Monday, January 9, 2012

In which I become an unwitting archaeologist:

We round a secluded bend in the trail of the Macon WaterWorks Park and suddenly, our boots sink in:


And not the friendly, earthen kind that children dig their squirming fingers into in search of smooth stones and crawling companions. No, this is the thick, red Georgia clay that runs in rivers down your front walk and consumes your car tires and stains your hands after a long day’s work in the garden.

Our exploratory party, which consists of me, my brother Jon and his girlfriend Katrina, immediately splits to the two sides of the path as we examine our options.

Jon has ended up on the opposite side as Katrina and me. He shimmies up the leaf-covered bank that borders the trail and disappears over the other side. I hear the crunch of his boots and watch his head crest and fall below the uppermost edge of the bank as I try to figure out how to maneuver to his side of the path without being swallowed by the oozing red river in between.

Years of “the mud is lava” games have engrained mistrust in me. I have all but decided against crossing over, content to pick and weave my way along this side’s narrow bank until I reach a place where the mud has dried. Then, I hear an exclamation from my brother.

“Whoah! You guys have to come see this!” his voice calls from the woods. Jon has a knack for finding hidden adventures.

Maybe it’s the fact that we’re spoiled from all the excitement that follows him, or maybe it’s the promise that the woods will not be going anywhere anytime soon, but neither Katrina nor I are breaking our backs to make it to his newest discovery. She is absorbed in a photo shoot of the pine trees, and I am trying to find a constellation in the mud-embedded stones that will deliver me unscathed to the opposite side of the trail.

Jon is still beckoning us when we hear the laughter of children ring out from further down the path. A suburban Maconite family has finished its own walk and is heading back our way.

“You guys come quick- we don’t want those kids to ruin our adventure by finding our secret spot!” Jon pleads one last time.

I sigh and plunge my soles into the mire. Katrina finishes capturing her angle and follows suit. When we reach the other side, the skinny winter trees seem embarrassed as our coats brush their naked frames; they shy away and yield a path as we scale the embankment.

When we reach the top, Jon is nowhere in sight. This might scare a normal, concerned sibling- and I do admit that I have an overactive imagination. But after years of Jon scaring me by hiding behind pantry doors, atop closet shelves, under beds in dark rooms, in the backseats of cars, outside illuminated windows, etc., I have learned to be less concerned about what evil has befallen him and more concerned about whatever trick he is about to play on me.

After scrutinizing our surroundings, we realize that slightly down the hill of the embankment, there is a tree whose root system has seemingly grown around an old car fender, forming a haphazard barrack. A telltale tuft of Jon’s hair peeking over the edge of the fender confirms that this is the finding he was referring to. Katrina and I scramble over the top of the fender, where Jon is already hiding out, and watch through a rusty nail hole as the family passes by.

Once the coast is clear, we examine the fender, which by all accounts should be cutting off the passageways of the xylem and phloem that supply the tree with water and nutrients. We are congratulating the tree on its hardiness when Katrina stumbles.

Stumbling in the woods is not uncommon, of course. It is one thing to trip over rocks and limbs and roots and even the occasional hole in the ground- nature lurking, waiting for its moment of mischief. But it is another thing entirely to be tripped up by a ceramic rooster on the ground.

We all examine the curiosity, a brightly colored trinket about the size of a man’s fist, its tail broken but otherwise intact.

And then we notice them. All around us, old-timey glass jars, vases, milk bottles, half buried in the foliage, peering at us through the leaves with lips upturned like pouting children.

We begin to rummage through the leaves and soil, unearthing our treasures and piling them behind the fender. At first, we put anything made of glass there, whole or fragmented. Two mason jars, half of an old glass Clorox bottle, a candy bowl, a few unidentifiable shards. I propose a conjecture that perhaps the car to which the fender belonged was some kind of antique store van. This explanation makes no sense, of course, since the fender has been there for so long that the tree has grown around it, making it an antique itself. But then again, it makes about as much sense as a hoard of glass chickens and mason jars in the woods, I guess.

We start spotting glass several feet away, and then several yards away, following their trail until we are slowly drawn further and further from our fender. 30 yards away, we stumble across the mother load. Glass bulbs of television screens, faceplates to Morse code radios, droves of ancient beer cans- a stretch of stratified treasures that would take weeks to sift through completely.

We realize we have not discovered the site of an antique store car wreck; these are unlabeled antiques in their natural habitat: a 1950’s landfill. The phrase, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” suddenly springs to life.

