This post appeared first in The Finger Lakes Times (NY), as an installment in the weekly series, “Denim Spirit.”
Even with weeks to go before March is gone, and an impetuous April to endure before it is secure, the signs of a heady spring and a summer soon trending is a crystalizing vision on the horizon.
The long stretch of days, weeks even, in which clouds cluster into a pall of gray overhead, and snow or sleet cause second thoughts about going out, will soon give way to warmth and vibrant colors. I have in mind the exploration of rural cemeteries as the weather becomes more hospitable.
Graveyards are incubators. The overgrown grass and fading letters teem with small blossoms of poems to be written, and budding ideas for short stories or even novels. But to gather the full inspirational effect, there must be time to amble among the graves, and sit down by the most compelling headstones. Chewing on a long piece of grass doesn’t hurt either, while penciling words and lines into a notebook.
When I lived in Indiana as a young adult, having moved back after graduate school to begin my professional life, I worked on the other side of the state from where my parents lived. It was a hundred and nine miles of flat on flat. Point the car thirty miles due north on the interstate, turn left at James Dean’s hometown of Fairmont, then seventy-nine miles down the two-lane bowling alley of gray asphalt that never veered. It was corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see, tiger lilies and prairie grasses springing up from the drainage ditches, and silos dwarfing large white farm houses in unplanned patterns. Every ten miles or so, if a driver bothered to explore a little, he or she could find a gathering of graves.
Look for a rise, even the humblest crest of a slope in that flat agricultural empire, and there may well be the remnants of a cemetery. Some are fenced in by simple black rod iron and well cared for, while others haven’t seen flowers in decades. Whether once a town or village stood nearby, or the remnant of a large extended family, the gathering of graves might host a quiet dance among past and future muses.
For this reason, I am partial to the historic cemetery on Washington Street in Geneva, and waffle back and forth about how much to learn about its history and the people buried there. Sometimes knowing too much, or presuming you know a lot about the dead, limits the power of the icon to evoke a muse and the imagination.
For example, behind the bench and flag pole at the corner of Washington and Monroe Streets, there is a row of four white gravestones in descending height like Papa Bear, Momma Bear, Sister Bear, and Baby Bear. They are old and faded stones I see every morning and afternoon as my dog takes me for a walk. Most days I notice them and wonder about the little family, if indeed it was a family. I could find out who they actually were and how they came to be buried there in that order. But if I knew, I would not wonder so much. And truly, I value wonder more than knowing when it comes to some things.