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What Cemeteries Taught Me About Living: In the Time of COVID-19

I am ten years-old, barefoot on a late spring day, and sinking into a grave. That’s what I like to pretend for a split second as my toes plunge into the nearly phosphorescent moss along the farthest boundary of a cemetery in North Baldwin, Maine. I revel in the morbid sensation of submerging into the too-soft, moss-blanketed earth directly over where I know graves to be. I have no explanation for this habit other than that it fills the time and makes these annual Memorial Day cemetery trips less tedious. Family cars line the street along the cemetery’s edge: two, three or four cars stopped, disgorging jolly uncles, organized aunts and parents bearing flowers, siblings, cousins. I am the youngest by many years and accustomed to being very much the baby; similar to an only child, I am used to amusing myself. The unsettling moss is one measure: “If I search out the squishiest moss, I can imagine I’m falling in. If I take off my shoes, I’ll even feel the clammy squish between my toes.” I find other ways to pass the time pleasantly enough. The names on the stones are curious and old-fashioned: “Mehitable,” “Elmer,” “Hezekiah,” “Agnes,” and “Alva.” Certain last names repeat themselves often, scattered over these small graveyards and attesting to the paucity of families who populated these rural spots a hundred or more years ago. I note “Rankin,” “Spencer,” “Sanborn,” “Burnell,” and “Cram” appearing and reappearing like cheeky ghosts around every smattering of headstones.

My child-mind struggles to comprehend a little white stone with the sweet and restful lamb etched along the top, reading: “Homer, son of Abraham and Mildred Usher, 2 yrs, 5 mos.” The script assures me that baby Homer has “gone to be with the angels.” How easy it was to die “back then,” I marvel. Here, over my shoulder, a relative explains nineteenth and early twentieth-century infant mortality and how readily mothers died giving life. “People didn’t live as long.” The children’s graves humanize the cold monuments to me. I cannot relate to the dour adults I imagine buried around me but Homer here, and Ann over there; well, at ten, I have already outlived them. And I feel a catch in my throat at the thought.

Now I am forty-one, and until this year, my visits to cemeteries had all but stopped. I visit my beloved mother’s grave every season since her passing in the winter of 2014, but apart from this seasonal pilgrimage to a leafy Massachusetts burial ground, I have been spending my time more squarely among the living. Until the coronavirus. COVID-19 sent me back to cemeteries for the simple reason that my daughters needed a place to be able to ride their bikes in safety and freedom. My youngest learned to ride her bike without training wheels at the start of our virus lockdown, and we wanted a place where she could practice without traffic and without needing to wear a mask. Whenever we drove just up the road to the hillside Evergreen Cemetery, we were the only visitors to the sprawling grounds, or nearly so. We did not need to worry about placing others in danger, and we did not need to feel endangered. And so my girls and I would ride our bikes and sometimes even pretend, so doing, that we were on rides at a favorite amusement park. “Here we go up the hill of Bamboo Chutes,” one of us would proclaim. We’d imitate the precarious clinking sounds of the carriage as it ascended the ominous hill before rattling down steeply into a watery bed below. At the crest of the cemetery’s largest, most smoothly paved hill, we’d turn to each other and ask, “Are you ready? Let’s go!” Then, “Wheee!” down the hill, with the wind in our hair, brisk air tingling our faces, we would plunge not nearly as fast as a Bamboo Chutes plummet, but nearly as exhilarating. And for a moment, we were transported out of quarantine and into an adventure.

These cemetery excursions back into the simplicity and imagination of childhood, with my daughters like two angelic guides ushering me back through the years, filled me up and fed my soul. They reminded me that the exhilaration, freedom, and joy of childhood was still accessible to me as an adult. I just needed certain conditions in order to find my way back. I needed a certain freeness of mind. Going remote with my teaching and my instructional support roles lightened my workload and abbreviated my workday schedule. I suddenly had time before work to run and time after work to spend highly prized, focused time with my daughters, like cycling around the Evergreen Cemetery. I could be relatively caught up on work and able to be more creative thanks to the diminishing of my cognitive load and to the acquisition of more time for spiritual development and physical exertion. Like a child, I felt more able to simply “be.”

Along with the freeness of mind this new COVID reality produced, I learned that I could engage more consistently with simple, childlike pleasures: reading, jotting down thoughts without worrying about penmanship, grammar, or who might read them. Cycling in the neighborhood and going for short, local walks after dinner. Cooking and baking, writing letters, making phone calls to family and friends who were wrestling with isolation or poor health. I sewed masks and tote bags. Like many others during lockdown, I played board games and completed jigsaw puzzles. I lived in the moment.

In the cemetery, I rediscovered how badly I needed fresh air. The feel of the March and April breezes against my face racing down the cemetery hill brought a certain, ecstatic and expansive brand of exhilaration I had not known for decades. It mattered little that many days were bracingly windy days. I felt the truth of the expression, first conveyed by Alfred Wainwright in Coast to Coast (1973) that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” I adapted accordingly, recognizing I needed these fresh air afternoons more during COVID than perhaps ever before.

