In a letter to his longtime editor and friend, Pascal “Pat” Covici, John Steinbeck wrote,
“A prologue is written last but placed first to explain the book’s shortcomings and to ask the reader to be kind. But a prologue is also a note of farewell from the writer to his book. For years the writer and his book have been together—friends or bitter enemies but very close as only love and fighting can accomplish.
Then suddenly the book is done. It is a kind of death. This is the requiem.”
I felt the truth of these words last night at CityLab7’s Harvest Dinner at the [storefront] Mushroom Farm, the culminating event of three years of work with my partners. As Steinbeck’s lament suggests, those years have held both love and fighting—sometimes simultaneously—as we took time away from jobs, families and ourselves to make this installation happen.
In 2009, we began as seven and soon became six. In the fall of 2010, when Laura moved to Buffalo to pursue a masters degree, CityLab7 became five. We felt the weight of her absence in many ways, missing her creativity and ability to hold our concepts to the test. She was our gut-check, adding a layer of concerted artistry atop our poetry and science.
Glancing at my partners’ tired but happy faces during dinner last night, I recalled moments from the twisting, turning path that led us to Olson Kundig’s [storefront] space in 2012. If the past three years were a long pregnancy, we went into hard labor in January and it hasn’t let up.
These two months in particular have been a crowning struggle—creatively, energetically, and spiritually. Along the way, each of us has developed our own ideas about what we hoped to gain from this experiment. Lately, those differences have taken on Technicolor hues, clear and distinct. A moot question at the end of the journey, but I’ve wondered if we might have struggled less had Laura remained.
On my way over yesterday, I put a framed team photograph into my bag, thinking that it might become part of our display—a sentimental nod to CityLab7’s beginning and a way of having Laura with us. The photo was taken by a Girl Scout troop mom at the beginning of our Invoking the Pause retreat in 2009 as we stood on the train platform in Portland, unsure of how our four days together would unfold.
Originally, we came together to see if seven people from different backgrounds, experience and education could push and enhance each other’s contributions. Could we make something of value together? Was it possible to step outside our traditional silos or were we too different to truly be collaborative? Our mushroom farm pop-up was a way of organizing ourselves around a project to see if we could pull this off.
In the hours before our guests began to arrive, the five of us scurried to make the [storefront] space presentable, marveling at the sight of mushrooms growing out of spent coffee grounds as we had hoped they would. We had a custom-designed mushroom farm, a table constructed of reclaimed timbers, beautiful graphics, a trough of spent coffee grounds, bottles of wine and a mobile pizza oven cooking dinner outside.
Upon entering the space I realized that was missing wasn’t just Laura, but the seven people who had engendered our beginning.
As Chris, Critter, Stephen, Erin and I discussed the evening’s agenda, I realized how much we had changed in three years. Laura’s presence couldn’t have prevented or eased it. She, too, has evolved in her own life and career. I decided to leave the photograph in my bag. For all its sentimental worth, it was no longer a picture of us, but who we used to be.
True to form, the evening brimmed with the kind of energy, emotion, conversation and amazing food that have always made our gatherings special. When Stephen and Chris described CityLab7 to the crowd, their words painted a version of that photograph in my mind and I again felt the kind of joyful sadness that Steinbeck described.
Our love for each other and our collective struggle have enriched my life in profound ways; the overwhelming success of that struggle makes it all the more tender. Seeing our work portrayed in The New York Times, Inhabitat.com, and Crosscut is more than we could have dreamed. Learning that one man flew in from Minneapolis to tour the installation and another found out about it from a friend in Detroit who had seen it on Facebook blew our minds.
Though the recent weeks have been challenging, I wonder if some of our friction didn’t derive from the knowledge we quietly share: this chapter of our steadfast partnership is coming to a close and the result is better than we had imagined. As much as we are all looking forward to reclaiming a measure of our lives, I think we equally dread the hole that the conclusion of our project will create, especially now.
I have no doubt that a business opportunity will arise for us from [storefront] Mushroom Farm. What it will look like, no one knows. In between our swells of pride and relief, I’m not sure that we’re ready to acknowledge the coming transition, but we soon will. Once the farm is deconstructed, our project will be complete. Our final grant report to Maggie will be its requiem.
Balancing that melancholy for me are the eleven partners that I’m gaining through the Jack Straw Writers Program. With our first voice training session complete, we’re hurtling towards recorded interviews with Shawn and the delivery of our anthology materials to Levi.
In preparation for this, I’m invoking my own pause next weekend in a small beach house one block away from Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon. Seemingly in opposition to Steinbeck’s quote, I’m planning to spend my weekend writing the prologue to Hidden City Diaries since I haven’t yet begun my project, but need material for the anthology and to read with Shawn. I see it as an opportunity to clarify for myself what I hope to study during my travels and who I am coming into this project—my version of the train platform photograph that sets the stage for a larger experiment.
If a person’s life is the sum of her experiences, then perhaps what I’m about to write is a true prologue after all: a fond farewell to the great work that has come before—an elegy sung to acknowledge the love and creative struggle to date without which there would be no story.