Mummies, Museums and Me

When you work as a museum educator, the types of tasks that you find yourself doing can be pretty unusual. Lately I have been working on a project regarding mummification and how to best present the process of mummification in ancient Egypt to the general public. So I have been reading about mummies, watching videos about mummies, and looking at a lot of mummies.

But they are not just mummies, they are also people. In some cases (such as ancient Egyptians) they are a few thousand years old, and their bodies are shriveled by drying and blacked by sap and resin, but once upon a time they were also living and breathing. They experienced love, joy, sadness, life, and death. They have the same muscles and bones that I have, their lives just took place much earlier than mine.

What happens after we die is a question none of us really have an answer to, and what happens to your body after you die can very widely based on a number of factors, such as the wishes of you and your family, religion, and the culture you live in. One of the things that has always intrigued me is that regardless of what your personal wishes may be, once you die you lose any true control over what happens to your physical body.

Your family might ignore your personal wishes, the soil you are buried in may decay your body far faster than you would have thought possible. Even if you take the careful steps that ancient Egyptians took your body might still not last forever and what happens to it may be far stranger than you could have ever imagined, because life moves on and changes in ways that you could have never predicted when you were alive.

I am not here to debate what should happen with human remains and the issues that come with putting human remains on display, but over the past few weeks I have simply been incredibly intrigued by how people who were mummified can travel, impact science, and remain part of the world long after they died.

There is something strangely comforting to me about The Field’s mummy display. While I don’t enjoy the people that barrel through the exhibit taking strange pictures with the mummies, when I go through the exhibit early in the morning and have a chance to sit and talk to them for a moment it feels very peaceful to me.

We know very little about these people, mainly the sex and rough age of each individual, sometimes we know their name. They have traveled farther than they ever could have while they were alive and been seen by more people in death than in life. They have been x-rayed and cat scanned and studied using modern science techniques that they could have never imagined. They have also linked people together, a strange line of people starting with them and their families, the embalmers who prepared their bodies, the grave robbers who pillaged their tombs, the archaeologists who excavated them, the scientists who first x-rayed and examined them, today’s Egyptologists,  the guests who view them every year, and finally to me, the young women who is studying them in 2013, roughly 3,500 years after they died.

A few weeks ago I came across a book of The Field’s mummies when they were first x-rayed in the 1930s. It was like going through an old photo album, I recognized so many of them. It was like looking at pictures of friends. Friends who lived thousands of years ago, and it was incredible. Because we could all use a few friends that are thousands of years old.

Here is a link to the digitized version of the book. Because being able to get on the internet and look at x-rays taken in the 1930s of people that lived thousands of years ago is a pretty special thing.

http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/16136#page/73/mode/1up

Grandma and the Cushion

I hear her little voice calling me from the living room. “Rebecca? Rebecca, where are you?” Calling me is the only way she can find me, because once she sits in her chair she isn’t able to figure out where anything else is in our tiny house.

I walk into the living room and sit down next to her. “I have a question to ask you,” she says. She sounds serious, and I hesitate. She has been stressed recently and hospitalized. What is she going to ask me? Is something wrong? “Yeah, grandma?”

She looks down at her chair, “What is this thing?”

My grandma has sat in the same small chair for almost a year. We have additional cushions on the chair to prop her up a bit better, and then the cushions are covered with a red blanket to keep everything together nicely. The cushion she sits on is peeking out from under the red blanket, and this is what she is wondering about.

“Its a cushion. Its something you sit on,” I answer slowly.

“Has it always been there,” she asks, still looking hesitant and nervous.

“Yes. It helps keep you extra comfy,” I say smiling.

“Oh, ok,” she smiles, reassured again. It the end of the discussion and she goes back to her TV show. She is content again, all her concern gone.

It occurs to me why she is always saying that I have such a big brain and know the answer to everything. When something like a cushion is absolutely baffling and then someone else comes in and can suddenly explain it to you, it must seem like the most amazing thing in the world. Just like a child who believes that her parents are all knowing and all powerful.

