Stories in stone


The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Thursday mornings are hectic, as I cross off a laundry-list of chores before heading to Framingham State to teach an 8:30 am class. This morning as I neared Natick on my way to campus, I saw a flag at half-mast and the date dawned. Today, thirteen years ago. The tears came as unbidden and right as rain: tears for the grief, confusion, and fear everyone felt that crisp and beautiful autumn day thirteen years ago, and tears for all the lives that have been lost since then. How many flags at half-mast have flown these past thirteen years?

Dearly departed

The spring we put Reggie to sleep, I acquired the habit of weeping during my long drives to and from Keene: 90 uninterrupted minutes each way during which I had nothing to do but steer the car and marshal my own thoughts. My car provided a cocoon of privacy; nobody needed to see or know why I had tears streaming down my face, whether for a person or a pet or for the whole sad and suffering world.

Flowers

This morning I once again wept in my car: not for any individual person, but for the whole suffering world. I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed on September 11, but that day was a collective wound. Watching the news, hearing the stories, and seeing the flyers posted with pictures of the missing: these were enough to unite us in a shared upwelling of sympathy. When innocent lives are lost, you realize how tenuous and random your own survival is. The people who died on 9/11 and the people who have died in subsequent military operations could easily have been you, me, or any of our loved ones. How can any of us feel safe in a world where some of us are targeted?

Wreathed

Thirteen years is a lifetime, long enough for a child to ripen into puberty. Now that the first generation of post-9/11 children is entering young adulthood, what has happened to our grief and remembrance? They say that time heals all wounds, but memory (as Salvador Dali suggested) is persistent. Thirteen years was a lifetime ago–I was an entirely different person then, leading a life that now seems alien and unknowable. But the simple sight of a flag at half-mast is all it takes to melt the intervening years, the passage of time revealed as illusion. Grief knows no timetable, and sorrow has no season.

One wilted rose

We live in an amnesiac culture that ignores the past while chasing the future. In the pursuit of positivity, we are denied the chance to grieve, instead being told to “get over it.” September 11 is one of the few days a year when we are allowed to drop the pretense of optimism and cheer in order to be somber and still. I wish it were more acceptable to grieve whenever the occasion calls for it. To be awake these days is to have one’s heart broken on a daily basis. Planes fall out of the sky, black boys are shot in the street, and journalists are slaughtered overseas. How can we get over the grief of 9/11 when that day was merely the first in a thirteen-year-long litany of loss? At every turn, there is suffering, death, and mayhem; humanity, it turns out, is infinitely inventive when it comes to hurting one another. But with each instance of hurting also comes an instantaneous outpouring of help.

Memorial

September 11, 2001 was an impossibly beautiful fall day here in New England, an irony that has always struck me as cruel. But perhaps this juxtaposition of tragedy and beauty is merely reflective of the world we live in. In the face of heartbreak, there are hands to help. In the aftermath of suffering comes the strength and resilience to carry on.

I’ve previously blogged these photos of the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, which I’d shot in May, 2011. In the years since then, this stone memorial is already starting to wear away.

Mockingbird on gravestone

Today one of the errands on my to-do list was to go to the hardware store to get two propane tanks filled: a task I do every spring in advance of the summer grilling season. Next weekend, there will be a line of suburban folks waiting to get propane for their Memorial Day cookouts, but today it was just me and one other man standing outside the fenced enclosure at one corner of the hardware store parking lot where the propane guy duly fills small tanks from a much larger one.

Stone wall with grave marker

Next to the enclosure where the propane tank lives is the South (or Winchester Street) Burying Ground, a historic cemetery with 357 graves, the earliest of which dates back to 1802. Although I stand right next to this cemetery every spring while I wait for the propane guy to fill my tanks, I’d never before today set foot in it because I could never figure out how to get inside. Like the big propane tank I visit for a fill-up every spring, the South Burying Ground used to be enclosed in a chain link fence, presumably to keep vandals and other troublemakers out.

Brick wall with grave markers

Today, however, the fence separating the hardware store parking lot from the cemetery next door was gone, and someone had put Betsy Ross flags–American flags with a circle of 13 stars–on several of the graves, presumably those marking the resting places of veterans. Although I didn’t have much time to explore the now-accessible old cemetery, the simple act of tearing down a fence and putting up some flags completely transformed the place, turning it from something that looked grim and foreboding–somewhere you’re not supposed to explore–into something more inviting: a green and grassy place where mockingbirds sing.

