Wanting

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What do I remember?

 

The gritty slope of concrete,

Pressing into my tailbone,

Cold,

As I watched the silty water

Of the creek

Run, metal-scented,

From man-made tunnels.

 

I imagined myself

Elsewhere, but

There

I was.

 

My house,

My father’s house,

Down the street, was where I

Least/

Most

Wanted to be.

Not that there was a

Choice

For a teenage girl

To go anywhere

But where she was.

 

Now I watch a river

Two, three times the size,

Brown and thick

With manure,

Mud of

Men and animals,

And I cannot see where

It goes.

I want to be

There,

Just there,

And nowhere else.

I want

My mind to stay

Too.

 

But it goes to that

House,

Father’s House,

Dad’s House,

Where he

Isn’t anymore.

 

And then I want so much

More.

 

I smell the water

And can’t forget

The wanting.

 

Rivers from the Sky

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Clearly I wrote about flooding too soon this year. Last night, my sons called me to the driveway to look up at the sky. It was awash in clouds; high cirrus behind monstrous — but still white — cumulonimbus, their rapid swelling and blossoming revealed and backlit by the setting sun. To the north, a slit of clear sky was still visible against the horizon. Wisps of cloud, mere suggestions of tornados, reached toward the earth. The day had been stifling, the air choked with humidity and heat, and we could still feel that latent energy as a small breeze began to stir. It was beautiful, but not frightening.

An hour later, the street had turned into a large creek, and hail the size of dimes and playing marbles lined the driveway. A constant stream of ice and rain fell from the clouds, which continued to settle and grow over us. My raised garden filled with muddy water, and the peonies bowed their heads against the onslaught. Since our house is built on the high ground in the neighborhood, the boys and I could watch the churning storm in relative safety, our only danger the slippery floors created by the hail and rain driven through open doors, but the streets of Frederick city overflowed, roads closed, and buildings flooded. Our phones constantly sounded with alarms and warnings. My oldest, who has always loved extreme weather (in kindergarten, he told his teacher he wanted to be a storm chaser, and all he wanted for Christmas were books and videos and posters of tornadoes), begged to be allowed to ride his bike to the river. Our faces must have spoken volumes, because he gave up the argument much more quickly than usual.

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This morning, he woke up early to check out the river, and I followed behind him shortly after. The sidewalks were scattered with leaves and frail limbs and branches, and the paved paths along the river required rubber boots and waders in spots. The informal dirt paths had turned into small streams in some places and disappeared entirely into the river in others.

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Worms writhed in the puddles, and tadpoles found temporary sidewalk homes in the overflowing waters of the vernal ponds. I hope that they’ll find their way home on their own, but the forecast suggests they may not need to for some time. Rain, rain, and more thunder and rain is expected for the rest of the week.

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But I wait. And wonder. Always wonder.

 

 

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?

 

My Father

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My father died last week. It still feels too recent to write anything coherently, but every now and then a panic seizes hold of me — a deep, sickening fear — that the time when he was with me is passing away too quickly, that I am losing something vital that will be impossible to retrieve if I wait too long. So I try. I sit here putting words on a screen, and I feel as if I’m wearing blinders. I see but narrowly, unable to understand what is not directly before me.

Days before my father’s hospitalization this fall, when he was still walking, albeit warily, and his dementia had not yet so confused his speech, he and I visited the Catoctin Furnace, where pig iron was discovered and then, beginning in 1776, produced by the first governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson. We followed the trail that leads into the woods beside the reconstructed furnace, past the ruins of the old manor house, where sparrows hopped between asters and pokeweed in the autumn sun, onto a rocky, narrow path framed by heaps of ancient slag, over the treacherously open Bowstring Arch Bridge, which overlooked a pair of dogs gamboling after sticks a woman tossed into Little Hunting Creek. I stopped my father on the bridge to take a picture of him, something I rarely did. I had no idea this would be the last hike I would ever take with him. I had no idea. But it was a beautiful day. And he smiled.

It was this day I remembered when, the night before his funeral, I tried to think of something to say at his service. My brother and sisters had all finished their pieces, each beautiful in their uniqueness and approach, but my head was too filled, too noisy, too confused by images of my father’s last days. It was not until I lie in bed, not sleeping, nursing my numbness, that the woods came to me: the leaf-littered path, and the water, and my father beside me, as he had been so many times before.

And I knew what to say:

 

To Dad

 

When I step into the woods,

Onto a path through a field,

Up a trail into the mountains,

You are with me —

You always were —

A teacher,

Pointing out

the color of the stones,

The signs of animals in the underbrush,

The shape of the leaves on the trees.

It’s your language

The way you love

How you show the way.

And how nice it is,

Now,

To see how easy it will be

To feel you again,

In the wren in the thicket,

The bright zinnias in my garden,

The rolling clouds in the sky.

You thought you taught me to see

The world

But you also taught me to see

You.

