I’m Not Alone

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  1. 5 white-tailed deer, in 3 different locations
  2. 1 pileated woodpecker
  3. 1 groundhog
  4. 1 rabbit
  5. 5 squirrels (maybe more)
  6. 2 opossums
  7. 2 Canada geese
  8. 11 Mallard ducks (10 of them ducklings)
  9. 1 barred owl
  10. Too many songbirds to keep track of (mentally)

My walks lately are emotional affairs, vacillating between sublime wonder and heart-pressing sorrow in a matter of a few steps. I can’t help but feel pleasure in the unassuming beauty of the river, but the memories of earlier seasons, so easily evoked in a quiet mind, lay over it the blue tint of loss and grief. Especially as the days warm, I feel myself fighting against the passage of time, even as I smile at the new life it brings.

On the sunny days of this late, cold, wet spring the shores of the river glimmer in green, and elusive vernal ponds formed near its banks appear like secret oases beneath the trees. When I come upon them, I follow the deer paths to their edge and try to find frogs and turtles. Today I instead startled a mallard with her prodigious brood of ten ducklings, who skimmed across the water with astounding speed when they saw me step out of the woods. They’re clearly unrelated to the Frederick ducks of Baker Pond, who, despite the signs saying otherwise, see humans as a potential source of bread crumbs and other such duck junk food. I tried to take a picture of them, but, between the limitations of my camera phone and their determination to get away from me as quickly as possible, I got nothing but a photo of the pond.

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I left them in peace, pursuing the main trail to the river, only to fluster a white-tailed deer, who paused mid-stride when she saw me walking up the path. I paused, then, too, to allow her to cross ahead of me, but she decided that this behavior was much too threatening on my part, and retreated back into the trees. Shrugging, I stepped off of the path in the opposite direction, following a switchback down toward the river, where a pair of Canada geese, after one look at me, launched into the water with agitated bickering and began paddling in indecisive circles.

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Guessing that there was a nest nearby, I left the waterside and returned to the high trail. It was only a few minutes before I came upon another bird, whose large head and bright red crest immediately identified him as a pileated woodpecker. He was on the ground, throwing large chunks of dead wood off a log so soft with rot it hardly required pecking. It took him some time to notice me, but, even once he did, he only flew a few feet to another pile of wood, calling out a laughing song that always makes me feel as if I’m in a jungle. This time, as a pair of barred owls began hooting in the distance, the feeling was even stronger. But the peter-peter-peters of a tufted titmouse managed to keep me firmly in my mid-Atlantic reality.

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Beyond this there was a part of the path that I hadn’t traveled since walking there with my father, last December, on one of the last days when such a walk was possible for him. It is a part of the path just beside my neighborhood with the easiest access to the Monocacy from the assisted living facility where my father lived the last 2 months of his life. While we were there, bundled against a gray day, I pointed out to him where Israel Creek flowed into the river and showed him the rocks where the boys liked to play, and we wondered a little about the birds we saw and the geology of this part of Maryland. He couldn’t always say what he meant, but he was himself, and I understood. It wasn’t long before we turned around, afraid that he wasn’t warm enough or strong enough to go much farther. I still imagined that we would come back again in the spring, when it was more pleasant and there would be more to see.

This morning, I feared walking on that path again. Not so much because I was afraid of what I might feel or remember but because I was afraid of treading over yet another place where my last memory was with him, alive. I suppose some part of me believed — or wanted to believe — that he could somehow remain alive right there forever, as long as I never wrote another memory over it.

But I walked on. It is spring. And I told him we would come back in the spring.

The curious thing is that just when I reached the part of the path where I had stopped to speak with my dad, the part of the path that would seem the hardest to pass, I ended up so distracted that I didn’t think of it at all until it was already behind me. Because, of all the curious things, out of the corner of my eye, partially obscured by a pile of tree limbs and twigs, I saw two white forms shuffling about. At first I thought they might be small dogs, and then maybe young pigs, but as I got a better look I realized that they were two full-grown opossums, out in the morning sun. They’re not terribly quick things, so they thought a little before rambling off back down the hill into the woods, away from me. I was honestly tickled because I hadn’t seen a live adult possum in the wild since a family vacation years ago. And I had never seen one in daylight. And here were two! My father would have loved it.

I loved it.

 

On Loneliness

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During my long absence from this blog, I continued to visit the river, finding some respite in its wintry dun aspect. At the start of the year, it froze over completely, and the boys startled me with their delighted insistence on stomping over the surface to prove its impenetrability. It was some comfort to me when their mocking brazenness receded with the ice, although I missed the stillness that accompanied it. We were always alone on these coldest days.

