Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Half a year ago I wrote the piece entitled Cemetery. I didn’t feel the need to go use a cemetery for cleverly disguised crying again until today. I tried a different one this time, one I’ve never visited and one in which I’ve seldom noted much traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. (In all fairness, the daily busyness of cemeteries is not something I spend a lot of observation on, anyway.) Well, I was driving home from Walmart, musing, and all of a sudden I started crying. Then a song came on the radio that just made me cry more, and since I was at an intersection directly facing said cemetery, I decided to pull over and indulge in a good cry in the warmth of the sunshine, magnified through the car windows. (The darkness of winter cold has descended upon my apartment; I do not expect to be warm in it again until May.)
Anyway, I pulled over, put on a good song, and sat musing. Just as those few dam-breaking tears slid down my cheeks, I noted a figure in the distance—a man walking a dog. Great, I thought, people? As the figure approached I discerned that both man and dog were of an elderly nature, evidenced by the man’s gaunt appearance and the dog’s rotund belly and decidedly wobbly walk. Fine, I concluded, old men have a right to walk their dogs on fall afternoons; it’s good they’re exercising. I gazed off into the distance, carefully nonchalant, until they passed. Then, just as I was recovering my tearful train of thought, I spied in my side-view mirror more figures—a woman in a tracksuit, shortly followed by a young mother with a stroller and obligatory baby. Seriously? I inquired of the air in irritation. Even here? What is this, a thoroughfare? Anyway, I feigned to be listening to music and hoped the freshly filled gravesite, close by my car, would inspire respectful understanding and avoidance. Two more figures in needlessly bright yellow also loomed in my mirror behind the mother and child. My blood pressure shot up for an instant; apparently I had chosen not a respectable resting place of bodies departed, but my town’s own favorite walking path. Blessedly, the garishly-clothed pair turned aside down another deathly avenue.
Finally, the stretch of mirror behind me was empty but of trees and monuments; the vista before my dirty windshield was filled with only the yet-unploughed greensward and the golden autumn sun falling through gloriously colored trees. Perhaps the rash of living persons thronging the cemetery was a momentary fluke. My song went on repeat and I gave all my attention back to musing and crying. Hard. Soothing tears rolled down my cheeks and onto my shirt, and I tucked my face beneath my hat brim and hand, and luxuriated in my sorrow. Just as I was getting to the really good sobbing…a tap on my window.
I paused for an instant. Surely it couldn’t be—had I not written a lovely piece on the sanctity of sorrow in a graveyard? Certainly no person could be so dense of feeling as to knock on the car window of stranger crying in a cemetery? I raised my eyes and lowered my hand. Sure enough, there was the blond hair and sympathetic face of the woman in the tracksuit. She couldn’t have just circled around and exited by way of the citrus-colored strollers—no no, she had to walk back past my car, just when I was distracted enough to stop paying attention. I flashed what I’m sure was a ghastly smile combined with a shake of my head meant to convey, I don’t want to talk, I’m fine, please go away. I ducked back beneath the shield of my hand.
She tapped again. WHAT! I thought madly, this is ridiculous! I looked up again, trying not to make eye contact (let’s face it, sanctity of sorrow or not, it’s rather absurd to be caught by a concerned stranger when you’re crying hard in what is apparently a very public place.) I gave her another facial contortion and shook my head, attempting to indicate that my actual state of being was much better than it appeared. She shook her head to keep my attention and mouthed, “I’ll pray for you.” I shook my head and gave her a thumbs-up to serve as an I understand and thank you and I don’t want to talk and I’ll be fine. I had instantaneously considered rolling down the window after the first tap but I didn’t want to talk to anyone! Gosh! Also instantaneous was the thought that since no one in my actual life knew I was sitting along crying in a graveyard, it was kind of nice that a perfect stranger walking by was kindhearted and would pray for me. I was rather miserable, after all. Well, Lord, I hope you’ll listen to her prayers, I said mentally, checking the rearview to make sure she was in fact retreating into the distance.
I really couldn’t return to my cry after that; it was so ridiculous as to almost cheer me up. Not quite; but really, if you at all value a sense of humor you have got to take note of the height of absurdity of a situation like that. I drove home.
There was still a little afternoon sunlight left, and I didn’t relish the idea of the arctic frigidity of my apartment (although there is thankfully a fairly safe bet of privacy in your own home if you’re in it alone.) At the last turn before home I briefly considered trying one of the other old cemeteries in my neighborhood. After all, I had been denied not only my cry and my privacy, but even my illusions of the sanctity of death had taken a blow; and, as the character in one of my old books was wont to say “A person must have some compensations.” But I thought there ought to be a limit even to the credulity of a hopeful person, and decided to just go home. When a person cannot even indulge in a good cry now and then without interruption, one must settle for chocolate.
(Written last summer.)
Living in the city in an apartment with no balcony and a porch that is also the entrance to first floor offices, finding a private space in nature can be difficult. Parks and college greens are not quite private enough when you want to do writing, praying, or listening to music that may involve tears or soul anguish. But recently I discovered a place perfectly appropriate to all such requirements—the cemetery. Even in the midst of houses, cars, and roads, a cemetery is usually a decent-sized piece of nature, often with a few comforting trees; and regardless of size, it has an inherent sense of quiet, reverence, and privacy.
I realized the perfection of such a place a few weeks ago when, driving home, I felt a strong need to pull over and cry, listen to affecting music, and write in a notebook. Although the cemetery I pulled into didn’t have quite as many trees or quite as few (living) people as I might have wished, I quickly realized it didn’t matter very much. Who is going to think strangely of a person who sits moodily in their car—even if it is for an hour—in a cemetery? It is deeply, strongly, traditionally bound with a sense of the deepest feelings of the human heart. Graveyards represent death and yearning and longing and loss—and never is the human heart and spirit so susceptible to a spiritual awareness than in the presence of death.
The mad, frantic pace of our modern lives may hurriedly and scornfully dismiss any weakness of feeling during daily life; but there is a strange sacredness that wraps an acre or two of grassy, monument-strewn land as with an ancient and untouchable forgiveness for humanity’s embarrassing but indelible tendency toward the unseen immortal. We do not often respect the poorly disguised symptoms of heartache in others—impatience, cynicism, ill-temper—but there is a feeling in most of us that true grief and heartbreak are worthy of our sympathy, our acknowledgement, our gift of a silent moment to another suffering person.
Much of this may be seen in the days surrounding a death, in the long family hours of a funeral. Something of it lingers in the bittersweet sanctity of a cemetery. And so it does not seem strange that even if it is only to grieve a less-than-eternal death—one of hope or joy—or to weep from the exhaustion of confusion, that a heart seeking relief from the mandatory masks of the everyday may find a place in a daily week where grief observed will be respected, and sorrow will throb, gently dignified, by the side of a graveyard path.