It's about 1800 steps from my home to the graveyard near the Rich's house.
Though I've visited that small old family graveyard for 53 years, this was the first year I noticed the large lilac bush at its back. It caught me only accidentally this spring, 2010; I happened to glance left as I was walking past it late one afternoon. The sight: its flagrant, fragrant, profligate pale blue-purple fountains of flower, bright, sudden, unsuspected against all that green; the lowering sun a star-burst behind all of it. I stopped, stunned at the sight, stood on the road for a moment, just looking, as the soft wind blew through my hair.
Then I turned from the road and walked up the bank, through the opening in the wall, and into the graveyard, as I have done so many times over the years.
For if ever there was a time and place to change direction; to stop, to think, look, and contemplate: wouldn't a country graveyard, still and green, faintly scented by old lilacs, the day itself wrapped in spring's full fleeting caress, be the place and time?
When I mentioned this to David, the next day he indulged me, coming to photograph what I had seen, and at that same time of day, as light gives its last brilliant huzzah, its daily revolt against the coming night.
When I told DK about the lilacs, the evening before he photographed them, he immediately recalled the Whitman poem that begins, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd.." He remembered 'dooryard' as 'graveyard' — so we looked it up. It was a misremembering that made sense. Whitman's poem is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, written the year after Lincoln's assassination, which took place in the spring. So, each year, the lilacs blossoming recalled the murder to the poet.
It makes sense another way, too. Spring's renewal — its very beginningness, the winter it follows, the intoxicating humusy smell of earth when you dig into it, the rich decay from which ferns and fennel and field peas will spring — all this references endings. Hence Eliot, too, could write about "breeding lilacs out of the dead land" in The Wasteland (though that humus, as any gardener or ecologist knows, is anything but 'dead', no matter how it seems in winter). This is the same poem in which Eliot also wrote, famously, "April is the cruelest month."
But is it? In Vermont, the lilacs don't bloom until May. Though I suppose one could legitimately call May 'cruel' in the way I think Eliot intended, to me it is the opposite of cruel. May seems to me generous, a forgiving and merciful reprieve, joy exploding in uncountable shades of green, allowing us an amnesiac's dazed half-memory half-forgetting of the long winter's white, grey, brown, the bone-seeping cold, the endless digging-out of car and path… followed by the even more intractable, immobilizing mud season. In May, Vermonters remember why they live here. And if spring does
reference endings, and time's passage, it is also, always, a vivid renaissance of life. May Day, which for two years now I have celebrated with my friend the poet Verandah Porche and her many friends (most co-celebrants far longer than I), is truly jubilation-worthy.
(Verandah, right, in the red shirt in the foreground, leads the way. Behind her, the young, handsome stalwart Jon, baker-owner of the Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, Massachusetts, carries the actual pole. I'm in the red flowered shirt and jeans to the right, carrying one of the pole's streamers, which we will weave once we're at the top of her hill. How can this day, and the month it opens, possibly be called 'cruel'?)
In any case, my intent here is not to write about poetry, but about Gideon Stiles, and his haunting epitaph. To write about May Day at Verandah's, and Marty Jezer. And to visit, with you, that graveyard by the Rich's.
Now, neither of the two Rich daughters, Nancy and Susan, who live in Boston and share ownership of the house, and come up for the occasional weekend, go by that last name. But it's still the Rich's house to me, for this is what Aunt Dot always called it.And the only reason I know the graveyard is 1800 steps from my own house is because these days, many times, I wear a pedometer. One of the many things one is ideally supposed to do for good health is to walk about 10,000 steps a day, as "incidental fitness" — not necessarily at cardio pace. (I don't make 10,000 steps every day; 8,000 to 9,000 is my average, though every so often I wind up with 12000, even 14000. But I'm working on it!)
So that's how I know it's 700 steps down my hill and past the pond (pictured below: photographed in the late afternoon by David a few days ago, the house and sky and trees reflected in its sweet dark water).
Another 850 steps take me up the hill opposite to the Rich's. 259 steps west along the road, and there, on the left, is the old graveyard.