We excavate all afternoon. At first, I try using an old limb to gingerly probe through the dirt, but soon the excitement has gone to my head and I am clawing through the mulch and garbage with my hands, maneuvering around rusty cans and edging ancient leaky batteries out of the way with a knuckle or two.

I tip an old bottle towards the ground and allow it to vomit out the sludge that has been building up inside of it for twice as long as I have been alive.

The baby who was fed from these Gerber jars is probably my parents’ age. The girl who played with the doll is even older. The mother who picked out this apple shaped salt-and-pepper-shaker, the father who polished off these liquor bottles, the milkman who delivered these milk bottles- they are likely gone. Is this heap their only legacy?

As the sun begins to set, we stock our arms with as much loot as we can carry, leaving behind little neatly arranged piles of artifacts that didn’t make the cut. We pull the car around to the path, load up, and back out until we reach the main road.

The things we take away: bottles, TV frames, pictures we snapped of our findings, memories- we will try to use them as best we can. The things we leave behind: tire tracks, footprint, little piles of treasures- they’re only rearrangements of things that existed long before we arrived to tousle that path.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


He burrows his hands in the filth of an ashtray. There is a glass window, two feet, and a world of difference in between us.

He is digging for buried treasure: lightly used cigarette butts. The one in his mouth is dangerously low, on the brink of singeing his untrimmed whiskers. He plucks it out from between his lips and presses it fervently to the end of his newest find.

To no avail. Not enough sparks. So both cigarettes go out with a puff.

The rubber lining on these window panes is not enough to keep the curls of smoke from wafting in, with traces of street smells clinging to their coattails.

Inside the coffee shop, my elevated chair makes the height of our heads equal. We could almost stare into each other’s eyes.

But he is lost in a monologue to the doorknob.

And I? I have glued my eyes to the paper I am writing. And when that ceases to be enough to distract me, I simply put my head down on the counter and breathe in the smoke.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cats fur to make kitten britches

The sliding pocket door of the forbidden closet across from the bedroom
was my father's childhood lullaby.
The brown paper bag crackling behind closed doors
was his rooster in the morning.
And he and his sister asked their father what was in the extra grocery sack, but it was always
cat's fur to make kitten britches.

The jaundiced halo that ringed his Mama's head,
the extra naps, the untouched plates of food, the decaying breath:
It was all woven into rounds of circadian melodies,
like the songs she taught at the elementary school.
And if anyone showed concern about her health, they were told it was just
cat's fur to make kitten britches.

Until one day, when his sister came home from work
and there was nothing but those plates on the table,
fork and knife still stuck in the mashed potatoes, no car in the garage.
So she rushed to the hospital,
but their Mama never came home to wash those dishes.
And maybe the doctors could've caught the cirrhosis earlier, but it had simply been
cat's fur to make kitten britches.

And they ask me now why I never throw back the vodka or shotgun a beer
But in my family, there were too many secrets-
puzzle pieces that we're still gathering in the burial shroud,
the way normal children tuck wildflowers in their skirts.
And we track down whatever clues we can find,
the way normal children chase butterflies in the field.
Because we feel entitled to our own family history- that it should not just be
cat's fur to make kitten britches.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On making your own instrumentation:

"Now I want you all to remember that during the performance we just heard, there were NO instruments whatsoever. Anything you heard was done by these guys standing right in front of you," Shauna, the director of the Breman Jewish Nursing Home, addressed a kindly-but-sleepy crowd exhausted by noise and an effort to applaud.
I'm still not sure what struck me about that moment. By all appearances, it seems like a straightforward statement; and it's true, of course, in the most literal sense.
But someone alerted me recently to the fact that college is as much about learning how to simply live life and be a functioning member of society as it is learning facts and professional skills. So I've been on this kick recently of analyzing the value in the things that I do.
My existential mindset kicked in that day in snapshots that distinguished themselves, even as they happened:
"Happy Birthday Dear Beth, happy birthday to..." and the tears roll down Beth's face and onto the arms of her wheelchair with a smile that cannot be contained. We all lose it.
and then shortly after,
"Adam and Anne, a match made in heaven," our baritone teases his "Wheelchair Waltz" partner with a wink. We all smile knowingly at each other as we weave a pattern, slowly pacing our elderly partners up and down the dance floor in time to the blaring classical music.
and then later
Huddling together for an outside performance, our voices shaking and our toes numb, we somehow still manage to smile into the microphones.
and of course,
The strains and refrains of a final chorus echo over Cannon Chapel as we bombard sweet Tim, our incredible basstenorrangeboxer, with the traditional serenade for his 21st birthday, a night which he chooses to spend with, of all people, us.

