Pamela Harris

The Stuff of Life December 26, 2021

(Image credit: NASA)

I love stuff. My stuff, your stuff—have me over for the first time and I’ll be half listening as I ogle your walls and shelves and table tops.

It started when I was little and took a painting class with Mrs. Matsubara in Danvers, Massachusetts. Her art studio smelled like turpentine and woodsy oil, and had a sink, a table, and five or six big easels. These stood around a pedestal that held a still life of a plate, a curvy candlestick and a bunch of grapes. I had no interest in drawing that but didn’t care; I was much more interested in the still life around me. Paintings of landscapes, portraits and flowers were stacked side by side or leaning against every wall, done in the same style. Coffee cans were filled with paintbrushes, wooden boxes were piled with tubes of paint, ceramic egg cups were stacked near the sink. A rear corner of the room was cordoned off with a rope, so I walked back there and stared at a jumble of delicate glass balls, carved sticks, red and yellow dragon heads, a violin, wooden fish, more candlesticks, a bowling ball. All this stuff was hers. She was all her stuff.

Up until this summer I had two storage units. One was near Salem, Mass, and the other was across the street from where I live in NYC. Since we got the house upstate I wanted to empty both. I've never lived under one roof with all my stuff. I still don’t since I live in the city and visit upstate, but closing out the units meant it would all be under two roofs instead of four.

I started with the NYC storage space. It was filled with paintings, drawings, art I’ve collected, college stuff, a large movie collection on video, and assorted dead tech. There was a mahogany easel from the 1800s with hand-carved heads that I traded a five-dollar bag of weed for when I was fifteen. An old Russian religious icon bought off a street in Moscow that a friend gave me in 1991. My painting cart from 1999, a Victorian feather duster, lamps I bought at a Ralph Lauren sample sale.

The Salem unit was gotten hastily when my mother was dying in 2010. It held a lot of large paintings, plus furniture I grew up with but never lived with: my grandmother’s Victorian love seat, a funky formica Parsons table my mother had made in the 1970s, a gate leg table from the 1960s, an Ampeg Superjet amp I got in high school and 5 boxes, some packed so long ago I didn’t know what was in them.

Once I moved all of it to the house I began sorting it. There were paintings and drawings that came straight from shows that I never uncrated. I hadn’t seen some of this work since the 90s and early 2000s, and though I wasn’t sure how I’d feel unwrapping each painting, it turned out to be thrilling. I remembered making every mark, every stroke, I was awed by how macho I was painting seven-foot high canvases. Two went up on walls at the house, as did two very large framed drawings. I cleaned the furniture and odds and ends, then opened the boxes last.

I got weepy when I unpacked my father’s bowling trophy. It was from before I was born and I barely remember ever seeing it. There was a heavy acrylic trivet my mother had forever that was filled with petrified marigolds. There were ceramics I made in a YMCA day camp, a yellow and brown sweater my grandmother knit that personifies the 1970s. A tiny white porcelain bud vase sprouting a delicate white rose from its side was the first thing I ever bought, from a yard sale when I was seven. If I saw it today I’d buy it again.

In a huge box I found Transformers transfer-tones (they’re like an animation cel, but for a comic book) that I made at my second job in NYC. A painting my father did. A painting my mother did. A book of cartoons a friend made in college, old art books, my patched jeans from high school, a jean jacket I embroidered. There were bowls, plates, some of my mother’s kitchen things—it’s shocking how happy it makes me to use her dented colander.

Emptying the units was the perfect coda to the book I wrote. Early this year I handed it off to a freelance editor to see if it worked. The book shuffles the past and near present into a nonlinear story about the power of forgiveness, and her notes helped me get to a draft that’s ready to show. I’m slowly looking for a book agent, and though it seems to be going okay it’ll be a long haul. It’s all right. I’m up for it. Writing the book changed me. There’s my story, and then there’s my story. I no longer seem to be attached to either.

Last month I met a cousin I hadn’t seen since I was twelve. We zoomed once and hope to again. I barely knew my father’s side of the family or his parents, and meeting her has been one of those great surprises you don’t see coming.

This year, or this upside down motherf!cker of a year—the year Roe v Wade was gutted, humanity was set back a few hundred years, there was death all around us—my favorite coping skill became talking about what I want for dinner while I’m eating breakfast. I got so easily overwhelmed—I don’t know if I need a bag Trader Joe!—that cooking dinner made me hopeful, almost as much as reading Heather Cox Richardson. She’s clear, concise, and no bullshit. It’s the only way I can take my politics these days.

It’s funny how this year of scaling back has also been a year of constant change. What helped me deal with the uncertainty and stress was-and is-friends. I do a Sunday zoom every week with a small group of women where we talk about anything we need to. Those I don’t see on zoom I speak with regularly. Work—art, books, film and tv—has always been about a larger community, but sticking to my immediate community is where it’s at. It’s even brought up a desire to collaborate closer to home.

I appreciate every comment, note, and email I receive from this blog. Community matters more than ever. You’re mine.

The happiest New Year to you all. May you find buckets of kindness in 2022.


Beth, and I you xox

Pamela | January 21, 2022 at 07:06 am

I love you Pam, you’ve always been my alter ego. We grew up together and apart, from the same cloth but different patterns. My love and heart is always with you. ????

Beth | January 19, 2022 at 10:01 am

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