I needed childlike wonder. I harbor a vast capacity for wonder. I felt it when I consistently “looked up” while walking around Oxford, England, my home for a year between ages 20 and 21, when a Welsh friend, who had lived there for longer, told me with some sadness, “People stop looking up. You still look up. People who have lived here a long time tend to stop looking up.” The reason for this looking up? Oxford’s famed “dreaming spires” (so named by poet Matthew Arnold). As I daily walked miles and miles around Oxford, I never lost the urge, nor the obedience to the urge, to look up at the university’s ornate architecture, its gargoyles, its magnificent spires against the English sky. And when my friend told me that people eventually stopped looking up, I hoped that might never be true of me. But my afternoons at the Evergreen Cemetery showed me that I had, in the hectic pace of each school year (my working year), sped up so much, I could no longer notice the essential and exquisite things in the same way, in the only way that matters: the way that nourishes. In the summer school vacation, I might relish the ostentatious gardenia bloom unfurling on my porch on a steamy July morning. Just before Christmas, when school was out, I might spend a few minutes of an evening beneath the tree, marveling at the glory, the warmth, the stillness, and the holiness of the season, of the moment. But in my everyday, workaday life, I was like the Oxonians who no longer looked up. I had places to go, people to help, duties to fulfill, children to assist, and chores to square away. I always knew the spires were there, and I felt a pervasive longing for them. They haunted the peripheries of my mind. I knew there was more to register, to feel, to experience, to revere. But I no longer had the time to access most of it. Everything about my work life and home demands was too urgent. The urgency squelched the awe. Or, it demanded that the awe be delayed.

As I rode my bike in and out of cemetery lanes and noticed names and dates, I began to cobble together lives. I imagined what these people meant to each other and to family members either still living or buried elsewhere. And with this recognition of the fullness of the lives represented by each grave, and the registering of the brevity of each human act upon the grand theater of the universe, I began, from this more detached perspective, to perceive the machine of modern life in which I am cog. I gained the vantage point that allowed me to see the system in which I, and my family, have been living: all its churning, striving, earning, acquiring, protecting, conserving, surviving. I saw that too little of it lasts or matters on the eternal stage. What am I to these once precious lives now buried beneath the earth? What is my family? What is our work, our goals, our little daily struggles and dramas? What is our school system, its strategic plans and curricular goals, against the backdrop of eternity? There on the cracked cemetery pavement, I was wrestling with Jane Austen’s question in Pride and Prejudice, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Or, as Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse reflects, “And what are two thousand years?...What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare (35).” Mr. Ramsay realizes that “His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still (35).” After noting these uncomfortable and unavoidable truths, “the waste of the years and the perishing of stars (36),” Mr. Ramsay is left with one prevailing question which is this: in light of these revelations, “who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world (36)?” And that was where I found myself in the Evergreen Cemetery during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted desperately to pay homage to the beauty of the world, even in its brevity. The beauty is surely bound up in the brevity. And I knew I hadn’t been living enough of my life in such a way as to be able to do that. Not fully. Not truly. Not in the way I most wanted to.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh expressed in Gift from the Sea, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have found, is being insincere.” These cemetery visits showed me that I had been living insincerely. I was working and striving and “holding down the fort,” pretending the spires were not beckoning above me and pretending that life is not too brief for frenetic activity that does not feed the inner person. Yet all the while, I knew the spires were there. All the while, my wiser self perceived I was too often forfeiting the most important for the seemingly most pressing or unavoidable. Like the White Rabbit always running late, I was pushing ahead, frantic to get to meet the next assignment, the next duty, the next need -- and to meet it adequately and well. But the Evensong music of the spires was reverberating through the outer reaches of my mind and soul, and I was thirsty. Always thirsty. And exhausted. Because I was pretending that all that was filling up my harried, weary life was enough, when inwardly I knew that it was not. And I knew too much of my time was spent on that which is ephemeral. And I knew it did not make me whole.

Now it is December in the first year of the COVID-19 crisis, and our school has returned to full-time in-person instruction. I wish I could say that we took what we valued most about our spring and summer retreat into a slower pace and simple living squarely into our current reality. I wish I could say that I found a way to hold onto my cemetery revelations in such a way that I refused to go back to the way things were. But I can’t. To be fair, this is partly because we are still firmly in the pandemic’s grip. The school day is fraught with extra duties and protocols due to safety requirements, and these are unavoidable. Perhaps we would be implementing greater balance had we the option. We are all in survival mode and are trying to do the best we can.

It is premature to wish too stridently for full implementation of a new approach to living while staying alive and keeping others alive -- and growing and learning -- is currently a full-time endeavor. But, as morbid as it felt to title this essay as I have and to spend so many words reflecting upon lessons learned among graves, this was the only thing that wanted to be written from this time of COVID-19. It is what I take away with me and what I put down here so that I might not forget.

When we emerge from this period of survival, I want to structure my life, our family’s life, in such a way as to make looking up not only more possible but to render it into the most common posture of our days. I want to turn heliotropic like a daisy tracking the sun’s movement, turning my face up to receive my sustenance daily, to entertain reverence and awe, and to access the ineffable, plugging into the eternal. I cannot pretend I have fully fleshed out what will go into making that possible. I’m not certain how I will, in business-speak, in cog-of-the-machine-speak, “roll it out,” but I know it will involve stepping outside of the machine more regularly and more fluidly. Even better, I hope we can transform our daily machines, be those school machines, work machines, or other forms of life that feel too consuming and compulsively efficient, and make them into communities that allow for greater spirituality and presence. And I know that I may need to be instrumental in helping that to happen. I hope and trust, when this is over, that I might summon the conviction and the passion to live, and to help others to live, “looking up.”

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