Tag Archives: graveyard

In the Company of Souls

30 Jul

Have I ever told you about my dead friend Annie? I say cheerfully, as if I’m just dropping commentary on someone I ran into yesterday at the local Kroger.

Nnnnoooo… the person says in a slow conversational tone, until comprehension breaks across the slightly shocked, yet curious face.

And then I launch into the tale of Annie F. McWilliams Williams, the dead lady I befriended quite by accident on Ocracoke Island. Our meeting was simple. While vacationing there one hot July, I came across a broken headstone in the Fulcher – O’Neal Cemetery and became fascinated with her. Her death spoke to me, an ending after 41 years, 3 months, 1 day. From that photo on, I became permanent addition to one ordinary woman’s legacy.

My First picture of Annie, July 2000

My first picture of Annie, July 2000

This photograph of her broken cross headstone became a writing prompt in my classroom, part of a lesson on Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. For many years students created stories about how she died, who she was, what her life must have been like. Only after a repeat visit to Ocracoke in 2010 did I consider actually researching her and in three years, I know as much as I suppose I’m ever going to. Her family ties, her marriage to an older man with injuries from the Civil War, her dead infant daughters, and her own death, most likely from consumption, have all been revealed through documentation or deduction. I have a picture of her youngest brother Charlie, but none of her. Her face remains a mystery, but her spirit I can feel quite strongly. I have written many times about the peacefulness that comes attending to her grave. She represents home to me, an infinite home. One day, I hope to be laid to rest beside her.

However, meeting Annie began a slight fixation with graveyards. I have found great comfort of late in the company of souls. In following the sign of the letter and the Civil War, visiting Confederate graveyards and other war related sites has guided my recent wanderings. While visiting a friend in Lewisburg, W.V., a most unusual graveyard experience impacted the way I understand myself and the physical/ spiritual world around me. Let me preface this by saying that most of what I am about to describe can be rationalized with psychological explanation. And most importantly, I’m skeptical of the experience. But I also know that the right brain intuitive world is as real as the left brain rational one. That as beings of energy, the brain perceives both logically and intuitively, and at the base of it all, reality and truth are subjective, so bear with me while I tell the story of meeting a dead Confederate lad who just wants to go home.

On a humid overcast Sunday morning, my friend and I trekked up to the Confederate Cemetery, the resting place of 95 unknown soldiers from the Battle of Lewisburg on May 23, 1862. Walking through the iron gate, a cross shaped mass grave stretched before me like the corpse of some great bird, soft swollen belly and lifeless head exposed to the bright blue sky. After emptying my arms of possessions, the experiment began. As a highly intuitive and empathic person, I can “feel” energy. Without a long justification of this “sixth sense” about people and places, I’ll just say relying on it for over twenty years in working with others has served me well. Students have remarked about this many times. Our communications aren’t totally dependent upon verbal means. Many times, they are simply felt.

Standing at the head of the mulched mound, the quietness in me comes, and I probe what is there. Building into a gust, it washed over me like first breaths of a mountain summer storm.

wwwhhHHHYYYYY!!!

Intense shock. . .confusion. And the word, pressed into the front of my mind like a stone in one’s shoe, small, sharp and painfully palpable.

WHY?

In my mind, point of view now extended from the supine position, the last bit of air offering a plea to the sky.

“I can’t tell you why”, I thought. “But it’s okay lads”.

And then a pressure, a pulling to the left of dead center, not completely under the tree drew my attention, and I walked closer. Both palms descended onto this small mulched area of mound, and an incredible feeling of confusion overwhelmed me.

why why why why….

A knowing that help was needed somehow arose in me. I marked the spot with some flowers from a nearby tree and then I turned to my friend, who placed dowsing rods in my unpracticed hands, showing how to hold them, coaching me on the meaning of certain motions. Nothing was left but to leap in with no real idea of what to do or say.

As I stood there, the copper arms swung around almost immediately, thumping both my shoulders at the same time. The feeling was as if “he” literally threw himself onto me for a much needed embrace. Tears came instantly.

“Ohhh, it’s okay, lad…it’s okay…I’m here”, were the only words I could manage to choke out as the tears rolled down in empathy. My friend became a witness, shooting photos and observing while I became lost in conversation with a young man who just wanted someone to listen and to feel him.

“You need to let me go love, so I can sit”, I said in a reassuring half laugh. “I promise I’ll come sit with you if you let me go. I’m not going away. I promise”.