My trash collection was perfunctory, distracted as I was by emergencies and the inevitable crises and phone calls and text messages that followed them. Among the regular bottles and cans and plastic snack bags, I once found a Frozen balloon.

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What I find remarkable about this now is not the balloon itself but the day on which I found it. I must have stepped out early on this expedition because the rest of this day was taken up entirely by moving my father’s things out of his last apartment. I ended up at a storage facility, alone, locking away the last of his possessions. There was a loneliness there that I never feel at the river.

It is the loneliness that comes of things. Discarded things. Ownerless things. That one shoe by the side of the road. The tent pole caught in the brambles. The handleless cooler buried in mud.

But when I collect these things, I take away some of the loneliness. Don’t I?

 

On Barefoot

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I remember running around barefoot for most of the day in summer. My heels and toes were tender in the early days of June, but by July I could walk the pebble path on the side of my house without flinching. The pads of my feet still remember the sunburned heat of old asphalt and the grainy planes of concrete sidewalks. Even now I can feel the unpolished wires of a chain link fence pressing into my toes. The lawn of crabgrass and clover felt cool and pleasantly scratchy, the bare earth we used for bases dry and unyielding. The water in the creek was warm and silty, its bottom a squishy muck interrupted by sharp and slippery rocks.

My brother cut his foot on a piece of glass in the creek — the trail of blood he left on his hobble home stained the sidewalk for what seemed like weeks that rainless summer — and he needed stitches and crutches to mend. (Oh, how jealous I was!) That should have made me cautious as a child, but it’s only managed to do so now that I’m adult, worried for my sons’ vulnerable skin. Now we live in an age of water shoes and quick-drying, strappy sandals. But, honestly, the invasive itchy plants keep the boys and I in boots most of the time.

Occasionally, I venture onto the paths of the Monocacy in flip-flops. On the way home, aware of the bites and stings of mites, insects and poisonous plants, I regret my choice and realize, once again, how far away I am from the sun-shocked nine-year-old girl who roamed a small corner of Frederick with her tribe of neighborhood kids. But, the scars on my knees remind me, not too far away.

What Squirrels Make Me Remember

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A very busy squirrel left this shredded walnut shell on the path today. It’s a natural piece of trash, very commonly found as summer turns to fall.

8 years ago this September, I was in Mykolayiv, Ukraine, visiting an orphanage. I had been to Ukraine before, as an archaeologist, but this was a more personal, less academic trip. Whenever I come upon shredded walnut shells this time of year, I remember a particular day at the orphanage, when the children, all four or younger, delighted in bringing me these tough, green softballs to open. In my journal, I wrote:

We walked around the grounds until we came upon a walnut tree ready for harvesting. Iv. [a 3 year-old boy] instantly began picking walnuts off the tree and begging me, “Akoi! Akoi!”  I stepped on them until their green rinds fell away and then broke them open, sometimes with a rock, sometimes with my foot, and shelled out the meat with my fingernails. Iv. ate every tiny bit. When another groupa walked by with their nanny, he had me open walnuts for them. It was like a little party. 

By the end of the day, my fingertips were stained green and my nailbeds were sore, but the simple happiness of that episode is still vivid in my memory.

Earlier in my blog, I wrote a little about Ukraine’s troubles (see The Worst Kind of Trash). Despite the lack of media coverage, Ukraine is still struggling, particularly in the east (for an exceptional story on Ukraine’s current political struggles, see the September 5, 2016 article by Joshua Yaffa: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/reforming-ukraine-after-maidan).  It’s easy to get bogged down in the murk of geopolitical struggles, but there’s nothing murky about a smile and a hard-won walnut.

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?

An Average Memoir on the Monocacy

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One of the most difficult things I find about writing any sort of memoir or personal essay is that I did not and do not live in isolation. The stories that are my own belong to many others as well. I can’t write about motherhood without writing about my children, about my childhood without writing about my brothers and sisters, or about my marriage without writing about my husband. It’s why I often revert to science and history in my posts.

I was raised to be many things, but perhaps most emphatically I was raised to be humble and realistic in my expectations. One night, when I was feeling particularly bad about how school had gone that day, my father told me, “There will always be people smarter than you or better than you. You’re average, and it’s okay. Most of us are average. It’s not worth getting upset about.” I’ve had people tell me that this was a pretty mean thing for a father to say to an eight-year-old girl, but now I’m not so sure. He was being eminently practical and telling me the truth. I am average.

So why do I have the right to intrude on other people’s stories in order to tell my own? There are those who are so wonderful at telling their stories that it would be a shame for them not to write: David Sedaris, for example, who also happens to be another – but far more funny and astute – collector of trash; or Janisse Ray, whose Ecology of a Cracker Childhood deftly and beautifully combines memoir and natural history. But where that leaves me isn’t quite clear.

