The Veteran’s Cemetery

The sun is shining but my thoughts are dark today.  It might have been the Sunday drive we took to the Veteran’s cemetery.   Who goes for a Sunday drive to a grave yard?  Yet, I’ve always found cemeteries interesting.  The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary.  These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.

At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued).  I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.

Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living, they’re filled with all kinds of colorful characters.  You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.”  A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Names, birth/death dates, and rank are basically the only thing carved on military tablets.  I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time.  Neither appeared to have died in combat.  I wondered what made them join the military.  I don’t think many young people dream of becoming killing machines.  Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college.  Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.

Though people buried in the VA cemetery must have some military experience, it’s a mistake to think this time period of their life defined who they later became.

I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at the VA cemetery.  And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War era, after that his life took an entirely different path, marrying, moving to the West, and experiencing a long career in education.

Still, those early years of our lives and what happens to us does seem to have some lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life.  I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet.  People younger than fifty rarely do.  No one wants to be accused of having a morbid fascination.  But he has the option of a veteran’s burial—an option, by the way, I don’t have.

Memorial Day is almost upon us and with it the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, will be covered with bouquets of irises, lilacs, and peonies.  The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer somber, sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery—sans holiday. As we slowly drove out of the VA cemetery on Sunday, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England.  Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under the skeletons and imps decorating the top of tombstones:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

 

Image credit:  Veteran’s Cemetery

 

Splendor in the Grass

It’s a spring evening, cool yet warm.  The grass in the yard is still slightly damp from the rain last night and there are small mud puddles in the drive way.  Watching the neighbor girl, Mylie, and her little sister running barefoot across their yard I think, spring is a great time of year to be a kid.

“Hey!” I holler across to them.  “Don’t you guys know you can only go barefoot on months that don’t have the letter “R” in their name?  What month is this?”

“April! It’s April!” they giggle and jump up and down on cold, red feet. “But it’s almost May and May doesn’t have an “R” in it,” says the shy little sister (I can’t remember her name).

I watch them awhile sitting on our porch step.  The lilac bush next to the house is breaking into bloom and there’s a whiff of perfume in the air.  What game are they playing now?  Mylie’s trying to hit her sister with a big ball.  They must be playing dodge ball. I think about all the ball games my brothers and I played growing up (besides softball). We played “kick the can” using a ball instead of a can, and ball tag, where you didn’t touch your opponent to tag them but instead hit them with a ball.  We also played “cigarette” tag (it was the smokin’ 60’s after all).  If you squatted down quick enough and named a brand of cigarettes, you were safe.  Amazingly, we knew all the brands of cigarettes:  Marlboro, Winston, Pall Mall.  We had a harder time playing “car” tag.  After Ford and Chevy, we had to resort to generic vehicle names like “pick-up” and “station wagon.”

Mylie’s little sister stops suddenly at the side walk edge, and does a cart wheel.  Ah. I enjoy seeing how gracefully she executes her cartwheel, lithe arms and legs rotating in a perfect half circle.  I used to do cartwheels when I was a kid—and round-offs, which were half cart wheels and half flips.

Could I do a cartwheel now?  If I physically survived the attempt, I can see myself swinging through the air, all hips and stomach.  It’s not a pretty picture, and I find myself laughing even considering it.

The neighbor girls begin to chase each other.  It used to be fun to run—when I was little.  Adult running is usually a morning jog, which ironically, we do for our health but end up hurting either our knees or our back.  A jog though, might garner us a small endorphin rush, something besides a martini to beat back the mid-afternoon blues.  Jogging is nothing compared to the absolute joy of running when you’re an eight-year-old.  At that age I never walked anywhere—I ran.  And lovely spring evenings were custom made for running and playing.  We didn’t stop until the last light of day was gone.  Then I’d throw open the screen door and fly into my mom’s kitchen, my nose dripping and my body all chilled from the night air.  Mom would say, “Shut the door! It’s getting cold outside!”  And I’d whine, “It’s hot in here, mom. I’m hungry.”

