Rachel’s week had been a challenging one and I surprised her by inviting her on a weekend “stay-cation” at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. We had done this once or twice a year, for a few years. It didn’t require much planning and always was fun. Our plan was to visit the opening of a new exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum, go to a movie at the independent theatre at the Chase, and have an elegant dinner at Café Eau, our favorite restaurant inside the hotel. We reserved a room for Saturday night and were all set.
We arrived at the Contemporary Art Museum in the early afternoon. There were two new exhibits that had opened earlier in the week. One was called “Laurie Simmons: Two Boys and the Love Doll”. The exhibit consisted of two series of photographs of life-size inanimate figures. One series focused on two male CPR dummies, each posed in front of a computer. According to the printed descriptions, the characters were in some sort of a cyber-relationship and the message was about human interactions in a world filled with technology. The second series of photographs was of a life-size, latex, female love doll from Japan. The attractive and realistic doll was posed in a variety of scenes and dressed in various outfits. Some were sensual and some were not. There was only a little nudity.
The second exhibit was titled, “Occupational Therapy”. The exhibition featured the work of 20 different artists. The part of this exhibit that captured our attention the most was a piece of performance art by an artist named, Pedro Reyes. His piece was titled, “Sanatorium”. Two volunteers wearing white lab coats, manned a table to greet visitors and sign in people who wanted to actually participate in the mock therapy experiences. Once you provided your name and signature granting permission to participate, you filled out a short questionnaire describing how you were feeling: stressed or relaxed, happy or sad, focused or distracted. One of the white-coated young women then provided a tour of four therapy rooms. The first had a large white maze set up on a table in the center of the room. On shelves across one wall were hundreds of common objects. Participants were asked to retrieve objects from the shelves that represented their life and to arrange them however they wanted to in the maze.
The next therapy room had a table filled with several buckets and several wine bottles. Both buckets and wine bottles had rolled-up scrolls of paper placed in them, one in the neck of each bottle and lots of the scrolls in each bucket. The clinician explained that in this session, participants would write down a personal secret, roll it up and tie it with twine. Participants would place their secret in one of the buckets and select any secret they would like from one of the bottles on the table. One would trade their personal secret for the opportunity to read a secret submitted by someone else. We assumed that the secret that we would write would be shared with future participants.
The third room contained another large wooden table and several chairs like you would find in a school. On one side of the table were paper and colored markers. On the other side of the table were two typewriters. The clinician explained that in this session the participant would tell the clinician a story about their life. The clinician would then draw a picture, depicting the story as the participant typed out their story.
The final room also had a large wooden table and chairs. On the table were tools to print a message with alphabet stamps. Participants were asked to think of the epitaph that they would like printed on their tombstone and to use the tools and alphabet stamps to print out the message. The finished project would be attached to the wall for others to view.
At the end of the visit to each of the four rooms, Rachel and I were asked to choose one session to participate in. Rachel chose to let me be the subject and I chose the room with the “secrets”. The clinician escorted me into the room and we both took a seat. She handed me a slip of white paper and pen to write down my secret. I thought for a few minutes and then wrote down my secret. “My wife and I ran in a nude 5K race at a clothing optional resort in Florida”. I thought that would be unexpected and pretty funny too, for someone who would trade for my secret. I carefully rolled up my secret and tied a length of twine around it. The clinician did not read it and instructed me which bucket to place it in. The bucket looked like it held fifteen or twenty other secrets. I was then invited to select one secret from the mouth of one of the wine bottles. I didn’t really have a strategy. I just picked one that called out to me. I hoped it would be funny, like mine.
I slid the twine off of the rolled up slip of paper to reveal the secret. It was written with a ballpoint pen. The first thing that struck me was the poor spelling and penmanship. The message was printed and was very sloppy. Some words had been crossed out so that the author could start the word over. The line of printing was not straight and sort of meandered down as it crossed the paper. My guess was that it was written by an adult, not a child, and the author was not very skilled at writing. This is what the secret said: “I hav always been a disgrase to my family”.
After reading the secret and staring at it for a minute or two, the clinician instructed me to roll it back up, secure the twine around it, and place it back in the bottle. She then gave me the sheet of paper with the before and after questions. I was again asked to rate how I was feeling. I was surprised to write down ratings that indicated that I was less happy and a bit more stressed than before my session with the clinician. The secret that I had selected and read had made me both sad and curious.
Who had written the secret message? Why did the writer think that their family viewed them as a disgrace? Had they done something terrible? Was the writer a man or a woman? Perhaps it was something about the handwriting that made me imagine that the writer was a man. What was his relationship with his family like now? Did they spend time together or were they estranged from each other. Who were the family members that were referred to in the secret? Were they parents, siblings, a spouse, or maybe his children?
I told Rachel about the “therapy session” and about both the secret that I had written and the secret that I had selected. She laughed when she heard that I had written about our funny running experience. As we talked about the message about the man and his family, an idea began to form in my mind. Perhaps this was not all that it appeared. Maybe the desired outcome for viewers of this piece of performance art was to create a genuine emotion. The secret that I had read had accomplished that outcome. I had felt saddened, concerned and anxious. Were the secrets rolled up and placed in the necks of the bottles written by real visitors like me, or were they carefully written by the artist to elicit a variety of emotions? I wished that I could read a sampling of the secrets to find out.
Rachel and I decided that it was more interesting to imagine that the secrets were authentic and that the authors were real people. Rachel reminded me that the subject matter for my first novel, Painted Wings, had been a “found story”. A found story is an idea for a story that you sort of bump into during your daily life, that piques your interest and curiosity. Who knows? Maybe this story about a message in a bottle will turn into a future book. Stranger things have happened.