“Tie-dyed variety this year–cute, right?

This Easter, I’m thinking about trash. Of course, I’m also thinking about the usual holiday trappings—the decorated eggs, the leg of lamb, and flowers for the table. Then, there are small shirts to be ironed, my slip to find… Wait. Why trash? Well, as I was listening to The Passion read at Good Friday mass, last night, arm around one of my boys, I tried to see myself in the “Crowd” role we congregants play. You know, the crowd, who witnesses the suffering and death of Jesus, the crowd who yells out in unison “crucify him,” several times—something which felt fairly naughty to me when I was a kid and feels just plain conflicting now.

Before I lose you… whether you view Jesus as a savior, a prophet, or simply a literary figure, today, it can be instructive to think how we might have viewed him if we were his contemporaries. This poor vagabond, wandering around preaching too loud, associating with prostitutes, beggars, and the diseased. We might have thought his sandal-ed feet smelled bad. We might have even called Jesus “trash.”

This one terrible word, “trash,” shorthand (on our worst days and in the worst ways) for something we Americans have a hard time discussing—class—is following me around in my wider reading and pondering.

I just finished the audio version of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in anticipation of the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE. In the deft, character-studying way Strout has with fiction, her Lucy Barton character discusses her family’s poor upbringing in the Midwest with her mother, who visits at her hospital bedside. (And this is the thrust of the entire novel; do not expect plot from this one.) After a strained discussion between mother and daughter about Elvis Presley and his upbringing, Lucy’s mother says he was from a “trash” family. Then, in a moment of painful clarity, Lucy responds: “We were trash. That’s exactly what we were.”

Really, I should have pulled the car over, listening to those words, like a gut punch if there ever was one in literature. But, why? I wondered. Why is it so hard to even hear—from a character at that, not even a real person—that insult, “trash.”

In my tandem-reading way (find my last tandem read here) I consulted Sarah Smarsh’s well-researched HEARTLAND: A MEMOIR OF WORKING HARD AND BEING BROKE IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (a finalist for the National Book Award) in which the journalist author examines class in America through her own personal lens, having grown up in a working poor family in Kansas.

We were “below the poverty line,” I’d later understand…And we were of a place, the Great Plains, spurned by more powerful corners of the country…”Flyover country,” people called it…Its people were “backward,” “rednecks.” Maybe even “trash.”

Sarah Smarsh in Heartland

And, so what? We read about it, think about it, write about it, publish the stories of the underdog if we have the means. For the rest of us, our influence may be small. But witnessing something is something. As is finding our voice, however small, in the crowd.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you read either of these books? Do you read or write about that other C-word: class?

And on a lighter, holiday note, Happy Easter to you and yours from me and mine…


28 thoughts on “Trash on Easter

  1. Speaking as a non-religious person, it seems we all tend to perceive “otherness” in a negative light. We relate best to those we see as being most like ourselves. I wonder if the whole Jesus cult arose out of a sense of guilt for murdering an essentially harmless, innocent man.

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    1. I wish I could chime in as a religious scholar, but I can’t. I do think you’re right in your assessment of “otherness.” And the “otherness” of class difference, especially real (and often systemic) poverty, seems to be a hurdle that is so difficult to even approach. And so I go there as I go to most tough issues–through the written word. Thanks, as always, for visiting!

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      1. When people lived in communities where most everyone was poor, it wasn’t something you averted your eyes from. In this day of higher living standards overall, seeing the poorest among us is tougher to see and acknowledge.

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  2. Lots to think about here. Your Sarah Smarsh quote speaks loudly and needs to be heard. Otherness might be the root cause of an “us against them mentality.”
    Nice post – thanks

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  3. If ever a country was defined by and limited still with class it’s the UK. It pervades at some instinctual level of behaviour. Add to it race religion ethnicity and economics and the mix can be toxic. Disability and age too. It can also oddly be freeing when you see its absurdities and unpick it’s stitches. As with the body it’s the blocked pathways that are dangerous: neurological and arterial are replaced in society by opportunity and accessibility issues. Education remains a, if not the key ingredient in this. Good to ponder on such things Rebecca.

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    1. I love your analogy of blocked and open pathways–in the body as in society–and I think you’re right that education remains the best remedy to unblock ourselves. I’m looking forward to getting farther into Smarsh’s story in HEARTLAND, to her own education, to see what she makes of that. As for the fictional character of Lucy Barton, her education is both the key to her getting out–marrying “up,” etc.–but it’s also what keeps her apart from the family that formed her. Thank you for stopping by the blog and giving me more to ponder!

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  4. Class—honest, we were informed in social studies and civics that we should be proud—because in American democracy, there was no class system. I tried so hard, naively, to believe that, when all my experience directly contradicted it. Italian Catholics with 5 kids—definite strata for us. We then looked down on , I’m ashamed to say, “trailer trash.” Thanks for your Easter take on this.

