Josephine Van De Walle
This letter might surprise you, as you never expected it. Yet, it is not the first one. Since you never wrote back, I am not awaiting an answer. But writing to you became strangely comforting. Lately, I have been contemplating telling you about this preoccupation of mine. I even almost put it into writing in my last letter to you—months ago. I guess I felt slightly embarrassed. Or perhaps, it is rather the triviality of the case that withheld me from addressing the matter. But then again, since I do not know you so well, I should not worry too much.
You see, the case I am stumblingly forwarding you contains a newly formed interest I have developed over the past weeks—months even. I remember the first snow on the ground. There was snow on the ground that December day when I went for a walk in the park. Since it was cold and grey and the outside was uninviting, there were more benches than people, and I enjoyed the feeling of solitude and silence. I must note that a picturesque setting was merely happening inside my head, since the snow was not really white but had the brownish color of mud, and the motorway with its busses and cars and motorbikes entirely surrounded the park. I apologize for this extensive description of the locus—but it feels significant to give as many details as possible for you to fully understand the following events.
So there I happened to be, in the park, contemplating daily matters such as laundry, what to cook for dinner, don’t forget to water the plants, don’t forget to feed the cat, call my parents on Sunday. And as I continued my walk amongst the naked trees, there it was. A little pen lid, a blue one, formerly belonging to one of those standard blue pens one can buy super cheap in mega packs.
The shape and color is a given. I am sure it is unnecessary to elaborate. But what was remarkable was its freshness: it looked so blue in the midst of muddish snow and dirt and discarded cigarette butts. All of this pointed to the fact, so it seemed, that it had not left its nest all too long ago. Because that was indeed how I perceived it, like a little bird, fallen from its nest. I looked around as if to find its home again and return it to the rightful owner. But there was no one to be found. And then the strangest thing happened. I felt, altogether, utterly crushed. Now you must know, I am not the type of person easily moved. Melancholia only rarely sneaks in. Yet, there I was—overwhelmed by feelings of compassion and grief. The easiest choice was to gather my things together, look the other way and expel the incident out of my mind. Continue with my thoughts and unfinished tasks, leave the park, go home. So I intended to do this. Nevertheless, as you might expect, this is not the end of the story.
I returned my steps and picked it up, the lid, carefully, as if a baby bird, and put it in my winter coat pocket. These series of actions happened fast, I must say, and I could see the bizarreness of my behavior. Yet, it didn’t stop there. I simply could not help myself. The following weeks analogous incidents occurred. A red hairpin on the sidewalk, a lost scarf, a notebook on the bus, to mention just a few—the streets became an emotional minefield, and I could not withhold myself from picking things up and taking them all with me. Soon I found myself at home surrounded by found personal belongings, and it occurred to me that what I had on my hands was a collection of other people’s memories. This had several consequences—not only caused by the lingering things around the house messiness (I did not develop a system of conservation), the partner / co-houser also noticed the coming in of these objects and expressed multiple times his feelings of annoyance, slight anger, worry (in this order). For what was this haunting feeling that triggered me, that made me so interested in, one could say, anonymous people’s leftovers, picked up and chosen so randomly? A selection was not made rationally. Here chance took the lead and decided the fate. The whole act had a ritualistic character, I began to realize—an almost fetishistic interest in relics that I could not entirely grasp.
But weeks passed. Like most intense caprices, the interest faded and, eventually, disappeared. My ghost left me. I felt cured and freed from a haunting disease. And just like that, I suddenly perceived my heterogeneous collection merely as junk. I threw everything away without remorse. Collections usually embrace objects by giving them a place to remain, live, collect dust, vanish—but mine, on the other hand, was not given a long lifespan.
Analytical as I am (I believe in the importance of self-reflection on a regular basis), the desire to pin down the cause of what happened to me did not vanish simultaneously. And as I thought about collecting (what, why, for whom, how), my thoughts went out to my grandmother. She is a monogamous collector. She does not, unlike many collectors, have a number of side collections. She collects postage stamps, and they are the only priority. I believe it was a rather common hobby back then, when she started, and her collection did not arise from a head-over-heels, passionate interest in stamps but because she was told to do so. Maybe my great-grandparents, her parents, told her to be nice and quiet and find something to keep herself busy. Or maybe it was a teacher at school who encouraged his students to find a hobby and, furthermore, also had didactic motivations since collecting was seen as a way of better understanding the fast expanding, modern world. It was also a way of instilling certain values into a child. This is a strange way to start a collection, I think. Either way, collecting stamps is what she does. She told me that most of her early stamps were rather local—the family did not maintain an exotic correspondence. When she acquired a stamp twice, she would exchange her doubles with other kids at school, and this was how her collection expanded to include international stamps. France and Spain were popular holiday destinations, hence French and Spanish stamps were common—stripped from travel postcards. Later, when she was older, she browsed flea markets. Finding stamps of value at these markets, worthy enough to join the others in her books, caused a specific, special excitement that only trained flea market searchers, real collectors, can understand. Because this is not the same as buying something one is known to find in a store or online. It is the feeling of discovering something—finding it by chance, by accident, by pure luck, one might say. This excitement is rare. Even more so now that one can find anything, really anything, on the web. That magical feeling of discovery completely vanishes. Chance finds are ruled out, since you must determine what you are looking for on search engines. What do you think, R.? Has it become too easy? Anyway, what I did was visit her—right after my frenzy of collecting reached its peak. Visiting her is always semi-enjoyable, semi-obliged. I never feel like she really listens to me. Possible that is another reason why I told her the story I told you some pages ago—about my own collecting mania, that is. I told it in the same order, and I used the same words. Every once in a while, she nodded or responded with a little hum. But I must say: both are more of a reply than what I have received from you.
Unlike my expectations, she actually could grasp what I was saying—I think. And that was when the stamp album was retrieved from its shelf. Her talking was limited, and I imagined most of the story myself. I enjoyed her reactions and connection to me anyhow. But while she turned the pages of her book that housed hundreds upon hundreds of both used and unused postage stamps, I could not feel or sense or smell a passionate devotion. A collection needs obsessiveness, I think. Although my own little collection did not last long, not long enough to speak of an actual collection, it existed merely because of an intense whim, a sudden fit almost, that captivated my mind and soul for weeks. But then again, I cannot in any way call my grandmother, or anyone for that matter, a bad collector. I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or bad collector—only different ones, I assume.
So that was the closure, the end of the episode, the end of the matter that began this letter to you. I still do not know why the urge to assemble, compile, collect befell me, but that’s OK. I am not so interested in answers, but rather: the possibilities and potentials of collecting. I do not think of my letters to you as acquired knowledge, but instead: as lines of thought. Perhaps, my letters to you are my own discursive exercises. I know you might wonder why I write to you. We only met once, briefly, and I can’t say I remember your appearance so well. I am sure you know how memories fade. Your face contours lost their exact shape and tint, I can’t remember whether you are large or small, nor can I recall the color of your eyes. But I felt like keeping in touch, nevertheless. Though our communication is one-sided, I don’t complain. Your absence is quite present. I myself fade into the words I write down. I do not feel misunderstood, mistreated nor dismissed by you. You are like the stranger on the bus who averts eye contact. Sometimes, I am interested in your ideas, but how can I know whether you develop systems of thought? At times, I wonder what you are doing. I am staring out the window—like I always do while writing to you. Snow is almost gone. It’s likely I will stay in today. Will you go out and participate in daily activities? Or seclude in non-action like me? Perhaps, I should remain silent like you.
Since you never wrote back, I am not awaiting an answer. But writing to you has become a strange comfort. I hope you receive this letter. It will probably reach you with delay.