Walking the cemetery

Walking around the cemetery in the rain wasn’t the community service I’d imagined. Instead of a cold, crisp day spent with eager eleven-year-olds raking leaves and drinking cider, it was a soaking wet slog that morphed into a layered experience of hearing about life decisions, choices and legacy, for those under the ground and us walking above them.

“Take care not to walk on the gravestones,” intoned the sexton, or cemetery custodian as they are called, his dark eyes focusing on the impatient boys shuffling between the tombstones. “They represent someone’s brother, mother, sister, dad or infant. Respect that and respect them.” He emphasized the point by hunching his broad soldiers, completely oblivious to the drizzle that evolved to a hard rain, his cotton pullover doing nothing to prevent the moisture that seemed to be running from my hood straight down to my boots. “Let’s start.”

Each war has its own section; this is the Spanish-American war

“I thought we were going to be raking,” whispered one of the girls in my group. Me too.

For an hour, we went from one corner of the large cemetery to the other as Robert pointed out historical facts: the sections for soldiers in three different wars, the area reserved for the infants of the Spanish influenza which claimed the lives of over seven hundred children.

Flat stones represent the children’s section

I watched the man’s eyes squint as he held back tears describing gluing the marble wings back on the angle when it was half-crushed by a tree during a windstorm. “We made her whole and the angel came back,” he said. Those closest joked about the comment, to which he snapped his head their direction. “She came back,” he repeated, the words emerging as a grumble, silencing the students.

31 residents perished in the fire of 1931

“Do you believe in ghosts?” asked Brooks, a tall, gangly boy who’d been put up to the question by a teacher standing near me.

“Nah, I don’t give that much credit.”

He lied of course. Anyone who has worked in a cemetery for over a decade and intends to work another seventeen years until retirement not only believes in ghosts, but wouldn’t deign to use that term.

“You believe in spirits,” I said to him during a moment of privacy as we walked to another station. He glanced at me, one eyebrow cocked, ascertaining my position on the subject. “I saw your eyes tear up during your mention of the angel wings,” I offered, “and maybe no one else noticed when you were talking about the seven hundred infants, but you choked up.” He nodded his head, admitting to it. “You have children of your own?” I asked, already guessing he didn’t.

“Two step-children. None of my own.”

“Well, you have about seven hundred here.”

The gloss of his eyes visible even through the heavy rain, his emotions at the surface and his agreement clear. “This is my second home and they’re part of it.” Seeing that I was of his persuasion, we talked about the notion that the spirits of the dead live around us, choosing when and to whom they make themselves known. We discussed the things he’d seen, the special experiences he wouldn’t typically share, my life as an author giving me the ability to write about truth while cloaking it as fiction. Early in his tour, he’d revealed he was a newspaper journalist before this job, burning out from cynicism before wanting a change. He’d found it; a reason for living among the dead.

The walking tour is free with self-guided pamphlets full of information

During the fifteen-station, hour-long traipse in the rain, he described the process of internment (putting the body in the ground) and exhuming (taking it out) in graphic detail, such as needing to burn your clothes if you’d been involved in an exhumation. He related the thickness of the cement, double-stacking of bodies, corrosion and other bits related with the precision of a forensics examiner but the empathy of a priest. He was both annoyed and pragmatic about the youth-driven need to gain bragging rights by pushing over a seven-hundred pound headstone, unbothered it horrified and offended the living relatives or that it took a special tractor and two men to set it right.

Walking through the middle section, one tombstone caught my eye. It was K27, the call number for a young police officer killed six years by a convicted felon. Echoing the words of a local officer, not a day goes by that I don’t see a dozen cars with the sticker remembering St. Greg Moore who was shot in cold blood. This occurred just one month before we moved to town, and the community was still in shock; CDA is a place of few shootings or even crime; to have a person killed at all rocked the area.

A community still mourns and supports its fallen officer

His retelling of a recently-deceased local businessmen, (who was apparently equally loved and despised) was done with a single story which summed up the man’s legacy. As the man was going to “purchase” (raid/takeover was the general consensus) another newspaper, he was late to the meeting. This sexton, who worked for him at the time, found the man bent over the planter boxes in the front of the building.

“I want my new business to reflect the attitude of the company,” his boss told him. The take-away to those of drenched listeners was that the man lived up to his reputation: precise and ruthless, but endowed with focus, passion and pride in all that he did. If he was going to be involved, it was going to be the best of his abilities, and he had no issue getting on his knees, in the dirt, in his suit pants, to start even before he’d written the check.

As we neared the end of the tour, I found another opportunity to stand beside this man, away from the others.

“Did this job find you, or did you find it?” I asked.

“Both.” He hinted at his situation in life and how he’d evolved from a hard-charging, iron-pumping man focused on all that material possessions with a matching body and attitude to the lead caretaker of cemeteries and parks in the area. “I needed something different at a time when they needed me.”

And by they, I knew what he meant. They were all around us.

He told a story of a man who’s wife had passed, and he was placing the marble box with her askes into the final resting place, a man-height, square edifice with ten compartments across and eight tall known as a columbarium.

