I have a small memory which comes back to me once in a while.
When I was twelve, I was just starting seventh grade at a new school in a new town. That summer my mom took me to the local Lutheran church, and there I met a few kids in advance.
One of the girls, lets call her Amy, was a friendly cheerleader type. She was long and lanky with straight blonde hair and really innocent eyes. Every day she wore tiny shorts and converses, and between those two points her long legs clip-clopped along in a completely graceless preteen canter.
She was either naive enough or revolutionary enough to make an effort to be my friend. In retrospect she was pretty alright, but those were the days when popular people made me nervous as shit, and I was even more uncomfortable around humans than I am now.
But we still went to the same church, and in the summer, we went to the same church camp. It was always the same: She and the others looking practically pictorial, those rosey-cheeked Americana kids – and me looking like I’d eaten five million donuts and pulled my clothes out of a dumpster at 5am the night before, where I must have slept after stealing some glasses off a 70 year old bus driver. Twelve wasn’t a good look for me.
If memory serves,I believe we were all divided into four groups to rotate chores around the camp.
We had kitchen duty. Amy and I paired off.
I was desperate, like I usually am, to do anything other than stand around awkwardly, so I started loading trashbags into the rolling dumpster that went outside. When it was full, Amy got on one side to pull and I got on the other to push.
About halfway to the door, Amy started loitering. After a few seconds, she stopped dead and started looking around.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said, giving the cart just a little insistent push.
And right then Amy clamped her hands down and said something to me that I’ll never forget.
“Grace, we do not take out trash.”
Here was this girl who for all intents and purposes spent most of her days reading Seventeen, talking about Jesus and, doing splits in the air, and right before my eyes she turned into some kind of queen.
I mean, her voice changed completely. It was older and harder. She said it like a mantra. She said it like she was trying to teach me something. She said it like she was my mother.
And while my mouth was still split open with response-less wonder, she daisy-walked off to a couple of boys and asked them to do it for her. And they did.
And from then on I wondered if I’m the kind of person who takes out the trash. I still wonder.
I talked to my mom about it as soon as I got home. I had, at that point, still a very shaky opinion that I was right for wanting to do the dirty job myself.
But my mom looked at me with her green-blue eyes which could turn so steely sometimes, and I looked at her and the deep scar along her eyebrow, and it must have been some alien-goddess speaking through them, because she had Amy’s voice when she said,
“Don’t do it. You can do better.”
If it was anyone other than my mom saying this, it would have struck me as princess malarkey. Now there’s obviously an ideological and a literal substance to the statement “we don’t take out trash”. Amy meant it in both ways, as it applied right then. My mom knew I was talking about the ideological substance, and that’s what she was addressing. But it’s easy to cross literal with figurative. I’m pretty sure that even now in all our estrangedness my mom wouldn’t want me to roll industrial garbage out to the back as part of my regular working life, and I’m 90% sure Amy takes the literal trash out of her house on a regular basis, just like me.
My mom has a really embedded awareness of class, and her voice takes on a particular kind of coldness when she alludes to it. I think she immediately and even unconsciously decided that this middle class girl had something to teach me. Yet my mother, metaphorically and literally, took out the trash every day of her life. She has always done what needed to be done, no matter how dirty, no matter how ominous.
I’m still a person who takes out the trash. It’s my nature. After 15 years though, I’m still deliberating. I still don’t know if Amy was right.
What it gets down to, is a contest between pragmatism and esteem.
I hate ego more than almost any other personality trait. I think that people who find themselves really amazing usually have an inaccurate estimate of how small 1/7 billionth is, and an irrational placement of themselves along the spectrum of human excellence. As such, I don’t find them very smart, or willing to contemplate the actual scale of the universe they live in. Plus, anecdotally, I notice that bigger egos = shitter work.
At the same time I see one or two of those little human butterflies just sloshing color everywhere and lighting up the earth because they demand to be seen as a real human, they demand to be seen by the world with as much tenderness and complexity as they see themselves. They may be famous or they may work in a coffee shop, but they do not compromise and they ask that they be cared for, and they leave when they want to and they do not take out trash. They are souls declaring independence from the insistent rigor of mechanical life.
On the one hand, I admire these tiny rebellions. We need these characters like we need great art or NASA expeditions, because it bears repeating over and over and over again that we are here to do more than shit and die.
Where I object is at the point at which you crawl on top of other people to declare your self-hood. For every Amy not taking out trash, there are two boys who do. Who has the power here? And who has it ultimately? Maybe those questions have different answers.
For every diva and every princess and every megalomaniac, there’s one thousand wage slaves anchoring down the whole system, making it nice and steady for them. Jack Kerouac was supported my his mother and girlfriend. Jackson Pollack put the kibosh on Lee Krasner’s career so he could be all tortured and incon-fucking-siderate. But we need Pollack and we need Kerouac.
I still take out trash. I’m proud to take out trash. But I don’t want to spend my life looking up at someone else’s dream.
There must be a third option somewhere.