The truth is I don’t always know the answers to everything. I don’t always know what I am doing with my job or my personal life. I definitely don’t always know the answers when it comes to her health, although I try my best. However, I can answer questions about cushions, and sometimes that’s all that matters.

The Evolution of Grandmas and Gran-daughters

Last week she was crying in the hospital bed and I was awkwardly leaning over the bed railing, rubbing her head and holding her hand.

In some ways I have known my grandma my entire life, in others she is entirely new. This is not the same women that used to grumble about baby sitting me as a child, but still came to all my dance recitals and all of my brother’s soccer games. Now she loves little children.

This is not the same women who used to relish telling me (as a young child) about the latest horrible news event. Now I can’t give her the newspaper or turn on the news when there was been any sort of disaster, because she starts crying and asks me repeatedly why there are bad people in the world.

This is not the same women who chose to tell me at my high school graduation that I had once behaved so badly when she baby sat me as a toddler that she just went home and cried. Now she likes to tug my curls and calls me her “best helper.”

Now she is a woman who loves watching the same TV shows and movies repeatedly, enjoys those strange moving toys that sing and dance, and whose primary concern is her cookie/ice cream/Milkyway intake.

Ten years ago it would have been hard to imagine that I would have been caring for her, holding her hand, preparing her meals. Not only because it would have been impossible to imagine her agreeing to any of it, but because I couldn’t have imagined being able to do it. Today its different, because just like her, I have also changed.

I am not the girl who was so shy in kindergarten that she couldn’t even talk to the other children at the table. Now I often talk to hundreds of people a day (at least when I am at work).

I am not the girl who was so tomboyish that she never went near anything girly. Now I have pink glasses and my favorite color is purple (although I will forever resist any sort of fancy dress)

I am not the girl who was so stubborn and set in her ways that she held fast to her opinions and ideas. Now I am more adaptable and realize that stubbornness can prevent you from experiencing many of the wonderful things life has to offer.

Now I am a young woman who is much more confident, loving and sure of herself than she was before. I am smart enough and strong enough to care for her, while also working full time and helping to keep the house.

Caring for her hasn’t always been easy. It doesn’t come with vacation days or time off. I have memorized the length of every TV show and movie that she watches and can sit with my laptop in the living room and stream a show off Netflix, pausing at the appropriate times to laugh at or narrate her show. We live increasingly off of pancakes because that is what she likes to eat, but heaven help you if  the pancake is even slightly brown. But she is happy, and that is what matters.

She used to be annoyed when I would come over to her house to visit her. Now that she is home from the hospital she keeps looking at me and saying, “You were there, right? You were helping me. You were my best helper.”

It helps that she is such a happy/fun/wonderful grandma.

A Year with Grandma

Its been just over a year since grandma moved in, and what a year it has been.

I vividly remember that first night. My mom and I stood awkwardly in the doorway to her room as she got into bed, because none of us were quite sure what to do. What kind of dynamic were we going to have? What was this going to be like? Of course back then she could still dress herself and get in bed on her own. Now its another story.

In the months prior to my grandma moving in I honestly didn’t think much about what it was going to be like or what kind if care I was going to have to provide her. I don’t think I was being naive or unrealistic about the challenges, instead I felt like focusing on them was pointless. It was going to be a challenge. I was going to have to adapt and learn to care for her, that was just how it was. There was no turning back, this was what she needed, so it was what I was going to do.

The first time I saw her very elderly feet I was a bit horrified. The first time I had to help her dress I was uncomfortable. The first time I had to help her in the bathroom I was so relieved when my mom came home. But I got used to everything. I know the little song that helps encourage her to wash her hands. The tricks to getting her dressed. Yesterday grandma told me, “you only EVER take me to the bathroom!” (Sometimes it seems like that to me too). Certain things work and then her memory declines again and I have to adapt again.

I also remember the first time I held her hand. I am not a hand holder. I don’t think I ever held her hand before she moved in with me. I was surprised by how strong her grip was. I was surprised how by how much she liked holding my hand, and by how much I liked holding hers. (As I was writing this I had to run and hold her hand because someone was being bad to Mr. Monk on TV.) She smiles when I take off her socks and help her into bed and then I find myself smiling as I rub her head as she falls asleep.

