With the exception of Buddhist circles, reincarnation is not fashionable these days. It is more pragmatic to believe in the dust-to-dust theory and usually that theorem is the one to which I adhere. One thing is for sure, I am not holding out for some post-Renaissance disembodied pie in the sky. Sometimes my closest friends call me “Rochelle the Hypocrite”. I hate it when people think they see through me like this. Upon scrutiny, I view it quite differently. I just think I have a predilection for taking complex systems of thought and ironing them all out into one. No big deal. No theory is too abstruse for me. I like to think of myself like little kids sometimes think of themselves. But instead of the cookie monster, I am the gobbler of complexities. I eat them up and spit them out as down to earth and intelligible.
It was a late summer afternoon this event transpired, the story I will share with you here. My lover and I were taking a ride into the country, driving northwest from the already Western Massachusetts City in which we lived. We had no specific destination. We were just following the road, or our instincts, whichever came first.
I’ve never really given a whole lot of thought to ghosts. It’s true that I saw my grandmother Katherine’s ghost standing in the corner of my childhood bedroom the night she died. I have no idea why she came to me, of all people, when she should have been in the room across the hall with my father. I was only seven or eight and I can’t say that it wasn’t a shock to find out the next afternoon my grandma had died the night before. But mostly to me the concept of ghosts is a poignant metaphors for the living things that haunt me in my corporeal life.
What happened that late summer day, the dog days of summer upon us, was in many ways a volcanic uprising in my life. Like the card I would continually pull from the Tarot deck. Always used to scare me to death. Gave me a terror of tall buildings and wondering when the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. The teetering stone medieval tower soon to be horizontal. People screaming and falling from windows. An earthquake that forever after irreconcilably changes the way people understand their world.
I had met my friend Bobbie five months earlier at one of my writer’s group readings. To say the least, our meeting was magnetic. A few months later I met Zelda, Bobbie’s best friend from their old archive days at that infamous Midwestern Women’s Center. Zelda was now living in Boston. It sent unmistakable chills racing up and down my spine at that party when Zelda said to me “I come out this way often Rochelle. I’m just immersed in this genealogy research I’ve started doing!! I recently discovered that many of my ancestors lived in the hills of southwestern Vermont for hundreds of years. So let’s stay in touch! Get together and have a cup of tea, go for a walk “.
I am a person who believes in synchronicity. One person introduces us to another who introduces us to another and that person changes our life forever. Zelda was one of those people. But that’s another story, and although not unrelated, it didn’t unfold its petals in fullness until many years after the one I tell here in these pages. Let me just say that meeting Zelda was prophetic. It was about that three-legged Gazelle in my dream. That luminous animal, almost a halo hovering above its head, crawling away from the falling tower with a bloody stump dragging behind her. That Gazelle was intent on survival no matter the odds.
You may ask: What happened that day, with Bobbie, driving the back roads of New England, following stone walls and ancient dirt roads as they weave their way through the countryside? Diversions are the bread and butter of my life. In some way that’s what my whole life was in those years, one very long elaborate diversion.
O.K., I’ll continue with one train of thought, even though I have never really agreed with this cold black steel metaphor.
After many miles of driving on tar-paved roads Bobbie and I encountered a sign welcoming us to Vermont. After a few more miles we came upon a dirt road that veered off to our right. We decided to turn down that road. Here begins my saga. The journey that began innocently one August afternoon and has never ended. Like a Steven King novel, less frightening but more real.
Soon after catching a glimpse of a river snaking its way alongside the road, we pulled off the roadway to go have a look. After crouching there amidst the lush overgrowth, I realized that my mood was definitely not reflecting the lovely peaceful environment surrounding us. I was very much on edge. The edge of what I was not to discover for another hour. At this time, when Bobbie and I were still in the first months of an intimate loving relationship, she was deeply sensitive to my moods. She immediately noticed my discomfort and without a word we headed back up to the car. If I had listened to my intuition (intuition, another one of those words that needs ironing), we would have turned back. Instead we simply presumed a mood of one sort or another had caught us in its viselike grip. We did not take the time to examine the source of this veil, which had fallen upon as if from a dark cloud.