Very slowly, the copper rods swung open, and up onto the mound I stepped, bending to sit in the area with the most pressure. Comfortable, with my knees tucked half way, I raised the rods and centered. They swung right back around my shoulders once again, the left one hovering back slightly off. He’s on my right, I thought. I’ll lean into him. And so we sat close.

“Oh sweetheart”, I said “its okay…..but I can’t tell you why”.

In the ensuing “conversation”, all I could really gather was that whoever or whatever this feeling was missed home desperately and just needed human contact. I also discovered that I am looking for a soldier who died in the Civil War. That’s something I didn’t know until this experience. But this lad could not help me find him. He didn’t want to answer questions, he just needed my company. He wants to go home, somewhere out of the confusion of own passing.

“Its okay, love. You’re okay. You miss home, I know”.

Finally, I told him that I had to go, but wouldn’t move until he let go. After several minutes, the rods creaked slowly apart and he retreated.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what really happened, that the entire experience could be a figment of my imagination or some deep psychological/ emotional issue needing to play out for my own inner drama, but I will say that the experience felt no less real than any other. My friend corroborated through an outside source my first impression of shock and confusion. The lad gave me facts that I have yet to prove or disprove which aren’t mentioned here until they can be substantiated. But more than anything, it makes sense to me now why Annie is so important, why I am beginning research for a novel based upon the Civil War hospitals here in Lynchburg, Virginia. A story lies upon this path, I just have to listen hard enough to hear it. My feeling is the tale desperately needs the telling.

Walk On

19 Jul

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If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. — Joe Campbell

It’s July 19.

Two months have passed since preparations began for my first camping music festival, Roosterwalk.  Time has literally evaporated. In the last few days, thoughts to my writing routine have elbowed their way through the crowd of scattered road details to stand before me in irritated, slightly fearful anticipation. When will you write of the road again, lass? You have many stories to tell. Get to it before they stack like unbound brick only to topple over into a pile of dusty rubble.  Since January, it seemed I was writing my way out of something, the words leading me toward a meadow of summer travel. My vision of what the meadow would be is altogether different than what I found.

The meadow is wide. The flowers, in profusion. Each one is a beautiful tale to be shared. How to arrange them so you can see all the amazing truth and revelation, disappointment and apprehension I have had in eight short weeks? In May, I relished the thought of that meadow, having hours in the morning to clickety-clack away and time, lots of time to push away the urgency of the road, to “be”. But as most of us know, the path never leads where one thinks. And I’m suffering from a huge bout of lost words. It’s not writer’s block. I can write. But my passion to write review of the road has slowed. I need a muse, and the one which propelled me for months, I chose to send back into the forest. There is only so much yearning one can endure. For to me, the essence of the passion to write is a yearning for something, for someone, for a way of negotiating and reforming reality in the mind so that life meaning can be made. Muses pull the red iron blood of creativity, their energy like a lightning staff begging a strike by the flash of inspiration, but then again, they can also suck the body dry. Like a hissing Medusa, a moment happens when the blood runs stone cold and the artist awakens to the slavery of passionate pursuit. A moment finally arrives when one can’t decide who owns the words. The muse or the artist.

My writing confidence is heavy and damp, the humid cloud of shaping for audience muffling my process. Being at the workshop opened up a can of expectations that never were addressed. Yes, my writing is good enough for public view. Yes, I have interesting stories to tell. But as all good writers know, work is required, crafting, honing the edges of truth.

Diction. My word choice is often too elevated for average readers, but then again, great writers have rich language. I need to use descriptive phrasing sparingly, or write a poem when the language comes out so concentrated. Dilemma.

Narrative Arc. Build the tension, so the reader wants more, but then again, sometimes truths don’t come in nifty narrative patterns. Put in a bit of creative into the non-fiction. Be aware of first lines, which hook the reader. And throw out compositional rules. Fragments allowable.

Dialogue. Use it. Put the reader in moments that cannot be shown best any other way. Some of the interactions I’ve had this summer, though, are best forgotten. But then again, some like the evening I spent listening to a dear lady from the workshop debate the beginning of her own solo journey, are so intense, so emotional my words fail the moments.

And shorten posts. Keep them under 700 words. :-/

All heroes had a guide. I need one. Companions, I’ve got. Wise writing sage, I have not. I have lived in the forest, hacking through dense brush to find a writer’s path, alone. Upon arrival at the meadow, I only encountered the overwhelming complexity of the view. Clearly, I can walk anywhere. Anywhere. But the trees ahead look the same…I have to reenter the forest. But to find a path, I need a pointing finger, a voice, some sign.

