spontaneous combustion

spontaneous combustion

The summer holidays are a psychic lull in Australia, especially for an immigrant with no family in the hemisphere. Friends and housemates head home, university campuses empty out. On the last day of the term my candidature was confirmed, and then the world went quiet. I didn’t know if I was lonely or relieved.

Three days after Christmas, in the hushed dry heat, I sat down in my makeshift kitchen studio with no intention. This was time off. Time for me, to mess around with the flotsam and jetsam that I loved to collect. I reached for a box of matches. Without thinking I took a match from the box, picked up a pen, and wrote a fragment of a favourite poem on the splintery scrap of wood. I felt a frisson. Almost. I took another matchstick from the box, paused briefly, and wrote: Your last love. I picked up another match: Your first love. Then: Your biggest regret. Your greatest fear. Your best idea. Your longest con. For the next hour, in what felt like a trance, I carved words onto matchsticks. The pen skittered and the ink bled. I wrote slowly. When the words stopped coming I put down the pen and looked up. The stillness hovered for a moment, and then I cried. Finally I had let go of thinking, planning, worrying — and something real and magical had taken shape. My relief was immense.

Over the next few weeks I returned to the matchsticks, adding to the collection. I could have made a list on paper, but from the beginning it felt essential to write directly onto the matchsticks as the ideas arrived. It became a meditation and a ritual. As I worked, I tried not to work; to remain as open to the process as I had been on the first day. I allowed my mind to wander and my memories to surface. I thought about the path in life that I had chosen, and the various paths that I had not. I thought about the feelings that were washing over me. I tried not to think about the feelings, and to let them just wash over me. I tried to be okay with everything — including not being okay.

In lighter moments, the radio would suggest a matchstick. At some point during the badge experiments I had stopped listening to my usual instrumental electronic music while working in the studio, in favour of older, earthier songs with vocals. It was good to have some company. And one day when I was struggling for inspiration, a song lyric had jumped out to offer just the phrase I needed. My companion had become a collaborator, quite unexpectedly.

As I worked on the matchsticks I began to get a sense of what they were about. The first dozen or so had come unbidden; after that, I had to step back and look at what was emerging in order to keep going. What I saw was the universality of human experience, encoded in the specificity of the individual. I also saw a Zen-like challenge: to release the good as well as the bad; to embrace the bad as well as the good — and perhaps to question the distinction between the two?

Once the collection felt complete I made 21 more sets, copying them out at the local library because I had no air-conditioning and Melbourne was in the grip of a brutal heat wave. Day after day I sat at a long crowded table, sleep-deprived and wilted, grateful for the opportunity to do something simple. My neck ached, my fingers cramped, my eyes blurred. There was only the pile of matchboxes in front of me, and on the final day, a neighbour who kept glancing curiously at them. Finally, as he was rising to leave, he asked what I was doing. When I told him, his face cracked into an incredulous grin. He introduced himself as Charlie Sublet, a local artist working mainly in photography. One of his major projects was a series of photo narratives contained within Redhead matchboxes (Sublet 2011).

It was 42 degrees outside, and I felt like I was hallucinating. I gave Charlie one of my completed sets as a gift, and we parted ways.