I live in a beautiful New England town that was basically built by super-rich white people, back in the day when super-rich white people felt like they were responsible for building up the town that facilitated their richness. The library, churches, railroad, parks, the YMCA, town hall, and a whole host of other things in my town were built by a single family. It’s filled with old buildings, re-purposed mansions, and factories, idyllic looking ponds and stone bridges. It’s the real-deal New England. When we first moved here we would tell people, “When you get to a town that looks like Norman Rockwell painted it to life, you know you’re here.”
I am seriously grateful. I send a prayer of thanks to them everyday. I can’t help it, it is so damn beautiful.
I am a giddy freak for history, mansions and things that have been abandoned (houses, people, broken dishware....). As my husband will gladly tell point out, if there’s a house that looks like it’s about to fall down, that’s the one I love. And I mean, hands clasped to cheek, weak-kneed, moon-eyes, love. So, when a town project was started, and trees were being cleared for a parking lot, and a real-life-secret-freaking-garden was found?!?! I nearly lost my mind all together. It was like all my dreams were coming true at once!
Apparently, this garden had been built around 1911 and was abandoned around 1937, and everyone who would have known about it just sort of forgot it was there. Once they discovered it, they searched out some information on its creation and found out how it was meant to look originally. The main garden has been mostly redone, and it seems like the more they reclaim, the further back the garden and ruins go.
Because there are ruins too! Old stone stairways, roofless stone garages, underground root cellars, green house foundations... Basically, everything I have loved the most since I was an overly-romantic child. My heart is literally racing as I write this. No joke. And I wasn't even intending to give this much back story--I just got carried away by love!
Ok, so we go there a lot. My girls love this public space too, and we bring lunch and climb around and forget the time. But like any forgotten space with underground chambers, it attracts teenagers. I am one of those rare people, that don’t find teenagers obnoxious. I love them so much. I love that they know everything. I love that they look at the world and think that where everyone has failed or sold out, they alone have discovered the key to success. I happen to know, having been through it, that this period of knowing ends all too soon. It ends when you go out in the world and try to put your well-made plans into action and start failing spectacularly. It doesn't even sound condescending to a teenager to say that, because they simply don’t believe it! I love the indomitable spirit of teens. I love their optimism, and their cynicism. I love it all.
So when we were climbing around and searching through the ruins and came across a chamber covered in spray paint and littered with all the evidence of illicit behavior, my heart went “thump thump.” I was washed in all the excitement, danger and pain contained in a space like this. And I wanted it clean. I wanted to bless it with all my admiration and love. To paint it with my confidence and assurance that these kids would be ok, that the memories of this time would be but an informative early chapter in their long lives.
But I didn't have gloves.
And I’m not that crazy. So, on our next visit I brought a wagon, a contractor grade trash bag, a broom and gloves. This was a renegade clean-up mission. I’m an “ask for forgiveness not permission” sort of woman. But I figured no one would really mind, as the hazard to me would be shorter lived than the general hazard to the public.
Mix of trash found at a site like this is like a beautiful archaeology of two worlds folding together. There are empty packages of blunt wraps, beer cans, broken bottles, countless empty sandwich bags previously filled with weed, tin foil, shiny wrappers with “durex” printed across, and well, the rest of that equation. But then there are cans of soda, juice, markers, pieces of notebook paper with loopy handwriting, and candy. So much candy.
I know I’m supposed to look upon this waste and litter in disappointed disapproval. I’m supposed to be angry at these kids for littering up my town and making a hazard for my young children. I’m supposed to shake my head and think in sadness about the dangers these kids are putting themselves in for a few thrills.
I know I’m not supposed to find it all so gut-wrenchingly, heart-breakingly beautiful. But I do. My heart fills so full of love for the thin line these kids are walking that it chokes my throat a bit.
This is where my husband usually says, “Hippie!” But that’s how I feel and I can’t hide it. Now, do I hope that my girls have sex in a dirty, nasty drug-ridden abandoned building when they’re teens? No. Of course not. If I had my way would teens would not be forced into these places just to get some room to try on the adulthood that doesn't quite fit them yet. But this is a reality, and it’s born of the fears of adults who remember their own teen years all too well and with too much regret and embarrassment to let these kids become and fail as needed. (I’m sure I’ll be slapped in the face by these words in 10 years, but let me have my fantasy that I will handle my children's teen years well, okay?)
I was a teen in a place like this. I wasn't doing all the things that this trash is evidence of, but I have many memories of my teen years that make me shudder. I have so many experiences I look back on, and knowing what I know now, I feel very lucky to be alive and relatively unscathed. I remember “like it was yesterday” that some of this danger is for fun, and some if it is comes from a lonely pain. A pain one might not even realize was there for another twenty-five years.
For that reason, I won’t turn my heart away from the messy and dangerous place some teens find themselves. Instead I will give a little bit of love in the form of trash removal. And although it may look like approval, its really more like acceptance. This is the reality of the lives of some teens, and I have to believe that on some level, in some small way, my clean-up might mean to someone that there’s love out there for them from someone who’s been there.
I may come back to find it trashed. I may come back and find "Screw you, you fat, old, broad" written across my laminated love note. But that's okay. See, I still have the idealistic spirit of a teenager, but now I have the fortitude and security of an old broad, too. That is a winning combination.
And for real? I may not be able to stop kids from having sex in that bunker, but it could at least let it be a little cleaner.
Now where did I put my exterior paint....