It's the moments like these that I can't help but laugh about all we have to work through behind the scenes to get to this point. Tuning issues, ridiculous syllables, non-sequential runs, a relentless tendency to sing everything at warp speed- did I mention tuning issues? Then there's the extra rehearsals, getting lost and stuck in traffic on the way to anywhere, early morning admissions gigs (enough said), powering our voices through illness and five performances in one weekend, filling out those wretched (but necessary) "doodles" to work everyone's schedules together, and of course, the never ending drama of talking for hours about what we will wear in performance.

Last Sunday, we spent an hour learning individual parts to this sick arrangement of Bend and Break, in which the alto part jumps all over the place and we all switch lines a gazillion times and we're singing words like "Kyle"and "suh fih" and enough "jins" to far exceed our daily quota. We all went through phases where we wanted to throw in the towel, because it feels like this is getting us nowhere, and couldn't we be using our time on something actually do-able, and how many more times do we have to sing that high note, and doesn't anyone care if my vocal cords shrivel up and snap in half?
And then,
it was incredible:
we sang it all together
and all of it made sense.
And we're laughing as it comes together
because of course,
there are no instruments
and anything we heard just now
we made.
And we should've known this all along-
That even though we thought we had no clue what we were doing,
we made it work.
That even though we all felt unprepared,
maybe we were more prepared than we realized.
That it would come together
if we would.
And you can call me crazy
but I find a lot of parallels between
that moment
and my life.

I am sorry
for complaining about late rehearsals
and for being late to rehearsals
and for sleeping during rehearsals
(which there is altogether too much photo evidence for me to deny).
It is always, always worth it
to sing with you
and to work out life with you
and I'm sorry
that sometimes I lose perspective
in the moment.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Fall Leaf

I wrote your name on a fall leaf
as a reminder that even the end of a season
can be beautiful.

I tossed the leaf to the autumn wind
who embraced it in her outstretched arms
as she baptized us both in a blustery sea of change.

She entrusted me to the ground-
and your name, she lifted past the pedestals and the clouds
and maybe even past heaven itself

(Although I can never be sure, but I would rather say "I trust" than "I don't know")

So I wave to the leaf I no longer see,
entrusting my goodwill to an end
that I have accepted I may never know.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Also, more new experiences:

51. Removed a stitch from my own wound.

52. Napped for hours in a hammock.

53. Locked myself out of my fraternity room

54. Blasted nostalgic country music (Shania, Rascal Flatts, etc.) in my car

55. Ate granny smith applesauce: highly recommend.

56. Visited the Oxford Campus of Emory

57. Started a Bible study

58. Took a tour of Georgia Tech’s campus

59. Watched Rocky Horror Picture Show- first, last, and only time.

60. Read 5 books at one time

61. Ate alligator

62. Went to Hahn Woods

63. Ate a hotdog with relish, onions, chili, cheese, and sauerkraut at Emory’s historic Manuel’s Tavern

64. Swam in the Chattooga River, during a thunderstorm

65. Went on a safari

66. Knitted a scarf in 24 hours, start to finish

67. Met my Aunt Dana

68. Ziplined into a lake

69. Got a Bunco

70. Did real occupational therapy work

71. Got stung by a scorpion

72. Had my pants rip right down the middle in the back in public

73. Shopped at the Dekalb Farmer’s Market. WHOAH.

74. Reconnected with the Venezuelan fruit “Guinep” in the good old U S of A

75. Enjoyed an evening at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Room and purchased books from there

76. Listened to the new albums of: The Fleet Foxes, The Head and The Heart, Josh Garrells

77. Went to a college small group

78. Made fried chicken

79. Went to concerts of: The Weepies, The Head and the Heart, Ray Lamontagne/Brandi Carlyle/Secret Sisters,

80. Missed a family gathering

81. Written a personal letter in another language

82. Learned sign language!

83. Cooked an entire meal by myself, dessert and all

84. Made culturally Jewish food

85. Was covered in Holi powder (Holi capture the flag!)

86. Attended/led a taise service

87. Rode a bike on campus

88. Got wisdom teeth out/used hard pain meds

89. Went to a Georgia Tech football game

90. Went to a braves game (1st time since 4th grade)

91. Performed some of my songs for people at college

92. Was an orientation leader

93. Led a small group

94. Chalked on Asbury Circle

95. Choreographed a dance to a music video J

96. Had laundry stolen from me

97. Ate Ethiopian food and Vietnamese food

98. Learned Greek dancing

99. Functioned on less than 3 hours of sleep

100. Shimmied across a dilapidated iron bridge

Reflections on SAS and Community

THIS IS GON' BE A NOVEL, Y'ALL. But I don't want to leave anything out. Scan for keywords if you're pressed for time.

