Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

What is there to draw and hold the attention of a visitor to a cemetery –  especially if no one he knows either by acquaintance or by reputation lies buried there?

I recently sat in the living room and re-read for the first time in years what had been a favorite poem in high school, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” In my lap lay a volume of English poetry that I have owned for over thirty years, and I gave in to the lure of the opening lines of Thomas Gray’s masterpiece:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The poet seems not to have needed to know anyone in that country churchyard. He has simply settled there for a long evening of reverie and reflection. The fall of night in that quiet rural space in England awakens a sense of wonder that is palpable centuries later.

In a cemetery not far from my house I sometimes walk on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The roads and paths lined with tombstones – some dating from the Civil War – are not long enough in themselves to take more than ten minutes to cover if I were walking briskly and purposefully. But my pace in this cemetery generally takes its cue not from a need for exercise but from a need to attend to what is happening within me. I saunter, reverse directions, retrace my steps, stop sometimes and look around me and above me – and then start the whole routine over.

Various things within an older cemetery can engage my curiosity – the nationality of the residents of a particular plot, the relationships among the people whose names appear on the same stone, the personality of the person who had died the earliest among them, the flavor of the grief of the ones who survived to raise this stone and visit it and perhaps imagine one day lying below it themselves.

The shapes of individual and family tombs, the years inscribed, the relative state of repair of the grave, the softening of some lettering, the occasional presence of wreaths and flowers, the record of the shortness of someone’s span of years, another person’s year of death recalling a wartime world – so many invitations crowd around me, and I sink gently into speculation.

There is sometimes the experience of coming across a tomb that I must have passed time and again but about which there is that day something totally unfamiliar. I look at a name or a sculpture or a style of lettering or a symbol engraved or a sturdy thickness of greenery around the base of the stone. I wonder how I could have missed noticing this piece of the experience before.

There are days when I leave the paved road and wander into the grassy spaces between lines of older tombs. I feel the dips and curves of the ground under my shoes, and quickly there is no easy way to ensure that I am not walking directly over the bones of someone. The longer I stray over the grass, the more aggressively present seem the stones before me and behind me. I slowly get to feel myself surrounded rather than detached and merely speculative – no longer simply curious but increasingly engaged and almost ensnared.

And occasionally in the midst of my walking alone, there is the urge to begin speaking into the air around me, sometimes to work out with words an elusive or tortuous line of thought, sometimes to weigh and ponder a question slowly and methodically. Sometimes, though, there is the urge just to say what comes, to repeat again and again what starts to be a simple refrain like “Thank you.”

A walk through a cemetery, and my attention is drawn within.

A walk through an old cemetery, and my attention is drawn beyond.

But the call to attention is clear, insistent, ultimately soothing, invariably enriching.

I will return there again these next forty days of Lent.


DanFred said...

Treat yourself one day, Donald, and visit Maine's old cemeteries. I know the kind of curiosity that old graves spark. I would be more than happy to be your...Maine guide! Pack a lunch and allow yourself plenty of time with the old Maine woods wo/men, sea captains, soldiers and their brood!"

John said...

Your offer is a gracious one and, I'll admit, a tempting one... at least in slightly more temperate weather.

Gray's words might fit particularly well the Mainers whose graves you would show me:

"Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;/Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,/Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre..."

Thanks, friend!