Sunday, March 27, 2016

...periwinkle, redbuds & resurrection...

Every parting gives a foretaste of death,
every reunion a hint of the resurrection.
~Arthur Schopenhauer 

Today is a pretty good day to discuss themes of death and resurrection. Most historians believe that many of the elements of today’s religious observance of Easter are derived from earlier Pagan celebrations. Some folks get pretty offended by statements like that but not me.  Recently, it seems that we Americans have too much intolerance for nearly everything. Easter, the most important Holy day, at least in the Catholic calendar, celebrates the Christian teaching that Jesus rose from the dead after hanging on the cross, a process that wouldn’t have offered an instant death. This post isn’t going to be overly religious. It’s actually about cemeteries. Yet, the themes juxtapose quite nicely.

Yesterday, I participated in a day of community service at East End Cemetery. As one of four historic African American cemeteries (Evergreen, East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section, and Colored Pauper’s Cemetery) in Richmond, it is the final resting place for many prominent African-American Richmonders from the early 1900s. The cemetery has faced numerous obstacles as a privately owned establishment. It has become overgrown and a place where people come to dump their trash. For the day of service, I volunteered to “restore the cemetery by cleaning trash and cutting away plants and overgrowth.” That was the description. While I did help, I left feeling both physically and mentally exhausted.    

Until yesterday, Odd Fellows Rest, a cemetery the size of a block in New Orleans, had the worst conditions I’ve seen. East End Cemetery in Richmond, VA, with an estimated size of about 15-16 acres, surpasses those conditions. In Odd Fellows Rest, you can see monuments and markers deteriorating; in East End Cemetery you have to remove the ivy (English and Poison Ivy) by hand to even find the gravestones.  

John Shuck, the volunteer coordinator, has been working on the project since around 2012 when the volunteers had previously been working at Evergreen Cemetery, which is also overgrown and nearly 60 acres, until there was some type of dispute with the owners and the volunteers.

I have seen numerous inquiries as well as complaints about the state of the cemetery on social media. Shuck, who is somewhat soft-spoken and incredibly humble, doesn’t seem to waste time talking about the why’s and how’s and is more interested in restoring the place.  

Yesterday, I watched a volunteer take a shovel and dig up a marker so that he could level it; another volunteer walked around collecting our bins of debris taking them back and forth to the large dumpster.  Others, like me, raked and pulled weeds and ivy. It reminded me a bit of a moving meditation, connecting to both nature and to the divine. Yesterday, Catholics reflected during Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday and before Easter. It’s considered a solemn day since it was the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb waiting for the resurrection. Yesterday, I raked ivy cutting it at its roots and dumping it into a bucket.

periwinkle is a classical landscaping plant for cemeteries
Connie from Hartwood Roses and I worked from around 9am to noon removing debris and the ivy. I cleared about two plots. That’s right, just two plots. Our basic instructions were to clear away all the plant life and leave the ground. Of course, Connie resurrected a few that were clearly planted by someone. She’ll plant them in her garden and when the cemetery is one day cleared and seeded for grass, she’ll move them back to their previous spots.

Connie among the periwinkle that matches her hair

For the majority of the time, I had a somewhat intimate relationship with Mr. Manson who was interred somewhere beneath me. In fact, for a good amount of the time I straddled depressions in the ground where wooden coffins and their remains had collapsed into the earth now leaving holes. You can see this in the picture of the workers.

look carefully to see the collapsed ground
My body was exhausted from the labor and I couldn’t help but wonder if this volunteer effort was some type of prayer for Shuck who continues week after week when the place seems so hopeless. I also became somewhat annoyed by the passiveness of church… sitting and waiting when instead one could be out there actively doing.

At the end of the day, Shuck gave us a tour of the grounds of East End Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery. He noted what had been done and what needed to be done; he noted the people who were buried there. He noted the clean-up that had gone on a few years ago that nature has already taken back. This is a continuous effort, a weekly removing of ivy and the grounds while the weeds continue to grow. 

Shuck reminds me of one of my favorite trees, the Easter Redbud. They grow no taller than 30 feet and offer gorgeous purple flowers in very early spring. I see them right at the point when all hope is lost. The winter melancholy has slipped in and I cannot imagine it will ever be warm again… then a Redbud enters the picture and my spirit lifts whispering “resurrection.”  
much of this area has already been cleared at one point... note the Redbud

Monday, March 21, 2016 inspired by poetry: a brief review of POEMAS...

On Saturday, I attended POEMAS, a dance performance presented by The Latin Ballet of Virginia and the Poe Museum in Richmond. Each piece used the inspiration of the poetry of Poe, Neruda, Lorca, or Storni. I wasn’t sure how these artists were going to fit together. Poetry from Chile, Spain, and Argentina and the United States? Where in the world were they going with this? Yet, I was excited about finding out.  Also, I was excited that it was going to be held at the Poe Museum's Enchanted Garden but alas the weather turned cold so it was moved to the Gottwald Playhouse at Richmond Center Stage. I have to admit that since the last time I froze during Poe’s birthday bash, I was more than alright with the change in venues.

Let’s start by saying that I know very little about dance so I’m not even going to try to label the styles. Some of it looked contemporary, some African inspired, some flamenco, and “The Bullfighter” included a tango. What I can say is that without a doubt, the choreography communicated beyond languages. The dance along with a few props set a tone for each piece. Even when one poem was spoken in Spanish only, a language I cannot speak, it was interpreted through visual means. Did I understand the depth of the poem without words? As a lit professor, I must say that that wasn’t possible; but, what it did do was inspire me to go home and find translations of these works.

program from performance
program from performance
Each piece seemed to build the momentum. Alfonsina Storni’s “Alfonsina and the Ocean” was breathtaking. Pablo Neruda’s lines from Poema 15 are haunting, “I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent, and you hear me from far away and my voice does not touch you.”

Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Bullfighter” was so visually stunning with dancer Roberto Whitaker (who also embodies The Raven beautifully) dancing as the bull. Is this guy really a dancer in Richmond, VA? Seriously! He was so talented. I believed he was a bull just as much as I believed he was a raven.  Another talent was the bullfighter, Antonio Hidalgo Paz, who also choreographed this part of the performance.

I have to applaud the talent of dancer Jamie Alison LaNeave embodied “The Death Spirit” and Ana Patricia Nuckols who was able to juxtapose creepy and beautiful with subtle movements.

While I went to see interpretations of Poe, I was introduced to the macabre through poems and the visual interpretations of the dancers who brought them to live. I left the performance thinking that I need to check out more performances by the Latin Ballet of Virginia.

I really hope that they do this performance again when the weather is a bit warmer so we could see it in the garden OR other similar poetry-interpreted performances.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

...Touching Roses and the 4th Annual Rose Pruning and Maintenance Day at Hollywood Cemetery...

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.  It's not.
~Dr. Seuss

Saturday was one of those wonderfully busy days... or perhaps it was one of those busy wonderful days. The ones that are so packed that you wish there were just a bit more time to reflect.  I had three fun events squished into one day. Today, I’ve had time to reflect on each.

To start, Saturday began with the 4th Annual Rose Pruning and Maintenance Day at Hollywood Cemetery. I just knew it was going to be a good day because on the way there, I heard "I Touch Roses" by Book of Love. I see signs but coincidences. Last year was my first year volunteering and I wrote about my experience here

This year was a bit chilly compared to the other days this week when I was wearing t-shirts and shorts. With the possibility of rain, I added extra layers. I thought it turned out to be a perfect day to be in the cemetery. It was overcast so I wasn’t squinting and hey, it didn’t rain.

I like Rose Volunteer Day for several reasons. First, it’s completely well-organized. Connie from Hartwood Roses is the *Rose Boss*. For weeks (months?) before the volunteering event, she drives an hour South to survey the roses and to determine what needs to be done. There are over 100 roses in the cemetery so this isn’t done on one day but on several visits. She then organizes all the data along with the list of volunteers (e.g. which volunteers know about roses, which volunteers are repeat workers, which can be trusted to find their way around the cemetery, etc). I know there is a ton of effort involved because I had lunch with Connie on Friday, which was her short break before returning to creating folders and inserts for each team of volunteers. I know I’m leaving out a ton of details of her efforts but Connie is super humble so you don’t always know exactly how much work she’s put in.

Another reason I like Rose Volunteer Day is because I can meet people who like what I like. There is a variety of folks who love cemeteries. I think my favorites are the historians and genealogists because they remind me of my grandfather who was a genealogist. Unfortunately, as a kid I didn’t appreciate it enough and with a family feud (between other family members) I missed out on seeing him for over a decade. My earliest memories of him are hearing, “Sweet Pea, what is that there?” and having him hand me a piece of paper to decipher his writing. Or, something like, “See that name here (drawn out Richmond accent for *here* which sounds more like he-ya), check over yonder if you can see that name”… and with that, I ran off in the cemetery or graveyard searching for a distant ancestor. I love hearing stories of people. I think that is why I became a literature professor. It’s basically a career in reading stories about people.

One of our assigned roses
On Saturday, I was paired with a friend whom I had invited. Joe and I met while we were in Guide School together but other than Facebook, I haven’t seen him since about May 2014 so we had a great deal of catching up to do while also being assigned about six or seven roses. We had three *?* roses on our list which meant there possibly was a rose bush there but it may have died or it may be wrong information, etc. Joe was great to work with because while I know the cemetery, the map we realized has particular sections. His background, aside from being a photographer, was doing geological digs so he can read a map for sure. We found all of our plots but one. Today I spent some time researching who these individuals were. That’s another thing I love. I get to meet *living* friends and also those who reside in the cemetery.

One of our question mark roses was for Mrs. Emma Trainer Burkholder. She did have a rose bush on her gravesite. Our instructions were pretty basic-- clean away all the dead limbs and weeds. What I discovered around the base was an old rusty wire fencing. I unwrapped that so hopefully it will flourish this year. 

After a little bit of research, I learned that Mrs. Burkholder, who was born in Illinois and somehow made her way to Richmond, VA, was a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her ancestor who fought in the American Revolution came from Switzerland. I also learned that the Virginia Historical Society actually has a collection of records including a death certificate and a family Bible that belonged to her family. I’d like to investigate some more to find out more about her inscription, “Music is born of love.” But we don’t find out everything about a person on the first encounter so I have a bit of work to do to learn more.

Another reason that I like this event is because the Friends of Hollywood Cemetery are great hosts. The Executive Director Kelly Wilbanks shows up to these volunteer events. She is gracious and makes sure that the Friends group provides volunteers with bottle water and boxed lunches from Sally Bell’s, a  family-owned establishment that has been serving homemade sandwiches and baked goods nine decades. I’m adding this little detail for those of you who aren’t local. My Sally Bell’s boxed lunch included a pimento cheese sandwich, a deviled egg, a pecan & cheese wafer, potato salad, and a chocolate cake. How Southern is that? ;D I feel like it’s such an honor to be part of the volunteer group that it just feels doubly special to be rewarded for it.

I cannot wait for the summer when all the roses are in bloom. I plan to go back to Mrs. Burkholder’s grave and check on her rose bush as well.