I've been walking up to this graveyard for as long as I can remember, since long before I knew how many steps it was from here to there. My aunt bought the place when I was four, so my first walks were with her swinging hands with her, or other family members, then later, by myself. Sometimes I walk much, much farther than the graveyard; the road meanders for several miles until you come to the Old Athens Road, This is not actually a road but a wide rough downhill trail which parallels and sometime crosses a creek and eventually comes out at, of course, Athens, where there is again actual road. There are also woodsy trails that meander off the road which goes by the graveyard. There's a trailhead maybe a mile further down, maintained by the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association.
I've walked the road past the graveyard with friends, like Chou-Chou, about whom I wrote in my last post, and Ned, my late husband, and David, my present, for-the-duration partner. My late and much-loved first cat, Beanblossom, used to like to walk with me; unleashed, following along a few steps ahead and a few behind; we often passed this way the one fall I stayed up here, the difficult year I was seventeen.
(Left and above, Ned and Beanblossom, taken one winter morning circa 1980, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, by George West. Those two sweet souls now gone, but how I loved them, and how thankful I am that George is still very much alive:and I do mean thankfully, I literally whisper an inward "thank you" every time I see him and Starr again, and we pick up again as if we had barely drawn a breath between the previous sentence of our friendship's long discussion and the one we are currently speaking; we no longer live in the same place, and the gaps of time between words are longer. But, how I love this picture, which not only gets across that sweetness, but tells me that George, too, saw it; that he loved Ned, and even Beanblossom.)
And once, during that same hard year (1970) when I walked the road so often with Beanblossom, I walked it with Marty Jezer.
Mostly, though, I walk the road by myself, as I always have; and mostly I pass by the graveyard: simply take note of it, there on the left, and keep walking. (Right: how it looks from the road, just before dusk, on a May day. The sticks leaned against the wall? Just the result of a windy night the evening before).
Sometimes, though, I go and sit in the graveyard, or walk around in it.
Always have, periodically. People often say 'peaceful' of graveyards, but I cannot imagine many where this is so quite so literally true as in this one. It's so quiet on the hill, isolated though not lonely, companionable, certainly not spooky. It's far away from traffic and its background noise, free of any sound but wind in trees, the flutter and twitter of birds, bee's drone. If one were buried here, one would truly be "laid to rest."
The piece of land on which the graveyard is sited is, as you can see in the picture above, a small upward-slanting square, demarcated by low stacked fieldstone walls of the type common throughout NewEngland. It's shaded by maples on two sides, but open on one side (past its stone fence), to a field. The lilac is at the back of the field, amidst a tangle of woods — mostly scrubby evergreens, grown-up shrubs, young maples, more briers.
The graveyard is not very well kept up — it's overgrown by fern and briers by midsummer. This quiet dishabille quality, as if it is slowly turning back towards itself, is part of its restfulness. But in early spring, the ground cover is gentle. Tender tufts of mosses gentle in around the gravestones; in spring there are countless Canada lilies (wild lilies-of-the-valley), their leaves shiny as patent leather, punctuated by the occasional clump of violets.
The gravestones themselves are old, old, hand-carved, New England primitives.
Before acid rain slowly washed away the finer details, I could, as a child and a young girl, easily read the epitaphs; now I can only see them by doing grave-stone rubbings, something else I learned to do as a child.
But there was one epitaph, on the gravestone nearest the large maple on the southwest edge of the graveyard, which I've remembered since I was old enough to read. It was carved at the very bottom of the grave of Reverend Gideon Stiles, who died at age 83 in 1779.
Remember me as you pass by;
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you will be:
Prepare for death, and follow me.
I found these words, as a child, pleasantly shivery-creepy, and returned, in thought, to what they might mean, perhaps more often than was quite normal. Knowing nothing of stern early New England religion (indeed, knowing little of religion period, since the home in which I grew up practiced no particular religion, except perhaps Bohemianism, though I did understand that we were "Jewish culturally," whatever that meant), I had no idea of the salvation-confess-sin, distrust-worldly-pleasures aspects that were probably part of what Stiles's church took as "preparing for death". But the reality of time passing — here I am at the farm again! Then, summer's almost over, but didn't it just begin? — came to me early in. "As you are now, so once was I…" well, how could Gideon Stiles be like me, a little girl from New York, born in 1952? But if it didn't mean he was like me in that way, what could it mean? Maybe just – alive? As he once was, and I now am? And so he means that I will be like he is 'now' — that means, he is head and I will be dead? Really, dead? Not here? How do you think about you not being here?
