Interrupted Conversation



A life filled to the brim
     with contradictions –
they drive me this way and that
     along a narrow, steep path.
The path uncertain,
     and I am blind –
this path no path,
     a crack in the world

I live in a little house on a hill at the edge of a small town.  Down below me in the valley lies the town proper, from all sides of which the land rises upward into a series of low, rounded peaks.  These are the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, smoothed by weather and time into a softly undulating terrain.  Viewed from a distance, these hills appear to be thickly covered with trees; this gives them the illusion of being but sparsely inhabited.  Seen up close, however, this seemingly uncharted land is revealed to be interlaced with blacktop highways and dusty country roads, or sectioned off by streets between which lie rows of closely packed houses.  Although there are a good many trees, even a few small woods to be found, this is no wilderness against which humans must struggle in order to secure their existence.  That battle was won a long time ago.  Rather, this is nature conquered and tamed, cultivated and groomed so as to provide the most complimentary background possible for the descendants of those earlier combatants whose memory may be forgotten, but whose urge to command and order the uncivilized character of the world about them lives on.  It is, or has always seemed to me, a curiously strange mutation of forces that has wrought into being, from the stock of the natural world, this intricately networked hodgepodge of houses and stores, factories and farms, sewage systems and gas pipes, electrical currents running through wires, cement sidewalks and tar-covered roads.  I look out on it all from the vantage point of my house on the hill with a sometimes puzzled, and frequently doubtful, eye.

The cemetery for the town below is located up on top of this hill.  Through a small stand of trees and down a short dirt road, it lies no more than a few minute's walk from my house.  I go there often.  To some this might seem a strange, even a morbid habit to indulge, but I find that the cemetery makes a good place for thinking.  Wandering through its tranquil domains seems to help facilitate a more tranquil wandering through my own mind.  And although I'm not particularly given to brooding on death, I must admit that I find the presence of those who have passed beyond to be peculiarly comforting.  They give me a sense of continuity, I suppose; even of hope:  they who lie so peacefully under the ground have, after all, been through something much worse than anything I've ever faced.  Of course, they didn't survive what they've been through – but still.  I find that their presence helps me to keep things in perspective.

The cemetery is soothing in other ways as well, acting as a sort of balm to the senses, it being so quiet and old and also quite beautiful in its own rustic sort of way.  Evidently a good deal of thought was put into the planting of trees and shrubbery, for there is always a freshness of size and shape to greet the eye.  Of color too, for in springtime the rhododendrons, of which there are many, put out great masses of flowers of red, purple, pink, and white.  They look as fantastical as giant party balloons or huge, old-fashioned ballroom gowns.  In autumn the leaves of the many trees – maple and oak, elm, birch and ash, their branches flung up against the sky – turn luminous as fire; and of course all through the summer there are flowers of many different kinds blooming on the graves.  Even the gravestones themselves are surprising for their variety.  Those who were rich in life have erected huge granite slabs, towering obelisks, or somber religious statues to mark where they lie in death; these strike me as being wonderfully absurd, both pretentious and humbling at once.  One part of the cemetery, the oldest part, has several long rows of tall and very thin, flat stones stuck close together and jutting out of the mossy ground at every odd angle, like old teeth.  Some are engraved with quaint lines of antique verse, such as the following:

Always be ready, no time delay;
I in my prime was called away;
Great grief to those that's left behind,
Hoping in time great joy to find.

Another section is filled with row and row of very small stones; these stand as mute testimony to those whose lives lasted only a few years, or a few hours, in this world.

It sometimes surprises me, when I go to walk there, how many other people I find roaming about the cemetery.  "What are you doing here?" I want to ask them.  "Haven't you anyplace better to go?"  As for me, the answer to that question is no.  The dead, I find, are exactly the right company for me:  all I really want is to be left alone.  Of course, some of the people I see are visiting the graves of relatives – but others treat the area as a sort of park.  They go there to walk their dogs, themselves, or each other, strolling about for the pleasure of exercise and the exercising of pleasure.  Sometimes kids can be seen riding their bikes along the narrow winding roads, or heard whooping and hollering through the woods, for running along one side of the cemetery there is a deep ravine with a creek at the bottom, and a fairly large strip of woods beyond – large enough to provide home to a small herd of deer, and a flock of wild turkeys; also to chipmunks and squirrels and to birds of course in countless numbers.  I've seen groundhogs there too, and the shy opossum; once I even saw a giant turtle who had dragged herself up to the top of the ravine for the purpose of scooping out a nest for her eggs.

Here, right against the edge of this wood, the ravine dropping down below me on one side and the cemetery spanning out beside me on the other, is where I like best to go walking.  It's a quiet, soothing place – but, what with the untrimmed weeds growing there, also just a little unruly.  I remember how, one autumn several years ago, I'd thought of making this little pathway of mine even more pleasurable by buying several packets of wildflower seeds and scattering them along the way.  I'd first got the idea in the spring when I'd spotted a clump of daffodils growing in amongst the weeds, presumably the result of someone having cast some extra bulbs aside after planting what they needed on a grave.  I thought of what fun it would be to see flowers blooming here and there unexpectedly all along the edge of the ravine, and of how other people might enjoy them as well, viewing their appearance with a kind of surprised wonder.  I even went so far as to think that they might be inspired, during their hour of need, to a greater degree of confidence in the cycles of the natural world, of which death is but another part.  But whether because the autumn leaves were so thick the seeds never reached the soil, or because the weeds coming up next spring were so plentiful that they crowded out all other growth, none of the seeds I'd scattered ever grew.