Where do I end and others begin? It’s not simple. Physicians are told “First, do no harm,” but it’s a directive that could apply to all of us. Certainly it can apply to writing. Yes, I’ll tell my story, and it will be yours as well, but I will not hurt you. Whatever that means.

Originally I intended to write all of this as an introduction to a piece of my own fiction, as an explanation for why I was posting something so irrelevant to the blog itself. While I might still post some fiction in the future, I believe I’ve already inadvertently written today’s entry. Maybe I’ll call it “The Trouble with the I in Memoir.” Or is that not average enough for me?

I Say Crayfish

Growing up, I lived a block away from The Creek, where I played with “the neighborhood kids,” a motley group, ranging in age from four to fourteen, under the dubious supervision of distracted single parents. We played our fair share of Atari and wasted time making fake bids on “The Price Is Right,” but usually we were outside playing a game like Sentry, Capture the Flag, SPUD, Swinging Statues, Truth or Dare, or Spy vs. Spy (which was a big excuse for roaming the neighborhood in two gangs, climbing fences, trampling gardens, and basically being delinquents).  I was one of the youngest and more of a gullible, devoted follower than an instigator, but I always felt included and necessary, despite (or maybe because of?) the occasional teasing and my designated role as the “goody two shoes” of the group. (On a side note: damn you, Adam Ant, for your catchy lyrics!) It occurs to me that this is starting to sound like the foundation of an 80’s Spielberg flick, but, I’m sad to say, we grew up before any miraculous thing happened to save us from ourselves.

The Creek where we played was not an idyllic brook of clean, babbling water winding its way through a peaceful meadow or pristine forest. It was a dirty, shallow stream, funneled under a busy road through massive concrete drain tunnels and hemmed in by apartment buildings that we, with all the smugness of youth, called “the old people apartments.” Besides building dams, getting in water fights, and just generally splashing around, we spent most of our time there catching crayfish. Once or twice we sold them as food to one of the more adventurous parents, but usually we examined and threw them back into the creek or raced them down the hot, gritty slopes of the concrete tunnels.

The Creek, like most small waterways in Frederick, eventually empties into the Monocacy River, where I still catch crayfish with my boys. A few days ago, one of them found a nice young specimen that he eagerly posed for the camera. There are several native species of crayfish in Maryland, and I can’t claim to be able to identify which we have here, but it doesn’t seem to be a Rusty Crayfish, an invasive species that is threatening the survival of the natives. (A very common historical theme. Sigh.) Since we only caught one, we didn’t get to do any racing.  But we have a long summer ahead of us.

The Bird up the River

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Yesterday I volunteered at my son’s school picnic, which was held at a park some ways up the river. The day itself was nice, sunny and breezy, not at all humid, and even cool in the shade. The morning was going well, my son seeming to play happily with his friends while I monitored a life-size version of Angry Birds, the highlight of which, surprisingly, was not flinging painted balls from a large slingshot,  but rebuilding the fortress of cardboard boxes that the balls knocked down. I got bonked on the head a few times, but this was nothing to what was happening inside of my head. As I looked on, the world was becoming blurred at the edges and overexposed, overlaid in pulsing splotches of shimmering color. I drank water, smiled at the other volunteers, laughed at the kids, but my sense of otherworldliness grew as the slow hours progressed.

In the afternoon, after a lunch of pizza and oranges, I noticed my son sitting apart from the other kids. At his mute but earnest request (a pair of hazel eyes can speak volumes), I’d been keeping my distance, but, even from 200 yards away, I could see by his drooping shoulders that something was wrong. When I got close, I could see that he was crying, and, after a practiced silence and casual inquiry, I discovered that the group of boys he usually relied upon had “banished” him from their circle the rest of the year because he had spoken meanly to them “just once!” For a group of children entering middle school, such behavior is perhaps to be expected, and not just among girls, as people so stereotypically suppose. My son and his friends seem to have spats regularly; one night he has “no friends” and the next he’s talking about what funny things his best buddy said that day.

As typical as this may be, however, it is even more complicated for my son, who suffers from poor impulse control and even worse social skills because of things that happened to him even before he was born. Through no fault of his own, his behavior can seem bullying when he’s trying to be funny, and he cannot read subtle social cues. For instance, he’s quite sure you want him in your game even though you smirked and rolled your eyes when he joined in. My son’s temper is short – he blows his top at small things and spirals into an ugly vortex of nasty name-calling – but a few minutes later he can’t remember what he said. When you accuse him of saying something rude or pulling your arm and he denies it, you think he’s lying, and, technically, he is, but he honestly believes he’s telling the truth. As a parent, I know all this, I’ve studied it and wrestled it with it, and it is still difficult for me.  How, then, can I expect another child to understand? Or, honestly, even another adult? Despite the books, articles and pointed conversations I’ve distributed in my son’s wake, among all of the teachers and staff and adults he sees, understanding and acceptance are slow to follow.