So I never have to say

Goodbye,

Only,

I’ll see you later,

Again,

Soon.

–Julie

Cars and Time’s Tricks

One of the landmarks on my regular walks along the river is an old car frame, belly-up and tires attached, half-submerged at the bottom of a steep bank. Over a year ago, when the brown turf of winter was beginning to green, I took a photo of the wreck.

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Today, stepping carefully into a flowering of touch-me-nots, I took another, wondering whether I would note any change.

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Despite the several minor floods that have occurred between then and now, it appears the only real changes are the cosmetic sorts that seasons bring: grass where there was mud, a darker, clearer hue of water, and the dappled light of a leafy canopy. As a former archaeologist, I keep hoping to witness its gradual burial, until it is entirely consumed by the earth, a curious artifact rather than a niggling eyesore.

But time works at its own pace on the earth, building and eroding in thousands and hundreds of years rather than months or days. Or, at least, it has in the past. It seems, lately, that we may not be able to rely always on what we have known or taken for granted when it comes to the shape and speed of time’s passage as it plays out in currents, storms, and the creeping of tides. For now, though, that old car is suspended in time and mud, exposed and broken, watching the seasons wash over its carcass. Slowly, to my eyes, but quickly, to others.

I find time treacherous and slippery. Some days I wish away before they’re over, but others I want to magic alongside me forever. Sending my boys to school today reminds me of this. One is in high school now, the other only two years behind, and they are changing, growing up, less willing to be part of my ramblings. They measure time in minutes and hours — it stretches out before them — and they have little patience when I stop for a moment just to look.

Especially at a rusty, abandoned old car.

“Obscure, plain and little…”

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My memorial painting of Anastasia, with her sister, Sugar. JSS

A few weeks ago, we lost the smallest member of our family, the timid but trusting albino rat, Anastasia. She doesn’t have much to do with trash or the Monocacy River, and I realized about a month ago that I was dwelling on my pets, and maybe even death, perhaps a little too much for my stated goals for this blog, but, with the passage of time, I’ve begun to see that to let her death go unmentioned is almost a form of dishonesty. Small as she was, we all miss her warm, little body, the strong, quick beating of her heart, and her ruby-red, curious eyes.

Of all the pets I’ve kept (and, oh, there were many in my childhood), rats have elicited the most vehement and divisive responses: either “Gross! Those tails!” or “Oh! Aren’t they the best pets!” I was devoted to mice as I grew up, and lived with gerbils, hamsters, a guinea pig and a rabbit, but never got a rat until my boys persuaded me, much too easily, a few years ago. First we had a pair of dumbo rat boys, Aloysius and Percy, who lived their short three years with patient zeal — a requirement for living with a pair of young human boys. Then, although my husband swore he would never countenance another rat living under roof, we rescued two rat girls who were destined to be snake food. Anastasia was the smaller of these two. Sugar, the other, is now lonely and squishy, choosing to cuddle rather than run off to find adventure when we let her out to play. All of our rats have had their own personalities, foibles, and weaknesses, and it is difficult to imagine that their ancestors were the terrifying vermin of the Middle Ages or to remember that their cousins remain the pests of modern cities.

Perhaps they belong in this blog more than I first though. Rats: Eaters of trash.  Spreaders of disease. Least liked member of the rodent world The Monocacy: Consumer of waste. Flowing with pollutants. Least appreciated of rivers. But beautiful in their own ways, with wonders in their depths, personalities to plumb, just waiting to be known and understood.

Rest well, Anastasia. I knew you. And I am glad for that.

 

Have Trash, Will Travel

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These first few weeks of summer have killed my writing habit but not my tendency to gather more ideas than I can ever address in the time that I have. A change in routine can do that, especially when traveling is involved.

This year, when summer break arrived, I ran away to England with my newly-graduated niece. The trip was inspired by a chance encounter with an old friend on PBS’ Nova. Margarita and I started graduate school together twenty years ago as budding classical archaeologists, but, whereas I left the field shortly after getting my master’s degree (and traveling with her to her native Ukraine), she continued her studies and now researches ancient textiles at Cambridge University. We hadn’t seen each other in 14 years, since meeting in Orvieto, Italy the summer before I adopted my first son, and when I commented on this, curled up beside my boys on our pet-hair covered couch, my husband immediately (and quietly) set about making plans to remedy the situation. When he revealed his plans to send me to England  alone (yes, I know I’m lucky), I suggested I take my niece, Edith, with me as a travel partner since she would be graduating from high school and had a special connection to Margarita herself. When I learned that Edith was born, Margarita and I were in Yalta doing an archaeological survey with our friends, who insisted on drinking no small amount of vodka in celebration. (By some miracle, I didn’t get sick). Edith was happy to go and to suggest some additions to our itinerary. So it happens that last week I traveled through London, Cambridge, York, and Haworth, and thus walked along the rivers Thames, Cam, Ouse, and the Bronte Falls.

