“Shall we do another batch?” Chris says.
He’s talking about our evening chore these days: sorting family photos, an activity we’ve undertaken since my mother died, leaving her unsorted photos in storage far away. We are determined to pare our own photos down now to spare our 22-year-old son the burden of three generations of disorganized boxes.
“Sure, let’s,” I say, though it’s exhausting going back in time. Each night I’m tempted to give up, shove the remaining boxes in the closet, call it done.
Chris cooked dinner so I wash up. As I run a sink full of soapy water, I hear him climb our squeaky kitchen stool and take a box off the shelf. From the linen cupboard he removes a square yard of canvas duck cloth and spreads it out on the table like a priest preparing for some kind of ritual sacrifice.
I wipe my hands on a kitchen towel and observe his process. The cloth seems unnecessary to me—the empty table would suffice—but Chris has always prepared his workspace in all the years I have known him. And I have to admit the cloth has helped me stick with this chore night after night. It is a framework. No matter how much emails or Scandinavian thrillers call out to me, the cloth quells the noise. It says: I’m doing this now.
For several weeks, roughly an hour a night, we have culled photos, working our way backward from 2011, the year we went digital. For too long the boxes have taken up too much space in our small apartment. Each time I picked up a new envelope of photos in the 1990s, when our son was little, I glanced through them once and stuck them in a box. I am not an album-maker and am not out to make albums now, but rather to leave our only kid with less stuff to carry forward in his life. My mother’s death has given me a sense of urgency. Our goal is to reduce the bulk. Keep only the very best.
Chris removes a two-inch-thick batch from the box labeled 1998, the year our son was three, spreads them over the table, and steps back. I move forward, examine each one, and flip over doubles, landscapes, and blurred images. These we will shred. But first he looks over my cast-offs, rescues one or two, and files the keepers into the box by month. A rule: we both have to agree on what to throw out. In this way we have reduced sixteen boxes to seven. Getting rid of so many photos of your child, even bad pictures, is like cutting off a foot, but I feel relief when we finish a batch.
It is delightful but wrenching to revisit our son’s early years—to see him tenderly hold a bird on his finger for reasons why we can’t remember. Usually I do not like to revisit the past because it makes me nostalgic and sad—no high school reunions, no reconnecting with long-lost friends on Facebook—but looking back has its advantages. I dwell on my mistakes, the times I nitpicked and nagged and second-guessed, but the photos reveal a different story of motherhood. Every Halloween, for example, my son and I picked out material in New York’s fabric district and played hide-and-seek among bolts of fabric. We sewed a silky red lobster, a gold clam, and a fuzzy caterpillar with brown and black stripes that completely covered his body. When he was small, I gave him a kid-friendly needle I had from my teaching days so he could “help” me sew. And there are so many photos of the hippo park down the hill from our house. Ingo, in a hand-knit sweater, grinning, his head poking out of the hippo’s bronze mouth.
Our evening routine continues on and off for more than a month—Chris cooks, I wash up; he spreads out photos, we edit them each in turn—and this repetition makes it possible for me to steep myself in image after image, night after night, yet manage the heartache of time passing. The chore was my idea, but it is Chris and his cloth that keeps us going and I am grateful. Still, each time the canvas cloth goes back in the cupboard, I feel relief. I can go back to living now. Watch The Great British Baking Show. Scroll the news feed on my phone.
I think of how the canvas cloth has transported me to and from the past, like Lucy stepping through a wardrobe, and wonder if I could adopt this habit in other parts of my life. Transitions are difficult for me. I lose my focus in the act of switching from one thing to another. Maybe a cloth would help.
As a Montessori teacher, after all, I taught children how to roll and unroll small, white rugs like mini Zen masters. Montessori classrooms do not have traditional desks. Children often sit on the floor and place their work on a mat like the cloth to define their workspace. In the Montessori classroom the work mat is sacred. One of the first things a three-year-old learns is how to roll a rug and walk around it to respect their classmates’ space. Like a “Do not disturb” sign, it helps a child develop focus and attention.
One night, as Chris and I walk along West End Avenue, a misty rain turns into walloping sheets, and we are forced to stop under an awning. As we stand and wait, I mull this idea of defined space and wonder if our habits are forged as children or develop along the way.
“Did you always prepare your work space,” I ask Chris, “even as a kid?”
He is quiet. Maybe it’s like asking a person why he walks the way he walks. It’s not conscious. It just is. He folds his umbrella and shakes the water off.
“It’s paradoxical that taking the extra step seems like a waste of time,” he says, “but ultimately it’s more productive.”
“How do you know?”
The rain lessens. We move out from under the awning.
“Thirty years of trial and error!” he says. A block later he elaborates. “It’s like the portfolios I make for my book dummies. It’s an extra step but I find it’s worth it.”
Chris is a children’s book artist. Book dummies are the most precious items in his studio. These miniatures are raw-inspiration-on-the-page, and I often like them better than the published book. It is a 32-page mini-book, a rough draft, the object Chris hands to his agent, who sends it to a publisher. Each book dummy is handcrafted in a variety of binding and stitching patterns. The texts are hand-lettered with a Raphael 8404 paintbrush. When a dummy is ready to hand off, Chris makes a portfolio to transport it, an hour or two of extra time he could save by sticking it in an envelope.
Years ago I completed a big project for my Montessori teacher training. The final result had maps, charts, and pages of text, but I had no way to keep it all together. I bought a pocket folder at Staples, but when I slipped my project inside, I was disappointed in how humdrum the final product looked. Chris suggested I make a portfolio to contain it. We met at his studio so he could show me how. He opened the door in his work overalls, his demeanor business-like.
After sweeping the table with a short-handled wooden brush, he set out a green cutting mat, along with a ruler, pencil, scissors, X-acto knife, awl, utility blade, and a smooth, ivory-bone folder for crisp paper folds. Butterboard, bookcloth, and cotton tape completed the collection. Pulling open a drawer on the flat file under his work table, he indicated that I should pick out a sheet of paper for my cover from among striped, metallic, embossed, flocked, Florentine, marbled, and Japanese art papers. Under his direction I measured and sliced until, an hour and a half later, I had a purple, flocked portfolio. I slipped my project inside and tied it with a bow. The portfolio did the trick. It transformed my work, made me proud.
A portfolio makes his work more valuable to other people too, Chris says. Before his editor and art director have even opened a new dummy, they are exclaiming over its container. More importantly, the portfolio makes him take his own work more seriously. This reminds me of my friend Kate, who, when she is home alone in the evening, cooks herself steak, pours a glass of red wine, and sets the table with as much care as if she were serving guests. I don’t bother with ceremony like that when I’m alone. What does it matter if no one is there to see? In some ways I am envious of Kate’s ability to care so much about what her table looks like to her.
By marking time and space, by saying, “I’m doing this now,” Chris is, by any standard, highly productive. Yet the muslin cloth, the portfolio, and the myriad ways he draws parameters around his work typically don’t work for me.
A yard of canvas duck cloth is an imaginative way to tap into the creative stream if you’re a person like Chris, but inspiration finds me when I’m working in concert with others—in a busy cafe, around a table with friends, in exchanges with a trustworthy editor.
It’s not the canvas duck cloth that works its magic when we sort photos—it’s the fact that Chris is there to frame the work, to say, “We’re doing this now.” Routine is his portal to productivity. Often, but not always, he is mine.