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.

 

 

 

 

The Trash We Tell Ourselves

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My most recent study site.

A funny thing happened today. I was flipping through the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin (Vol. 97, no. 4), scanning for names I recognized (as one does with such things), when I came upon an article called “Talking Trash.” Of course, a title like that caught my attention, and the first sentence was even better: “In Astrid Lindenlauf’s Archeology, Anthropology, and Sociology of Rubbish class, students are examining a rich trove of ritually deposited archaeological finds – votive offerings to the Goddess Athena.” A class about rubbish? Why did I ever abandon my graduate studies thinking that there would be no job at the end of them?!

The article proceeded to detail how Ms. Lindenlauf’s students are researching the various items that Bryn Mawr College students leave at the statue of Athena in Thomas Great Hall, a long-standing tradition particularly observed during exams. As a graduate student, I wasn’t as much a part of such rituals. Having been educated entirely by the public school system through college, I was, in fact, a little jealous of such traditions, obscured, as they seemed, by the curtains of privilege.

Often I felt at a loss in the private school setting, perhaps even doubly so in the classics department. During my first year in college (at the very public University of Maryland Baltimore County), I had a professor pull me aside to remark on how well-written a paper of mine was and to ask which school I had attended. When I answered Frederick High, she looked a bit stymied and asked, “Is that a public school?” I shared this story with my 12th grade English teacher during the following break, expecting her to take it as a compliment to herself, but instead she got angry. “Why shouldn’t a public school be as good as a private one?” she asked. I saw her point and tried to remind myself of it whenever I felt a bit smaller answering questions about my background in graduate school. No, my father wasn’t a professor or doctor or lawyer. No, I didn’t have the money to do that (fill-in-the-blank). No, I have no idea who that person is. It is difficult, though, for a girl who often feels like she has somehow fooled everybody into believing that she is smart and capable, to thoroughly shake the feeling of not belonging.

Somehow, though, I find myself and my ideas reflected in the pages of this austere institution’s alumnae bulletin. I fight against the notion, but did I really always belong? Do I still? Are my ideas worthy? Strange how a little article can arouse such memories and doubts.  Not so strange how much those memories and doubts can hold you back and even stun you into immobility. I have so many stories and ideas that I haven’t shared because I’ve been fearful that they aren’t good enough. Certainly in some cases it’s true, but all of them? It’s still a hard thing to click “publish” every day that I write this blog. The fear and doubt don’t go away. But I’m doing my best to ignore them.

The Unexpected

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My grandfather and his brother, and their father before them, were doctors who practiced general medicine in Frederick, Maryland, throughout the 20th century. As country physicians, house calls and home births were the rule during most of their careers. Medicine changed radically during the period, the advent of antibiotics offering cures for countless illnesses that had been lethal throughout history, and the establishment of medicare and insurance ushering out an era when payment for a check-up might have been a dozen eggs. Grandaddy was a natural storyteller whose profession provided him with endless material (much to my grandmommy’s chagrin, at times). One story he liked to tell inspired me so much that I included it in a short story of my own.  While my story wasn’t all bad, it was written during a dark period in my early twenties, and so I tossed it away with a great deal of other material I wrote at the time. It’s just as well. The story is Grandaddy’s, and he tells it best anyway. He’s been gone over 10 years now, but his voice was distinctive. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story as he did, but I promise you it won’t be as good as the version he told in his dark living room, sitting back in his armchair and puffing sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe:

Sometimes I had to deliver lots of babies in the same day, and I had to drive all over the place to get to everyone in time. One day like this, I got a call from farmer Winters [names have been changed] while I was at another house, and he told me that his wife was in labor and I needed to get there quick. I told him, of course, I’d be there as soon as possible, but I was still attending to another mother and couldn’t get there immediately. On the phone he seemed fine: Mrs. Winters had had children before, and there was no reason to be alarmed. So, as soon as I could, and it was quicker than I’d even led him to believe, I drove to the Winters Farm and knocked at the door. Mr. Winters answered, quite upset with me. He said, “Doc, what’s taken you so damned long? I told you to get here quick!” By his tone – he was red-faced and irate and almost in tears – I thought that something must have gone terribly wrong with Mrs. Winters, but when I got upstairs, I found her doing just fine, and I delivered the baby a little later with no trouble at all. After it was over, Mr. Winters led me to the door and apologized profusely for how rude he’d been to me earlier.  “You see, doc,” he said, “my cow gave birth to a two-headed calf this morning, and I was just a little upset!”

I always laughed at the end of the story, but the humor behind the punchline is a little muddled, and the humor I see in it has evolved as I’ve aged.  Is it funny because a two-headed calf is just weird?  Or are we laughing because the farmer was more concerned about his cow than his wife?  Or is the joke that the farmer was worried that his wife would have a two-headed baby as well? As I look at it now, I see that Grandaddy was maybe making fun of himself as well, the doctor looking through his own narrow lens and being blindsided by a completely unexpected explanation.

You’re right, Grandaddy: the unexpected is hilarious. Socks on the sidewalk. Cardinal whistles on the beach. Hats in trees. And I miss you.