Seventy-nine steps, almost in the backyard. Leave your shoes at the bottom and, of an evening, you can climb from shade to sunshine, cool to warm, and feel it through the whole of you. God is mostly made of earth here – buckeyes and flower petals, prairie grass and leaves gone to tattered lace.
You don’t run those steps, do you?
At the top, a cemetery that won’t abide with sorrow. The bones here rest easy; they weep no more. Above them, a vault of sky, fading blue and smooth as porcelain. Here are massive oaks predating the ancestors of the longest dead, roots dug down to fiery core, bent arms outstretched, scooping sky.
I sprint, all the way to the top, fast as I can.
Not a spirit or a spook in sight. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and a soul flies onward, into the glaze of sun. Not looking back, not peering down. Transforming, remaking itself from flesh and bone, he/she/black/white/straight/gay into layers and layers of light and love. Imagine.
It’s easy, actually, in this place.
You’ll turn an ankle, bruise a shin, roll to the bottom, fall down and break your crown.
Kids play here. It’s close to town, after all, and do they dishonor the dead with their laughter? The gargantuan trees are made for Hide-and-Seek, the buckeyes for tossing, the headstones for shivers and shrieks; it’s good to be so alive in a cemetery.
At the top, I fling myself down, breathless with the rush, and the earth is sun-warm beneath me, grass like flannel, sky like cotton and just me, rolled up in the in-between.
Dragon and Damsel Flies dart, sleek wings glistening in the long shadows, and the early fireflies begin a dance between the gravestones. A blink at Filbert Hodgepodge, and a flit past Eunice Whosit, catch-me-if-you-can.
I can. I can cup the light in my hands just to see the magic.
The old stones rear their heads against the pink and lemon light – arches and towers, capped like acorns, like turbans. Mossy, ancient, the names worn beyond legible. Carved hands, carved roses, fat cherubs and lambs resting over “Our Darling Babe”s. Nobody there, nobody home, and that is more comfort than sorrow. There’s no rest in the ground, and maybe there is no rest at all, because dead isn’t dead, not really, but a state of life more alive than ever before. Imagine being nowhere and everywhere, all and nothing and all made up of light.
Is that death?
Over here. Grandparents under heart-shaped stones, a lost little baby named for a flower, Joseph Henry who came here first, back when corn was planted in check rows and picked by hand. They’re not here but they’re not gone either and, like the precious blood and body, that is only possible if you believe it so.
Why if we believe, do we even call it death?
“Death” better fits a darkness of the soul, does it not? A twist, a grudge, a hatred-blackness-despair. But . . . not this. Not this light, this easy peace, this jubilant rush to God.
Seventy-nine steps, from evening to night, sunshine to stars. Back again, running.
Isn’t he magnificent?
Where I live, you don’t see many long-horn cattle. This herd lives along the road we take to get “to town” and I’ve played hell avoiding them for about ten months now.
There’s a story here, and it has more to do with elusion than livestock.
My dad loved cattle. No matter how many we had on the farm, they were more pets than hamburger, and Dad fell ill about the same time this magnificent herd moved in up the hill. We passed them on the way to the hospital on his last trip there, and I slowed so he could see them. Mind you, my father had farmed all his life; he’d seen cattle. That, and he was weak and sick. But he pretended delight because his child so needed him to, and I felt, that day, such a bruise spreading on my soul, I didn’t believe I could ever recover.
Here’s another one.
A girl I didn’t know at all once held my hand as she died. We’d rolled up on that car accident - as we do, in our shiny rig – to save the day, and we didn’t get it done. That’s all. These things happen in our line of work. But that girl had a tangle of glorious dark hair just like my daughter’s and she wanted to live, and I lied to her when I said, “We’ll get you out of here. You’ll be okay.”
Ah, another bruise; a fearsome, horrible one. I will tell you - sometimes that girl still appears from nowhere to whack me over the head with the certain knowledge of my own stifling limitations.
So much is said about PTSD these days! And without belittling that status, might I suggest that almost everyone you meet is carting around a load of soul trauma? And the tricky thing about that condition is, it’s quiet. The soul walks its path with God but no one else. And if you don’t have God, you walk it alone. But you don’t talk about it much.
No one can see the size of the bruise or gauge the level of pain. The causes are so many and so varied that you can’t begin to guess the method of injury. But this isn’t a nice neat fracture to be iced and elevated; often it’s a gaping wound. Invisible to the naked eye, but so painful the victim is in danger of . .
Of what? Despair. Darkness. The utter inability to see . . . a blue sky. To hear a favorite song, to smell a dandelion. To feel love.
Ah, is there a point to all this?
Only this –it would be so good if we could be gentle with each other always. If we could try to help each other back from that dark ledge. You don’t know what trauma the soul sitting next to you has suffered or is suffering now.
That, and this – remember, if you’re bleeding, how your soul gets to go on. Whether you want it to or not. Your heart can break for good; I do believe that. But this thing we call soul remembers where it came from.
And sometimes it can even bring little pieces of that other place here. Compassion, laughter. Love.
People, if we have each other we can all be all right.
Have a beautiful August! Walk in the sunshine a lot!
A thousand memories fisted together into a big tinsel ball that smells of evergreen, cinnamon, and life. Marvel the Mustang! I must’ve been, what? Four or five? I never forgot the moment, the joy, of unwrapping that gift. I rode that silly toy all the way to the corner – a quarter mile away - in the snow.
Midnight mass, Mom in her long fur coat. She sang . . . well, yes, like an angel. That voice issued from that small person like Gabriel himself commandeered her soul and everybody in the church went still to listen, and to stand in awe.
The year of the pink Barbie Cadillac, the year of the flu, the year of the lost Christmas tree.
But here – there is this, and this is, after all, what I need to write about.
I was driving home with Keith Whitley playing on my iPod, and he had reached his last song – his best – before I realized October had passed. Tell Lorrie I Love Her is November music, straight from the grave to your heart, where it leaves teeth marks. Golden October is in tatters; summer’s sunlit memory has faded again into gray reality.
Keith Whitley, of course, is irrevocably dead and Lorrie left to mourn.
We laugh at mortality on Halloween. Brave behind our masks and paint, drunk on chocolate, wine, and our own audacity. We are benign ghosts in bedsheets, vampires with blood-tipped fangs, stiff-legged zombies – our dance is set to the glorious tempo of gentle, sparkling fall.
November calls us to sober up, chills us to the bone with unforgiving winds and skeletal trees -darkness, always, a mere breath away.
Wiccans preach a thinning of the veil, now – something you can almost see, as though the sky is smeared in charcoals, and beyond it . . . maybe? Can you discern? A hand reaching for you? Leave an empty seat at the dinner table, then. Set out food and wine.
Pooh! Hocus Pocus!
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