Friday, February 27, 2015

Excavating the Past --Also a word about 19th century outhouses in Cincinnati

The other day the guy at Goodwill scolded my husband and me. Apparently when you have a bunch of crap bigger items to drop off at one of their centers, the proper procedure is to park in the front, go inside and announce what you have, and then drive around to the back to unload.

My husband had done this the day before, but today we were trying to expedite the process and thought we'd just go directly to the back.

DO NOT DO THIS, PEOPLE. The guy expressed his annoyance with us several times, accompanied by weary sighs and exasperation at our not following the rules. The entire time we were unloading the back of a pickup truck-- a coffee table, a TV stand, a computer desk, five garbage bags of clothing and toys and games-- we apologized to him for his generosity.

"Okaaaaay," the guy said, as he helped us cart the stuff inside, "we'll take it this time, but next time..." his voice trailed off and husband and I apologized once more.

Then we got back into the truck and burst out laughing. Barred from donating to Goodwill. Is that a thing? Well, whatever. There are other Goodwills in this city, buddy.

What began as a half-day project to dust the book shelves in my office has turned into a complete excavation of every single item in our house. Do we WANT this thing? Do we LOVE it? Do we USE it? Maybe we liked it once but we can't remember why and now it's just taking up space... Maybe it was a gift we never liked but thought we should?

Absolutely everything is on the table both literally and figuratively--including the table.

We are ruthless. Pulling stuff out of a closet and chucking it into bags without a second thought except annoyance at ourselves for keeping these things.


We are slow and weepy. Look. Our son made this when he was in kindergarten. Our daughter carried this little purse around when she was four. Oh!! My grandmother wrote me this letter. My aunt made me this doll when I was a child. My husband wore this shirt on our honeymoon. I used to love this dress so hard but couldn't fit into it now to save my life, also my daughter now informs me that it is hideous.

There are decisions to be made about every single thing: Trash? Recycle? Goodwill? Keep-- but if you keep it, where do you put it?

I read somewhere that these items are called touchstones. The moment you unearth them, the moment you turn them over in your hands, you have the story, the memory, the emotion. These items are haunted in a sense, by loss (my grandmother made this quilt!) by grief (my child chewed on this toy and now he is in college and that baby he was is lost forever) by love  and joy and weirdly, fear.

It's hard to let go of things. Take the computer desk dumped off at Goodwill the other day. To the objective eye, it is nothing but a piece of cheaply made furniture. Decent condition. Still has some use. But I know where we bought it (Target) and when-- two houses ago when we lived in Lexington, KY. I know that we had it set up in our den by the window and it held the only computer in our house. Our son played video games at that desk and our daughter typed out little stories. I wrote a book sitting at that desk.

When we hauled it up from the basement, where it was now gathering dust and half begged Goodwill to take it from us, we were cutting a small cord to the past.

My wise friend Deb says that excavating our house as we have been doing, giving things away and throwing stuff out, making decisions about what to keep and what to cut loose-- is a way of accepting our own mortality. We hold onto things because they have become extensions of us. Parting with them is parting with pieces of ourselves.

We live with this illusion that we will live forever, that we can gather and collect and buy and take in households of things forever. We stuff things in our closets and our dresser drawers and cabinets and basements and attics. Some people rent storage lockers to hold the things that won't fit inside their homes because they can't bear to part from them. I have a relative who only gives friends her things so she can still visit them from time to time.

In the end, we can't take any of it with us. And those things that hold even the smallest hint of value, of memory, of emotion, return to merely being things.

Someone will buy that computer desk at Goodwill and will have no idea where it came from, who it came from. Someone will pick up the handmade doll. The lovingly sewn quilt. Old pictures still in their frames and say Who are these people? 


If they say anything at all, it will be Who WERE these people?

There's an awesome exhibit in the Cincinnati Museum Center:the items found in an excavated outhouse from the 19th century. A team of anthropologists discovered the old privy and carefully dug into it, dusting off items in the careful way you imagine they'd dig up dinosaur bones or Native American pottery shards. There's a display at the museum of the items from the outhouse, organized by layer. Those found out at the bottom and preserved in --ugh, I guess, calcified human waste?--- are the oldest.

(Peeking into the Privy Hole) 

Weird things. Bits of china, children's toys, forks, medicine bottles, toothbrushes.

You look at the stuff and think: how the hell did that get thrown down into an outhouse hole? Kids playing with marbles while they did their business. People brushing their teeth and eating? Things accidentally dropped? Can't you imagine a kid dropping a toy and having a tantrum about it? Or maybe some of things were thrown in purposely. Damn it, Millie, I always hated this china from your mother!! Or, oh my GOD I broke Millie's mother's heirloom china saucer. Let me throw it down the toilet hole before she finds out.

There are stories behind these things. But we will never know the stories. People owned the dishes. Used the toothbrushes. Loved the toys. Hated the medicine bottles. Now none of it has any meaning at all except for anthropologists and museum goers.

