A decade or so ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, a mystic advised me on how to rid myself of my then-boyfriend’s ex. If I wrote her name on a slip of paper, folded it tightly, and stuffed the paper into the rear of my freezer, she would harden like an icicle and slip out of my life and thoughts. I can see now that what I perceived as her haunting the edges of our relationship mostly consisted of the fact that, really, I wanted to be her friend. (I had known her before I met him, and she was a very cool woman.) But at the time, freezing her felt cathartic. I liked the contrast of it: a silly anxiety demoted to sit amid the ice creams and cubes and bags of frozen fruit and the frayed icicles that crept in at the bottom edge where the freezer sealing had gotten old. After I did it, I rarely thought of her anymore.
That action feels too naïve to connect with present circumstances: pandemic, political crises, mounting death tolls. On a smaller scale, I no longer have boyfriends. I have a husband and a son, from whom I have had scant distance in the last five months. And yet lately I’m struck by a similar impulse—the desire to write down a secret thought or some undesired habit and place it somewhere to be frozen or destroyed. I want to separate some of my impulses and fears from the intimate routines that make up my days, and push them away from and outside myself.
The same idea, loosely, animates a piece of art in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery that I think of often in the absence of art that I can see in person. Conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery” invites visitors to write down their secrets and slide them, folded small, into a mail slot in a tall, severe-looking obelisk amid the headstones in the cemetery. The papers fall and then sift together in a grave below the stone. I like to imagine what’s held within, all the private thoughts, fears, shames, pains, things people can’t let go of: an item stolen, a silent grudge, a love affair, a piece of the past elided for years. Visitors push these secrets outside of their minds and bodies and into a space where they necessarily mingle with the secrets of others.
I like cemeteries. For the first few months of quarantine, until the humidity got oppressive, I walked almost every day through the cemetery in the small New England town where I live, pushing my infant son in a stroller in front of me. I would look at the names on the gravestones, read the epitaphs, admire the patterns engraved, and consider the dates. There is one simple headstone for a girl who lived only two years—something that, with my hands on the stroller’s grip, felt incomprehensible. Her father, who lived until seventy-four, died three years ago. Walking past felt like pressing repetitively on a fresh bruise.
The secrets at Green-Wood Cemetery do not live long. Every time the grave below the obelisk gets too full, Calle burns the papers, releasing the words as smoke into the air and then starting fresh. The secrets change, rotate, cycle through. They are born; they die. The obelisk is tall, taller than most of the humans who approach it. Over the course of the 25 years during which it will be installed, the obelisk, too, will change. Green-Wood, its pastoral hills, will shape it. Like the headstones in my small town’s cemetery, the obelisk will acquire moss, the stains and grooves of dripping rainwater, tufts of grass that will grow unevenly around it, maybe a veiny vine or two.
I haven’t visited Green-Wood Cemetery in person since my aunt’s funeral there a decade ago. When I lived in New York I visited enough to love its hills and winding pathways. A few weeks back, as I remembered Calle’s piece and couldn’t let it go, I looked at the cemetery’s online map and saw that my family’s small plot is not far from Calle’s obelisk, which itself is not far from the chapel. My grandmother, grandfather, uncle, and two aunts are there, equidistant from four small ponds, which are not called ponds but waters. The other aunt who is buried there died before I was born, when she was in her thirties.
In the days before and after I found my family on that map, I saw my father every afternoon. He and my mother had driven across the country to help care for their grandson. But first we waited for fourteen days to end, sitting on picnic blankets ten feet apart with the baby crawling in circles around us. My father had cancer a decade ago, and the older he gets, the more visceral is my sense of how much I will miss him when he dies. The longer this pandemic goes on, the more that dread grows: a compounding within a compounding. I didn’t tell my dad about looking up the grave of his sister, whose name we rarely mention—out of habit, I think. But the day before my parents’ quarantine ended, as we talked about a storm that had blown through town the week before, he told a story about her. When he was a child, he said, they went on vacation somewhere near a beach. His two sisters, whose gravestones now rest in Green-Wood together, decided to go out driving in a furious storm over my grandmother’s protests. When they returned they saw that an enormous tree had fallen directly where the family station wagon had been parked.
