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.

 

 

 

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.

What I See

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I’m actually distressed by the amount of “new” birds I’m seeing this spring. When I set out to do a backyard bird list for my small stretch of the Monocacy River (see the Birds of the Monocacy page), I promised to record the appearance of a bird only when I was absolutely sure that I had identified it correctly. I imagined that there would be a quick burst of activity in the beginning as I noted the most common birds (robins, crows, house sparrows, etc.), followed by only sporadic additions. As it happens, I was entirely wrong. My bird sightings have been constant and frequent, almost unbelievably so. When I see three new birds in a day, when I find more than one type of swallow in a week, when I notice a bird that I’ve never seen before, I begin to doubt myself.  It’s impossible, isn’t it? Won’t real birders say that I must be mistaken? That I’m just hoping that I’ve seen these different birds?

While I was internally berating myself like this one day, even considering pretending not to have seen the green heron perched in the tree a few yards back, I realized that there was a perfectly good explanation for why I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Namely, I was suddenly seeing all of these birds.  Hadn’t I, in the past, seen a small bird out of the corner of my eye and simply thought, “Oh, small bird”? Or maybe I hadn’t see the small bird at all, because I was looking down, or ahead, or at some picture in my mind. And it’s not really about seeing at all, is it? It’s about looking. That bird is small, it’s brown, its tail is short and tipped up, it has white stripes by its eyes, it hangs out in the bushes. Oh, it’s a wren! What kind of wren? How small is it, really, how clear are its markings, what is its song? Oh, it’s a Carolina wren!

I remember when I first really understood drawing. I had always drawn. I was a highly complimented drawer, in fact, but when I was about eleven, I realized that there was something missing from my drawings. They didn’t look real. They were only flat representations of real things. I was stuck in this place for a long time, until one day in art class, my new teacher said, “Look at what you’re drawing. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what is there.” Look at the lines, look at the shadow, look at the color. The sky isn’t simply blue or gray. It’s violet and olive and all sorts of shades in between. So is that rock and that leaf and that flower and your skin. Her words were magic. They were like a spell that opened my eyes and transformed what I saw, permanently changing the way I drew and painted.

Look. See what is there. Don’t think in shoulds. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

About Trash on the Monocacy

The Monocacy River is my river. I’ve lived along many, including the storied Mississippi, but the Monocacy is my home. A little urban, a little rural, deep in parts, but much too shallow in others, neglected, overused, dumped in (and on), ugly as often as it is beautiful, it is home to thousands – no, billions – of plants, animals, and people. I walk through it every day, pleased in its averageness, finding places for children to play or dog noses to sniff, taking note of the birds and change of seasons, gathering stinking mud on my boots, and I try to make plans and make sense. What have I done right, what have I not done, what should I have done, what will I do, what are my children doing, what will they do, is there anything any of us can do that will make any difference? Always, as I walk, I pass crumpled bottles, dirtied cellophane wrappers, and shredded plastic bags, tangled in trees, half-buried in mud, and hidden beneath dead leaves and grass.  These bits of garbage interrupt me, and, while at first I let them irritate me, I have finally let them answer me.  Now, with my own used bag, I set out to find the trash, ferret out each piece, and actually notice it, acknowledge it, put it in my bag, and leave one small part of the Monocacy a little cleaner, a little more what it should be, a little more itself. My actions aren’t original, of course, and I’m not a particularly spectacular environmentalist (which a smug part of me might hope to be). In fact, I’m more than a little selfish, because I like to see beauty, and that’s why I act.  It’s in so many things.  Even in the trash. And its disappearance.  That’s what this blog is about.  Finding the beauty in the ugliest, most ordinary, most overlooked places and things.  The trash on the Monocacy River.