It's been a couple of months now since SAS ended, and several people have been curious to know what I learned from the summer experience. So glad you asked.
First of all, I learned a few things about myself. I know now what limits I can be pushed to with clutter, mess, and dirty dishes before I have to step in. I know how Atlantans and rush hour affect my driving. I know where my personality is flexible and where it will not budge. I know that I am, self-classified, a "friendly introvert." So I guess you could call it a summer of self-discovery.
I also learned a lot through my internship. I feel like this blog was a place where I was able to process a lot of what I was experiencing through my work with the kids, the babies, and the adults. In many ways, I see it as a sort of verbal scrapbook that I can flip through, both now and later. And I know that if a time comes when my feelings- the urgency with regard to early behavioral intervention, the peace housed in altruism through infant care, and the indignation at mistreatment and undervaluing of the mentally ill and physically disabled- if those things begin to fade, I will have these snapshots to guide me back.
But I have yet to touch on some of the greatest, most practical eye-openers that connected with me this summer. My experiences at work were life-changing for me, but I recognize that the translation is limited since it fixates around the tangible encounters I had. What I learned about community and interpersonal interaction, though, can apply to anyone who is/was/wants to be engaged in a successful community. That should cover most of us. So here is the main thought, broken into a couple of subcategories:
The more I study people (and the more I am a person, which is always), the more I feel convinced that majority of our problems as humans are caused by a breakdown in communication. If you can eliminate misunderstanding, you can provide an avenue for positive change by actually working through rather than around an issue. I think Socrates would probably agree on this one, but I'm even talking about more than just discourse via the Socratic method. Confrontational discourse is often a necessary tool in conflict resolution, but I see it as more treatment of symptoms rather than disease prevention. Why waste so much effort working through life twice- once in rash decision and the other in retrospection? The most helpful part of understanding other people, then, is being proactive to observe them and learn their perspective. If you can affirm and support people in a custom-tailored way, you can build healthy relationships.
I made a couple of observations this summer that I think are particularly helpful to keep in mind when getting to know people.
First: THE WAY YOU EXPRESS AFFECTION TO PEOPLE MATTERS. (Would that I could've arrived at this conclusion through a door rather than banging my head against a wall until I made a hole large enough to crawl through.) In Gary Chapman's book The Five Love Languages, he outlines several (5, if we're getting technical) ways that people show and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts (I would actually add a sixth: acknowledgement of presence/absence). The idea is that everyone receives and shows love in different ways and, for most people, the way you show love corresponds to the way you receive love. This summer it really connected in my mind that misguided efforts at showing love and care can be one of the most damaging mistakes in any kind of relationship, because if one or both sides fail to recognize the root of the problem, everyone inevitably burns out. Effective, intentional, personal efforts not only convey love but also indicate an understanding of the other person.
The second idea is this: EVERYONE WANTS TO BE KNOWN FOR SOMETHING. In my experience, even most less-than-favorable qualities people seem to want to be known for can be traced back to a deeper need for positive affirmation, as the Strain theory of delinquent behavior seems to imply. If you can affirm people where it seems most important to them to be affirmed, you can stave off most of the stress that comes from people feeling the need to prove themselves. Conversely, don't expect people to sell a product they're not advertising. You will only frustrate yourself and others if you rely on people to help you in areas that they don't even claim to be strong in. It's okay to go to different people for what you know they specialize in, whether it is making you laugh, going deep, or just telling/appreciating a good story. Not to say you should never push your friendships beyond their comfortable borders. But those uncharacteristic experiences should be pleasant surprises rather than expectations, in my book.
I think I will close with an idea that started forming surreptitiously in my mind this summer but developed much later, in fact just this past week, in my comparative literature class: Probably everyone would agree that some part of community must be based on love. Until last Wednesday, I had taken the concept for granted, never really stopping to analyze what "love" meant. When prompted in class to give a definition, though, this is what I came up with:
Love is allowing yourself to acknowledge the good in someone and then, knowing that the person will inevitably let you down, hurt you, and anger you at some point in time, Love is choosing to invest yourself in them anyways, in order to help make sure they feel supported in every way.
After this summer, I can say I wholeheartedly believe that a community grounded in understanding and Love will have the strength to overcome any adversity.