From the I Ching:
“It is early morning and work begins.
The mind has been closed to the outside world in sleep;
now its connections to the world begin again.”
Seeds Take Root Where the Light Can’t Reach.
Our front window looked out across a blood-drenched sidewalk onto a life-sized war hero, sword raised. Baltimore was “The City of Memorials.” Its people treasured the honorable, the heroic, and the unholy. I found all three in one graveyard that first week.
I should have been unpacking with Gary and Wadlow, but the fading light was calling and only I heard it. Weighted down since childhood with a dread of trying anything new, I needed to walk off some of that fermenting angst of beginning a new life in our first apartment.
My last night home, my family had watched “The Ten Commandments.” Dad had wanted us to feel The Lord’s Mighty Power as I headed off to take the world on.
Instead, I saw myself jumping blindly into the hands of that same Divine Overseer who’d forced Moses to take a life or death stand against the pharaoh, wander the desert for forty years, everybody abusing him, but then, after all that, told him, “Mood swing! Everyone can go in but you. You just have to stand outside and watch.” And that’s not even counting all those poor innocent horses He drowned. God was killing children right and left, but then told Moses he shalt not kill. Told Moses to lie to the Pharaoh, but then made it a commandment not to. Some great, inspiring flick that turned out to be. I was going to need a much kinder God to pray to, and one that was easier to understand. And if a bush started mumbling anywhere near me, I was just going to walk right on by.
Someone had to have gotten a bit drunk around some of those campfires and bollixed up a few of those stories. That Old Testament God seemed mean, violent, arbitrary, and vindictive, and now here I was, betting my whole life on His good graces.
And yet, I’d known a God who’d called to me gently as a child, soothed me when I’d felt lost, which had been pretty much most of the time. That magic spirit I’d known when tiny and innocent had loved Nature and all life. This wasn’t a God who’d go flooding us all out, even snuggly puppies, letting only one man build a boat. He wouldn’t make bets with the devil on how much we’d put up with. He wouldn’t have us swallowed by a great fish and keep us in there for days with nothing to eat, and no one for company but a puppet.
Or maybe that was a different story. Anyway, that God I’d loved since toddlerhood still hummed to me sometimes through the stars. He was everywhere, looking out from inside every one of us, but I still couldn’t find Him. Native Americans had sung and danced with this vast, very personal spirit. They’d honored their brotherhood with all life. So we’d dead-marched them off along the Trail of Tears and nailed crosses over their bunks in Bible schools, beating them until they accepted the fact that God only liked white folks.
But I knew He cried for them, too. Did He still whisper to them through their campfires? Could I at least listen in? I knew He was out there, waiting, but somehow I’d shut Him out; the God I loved would never have abandoned me.
Moving into our new place with two art students from back home, I found myself just standing, unmoving, in the middle of the floor, first in one room, then another, staring into emptiness, as the other guys hustled their clothes, toiletries, and school supplies in around me, grabbing all the best corners and drawers.
Finally, I just headed out and started walking. With a pair of socks in one hand that I set down somewhere and forgot to bring back.
I went for a long, meandering pilgrimage, sucked forward through emptiness. Along toward dank of evening, I came upon a crumbled knot of graves crying out with their neglect. Sagging marble steps led up into a sealed church as it gathered the twilight in around it. I never feel quite settled into a place until I’ve found a church with more spirit than words. It doesn’t even have to be a happy, hopeful spirit; I just need to know there’s more to it than stone walls, wood benches, and empty sermons. I need to feel clearly that God knows it’s there. That I could catch a whiff of Him inside, a taste of His simmering compassion. Feel Him sharing their sorrows, and feeding their joys. That He could find me there if He ever really wanted to.
Even if the doors are chained, and I’m locked out; I just need to know I can still feel Him.
I leaned against the cast-iron grit of huge gates heavy-laden with age and unanswered sorrows. Beyond them, ancient, worn markers were strewn through the weeds. I’ve always been drawn to untended graves. I grieve for those whose loved ones haven’t visited for generations.
One monstrous gate, hanging crooked on its hinges, wedged in hard and heavy against the other. I heaved against it until I could barely scrape through to stand amid scattered marble, bleached white, and crumbled to powder. You could tell they’d once been engraved in ancient script, but could no longer make out who’d been settled in beneath them, or when. I paid respect at each grave, knowing nothing of the lives they’d lived, or of who had once missed them. By now, even their beloved had been long buried and forgotten.
One slab had been laid across supports like a bench. Its vague, lingering worm trails, once honoring somebody’s life, merits, and worth, had been ground away by Baltimore’s uncaring rains.
A few yards farther in, tiny mausoleum sheds interspersed among the weeds. I edged between them and worked my way along a gutter, stepping down onto a flat stone wedged under one end to hold back erosion. Lifting my foot up from it, I saw words: “Age six months.” The child hadn’t even been named.
My heart shriveled. I’d stepped on the stone of an infant who’d never had a fair shot at life. Now I was disrespecting her in death.
More slabs and blocks trailed around behind, some from the 1700’s. One man, way in the back, inside a tiny fence scraggy with weeds, had apparently fought in the Revolution.
More tiny mausoleums faced the rear wall of the church; one with horrific carvings of skulls. One held, I vaguely recall, an early Maryland governor, or some such dignitary.
The back of the church was raised up from the ground. Tossed in among its supports were what looked like moldering bones.
My heart ached so much for these poor souls, neglected even after death, I turned away to head back, but managed only a few burdened steps.
I drew up abruptly and froze.
An old, worn marker, standing off by itself, grabbed at my heart.
It was Edgar Alan Poe.
He fit in so perfectly there. Maybe I did, too. His sorrow and pain ate through me as I stood there, head lowered. Can’t even death let us step away from our darkness?
Then, it was like he was scratching a warning into the dirt with his finger, and like he meant it specifically for me. Each of us has to work out his own salvation, he seemed to say, not wait around for sermons to wash him clean; for death or drugs to close his eyes. We don’t dare sit around expecting God to come roaring in with fresh troops to drive away the darkness we’ve walled our own souls up inside; buried alive like some of Poe’s characters.
I meandered home slowly that night, through the dark of a strange bloodstained city.
Poking through death and birth, I suspected they really weren’t so very different. Each was a matter of squeezing under pressure from dark into light. We need to be forced out, or we’d never let go. We don’t want to leave the confinement of everything we’ve learned to count on. Or hide behind. So how else can we be drawn out into that vast bright unknown?
What was I eking out into in Baltimore? Darkness, or Light? Or were they the same?
Approaching our apartment, my heart gripped up higher in my chest. I took mincing steps around dark brown ripples soaking the concrete in a wide spill out front.
As Gary tells it, someone had murdered a drug dealer. He says cops with clipboards had questioned us in our living room as we were moving in, but I hadn’t told them I’d gone out to break into a graveyard.
He says two black guys showed up at our place the next night, looking for drugs, and had felt sorry for us. “You don’t got shit!” they’d said. Not a TV, not one soda in the fridge, not a sock that we hadn’t worn thin.
I don’t remember any of that. Just the darkness of that unfading stain. It marred the sidewalk for months, maybe years. No one could scour it away.
I didn’t even try.
It was all that was left of someone.
I still carry that in my heart.
There had to be more to life and death than just that.