Those 19th century people let go of their things.

And now it is our time to let go...

For the record, (and for tax purposes) the list so far of things Goodwill has graciously allowed us to give them, in no particular order:

20 pillows
2 chairs
1 set of Polly Pockets
11 pictures
1 pitcher
3 jewelry boxes
13 scarves
2 sets curtains
3 child's purses
assorted stuffed animals
6 hats
1 sweat jacket
1 woman's coat
1 lamp shade
6 wicker baskets
1 small refrigerator
1 mirror
1 radio/cd player
18 candle holders
2 sugar bowls
1 harmonica
25 games
2 baseball mitts
2 guitars from Guitar Hero game
1 queen-sized comforter set
1 double sized comforter
1 double sized sheet set
1 area rug and rug pad
2 computer keyboards
assorted jewelry
2 computer desks
3 hand towels
5 wash cloths
5 T-shirts
25 teen shirts
4 blouses
9 sweaters
1 dog sweater
2 dresses
1 pajamas
2 dolls
12 mugs
1 jump rope
1 TV stand
1 coffee table
1 tape recorder
1 pair of jeans
1 wine container
1 table runner
1 pair ski pants
1 tea towel
1 beer mug
8 pants
2 art supply sets
10 pairs of shorts
1 Barbie
104 books
9 candles
1 bowl of beaded fruit
2 watches
1 baseball hat
1 backpack
3 piano books
2 wallets
5 bracelets
3 headbands
4 canvas bags
1 bikini
5 pairs of socks
1 keychain
2 watches
2 calculators
14 knick knacks
12 puzzles
1 ten-foot computer cord
1 wooden plate
1 glass cheese plate
1 glass plate
2 trays
2 end tables
1 cd holder
1 electric mattress pad
1 shin splint
1 Vera Bradley bag
1 filing cabinet
1 sofa table
2 lamps
1 stapler
3 bathroom rugs
2 easter egg trees
1 baseball bat
1 baseball glove
1 deviled egg tray
1 rain poncho
12 pairs of shoes
5 videos
1 nightlight
2 soap dispensers
1 glass vase
1 silver thermos
4 fake plants
2 bookends
3 sculptures
1 tablecloth
7 cloth napkins
3 sweatshirt
2 bar stools
1 laundry sorter
1 bolt of material
1 cake stand
1 metal hot plate
1 nativity set
1 queen sized sheet set
3 blankets
1 quilt
3 twin sized sheet sets
1 graduation gown (sorry, Ben!)
11 pillow cases

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Found in Translation

I took a poetry translation class in graduate school. It was a requirement for my degree program that students demonstrate fluency in a foreign language.

The problem was I didn't have a fluency in a foreign language.

When I was in high school I took four years of Latin but I graduated unable to write or understand much of Latin beyond veni vidi vici. (For the record, that means "I came. I saw. I conquered." and supposedly Julius Caesar said it after he came and saw and conquered something.)

For my undergraduate degree there was a foreign language requirement too. The college would waive the requirement if you passed a language test. Since I'd had four years of Latin, the college signed me up to take the test. I panicked. There was no way in hell I was going to pass. I would flunk at an embarrassing level and probably my acceptance to the college would be revoked. 

My only option was to take another language. I signed up for Spanish, which seemed like a more useful and practical language to know than Latin. This time around I was determined to learn the language. I took five semesters and spent a lot of time  memorizing vocabulary words and verb endings, but I would not have called myself fluent.

My definition of fluent is that when you go on your honeymoon to a Spanish-speaking country, you ask for directions to the bathroom and the old guy who is selling ceramic cups directs you to the bathroom, instead of nodding and squinting at you... and handing you a ceramic cup.

Which is how I ended up in the poetry translation class in graduate school.

This seems funny to me now. I couldn't ask where the baƱo was, and yet, I was going to prove my fluency by translating Spanish poetry into English. 

What I learned in my poetry translation class is that the act of translation is difficult even when you are fluent in both languages. The translator has to take into account all kinds of things we don't normally think about as readers. She's not doing word for word translation, which is how beginners in a foreign language think about translation. She has to make choices. 

If a poem is written in rhyme, for example, should the translator keep that aspect-- even if that means something else will be lost? Words in poems are specifically chosen by the poet. Often they have double or triple meanings. How can the translator ensure that the translated poem works on all of the same levels as the original poem? 

(Did you know there are companies that exist
to help you translate your content into other languages?
Me neither. Until I found Smartling, 
a company that translates websites.)

In the poetry translation class we would analyze several translations of a particular poem and compare them. Sometimes they were subtly different. Sometimes they were very different. The translators were not invisible messengers; they were active participants in the writing process. And sometimes they got it wrong. 

