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.

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.