Naturally, as would most people hovering on the edge of sanity taking a Sunday drive on a Monday on one of the hottest days of the summer, we drove on. We drove on wondering. We drove on in silence together wondering what our destination would be, in the biggest sense of destiny, thinking about writing, poetry, the land, and the many things that fill one’s mind when it is allowed to wander freely. After a while we passed some old farmhouses in various stages of disintegration and that launched us into a passionate conversation about hidden poverty and the lives of folks who are “rich” in land yet penniless, their ancestral houses literally dissolving around them, board by board. This is more or less the story of most of modern humankind’s recent history. But at that time in my young life, I knew little about land that became arid and untillable. Nothing about how to move on when land is claimed, surrounded by stone walls, owned. Nothing about loved ones dying of one disease or another in quick succession. Of what it feels like to suddenly wake up one day and realize there is no one left alive but you, yours truly, to plant the spring seeds.
Eventually the road veered away from the river. We both noticed the atmospheric shift this instigated. One would have expected that the heavy moisture would disappear from the air. Instead it became almost dank as we drove onward.
It is hardly crucial to mention here that as we were driving along we passed a graveyard. We drove past it with barely a glance. In suburban towns and cities, there are usually only a handful of enormous burying grounds stretching off into the horizon. But old graveyards are a common sight in the country. Each one containing the people who lived within the confines of so many feet, yards, or acres. Frequently, the people who originally built that farmhouse lived on the few roads in the center of town. The children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, continuing to live within its well-built walls, farming, working the land. When they died, each in his or her turn, the survivors buried their loved ones in tiny well-marked graveyards off to the side of their land.
“We drove past it with barely a glance” cannot be said for the next graveyard we came upon. As we began our approach, it was understood between us that I was going to pull off the road and turn off my vehicle. So doing what was expected of me, I swerved, wheeled, and dipped into the embankment turning off my engine.
Expecting Bobbie to follow, I opened my door and got out. This looked like a particularly interesting graveyard and we were both into gravestone art, design and architecture, and its various changes through the centuries. I was most definitely surprised when Bobbie just kept sitting in the car, staring straight ahead, as if transfixed or something. I figured she would join me momentarily. So I gave her one last glimpse of my pretty face and walked down the slight decline to the old wooden gate. And even though more than a year has passed (a year ago last month), I still do not understand what happened that day. I am still afraid to go back. Even if only in memory.
I am standing at this gate, my Jewish self, looking at a small ancient Christian graveyard. I am feeling more than I am seeing. Like a nervous animal somehow watching itself being watched, I am observing my gaze as it travels from one side of the graveyard to the other. I take note that the graveyard is in a small clearing surrounded by forest. Nothing unusual. Why would anyone clear more land than necessary?
My little red Chevette is parked up the hill behind me. I can see the top of Bobbie’s very still head. She has remained where I left her. Suddenly I am feeling very alone. I try to ignore this feeling, since at the moment I hardly want to be alone out here in the middle of nowhere, standing at the gate of some unfamiliar graveyard. I strain my eyes to attempt to make out any of the dates or names on the gravestones. I have always been interested in both the art and what gravestones say. What year, and for how long, did this child live? What was the child’s name? A child because there is a lamb perched atop the small headstone. So sweet and delicate. A heartbreak. How old was the person who is buried in that grave? How much I adore the absorbed emotion in the sculpture of the paradigmatic mourning woman: Kneeling atop the finely chiseled stone, her sorrowful head cast down, chin on hand, elbow on raised knee. A more poignant and mournful pose could not be made in the entire universe. This graveyard is much older than one which would employ these images. There are no sculptural forms here. Just simple fieldstone and slate carved into rectangular forms and placed over the deceased.
The stones are far too worn with age for me to see any markings from my proximity, standing well outside the stone walls and wooden gate that mark the boundaries of this place. Should I open the gate and walk inside to have a closer look? The gate is an imposing structure built of huge substantive logs with heavy crossbars. Since maneuvering it is so unwieldy, I use this excuse to dismiss the idea of entering. Anyway, how close do I want to get to these people?
There are no welcoming Hebrew words marking these stones. These people lived in a time just before my ancestors began coming to the northern reaches of this continent from Spain, Portugal, Central Europe, and places beyond. Even though there were Jews settled in Brazil, other South American countries, and the many French and Dutch- owned islands since the 1600s, they were just then arriving in North America. Falling through the cracks of their communities. Escaping the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Encouraged to come by some mercantilistically minded government. Or, escaping from some awful thing or another and filtering into the New World, one family at a time. By 1776 there were supposedly 2,500 Jews in North America. Most of who lived in Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia. There was only a handful in the other thirteen states. Although Vermont was one of the first to join the bandwagon, freedom of religion being a new idea then. This was before the Bill of Rights. So, if Jews were represented here in this graveyard, chances are they were buried with crosses on their graves. When these folks lived and died, there were no Jewish graveyards where community members and loved ones ripped at their clothing, covered their reflecting sand glass windows with cloth, and sat shiva for seven days. Simply put, standing there at the edge of this world, I suddenly realized that there were numerous reasons that I did not feel comfortable. But God, so what? I can think of a dozen Christian graveyards I’ve walked through totally at ease.