I can assure you that I got it wrong in my poetry translation class. I did my assignments with my Spanish-to-English dictionary splayed out in front of me. I knew it was a hopeless, futile endeavor because I could barely read the poem, much less understand the subtle variations of meanings, the rhythm, the evocation of imagery.

To translate, you have to crawl into the mind of the writer. You have to think in the language. You have to dream in it.

I never looked at translation the same way after taking that class. I know that no translation of a piece of literature is perfect. But I also know that without the translation, the piece would not be available to many readers at all.

I never reached fluency in Spanish, but I got a little closer to understanding it through my kids. When they were young (which is when languages are easier to learn) my husband and I enrolled them in a Spanish immersion school. Beginning on the very first day of kindergarten, their native Spanish language teacher, spoke to them only in Spanish.

Some days after I'd dropped them off, I'd linger in the doorway for a few minutes and listen to the teacher speaking. She stood in front of the class and jumped around a lot, pantomiming what she was saying, talking slowly, singing songs, repeating words and phrases over and over.

The students jumped around too, mimicking the teacher's movements, singing, dancing, repeating what she said.

It seemed like a fun way to learn a language.

Also, they learned very quickly how to ask to go to the bathroom.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

In Which I Excavate My Life and Discover the Secret of Time Travel

My quest to clean out my office, which led to a shedding of unread books from my bookshelves, which led to a shedding of pictures I never liked and knick-knacks that serve no point except to gather dust, which led to a giant Goodwill-designated pile on my dining room table...

which led to my decision to get rid of my dining room table-- that quest continues.

Over the past week I have taken three carloads of stuff to Goodwill. Fake plants and no longer used glassware and lamps and end tables and clothes and shoes and more books. Each time I am afraid the Goodwill volunteer is judging me and judging my stuff and one of these trips he's going to say, No more, lady. We're through taking stuff from you. 

If that happens, I will have to find another Goodwill.

I've been wandering around the house, shining a spotlight on things I haven't looked at in years. Instruments the kids no longer play. Candlesticks I don't use. An ugly wall hanging that matched better in an old house and never looked right on the wall in this new house, and yet it's been hanging on the wall anyway for seven years. 

Yesterday, my goal was to clear out my office closet and that morphed into emptying the entire linen closet in the hallway and discovering that we own nine extra pillows and multiple sheet sets for double beds. (For the record, we don't have double beds.) 

I am excavating our lives. 

Opening drawers that I never open and peering into closets. I am finding old pieces of my life and hurtling back into time and sometimes I like going back, and sometimes I want to slam the door and forget what I've found. 

Why do objects hold so much power? 

Why does one glimpse send me into a tailspin of emotion? 

Why did I hold onto these things? 

How can I let them go? 

Yesterday I found a viking ship collecting dust on my closet shelf.

I see the viking ship, and I am like Harry Potter dunking my head into Dumbledore's Pensieve. I fall under the surface of the "viking ship as object" and SEE

my little boy, age 3. Insatiably curious and talkative and brilliant and every day wanting to know everything and asking me a never-ending stream of questions until I think I might lose my mind.

I see a book from the library on Vikings. I see me reading it to my little boy and I see us making the viking ship. He paints the boat and I make the 26 tiny toothpick paddles and fit the whole thing together. 

I see us at the counter in a house we lived in several houses and several states ago. My little boy's sister is sitting on the floor playing with a drawer full of plastic bracelets. While I stick the flag onto the viking ship, she slips the bracelets on her arm and then holds her arm out and admires herself.  

All the while Scooby Doo is on TV or Zooboomafoo or Reading Rainbow. 

I am home alone with these two little kids and we have just moved from out of state and I know no one and I want so much to be a good mother, the kind that reads books to her kids and makes elaborate crafts projects with them and cooks them nutritious meals and answers every single question they have. 

And NOT the kind of mother who feeds her kids hotdog chunks and puts the TV on all day, who craves adult conversation and sometimes hides in the bathroom to have five minutes of quiet away from incessant little voices and plastic beads and Scooby Doo laughing like the idiot dog that he is. 

The viking ship is a stunning achievement of mom and son bonding and enjoyment and love. 

And at the same time, it is a symbol of extreme motherly boredom and stunted blunted creativity that has no outlet except in meticulously crafting 26 oars out of toothpicks like a obsessive compulsive loon. 

When we are finished making it, my son and I, his little sister looking on with wide eyes and draped in plastic bracelets, we place it carefully on a shelf in his bedroom. It moves with us to another house and another house always displayed in my son's bedroom until somewhere along the way, after another move, my son is doing a purge of his own, and says he doesn't want the viking ship anymore. 

He does not remember making it, except in only the vaguest sense. He does not remember being three year old. And his baby sister does not remember draping her arms with plastic bracelets. 

I put the viking ship in my closet on a high shelf because I am cannot bear to part from it, because I cannot bear to let go of the memory of Scooby Doo and hotdog chunks. 

I cannot bear to part with a long ago self and place and life. 


Or maybe ever.