Hanging on the north wall of my former Toronto bedroom used to be two strings of cut-out magazine letters, spelling out a multicoloured not realizing any place. This low-budget attempt at home decor was based off an Anaïs Nin quote that I’ve been thinking about for the past year. We go through life without definitely realizing any place. They all remain unreal for us. Nin, a woman of many homes and countries, understood that place is an abstraction. A city alone does not hold any meaning, yet despite staring at this truth every morning and night, I am still unable to grasp this concept.
I’ve changed my address a lot in the past four years. Every time I move my pile of boxes seems to shrink, and the number of times I sit on the floor with my knees pulled into my chest staring at them increases. This phenomenon seems to correlate with my tendency to write melodramatic blog posts, but no need to psychoanalyze that. I over-pack every time I move, which I realized when closing a box labelled “vaguely important papers”. This box contains papers of no importance whatsoever, like a receipt for cheese bread, graduate school information, instructions on how to pay back my student loans, and old metro passes. Nevertheless, they’ve all made the cut to move with me, settling into their own spaces among the dusty nostalgia that lingers in each box.
Although I’ve accumulated more than enough over the past few years, several things have gotten lost between my many moves. Some have boarded the wrong flights and others were accidentally placed amid boxes of neglected hair products. The worst of this has been seven months’ worth of letters and postcards from my time in Paris, and the best of this has been a few misplaced love interests.
I place heavy importance on mementos like personalized letters and postcards, which is why my closet is full of bags containing every handwritten piece of paper since I was 9. I know that when I’m a dead famous writer these could all be published in The Paris Review, but until then I battle this urge to pack the letters from the past few years into the outer pockets of my suitcases. I never know when I might need to be reminded of what it felt like to love and be loved at a particular address. Place is informed by emotion, which begrudgingly remains partially informed by the people I surround myself with. I know it is dangerous to define one’s life in terms of others, which why I pack these letters away alongside the various journals I’ve filled up in the past years.
I wish I could say my journals were seeping with poetry, but the hundreds of pages I’ve filled over the last few years are littered with memories. The journal is a space of itself, a place where memory shifts to material. There is no speculation that accompanies channeling your most private thoughts into a tangible object. Yet, not all memories are created equally. There are some places I do not wish to revisit, and there are some places I have no choice but to remember. There are some cities I’ll pack into boxes or channel into creased city maps, always accessible to me through the pages of my journals. It is comforting to have a place to contain these memories where they remain unbothered by the decay of time, but then I am faced with the act of transportation. I will be changing my address three separate times this summer, yet I cannot justify filling up suitcase room with five years’ worth of thoughts.
When I’m unpacking after a move, I’ll sometimes find things that aren’t actually mine. Lonely socks that were left in the dryer before me, handfuls of words only my friends use, secondhand guilt, a string of plastic roses saved from the garbage, white neoliberal myths about diversity. I’ve always hoarded everything that fell into my possession, refusing to throw anything out because everything has sentimental value to someone who has trouble with separating memory from the material.
Ayn Rand might be a piece of capitalist garbage, but she was not wrong when she wrote that you can’t wait for a place to give you meaning. You have to give meaning to a place. If Ayn ever stopped hating poor people, maybe she would sympathize with me when I say that my problem is that I try to pack these places into boxes that I can cart from one location to another. I’ve never been in one place long enough to be content with taking just memories with me, but I find it difficult to say that I’ll ever be ready for that. A memory is just a roll of film you play over and over again until it has been altered beyond recognition. Fingerprints smudge the faces and soon you can’t remember what came first, forgetting to make plans to see your out-of-town friends or failing to write down their new addresses. Conversations fade into greyscale and time manipulates the lens as things you regret you said are replaced by things you wanted to say. It does not take long for all memories to mold into the shapes of rooms and streets you knew without a map.
These places linger in our minds triggered by nothing that can ever be truly replicated. Place held on a naked mattress stained with something I don’t remember spilling. Place smelling like the sandalwood incense I burned all third year. Place locked in a spoonful of my Goong Goong’s foo jook soup.
After I had loaded up my mom’s car on my last move out of Toronto, I took a look around my empty room. Despite the open window there was a placid silence, a sort of stillness in the curtains that was uncommon for a house of twelve students. I had first walked into the house many months prior with the humidity of a Toronto summer sticking to my body, and I was leaving it wrapped in layers on a cool overcast day. With my candles already packed away, my bedroom didn’t smell like anything. It didn’t feel like anything either, certainly not like I had lived there for a year. It was just another room.
One thought on “In Search of an Empty Room”
So deep so eloquent