(Above, a rubbing I did recently, just to make sure that the stone I thought was Gideon's was, since it was no longer legible… Yep, I remembered correctly).
Eventually I learned more about epitaphs, through my beloved Golden Treasury of Poetry, the thrilling children's anthology collected by Louis Untermeyer, who wrote
an introduction to each poem, introductions often as good or better than the poems themselves, as well as essays on different types of poems. This included epitaphs, which he loved and respected, in his marvelous Untermeyer way — condescending neither to his young readers nor the more arguably lightweight verse forms. If I quote poetry often, in my mind and on the page, perhaps 40% pf the credit goes to each of my parents, with the remaining 20% due to Untermeyer.
One of the epitaphs he selected for the book was, I was astonished to discover as a child, the very same one as that on Gideon Stiles grave. But there was one difference: the first line. Untermeyer's version began:
Stranger, stop and cast an eye…
I decided I liked the version on Gideon's grave better; it was more direct and
plainspoken, more commanding, less beseeching. I liked those qualities, evidently, in an epitaph (though not a blog post title). (The phrase is also used as the title of another book, subtitled — are you surprised? — How to Make Gravestone Rubbings and Castings, and Interpret Their Imagery).
By the time I came to stay here at the farm, by myself, at seventeen that fall of 1970 or '71, I had had my own life-changing brush with mortality, having been the victim of a violent crime, an episode during which, at one point, I realized, "That's it — you've gotten yourself into something you can't talk you're way out of. You are going to die." Though I don't have a problem telling that story — in fact, I wrote about it many, many years ago — I don't want to tell it now: for once I'd like to have a blog that doesn't meander all over the place and take me days to complete, and hook the innocent reader into spending a couple of hours.
Nor is it necessary for the purposes of this tale, this walk in the graveyard, these lilacs, this spring.
Say only this: immediately after the crime, I came to the farm to recover; which is to say, dig down deep into the knowledge that I would die, and what did I want to do before that day came, and where, and with who (if anyone? maybe there was not a someone for me?- though I desperately hoped there might be). They were lonely, thoughtful, rich perplexing days, most of them spent alone at the farm, just me and Beanblossom. If the questions were forced on me at too young age, as they perhaps were, they did not do so empty-handedly, but bearing offerings. Though no one would chose most of the methods by which the young come first hand to such knowledge, to receive it sooner rather than later, simply cuts out a lot of dancing around. You get to the point quicker. There's less room, if any, for opacity.
I didn't have a car, but somehow I got around when I had to. I hitchhiked to the nearest small town sometimes, and I knew people, in the way we alternative types new each other in those days. I knew there was a commune, at which many writers lived, called Total Loss Farm. They'd even written a book together, Home Comfort, its title taken from the brand of their old wood-stove, which still sits in Verandah's mudroom.
I even knew, very slightly, one of the men who lived there. I had met him at Alternate U, a Left Wing "free school" in New York where the varieties of political
splinter groups were so arcane I couldn't even understand the graffiti in the bathroom. This would have been in 1968 or '69. I was ten or twelve years younger than most of the AU students, including this fellow. A writer and an activist, rangy-tall, very smart, with a pronounced stutter, he worked for Liberation News Service.
(Left, Marty as I remember him, with that sweet, slightly self-effacing smile. Photo courtesy of the National Stuttering Association.)
I don't remember how it came about, but Marty came to see me at the farm one afternoon, and we went on a walk. Although everyone was falling into bed with everyone else in those days, and although I was truly eager for the great diversion of falling in love, having sex, and imagining that this person or that one might provide the answer I was looking for, no trace of that kind of potential exchange passed between us. Was there no chemistry? Was I still too confused following the crime I had barely survived? Was Marty being exceptionally gentle to a bruised soul 12 years younger than he was? Was I put off by his stutter? Was he put off by my well-intended but ignorant gaucheness in finishing sentences when he had trouble with a word? I don't know.