William Wordsworth, the early 19th century British poet, wrote many poems with childhood and nature as their theme.  He believed in reincarnation and thought that young children, being closer to the event of birth, were more aware of other existences, other lives before birth. As I watch Mylie and her little sister, I’m reminded of a particularly beautiful passage in one of Wordsworth’s poems.  A line in this passage became the title of an old movie, Splendor in the Grass:

“That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower.  We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

Image credit:  Girl Running through Grass

 

 

 

Freedom is Coming

I was looking over the produce selection at the supermarket yesterday and I found myself whisper-singing: “Freedom is coming, freedom is coming, oh yes I know . . . “ I stopped singing when I caught the eye of the construction guy in coveralls checking out the bananas. I smiled. He smiled. Hopefully, he realized I wasn’t a homeless person looking for attention. He probably said to himself, “Oh that lady’s just got a tune in her head and it won’t let go.” And he’d be right. One of the songs we’re singing in the choir I belong to is: Freedom is Coming.

But I’ve had other songs stuck in my head before. For a few years, at odd moments, like when I was boiling eggs or sorting through my book shelf, I’d hum this weird little melody I didn’t know the name of. It sounded vaguely classical to me, a little like that song Flight of the Bumblebee. The melody builds relentlessly like Bumblebee, toward its last notes. Finally, I approached one of the members of my choir and asked:

“Hey Carolyn, do you know what the name of this song is?” Then I stood in front of Carolyn and hummed it, my eyes wandering up toward the ceiling as I tried to get the pitches just right.

“Oh, that sounds like (she paused thinking)… well, it has something to do with a mountain king–no wait!” she snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. It’s called In the Hall of the Mountain King. Yes, that’s the title.”

I had to look the title up and make sure this was the song I couldn’t get out of my brain. And indeed, it was In the Hall of the Mountain King, a song composed by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian composer in 1875. In-the-Hall was the music played in a popular play of the time, Peers Gynt, about a troll king threatening a young man who’d ravaged his daughter. Where in the world did I hear this song before? I certainly have never seen the play, Peers Gynt. Then it hit me. I got hooked on this classical piece of music at the same time I became familiar with most of the classical music I know: Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1960’s. Not only was I introduced to In the Hall of the Mountain King playing as a background track for Bug’s shenanigans, but I also first heard The William Tell Overture in a cartoon where Bugs was being chased through the forest by the mighty hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Is there a reason certain music catches our attention and erupts out our mouths over and over again as if we were broken bots? Whenever I’m around my mother and we’re driving together in the car both she and I have been known to break out into that old Baptist hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine. I’m not sure whether it’s the melody or the lyrics of various pieces of music that burrows so deeply into our psyche. But I think I know why I’ve been so stuck on Freedom is Coming the past couple weeks. Not only is it a beautiful, hopeful melody, but I think it has special meaning for our family just now. My 97-year-old father-in-law finally passed away this past week. Unsurprisingly, he’s wanted to die for some time now. He’d been imprisoned in a frail, sick body and it was time to let it go. For Wes, freedom has come—oh yes we know.

Happy New Year! Our Pipes Burst! (essay)

I was cleaning the first floor of a little rental house we own, getting it ready for occupancy. It felt good to dust the flies and cobwebs off the walls and counters. I thought about Annie Dillard’s quote: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives”–and though I didn’t relish the thought of spending my days cleaning, there’s something about tidying up a living space, making it sparkle and be beautiful, that is so soul-satisfying. So many problems I deal with each day are in my head and nonphysical, like paying bills or negotiating relationships. Turning a dirty window clean by simply washing it with a rag and some vinegar water is so doable, so refreshingly easy. In fact, I’ve read that some mental health professionals tell their depressed clients it can be therapeutic to make their beds first thing in the morning. Apparently, just the act of ordering the environment can make us feel better. It’s one small way we can exert control in our lives and be successful.

While I was dusting the rental house, control though, suddenly became a big problem. I heard a loud thud upstairs followed by my husband barreling down the stair steps. As he ran past me and out the back door I yelled, “What’s wrong?” –but my words were literally drowned out by a torrent of water pouring through the ceiling and on my head like a cloudburst. He’d been working on the plumbing and a brittle pipe had burst so he’d ran to turn off the pump. I quickly grabbed a broom and tried to sweep the raining water now flooding the laminate floor out the back door he’d flung open. By the time the ceiling stopped raining, I was soaked and completely disheartened. A quarter of the main floor of the house was a damp mess. If only the fun I’d had cleaning this morning had just went down a drain instead of settling on the floor, a floor that now needed to be moped up.

