Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You're an Adult (?)

Not too long ago, I was questioned about a professional decision I had made. I admit that I am human and therefore given to err, but in this case, I believe I did the correct thing. Whether this is the case or not isn't the point at the moment. Because the situation brought up some larger issues.

I remember discussing the events with my mother, and sometime during that conversation, I said to her, "I'm 27 years old [back when I was still 27!] and have my terminal degree, for crying out loud; I think I know what I'm doing by now." It was only later that I started wondering if I did, in fact, know what I'm doing.

Adulthood is a tricky thing. Most days, I feel I'm behind the curve. I haven't done any of the things adults do: get married, buy a house, succumb to the scourge of an early bedtime. And the people I know who are in my age group all seem so much more mature and put together than I am.

In a way, this is why I chose to study young adult literature in grad school. I want others to know that they aren't the only ones flailing--particularly teenagers, who probably suffer the most from confusion about their maturity level. And in another way, this is why I worked with college students so long as I did: because I remember what it was like to search for answers about my place in the world and my ability to function in it.

Maybe someday I'll feel like a grownup. In the meantime, I'll have to muddle my way through and help anyone I can on the long, arduous journey.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ghosts, Part 3: Henry Ford Museum

I've never been anywhere I thought was seriously haunted, and I hate scary movies. But I have been to some notable historic locations, and I can't help wondering if maybe--just maybe--something of the people who made these places famous remains. 

For Part 1 of the series, click here. For Part 2 of the series, click here.

III. Greenfield Village

I have a deep and abiding fear of hearses. This is not a recent development. It's been going on since I was very young, and it started at Henry Ford Museum.

HFM is easily one of the strangest places in the country. With the exception of the Smithsonian Institution, few museums have such an eclectic collection. Where else are you going to find a Wienermobile, a Dymaxion house, and the actual Rosa Parks bus all in one building?

But they're also weird enough to have a collection of carriage-type hearses, which is how I acquired a dislike for them. These are towering, black, scary things. They look like something out of a nightmare. I can't go anywhere near them or I'll suffer a minor anxiety attack.

And yet, these aren't the most morbid pieces in the museum.

Exhibit A: the Lincoln chair.

Nice rocker.

If you're wondering what I mean, exactly, by "the Lincoln Chair," I don't mean some chair Abraham Lincoln used in the White House. I mean the chair he was sitting in when John Wilkes Booth shot him at Ford's Theater. For the record, I've been told by reliable sources at the museum that the dark spot at the top of the rocker is not the President's blood but, in fact, discoloration from hair oil. But the fact remains that they own a piece of presidential assassination memorabilia.

But wait! That's not all.

Exhibit B: the Kennedy limousine.

See this picture, taken in Dallas right before JFK was shot? He's sitting in a 1961 Lincoln Continental SS-100-X.

Looking happy. Poor guy.

Yeah. That car is also at Henry Ford Museum.

So apparently their thing is collecting bits of the past that are scary, violent, and depressing. It didn't occur to me until about five years ago that growing up seeing these things during family visits and field trips can really mess with your mind. I still haven't recovered.

And yet I wouldn't trade these experiences. Being able to examine such objects gives one a powerful sense of history and serves as a warning about what can happen--how quickly life can go from normal to horrifying. These are pieces of memento mori for people raised in an age when no one even knows what a memento mori is. And they certainly do remind us of our mortality.


Lincoln chair image via here, apparently.

Kennedy image via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ghosts, Part 2: Antietam

I've never been anywhere I thought was seriously haunted, and I hate scary movies. But I have been to some notable historic locations, and I can't help wondering if maybe--just maybe--something of the people who made these places famous remains. 

For Part 1 of the series, click here.

II. Antietam

When I was in elementary school, my brother was searching for the right college. My parents took him--us--all over for campus visits. We went to Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, other places I can't remember. On the way home from one of these trips, we took a detour in Maryland to visit Antietam.

Gettysburg gets a lot of play, and rightly so; it was the single bloodiest battle in American military history. But to this day, over 150 years later, the Battle of Antietam stands as the single bloodiest day in American military history. More than 3,600 soldiers died outside of Sharpsburg that September morning, with a combined casualty count in excess of 22,000 (dead, wounded, captured, or missing).

A map showing the locations of Union and Confederate forces at Antietam.

Like other battlefields, Antietam is now an open, green space occasionally interrupted by a memorial or fence. It's not much to look at. But once you've learned a little bit about the site and the battle, it becomes haunted.

These fields have seen so much blood. It's in the soil now, and in the grass. In the trees. In the water.

Modern warfare, being mechanized the way it is, seems almost civilized by comparison. Because when you look at Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner's photographs of the dead lined up at what is now called Bloody Lane, the horses fallen on the field, the shocked expressions of the survivors, you know that something extraordinarily violent happened there. These soldiers fought face-to-face, hand-to-hand, in such a proximity that they could smell each other's coppery blood leaking from wounds.

For me, Antietam crystallizes in my mind the price we pay when we take up arms against our fellow humans, and I hope that everyone can learn a lesson from the pages it occupies in our history textbooks.


Image via the Civil War Trust.

For Part 3: Henry Ford Museum, come back next Wednesday.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ghosts, Part 1: Anne Frank

I've never been anywhere I thought was seriously haunted, and I hate scary movies. But I have been to some notable historic locations, and I can't help wondering if maybe--just maybe--something of the people who made these places famous remains. 

I. Anne Frank

The most well-known place I've visited is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I went alone, late on a weekday afternoon. The crowd was thin, and I was about to walk through the bedroom of a girl long deceased.

Anne Frank

For those of you who have never been, the "Secret Annex" is accessed through the space that used to be a warehouse for Opekta, the company Otto Frank ran before his family went into hiding. The floor there is unevenly paved with brick. It's a large, empty space, and it instilled in me a sense of foreboding. This was nothing compared to what would come.

The entrance to the Secret Annex is behind a reproduction of the bookcase used to hide it during the war. Before you get to the bookcase, you must ascend a flight of stairs. Even by Dutch standards, this staircase is steep; I had to move sideways up them, like a crab. The danger the Franks and their compatriots faced became palpable to me at that point, because I started to wonder how they kept from tripping, falling, alerting others to their presence.

Upstairs, you must pass through the bedroom used by Mr. and Mrs. Frank and Anne's elder sister Margot before you can get to Anne's bedroom. In Anne's time, it was cramped and uncomfortable. Today, it is empty. Only the wallpaper and some of Anne's clippings of movie stars--painstakingly preserved--remain. This is the worst part of the Secret Annex, and the best, because it doesn't take much to realize how young Anne was and how much she lost; just look at these photos and illustrations and you'll realize that Anne, like you, was a teenager. She was a dreamer. She was a human.

As I waited outside for my ride after I finished my tour, I stared and stared at the bell tower on Westerkerk, which Anne mentioned in her diary. How many times did she hear those bells toll, and how many times did she wonder if they were signaling death?

I have a postcard from that trip with an image of the red plaid diary Anne used. It's part of my collection now, a reminder that no matter how bad things get, I have to keep writing and hoping. This, then, is the power of being a little bit haunted by Anne Frank.


Image via the Anne Frank Museum.

For Part 2: Antietam, come back next Wednesday.

For Part 3: Henry Ford Museum, come back in two weeks.