I have followed signs throughout the last year, but more specifically the last seven months. The lion was with me in the days before Beloved. A heart emerged in Richmond, urging me to explore unconditional love. During a weekend with Americana and Roots bands, a guitar with wings appeared. “Music will save you”, it seemed to whisper. And now another has appeared.

It is the letter and the Civil War.

Letters to the lad I visited at Old City Cemetery, emerged quite spontaneously in my journal and in a different voice, the first during Red Wings Roots Festival this past weekend. Every banjo note, every mandolin trill, every bass strum began to deepen this knowing that all of the signs are tied , all the way back to the lion. A path has opened.

Summer Break

9 Jun

Today I head off to Hollins University to the Tinker Mountain Writer’s Workshop. I’m not really sure how the week will go, but my hope is that I will find a way to take all that I’ve written here and transform it. The writing has come to a point where a shift is needed. I’ve changed so much over the last seven months and while I love traveling and experiencing new things, I am feeling the need to go back to where I started, to the island and to Annie. One of my friends from Ocracoke texted me last night. He sent a sunset picture from the ferry. It was my confirmation that I need to revisit what I wrote on the island. Not just what’s here, but what is also in the originals. I hesitate to show those to strangers, but maybe parts of them might transform into something altogether different.

Ferry To Home

This last week has seemed to last forever. And a lot has shifted. I’m needing to find my feet again it seems and the best place to do that is next to Annie. I can’t go to Ocracoke right now, but in my mind, I’ll walk Back Road to the sandy corner where my friend waits for me. Paul and Newt went to see her about a month ago on their vacation. They left me a “time capsule” of sorts on her grave. I often wonder what I’ll find there and who I’ll be when I come to it. Zillie’s is on my mind these days…and the ducks and the fig trees budding. M’Lady is decked in green again, I’m sure, and the familiar smells of suntan lotion, sea breeze, and marsh grass hang heavily in the humid air.

It’s time again for me to strip my prose bare and then build it back into something else. I’m ready to see that time from a new point in the journey. Its a good place, right now. This week I can just be a writer again…nothing more. I’ll need to find the coffee shop on campus and return to the iPad.

When I return, I’m off to California. I haven’t even contemplated what I’m going to experience or how I’ll write about it. Posts might be pretty sporadic for the next few weeks, but my Instagram and Twitter will be busy, I’m sure.

So back to the island I go. . . in my memory.

Tomorrow’s Just Another Day

3 Jun

Thursday, May 27, I spent time with the Confederate “lads” at Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA in honor of Memorial Day. That evening, I began this contemplation of Time with Marcus D. Wheeler, I Company, 35th Georgia Infantry. Upon being lead to his resting place, I lay fully down on the grass beside him and we spent some quality time enjoying the breeze, the trees, and the smell of old roses just beginning to wane.

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Time,
You left me standin’ there.
Like a tree growin’ all alone.
The wind just stripped me bare,
stripped me bare.
Time,
the past has come and gone.

The future’s far away.
Well now only lasts for one second,
one second.
Can you teach me ’bout tomorrow and all the pain and sorrow,
runnin’ free?
‘Cause tomorrow’s just another day,

and I don’t believe in Time.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Some point in this journey, I would need to stop for a minute and rest. Truth be told, the Roosterwalk experience exhausted me and the ensuing week of academic wrap up toward commencement exercises deposited me in half haze consciousness into a ceremony where I was counting each graduate down to the last. I prayed the video cameras would not find my enormous jaw popping yawns before I could make it down front for last hugs and congratulations. Afterward, a “point and shoot” car ride home toward the bed was all that could be managed after dinner, a bed I spent ten hours in Saturday and Sunday nights. Aside from a graduation party for my friend’s children, the only manageable activity for the weekend and today was sleep and tackling an enormous amount of yard work before I head to a week long writer’s workshop at Hollins University and then, California. It hasn’t even really occurred to me that in two weeks I will have to board a plane, something that required heavy medication on my last flying adventure to Ireland. But I’m not thinking about it, because I am…tired.

All events planned for the weekend, I cancelled. I needed rest and honestly, time to allow myself to feel sad. One of my best friends has decided to move out of state. That announcement, along with several other resignations at work had me reflective and riding the wave of change. I will be moving myself, to a new classroom with windows. While happy about having natural light again, my new space is the classroom I occupied a decade ago and that has me quite reflective. So for days, I have done nothing but sleep and think about time. People have passed in and out of my life in sizable waves. When I really stop to think about all of them, those with whom I have shared a good portion of my time and self in the last decade, the tears come easily, both in happiness and in sorrow. In looking back at the body of writing I have posted over the last year, specifically the last six months, I feel both accomplished and discouraged. Wow, I have done an amazing lot of things. Wow, now I need to think about what difference it has made to anyone, even to me. Change…growing…rapid and unceasing waves of time. I am…tired.

