Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sacred Collections

Recently Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister and singer/songwriter, posted a status update on Facebook that said "I've never collected things. What do you collect and why?" Thirty-four people responded that they collected things like books, newspapers from important events, plates with lemons on them, shot glasses, rocks, shells, rubber duckies. I said I collect people's stories, which is true. I almost stopped there, but then I admitted "also small parts of animals and insects: tiny bones, wings, claws, [snake] rattles, half a blue eggshell..." I guess that's something I've never outgrown, looking for the cast-off parts of living creatures, the tiny parts that hide between sidewalk cracks and beneath layers of soil and under river rocks.

One afternoon late this summer, after a hike along the Little Miami river with my friend Cyd and her nine-year-old daughter Maddy, I came home with the bottom of my pocket full of tiny treasures (please don't tell the ranger!):
•four orange crawdad claws about half an inch long (Maddy took one with her)
•four inch-long "finger" bones from part of an unknown small animal’s skeleton that I pried out of the mud with a stick. Oh, how I wish I'd been able to find the skull.
•a fresh-water clam shell the size of Maddy's pinkie fingernail
•five, black-webbed cicada wings. Four I had to pull from a corpse. (Maddy took one of those too.)
•a rock that looks like it has a brain imbedded in it. (You might argue that a rock isn't a tiny part of a dead creature, but you would be wrong. Rocks are made of whatever stuff was in the soil at the time: shells, bones, coral, even worm shit.)

I did not bring home a small silver and iridescent minnow we found dying in a sticky, fetid patch of greenish mud left over from when the river was higher. Several other minnows had already died there, stranded as the sun dried up their private pool. Every once in a while, a bubble would pop on the surface, indicating a heartier species lurking beneath the surface, possibly with an amphibious nature. Cyd had to hold my hand so I could lean out to scoop the gasping fish from the rank, gooey mud. I ran to the river and let it slide off my hand into the water, but it had lost its will to swim. It just laid there on its side, lazily floating with the current that lapped against the shore. Finally it floated headfirst into a dried, curled leaf. I "rescued" it again, but we knew it wouldn't live, and it didn't. It nourished other river creatures. That's not the kind of thing I collect anyway. I don't want to deal with rotting flesh.

The other thing I don't collect is feathers. I did when I was a kid, especially the black-striped blue jay feathers. But my mom has a feather phobia so I wasn't allowed to bring "those filthy things" into the house. I feared for her sanity the few times I forgot and ran in to show her an especially bright blue one.

She says her phobia is a result of being forced to feed and collect eggs from vicious laying hens when she was a child. I probably would have been scratching around the barnyard with them, looking for cast-off beaks and toenails and even feathers. (Yes, chickens have toenails. I've never found one in the wild though.) So even though we saw several feathers, and Cyd may have put one in the collection jar we pulled from the river, I didn't put a feather in my pocket for fear my mom would reach across 600 miles and thump me the top of my head. And it turns out she was right. Feathers can carry mites, although she didn't know that no matter what she claims now.

I'm not sure what I'll do with my little collection of parts. They could join the blue robin's egg shell, the chicken wishbone, the minuscule vertebrae and the rattlesnake rattle that stay on the little ledge made by the top of the backsplash on my kitchen counter. The rattlesnake rattle came out of an old classical guitar Cyd's sister brought her from Colorado last winter. They said I could keep it. OK, I begged for it and they allowed me to keep it, but I didn't ask for the feather that was tied to the headstock. The chicken wishbone is one I used when Cyd and I taught poetry workshops with a class of seventh-graders in a school near downtown Dayton. We gave them bags and got them started on keeping a collection of “poetry bones”: photos, special words, glue sticks, and other things they could pull out to inspire their poetry writing. I have a feeling lining up too many of these things on my kitchen counter, even if it is the part where I don't cook or eat, will eventually make me into one of those crazy women who, in lieu of owning too many cats, collects too many body parts from dead animals.

Of course, I could throw them all out in the garden and let them decompose into their elements. I've done that many times before, and I keep meaning to do that with my last dog's ashes. He died only twelve years ago.

Or I could collect them in a pretty jar and try to fill it up. That might look cool. Or pile them in a hand-tossed pottery bowl and set them on the table by the couch for guests to sift through and examine.

The best idea is to arrange them on a piece of mat board and mount them in a shadow box. You can frame almost anything. My ex-husband and I owned a custom framing store for a while, and we framed everything from a signed electric guitar to Shaquille O'Neal's big-ass athletic shoe to an Olympic torch.

The strangest thing we framed though was for a woman who liked to collect organic castoffs too: her own toenails. She claimed her ex-husband used to complain that her toenails were too long; they scratched him in the night. After they divorced, she grew her toenails out, painted them blood red, cut them, and paid us to frame them in an expensive shadowbox. She wanted to remind herself why she should never get married again. That's her story and it's as good as the next one.

Here's what I'll do with my collection. I'll arrange them in a frame and leave room to add more later. Already I'm thinking of other things I could add to this small collection: a couple of my kids' teeth from the little box in my dresser drawer. (What? You can't just throw those away after you smear glitter on the sheet and slip a silver dollar under the pillow.) A small skull I had on the mantle for several years. Whatever else I find next time I walk along the river. Hey, maybe one of those minnows has decomposed into a perfect little skeleton preserved in the killing mud.

Someday maybe I'll try to analyze this penchant I have for picking up the tiny leftovers from what to us seem like very short lives. Whatever animated those bodies is long gone. Call it god or the great creator or the flying spaghetti monster. Somehow these little parts retain for me a memory of creation that goes back to those first organisms that grew teeth and toenails, fur and beaks, bones and feathers. Even if I keep them in a frame for the rest of my likewise brief life, they will eventually find their way back into the soil, maybe to become a rock that looks like it has a brain growing out of it. One of my descendants will throw my carefully arranged shadowbox into the trash, breaking the glass if it's not already broken, freeing the tiny parts at last to feed the earth, return the elements they borrowed. By then, my body too will be doing the same thing, although I doubt very much anybody will collect any of my parts and show them off in a shadowbox.
I don't know or much care why I feel a connection to these little bits of bodies any more than the person who collects plates with lemons painted on them does. She said they make her feel "[h]appy. Sunshiny and yellow." They make her happy. That's good enough for me too.