I was reading Terri Jentz’s book Strange Piece of Paradise and the second chapter really inspired me to think about boxes. In the book, Jentz attempts to uncover the mystery of who ran her (and a friend) over with a pickup truck and then attacked her with an axe as they camped in a public park in Oregon in 1977. Beyond the intensity and repercussions of the crime, the chapter entitled “Escape from the Dead Zone” is about Jentz going through a cardboard box she kept in the garage filled with memorabilia. The items she had with her at the time of the attack exude a “musty odor” and “the scent of sadness.” She goes on to write that, “all of these items with their charged memories, cooking for fifteen years, mingling their juices…they had congealed into a tangy essence of that night in 1977.”
It also reminded me of a talk by JJ Abrams, director of the most recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. He asks this question about his Mystery Magic Box in a TED talk, “The premise behind the mystery magic box was the following: 15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic. Which is a savings. Now, I bought this decades ago and I’m not kidding. If you look at this, you’ll see it’s never been opened. But I’ve had this forever. Now, I was looking at this, it was in my office, as it always is, on the shelf, and I was thinking, why have I not opened this? And why have I kept it? Because I’m not a pack rat. I don’t keep everything but for some reason I haven’t opened this box. And I felt like there was a key to this, somehow, in talking about something at TED that I haven’t discussed before, and bored people elsewhere. So I thought, maybe there’s something with this. I started thinking about it. And there was this giant question mark. I love the design, for what it’s worth, of this thing. And I started thinking, why haven’t I opened it?”
I don’t know if there is anyone without a box. In the last stunt writing class there were so many people writing about trying to overcome their clutter and downsize we created an entire forum devoted to resources for this group alone. And in those boxes were a lot of nostalgia, loss, confusion, mystery, and some things to savor. The boxes contained the drama of human lives; where the interpreter of the contents and the person who originally kept the items are not necessarily the same.
Jentz’s book is about the journey that began with opening her box, and it inspired me to write a bit about my own boxes. Over the holidays at my parent’s house my husband found a letter I had meant to send to my best friend. The envelope included a ticket stub to a concert I had attended with a note that said, “Get in your time machine and meet me at this concert. It will be fun!” There was something very charming about this to me, because the nonsensical notion reminded me of a playful, imaginative part of myself.
Another box that looms large for me is the one I found in my grandfather’s closet in Debuque, Iowa. He was nearing his deathbed and I was, and still am, an endlessly curious cat. I would do anything to have this box now, and I wish I had stolen it, but I was an honest girl and immediately told my mother and her sisters what I had found. A gold bridge for someone’s teeth, sheaves of letters from my grandfather’s brother writing from a nit-infested bed at Notre Dame college, a small snub-nosed pistol perfect for a purse. Now, that box is someone else’s – but I can’t say that it any less belongs to me. I see that now. I can also see that room with the closet. My grandparent’s chinoiserie bedroom furniture, the *amazing* blooming peony wallpaper that had illustrations in velvet and gold. The 50s hand-linens in the cabinet. Soaps shaped like roses, never used. Many more things if I could just let myself linger a bit longer. Pepsodent toothpaste. Coca Cola in bottles, chocolate covered cherries as gifts. A workman’s basement with a pencil scrawl on the plaster whitewall above the work sink that said Bernie loves Jeannie. My grandma’s dyed black beehive heading into the 70s, with two perfect side curls spiraling down. That house belongs to my cousin now, but I do have a painting from their house that proudly hangs in my bedroom.
For this post, I went through the three paragraph excerpt of Terry Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise section where she opens the box and did an analysis of the craft behind the effect of the words on the page. If you would like to download the page, you can do so here as a PDF. Take a look at how she uses descriptive sensory words. Her choice of nouns, such as “reliquary.” In the passage she goes from present to a flashback and then back to present.
An exercise: write about a box you have opened. Stay in the present moment of opening the box, then a paragraph with a flashback to an earlier moment based on one of the items in the box, then back to the present.
As always, feel free to add your comments below.