It's basically SAW: Beauty Edition.
Last month, my writing teacher Chloe Caldwell wrote about Zach Ellis’s new e-book, Being. The book is a short memoir on fatherhood, trans identity, rape, abortion and family. It’s funny and lyrical and hard to forget. As it turns out, Chloe Caldwell and Zach Ellis both worked together at Powell's Books. Her blog post on the book piqued my curiosity. She described their friendship as a lifeline in a period of Portland-situated loneliness. “We both worked until 11pm on Tuesday nights and he gave me rides home in his car that we named Rufus, because we blasted and sang along to Rufus Wainwright in it,” she writes. “I had no family in Portland and was lonely at times, and Zach was truly a great friend to me. When I was at my lowest, he showed me how to collage a GOD BOX, if you can believe this.”
I’m an atheist, but knowing Chloe, this didn’t sound like a religious project. I asked her what a God Box was and she told me: "You write letters to people and things that don't serve you anymore and put into your box." So I made one.
My God Box is a repurposed Doc Martens shoebox covered in pictures. Many of my creative heroes are present: Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Retta, Mindy Kaling, Jenny Slate, Joan Jett, Nina Simone, Kathleen Hanna, Miranda July, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell. Since I used old copies of magazines like BUST, Ms. and Glamour, a lot of feminist headlines made their way onto the box: Behave Invincibly. Roam if You Want. Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.
I remembered my AP Psychology teacher, Mrs. Hoffman. At the end of the school year, she gave us a “fun” task to compensate for months of mandatory studying for AP exams. She assigned us personal collages, but the rule was that we had to cover every inch of space or else our assignment grades would be deducted. Some people were lazy and chose only a few medium-to-large images for their collages. I took the assignment as a challenge: cover every inch of blank space with my artistic vision. I applied that same determination to the God Box and felt energized, creative, eager to keep going until I finished. For three hours, I flipped through pages, cut, pasted, and then moved onto the next image or text. I blasted feminist playlists from iTunes and pushed the cat off the dining room table when she climbed up to poke around.
High school is where I first came across the idea of “god in every person” — naturally, this concept first appeared to me in a book. Specifically, I’m referring to Tiffanie DeBartolo’s 2002 novel, God-Shaped Hole. In Jacob Grace’s let’s-move-in-together speech to protagonist Trixie Jordan, he tells her, “I think we are God. We all have that inside of us.” Grace then describes the existential pull of questions and need within every person:
Everyone feels that void. Everyone who has the balls to look inside themselves, anyway. It’s what life’s all about… A search. We’re all searching for something to fill up what I like to call that big, God-shaped hole in our souls. Some people use alcohol, or sex, or their children, or food, or money, or music, or heroin. A lot of people even use the concept of God itself. I could go on and on. I used to know a girl who used shoes. She had over two-hundred pairs. But it’s all the same thing, really. People, for some stupid reason, think they can escape their sorrows.
I asked Chloe and Zach about their experiences creating the God Box. Chloe elaborated on her experience at Powell’s. “Zach had a ‘real’ job at Powell's but I was a cashier. Sometimes he cashiered, too, and he had a great sense of humor and we hit it off. He gave me rides home after work and that's how the God Box came up. We normally spilled our guts so he knew I was going through relationship and addiction stuff,” she said. “He gave me a blue metal box with an Eiffel Tower on it, and one day I cut out photos of flowers and stuff (I don't remember) and collaged it. Unfortunately, I left it in Portland and don't have it any more. But I could always make another.”
Ellis remembers the project from his time in recovery. “The God Box was something I learned about when I started going to AA meetings twenty years ago. I'm not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, so I called mine the Fuck It Box,” he said. “The idea was to write down on a piece of paper something you were ready to let go of... person, place or thing.”
He went on to describe the box he created. “The one I made is out of an old stationary box. I glued a photo on the lid. It's an Anne Geddes photo (trust me when I say — I Cannot Stand Anne Geddes' photography. I find babies decorated as plants rather, err, creepy),” he said. “The photo is of a man's hand, palm up, holding a tiny baby. I liked the photo because there was something I related to or liked. The idea of feeling safe if you had to let go of something or someone. I think it probably took me ten minutes to make.”
I asked him if he updating his God Box/Fuck It Box correspondence today, would he write to any of the people/places/things he discusses in Being? “If I had to put anything in there today, I would probably write a letter to the parts of my body I don't have anymore. I might write a letter to the Marine who raped me. I would write a letter to the part of me who wishes he had been born male, inside and out.” In case I haven’t said it enough, Being is such an important and well-written book.
I admire Ellis for tackling such intimate, necessary issues in his work and in his God Box. I started thinking about what I wanted to write. The first is a note to the two bags of dark, bulky sweaters I gave away to the thrift store: “You do not need to take up any more space in my closet. I am not hiding my body in your ugliness. I deserve clothes that make me feel beautiful and inspired and happy to wake up in the morning so I get to wear them. Goodbye.”
Other letters in my God Box are going to be harder to write. I’m reminded of Hannah Horvath: “Letting go doesn't come easily to me.” The beauty of the God Box is its reminder that I control the process. When I’m ready, I can write. I can release with love and intention and peace. And then I can make room for the new.