State of Bewonderment: Episode 3
What We Leave Behind
You can tell a lot about someone by the contents of their pocket. Mine inevitably contain the feathers/rocks/insect wings/snail shells/claws or other nature ephemera I’ve collected that day, lip balm, gloves (I live in Minnesota, after all), and doggie-doo bags. Even when I’ve left my four-legged companions at home, the bags have proven to be quite useful on more than one occasion.
When the snow melts, it reveals the marks left by humans over nine months of winter, mostly in the way of garbage. My doggie doo bags come in handy when I’m out on the trail and feel compelled to pick up the leavings of the hikers, snow-shoers and skiers that have come before. Tissues and gum wrappers are the main debris, likely left behind accidentally, though I may be giving other state park goers too much credit. All these small bits have snuck out of pockets and landed on the ground, where they were buried by the falling snow, only to be discovered months later by yours truly and her guilty conscience.
I cannot just leave it there. I mean I can but I don’t like it. It feels like the equivalent of letting the faucet drip or watching someone drive away with their cellphone on the top of their car without waving them down. When I see a silver wrapper and don’t stoop to pick it up with my doggie-bag gloved hand, I hear the voice in my head saying “If not you, who else will pick this up? How hard is it, anyway?” Spoken like a true eldest daughter, I hear it even as I tie the bag neatly in a knot.
On a less optimal day, a particularly narrow-minded, slightly feral day, I judge the litterer. Who does this? Who just leaves this crap? Who walks by and thinks “not my problem?” as if the islands of discarded plastic the size of midwestern states in the ocean are not a massive symptom of the end of the world as we know it? What would happen if we all cared about our planet just ten percent more? The gum wrapper becomes a symbol of entitled humans’ utter disregard for anything other than themselves and their comfort in the moment.
Perhaps this is unhealthy thinking, catastrophizing, my therapist calls it. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
"Assholes,” I sometimes say in my head and then recognize that this is, in fact, unhealthy thinking.
On a more charitable day, I think people make mistakes.
When I was in high school, like many teenagers with invincibility complexes and the developmentally appropriate but totally annoying tendency to defy rules and individuate, my friends and I spent ample time sneaking into places we weren’t allowed. I’m not referring to bars or strip clubs or our parents’ liquor cabinets, though we did eventually dabble in those things too. Mostly we adventured through abandoned places. We climbed to the top of old brick grain silos to sit on the roof and look at the stars (we stopped doing that when one of our crew fell and cracked her head open). We picked through ruins of long abandoned brewery sites and climbed on unused train bridges. The most memorable of these misadventures, however, was our foray into the long-closed hospital at the edge of town.
St. Joseph’s was a working hospital until just a few years before I was born. I’d heard rumors that the place was a nursing home for a while. One of my friends claimed it housed the overflow patients from the state psychiatric hospital an hour away, though I haven’t ever substantiated that claim. The building was several stories tall, brick and built in the late 1800’s if I had to guess. It sat nearly a quarter mile down a long drive. Behind it was an asphalt parking lot and a yard that dropped sharply into the river below. There were neighborhoods on either side of the property, but shielded by trees and far enough away that a bunch of wandering kids didn’t attract immediate attention.
The place felt like an island.
One spring break day, all eight of us decided to venture inside. I can’t recall how we got there. Did we just drive up the driveway and park in the lot? Did we really not attract any suspicion? We were the generation of latch-key kids, maybe the adults were just…working?
What I do remember is how remarkably easy it was to go inside. The No Trespassing signs gave us pause, but the doors that stood unlocked and, in some cases, wide open, seemed to contradict the postings. We walked right in.
Inside, the place looked as if everyone wrapped up a normal day, and then just never returned. Office furniture was still arranged normally. Files of medical records were still in filing cabinets and desks. Patient’s belongings were still in rooms. Perhaps the most eerie spectacle was the easy chair positioned next to a bank of windows looking out over the front lawn. There, in front of the chair sat a pair of slippers, waiting for their owner to return.
We wandered about, didn’t touch anything and plotted to return after dark. What we planned to do at night escapes me at this point. Have a séance? Commune with the ghosts? I don’t think we had any plans to do damage, that wasn’t really our style, more than likely we were just looking for a cheap thrill.
We found it—the place was heart-poundingly spooky at night. The stained glass windows of the chapel were broken, and stared down at us like the eyes of beasts. We huddled in a hallway, our nerve completely exhausted, and tried to decide what to do when we saw the patrol cars driving up the driveway.
We got caught, obviously. We weren’t the sly kids adept at hiding our misdeeds, we were scared and just wanted to go home. Two police officers, one of whom was my friend’s baseball coach, escorted us off the property with a stern talking to. We never entertained the idea of going back, and the hospital was torn down a few years after.