“She’s going to get cold,” the husband told this cemetery superintendent. “She always gets cold, and I want her to be warm.”

Robert was unfazed. “I’ll find out a blanket,” he said, excusing himself. “When I returned, we wrapped the blanket around the marble box holding her askes, and slid it within the columbarium. I told him she’d be warm now and he finally felt at peace enough to leave.”

One of several columbarium’s

The man left, but Robert the cemetery sexton will be there, watching over the memorials, at least for the next seventeen years.

“And then what?” I wondered to myself if the next sexton care as much, see as much and protect those remains placed underneath or above, someday to retell stories about us.

Enlightenment & fasting

S teve Jobs has been on my mind; not for his fame, fortune or black mock turtlenecks, but for his use of fasting for the goal of enlightenment.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Fasting has been used for thousands of years for a whole multitude of reasons. Inspiration (think the original Buddha), mental and physical strength (athletes) enlightenment (yogi’s, Jesus) rendering the mind & heart humble and pure (Saint Augustine)  cleansing of the body and soul (millions of unnamed people). The length inspirational quoteand means are as varied as the people and the times. Jobs tended to use the fasting that skipped everything but juices (not to be confused with a cleanse, which is about losing weight but not enlightenment). A fast is generally considered eliminating all food and living on water, although I know people modify this to address dietary and health requirements and/or restrictions.

Whatever the form and function, a “fast” has a purpose, and end-goal if you will, that is ever-present and top-of-mind throughout. Then, when the goal is achieved—vis a vis the sought after enlightenment has occurred, then the fast ends.

Let’s go back to Jobs. Carrot juice being his fasting method of choice, if he had a problem to solve, he’d go on a juice fast until he received the answer (or enlightenment) he sought. (As a side-note, I’ve read and experienced that those who don’t believe in a God tend to use the word enlightenment versus received an answer- which denotes an answer from ‘someone.’ Perhaps this is why fasting itself is so universal—because a universal response is being given at the individual level, and thereby the promise of the fast is achieved).

I love the yoga teachers that throughout my twenty-year study have often gone full-on fasting—not even water—which of course means it has very physical limitations. So too have the martial arts instructors I’ve worked with over the years. The parallel experiences and stories have mirrored those who have removed certain foods from their diets-the difference, I might emphasize, was speed and clarity.

The voice of clarity

Now, I made this promise not to get too personal with this blog, but I have no issue telling the world what I have personally fasted about, because it’s pretty much anything important. For inspiration before a business meeting, college exam, plot ideas, who to date and/or marry, whether or not I should move, accept a client or job, to have or not have a baby. Those are personal. I’ve fasted for others, parents, siblings, even strangers, like those suffering from miscarriages of justice, the survivors or victims of attacks or accidents.

Why, you might ask. It’s because as a person who believes in the power of fasting for others and self, I also believe in the power of positive energy. At the subatomic level, our bodies are composed of energy (as identified in 1951). We can send out this to others regardless of distance. At the simple level, our heart pushes out an energy field 12 feet from our bodies.

It goes like this

  1. Start with the intention. Every self-help guru, yoga instructor, pastor, sales executive and even Oprah, will tell you it starts with the verbalization and visualization of the intent or goal. What is it? What do you desire? What do you need? This is what you are putting out there to the universe if you will, and if you believe in Deity, it’s that entity. Visualize and verbalize. State it and be clear.
  2. Prepare to fast and make the commitment to a timeframe. This is the optimal way to do it…as in, three meals, a dinner, overnight and then breakfast and lunch the following day. Twenty-four hours is a good starting point and there is a methodology. As said by one of my martial arts instructors (an 8th degree who was as agile as a mountain lion but as peaceful as a cool breeze), the goal is to bring the body to submission of the mind, and the mind itself to a place where it stops making noise. Depriving the body of food physically weakens it. Only when this occurs does the mind become quiet. Once the mind is quiet, then inspiration can occur.Now, that said, sometimes it takes some of us (ahem) more time to physically and mentally settle down than others. Honestly, I’ve witnessed that vegans who refrain from caffeine are simply a lot more chill than the average adrenaline junkie (self include). So, when I say that one sometimes needs to prepare for a fast, I’m being serious. If I’ve had a lot of chocolate lately (which has caffeine) I have to ease off so I won’t go through withdrawals. Then I have to clean out my body (by further eliminating bad stuff like sugar) and then I’m ready to be clean physically.For those that live a cleaner diet than I do, fasting is probably easier and produces quicker or stronger efforts.
  3. Constantly reiterate and repeat the intention throughout the fast. Think about it. Consider it. Roll it over and over in your mind. The more you think about the problem you are wanting to solve or outcome you desire, the greater the expansion of your thoughts. This is where the ideas suddenly come from—or the enlightenment. Many have referred to this as a sudden burst of light. For writers, many times this comes in dreams. Others have the ‘a-ha’ moment that seemingly comes from nowhere.


Does it last forever?

