Monday, May 24, 2010


Over the weekend I attended a workshop led by Brooke Williams, author of the lovely memoir Halflives and my neighbor here in the beautiful southern Utah wilderness. Brooke is now at work on the story of one of his Mormon ancestors. Or possibly at work on more than one story about more than one ancestor. Brooke isn't sure. Dead people keep talking to him.

"Let's just be still and listen for a while," Brooke said, "and see if anyone comes to us, and just start writing and see what we find."

There were ten of us around the table. None of us regarded Brooke's request as an unreasonable one. Most of us were already in the habit of spending time with invisible people. Most of us knew that the job of the writer is to make the unseen seen.

I closed my eyes and waited. It wasn't long before a dead man came to me, a relation I'd been aware of but never thought--or wanted to think--much about, a violinist and teacher of violin who'd lived a long and (I hoped) productive life before being exterminated at the Sobibor concentration camp. His showing up surprised me; we'd never chatted before. (I really hadn't wanted to think about him.) But there he was. I was able to write a bit about how I knew about him, a few pages of stiff, self-conscious writing of the kind you do when you feel someone's right at your back. Then we took a break and went out for lunch, and then we came in again and sat down to write some more.

The afternoon was better; I wrote about how, when I was young, I didn't want to play the voilin because it would leave black marks on my neck. How I chose the flute instead, which ended up being a disaster because, not only did the instrument not touch me, it didn't suit me at all.

I thought about how, only recently, I'd picked up a friend's violin and how strangely familiar it and the bow had seemed.

You see, the voice said behind me, you need to play what fits naturally to your hand, even if it bruises you.

The work I do often comes painfully to me. I'm often tempted to play something else, something shiny instead of strung with gut. Then when I do . . .

You find you don't have the mouth for it.


Ah. So then you know.


It was time to put our pens down and talk about what we'd written. Brooke had been chatting with a man on a train traveling West from Denver. Monette had a woman lead her down into a well and tell her to sit there. Diana didn't want to think about the dead anymore and wrote about a tree. Riley's grandfather, a World War II pilot, had killed himself and she didn't know why. Nancy had a woman tell her, "You can never speak all the love inside you."

"When you get to the core of things," Brooke said, "you end up writing a story that you think is not your story. But it is your story. Because it's everybody's story. Everybody lives there."



Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ghost Story

My husband and I like to visit cemeteries. In Santa Fe, New Mexico we took the dogs away from the crowded Plaza and headed instead to the oldest graveyard in town, a quiet, neglected strip of land on a busy street in a noisy, industrial neighborhood. Pull through the gates in late winter or early spring, and what you'll find are bare trees. Dead weeds. Row after row of gravel lanes, pocked with holes where the prairie dogs have burrowed under the caskets. Headstones marked with German names. Hispanic names. Some dating to the Civil War. Some, older still, broken away, names missing. Some of the newest are handmade: wooden boards inscribed with what looks, oddly, like silly-string, but on closer inspection turns out to be bright blue caulk. In one corner lie nothing but children who died in 1939. "Baby Boy." "Baby Lady." "Whom," one inscription goes on, "our arms never held, yet now hold so dear."

I jump at a sound. It's a pick-up truck pulling fast through the gates. Something about its speed and the scowl of the driver tells me we're in trouble. My husband puts the dogs on leash and waits to one side.

The driver pulls up to me. He seems angry.

"You're trespassing. And your dogs have to be leashed in this town."

I nod carefully at the strong, heavy-set Hispanic face with its light speckling of freckles. Something about writing this blog has taught me not to assume all hope is lost when two wary human beings meet for the first time.

"I'm very sorry," I say as my husband leads the dogs away. "We couldn't resist. This cemetery is so amazing. Beautiful. Does it have a name?"

"It doesn't have a name. It's private. And the dogs have to be--"

"I'm really sorry again. You're absolutely right. They're leashed now. But it's just so beautiful here, we couldn't resist coming in." I introduce myself. "Are you taking care of this beautiful place?"

He relaxes a bit, points to a red adobe house at the edge of the property.

"That's mine. And those are my German Shepherds, there. They're trained to chase intruders out. They're chained right now, or they could have seriously hurt your dogs."

That explained his anxiety. And now he goes on to explain, relaxing a bit more, that he and his wife have taken over the cemetery, after years and years of neglect, crime and vandalism. They were very protective of it.

"It doesn't have a name," he repeats. "A hundred years ago, it used to be something for the rich ladies of Santa Fe to take care of. But then it got handed to foundation after foundation, and each of 'em took worse care of it than the last." He shakes his long black hair over his steering wheel. "You should have seen it then."

After the state of New Mexico retired the cemetery's debts, including an unpaid $100,000 water bill, Pete, a landscaper, was allowed to take it on--providing he planted new trees and removed the dead ones, and obeyed a new law that didn't allow him to plant or water any grass.

"So," Pete sighs, "that's why it looks the way it does. But the families of the deceased are just glad someone's taking care of the place now. Used to be a drug den. The dealers would hide the stuff in the urns. Someone would come to pick it up. But I'm not afraid of thugs. I'm retired military, Special Ops. Airborne. I was in Columbia during the drug wars. I was there when we, you know, weren't there. So punks don't mess with me. It's just the prairie dogs that are the trouble now."

Especially the ones that liked to bring skeletal human hands and bits of chewed coffin to the surface.

"The families don't like that," Pete tells me.

"What do you do?"

"I have to gas them. I don't like that, either."

He points to some land connected to the cemetery and tells me it's where a concentration camp once stood. "That's where they put the Japanese during World War II. The barracks were right there. That wasn't so good, either."

"Is it scary here sometimes?"

"Yes. You see things. My wife and I both do."

"Like . . . ?"

There was a little girl. Both he and his wife had seen her many times. She seemed to live in their house. A white girl in a white dress, with short blond hair. She liked to let the dogs off their chains. They would hear her, and come out into the yard to find the dogs free.

I remembered all the children's graves in the corner.

"What happened in 1939 that so many people died, Pete?"

"Smallpox. They just . . . died. Sante Fe was just a hole in the wall in the old days. No medicine. No real doctors."

"Are you afraid of ghosts?"

His tattooed arms grip the steering wheel. "No. The spirits only bother you if you're a bad person. And I take care of this place. I planted all these trees. You should come back in the summer. It looks different then. Really green."

"I think it's wonderful you're bringing this place back to life."

"Well . . . I try. But sometimes it's not easy. The records are so bad. One time, when a film crew was here, we accidentally dug up an unmarked grave. There are all kinds of people under our feet we don't even know about."

"I guess we just have to be careful."

"You do. If you come back, keep your dogs on a leash."

"We will. Thanks."

We shook hands. As I leaned into the window I noticed Pete's black boots, his black jeans and his black sweatshirt with the full, black hood behind it.