 

 

Besides attending plays and visiting museums and friends, we did some hiking on the moors of Haworth, just beyond the Bronte Parsonage Museum, which made me feel as if I was very far from the Monocacy River but still very much myself. I had to stop to photograph flowers, could not help but consider the curious light created by transient clouds, and scanned the ground for things that didn’t belong.

 

For the most part, I found myself avoiding sheep patties and noting bits of wool caught in fences and low shrubs. I had an urge to gather it, but it was Edith who finally did, pulling and twisting it into a rough yarn.

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The walk toward Top Withins was quiet, and even the famous Bronte Falls were untroubled by trash. When Edith fell into the water, we took her broken phone and our damp tissues with us. (I assured her that it would make a great story one day, despite the lost pictures). Having read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights countless times, I was glad to roam the heather-lined trails without stepping on a candy bar wrapper or water bottle to ruin the effect.

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I didn’t have quite as much luck on the beaches of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, which I visited with my boys almost immediately after my return from England. We make an annual pilgrimage to Chincoteague, a small island town in Virginia famous for its wild ponies who swim across the channel from the barrier island of Assateague the last week in July. While we usually rent a small cottage for a week, we were restrained to a weekend this year and an even smaller motel room, where we stayed with lots of midges and our two dogs. We also usually stay later in the summer — certainly not over a holiday weekend — and so were surprised by how crowded the island was. As the years have progressed, so has development, which has also transformed the lazy, quiet island, so easily traversed by bicycle, into a traffic-heavy, bustling resort. The beaches, though on a refuge only reached by a single bridge, were filled to the brim. We chose to go in the evening, when the sun was not so strong and most families had decamped for the day.  The seagulls hustled over the sand in search of crumbs and other edible trash, clever enough to detect just when a crowd was leaving and hang about patiently as towels were shaken out and umbrellas shut before making their move. The overflowing garbage bins were proof that most people tried to clean up after themselves, but as the sun set I noticed the light reflecting off of more than one plastic bottle.

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Still, the last three weeks have been a good reminder of how often beauty and humanity manage to coexist, even in the most adversarial of political climates. And that’s not just a figment of my imagination.

Addiction on the Monocacy

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I climbed through the pile of debris, a great mass of limbless logs, sticks, mud, and leaves driven together in a recent flood, in order to grab the Frappuccino bottle for my trash bag. It was only at the last moment, as I replaced my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, that I noticed the snake. It was still, watching me closely, apparently convinced (and rightly so) that it hadn’t yet been seen. Not wanting to startle it, I made a show of noisily stepping back and around to pick up the bottle from the other side, and it took the opportunity to slither under a branch, deeper into the jumbled mound.

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As I continued picking my way around the river, I stepped a little more carefully, as much to avoid falling through camouflaged holes as to avoid stepping on an unassuming reptile, and I encountered more trash than I had in many weeks. This isn’t altogether uncommon after a stretch of rainy weather, which both prevents me from my work and drives more trash into the rising waters of the Monocacy as it rushes downstream. I was actually grateful to find an empty cement bucket to carry the excess garbage from my three overfilled plastic bags.

Later, as I shifted the bucket and bags to my left hand to reach for a cigarette wrapper caught in the upper branch of a fallen tree, my thoughts rambled in their disjointed way from beer cans to plants, soda bottles, and snakes, and I realized that my trash-collection was yielding a veritable garden of vices. But, as I thought of these vices — drinking, smoking, gambling — I decided, no, I won’t call these vices — that term expresses a degree of moral judgment that I don’t feel — but addictions. They’re there, these addictions, all of them, their evidence littering the river, whether chemical (beer cans, cigar wrappers, and soda bottles/alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or habitual (lotto cards, styrofoam, and plastic bags/gambling, technology, and food).

Nationally and locally, addiction is a major topic of concern. Abuse of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, has become an epidemic, reaching crisis levels in Frederick County, where, according to the Frederick News-Post, “despite the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversal drugs, opioid overdoses and deaths both nearly tripled in 2016 compared to 2015” and “another 43 overdoses — four of them fatal — were reported by the end of the first two months of 2017” (April 27, 2017). In February, a pedestrian not far from “my” island on the Monocacy found a body washed up along one of its banks.  An April 13, 2017 article in the Frederick-News-Post reported that, while the young man, Matthew Thomas Delash, died from drowning and hyopthermia, “intoxication from fentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were also complicating factors.” His family wrote an honest, heartfelt obituary for him, expressing the pain and power of addiction as they sought to acknowledge the true person, a generous son and a friend, behind it. When I first heard about this man’s death, I wasn’t sure whether to include it in this, my loose account of life on the Monocacy River. He and his life were not trash, and it is a hard thing that he was lost in the waters of such a beautifully ugly place as this urban river can be. But to ignore his death is even more of an impossibility. He, like the rest of us who live along its winding banks, is a part of the river and its story.

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