Latency Period: Totems and Toys

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, January 30th, 2017

What is an altar, anyway? Why did I have one?

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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A few days before flying home for the holidays, I woke up earlier than my alarm, vaguely aware that I’d been jostled from my sleep by some activity. Then I heard a clattering, and the sound of something heavy falling a short distance to the carpeted floor. I flipped on the light, propped myself up on my elbows in bed, and looked to the corner where I’d sensed the commotion.

Terence sat beside my altar, his tail wrapped around his haunches, the tip of it tapping lightly against the floor. His body exuded stillness but his eyes had all the spook of a cat that’s just done something he’s not supposed to. His whiskers were slightly a-twitch, and he was looking decidedly to his left, as if nothing over his other shoulder should warrant his attention.

To his right, the altar, which he usually respected as a no-paw zone, was a shambles. Little statues of owls and Shiva were toppled. Sage and sticks of palo santo had been knocked out of their ceramic tray. Gems and rocks were strewn about, and one meaty chunk of jasper was on the floor – the culprit for the carpet thud.

It’s hard to stay mad at a cute face with whiskers. And besides, I was running late to work.

I told myself I’d clean the mess up later, leaning over just enough to set upright the jar of Amazonian tobacco and the Sri Lankan statue of Buddha sitting beside it. The Buddha had fallen over onto the photograph of my father, and when I lifted it clear, I saw that the photo, black and white and faded with decades of age, was speckled with ash from a stray half-burnt twist of sage. I gave it a quick wipe, which left a black smudge on the young face in the photo. Another wipe, and the smudge was gone.

One day passed, and then another, and then it was time to head to the airport for my flight back east. The altar was still a shambles. Obviously, I hadn’t been spending much time in front of it lately. I’d not been meditating, or even contemplating, or most importantly, singing. I’d just been going, going, going. The crunch of the everyday.

I had a plane to catch. So I kissed Terence on the head, left him in the good and loving hands of my housemates, and I went. Maybe he’d clean up the altar while I was away.

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My mother’s apartment isn’t the apartment I grew up in, but it still feels like home. After I had gone off to college, and so finally all three kids were out of the house, she didn’t need a three-bedroom apartment for just one person. She downsized to a one-bedroom, in the same building in the same neighborhood where my sisters and I had lived all our lives until college.

The apartment feels like a familiar echo. The same furniture in new arrangements. A sunken living room, just like we had growing up, with the same railing on the edge of the step. Familiar decorations and tchotchkes, the call-signs of my youth, still grace the walls, often adjacent to the same pieces of furniture they kept company with in the old apartment.

If you were to set me down in a field and blindfold me, I could walk you through the old apartment. You could measure my steps until I stopped and said, “This is where the dining room began.” And then you could follow me down the hall to my sisters’ room, to our bathroom, to my room. The piano. The record player. The imprints of Miriam’s and Nika’s hands, hanging on either side of the one doorway. I could tell you exactly how high they hung. And if we went to that old apartment and you laid down the lines I’d walked for you, they’d be exact. That place is written into me.

Mom’s apartment was more crowded than usual, with big grey tubs everywhere. They were renovating the storage room in the basement and everyone had to clear everything out for a while. When Mom moved from the three-bedroom to the one, it all happened pretty fast, and we held on to, well, a lot. It’s hard to let go of your own history. It was time to downsize, though, so I spent a lot of my downtime on the visit home sifting through these bins, making decisions about what to keep and what to give away.

What a complex constellation of emotions that spreads through the body when you pick up the objects of your childhood. Memories that shrink you down to a body you once inhabited, when the big bad world didn’t feel so big and bad because you had your small things with which to make sense of it. That comic book. This toy car. Those trading cards.

I lifted up the lid of one bin and found inside an absolute treasure trove: my action figures.

“You would disappear for hours into your imagination,” my mother once told me. I can’t remember the plotlines, the twists and turns, but I remember that I was always building narrative architecture and populating it with these figures. X-Men, Batman, Ninja Turtles, wrestlers, dinosaurs, aliens – it didn’t matter who they were or where they came from. Everyone had a part to play in my sagas.

With them as my actors, I wrote my first fictions, pausing storylines overnight and returning the set pieces to exactly where they were the next day. Tyrants rose and fell, friendships were betrayed, love bloomed in secret caves, only to dissolve on the field of battle. I moved all the pieces around the apartment and asked myself one question, two potent words, in a million permutations: What if?

My action figures. So poseable. So possible.

I picked through them all one by one, expecting to keep some while giving others away to charity. But the charity bag kept swelling and swelling, and eventually I realized I had to let it all go. There was no point in keeping any of it, really. Even the thought of a future child I might have couldn’t convince me to keep them; they would invent their own stories out of their own building blocks. I couldn’t just transfer my childhood to them, couldn’t mold them in my image. They would be their own person.

But I still touched each one. Still ran my fingers over their sculpted muscles and expressive faces. I could feel echoes of all the stories I had written passing through my fingers.