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    1. If only it were true that class distinctions have no meaning here in America. We can’t all be “middle class,” but wouldn’t it be nice if that were true! Your experience shared brought back such memories for me. We grew up pretty rural, with one neighbor, who was an off-again-on-again friend, but there was a trailer park down the road (off limits to us, too). And I envied those kids their close neighbors and many friends. If only we could all go back to our childhoods with experienced eyes–for just a day. The friends I’d make! Hope you had a wonderful holiday!


  5. What an apt analogy. It is a shame that our egos need to compare ourselves to others, and then make them appear less than in order to feel superior. I believe that overcoming this tendency is one of the greatest challenges we have as humans on our way to enlightenment. Happy Easter Rebecca!

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  6. Can’t wait to read “Heartland” – that’s exactly the kind of non-fiction I love…not sure if you saw it, but I posted a few years ago about a trip I took to rural Oklahoma, and how it reminded me of why people vote the way they do: these communities are dying, and they feel neglected – so when someone promises to take care of them, they fall for it out of desperation – https://johnrieber.com/2016/11/12/morning-in-red-state-america-how-the-dying-towns-of-oklahoma-help-explain-election-2016/

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    1. Thank you! I had heard of GSR, but never really checked them out. And they pay–“a small honorarium,” but still! Happy Easter to you and your fam. Hope your Easter week is a lovely one. I’ve got my guys home for the week, so we are enjoying!

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  7. Growing up, I never really thought about trash vs class even though I grew up on the edge of our city projects. But I’ve met many classy people who lived in the projects and have seen many so-called rich people display how trashy they really are. I found your mention of Jesus interesting. In the city I grew up, a man, who called himself Brother Julius, convinced thousands that he was the second coming. He promised miracles at a sunrise Easter service if people sold their stuff and gave him everything. Obviously, he lost a lot of followers after those miracles didn’t surface.

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    1. Yes, trash and class know no tax brackets, in truth. And I’m enthralled by your Brother Julius story and am surprised people didn’t say, well, you’ve got the sell your stuff part right, but what does a miracle-doer need with money!? It is amazing how desperate some people may be for a savior in their midst–just the argument made against Christians, like myself, I’m sure. Hope you had a lovely weekend, however you celebrated!


  8. Another excellent post, Rebecca! And … I am now going to go out and buy Elizabeth Strout’s novel. I’ve thought off and on about reading it, but your words here have made me really want to read it —it sounds fascinating! You had me at “no plot” — as a writer who struggles with the P-word, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book! Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Deb! I loved her OLIVE KITTERIDGE and am excited for the sequel. Another blogger, Bookish Beck, keeps me up to date on all things book release! …LUCY BARTON was very good–and it is a wonder what Strout does–what my grad school profs would have called character studies, but they end up working as novels. I haven’t bought a craft book in a long time. (I am more of an imitate art sort.) But, Jane Alison’s MEANDER, SPIRAL, EXPLODE: DESIGN AND PATTERN IN NARRATIVE in one on my TBR. I believe it offers new ways of thinking about plot, rather than only rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. I’ll keep you posted! Also, I have exciting news about Parhelion Lit. Mag. out of RVA, where I spent many years in school. I’m going to be a new contributing editor (or some other title). Hasn’t been announced yet, but soon. I’m excited to be on the other end of a lit. mag. for once! Thanks, as always for visiting my blog and for sparking such lovely conversation–even if over the interwebs!


      1. Hi, Rebecca. Sorry I’m just getting back here — for some reason, which I still can’t figure out, blog comments don’t come into my email like they used to … and I forget to look at my WP app. 🙂 Anyhoo, I’m heading to Traverse City on Thursday where I will definitely pick up OK, by Strout. And yes, I’ve heard of Jane Alison’s new book and I’ll get that one as well — what I’ve read about it sounds fascinating! What exciting news re: Parhelion!!! So happy for you, and I know you’ll do a wonderful job of editing there. Years ago, I was reader for a journal (whose name now escapes me! LOL) and it was one of the best things I’d ever done — it allowed me to see “what’s out there” and to try to figure out my own sense of aesthetics. Good luck — you’ll be great, and what a wonderful asset for RVA! Also, I noticed on your Twitter header that you have work forthcoming in Barren — is that right? So do I! Wouldn’t it be funny/coincidental if we were in the same issue, again?!?!?! 🙂 Deb

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  9. Thanks, Deb! I’m excited for what’s to come–regarding Parhelion. And, yes, it would be so great if we were in the same Barren issue. It’s like the universe knew we’d be simpatico! Have a wonderful weekend–and happy reading. I’m just dying to know how the Alison craft book is! As always, I appreciate you chiming in here. I value your insights so much!


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