Highland Cemetery, Sept. 12, 2018, early evening
I am here, in search of something like the muse that followed me in the last few years, but now seems to have gone its own way. This is where it first found me, as I sat armed with a blank page and a pen, chasing thoughts like butterflies as they flew by that sunny fall afternoon. We were on assignment that afternoon, scattered around this little ghost town, now only a cemetery remaining, tucked into a square of pines that filtered the autumn breeze and the hum of combines bringing in the harvest.
Write about nature, we were told, and we had come here to do it, in this green space tucked in the waves of gilded fields in the process of being harvested back to brown. I took my place beside a fresh grave, an odd thing in this lonely piece of land, it seemed, that someone would still be buried here. The other graves were carved with dates at the turn of the last century, 1910, 1895… “She seems lonely,” I explained, as I took my seat next to Fern Opdahl’s forever resting place here in the dark earth. Really, I just wanted to find a place where I could be alone with my thoughts, undisturbed. I’m not afraid of fresh graves, and butterflies don’t come by when you’re running about swinging your net after them.
I looked into that pile of dirt covering the grave, a deeper black than I’d remembered, this Iowa soil, and sat still as that first butterfly landed right on my page. At the foot of the grave lay a pile of flowers, I assume the spray that once lay atop the casket, slowly wilting to brown in the afternoon warmth, but still fragrant, a thin cloud of tiny biting gnats swarming above them. I swatted at one that had landed on my arm, rubbed the itchy stinging spot where it met its end, and started in on a page and a half that wandered between my grandfather and his homeland and the mysteries of Iowa dirt. A half-hour later, we gathered up our things. I closed the notebook, the butterfly’s wings pressed into the page, and walked out, transformed.
Three years later, Fern’s still here, her grave grassed over, the final date now carved into the stone. Where those dying flowers lay grows a bush now, filtering the lowering sunlight into long shadows across where I sit. I don’t recall its presence that afternoon, three years ago. At the head of her grave there’s a peony bush, now out of season, brown and dry, intertwined with a shaft or two of grass that’s infiltrated it, the only green threaded through the dead plant’s branches.
So I sit here with my net this year, swinging at the air, waiting for the butterflies to return. I’ve driven an hour from my home to this place, hoping that a piece of the mystery will once again reveal itself, tell me why all that lingers are those little biting gnats of thoughts and image and words that hover above my work like a cloud.
The muse has a name, I know this. Its name will not be reduced in ink on a page, but reveals itself as I AM, and compares itself with the wind, unseeable, uncontrollable, unbidden, and yet ever-present. I hear its name whispered as I listen to the layers of the quiet, the conversation between the wind and the pines, watch them sway, gesturing in response. The voice of the wind is only revealed in the things that resist against it, the branches of the pines, the blades of corn over the fields outside this shelter of trees, the way they move against each other, drying leaves abrading in the sun.
I set down my net.
I pick up my pen, images of the winds that cling to the globe of planet Earth swirling in my mind, they way the wind moves by variances in pressure. I feel a flutter of wings, rising. It lands in the dry, brown bush behind me, and I watch, as it lifts into invisibility. Gone, as suddenly as it came. I swat at another gnat, wiping its remains across my forearm.
Peonies. The dry bush behind me was once green and in full bloom. I imagine how they must have looked in high summer, palm-wide balls of pink ruffled petals opening to the sun. I think of my great-grandmother’s peony bushes, always in broad, heavy bloom by Memorial Day, and the ants. There were always ants in the peony bushes, orbiting the globular buds, lingering at the beads of nectar and dew that lay on each one. As a child, I assumed the ants’ work was to open the buds, by their busy work, their climbing around and around the buds in early May.
I pull a brown leaf off the dry branch, crush it in my hand. There are no ants today. But peonies are perennials, I remember, and though this bush now sits brown and crisp and dead at the head of Fern’s grave, life remains below the surface, in the roots. Peonies are perennials, a plant often found adorning gravesites, because though they appear to die late each summer, they return in the spring, rebounding with greater beauty and fullness each year. Peonies can endure fifty years of this cycle: fifty Summers and Autumns and Winters and Springs. Practicing resurrection each year.
The ants were busy over the blooming thoughts in my mind that October, three years ago. There are no ants today. And I come to understand the season I’m in now, this season of brown and dryness and rest. This season of waiting for the winds of winter to lay the used-up leaves into the ground, for the rains of spring to wash them into decay, returning to the living dirt that seems so very dead, but which holds the mysteries of life within its vibrations of microbes and bacteria.
Only recently did I come to understand why flowers are used at funerals. It seemed such a waste, in my twenties, as I stood in a receiving line for the funeral of my husband’s twenty-year-old cousin, struck down one early August morning by a violent asthma attack. So many flowers, I thought, cut and doomed to die. Why flowers? Don’t they just belie the truth here, that a young man at the beginning of his life was denied a continuation of it? What beauty could there possibly be in this situation? Bring on the empty pots of dirt, the dead branches. That’s far more appropriate here.
But now, I understand. Generations ago, before science enhanced our embalming methods, the fragrance of fresh flowers was a disguise for the odor of a decaying body. But metaphorically, they’re not a lie at all. They are hope. Yes, cut flowers die, but when they do, they return to the soil, enriching it and leaving seeds behind. Without dead plant matter, there would be no soil. Without soil there would be no flowers. Without flowers, there would be no seeds. Without seeds, no return to life again.
Funeral flowers practice resurrection.
I close my notebook, take one more walk around the cemetery. Just then, I spot a flash of pink, a ruffled ball hiding within the dry leaves of another peony bush. It can’t be. It’s impossible –and it is. Someone’s stashed a silk arrangement inside the dead branches. It’s weathered now, fading against the sunlight. It grabs my attention now, but come May, it’ll lie there, resisting the truth of decay, fragranceless and lifeless in the dirt, shamed by the splendor of the genuine article.
On my way out, I pull the cord over the post to close the gate, walk out to my car for the long drive home. The sun is nearly setting. I’m still not sure whether the muse has found me again, though my notebook leaves three pages fuller than it did when I came in. But I know that even in the dry, brown seasons, I know that the I AM hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still there, vibrating in the microbes and bacteria, orbiting the buds, and I take comfort in that.
As I drive down the gravel road toward home, a monarch drifts over my windshield.