In the past year I have learned a lot about how to physically provide care for another person, but far more than that I have learned how to truly  care for and love someone who has no ability to care for herself. There is nothing casual about this kind of love. Its powerful and permanent. Stronger than anything else I have experienced.

As a friend of mine once told me, I am lucky to get to take her socks off. I am lucky to have her as one of my teachers in learning what it means to be selfless and what it means to love. It is a lesson I desperately needed at this point in my life (and probably everyone needs at least once). Its the greatest thing she could have ever taught me.

When she helped me to walk

When she helped me to walk

 

The Spectacularly Painful

So I have finally been enjoying reading again after a long hiatus and I have really been enjoying falling into other worlds and other characters again, but had also forgotten the residual stress that can come from becoming overly invested in these characters and the way stories can just grab your emotions and not let go.
A few days ago I read A Spectacular Now, a story of two highschoolers (boy and girl) who meet each other and fall (maybe?) in love. It has recently been made into a movie, and when I saw the trailer recently I thought it looked interesting, or at least far deeper than the typical troubled boy meets troubled girl, girl and boy change each other, girl and boy ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after storyline that is the plot of 75% of teen movies. It looked like it was more of a coming of age story and so I decided to give it a try, and was immediately drawn in and also a little terrified, because I was right about it not being a typical teenage plot line. It was incredibly realistic, so realistic that at moments it was almost to painful to read. If you’re planning on reading it/seeing the movie, be warned that I will be talking about it the rest of the post, stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

The story it told from the point of view of Sutter Kelly, a character I immediately liked and loathed all at the same time. He lives life in the moment, likes to enjoy beautiful weather and take in every wonderful detail. I can get behind this, people plan far to much and enjoy the present far to little. However, Sutter also lives life in the moment by constantly drinking so that he can avoid the pain of being neglected by his parents and having little idea of what direction to take his life.

He thinks he is the life of the party, the person who is always in charge of the laughs. In a way he is right, he is funny, loud, and tells great stories. What he doesn’t realize is that for most people he is only tolerable in small doses. He is so loud and spontaneous that he wears people out. I would have a hard time being around him very long at all. He has no goals or ambitions, probably because almost all of the adults in his life are failed and broken, and he would rather live in the moment than turn into one of them.

He has no idea that living in the moment is slowly destroying him, and will likely eventually turn him into one of the adults that he loathes. He barely hears the voices at parties that mention that maybe he should take it easy. He doesn’t really care that his boss (who likes him) still has to fire him because he is drinking on the job. He doesn’t understand that his girl friend broke up with him and his best friend is distancing himself because neither one of them can deal with him anymore. They both still love him, but they just can’t be around him, its to hard and painful. I have known several Sutter Kellys, we probably all have.

Enter Aimee Finecky, the nerdy girl who has been put upon most of her life and has spent the last several years taking refugee in science fiction books while mostly being ignored at home and at school, we have all known her too. Sutter meets her and decides that she needs his help, because he is this amazing person with this amazing social life and he has to help her out of her shell. She does need help, she is lost, but sadly Sutter is not the help that she needs.

He thinks that she should be drinking just like him. That she should be wild and crazy just like him. He insists that he isn’t actually interested in dating her, just helping her. But living in the moment and being constantly inebriated means that Sutter doesn’t fully grasp just what he is doing to Aimee. That of course she is going to go along with his suggestions because he is the first person in years to really pay attention to her and make her feel special. That she is going to fall in love with him even though he is rather ambivalent about her and at best unsure of what kind of relationship he wants because being drunk is easier than figuring that out.

His friends, ex-girlfriends and boss all warn him to break it off and tell him that he is not good for Aimee, but Sutter doesn’t believe them. He just assumes that Aimee will eventually break up with him, because everyone else has always just left him. Aimee is different though, and won’t breakup with him because he is the one ‘bright’ spot in her life. She drinks with him, lies with him, drives drunk with him, and never acknowledges the position that she is putting herself in.