“Enough is enough,” as my grandmother would say. But I hardly have time to think of dear Hannah, my mother’s mother, still alive today, and those words she would chime so often when I was a child. As I am standing there with all of these thoughts, I suddenly feel an odd sense of pressure moving against my legs. A bizarre feeling of my legs being pushed, a force with an origin outside of myself, pushing against my slight body. Before I can figure out what’s happening, I realize that beyond my cognition my body is uncontrollably moving backward up the hill toward the road.
I am standing by my car. Shaking, I am completely unsure how I got there. Did I “walk”? Going over to the door of the driver’s seat, I rest my arm on the car roof and pause to take stock. I am in a new place in my young adult life; a footing where finally I am beginning to take back some of what had been stolen from me in my childhood. One of these things that had been forcibly taken from me was courage. After so many experiences of hatred, derision, and victimization wielded against my female being – I was currently attempting to take a stand. Although I was twenty-something years old, “No” was a new word in my vocabulary. I was more terrified of things than not.
The woods had always held a particular sort of alarm. Caught in some ghostly genetic battle with Pleistocene cells still coursing through my being, I was deathly afraid to walk deep into the woods alone. Some part of me was still consciously tied to our ancient ancestors who picked up the shaft and rod and became fearful of everything that loomed beyond their fields. What some ecologists see as the beginning of the end of human equilibrium – humans turning from a rich bounty of perennials to the necessary chain of annuals. The beginning of our war against wolves, squash grasshoppers, and anything else corporal or spiritual threatening the new animal and vegetable pastoral cosmology. When humans put down their wandering way of life, the woods became filled with Saber Tooth Tigers and such. Before then it was an ever-shifting mutuality of prey and predator. There was little fear in this way of life. It simply was the way things were. And the people buried in this graveyard knew about how to deal with all of this better than me, Rochelle the city bumpkin.
With a firm determination, without even a thought to my companion, who seemed to more or less have vanished from this place, I walk back down the incline to the graveyard gate. These few steps up and down, down and up, from my car to this clearing are becoming oddly familiar. All I really want to do is stand here peacefully and feel the emotions that are often evoked for me in graveyards. Not a memory of the afflictions of being human: The many anguishes, heartaches, regrets, losses, and suffering that try the lives of my fellow sisters and brothers. Rather, an acute sense of meaning greater than each of our individual lives. A reminder of my mortality. A reminder of the swiftness of it all. The greater spiritual meaning inherent in this existence. I have always achieved a certain degree of comfort in the presence of the dead. I suppose, selfishly, I also want to feel that even though my life has so often been filled with cycles of pain, sorrow, loss, and loneliness, that at least I am alive. I am, in fact, still breathing. In this there is some hope for me. Potentiality undiscovered or unfulfilled. Hope is a great human capacity. Without it, people simply give up. Then, even if the body lives on, the spirit that drives it has died a paralyzing death. Once a conquering race has suffocated the spirit of the people, they’ve won the battle.
Here I stand in front of the heavy chestnut gate thinking these simple thoughts, when I realize that I am hearing something coming from inside the graveyard. I shift into animal sense, tilting my head slightly and fine-tuning my excellent hearing. Straining I hear a soft thrumming sound coming from somewhere in all that silence. I realize that it must be my car engine humming still from all the driving. We had, after all, been on the road for most of the day. I decide to check it out with Bobbie, and once again, make my way up the embankment. My feet seem to know the way. Like I could do this journey with eyes closed, or as I had once done it, a long time ago, sweating and hauling heavy stones. Resting once again by the car window, I say “Bobbie? What’s up? Do you hear a weird sound, like a droning or hum coming from my car?” Quickly turning to look at me, she answers sharply “No, Rochelle.”
I don’t know. Time seems to be moving really slowly and it’s like I am caught in some twisted spatial time warp. Some Dr. Who-telephone-booth time machine. We have probably only been parked here for a few minutes, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been a lifetime.