I don’t understand how we become people. I want it all to make sense. I want there to be a clear causality that I can diagram, that I can understand. I want you to scan my brain and show me a 3D model of who I am, and how I exist, how I transform and evolve. I want schematics that detail how every single moment of my life constructs me. All these objects, all these things that passed through my hands and that I made an extension of myself; how strange to come into contact with them down the road. How strange to recognize their importance but then to release them all the same.

All these objects, these totems. What meaning did they have, when I wasn’t using them to build universes? What meaning did they have, just sitting in bins in a basement half a world away? They had all played a part in making me who I am, and as we met each other once again they were still playing a part, these moments of sifting and releasing were as much a part of me as any other, but all the totems felt so much farther away, and in the margins of the page this time was that stage direction, that italicized word, directed at my artifacts: Exeunt.

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The mess was still there when I returned home to Portland. I suppose I was expecting too much for Terence to tidy things up himself. I had a few days off before starting my new job, so I puttered around the house, and I let the mess drive me crazy until I finally just sat down one day in front of the altar and stared at it.

I’d found the low, squat, square table at a vintage store on Fremont for fifteen dollars. Nice wood, ornate curvy legs. The tabletop looked like a picture frame, a beveled frame of light wood surrounding a square black surface. I’d covered the black surface with a small Shipibo tapestry I’d gathered in Peru. Shipibo women weave tapestries that interpret the songs, the icaros, that the shamans discover while in the throes of ayahuasca, so that the stitching itself is a sort of visual music.

I cleared everything off the tapestry. Time to start fresh.

I smoothed the cloth down, running my fingers over the stitching, feeling the care and craft that went into making this fabric song. Notes and stitches. Pieces and parts, constructing a whole. Terence sat a foot or so away, watching with feigned disinterest. Beside me on the floor now were all the things I’d gathered along the way that felt like they held something, some quality that earned them a seat at the table. Meaning, maybe. Significance, certainly. Power? Perhaps; on that count, at least, I was agnostic, if not downright skeptical.

They came from different times and places in my life. Different people, different eras. I hadn’t spent much time with them, one on one, in a long time. They were just the items on my altar, neglected more often than not.

What is an altar, anyway? Why did I have one? Did I believe that having this table with these objects had any practical effect on my life?

One by one, I took them in my hands. The ocean jasper first; the thud on the floor. A swirling portal of a rock, it was tied into a memory of the friends I’d followed out to Oregon. There was the igneous rock I’d stumbled upon as a child in a National Park and carried all this time. The heart-shaped quartz given to me by a friend and teacher, and the necklace of seeds she had given me as well. Buddha. Shiva. The owl from my sister. One tarot card – The Emperor.

A clipping from the hospital bracelet of a friend who’d nearly died.

Scraps of home, scraps of here.

I left the photo for last. My father, young, doe-eyed, with a precious innocence about his lips. My father must have given it to his parents on the occasion of his eighth birthday. On the back is a note–To Mom and Dad. Love, Alex. January, 1958.

Over coffee with a friend in New York, we’d spoken about my father. His abuse towards me, and also the abuse of his own childhood. The struggles he must have endured growing up under his very Soviet parents; his military father, his punitive mother.

“What a shame, though,” I said, “that he decided to deal with all that by becoming who he is today.”

And she stopped me, my friend, and said, you know, listen to yourself. The way you speak about him. You say you have compassion for him, but you still see so much of who he is as a choice he made, a conscious decision. Instead of a reaction. A defense mechanism. A survival instinct. And it might not be how you would have protected yourself, but it is how he protected himself.

Something clenched in me when she said that. I didn’t want to hear it because it complicated things too much, which meant that listening mattered even more.

I held the photo of my father in my hand and looked at him. His child eyes. The distance from my eyes to the photo, probably no more than eighteen inches. Yet lifetimes stretched between us. Veils upon veils upon veils, accordions of complexity stretching from my self to that old self of his. I could feel the walls I’d erected to protect myself from him, the defenses I’d needed, the armor that was so easy to put on, so heavy to carry around, and so hard to take off. Sheets of it cascading down through all the long years of our estrangement, through our rift and all the terrible things we’d both said throughout it, through the divorce, through my childhood, all those years of his distant attempts at parenting, all the times he said without a touch of Buddhist-infused irony that “life is suffering, young man.”

And through that portal of layers, that chasm of barriers on my part, were his own. All the moments of his life that had carried him to become that eight-year-old child. Every toy he’d played with, every word and deed his parents inflicted upon him, and everything that happened to him and that he inflicted on others in the long years since.

I placed the photo of my father down at the center of the altar, on the broad expanse of untouched sonic tapestry. I placed him there, to live in the threads of a song I could see but not hear, surrounded by a constellation of my choosing. I sat a while, then, for no reason I could really care to find. I just sat with my objects, thinking of my own songs to sing.

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Header image courtesy of Phlegm. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

To read the previous Latency Period, Winter Is, go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.