I was probably upset about something the first time I walked in Cathedral Cemetery. It’s only three blocks up the hill and so the fastest I can get into a park-like setting without getting in a car. I wouldn’t have had a car when I took that first walk. I went without one for five years after totaling my first Subaru.
It could have been an ordinary day but odds are I was crawling out of my skin with anxiety. Afraid of taking a drink I’d regret because of loneliness, because of my neurotic fear of unrequited love. Walking was one of the only things that helped. If I could at least tire myself out, one foot in front of the other, until I stopped wanting to disappear, then I could get through the rest of the day – have a cool-down popsicle and pretend to read or watch a movie. Or maybe keep listening to an audiobook I had gotten into during the walk. Those are the best walks. When the book is so good you can’t help getting sucked in no matter how much real life sucks.
After a few walks on scalding afternoons, I figured out a route of maximum tree line in the shadiest parts of the cemetery to stay as cool as possible. The route has evolved over the years but one section I never fail to miss is a dip into an older part of cemetery along a stretch of unpaved path. There’s a tree the path turns around as it heads back toward the main road. And that’s where I stop to pray.
The sky is enormous there. It often looks like three different skies depending on which direction you face. Storm clouds ahead. Fluffy cumulus to the right. Three gorgeous shades of blue with cirrus accents and contrails over the mountains behind me. I don’t know how or why this spot spoke to me the first time, but it’s where I had one of the many spiritual experiences I documented at the beginning of my AA journey.
I felt a connection. I asked for strength, for guidance. I prayed for some kind of a sign.
My memory is weak but I can remember the fear well enough.
I cried that love had abandoned me again, and then my phone rang, paces away from the spot where I had prayed. Or I received a text message just when I was about to give up hope. Or once I came home to find that an email had arrived at the very moment I had prayed under that tree.
Sometimes I saw signs in the clouds. A random rainbow when there had been no rain. The shape of a heart. Maybe it was a feeling – relief or renewed hope that all I had to do was keep loving without expectation of anything in return and everything would be okay.
In the end, it always was okay. And this has helped me get to today. Just get through the uncertainty. Wait for the dark clouds to blow away and the sky will clear again.
On good days, when I was happy, I still stopped to pray in that special spot, offering thanks and recommitting myself to service in gratitude for all the blessings I had received. Sometimes I prayed for others who I knew were struggling or sent out love to the universe.
My walks in the cemetery grew rarer after I was given the gift of a gym membership. But on days too beautiful to spend inside or when I could deal with being around people, the walk was always there for me. An old friend, a welcome change of pace.
And then the coronavirus shut everything down. Without the gym, that old walk has become my new daily habit. The cemetery is literally the only place I’ve been outside my house in weeks. And as this cursed year of 2020 would have it, I’ve found myself in need of strength and guidance again. I’m getting too old for broken hearts. I fear that like the bones that grow more brittle with age, my heart is no longer able to bounce back to an optimistic outlook. My daughter tells me 48 is young but I’m convinced after she moves out, I will die alone.
For all my prayer, why this lack of hope?
My prayers had been answered before and I wanted to believe they would be again. I had sinned, sure, but no more than anyone else, and I hadn’t I paid for those sins? In suffering, in trials carried with gracious trust, always giving back everything I could, doing the right thing as often as I could without expecting a reward.
I’m no saint, but my God is not a punishing God. I don’t believe shame or blame are helpful. And I’ve worked hard, trying to rewire myself, to stop beating myself up. My Goddess is not a judgmental, vengeful old white man on an intimidating throne in the sky. My god is all that is good in our consciousness, a mysterious force beyond human understanding, an innate sense we are born into this world in our hearts. There’s something cosmic in our DNA that guides us through our darker instincts intact and leads us away from destructive temptations. My god is love – unconditional love because no matter what evil we do, we are worthy of redemption as long as we are willing to change.
But now, in this new time of need, there were no signs. Nothing to see. Silence. No encouragements; no answers. I’ve gone home empty handed, got back to work. The work has kept me on track. People are counting on me and I cannot let them down.
Still trying to move forward but with no resolutions, no clues, I struggled even more to get through this last week. And that’s when things got weird.
Instead of no signs, suddenly there was a murdered bird. Right on the path, steps from where I begged the skies for mercy. I saw feathers first, sprayed out before the bird’s body, ripped open and left behind by some predator.