In the end Aimee decides to move away for college, showing that she has at least realized that she is better off moving away than staying with her dysfunctional family, but she assumes Sutter will move with her. Sutter at last understands that he is hurting her, but can’t even somber up and have the nerve to break-up with her. Instead he sends her on her way, claiming her will follow her at the end of the summer. He vaguely thinks that he might e-mail her to explain that he won’t be showing up. And then the book just ends, it ends like that and I was so mad in that instant. I was on the train when I finished it and was probably unintentionally rude/odd to the person sitting next to me on the train when they got up to let me off, because I simply wasn’t capable of having a human conversation at that moment because I was experiencing far to many emotions.

I couldn’t stand the ending, not because it was poorly written, but because its not the ending I wanted. I wanted him to learn I wanted her to be better, but instead they were both very confused very flawed human beings. Human beings I have met, human beings I have wanted to change. I have been that voice in the background saying, “no, stop,” but saying it halfheartedly because I knew they wouldn’t listen, knew only they could decide to change.

The saddest part is that adulthood does not have to be nearly as scary as Sutter thinks it is, and there are plenty of wonderful thinks to experience without needing to be buzzed. Because there is art and dinosaurs and people and beauty.

End of the Summer

Oh poor blog, how I had great plans for you. I promise I have not forgotten about you. I promise I care. Its just that for the last few months I have been so busy between work, and family, and watching episodes of Monk with my grandma that I have ignored you. So busy that a few weeks ago I went on vacation and had a bit of a breakdown because I literally did not know how to sit after several months of running around non-stop.

It wasn’t really until this past week that I realized that the whole problem was how busy I had been. Because this week everyone children went back to school and everything suddenly slowed down at the museum and suddenly I had fewer volunteers to help supervise and fewer guests to keep track of and I breathed a little bit and had a few long conversations with guests and suddenly my brain was only focused on three or four things instead of a dozen. I spent some time with a friend just talking about how much we liked pizza what our dogs were up to.

This is not to say my summer wasn’t a good one. It was full of lots of great volunteers and wonderful guests and parties and baby and wedding showers and a few bike rides. I learned so many amazing things about myself and about the world and about that elusive thing called adulthood. I am more capable and put together than I was a few months ago because I have managed and accomplished so many things and I am far more confident than I was last year at this time when I was searching for jobs and had little in the way of direction.

In many ways I am still unsure, but that’s fine, because all of us should be off exploring and questioning and searching. I have learned so much about work and managing people and doing amazing things. I have also learned that sometimes I just need to take a breadth and do things one at a time. That I should take a moment to do something fun and a little therapeutic, like writing a blog post,  watching a favorite episode of TV, or reading a new book (I am finally enjoying reading again after hardly ever reading for fun while in college!)

Things are good, and hopefully more blog posts will come soon. Now that I again have the time to remind myself of how awesome everything is.

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Zebras are herbivores. Today I learned that females do not have canine teeth, as they have no real use for them. Males have canine teeth that they use for fighting with other males. Its the only form of sexual dimorphism in zebras.

Thoughts on Elephant Jaws

They were just sitting at the table coloring, minding their own business. They had no idea I was kneeling behind the partition sifting through the tub of water. Then I stood up and carried the jaw bone of the baby elephant over to the sink. Then they noticed me. And they noticed me awkwardly carrying a (large) baby elephant.

They were super excited and even though I was standing in a blocked off area the dad asked if the three kids could come over and see the bone, because, “this is a once and a life time moment kids, you get to touch an elephant!”

They were so excited, but for me it wasn’t nearly as exciting, because for me touching an elephant jaw is not a once in a lifetime moment. I’ve seen this same elephant jaw for years. Tomorrow I have to clean it using a mixture of water and ammonia. I only had it in the tub of water to make sure it fit for tomorrow. This is my normal, at least for the moment.

What can seem normal, average, even (at times) boring for one person can be a once in a lifetime moment for someone else. It all depends on how you look at it, and perhaps all of us should try a bit harder at making every moment a once and a lifetime moment.

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From a few days ago in my office. When I glanced over at said elephant jaw and contemplated whether a lemon shark jaw had ever touched an elephant jaw.