I’m working on a series about cemeteries and the stories they tell. There’s something fascinating about them and about all the stories hidden under the ground, etched in their stones. Most of the places I will be visiting and writing about will be here, in the Northeast, but when I venture South or West, I might see a war memorial that speaks to me, or a grave at the side of the road, and I might investigate and write about it. The care that some organizations, townships, or religious institutions give to their dead is honorable and touching, but the neglect that happens to others is appalling. As an artist, I’m compelled to explore things that touch me, and cemeteries move me in some way. Perhaps, it’s because I recently lost someone I love–my grandmother, or maybe the recurring discussion (by others) of the loss of my unborn daughter, Olivia Grace, 13 years ago, has prompted me to follow this vein of interest. I thought I had moved past that, but people keep wanting me to talk about it. I don’t want to. But I don’t have a grave for her either. The Commonwealth of PA would not allow it. I have to wander about the Rose Garden to seek out flowers that have grown up out of her ashes, spread there by strangers on a hot summer day.

Or maybe, I’m just seeking the tangible history that moves all around me–veterans of the American Revolution, women memorialized for dedicating their lives to equality, or the nameless and faceless lives of slaves, who lived even in the North before the mid-19th century. Every soul has a story, and I’m a writer, so I’m urged to seek those stories out and share them with the world.

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Child Grave, Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

James Joyce, The Dead

 

Walking through a cemetery is like reading a long Russian novel. You see whole families who’ve died within a week of each other when the Great Influenza Outbreak of 1917 spread throughout the eastern half of the country. You learn who was clergy, who was a milkman, who was loved by his friends and coworkers, who’s been forgotten, and whose branch was broken too soon, symbolized by a broken poppy flower emblem or a snapped cord.

Yesterday, I walked through the old German churchyard near my house, idling through the names etched in old High German, wrangling through my early college language classes to decipher the bits and pieces of scripture and poetry. The Germans were big on symbols. They used tulips to show blessing–the cupped flowers perfectly shaped for receiving gifts from heaven. They used angels to show holiness and the flight to heaven, hearts connected by ivy to show friendship and love within a long lasting marriage, and heavy draping willows to show mourning.

‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps.’

Psalm 137

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Willow Tree Grave

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was clear that these graves were cared for, that their descendants and loved ones came by often to care for their graves.

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Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

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Old German Churchyard

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Only the graves of servants and slaves seemed less tended to, but none of them were tossed aside. None of them were lost to age or neglect. These were the people of one of Pennsylvania’s tiniest communities, where families have lived for three hundred years, burgeoning with the growth of the British commonwealth and rising with the birth of a new nation in the late 18th century. Even graves so old and weathered that their faces are smoothed down like river stones, have been given attention and care. Even if no one can read their names, they’re still remembered.

But that was yesterday in a small section of neatly cultivated Pennsylvania farmland. Today, I went to another local graveyard, and this one was municipal, laid out adjacent to the 8th Street Bridge in Allentown, the largest concrete bridge of its time when it was first constructed at the turn of the last century. Fairview Cemetery was designed by the same man who designed Central Park in New York City, back when Allentown was bustling with trolley cars and canal boats that moved up and down the Lehigh River.

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Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

Fairview must have been a grand place at one time, the kind of place where mourners could go to talk to their beloveds passed on, because it’s laid out beautifully in grand sweeping hills and valleys. And just as you feel you’ve finally reached the end of it, it leads on to another place. Behind it, the industrial hub of Allentown, a city that has been reinventing itself since the steel and iron industry fell away.

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Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

But, as with most municipal cemeteries, you can see the disparagement between rich and poor, between the upper crust and the middle class. General Harry Trexler has a tall, clean column leading straight to the sky, while the gravestone of ordinary citizen, Lydia Campbell, is being overgrown with weeds and dandelion grass.

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General Trexler’s Memorial Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

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Grave of Lydia Campbell, Born 1827. Death, illegible. Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

And this unknown person’s resting place has been vandalized or just damaged by one of Pennsylvania’s many hurricanes or some other natural event.

