Allow me to introduce you to my room — it got caught in the crossfire of my rapid-fire style move from Santa Barbara and subsequent runaway on a 12-day Central European gallivant:
Boxes and suitcases mocked me, gurgling streams of clothes and knick-knacks onto the carpet. At the foot of the bed, stacks of books brooded, arrogantly challenging gravity. The last time someone emptied the bin of papers to be recycled: unknown to mankind. A neglected collection of junk mail, credit card statements, and receipts rustled on the desk when I turned on the ceiling fan.
“Tare-uhhhhhhhhhh,” was their breathy, spooky whisper. “Where have you beee-eeen?”
“You all are just so mean,” is what I say.
Upon returning from Europe about a month ago, I was not at all pleased with the state of this room, a receptacle of haphazardly thrown-about materials and possessions. (It was also slightly disgusting to see how much I owned.) At that time, I was also entering my one-month confinement on the eve of leaving to Cambodia for 10 months. So naturally, my anxious and exhausted self just wanted some ease and peace. “JUST WANNA CHILL,” was the desperate supplication of my feeble soul. Alas, thus named desire to just wanna chill had to be delayed. There was organization to be attained.
A day of laundry passed by, a day of dusting knick-knacks and stacking books passed by, and the following days passed by in a similar fashion, interspersed with late dawns and early dusks of going on runs along the impeccably manicured sidewalks of my suburban neighborhood as a part of my attempt to assign myself a regimen of physical exercise and mental meditation (and this was more or less successful). I am happy to say things are better now. I can whip out of a pair of clean socks (that match) in pretty good time, I can type away at my desk without my eyes twitching at the sight of the scary monster pile that used to glower by the door, and the available floor space has increased to enough surface area for me to do jumping jacks of a fairly high caliber. The sorting was without a doubt glorious for my sanity, but, it just so happened to be a most appropriate exercise to get me warmed up for this Fulbright project coming up in Cambodia.
The goal of this project, Kbach Untitled, is to document memory since the Cambodian genocide. The goal is to research Cambodian genocide memorials as historical artifacts of visual culture reflective of a community’s memory of the genocide. This will involve a lot of collecting and a lot of curating — essentially, a lot of sorting, which seems to be my lot in life.
My workspace often starts out as a vision of clutter—trinkets of images, words, phrases, ideas, and information, littered in my head, waiting to be clarified into something tangible (and hopefully useful). The thought of having to clean up the mess is always overwhelming. I usually whine and chastise myself for creating the mess in the first place. But, once I can sense the grooves of the task ahead, and find a rhythm, the sorting becomes therapeutic and the de-cluttering begins. This is the process I anticipate will take place in the process of tracking down the memorial sites in Cambodia, documenting them, and getting to know the people in their communities. Clutter will surely be amassed. But, my hope is that there will be a gem of truth in the swarming sea of stories to be sorted. Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco puts it eloquently:
This is the consoling function of narrative—the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time. And it has always been the paramount function of myth: to find a shape, a form, in the turmoil of human experience.
(My room pre-sorting was a turmoil of human experience. But I’ll stop comparing my room to genocide memorials now. We can establish that my room and genocide memorials exist on different levels of turmoil.)
Here, Eco helps me recognize why it is important to sort through the stories of the Cambodian genocide memorials. It’s not to make field trips. It’s not to complete a scavenger hunt. The sorting is a means of going into the mess and finding the sense in it.