Cinderella Story

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Last August, it was Barbie. This June, it’s Cinderella. I found her after wading through a growing jumble of invasive japanese hops on “the island.” My son was throwing stones into the water on the opposite side of the river, where the trees are tall and plentiful enough to offer relief against the heat that has overtaken us the last few days. On “the island,” I sweated, dust and gnats and plant juices clinging to my damp legs, and collected my stash of garbage.

As I photographed Cinderella, turning her over to catch her at different angles, recording her placement on the disturbed earth, I began to feel as if I was in some twisted parody of a police procedural. Later, when I mentioned this to my husband, he conjured his best Lenny from Law and Order and quipped, “Well, it looks like she won’t be getting back before midnight.”

As a girl I was obsessed with Cinderella, especially the Disney version, with the ice-blue dress and nipped waist. I had a small book accompanied by the seventies version of an audiobook, a record recording of a magical-voiced woman reading the words to the story, interspersed with a cue to turn the pages. Curiously, although the book cover depicted the classic Disney Cinderella, the interior illustrations were in an entirely different style, more slapdash, and her fairy godmother blessed her with an entirely different dress as well: white and pink, with cap sleeves, and a massive hoop skirt festooned with what looked like crinkly pastel-colored garland. It was this dress — not Disney’s — that inspired the endless drawings of princesses I doodled between the ages of four and six.

Later, in my early feminist stage, I felt ashamed of my younger preoccupations with princesses and Barbies. I took some solace in the fact that my Barbie play usually involved operatic sagas that ended with Barbie friendless and homeless, begging on a street corner in rags. Even my princess obsession eventually evolved into an interest in mythology and, much, much later, a manuscript for a distracted fantasy novel. But I can’t deny that this early focus on external beauty certainly had some influence on my how I regarded my own appearance (that is, poorly). I didn’t escape my teenage years unscathed.

Nonetheless, I think of Cinderella fondly. It was a shame to find her abandoned in the dirt. But I threw her out anyway.

Reflections on “Cicada”

Cicadas remind me of transformations. Slow, patient transformations. Even the annual cicadas live in the earth for years, feeding on tree roots as small, white nymphs before finally crawling out of the soil to trade their dull exoskeletons for wings and color. After a life of silence, they drown out even the birds’ songs with a harsh, incessant buzzing that, for me, is the defining sound of summer. They demand to be heard. Is it their years of invisibility that makes such bold insistence possible?

If so, can I learn from them? Can I accept my years of quiet acquiescence as years of growth and then be brave enough to let them go, to break out of them and find a new form? While nature forces the cicada into its impressive transformations, it seems to work against my own. It is much easier to remain as I am, safe and fed, than to risk the precious resources of time and energy to try something new.

Loss has been such a power in my life that I’m reluctant to lose anything purposefully, even if it is my own sense of limitation. When I lost my mother at the age of 5, it was too much for me to understand. Certainly I couldn’t put my grief into words. I knew only that my world seemed to change color the day she was buried, from bright hues to a constant sickly green. In the car, I would count my family over and over again, only to come up with the wrong number, but for some reason I was sure that it wasn’t my mother I was missing. There was something else, something bigger, something too frightening to really look at. I wished upon the first stars of many nights for my mother to return, until a well-meaning adult told me that I needed to wish for something I really could have…like a Barbie doll. Children are so resilient, I heard them say.

But I didn’t feel resilient. Not even 20 years later, when my oldest brother died in an accident so bizarre that it’s almost impossible to discuss. We buried him next to my mother, while his own son, the same age that I was when my mother died, looked on. Why can’t anyone just grow up with both of their parents? my grandfather asked at the wake. My brother’s loss was nothing less than a reaffirmation that change is frightening, risk is an expression of stupidity, and that that great big hole was never really going to be filled.

As it happens, I was with my brother’s son, now an adult, when I found the cicada yesterday. He bent to look at it with me, still wondering at my weird preoccupation with the life of the Monocacy River. He was there at my son’s command, to skip rocks across the slow, brown water of one of the broadest spots along the river. He is, like my brother, a gentle and soft-spoken man with a desire for family and a peaceful life. In fact, he is studying to become a family counselor, noting that he wants to help people the way people helped him. Maybe that is what resiliency looks like.