That it was a bird had significance. An obvious symbol of my estranged love. Was this my sign? The signs had always been pleasant in the past. Rewarding. This was horrific. Was I supposed to understand it was over for good this time?
I couldn’t bear the thought. Maybe this was just a bizarre coincidence. Surely God hadn’t killed a bird to shake me from distress, urge me to move on?
On the way back to the house, I ran into another bird a block from my house. This one injured, probably stunned by a car, it lay inert in the middle of the road with its legs up in the air. It fluttered frantically as I approached, tried to upright itself and fly away but couldn’t. What was I supposed to do with this bird? Pick it up, carry it out of the road? Its sudden fluttering shocked me. I thought it was dead at first. I ran away. Then I hated myself for not getting the bird out of the road. I cursed my weakness. It would certainly be run over. It was going to die anyway … maybe that would be most merciful?
On the next day’s walk, there was no sign of either bird. As if the slate had been wiped clean. Could this be the sign? That renewal was possible even after such horror? It’s a stretch – there are no right answers here. Only what I can come to believe. The walk was uneventful. Better no signs than evidence of nature’s brutality.
But then Thursday – if I didn’t know better, I’d think God was getting annoyed with my pleas and decided to fuck with me. That’s what I get for putting stock in such silly superstition. But wait, I don’t believe in that kind of god, right? I am on no deity’s radar.
As I stand in my special place of prayer, reading the clouds like tea leaves, trying to make some meaning out of everything I don’t understand, an old man in a red Trump MAGA hat, dirty red v-neck sweater and baggy black jeans barely held up by their belt, appears out of nowhere and limps toward me.
He asks if I’m looking at the trees, if I like the wilderness.
Then he begins to recite … a long rhyming tribute to the wilderness. “Listen,” it urges.
And at first I am amazed.
What kind of sign is this? Not a cloud or a text tone but a real live poet?
Am I to be reminded of my calling to write, to compose, to recite, to perform those words?
Is it okay that I am going to be alone because I am meant to do this work, play the role that I have been assigned?
If only the poet had left when his poem was over. Nodded knowingly and wandered away … But instead, he tells me how to find his website, and that’s when it clicks.
I had met this man before.
He pulls a book out of his backpack to show me. Is he selling this to me, trying to get me to buy his book? Who does that? Walks up to a stranger communing with nature in the cemetery and tries to make a couple bucks?
I remembered him from Staples. When I worked in the Print and Marketing department and felt sorry for a colleague who put way too much work into some Eagle Tree poem project for this man only to be scolded by him. In the end, he may have apologized. At least she didn’t seem to mind helping him. But he certainly wasn’t entitled to the free design work he demanded and he didn’t seem to appreciate it when I saw him at the counter.
The random poetry recital could have been a lovely moment – mysterious and inspiring. But nope. It had to get weird. It became fraudulent somehow … Like I was being laughed at.
I was almost afraid to walk on Friday. I considered driving to the park, but what if I were to run into …
I can’t stop praying just because I don’t like the messages I’m getting. I’ve walked earlier the past two days and did not run into the poet again. The skies have been beautiful, dramatic and changing but ultimately meaningless. I’ve read my spiritual texts and meditated every morning but I worry I’m losing my faith. Some kinds of suffering wear a soul down more than others, makes it all seem like a scam. Was everything I believed all these years just a lie? Or maybe I’m just shedding old skin, transforming again. I can’t stop praying because the communication has become automatic. I feel connected to the world around me even when I feel alone. Nature will not abandon me like people do. My cat is here with me while I type.
I told the poet I will buy his book after the summer is over and my school contracts renew and I don’t have to hold my breath that I’ll be able to pay rent or utility bills. He doesn’t think I will remember but I made a promise and I intend to keep it.
I would write this piece, I told myself, as he walked away, so that I wouldn’t forget to look up the website and find the book. He will forget me, though, he said, and won’t remember how, in that moment, he had decided to personalize the inscription. There was something special he wanted to say.
These words will have to remember for both of us. Not that I’ll send him a copy. But I write this today so neither one of us has to hold on. There’s too much to carry to add the weight of fleeting words. It’s better to let them go. Like the clouds. There will be a new sky tomorrow.
-ag, june 7 2020