Of course I didn’t say all of this to my son or to the boys who hurt him. I did, however, let them know that they had hurt him and that, whatever he had said, hurting him back wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Eventually they made some tentative movements at reconciliation, but not before my impaired vision was joined by an all-encompassing headache that made me feel as if my mind had detached itself from my body.

And there was over an hour left of the picnic.

With everything going on, it’s amazing that I noticed the flash of orange darting from tree to tree, and a miracle that I didn’t write it off as something that I was imagining. In fact, as I slowly approached the sycamore across the way, I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, what I was hoping it was. Once underneath the tree, I looked up, scanning the branches, and, just when I was sure that whatever it was had moved on or had never been, I saw a  bird light onto one of the lower limbs. And – I had been right – there it was – an actual Baltimore Oriole! It was the first one I’ve ever seen in real life, despite its status as Maryland state bird and mascot of our beloved major league baseball team. And it was every bit as bold and bright orange as texts had always assured me.

It was a small thing in a long day, but there’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that I often return to and that this Oriole so completely illustrates:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

A Creek with No Name

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Frederick City lies in a valley, cut through by the Monocacy River and surrounded by the Catoctin Mountains, which are part of the ancient Appalachian Mountains that range through the eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia. When I’m feeling romantic, I tell people that I am from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is another name for this region of the Appalachians. On hazy days, which are plentiful, the mountains do indeed appear blue, a result of the isoprene released by the trees that cover them.

Beside a winding road up to these mountains, runs one of many small streams that flow through Frederick County. Although this stream is small enough to lack a proper name, it is significant in my family as the site of “Uncle J’s property,” which was given to him by my grandfather, who purchased it after proposing to my grandmother along the stream’s banks. Since it cannot be built upon, it is worthless as real estate, and, in fact, no one has ever made an effort to fence in or claim the small plot in any official manner. It’s nothing, really, but a cool escape – quite literally, actually, since it averages about ten degrees cooler than the city proper – where we can splash in the clear water, let the dogs go to roam freely over the fern-covered slopes, and be left entirely alone.

 

Summer of Discontent

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Every year as summer approaches, I feel my emotions go flat, as if weighed down by the hot and humid mid-Atlantic air that ushers in the season. For years, I couldn’t quite accept the truth of this phenomenon. Summer is supposed to be so wonderful – sun, warmth, longer days, vacation – isn’t it what we’ve been waiting for since January? Depression at a time like this is just ridiculous! Yet, here it is, again, and so insidious in its subtlety: no dramatics, no crying, no morbid poetry; just restless nights, difficulty writing, disinterest in reading, and the usual fear of people.

Why am I writing this? The admission of my depression seems so much more dangerous once it’s recorded. Writing about it is like pulling the stuffing out of a tiny rip in a teddy bear. It emerges as a small ball of innocuous polyester threads and then unfurls, exploding into a cottony mass of shame, judgement and emotions. The bear is left a little emptier, lumpy, slightly misshapen. Maybe the nose is flatter, the right eye askew, the stomach curiously deflated. Even if the stuffing is packed back in, it never looks quite right, or, at least, the way it was before.

But maybe messier is better.

It’s the last day of mental health month, and I’ve been “liking” NAMI’s “stigma free” posts, signing petitions to the U.S. Congress for better mental health care, and sharing articles about mental health awareness all May. It’s much easier to discuss other people’s issues as “other people’s” issues. Nonetheless, their issues are my issues, and, contrary to popular belief, suicide is more prevalent in the spring and summer than it is during the holidays and winter months. Perhaps depression is as well? If this is so, then I am not alone. My issues are “other people’s” issues, too. Who am I, after all, but someone else’s “other people.”

When I named the blog, I never meant for the trash to be taken too literally. Trash isn’t just physical garbage, it’s the flotsam of life in general, sometimes very important to me but worthless to someone else. And, like the trash along the Monocacy, it won’t just go away if it’s ignored. Someone needs to pick it up, look at it, and put it away. If we’re lucky, we might be able to use it again, or turn it into something else, or give it away. And of course we’ll find more of it later. There’s always more. There will be more next year, and the year after that. That’s the way of life.

And so, despite everything, I’ll keep writing.