Restriction, isolation, health crisis, death: The year begins with foreboding language. At first, danger seems far away, “isolated ‘’ in China, then less distant, the first case in the U. S. on the west coast, 1750 miles from my home. But as surge and spread uptick, distance becomes the illusion of reprieve. I need a healthy response, to build and sustain body and mind. I pay attention to an unexplored landscape, safe and serene, right for wondering and wandering. What I find brings me back to rituals and practices that have influenced me since childhood, the importance of which I have tried forget.
Under a gunmetal sky, among skeletons of trees, and on frozen hills, I walk each day through the 176 acres of Glendale cemetery and the adjacent acres of the Masonic and Jewish cemeteries, rarely seeing more than a few other masked visitors, learning the names of veterans of multiple wars, of immigrant survivors. I find a memorial dedicated to the six million victims, what my father defined as our ancestry, taken by war not disease, what he regularly told me to remember. It would be years before I consider how war has produced more loss than disease: the loved ones, our hopes, the land. The six years I attended Hebrew school, all the way to becoming a Bar Mitzvah, the wiseacre in me whispered “in the beginning, there were six….” But that was buffoonery, and during these somber months of the surge, I look to what I believe will outlast the pandemic, the word inscribed in stone, the messages we preserve. Paying attention each day to inscriptions on markers, gravestones, and monuments, I recall how my father, uncle and I focused on language carved in stone during our yearly visits to the family plot in Staten Island. Assigned to trim the grass on the graves, then to sing prayer, I became the family’s landscaping cantor. Now, hearing my father’s voice, I pay attention to what is written that will outlast us, inscriptions that describe identity not disease, words of simple affection ( “ Samuel William Ohringer, “ friend to all. Bill was a Mensch.” ), that stir me to investigate representations of life. And sometimes leaving home, after research and before reading an inscription, I search for a particular gravestone, and finding it, imagine the care and respect of a particular approach to burial, as with Sarah Greenfield, interred with her one-year-old daughter, Orthodox Jewish fashion, wrapped in shrouds without coffins, the year of the first burials in the cemetery. To respect the word that outlives us, I regularly return to a burial place of the word, the Genizah at Glendale, a repository for old Torah scrolls and prayer books, the burial site for preserving God’s written name.
By late spring, under a brilliant blue sky, the gradual flush of green elm, red maple, and immense oak diminishes winter’s panorama of barren trees and marked stones. Whole districts of graves are partially or totally hidden. Geese settle on the pond, or peck on rising hills below lackadaisical hawks floating on air currents, bluebirds traversing budding branches, and a singular blue heron gracefully rising to the top of a thirty-foot pine. Deer spotted on thawing hills stare back. We are still for minutes, until they decide to graze or move over the hill. And I continue my walks, remembering the foreboding leitmotif from Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.” I text a friend in northern Minnesota a more optimistic message: “Winter came and passed, and I am still here.”