A couple of hours and a lot of sore muscles later, our little rental house was finally drying out and looking considerably better. Before the flood, I’d washed the dust off a drip coffee-maker I’d found in the cupboard next to some filters and a can of sealed coffee grounds. I decided my husband and I deserved a cup of coffee after all we’d went through. As we sipped hot coffee we watched the oscillating fan move back and forth, blowing air across the floor, both of us too exhausted to talk. Annie Dillard was right: the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, each one full of ups and downs, joys and challenges. It’s a good thing to remember at the start of a new year. The days to come in 2019 probably won’t be smooth or effortless, but in the end we can still be okay. Floors dry out and life goes on.

Wes is Dying

Wes is Dying

My father-in-law Wes, is 97 year old and dying. It’s time and maybe, past time. He was born in November of 1921, three years after WWI ended (when everyone was in the mood to celebrate), and two years after Prohibition began (when it became illegal to celebrate—at least with alcohol). But none of that mattered much to Wes and his family because they were abstainers, pacifist Mennonites, and farmers.

I wonder what Wes remembers about his early life now that he’s 97? I once read a short story, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, about an old woman on her death bed floating in and out of consciousness, remembering events and people in her life, most notably George, who had jilted her at the wedding altar decades before. One of my earliest memories is holding my mother’s hand, walking across busy Lusher Avenue to the store to buy a Reese Cup and a bottle of Pepsi.  I was worried I might get run over by all the fast cars.  Will this be a significant memory at my death bed?

Listening to Wes talk recently, it’s clear he’s rapidly losing most of his memories. It seems like in an attempt to fill this void in his mind, his imagination has taken over and began creating all manner of fiction.  With the head of his mechanical hospital bed moved so he could sit up, he told me over and over again some wild tale about how his nurse had gone missing. She was supposed to come back and take care of him—but she didn’t. Wes thought she must have been in a car accident.

Wes’s doctors tell us his dementia is a many-faceted phenomenon that can cause certain unintended consequences, like losing the ability to track your thirst. In fact, Wes could die of dehydration. Which seems so curable in comparison to all the life-threatening cancers floating around us. It could be that when you’re as old as Wes and have fought as hard as he has to survive, your immune system is well girded for the big diseases. It’s the small, innocuous thieves, like a lack of thirst, which can steal your life away.

Wes has asked to come home to the farm to die. It’s important to him. Farming may be the only occupation I know that attaches itself so deeply to the psyche that you can’t live or die without being in some fashion immersed in it. Accountants don’t want to go to the office to die, nor truck drivers to their trucks. Farming though is more than work, it’s a way of life, and for Wes, also a way of death.

This talk about where Wes wants to die has caused me to consider where I’d like to die. I’ve always loved the rich, sensual experience of being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face or smelling the rain. I imagine myself near death, laying in a bed that’s been wheeled onto my back patio.  Looking up at the deep, blue skies above me, I breathe my last breath into the atmosphere. Such a fanciful, romantic notion. Much of the time, people aren’t very clear-headed at the time of their death. They’re either too sick or too drugged to care about the best location to slip these earthly bonds.

Our greatest hope is that Wes can die peacefully, without anxiety. It’s an event that by its very nature is momentous—yet ironically pedestrian also. I hope death comes for Wes easily, as if that long-lost nurse he thought was in a car accident, finally shows up. She’s kind and soothing, like nurses can be. Then she helps him climb out of his hospital bed and gently leads him out of his room—and out of his life.

Remembering Niagara Falls

Niagara (personal essay)

I’d never been to Niagara Falls but I’ve been to Shoshone Falls, and how different could they be anyway? Shoshone Falls is spectacular despite the fact it sits in the middle of the Idaho desert. But my mother and father honeymooned at Niagara Falls, and on a trip back East near the Niagara area, I decided I couldn’t miss seeing the attraction.

I’m not sure why geological spectacles are considered romantic places, but my husband’s parents honeymooned at Crater Lake, Oregon, another natural wonder. Niagara Falls has a long history as a honeymoon destination. I saw an old movie once staring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton about a honeymooning couple at Niagara Falls. That movie, Niagara, came out in 1953, the year I was born and a year after my parents were married. So this trip to the Falls was special. It was a trip about beginnings. About my origin. Likely somewhere close to all the spray and mist generated by the Falls, I’d been conceived.

