Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Awakening in a cemetery

About 7 years ago, I was working on the weekends as a building attendant/docent for a local heritage center that included a cemetery and a de-sanctified Carpenter Gothic Church.  It was a quite often solitary job, but I learned to appreciate the solitude and the place in ways I never could have imagined. My daily routine would see me leave the office in the museum, walk around the church, then wander through the cemetery, noting anything out of place. I was there to protect the historic treasure of a small community, but also to educate visitors.  Among the Hawthorne trees and the dead, I began to let my mind wander to other existences, and to tune in to a world that is always around us, but so often ignored.

Here, I learned that the trees really do have a voice and the land, sometimes, remembers things we have forgotten.  It will tell you its stories if you can listen long enough and carefully enough. A patch of lily of the valley that blooms each May marks a lost grave missing it's marker.  The plinth that a stone angel once stood on tells the tale of a family's sorrow over their daughter's death (a fragment of the sweet face carved in marble is all that is left and she sits, locked away in a museum case). Broken and repaired grave markers are testaments to someone's disrespect of others and other people's attempt to repair the damage and restore the past with a great deal of love, but little skill.  Plots never filled and the mix of languages and birthplaces carved into stone speak of global diaspora.  There is a a great deal to be learned in a cemetery, and there is even more to be learned from nature creeping back to overtake the space once again, to re-appropriate it into the world, rather than leaving it as a pristine time capsule.  Moss and lichen gentle erase carvings.  Wildflowers mix among those flowers planted in memory of the dead.  Ivy winds up trees and fences and threatens to cover all.  The soil here is expansive, soaking up huge amounts of water and swelling with the winter rains; in the dry seasons, this causes the large monuments to sink and list the side.  The land of this cemetery was once part of the fertile wetland border of a shallow lake that the native Ohlone made use of for their subsistence. The Hawthorn trees were a gift from an Irish family, and a connection to their homeland. They once formed an avenue, but their age is showing and they begin to their slow deaths and decay. Across the creek, huge, old oak trees filter out the noise of the nearby freeway, making it a hum rather than a roar.  They have long watched the changes made here: from wetlands to the Mexican rancho to small pioneer town to a city. Connections were forged here to Nature, to people, to the past, to myself.

 I learned that their were beings that inhabited the place. One tree had a rather angry being the was attached to it, and I tried not to disturb it. I was not the only person to not like standing under that tree because it felt very unwelcoming.  Another spirit I am convinced protected the people who visited from being injured by branches that routinely fell from a huge eucalyptus tree in the strong winds of the region.  The almond tree, planted on the grave of someone's beloved husband, would rain down sweet, pink petals in the early spring as I walked the back path.  It always felt like magic when it happened.  Another being liked to show me when the deer were resting in the deep creek bed late in the summer.  Migrating butterflies in the autumn would fly up to me and land on my lap if I sat out in the sunshine.  A hawk nested above the roof of the church and would watch me as I walked.  Mice lived in the printer of the museum office (housed in what was once the principals's office of an old schoolhouse), and the church was filled with a sense of anticipation each time I readied it for an event.  The process of opening each of the 10 windows, unbolting the shutters, pinning them in place, and gently closing the windows again was a joyful task.  When the church bell was rung, everything seemed to laugh.  I walked alone in that building many times.  My footsteps echoing on the redwood floor.  With the shutters closed, the dimness and silence was calming.  With the shutters open and sunlight pouring in and reflecting against the white shiplap, the place was transformed into a place of celebration.  Deaths and weddings and christenings were held there. Generations, literally, celebrated the moments of life within the walls, and the church remembered this, I think.

I came to love the smell of decaying leaves, and the sounds of footsteps in the detritus.  The stillness of a place left behind by history has taught me to really listen and understand how connected I am to everything around me.  From these experiences, I learned to trust my intuition, to be part of the world around me, and to gather stories from places.  It was during this period of my life that I began to really explore my own spirituality and to reconnect with a sense of wonder and belonging to the world.  I began to love this part of California, as much as I ever loved the mountains of Nevada.  I learned the rhythm of the seasons here, and to be at ease with the constant noise that comes from trees and their companion animals.  Among the dead, I began to develop a curiosity and acceptance of the people around me.  Strange are the places our spiritual journeys take us to teach us, yes?

These photos belong to me, please do not copy without permission.

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