are, and most likely, never will. It’s possible someone might recognize something that was left there at the corner, and perhaps a more typical history of the objects left behind will emerge. I wonder if their former owners will be surprised at how I imagined they came to arrive there in Noe Valley, San Francisco, California. In a way, these abandoned things will go on to live new lives, the way their former owners intended.