Grief can force change. It can force action. It can force one to see time more clearly for the precious thing it is. I know that there is time to wait and to grow, but that time is not limitless. I need to dig myself out of my safe hole, shed my fears and truly spread my wings. I’ve been close so many times. What’s stopping me now?

Hidden Places

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Mysterious, hidden places are the lifeblood of children’s literature. I think of the classic realism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s garden in A Secret Garden, the fantastical realm of Neil Gaiman’s graveyard in The Graveyard Book, or maybe something in between like the hidden country in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. These places, however, are not only for children.  Adults, too, have their secret spots, whether real, earthbound escapes or hidden corners of their memories or imagination.

I have a few such places in both categories. The ones in my mind, like Tallameirissa, where live generations of characters with elaborate histories and mythologies, I can always reach unless I am too troubled, but some of my real escapes, like the sun-scorched ruins of Samos, or a snow-covered overlook on the Gunflint Trail, require too much travel to be of help with any regularity. For a more daily escape, I have only to look to the quieter dirt trails along the Monocacy River.  There, I have touch points that I like to revisit, usually places where I’ve seen something mundane but amazing, like a lonely trout lily, or a flattened clearing of grass where deer have slept, or the dead tree with the hole 15 feet above the ground where I once spotted a rat snake sleeping after shedding its old skin. I’ve visited the old, holy tree more than 100 times since seeing the snake, always hoping to find it again, but I never have.  I’m not really sure why I feel so compelled to look so often.  I suppose it must be hope itself.  It has its own kind of magic.

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My boys spotted a rat snake in a different tree a few days ago. Its black coils shining in the sun, it was twined around a thick branch of a tree that had fallen into the river.  When the boys, far too curious to resist its magnificence, began poking it with a very long stick, it resentfully uncoiled itself and slipped into a hollow of the tree.  It was so long that the tip of its tail remained tauntingly visible, but it had more patience than the boys, who decided to move on and create trouble elsewhere, in their own hidden and mysterious places, some of which, I hope, I know nothing about.

Motherless Day

Mother’s Day has never been a favorite of mine.  The simple explanation, although it is not complete, is that my mother died when I was five. This month, it will be 35 years since I last saw her, and still the loss stings. I’ve tried many times to write about her, about what it was like for me, a little girl, to try to hold her and keep her even when I finally understood that she was really and truly gone, but what I write is never quite enough.  It never captures the almost comic bewilderment that went with the pain.

I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve decided to post this year’s effort, as incomplete as it is. As you might guess by my anonymity, I’m not keen on sharing myself too directly with others, but I’m also aware that my one-sided ramblings have long ago ceased to be helpful.  What this has to do with collecting trash on the Monocacy River is very little, except that all of the events occurred in Frederick, around the small streams and creeks that feed the river, and the waters were flowing then as they are now. Whether that is a matter for comfort or despair is entirely up to the reader.

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It begins and ends in a bright yellow room. The sun is shining in the windows, through the lifted shades, casting a warm, clear glow over everything, and I’m under my covers, in bed, still safe in the cocoon of sleep even as my eyes are opening. There is someone beside me, sitting at the edge of the bed, his weight pulling me toward him. It’s my father, and he’s speaking to me.  Maybe he’s woken me up. I can’t be sure, but he’s telling me something. Something that I’ve known.

My mother is dead.

I haven’t seen her in months.  I wouldn’t want to see her, I was told, she wasn’t really Mom anymore.  She couldn’t speak or hear or move.  She wouldn’t know me, and I wouldn’t know her.  It was best I just draw pictures. So I did that. I sat with my little sister, who also wouldn’t want to see Mom, and I drew princesses, mostly, and signed my name with a backwards J, and made a picture in my mind of what Mom must look like in the hospital, still, serene, hands folded and eyes closed, surrounded by white, but alien somehow.

Kindergarten had ended, a whole summer had passed by, first grade had begun, and she was still in the hospital. I was already forgetting her face and voice, and what really happened the last time I saw her. I remember her backing out the front door of our house, leaning over me to say goodbye, but in fact she had probably dropped me off at the babysitter’s small rented farmhouse across the street. The woman was the mother of a classmate of mine, a boy I did not like but who liked me.  Her face was harsh and her words sharp. I was at her house when my grandmother came to get me that day in May, she dressed properly in slacks, loafers and crisp shirt, the babysitter disheveled as usual, and I watched them speaking from the safety of an old swing set. I knew there was something wrong, but I can’t remember her or anyone else explaining it to me. My mother had had a heart attack and she was in the hospital. By July my father told me that she wasn’t coming back. He told me that at the park downtown, across the street from my grandparents’ house, while I hung out by yet another swing set with my little sister.