What I do know is, I made him lunch, we went on this walk, and later he drove me to Total Loss Farm where I stayed for a few days. That is where I first met Verandah, and Peter Gould (a novelist, plawright, actor, clown, and teacher of acting, clowning, and writing). That's him in the pink shirt, playing us up the hill on May Day), and other people, including someone who was the son of the Simon in the publisher "Simon & Schuster" and, if memory serves, the brother of Carly Simon, and other people.
Though Total Loss Farm is long gone as a commune, pieces of the land are owned by some of the original group in a fashion neighborly, not collective. Those who stayed have their own homes; many of those who stayed and left retained friendships and their own sort of neighborhood. Both last year and this, at the May Day festivities, I had the strange experience of people I thought were unknown to me coming up and saying, "Don't I know you? Didn't you once stay here when it was Total Loss Farm, in 1969 or 1970?" I was amazed to be remembered.
Verandah and I are, in this latest adult, nominally straighter incarnation, starting to become close. In some ways it turned out that our lives had paralleled. We both were active in the artists-in-schools programs. We both had weird names (no, I've never asked her if hers is her real name, or how she got it; who knows better than I how much too much she has no doubt had of such questions?). We both moved to rural places from elsewhere, and despite suspicion, the envy of others, and other obstacles, stuck it out tenaciously. Both our lives have been touched by deep fidelity, and its opposite. She more or less, sorta-kinda, lived up here, in Packers Corners, in Vermont, the life I was living in Eureka Springs and Arkansas.(Left: V and I on her lawn this last May Day, 2010, posing in front of a rather elaborate dish I had brought to the potluck, a dish she described — accurately — as "high concept" — a bed of roasted asparagus and steamed nettle, on which rested pasta nests and poached eggs… but that, too, is another story.)
I saw Marty just once after I returned to Vermont in 2003, after all those years in Arkansas, after Ned's death. I ran into him at a First Friday Brattleboro Gallery Walk. He had lived for many years with the great love of his life, Arlene Distler, and he was well-loved both locally and in several rarified circles: that of Old Leftie writer-activtists, and the stuttering community. He wrote a book about that, called Stuttering: A Life Bound Up In Words, as well as biographies of Abbie Hoffman and Rachel Carson. That night — it must have been early summer, for it was evening yet still quite light — I greeted him. Though he almost fell over at the shock of being greeted by someone he'd not seen in 30-some years, he instantly placed me and smiled broadly, and hugged me, and we had a brief but heartfelt catch-up conversation, one of those isn't-life-amazing varieties.
Not long after that, I learned he had terminal cancer. Peter Gould, from the old days, who had come to see the first reading I did, in the present day (at the Rockingham Library) called me and told me to call Marty, that he didn't have long live.
I said I was a little hesitant. That we hadn't been that close. That I didn't want to be a death voyeur, and impose myself on him just because he was close to the end of his life.
"Call him," Peter insisted.Then he called me a second time.
So I did call Marty. That time we talked for about twenty minutes. He asked me if I believed in an afterlife. He said he'd never been "s-s-s-s-s-spiritual," but now found himself wondering. We discussed theology, and his fears about and interest in death; his sorrow at leaving the world, and Arlene. I told him a little about losing Ned. It was a clean and transparent conversation, and it was our last. That was in 2005. (His obit, here.)
But I don't believe Marty had never been spiritual. For I remembered our walk, and his kindness to me at that confusing time so many years earlier. I remembered our walk, and visiting the graveyard, and a conversation we had there.
He'd sat under the maple that shaded the graveyard, the tree that was closest to
Gideon Stiles grave, his back leaning against the tree. I, facing Gideon's grave, tracing it with my fingers, had read him the epitaph.
He'd listened, amidst the rustle of nature, birdsong, wind, quiet. Then he said, "This?" And he reached behind him and patted the trunk of the maple, the one ppictured, right.
"Yeah?" I said.
He nodded towards the Gideon Stile's gravestone, with its unremitting warning from the beyond, macabre, direct and grim.
Marty smiled. "Him," he said, smiling.
Meaning, I knew, that Gideon's bones and fleshed had melted through their coffin — the same coffin carved as an image on his tombstone, by the way, complete with the initials GS — and become part of the soil. The land which is not, despite what T.S. Eliot wrote, dead at all, but teeming with life. And that, as part of the soil, Gideon was now, in turn, part of the tree against which Marty was leaning.