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Headless Woman Among Fallen Tombstones, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

There are many like this in the most populated part of Fairview, and their deaths were so numerous, that sinkholes have begun to form under graves, some dipping down 30 feet and more. Stones have been toppled, piling on top of each other like Legos, and the ground is spongy and bounces like a trampoline in parts.

“The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors of its ancestors…but the current generation proudly…begins a set of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.” Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

The poorest of souls don’t even have stones, just crosses staked to the ground with index card notations of name, birth and death dates.

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Simple Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

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Child’s Grave, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

While walking around, I momentarily lost my father who had stopped to right a torn American flag on the grave of a veteran.

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Mike Burnett Tending to Veteran’s Grave at Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

It was a sobering moment, noting all the graves that had been abandoned, that were no longer cared for. I know that I have a great great grandfather who’s buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, and his grave is overgrown and has been forgotten for decades. I only recently discovered where he was buried, though I’d known of him for a while.He was a gilder in the Point Breeze section for most of his life and, later, he worked as confectioner in Brooklyn. I plan to visit soon and clean up his gravesite. His father is buried in the Knights of Prometheus Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey with other decorated German immigrant veterans of the Union Army. But that cemetery has warnings to remain in a moving car while passing through, because the neighborhood surrounding it has become too dangerous for honoring loved one’s graves while standing still.

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The Mourning Dove, Fairview Cemetery

(Copyright 2016 Tiffani Burnett-Velez)

This mourning dove followed me from grave to grave. The Holy Spirit, the symbol of peace, the Companion of those  who wake and those who sleep eternal. It filled the faithful parts of my heart with great joy and sudden rest. He is always with us, no matter how completely our mortal bodies betray us.

The whole experience made me think that I’d like to gather some volunteers to clean up local cemeteries that have been abandoned, ones that don’t have the care and attention that the old German churchyard does. Discussing this with my brother prompted him to share a story.

“I was walking home from work one night, about midnight, and I was passing over the 8th Street Bridge. I saw a silhouette at the end of the bridge, and someone was dancing there, like the Charleston or salsa, maybe. A dance that doesn’t require a partner. I moved around a bit to see if the shadow would move with me. I wondered if it was my eyes playing tricks on me, or some sort of illusion, but there were no lights at that end of the bridge, no cars driving down that side of the street, no houses with their porch lights one, no way for a sillouette to be made against anything. It didn’t grow or shrink, but when I got within a few feet of it, it slipped off into the cemetery, near that torn part in the chain link fence.”

This was the first thing we saw when we got into the cemetery.

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Nothing but a simple cross that stands, despite the fallen tree at its side. I did some research, and I found only the briefest of obituaries about Mr. Figueroa. I don’t know if he spoke with the same Puerto Rican accent of my inlaws, if he liked living here where it snowed and there were no palm trees, or if he liked to dance, but since he was the first to introduce us to the souls at Fairview, I stood and made the Sign of the Cross at his grave, and offered a Fatima Prayer in his honor.

Abraham Figueroa, 49, of Bethlehem died Thursday, August 26, 2010 at VNA Hospice at St. Lukes. Born in Corozal, Puerto Rico on November 18, 1960, he was a son of Angela Rivas Figueroa and the late Abraham Figueroa. He worked as a Pallet Assembler at Ratt Pallet Co., Easton, PA. He was a member of Smyrna Church of the Lord, 1537 E 6th St., Bethlehem, PA.

I think Boyko Funeral Home, who was said to have handled the arrangements for this, should clean up Abraham’s resting place a bit more. They could take some lessons from the Germans of Dutch Country.

Book Review: The Hello Girl by Merline Lovelace

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I’m a tad late (like three weeks, maybe more) at offering reviews of books I’ve read so far this year. Before I begin, you should know that I read constantly. I always have several books going at once, so I don’t read nearly as fast as I used to. And I read in a million different genres at once as well. It’s just how it works for me. I. Love. Books.