I am not one to engage in auditory hallucinations. Although I can’t lie. When I was in my late teens I had what I’ve come to call “my break-through”. A definite break, of sorts, with normal reality. But, as frightening and painful as it was, it was the beginning of the end of a childhood of indoctrination into a suburban middle-class life of oblivion where mostly everything that is really significant is hidden from view. Simply put, beyond my conscious will or control, I began to see things as they really were. I am not sure I would wish it on my worst enemy. Or maybe I would.
To give you an idea of what I mean, when I would take my adolescent self back and forth to the trolley line to make my way to school and work in the city, I would gape and glare, stare and peer, at these new shiny boxes of plastic, tin, and metal, lurching along the roads spitting smog. The mass of them representing class and privilege, relying heavily on lineage and skin color. A symbol of industrialization and the destruction of natural habitats. No one ever told me these things. I knew all of this, somehow, in my young heart and soul. I will never know exactly how I knew, being that I had rebelled against my whole childhood education, skipping more classes than not, and there were few books provided me in my childhood home. But I did, in a most overwhelming and profound fashion. Only pretending to be transportation, those vehicles. Only pretending to be people, those discombobulated disconnected creatures sitting atop spinning wheels smiling. A poor replacement for the flesh and blood horses that once traveled these roads. An inadequate replacement, those zombies, for what I knew in my soul humans should be. I think I probably never would have gone through that awful time, walking the line so close to madness, if someone, anyone in my life, in those years of the 1950s and 1960s, had enough wherewithal to tell me the truth. Place me in history. A little girl, instinct as strong as that of any wild animal, lost in the maze of an ever-expanding greedy post-industrial capitalist moment.
I don’t know how I managed to get into the trolley and go back and forth, day after day from suburb to city. I know I couldn’t have managed without those few magnificent trees that lined the way. I would press my nose against the glass as the trolley car chugged slowly along the track. The seasons would inevitably change. But I never ceased to marvel as the trees turned from naked, bare brown and gray limbs stretching into the sky, to ladened with white snows of winter, to tiny those delicate purple buds bursting into the lightest light green leaf in spring, to full palms opened in dark fir green of summertime, and then, finally, to the burnt oranges, yellows, and reds of New England fall. But, eventually, one day, I simply could no longer do it. I realized that I must leave this suburban/city mid-twentieth century cage or really lose my mind.
During these years, my only solace was the trees. In every season I stared out the window of the MBTA at those glorious trees stretching to the sky. I so loved the naked winter branches, uplifted, longing, reaching. Each tree an invocation to me that there was something better, something more real in the universe than all of this dirt and pollution. Something more meaningful than all this city gossip. Something away from the hordes of men owning their women and children like chattel and manifesting this sense of ownership on the streets in their perverted sexual displays. In their hatred toward women reflected in so much rape and murder. I left Boston around the time that there was yet another rash of prostitutes being slaughtered in the city by yet another man not apprehended. Even then I knew that no matter how she chooses to make a living in this dam cruel world, any woman could end up on the streets, and no woman deserved to die. My break with reality was not psychosis or if it was, thank God it didn’t sink its teeth in too deeply, or wrap its tentacles around whatever it is that keeps people sane in a mostly insane world.
Well, as you can probably guess, I make my way back down the hill to the foot of the clearing. I am feeling more and more frightened as the moments pass and I just can’t shake the feeling. What was that sound I heard? Curiosity has gotten the best of me. I strain my ears to hear it again. Sure enough it doesn’t take long for my request to be answered. It is music, music, and the soft tumult, the brouhaha, of many voices in unison coming from the graveyard before me. The music was coming from the far back left side of the clearing, toward the rear stone wall, where there are two soot-covered tall slate gravestones, touching, side by side. My eyes rest on the smaller of the two stones. It does not take a gifted intelligence or an aptness toward brilliance to realize that these stones mark the graves of two individuals who were very close in life. Suddenly those two gravestones become very important to me and I magnify my eyesight in an attempt to make out the markings etched into the stone. By now my heart is pounding so loud that I am afraid my chest is going to break open and my heart take flight.
Images of witch burnings and innocent women buried alive beneath hundreds of pounds of fieldstones churn through my mind. I remember an old memory I had put out of my mind long ago, when I was a child. Far before it was fashionable to remember past lives. Or to call oneself a witch. Funny how history can obliterate itself so quickly. In just a few generations blot out, expunge, and prevaricate the lives and deaths of millions of human beings.