My elder aunt died a decade or so later. I will always regret having never met her, the way that I expect to forever miss her younger sister, my other aunt who is buried at Green-Wood—she was a brilliant, imposing woman, and I admired her for as long as I knew her. I will think of the aunt I never met for the rest of my life: if I wrote her name down on a piece of paper and put it in the back of my freezer or slipped it into Sophie Calle’s obelisk, it wouldn’t change that. Both aunts exist in me, and I do not want to forget anything about their lives or their deaths, to push the details into a dark, dank place, let them be burned to smoke and ash along with the secrets of others.
Among the many layers of Calle’s work is the act of deciding what is a secret and which of those secrets deserves to be placed in the vessel she made. Death connects inherently to secrets—things we never tell people, thoughts and actions taken to the grave, the different ways to die that blur a spectrum from accident to murder, illness to neglect—but a death itself is not clandestine. Calle’s obelisk serves a different purpose from a gravestone’s memorial, and death is the most private public act I can imagine.
Now that the weather has begun to cool, I walk in the cemetery again, pushing the stroller over roots and through dewy grass in the mornings. I sometimes examine the headstones the way I used to stare at new art in museums: trying to appreciate a texture, to trace a motif, to examine the feeling of the medium, or to sense the intent of something that didn’t tug at me immediately. But the experience lacks the sensation of communication and urgency which is, for me, at the core of art. Human feeling quakes around the headstones—that toddler, my lord; the couples who died within a year of one another—but my attention is beside the point.
Cemeteries, like museums or sculpture gardens, are usually communal yet quiet, crowded and solitary. Now, when I walk into the cemetery, the sense of a gathering is created mostly by the headstones, all standing up in jagged rows. At first, back in April or May, I tried to make my walks feel like museum visits: a recognizable aesthetic experience to replace what I missed and knew I would not have anytime very soon. Now, into October, that “very soon” has extended toward who knows how long. Devoid of a Sophie Calle installation, the cemetery in my town is, for me, now haunted by it. Every time I enter, I wonder how it would be different if it invited me to externalize the tiny secrets that float up above my daily routines as I walk through the gates.
These days I look at paintings on Instagram; I sift through curated online exhibits run by shuttered museums; I chastise myself for missing yet another video talk hosted by a museum I used to visit. I disengage quickly and then I wish I hadn’t. Like the deaths of the people whose names and stories I read about, but who are so far away from me as I walk through a cemetery in a state with a low virus count—like my fear that my parents will get sick and die next week, like the aunt I never met—art has become something of an anxious abstraction, where it used to be a stimulating, concrete comfort.
When Calle installed her Green-Wood piece in 2017, she sat in the cemetery and invited people to come tell her their secrets. And they did, from noon to five p.m. on a Saturday and a Sunday. Three years later, I keep thinking about the intimacy of it: the artist in the cemetery, hearing confidential stories told both individually and communally, the divergences among the secrets people could have told her, whether they were flippant or solemn. I imagine that the urgency to tell secrets of all weights has only increased in the last seven months, as stress and fear rise and our social interactions dissipate, as families exert different pressures and tensions, as we all exist in the unknown. Have people continued to insert their secrets into the mail slot in these months, as sirens wailed around Brooklyn? Has anyone come to burn them?
In my mind, there is a small but growing pile of what looks like litter around the monument. The scraps of paper collect on calm days and look from a distance almost like a strange and bulky snowfall. The wind blows and they scatter into the family plots nearby. Rain falls and they melt across uneven stalks of grass. New papers pile atop the older ones as they disintegrate. The cemetery workers are consumed by more immediate concerns and no one can attend to the secrets that accumulate in the grave. At some undetermined time in the future, they will be turned to ash and smoke. It will be a sign that the world is righting itself. But for now, I think, they do not stop growing.