Graves on the hill

It seems strange to contemplate a plot of centuries-old graves while waiting for a propane fill-up, but that’s how life is, isn’t it? On one side of a now-absent fence lie folks now largely forgotten; on the other, living folks like me go about their mundane chores. It doesn’t seem fair that the dead should have to put up with the traffic, hubbub, and general disregard of those going about the business of living, but when has it been any other way? The best the dead can hope for, I suppose, is to be forgotten enough: forgotten by vandals, overlooked by troublemakers, and visited by nobody other than mockingbirds and the occasional birder or blogger.

Although the South Burying Ground lies beyond my own block, today’s post does represent a bit of local color. If blogging your own neck of the woods sounds alluring, you might consider taking this week’s “Daily Post” writing challenge, “Blog Your Block,” written by yours truly. Enjoy!

Our angel boy

It’s becoming something of a tradition that J and I take a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery on Christmas Day. Last year, we saw a very tame wild turkey hunkered on a decorated grave, and this year, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings, I couldn’t help but notice the sad stones marking the graves of lost children.

Lost children

Many of the stones at Mount Auburn Cemetery are old; consecrated in 1831, the cemetery is America’s first garden cemetery, with its graves situated in a lushly landscaped park-like setting. But among the old stones are newer ones that loved ones faithfully adorn with flowers, wreaths, candles, and other decorations to brighten an otherwise lonely resting spot.

Nativity scene and candle

Perhaps because of memorials like these, I don’t find cemeteries to be depressing, just bittersweet: a reminder of mortality that makes me more (not less) grateful to be alive. The one thing we all share, after all, is mortality, and taking a quiet walk on an otherwise festive day is a great way to keep things in perspective.

Our little angel

Some folks are lucky to reach an advanced age before they die, and others exit this world far too soon. Is the richness of your life measured by length or by depth, by the number of your days or by the way you spend those days?

Praying angel

Click here for more pictures from this year’s Christmas Day walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Alongside

Late last December, in the quiet lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I made a pilgrimage to New York City, where we disembarked at Penn Station, walked to Ground Zero, and visited the 9/11 Memorial before having lunch, walking back to our train, and returning to Boston. It was a quintessential day trip: a journey there and back lasting little more than twelve hours.

Diagonal

Like any pilgrimage, it was a trip we’d planned months beforehand, as soon as we heard the 9/11 Memorial would be open to visitors on a reservation-only basis. The site was still an active construction zone, with workers raising nearby Freedom Tower; even with guest passes, we had to wend our way through a labyrinthine security line where no one complained about walking through metal detectors or passing their bags through X-ray machines.

Tower with waterfall

On a pilgrimage, you expect your travel to involve more than a bit of travail; on a pilgrimage, you’re willing to cultivate the virtues of patience and long-suffering, recognizing that life is a journey with many unforeseen twists and turns.

and her unborn child

Before we visited the 9/11 Memorial last December, J and I had seen a series of TV documentaries aired in honor of last September’s ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. We’d seen interviews with construction workers building Freedom Tower, we’d learned about the design of the memorial itself with its sunken waterfalls marking the footprints of the Twin Towers, and we’d learned the logic behind the arrangement of names on the metal panels rimming those fountains.

So many names

J and I arrived with a scrap of paper upon which I’d written the locations of two names we wanted to find during our visit: Patrick J. Quigley IV, who is buried in a cemetery not far from our house, and Welles Remy Crowther, a Boston College graduate who died after saving a dozen people from the South Tower. J and I never met either man, but their stories helped us put a face on the tragedy, and it felt appropriate to seek out their names in order to pay our respects.

Welles Crowther

As J and I walked around both waterfalls and considered the long, low wall of names surrounding them, I kept thinking of a line from the Psalms, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7, NIV). The Psalms contain prayers of praise and thanksgiving, but they also contain poems of anguish and despair.

World Trade Center

The sunken waterfalls of the Memorial evoke the heavy-heartedness most of us associate with 9/11, with falling water that is eerily reminiscent of both falling buildings and falling bodies. But falling water cannot be wounded: in the form of vapor, falling water rises again. The day J and I visited the Memorial was brisk and breezy, and one of the waterfalls was veiled with mist and a flirtation of rainbows that hinted toward the irrepressible nature of both spirit and beauty.

Hint of rainbow

A waterfall is the opposite of a looming tower: instead of rising up, these waters fall down. The sunken nature of the 9/11 Memorial waterfalls reminded me of a sipapu, the hole inside a Pueblo Indian dwelling that represents the opening through which ancient ancestors arrived in this world.

