The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive
 

Bet on Horseshoeless Joe at The Field
Duck Amuck will not suck at Daffy Downs
Your best bet this week is Cantor I Hardly Even Know Her at Standing Hills

I don't remember when I started saving every scrap of paper that might some day be meaningful, but I know I picked up the habit from my parents, who started a “memorabilia box” for me when I was little. It's the lazy man's baby book; who has time to put things in albums? Just toss it in the box. As I left babyhood and began choosing my own mementos, they gradually expanded to fill a bigger box, then two boxes, and eventually three big, blue plastic bins. The garage of my parents' farmhouse in semi-rural Oregon is stacked with things they don't want to keep but can't bring themselves to throw away: surplus office furniture from my mom's folded medical practice, various shovels and rakes that aren't quite as good as the ones hanging in the workshop, and now these Rubbermaid monstrosities labelled “Elisabeth – Memorabilia.”

The bins are mostly full of mementos from my teenage years, stuff that’s been sealed off in another garage, in another home, since I left for college in 2000. Stuff I told my parents to never, ever, under any circumstances, throw away. Last summer, as I prepared to move to Portland after two lonely years on the farm, I sorted through the bins in some effort to pare them down. It turns out my priceless artifact are primarily meaningless now. Some objects retain meaning (concert tickets from my first season of rock shows with journal entries proclaiming I hope I never lose this feeling; letters and recipes from a beloved aunt; snapshots from the junior high drama club production of Arsenic and Old Lace in which I played Teddy), but most are junk (expired BART tickets; catalogue from the seventh grade magazine drive; welcome packet and souvenir Bible from the National Lutheran Youth Gathering 1997). As an adult, I still attach too much meaning to objects, but I've gotten better at sorting out what's treasure and what’s trash.

The most mysterious item I came across during the cleanup was a wine bottle decoupaged with tissue paper and magazine cut-outs, and full of small, brittle scrolls. I had some vague memory of a school project, eighth grade English class, Mrs. O. asked us to bring an empty bottle to class. This was an easy assignment in my childhood home, where my parents always had several bottles lined up on the kitchen counter, but I wondered what kids whose parents didn't drink did. We decorated them and set them on our desks to receive messages from our peers, like grade school Valentine mailboxes all grown up. I think we were supposed to save them until we were adults, but of course I read the messages as soon as I got them home, using a wire coat hanger hook to pry them out of the narrow bottleneck one by one. I employed the same technique in the garage, coaxing the dry paper out one cylinder at a time, unrolling unfamiliar handwriting from ghosts.

Most of the messages are generic yearbook stuff: it was fun having class with you; have a great summer; see you in high school!!! Some of them were a little passive-aggressive: you are kind of annoying but funny (fair); you are loud (also fair); have fun with your brothers (what?).

Then there’s this one, signed by a kid named Matt: Her generosity shows as she befriends geese, ducks, pigs, and more. Elisabeth is a friend to some and a saint to others. When was the last time she had a frown on her face?

I have no memory of Matt. I can’t recall his face or his last name. I couldn't look him up on Facebook if I tried (and I don't want to admit how many times I’ve trolled Facebook looking for photographs of past classmates' lives). I don't remember enough to wish this person well, to hope that he's achieved whatever he dreamed of when we were both thirteen years old in Mrs. O's accelerated English class reading To Build a Fire and writing extra-credit reports on movies-of-the-month. I didn’t know this kid, but he saw something wonderful in me.

Junior grade was a hard time for me (junior high is a hard time for anybody who grows up human). I was bookish and obese in a community that valued athleticism and good looks, and I endured vile, relentless teasing throughout my school years. My worst tormentors were the group of boys who got on the middle school bus at the same stop as me. Every morning, they waited at the bottom of the hill, and every morning, they muttered cruelties under their breath while parents were around, and said them at full volume to my face once we were on the bus. I either won't repeat or have thankfully forgotten most of the things they said, but I'll never forget the shame I felt, and how good I got at holding back tears and laughing at jokes made at my expense. My bullying story is not special; I got off easy compared to a lot of people I know, and everything softens with age. But I'm still haunted, in some ways still broken, by that time. I learned to hate myself without understanding why. So to come across this message from the past, this small, elegant proof that someone saw me, someone liked me, someone thought I was a friend: I feel sad for the 13-year-old me, trying so hard (and so annoying and so loud) to be heard. And I feel like such an asshole for not knowing who Matt was.

I don’t typically do New Year's resolutions, but since January I've been trying to implement a few small changes in my life: get up early enough to take the dogs for a real walk before work every day (success); carry my bike upstairs and outside at least once a week (has yet to happen); read more novels (four so far). I've also been writing down the best thing I did each day, folding it into a small triangle, and dropping it into a two-quart Mason jar that sits on top of my fridge. Some of the notes read like line-a-day journal entries, pleasant but boring: went to dinner with LD. Fun! Some are written in code because even though they're only for me I sometimes still feel ashamed: Made it through the day without doing That Thing. Never, ever, ever are they as thoughtful and complimentary as what Matt wrote, but one can only be so enthusiastic towards oneself.

It’s a little hokey, clinging to this message-in-a-bottle concept like it has the power to change my life. But almost twenty years ago, a kid in my eighth grade English class whose face I can't recall wrote two lines distilling the version of myself I still strive to be, and how fucking lovely is that? Amidst all the ephemera of a fairly average life, I found a small voice from the past saying, “I see you. You are special.” I can't count the days I cried after school wishing for a kind word, or wondering what I had to do to get people to like me. I wish voices like Matt's had been louder then, and I can only hope I was a voice like that for someone else. Maybe part of being an adult is becoming a kind voice for yourself. Not blind cheerleading or everyone-is-special boosterism, but direct, specific acknowledgment of the things you do well.

I haven't decided what to do with my Mason jar notes after this year is up. Probably I should burn them in some kind of ritual, celebrate a year’s worth of small victories and move on. If keep them, as I am prone to keeping scraps, and if I go back and read them twenty years from now, I will be reading a revisionist history of this time. I’m leaving out all the traffic jams, arguments, and mistakes. I'm leaving out the voice in my head that echos the boys from the bus, the inner bully that this project is attempting to combat. I realize a jar full of highs is not an accurate record of a life. Still, it’s a valuable exercise in self-celebration for someone prone to intense self-hate. Sometimes I fear my inner bully as much as I used to fear the real ones: they haven’t hurt me yet, but they want to. They could. So even when it’s hard, even when it feels hokey or forced, each day I will allow myself to acknowledge one good thing, to write it down and hold it in my hand and drop it onto an expanding pile of other good things in a jar.