So, yes, all of that had happened, but now it was for real. Mom died last night.

I think that I understand.  I think that my little sister understands.  But, when we go downstairs and peek in the family room, where the T.V. is on, I see my two brothers and my older sister, who is crying, and I ask her, “Are you crying because of Mom?” It’s a sad day, but the sun is shining, and the whole world glows. How is this possible? She nods her head.

I still think I understand.

Fairyland, Maryland

 

At this time of year, the silver 2-week period when the Virginia Bluebells bloom in concert with the delicate Spring Beauties, Trout Lilies, and even the alien Lesser Celandines, I can’t help but feel that I’m in Fairyland. And today, when the white sunlight shone beneath the gray rainclouds, it lit the world in crisp, clean, and almost metallic shadow, and I felt as if I was walking through a photograph.  With one effect on top of another, I might have been unreal myself, and, as must always be true when a proper fairy has you in its sphere, I was a little unnerved.

A few years ago, my father showed me an old drawing of mine that he had found in his basement.  Surrounding a smiling girl were curlicues and flowers, mice and birds, and I had written across the top, “Nature is Love.” My father, who has a wry sense of humor, laughed at me for having been a young, secret pantheist, and I was suitably embarrassed by the naivete and simplicity of my early drawing. Only a year ago, I was even more embarrassed when my nieces started reading aloud from my early diaries. They contained the usual, painful nonsense about boys, family problems, and worries about my appearance (listen to the podcast, Mortified, and you’ll get the idea), but they also had the affected, pretentious prose of someone who wanted very much to be a a writer and had read way too much Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, not to mention piles of Andrew Lang’s many-colored Fairy Books (Olive! Pink! Orange!). I wrote in high-flying language of my love of nature, of the joy of sitting by “the creek” and making up stories, of the respite from the “real world” it offered me.

In Fairyland, you lose time, or maybe you gain it.  At any rate, Fairyland changes time, so that you can be in two places at once, be two people at once, and yet be one person in one time all the same. Am I 10 or 40?  Have I grown up at all? I’m not a pantheist.  Or a pagan. More often, I’m a simple rationalist with a Lutheran upbringing.  But I can feel the magic, even if I don’t believe in it. That’s why there can be trash in Fairyland.

The Thing with Feathers

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Juncos and friends braving the blizzard of 2016

When I was a little girl and people asked what animal I would like to be, which, for some reason, they did quite often, I would always answer, “A swan.” Likely I was influenced by fairy tale drawings (what was a castle, after all, without a swan swimming in its lake, preferably at sunset?) and at least a little by E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. The swan, to me, was the epitome of beauty and elegance, with a potential for a brilliant future, and, of course, it could swim or fly with equal grace.

When I grew a little older, I began to find the swan and bit too ostentatious, and, by the time I was a teenager, desiring total anonymity and feeling very small and frightened, I decided that I would rather be a mouse. Sometime in my thirties, although people had stopped asking, I decided again that I would like to be a bird, but not a swan. Instead, I would like to be a small bird, a common bird, one that is much stronger and and more interesting than people assume.  Maybe a chickadee, like those I watched endure Minnesota winters with cheerful fortitude, fluffed up among pine branches in their small black caps, or a junco, like a little gentleman in a gray tuxedo, so dapper and sprightly, even in the midst of a blizzard. I’m not sure, but I do admire them. And I wish that I could fly.

Because of my affinity for birds, I watch for them, and observe them, and, on a separate page on this blog, record them.  Today was a particularly good day for spotting birds at the Monocacy.  Besides the usual Robins, Red-wings, and Cardinals, I saw an American Goldfinch, an Eastern Bluebird, a few Tree Swallows, a pair of Canada Geese (accompanied, for some reason, by a bachelor Mallard), a Red-tailed Hawk, some noisy Crows, and a wading bird and woodpecker that were just too far away for sure identification.  Honestly, I was so distracted that I left quite a bit of trash on the ground. But, unlike the birds, it’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.  For now.