I loved this book so much I read it twice. When I first read Merline Lovelaces’s book, I did so, because I wanted to read some high-quality romantic fiction, and this book did not disappoint. In fact, it’s the kind of book that sticks with you, that you think about when you’re doing other things. You almost feel like you watched the movie, The Hello Girl, when you finish it, so exquisetly are the scenes and the characters presented to you. You taste the salt in the sea air, you feel the sadness of loss, your crushed by the explosions of bombs.

Another wonderful aspect of this novel is that there are two heroines. It’s a story within a story, but I won’t spoil the read for you, so you’ll have to check it out for yourself. However, the heroine, Anne Dunbar, is truly as heroine. She’s a luitenant colonel in the US Air Force, and you cheer for her the whole way whenever she meets another amazing milestone. She’s got the kind of drive you want to cultivate for yourself. And you yell at her and the hero, Brian, when you can see them neglecting their relationship. You’ve watched them come this far, and you can’t bear to see their life together just evaporate.

This, my friends, is what constitutes a beautiful romance, the kind where you feel pain when you start to relate to these fictional characters and you start to see what’s happening to them.

Lovelace is a prolific, award-winning, author, penning more than 100 novels. She’s, also, a retired colonel in the US Air Force, herself, having served in the Vietnam War. This was the first book of hers that I read, and I’ve read many more since. I read Lovelace to enjoy a beautiful story as much as I do to learn how to write one.

Our Guernicas Are Showing: How To Filter Your Social Media Posts

“There’s a picture that looks like animals far away, but if you move close up you can see that a war starts to appear.”

This is what my friend said to me, about 17 years ago, during our first Chocolate Cake Friday (AKA: Writer’s Group), and she was talking about Picasso’s Guernica. I had seen the picture a million different times, like we all have, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it until she said that. A picture that changes as you approach it and study it more? Fascinating. I didn’t know anything about cubism then.

Sometimes, because I’m a little weird, I see this picture in my mind when I’m having a terrible time. I think of how life can trick like Guernica. People seem one way from a distance, and you can even love or hate them from this place where vision is strained and your eyes play tricks on you. And then you get close up and you start see the blemishes and hear all the grunts and curses. You see the beautiful specks in their eyes and hear their natural singing voices too. And you realize, “This is not the person I thought I knew.”

In the past, I think letters must have allowed for this distance, but today, it’s social media. We see our social media people as we want to see them, or as they want us to see them, but sometimes we slip and we say something authentic–something we really believe or are troubled by–and the inauthentic games of the internet break the beauty we believed we had cultivated between each other. And you realize, “Oh…you actually didn’t really like me. Woops. My mistake. I can’t actually be myself in your presence. I can only be myself at a distance.”

I know why Harper Lee never had parties. I’m sure I know. She probably didn’t hang out with friends or have church people over either. I only hang out with the friend who said the above quote about Guernica and I only go places with people for whom I’ve bought clothes in the past. The internet has taught me why I have only one regular friend–she’s comfortable talking about ugly shoe posts, references to pigs flying, or very important things like whether or not it’s okay to suggest that bubbles are real things (all things that have offended people on the internet). She can also talk about adult things, too, like taxes, God, and voting. All of of those things draw blood on the internet. With her, it just makes us think harder and drink more coffee.

Facebook fights always make me retreat back to the original distance, before everyone looked like decapitated horses and children with broken necks. Must writers really engage this closely and openly with people who can edit their faces, responses, and truths, anyway? Can’t we just write books? Do I have to stand there, say something in the dark, and wait to get hit over the head, because someone is sensitive or because they were just waiting for the right moment anyway? This seems like a stupid way to communicate with people.

The worst are the ones who only show up to fight.They don’t appear when you do well, when you have a victory. They seemingly have no interest in your best. What’s the psychology behind that? At a distance, they’re absent. Up close, they hate you. You make them itch. They make you over eat.

I think the new litmus test for social media friends should be this–Would I want to spend an hour with you in a broken elevator? Could I stand it?

Suddenly, my Facebook friend list just shrunk to a microscopic number of the same people I see every week in real life.

