A couple of weeks ago, I volunteered to help clean up a historic cemetery with the young professionals branch of a preservation society I joined back when I was still employed and considered myself somewhat professional (the "young" part was a little more dubious, but I slipped in under the wire). This city does not have a rich tradition of appreciation for historic buildings and landmarks, so I admire people who actively resist the lure of all new everything, all the time. Plus I'm trying my best to feel rooted here, and a couple of my friends are involved, and when you're trying to meet new people and impact your community in a positive way, signing up for stuff is a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
(If there is one thing I hope comes through these posts, it is that I am trying.)
We started relatively early on one of the first Saturday mornings with a chill in the air. It was my first activity since signing up for the membership online, and I knew a total of three people in the organization. I resolved in the car on the way across town to get over myself; I would set aside my introversion at least long enough to meet two new people. That seemed like a measurable, achievable goal. So I was pumped at how easy it was turning out to be as I walked over to the two people welcoming volunteers and confidently extended my hand, gave them my name, and told them it was my first time out with the organization. The woman--between ten and 15 years older than me--looked off in annoyance, and the guy--about ten years younger than me--shrugged apologetically and said, "I think your group is waiting over there. We're here with the community college."
Oh. Well. In that case, I'll just...yeah. Nice to meet you anyway!
(In my defense, I was between coffee grinders at the time, so I started the morning without my usual dose of caffeine.)
The group I needed to join was already huddled around the person running the project for the cemetery, so I sidled up to them quietly and listened to our instructions. I thought we would be doing typical outdoor clean up: pulling weeds, raking, etc. As it turned out, the community college kids got that chore. We got a far more interesting assignment.
Cemetery records indicate approximately 5000 people (or maybe it was 500--like I said, I hadn't had enough coffee that morning) buried there, but you can take one look and tell the number of headstones doesn't add up to nearly that many. Sure enough, there are only 350 headstones listed in records riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Our job was to take various quadrants of the cemetery and meticulously check the printed records against the ground beneath our feet. I split off with a cluster of fellow history enthusiasts and headed for the back corner.
For the next two hours, we pored over the way families memorialized their dead. This was a burial ground for the everyman; other than a few large, graceful markers, most were pretty humble. Nice enough, like the family wanted to be sure "Our Beloved" was well represented among the rest of the cemetery's occupants, but nothing especially striking. I found one crypt that didn't show up in any of the records where someone had used a stick or something to note the information in the concrete by hand. I imagined a family arguing over who was going to pay for the headstone until finally someone had enough and said, "Forget it, then! I'll take care of this."
The cemetery representative made the rounds between the groups, checking our progress and answering questions. We hit a lull in that line of conversation, so I decided to ask about something not officially related to our task.
"What's the deal with the painted tree stumps? I mean, you can tell someone worked really hard on all of them. I've never seen that before."
We all paused for a moment to take in the clusters of colors and patterns scattered in the spaces between headstones across the whole cemetery. He smiled as he talked about a local artist who coordinated the project, and I thought he was going to tell me that it was an art installation to draw attention to the cemetery and raise money for its preservation.
But no, that wasn't it. Or at least, not all of it.
The real reason, he explained, was to cause the stumps to decay faster. The cemetery became overgrown with trees during an especially dilapidated period, only to have those trees decimated by one of the tropical storms that huffed and puffed its way through the area. The people running the cemetery couldn't afford to have all the stumps removed (the former Connecticut homeowner in me nodded at this--getting rid of stumps is a freakishly expensive undertaking), so they painted them instead. The paint makes them deteriorate faster, so removing them becomes a much simpler (and cheaper) proposition. In the meantime, the painted stumps look a lot more interesting and the artistic project increases community exposure to the cemetery. Win-win-win across the board. I'm a big fan of creative solutions, and this particular one seems brilliant in the way it meets a variety of needs. And a little more color in the world is always a good thing.
The Jesus girl in me also couldn't help noticing the parallels between painted, decaying stumps in a cemetery and one of the most famous similes in the Bible:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. (Matthew 23:27)
There's a distinct difference, though: the paint on the outside of these remnants is there for the explicit purpose of causing more efficient decay. The scribes and Pharisees were trying to pretend the decay at their core didn't exist; they were all about the outside appearance as misdirection from what was really happening in their hearts.
With the tree stumps, no one is trying to dress anything up or deny a problem exists. I'm sure the cemetery would love to hire a landscaping company to come get rid of the stumps and call it a day. But since they can't afford to do that, their solution ends up drawing attention to the problem as it is resolved in an unexpected way. I find that refreshing.
I've noticed myself cringing lately when people ask me what or how I'm doing. I say essentially the same thing as I did when I left my job last month--I'm okay, taking some time to figure out what I want to do next, resting a little in between things. It's all mostly true, so it isn't hard to stay consistent. But as the time "between things" drags on, the conversation itself gets more uncomfortable. As a society, we put so much emphasis on people having it all together--career, house, family, car, hobbies, vacations, etc.--and I've always been someone who had my act together. Even as I child, I was known as a resourceful, responsible person who managed to take care of business in spite of the occasional mess.
In many ways, I am still that resourceful, responsible person. I always will be. But there isn't much about my life that can be tied up with a nice neat bow right now.
And there have been way too many times when all that resourcefulness and responsibility masked a world of dysfunction and decay. I performed my hostess duties flawlessly the night friends showed up with their kids to have dinner and play moments after I finished cleaning up the remnants of a computer being thrown across the room. I cooed and smiled with the baby and pulled activity books out of the diaper bag to entertain my son when we sat down at a restaurant for Mother's Day lunch; you'd never know I'd been the object of a stream of obscenities in the car ride over. Stay calm, wait it out, don't flinch--and more important than anything else, act like everything is fine and eventually it will be.
Except it wasn't. And now here I am.
The whitewashed tomb approach proved just as destructive for me as it was for the Pharisees and scribes.
But I'm lucky enough to know there is a better way.
Therapy and a divorce and a move across the country cleared away a lot of debris in my life, but I haven't known what to do about the tree stumps with their deep, persistent roots. I can't just have someone come in and get rid of them for me, as satisfying and convenient as that might be: I have more than a decade left to share immediate responsibility for three children, not to mention a lifetime ahead of shared involvement in their lives. I might clear out some of the tree stumps eventually, but it can't happen overnight.
So I think it's time to get out the paints. Or in my case, the pen, paper, and camera. Focusing creative attention on my own struggles might light the way for someone else. And if nothing else, it dots the landscape with color and design. Win-win-win.
It's time to write about my marriage and relationship of more than 20 years with my ex-husband. I know I have mentioned bits and pieces here, but it feels like I need to take a more cohesive approach. I have to think about how to do that in a way that respects my ex-husband's dignity as a human being, knowing that he and people who love him--including our children--might read what I write someday. And I have to brace myself for fully acknowledging my own errors and failings, which are manifold. The part from Jon Kabat-Zinn's meditation on patience that I mentioned in my last post, "what will come next will be determined in large measure by how we are now," will need to be on a constant loop in my head. Honest? Yes. Loving? Yes. Bitter? No. Vindictive? Absolutely not.
But I think the only way forward is through; I can't avoid it if I really want to make lasting progress. The Pivot Project is entering a new phase, and telling this story will be one of the hardest things I've ever done. If you are inclined to pray, please ask God to help me be brave, fair, and as full of His grace as possible.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.