I remember when I first remembered. I remember it again, as if for the first time, as if it was just yesterday. In that life I was not sent into crematoriums masked as showers with dozens of other stunned horrified women. No, I was not stripped naked, gold fillings pulled from my teeth, rings taken from my fingers, hat, shoes, dresses meticulously placed into towering piles as I watched in abject terror, in denial of the impossible. Instead, surrounded by a crowd of intoxicated cheering people, I was thrown down onto the earthen ground and crushed under heavy stones. It really did happen as those movies portray it. I was suffocated alive atop the earth on which I had spent my short female life.
Standing here statuesque, as if my life is in imminent danger, I am filled with clamorous constraining dread and consternation. I no longer want anything to do with where I am. Wherever that is. I want only to be as far away as is humanly possible in as short a time as possible. Forget courage. I’ve shown enough. Forget saying no to my deepest most Delphian fears; this is not about cold feet, but rather antipathy. I am swiftly walking now, for what I hope is the last time, up the slight hill to my car, where Bobbie still sits, staring straight ahead. It has been such a long time, how is this possible? Doesn’t she even have to pee? Bobbie has clearly become lost to the rational world. Without a word, as has become normative for this bizarre day, I jump in my car, start the engine, and quickly pull the vehicle up the grassy gully and onto the dusty road. Doesn’t the dirt around here ever end?
More than a year has passed since that afternoon and I have been unable to shake the ever-present gnawing of what I experienced in that clearing filled with a few dozen three-hundred-year-old graves of the dead. In some strange way it is if I am still there. I don’t even have to close my eyes to envision, in every cell and synapse, every nook and cranny of Rochelle, exactly what it looked and felt like in that clearing. It is as if I was always there. Not to get too esoteric, but it seems to me that “there” is where “I” am. As well as here, living my 20th- century life. After all, most people don’t usually get the opportunity in life to stumble upon their own grave. And by their own grave, I mean that you are buried down there six feet under.
I’m still pissed off at Bobbie for turning into a zombie. But she’s begged me a hundred times since for my forgiveness. She said she was literally glued to her seat. That her gut told her not to move, not to get out of the car. I asked her if she was still wearing diapers and maybe that’s what had held her down. She said “Damn, Rochelle, you of all people, you should know that I’ve seen my share of ghosts. Usually I’m not scared. But that graveyard was not calling out to me ‘Bobbie… Bobbie… Come… Come’. No way. And I’m telling you, I couldn’t have come even if I’d wanted to.”
The clincher of this whole story came a week or so afterwards. I was having dinner with some new friends and Sam asked me if I wanted her to play some great new music she’d discovered during her studies of the Middle Ages. I almost died right there on the spot. In one of those really paranoid instantaneous split seconds that happen sometimes, I decided that it was all a joke. Bobbie, Sam, and Margaret had played a joke on me. How dare they! No matter that Bobbie doesn’t know Sam or Margaret. The music was basically the same stuff I had heard coming from that stupid graveyard in Vermont. As my friends informed their historically musically illiterate new pal, it is Latin chanting. Specifically, Latin Gregorian chanting. No matter that Latin was something that my mother studied at Brookline High School in 1933. That my best friend studied in 1975 at the same high school as my Mom decades earlier. No matter that my brother had an aptitude for guitar and piano, ease with stringed instruments that must have come from generations back in our family, something that seems to have completely skipped over me. Knowing my brother, he probably first heard Gregorian Chanting when he was eight. Some order provided to him in the mass of childhood chaos. Me, I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar twenty times over and can never seem to get past seven cords. Recently, this inspired me to get a mandolin mistakenly thinking playing just notes would be easier. If I was ever going to have any say about into whose being I would be reincarnated next, it would be someone who can play the guitar like Verlon Thompson and belt it out with the angelic voice of Joan Baez in her youth.
Getting back to the point, they didn’t teach Latin in Newton South High School and I am sorry to say that I don’t even know where the music rooms were. Even if I had, I doubt I would’ve noticed. In those years I was deeply engaged in trying to figure out the simple things in life. Trying to take all those looming questions that churn through the adolescent mind and place them all on the head of a pin. Can’t say I had much success. But there is one thing I can tell you. If you manage to live long enough, the beating heart definitely has its ways of teaching you its lessons as you keep on chugging down the swirling, twisting, winding road of life.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Enough Is Enough, 2012