The truth is, once you examine something up close, and it’s either exceedingly beautiful or exceedingly unbecoming, you never forget it. The moment when the pretty unauthentic becomes the ugly authentic, you’re awake. There’s such a temptation to lie and say that this didn’t happen, that you didn’t make someone cry over a Facebook post about money or pants or women driving in Saudi Arabia or pencils that never need sharpening or even about something you’re an expert in, like beet soup (all of these also made people angry on the internet).

Once you’ve seen the ugly, it’s hard to pretend that everyone is lovely.

But the truth is, no one is lovely all the time (most especially me) and some people always hated me (or you) anyway (and really that’s the only reason they’re hanging on, to see if we fail). What can you do? Make them love you? Who has time for such nonsense? Just move along now that they’ve shown you how offended they can get behind the mighty protection of a filtered Instagram picture.

In the past, I would have paused for a long time, left the building, and never returned if I had encountered someone’s Guernica. A young me would have cried that I could anger people so fast over so little, but the old me will pause for a short time, ignore everyone, and read and write deep into my stories. I will cook and drive and ignore. And stories will come of this and those who’ve seen my authentic ugly will make new social media friends who say things better than I do. Everyone needs a cheering section when they’re drinking coffee on the deck or buying paint.

And, if after all that has transpired these last 48 hours,  if we are social media friends, I will try not to examine your Guernica, and you can be sure that I will not let you examine mine if we are not friends in the flesh as well. And if I can’t picture myself standing with you, next to a bus, on a rainy roadside in Spain in July, we’re definitely on a break.

The last seven people were just omitted from my Twitter followers, and Instagram has only babies now. On Facebook, you won’t even see this, because I set everything so that only I can read my posts, and I have no arguments with me. We’re good.

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Guernica, Pablo Picasso

Red Memories

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(Alex Federov)

Here’s a little prosey essay that will mean nothing to almost everyone, but everything to me, because it just now slipped from my head, and it’s been knocking around in there for a while.

 

There are times of the year when I think of Moscow. I can go whole months and think of it only as an “other” place, as a foreign place, where Americans go as tourists. And then there comes a spring rain, when the sun shines at the same time, and I get washed in a feeling that stops me where I am and I realize that Moscow in June is Pennsylvania in April. It’s always a little behind the rest of the world, a city that moves at its own pace, but I love her like a dead uncle, like a lame dog, and affection fills my heart. I look up at the sky, thinking of her, and I say, “But remember, the Village Idiot was really a saint in disguise.” Because when I first think of her, it’s all roses and warm afternoons that I remember.

When Moscow comes, and it’s not very often these days anymore, but still, I stop washing the dishes. I stop reading the book. I stop at the stoplight just a little too long, and I pause inside the moment that’s held as fast and tight as a gray ghost. And if I pause, I lose her, so I have to chase her, and I’m transported from here to there, and I wonder if Moscow will ever leave me completely. If I will ever get to the place where I don’t think of it anymore, where I don’t share any secrets with it anymore. And she moves to he (but only very briefly) and then quickly to it and (and again briefly) to them, and it’s one big place again, a place that tries to squeeze it’s huge Red Square, it’s giant Holy Savior into my soul. Everyone’s first foreign city makes a bruise, leaves a scar, a tender song. Moscow is all three, because I wore her inside and out, and she wore me. Now we’re back to she.

I wonder, like one does about a recurring blemish after a long day in the sun– did Moscow become part of my DNA along the way ? Did I sip her into my bones when I drank that cloudy apartment water? Why does she pop up on my brain like a fevered childhood illness springing from dormancy? And why do I always smile when I think of her? I don’t smile when I think about the week I had the chicken pox. Moscow sometimes felt very much like the chicken pox, all hot-cold-humidity, endless nights, and itching beneath the sheets sewn in a Smolensk intelligentsia gulag.

I get similar feelings about the American West, the land where I was born. I feel this way in parts of Oregon, deep in the Siskiyou Mountains or along Coos Bay. I see my childhood, all the good and the bad things, the dreams that have remained and the dreams that have gone for good, and I feel something pop inside my heart, and I try to capture that moment. I try to hang on to it like water slipping through my fingers, like the sticky carnival ride that you’re high for, but for which you have no more tokens.