Today, I tackled a garden that has been neglected since October of last year, one I worked in diligently until beginning to travel last summer. During several moments of the five hours of pulling waist high weeds, tears welled up and I cursed and sighed. Why can’t I find a balance? There is this need to go, to see, to be somewhere else experiencing a life that presents ideas and inspiration and insight so easily. And then all the while, there is this concurrent need to be home, to have friends come and be in this amazing house I renovated and spent so much time and creativity on. Time…. there doesn’t seem to ever be enough of it because moments in retrospect sometimes seem so wasted. And in the sunburned sweating and weed pulling, I began to think about why home is so bittersweet.

I miss things.

When I am this incredibly tired, I miss someone cooking me dinner. The pots would clang in the kitchen while I would strip off dirty sweat laden bug sprayed clothing in the laundry room and then round the corner to the bathroom, the air cooling my weary frame. My name. I miss someone calling my first name from downstairs to ask what wine I’d like. I miss sitting in the deep hot water of my clawfoot tub, just washed hair wrapped in a towel, talking to my beloved with a cold glass of Viognier in hand. As he’d sit next to the tub, we’d idly discuss what I did , what plan for the backyard comes next, what movie to watch in the evening, how much my muscles hurt. I miss big hands and a fluffy towel on my body, on my shoulders, thumbs at my back, fingers in my hair. Wearing his T-shirt that trails my knee, I’d stroll to the kitchen clean, damp and pink from a slight sunburn and there would be grilled chicken and spinach salad with bits of egg, peppered bacon and tiny cherry tomatoes cut in two. I miss watching movies on the couch in the blue light, the flickering images bouncing off legs a tangle, my head upon a broad chest. I miss kissing. I miss what comes after. There’s no shame in me saying that when I am tired or ill, there is a soft silent need that creeps upon me like a smooth silver cat with cool padded feet. When I have no more energy to push my will to “do” forward, I finally lie down and allow this melancholy to express.

But tonight, in the longing for these comforts, I realized there is something I don’t miss.

Him.

And that indeed is the gift of Time. In the yearning, there is only a space needing to be filled by the emotion having a beloved gives. I am learning how to be thankful in the sadness of absent connection, letting both feelings co-exist like light and dark, earth and water.  The arc of the pendulum may slow, swings evening out into a balanced measure that’s somehow bearable. A state that let’s me rest and yet, do for myself. Time that isn’t wasted.

Time without courage and time without fear, is just wasted, wasted, wasted time…….

The Way Home

19 Dec

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This morning, my last morning here, the sun was shining through the windows and Clarence was snuggled into my side. I reflected on my discussion with Kenny last night. From my time here, not only have I come to understand my own story more but I have really come to love and be interested in hearing other people’s stories, their experiences in living. Coming to know others through connecting just as Mr. Rogers did, has me more a listener than a lecturer. I have wanted to relinquish leader role for a long while. Its time for someone else to direct. But I suppose I’ve always loved stories; after all that’s the primary addiction of a writer and lover of words. The way in which I have experienced connection this week through my own story and the story of others is somehow different though, more real, more intimate, more important than fiction. I’d like to be a collector of memories. Memories teach me.

On my way to the coffee shop, I stopped by M’Lady, the great live oak on Howard, to say goodbye. As I touched her side I wondered for probably the hundreth time, how many people has she seen and heard? How many stories of this place does she know? How many hellos and goodbyes?

So, I sit now in the coffee shop for the last time. Ryan isn’t working this morning, so I only have a red eye.  I’ll miss his country music jams and I don’t really know if I’ll ever be able to find a cafe au lait like his, but I am going to try. Last night I went to Zillie’s for the last time, too. That’s a place I need to love in small doses. I’d end up frequenting daily for the company and I’d never want it to grow old, besides I need to really start watching my wallet. I’m still trying to process all that I have come to know this week, with more experience to come in D.C. this weekend.