Falling down

When so many spirits left their bodies on September 11, 2001, where did they go? Did they fall down, like water; did they rise up, like clouds; or did they remain in our midst, like mist? What exactly are the waves and breakers the poet mentions in Psalm 42? Are they the waves of loss, the breakers of despair, or the sea of loved ones who will never be forgotten, even under the shadow of a veil of tears?

Looking back

Click here for more photos of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, taken in December, 2011.

Nestled turkey

If you’re a wild turkey looking for a quiet place to lie low for the holidays, you could do far worse than choosing to nestle beside a grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery, far from hungry hunters or cooks with roasting pans. Cemeteries provide a tranquil respite from even the most hectic holiday hubbub, and Mount Auburn has a long history of harboring creatures who simply want to lie in a safe spot.

Mourning his master

The people of Massachusetts will always remember

Earlier this month, on a rainy walk through Boston’s Public Garden, J and I took a moment to visit the Garden of Remembrance, a memorial to the Massachusetts citizens who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the weekend after Osama bin Laden had been killed, so the memorial was decorated with 206 white roses that had been placed on the monument the day after bin Laden’s death: 206 roses for 206 victims, a visual symbol that the people of Massachusetts will always remember those who died.

Dearly departed

Visiting a rainy memorial strewn with wilted flowers felt entirely appropriate. The Public Garden was largely deserted, so J and I had time to ponder the monument and read the chiseled names without the distraction of passing tourists. Almost immediately, I searched for the name of Patrick J. Quigley, IV, whose grave J and I first encountered on a walk through Newton Cemetery several years ago. J and I never met Patrick Quigley, but somehow he’s become the face of 9/11 for me: one name whose death personalizes the passing of all the other names. And sure enough, as soon as I saw Quigley’s name, I felt my eyes misting with something other than raindrops. Just like that, the memories of that terrible day came back, and with them a flood of sympathy for the families of the victims. This memorial is a visible symbol that we won’t forget the ones who were lost: how can we forget, when the families of the victims live on, their lives forever punctuated?

Flowers

In her book Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell describes the first time she visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC, which I visited in 2005. Initially, Vowell finds the monument cumbersome with its ring of pillars for the 50 states…but upon seeing the “Oklahoma” pillar, she breaks into tears thinking about an uncle’s story about spending a month in wet socks fighting the Japanese for control of a hill.

Suddenly and forever the World War II memorial stopped being clunky architecture and turned into the sound of my uncle’s voice telling me that story. Now I don’t care what it looks like. They could have carved it out of chewed bubble gum and I would think of it fondly.

This, I think, is the power of memorials, both the stone monuments we erect for the dead and this holiday, Memorial Day: a day set aside for remembrance. It’s easy to forget our uncle’s stories, or the stories of other folks’ uncles. Stone memorials are designed to remind us of some stone-cold truths: people die, and our memories are simultaneously tenuous and as strong as death. It’s easy to forget the touch of a now-gone hand, but easy to remember a story that touched us. All we need to resurrect the past is a reminder–a marker, a monument, a memorial. The simple sight of a name carved on stone is enough to bring us to tears, raindrops erasing the fragile line between then and now.

Click here for more photos from the Garden of Remembrance in Boston’s Public Garden, and happy Memorial Day.

Eventually...

J was the one to spot “my” grave during our stroll through Newton Cemetery this afternoon. As much as I enjoy exploring cemeteries, today was the first time I’ve ever encountered a tombstone with my name on it. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives living (or once living) in Newton, Massachusetts, so I’ll assume “DiSabato” is more common a name than I knew. Still, it’s a bit creepy to turn around and see a carved-in-stone reminder of your own mortality. There eventually go I, and you, and all of us.

War memorial

I don’t normally find cemeteries to be creepy places…and yet, I occasionally see memorials that stop me cold, offering as they do a tangible reminder of the mortality we all share. Tombstones marking the graves of children always give me pause, and today, J and I saw several graves that were adorned with Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers, a sign that the Dearly Departed really are dear. After seeing the usual His and Hers grave markers with the name of a still-living widow or widower next to the birth and death dates of a deceased spouse, J talked of visiting his grandfather’s grave with his grandmother, her name chiseled alongside her husband’s. I suppose there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing where and with whom your ultimate resting place will be,visits to your own (eventual) grave being one way of getting to know your (eventual) neighborhood.

Both J and I grew quiet when we approached a field of war dead, that portion of any cemetery always seeming too large. But the memorial that stunned us both into silence was this one, the death date (September 11, 2001) explaining why this particular loss happened far too prematurely:

Rest in peace

After we got home, J went online find the face and story behind the stone. Some souls continue to be mourned even by those of us who never knew them in the flesh.

Next Page »