Normal

I was speaking with a friend about this poem over coffee this morning. I drafted it at 7 am, alone on my porch, under a cloudless sky but with a chilly wind blowing. This friend’s a person who happens to be all too well aware that the expectations instilled in us (by parents? by society? by the media? who can say?) concerning what a normal life entails are…let us say, less than accurate–and possibly harmfully untrue.

Also? She endures. We endure.
~

Argument against Living a Normal Life

First, we don’t know what it means, or if we do,
the meaning’s subjective; whereas the phrase implies
an average or agreed-upon measure beside which
every other life is measured–and second, each of us
comes up short by those standards, so it’s statistically
impossible to determine a mean. Then there remains
the case that this ideal is no ideal, as every life
contains elements of grief and injury. So how to average
out whose portions are the greater and whose the lesser,
since pain cannot be measured except through comparison
with previous subjective experiences and the spectrum
from 1 to 10 or happy face to weepy face varies from
person to person? That is not a rhetorical question,
my friend. Do the research, read about the Buddha, ask
a thousand doctors. Normal life: it’s one of those tricks
we play on ourselves. Take the adjective away and live
what you have in this particular moment. Work your way
into your suffering and your anger because they are
unavoidable. Walk your dog. Take up oil painting. Travel
to France. Watch a flock of starlings cluster and abate
over the Cimetière de Verdun in autumn. What ever were
you thinking when you said you wanted only to live
a normal life?
~

images

Cimetière de Verdun. No starlings.

~

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Tending, clearing

According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, between now and the late April rains one should tend to the graves of one’s ancestors. This period goes by the name 清明, or qīngmíng, and the weeks are designated “clear and bright.”

In my part of the world, we experience a mix of rainy and clear; but the days are warming and the grass greener. The annual winter weeds pull up easily, and the tough perennial weeds emerge before the grasses. The moist, newly-thawed soil makes levering those weeds less difficult now than later in the year.

I, however, do not live anywhere near my ancestors’ graves.

~

Clearing

Clear the patch that yields
to memory
clutch the hand hoe
and the trowel
disturbing early spring’s
small bees and gnats
beneath the plum’s
blossoming branches

Weeds encroach here
grasses grown too high
a nearby stone
toppled and broken
tells us about
forgetfulness

Insects surround
the quiet morning
active each year as warmth
moves into earth
the newt that curls
under last year’s leaf
finds sustenance

As do we
in our earnest effort
clearing as skies clear
each handful of chickweed
representing thanks
to those whose efforts
and accidents
brought us into
the world

~

getPart-1

photo by David Sloan

Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

~

While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

GreenwoodTree2-26Oct2013

Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

~

There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.