Memorial Day at Mt. Zion, 2012.
Six years ago, I spoke here for this annual event. The subject was “There’s Something About Old Country Graveyards”. I spoke about why we return to the burial grounds of our ancestors and friends. I read a poem called “Do Not Stand." Mary Frye wrote the poem on a paper grocery sack as a eulogy to her mother.
Frye said on behalf of her mother, “Do not stand by my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep. I am the thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glint on snow” . . . and so forth, I won’t read the whole poem again.
I went on to talk about why we do come to stand by the graves of the ones who left before us. That the cemetery is not the only place where we can reconnect to our loved ones, but is the always place, at least the physical place.
When we visit their graves, we hear their whispers about the mistakes they made and how we can avoid them. In the sun, we feel the warm touch of their embrace. In the rain, we feel cleansed and calmed. In the snow, we see the brightness of their smiles. In the sounds of nature, the chirp of a cricket, the buzz of a locust, the song of a bird, we hear the healing stories of our time together. In the birds that fly around old country graveyards, we see our loved ones’ freedom from pain, and ourselves flying away.
Two years later, I spoke about Going Home Again. I read an unpublished story of mine about a man in the latter stage of life visiting his long-abandoned home place. I tried to make the case that churches and cemeteries are the threads that gently pull us back home. Again, I turned to an eloquent poet, T. S. Elliott, who said, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started—and to know that place for the first time.”
Today, I want to talk about Reflection, the Art of Looking back. We are often told to never look back, to always keep our eyes on the road ahead, the future. But writing novels has given me a new perspective. I think looking back is good. A frequent backward glance (no, make that a calm deliberate, purposeful perusal) helps us to see the road ahead clearer.
Another nice thing about reflection—the oldest of us enjoy special advantages when it comes to looking back simply because we have more to think about, more to look back on. We have been seasoned by life—hopefully to a just-right result. Seasoned by pain and grief, triumph and tragedy, the potholes we did not see coming, the rivers we swam, the mountains we climbed, whether we wanted to or not.
And yes, we have been weathered—buffeted about by winds, rain and sun, and the storms of life in general. And we have the faces to prove it. Reflection allows us to consider how the events of our past formed us, what we can learn from events that just seem to have happened to us, the problems we brought upon ourselves, and how we handled them. How we overcame adversity or allowed it to overcome us, and how that adversity usually made us stronger.
I used to avoid prolonged reflection, shooing it away when it came unbidden because it sometimes brought guilt, sadness, disappointment, even shame. As a novelist, I learned to embrace it because, well, I have to in order to write.
I count myself fortunate because I spend days, weeks, months and years reflecting, pondering what could have been done better or differently and how that might have affected many lives.
Such reflection led me to tell Jan what I wanted on my own gravestone.
Jim Ainsworth –Coulda Done More, Coulda Done it Better, Wish I had.
But reflection shouldn’t be a form of punishment. Sure, we should learn from our mistakes. But looking back should be about forgiveness, not just of others, but of ourselves. None of us is perfect.
So what does that have to do with this day of remembrance and memorial at Mt. Zion? This annual event is a designated time to look back. Not just at our own lives but the lives of those buried in this cemetery. Not a time to riddle ourselves with guilt, but to look back at our mistakes and the mistakes made by those who left this earthly plain before us.
It’s even more important, I think, to look back at what the ones who went before us accomplished, often in the face of great adversity. Many set the bar very high. Won’t their lives be more meaningful if we learn from them? Won’t we be better?
But many of us get so caught up in the details of flowers, food, weather and dress that we don’t pause to reflect and remember. We should take that pause. Let this day be a reminder about a practice that we should engage in throughout the year.