(Also, it is not lost on me that this could have turned out very differently if our skin color was anything other than pale and pale can be)
What sticks with me today, twenty-five or so years later, is not the spookiness of being in the building after dark, or the fear of being caught by the police or having to confess to my parents that I’d been trespassing. It’s the same thing that captivated me at fifteen: the idea that a whole bunch of responsible adults simply closed the doors on the place with not thought about what they were leaving behind.
Years later, on my first trip to Ireland, I spent most of my time investigating the countryside on foot or by bicycle. My then-boyfriend and I cycled around the Aran Islands one afternoon, and stopped at the ruins of a stone cottage. The structure was just an arms-length from the road, and we could peer into the open door. Again, I was confounded. As I leaned my bicycle against the stone wall and stood in the doorway, I was shocked at the state of the place.
It looked as if you could step inside and travel a century back in time. The hearth stretched across a whole wall, and a cast iron pot dangled above it. An iron tea kettle and other cooking instruments sat atop a nearby cabinet, and tucked in a corner was a woven bassinet, as if to keep it’s precious cargo cozy. There was a long table and a cupboard containing dishes on the far wall. Once again, I could just imagine someone returning home from a day in the field. The possibility felt so clear to me that I looked over my shoulder guiltily, as though I was invading someone’s private space.
In reality, that cottage hadn’t been occupied for years. There were holes in the ceiling, and no evidence of plumbing. But the occupants very well may have simply gone one day, never looking over their shoulder. The Irish diaspora was often swift and those who left knew that they’d never return.
The mystery is not in the leaving, I suppose, but in the method of doing so. The concept of simply deciding to go without considering that what is left behind will eventually be someone else’s responsibility is absolutely foreign to me. Instead, it sits, untouched.
My friend Bradley bought and restored a three-story historic home in South St. Louis. I lived in the attic one summer. He told me what he found in when repairing one of the plaster walls: a shoe, a knife and dead pigeon. Maybe it was a pistol. I don’t know, it was something that left me with a strange, creepy feeling that whoever dumped those items between the support beams, behind thick plaster walls, was hiding something nefarious.
Our 1920’s bungalow in Seattle had a root cellar, a sort of basement only accessible by a weird trapdoor entrance on the outside of the house. I never once went in there, but my husband showed me the treasures he pulled out of a crawl space. A dime-store western, yellowing with age, and a button with a picture of a pair of blue jeans and the word “smarty” written above them.
We found a fish-scaling board and tools hanging from a rafter in our basement in our 1940’s era house in Minneapolis, all left from the original owner who had emigrated from Sweden, built the house, and then passed it down to his son and granddaughter. I found a slip of paper no more than a couple inches long, dated 1953, informing an employee of an impending raise. I always wondered why someone would keep that.
There is a county park a few miles away from where I live now. It is an old farmstead on a peninsula that juts out into North Center Lake. The farm house and several of the outbuildings remain, in good repair, though unused. The family donated the land to the county a couple decades ago. I love wandering through the park, imagining what it might have been like to live in that white clapboard farmhouse, gazing out over the frozen lake. There was an orchard, and chickens and cattle. The implements are still there, once again as though they are simply an afterthought. They’ll rust away into the earth someday I suppose, as will the foundation of the barn and, eventually, house itself. Someone will walk through the land and find a wheel or a doorknob and wonder what was there before.
Trying to pick up litter on urban streets with doggie doo bags is folly. When I lived in the city, I had to content myself with keeping my own stretch of sidewalk, street and alleyway picked up, lest I lose my mind. One Tuesday at the end of the long winter, as I walked my dogs I spotted a sheaf of papers on the boulevard. They were scrawled in a thick, heavy hand and the story written on the pages sent chills down my spine.
The pages contained a letter. The letter was addressed to a character named Sarah. She was instructed to watch for the talisman that would activate her previously undiscovered powers, powers that would, according to the writer, save the world. It would be dangerous, the writer warned, but necessary.
I am not making this up, I swear to all that is holy.
I kept them; they are somewhere folded into a journal or writing notebook somewhere. I haven’t been able to find them to share the words with you, despite turning my study upside down. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, because I can picture the hastily written words on fringed paper torn from a notebook. I remember my name, the superpowers, the stakes. I think that the message is more important than the pages themselves.
I walked that route every Tuesday for months, just in case it wasn’t just a silly story, but a message for me and another appeared in the gutter.
State of Bewonderment is a written and visual exploration into moments of bewonderment. What is bewonderment? It is the space where awestruckness inspires action, where wonder pivots us and curiosity shifts the world. These essays are made possible by a Mid-Career Artist Grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council of the great state of Minnesota.