But then she hurts my thoughts like pierced balloons do when they break and smash against my eardrum, when I remember the coldness and all the locks without keys, the hallways with no windows, the doors that led to brick walls and the concrete walls stained with human rust. I hear the sounds of Moscow, and they leave the sweetness of childhood behind–the sounds of all the trains, of the Russian tongue, of the rain that falls as heavy and hard as boots outside Lenin’s tomb.

And this kind of day dreaming makes me think of how when I knew Moscow, she was a Soviet, and now she’s a millennial and I probably wouldn’t recognize her. More than just her priests and rabbis probably wear beards now. Now it’s everyone, her 20-year-olds, like in Brooklyn and Madrid. Moscow in the same league as Brooklyn and Madrid? Wait. Stop it. That’s ridiculous. That thought makes my head hurt, like how I heard banging on the roof one Christmas Eve when I was eight and never did figure out if the Santa-I-know-is-not-real actually landed there, or if some weird LA neighbor was loaded on ‘shrooms and just playing the part. Moscow is like that to me. Loaded and playing the part of others, in order to trick others, but her real self is old and strong  and silently hidden inside the bushes and behind the birch tree forests, like Stretensky Monastery.

Perhaps, that’s why I feel a bit pained when I think of her–terrified, in love, pained. Moscow isn’t eternal. It’s just a city, a landscape with several million stone-faced people with shiny cars and slick hair (and beards). They used to drive Ladas and had pock-marked faces and spiky hair. But it’s not June 12, 1991 forever. Thank the Lord. That was an ugly time for all of us on all sides of the spring rainbow.

That was then, this is now. It’s a moment in world history I feel, with people who no longer exist, and I think that’s what catches me between the rib cage, the idea that I stood at the epic center of history while it moved along the banks of the Moskva, and even though I knew it was important, I couldn’t hold it there to show everyone, “See what’s happening! It’s a revolution! It’s tearing down and building up!” But only the people who watched the nightly news listened and few of them were moved beyond the gas left behind from their dinners. They don’t remember what they didn’t experience. They probably don’t even remember our conversations (now I’m talking like a Russian).

Just like I couldn’t hold the Oregon of my childhood in place on those rare warm coastal days, I can’t hold Moscow when it rains against the sunshine, even though I want to show her to people, the way I knew her, the way I saw her. But that can only be done in fiction now, because the KGB took my camera and my film, and I have only a passport with a faded stamp…

CCCP.

That place is history, and thank God for that.

The past is just an illusion now. Don’t chase it. It’s dead. It doesn’t exist anymore than the future does. Don’t chase that either. Right now, it’s just wind and not yet the storm of everything you’re planning.

I went to her like an American in Paris, only it’s an American in Moscow and I was graced with sun on the Arbat while others were covered in clouds on the swings at Gorki Park, and that’s the real Moscow. The Moscow that shines for a select few and rains on most everyone else. Not the Moscow on the Hudson Moscow or the Gorki Park movie Moscow or the Billy Joel Moscow, but the Moscow where the rain falls there just as it does here in Pennsylvania farm country, only two months later on Moscow time. And when the rain passes, I’m always glad I’m here and that Moscow is still very far over there.

And I realize, in those rare moments that stop me at the sink, at the stoplight, in the middle of the yard with the water spilling down over my cheeks while I look up at the clouds as if Moscow is actually hanging inside their fat droplets, that it’s impossible to go somewhere, at the epicenter of the world in a broken cocoon state, and not feel like you want to catch it and keep it there. But you know the story, caterpillars and all…they grow up, they move on, and writers make them into old stories that their grandchildren read.

Once upon a time, there was  Moscow, and she was big and she was red and she was covered tight, all locked up in her high tower. But she grew tired of this and she blew the tower up and let her hair down, and now everyone drives a BMW and all dachas have been renovated to include marble counter tops and refrigerators to keep the pre-cut herring and French cream sauce cool for when the streaming movie is over.

 

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