What if you fast for a day, even two, are weak and weary, and have received nothing. Nada. No answer. No inspiration. You are frustrated and think the whole notion is bunk.

Actually, a phrase exists for this condition, and it’s called a stupor of thought. That, in fact, is the answer. The answer “no” comes in many forms, and this “blackness” as it’s sometimes called, is the clearest form of answer possible. Should I go out with this person—stupor of thought—is a no. If it were a yes, then it would be a warm, peaceful feeling.

A yoga instructor told me about sending her child to a school that had been recommended, but she wasn’t feeling good about it. She fasted for a day or so and spent concentrated time in meditation (for additional clarity). While she didn’t receive an answer of what school to go to (she hadn’t asked that), she received a strong feeling—described as a sickness in her stomach—every time she thought about sending her child to that school. The longer she fasted and meditated, and thought about this option, the more acute her feelings became. Once she visualized not sending her child to this school, she felt peace she described as a complete calm. That was a validation of her prior answer.

As with anything—exercise or a new job, fasting becomes easier with practice, to the point of becoming second nature. Many people I know fast on a regular basis, either once a month, once a week (usually on a particular day where they can plan a day free from a business meeting luncheon or skipping a workout).

I’d like to end this with a flippant line, such as–the worst case is you have freed your body of toxins, but the reality is that flippancy reduces the power of the fast and the answers that come along with it. We have been put here to learn and grow, and that requires us to push, achieve and fully live to our potential. Fasting is one tool for us to reach the heights awaiting us. All we have to do is take the initiative and jump.

Spiritual Fitness

Today, whilst I was running on the treadmill, contemplating what topic to write about for ‘workout Wednesdays’ it struck me that I have thus far focused only on the physical aspect of health. That’s only half the equation, for what is the body without the spirit? (so said the Mrs. Steve Jobs in the bio I read over vaca). What indeed?

I’m no swami, but have a strong faith that serves to carry me forward through dark times, enlightens my mind and keeps me focused on family. I was taught at an early age that the spirit, and all aspects therein, must be exercised or else it grows weak, just like the flesh. Over the holiday, I read the Jobs bio on my Kindle (it was darn depressing, I tell you), yet it had a few redeeming qualities. One being the eternal search Jobs had on the Zen part of his existence, searching, striving, and seeking more. Of course, searching is not enough. One must apply what one learns. Through the school of hard knocks (e.g. choice and consequence), I’ve developed a few daily exercises or I grow weak spiritually–my energy ebbs, my outlook on life is grey rather than blue, I’m not listening (or receiving) promptings to help others etc.

1. daily prayer. Obvious, I know, but when I say daily, what I’m really saying is ‘meaningful’ in a way that requires me to verbalize my thoughts outloud. As a writer, I find it interesting that concocting words in my head is one thing. To say them outloud is another. Any good writer (and all books on becoming a better writer) council to speak the written word outloud. It’s requires thought. It carries meaning. The clarity quotient skyrockets.

Daily also means ‘whenever I want’, not just in the morning at night or at mealtimes. It means before a big meeting or presentation. I was seriously praying (silently however) backstage before I was to go on live TV with a movie producer from LA during the launch of my book last year. (I ramble, I get confused. I just asked for calm, peace and the ability the articulate my thoughts). My prayers were answered. My responses were short and concise (a miracle in itself). I smiled. I was calm.

2. Study-not just read-the scriptures. It’s strange. Sometimes I get nothing from reading the scriptures and other times I get a lot. Know the difference? Reading is just that–a straight through reading while on the treadmill or couch that I do. This is good (how can this activity ever be bad?), but not the best. About 2 years ago, I found my ability to truly learn and grow in the experience was found by following a 5-step process.
1) pray before hand that your mind will be enlightened while reading.
2) plan a specific time every day. Dedicate this time and have a routine.
3)have a pad of paper and pen to take notes, write down questions (therein is the studying part)
4) search/answer above questions. It doens’t have to be more than a verse (I used to set goals for reading–five chapters or 15 minutes type of a thing). Searching and answering can be much more or less.
5) pray upon completion that the words read (messages, meaning, understanding) can be remembered and applied.

Once I employed the above guidelines, I found the effort of scripture study much more enjoyable (and yes, it is still an effort), but interestingly enough, I began to look forward to it instead of dreading it like an obligation (like the treadmill).

3. Open your heart to being a help to another. This element of spiritual health brings benefits to others as well as yourself. Have you ever been inspired to call someone and done so, finding that the call was ‘just what was needed,’ to the person on the other end? What about writing a note of thanks for a job well done, then later learning your hand-written card (or email) was much appreciated? These little promptings are called ‘tender mercies,’ but also fall in the category of running God’s errands. Opening your heart to the prompting is the first step, but acting on the prompting is the fulfillment for both you and the recipient. I’ve found that the more I act on these promptings, the more I hear.

As with my own physical health, my spiritual workouts are stronger some days than other. The key is to keep moving forward, even if a bit at a time, to be as strong spiritually as one is physically. Ironically, the body will get weaker over time. The same cannot be said for the spirit.