A Fine and Private Place

“When [Sabine] felt low, she would get into the car, leave Prague far behind, and walk through one or another of the country cemeteries she loved so well.  Against the backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby.  For Franz a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones.”
 –from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

I am drawn to cemeteries. Especially the old ones. When on road trips I like to stop if one catches my eye, wrought-iron gate beckoning.When living in a new place, I like to see who might be in the neighborhood. Sometimes I’ll take a book and find a tree. Sometimes I’ll read the names out loud. I like to keep it friendly. Bright. I like to brush my hands over lichen and moss and cracks in the granite. I love that there are always crows or ravens, pushing aside sunlight with their black hoods, keeping watch, delivering messages.

Yesterday I returned to Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery,
a place I visited with a friend my first perfect day in town. Like everything in the northwest, this place gets a lot of moss action. It creeps in, a soft and slow green hand on a sharp shoulder blade. A verdant shall, a velvet hat. My favorite is when it dips into shallow letters, brings names back to life.

The Vietnamese have a tradition of burning paper money, real or fake, at grave sites. They hold the bills out, fanned and drooping like wilting flowers–lighting the edges with a long, thin match. Flames unfurl, orange and crimson blooms, and the ashes drift up or down, to be gathered and tendered in some new world. The image is more romantic, more dramatic then some of the offerings here: pack of smokes in a glass ashtray. Broken vases. Bits of fading plastic. A toy car. A warm beer.

And yet, a gift is a gift.
Love is love.
Pour some out.

Out there, across the ocean, Celtic mounds gently rise above dead leaders wrapped in salt and wool, in striped badger skins. Chinese kings preside over vast tombs filled with weapons, pottery, deep green jade. Oh, and people, too. Minions. Sacrificial offerings of bone and tooth. Mummies blink their kohl-stained eyes, pet their withered cats.

Here there is moss. And pine cones arranged in strange prayer. Here there are scented needles, lattice among bright dandelions. Cracks in cold stones. Broken-faced angels. Here catkins sway in benediction. Birches weep. Wet breath anoints the dead, coaxes old names back into green. Here black birds brood. They have a job to do, like anyone else. Here, there are pilgrims, calling to no one in particular, keeping company in this fine and private place, remembering lives that were not their own.

“The praise that comes from love does not make us vain, but more humble.” –J.M. Barrie
“Every angel is terrifying.”
“And the priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds…”
“And one day we will die, and our ashes will fly, from the aeroplane over the sea… But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun, and count every beautiful thing we can see…”

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
–Louis L’Amour

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