This time away has given me so much. I can’t really explain but I am different now, as if my eyes have been opened and cannot be shut. And for gifts, one needs a tremendous amount of thankfulness. It will be hard to leave today, to leave home. That’s what it feels like I am doing. Staying at my little cottage was almost like staying in the little house on Church Street again. Waking up this morning felt like it used to way back then; its smallness comforts me and sitting at the kitchen table writing is like being in Granny’s kitchen on Vermont Ave. Marcus told me that he grew up in that house with his “Granny Ma”, when I told him where I was staying. “Aw, that’s Granny Ma Thomas’ house. I grew up on that porch.” So it doesn’t surprise me that I feel so comforted there. After these days, it truly feels like “my home”.

Yesterday, I took my last really long walk around the island and wandered in the community graveyard. I had never been there before to visit these “younger” folk. I stood in the center for a moment, amid the cedars, oak, and moss in the drizzle and listened to the rain and quiet and as I turned, a message on the back of one of the gravestones brought me to tears:

Sometime when the rain keeps falling
And the road is mighty rough
And you just can’t help a thinking
That this life is mighty tough
Just you smile and keep a looking
And what I’m telling you is true
Somewhere peeping through the rain clouds
There’s a little patch of blue
Sure you’ve had a heap of trouble
And I’ve had some trouble too
But we’ll find if we keep smiling
That little patch of blue
–Mrs. F.D. Hendricks

Even in death, these simple folk teach me because they help me to live. Later as I walked more, I actually got lost. It was so funny. I was lost on an island that one can walk from side to side in a matter of minutes, but winding way lead to way and then I didn’t know where I was. When I finally emerged, I was near Eduardo’s Taco Stand and after having met Eduardo at Zillie’s Sunday night and hearing his story, I knew getting lost happened for a reason. I needed to go have lunch there.  Eduardo was a cook at a local place for many years, but he had a dream: to own his own Mexican restaurant here on the island. And so, he bought a food truck and created one. He made me his specialties because I just told him to pick for me. Those were the best tacos I have ever had, and even more special because they were made with care for me by a new friend whose story I now carry. And in the sharing whatever I thought I lost, I found a little of again.

Connection is the gift of the Universe. Principle Two.

The Dimming of the Day

11 Dec

I remember back to those nights in the townhouse on Church Street when I would clean house all day to take up the time. In the evenings, I would have some wine and sit in front of the stereo and play Bonnie Raitt before dinner. Tonight, it is windy and rainy and I have been cooking in my little kitchen and remembering those nights. I was in love with Brian Hall’s music then and always wanting something more. Funny how time doesn’t change much.

This afternoon, I went to go see Annie. It was difficult.The moment I saw her grave, I burst into tears; everything I had left in July 2011 was disintegrated. Through hurricanes and winter, I shouldn’t be surprised but I was.

I have missed her so, and of course I had not brought tissues. Garden gloves and nippers, but tissues, no. At that moment though, I didn’t care about my snotty nose or the fact that I was talking out loud to a dead woman. My friend needed to know that I was there with her and I would not leave her. As long as I live, I will be responsible for Annie and I aim to keep my vow. Clearing the weeds and branches, I pulled thorny vines that pierced my hands through gloves and snapped dead pine branches which scratched my face and arms. But once all was clear, I decided to line her feet with cedar, berries, and lichen laden branches. I wanted her to feel beautiful.

Once I was done, it was almost as if I didn’t know what to say, but then my heart opened and we spoke. One day, we will meet. How awkward that will be, I told her. She knows everything about me and I don’t know more than what a census report and some good assumptions can say.  I told her how lucky I was to have had choices. In life, in my career, in the men I have loved, even if some of those choices hadn’t turned out so well. As a 19th century island woman, she married a court-martialed disfigured man,  someone fourteen years older. I didn’t know if she loved him, but I do know that she lost her girls. Two babies gone.  “Budded on earth to flower in heaven”. I can’t imagine her life…makes me a bit ashamed to even be here.

Before I left, I hugged her stone and I lost it all. I cried so hard I almost got sick. Pressing my heart to her name, all I had came rushing forth. I don’t know how, but I felt her comforting arms. What a friend I have in this woman, this woman that died at her best. I vowed to her, I will live for you girl,  a life so full and rich. I will live it for you. One day we will talk about it all. But, I need you now, I need your strength, your love…your guidance. Please be with me, lady.

So tonight as I cooked, I tried to remain with myself. I listened to old songs that put me back into the townhouse and a rocking chair. I would be tired from cleaning and trifles and my heart would long for something I am not so sure exists anymore.

Love.

And I know Annie knows this pain of loss. So I need her as the light dims and tonight, she’ll crawl into the bed with me and we’ll sleep back to back as sisters do.

Tomorrow, I’ll see what this world has to bring me.

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

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