Lookout Mountain, June

Wherever orange and ochre ditch-lillies
Cradle a rural highway’s curve or the
Summersweet goodness of black raspberries
Calls out from an overgrown, vacant lot,
Recall an abundant God who delights
In the mysterious placement of gifts
To slake the thirst of withered, weary souls.

In the chirps of bluebird hatchlings crying
For their food from within a trashcan nest,
In every kind and holy word spoken
Amid hurried striving for peace and rest,
In unsought, unbought graces coursing through
The veins of the world, receive the oracle—
Witness that there are no cosmic orphans.

Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

Embrace atop a Civil War Monument

Deer, fluffed against the wind, graze among cannons
Upon the transfigured remains of the dead.

Ten thousand frogs, from craters-turned-vernal-pools
Cry out, lamenting the great dissipation.

On a snowy granite column, two figures
Gaze past each other, extending handshakes.

In glances not quite meeting, another hides,
Obscured in the blind spot of their cross-eyed stares.

His plight was the reason for the rift here patched,
His name, his toil, his pension forgotten still.

He was and remains a man, whatever past
Illusions and alliances denied him.

But the figures’ blank whitened faces hint
That next time, they would rather work together.

Image: New York Monument, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, January 2021.

Hiwassee

At the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, silt swamps and rich farmland attract tens of thousands of sandhill cranes on their annual migration from the upper midwest to the Gulf coast. In recent decades, a sizeable population overwinters there instead of continuing further south. Just downstream from this merging point is Blythe Ferry, the site of the final forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands, where some 9,000 men, women, and children were held in camps for weeks before floating downstream or being carried across the river to walk what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

From the air, a river’s course is plain—
No surprise waiting around the bend
On this map for migrating sandhills.
Life is carried effortlessly as silt.
The flock pauses to dig mussels or
Pillage a farmer’s unreaped corn
Rejoicing in rattling trumpet calls.

From the ground, a river marks an edge
A line of knowing and not knowing
One side from the other as it flows.
Death is carried down cold and aloof.
Blood, waste, and tears washed along with mud
From a people massed and waiting for
The flood of pain to crest and recede.

Image: Original watercolor, January 2021