I decided to call mom and get more details about her and dad’s 1952 trip to Niagara Falls. She reminded me they didn’t just go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.  The trip was also part of a job dad had. He’d contracted to drive a traveling religious exhibit of the “Lord’s Last Supper” to the Toronto, Canada National Exhibition (CNE). The CNE was located within fifty miles of Niagara Falls. Mom described the big exhibit truck. She said it had a side panel that could be rolled up to reveal a life-size diorama of wax figures of Jesus and the twelve disciples sitting at a long table.

“What’d you think of Niagara Falls, mom?” I asked her.

“Hmmm. I don’t remember very much. That was so long ago. A lot of water. You know we wrecked the Lord’s Supper exhibit near there, don’t you?”

Mom probably forgot much of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of her and dad’s big accident. After sight-seeing Niagara, dad drove the truck carrying the exhibit through an underpass with a low clearance and sheered off the top. I had visions of Jesus and the disciples decapitated heads rolling along the highway.

Though mom didn’t tell me much to prepare me for the spectacle of Niagara Falls, I was still excited to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is awe-inspiring. A gigantic curtain of water from Lake Erie plunges over a one hundred and sixty-seven foot precipice in a large horse-shoe shape. To compare: Shoshone Falls at flood stage, tumbles 20,000 cubic feet of water per second over its falls. Niagara Falls runs at flood, 202,000 cubic feet per second.

As I stood at the rail and gazed through the mists at Niagara’s plummeting water, I tried to imagine mom and dad here sixty-six years ago, a young couple, slim and dark-haired, with all kinds of hopes and dreams for the future. But the day I visited, it was cold and windy and my jacket got wet from all the falling water. Sometimes, try though you might, you just can’t fully capture the significance of an historic moment. I stood at the edge of Niagara Falls maybe a half hour, thinking about my parents and myself.  Then I took some pictures of the Falls.  Behind me was a Tim Horton’s coffee shop.  I strolled over, got a hot cup of coffee, and pulled out my iPhone.  I was so thankful for my Map App. Finding the quickest route out of the Niagara Falls park and back onto the freeway would not be a problem.

Getting Comfortable with Work

Getting Comfortable with Work

“Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. Ed was a colleague of mine and a Buddhist, so this was his response to the trials and tribulations of the workaday world. To me work was a much bigger venture. It was your career and your destiny. When things went wrong at work, it was a major crisis.  My thinking was how can I make this better?

But Ed was more matter-of-fact about the whole idea of work. He was a low-keyed educational psychologist that believed in energy chakras and hypnosis as much as Jungian theory or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Work was just one part of living to Ed. Work was not a gift, it was a necessity, and like food, water, and air, you didn’t think about it much, you just did it. In the big picture, work moved everyone and everything, forward.

I wanted to ask Ed, what about all those people who are passionate about their work? What about those people that say they can’t believe they get paid to do what they do, because they love it so much? Some people don’t just chop wood and carry water. Their work defines them and gives their life meaning.

Yet, if I was honest with myself, and thought about all the different kinds of work I’d done in my own life, I’d have to admit much of my work was in fact, chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these menial tasks than anything I did in my career as an educator.

I read a book many years ago by Carol Shields called The Stone Diaries.  It was about a woman at the turn of the century who’d worn a path leading out from her back door to her garden and root cellar.  That path happened because every day she walked it to gather the fruits and vegetables needed to feed her family. It was mind-numbing, walking this same route on a daily basis.  But if she didn’t do the valuable work of food gathering, who would?

I know people who actually are happy doing mind-numbing work.  I also know someone who got burned-out doing work he thought was a passion. My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but still he felt content and happy with his job.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle. His comment: “The art took too much out of me.  It just became work. Frankly, I dreaded doing it.”

As I sit here typing on my computer I’m wondering if writing has become my work. Has it moved from a passion to chopping wood and carrying water? Maybe it’s not so bad, doing something you know and that feels comfortable.  It doesn’t hurt either, when your back rest is a pillow.