I do believe that physically, it is as Marty says. I believe, moreover, as someone who writes about food and cooking and eating, that the basic contract of embodied life is that we eat, and are, eventually, eaten: that's just how it works. Every wild raspberry, strip of bacon, bowl of baked beans, every dribble of maple syrup that Reverend Gideon Stiles may have had on his pancakes — that was on loan to him, as was his body. These would eventually be called back… and Reverend Stiles would be called upon by the luscious, bitter, sweet cannibalistic world, always busily eating itself. The maple tree was, as Marty said, him.
But too, I believe the people who touch us before they leave life are part of the soil from which we are made in a non-physical sense. Darling Beanblossom, Ned, with whom I had the privilege of journeying side by side for 23 years before our one road forked into two,irrevocably taking each of us in directions the other could not follow. He is in eternity, whatever that is, and I remain here on the turning, seasonal, temporary globe.
And yes, all of them, even Marty, though our acquaintance was slight — all these people live on in me, as Gideon, who died in 1789 lives in the 2010 maple, and as I will live on in others after I've gone. Not as "I", but as some component of their non-physical selves.
At the top of the hill, on May Day, the pole was planted. Those of us who held
streamers of cloth, knotted together by Verandah and her daughter Emily circled the May Pole, half clockwise, half counter clockwise, a circular, unchoreographed dance, where over and over each person had to choose — go under or over the streamer coming towards him or her, in the hands of another celebrant. Small choices, in the parade of all those we're called on to make constantly as we circle and circle.
After the pole was wrapped in its coat of many colors, and some singing, Verandah asked if anyone wanted to say, aloud, the name of someone we loved who was no longer with us. Someone said, "Marty Jezer." I felt the reverberation through the warm air, through the blossoming apple trees on which the bees were drunk with pollen and as loud and rowdy as any drunks, and through the greening hills and trees and meadow. There were a few beats of silence. Then people started mentioning other names, none of which I recognized. Of course I said Ned's name — though not a soul present, except me, had ever known him. But I had to.
Right after he died, my mother said to me, "Because Ned died, a piece of you died. But because you are alive, a piece of Ned is alive."
And that is, finally, what the dead, in their state, tell us. Remember me as you pass by. You will follow me, whether you want to or not, whether I tell you to or not, so prepare for it. Prepare for it by loving, respecting each bite, each kiss, each reflection in the pond, each soft spongy moss, forgiving your trampling feet — respect it all, love it all, see it all.
See even what you can't see directly; you can't take in the whole sky, but you can always look up and see part of it. Or look down, sometimes, and see its broken and lovely reflection in the water — no less lovely or truthful for being partial, and broken.
We are alive in you, say the dead. Prepare for death, say the dead, by living.
Yikes. My long letter disappeared. Dissolved. So sorry.
Kate Lucariello says
Wow, Crescent, another wonderful, intensely thoughtful piece! I just love your writing. We are the same age, and I had that same incredible Untermeyer book! I spent hours poring over it. How fun to be reminded of it. I might even still have it somewhere … now I have to go look!
susan g says
Summer, 1963, Brandon VT — I found this in the old cemetery there:
Death is a debt to justice due
Which I have paid and so must you.
these private walks and even more private thoughts reveal the things that we’ve learned. That’s really what life is all about, learning and hopefully adding something good to the world. Your musings are like poetry Crescent. I’ll remember this one a long time.
Kim Hays says
Beautiful! I love the way you follow your tangents and expound upon them.
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Thank you, Kim. Tangents R Us! (Actually learned this from my late father. He was a brilliant speaker. Extemporaneous and never afraid to veer off his subject, knowing that if it came to his mind, there was a reason why, and it would lead back to the larger path. He taught me, never consciously, to trust the narrative, and follow its meanderings. Not that I dont edit like crazy, too.)
Angel Tatum Craddock says
Terrific Crescent. Found this and it fits so well for me after the passing of my mom and Patt Milam
mudroom storage says
Beautiful! I just love your writing and the illustrations.
Thank you, Mudroom… I know you must live in New England… we have mudrooms here, but didn’t in Arkansas…