Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return

–words spoken on Ash Wednesday as a cross is traced on each penitent’s forehead with ashes

How to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (“Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras)? How to live it up before the season of Penitence? One thing was clear: a parade was not in order. March did indeed come in this year like the proverbial lion, and so the Tuesday before the start of Lent was not a day for beads or for dancing in the street. Nor was it a day suitable for a long walk in the woods. True, the creeks would be frozen and thus easy–or at least easier–to cross, but yours truly did not want to drop her drawers behind a wide oak tree in the frigid air when nature (inevitably) would call.

“I’ll walk over to your house,” Barb texted. “Maybe we could walk to Valhalla Cemetery and then through the neighborhoods close by.”

“And stop somewhere for soup before we finish,” I suggested, regaining my enthusiasm for the day. (The chance to warm up in a restaurant sounded pretty good. Plus, a restaurant provided a private place to tend to that previously mentioned inevitable business.)

And so I bundled up: the wool base layer, topped with a long-sleeved fleece jacket which in turn served as a base layer for the warmest of my winter jackets; fleece buff over the mouth, wide headband covering the ears and topped with a wool-lined cap complete with ear flaps; air-activated handwarmers under two pair of wool mittens which were, in turn, covered by a pair of windbreaking overmitts. It goes without saying: long johns, flannel-lined wind pants, wool socks over Coolmax liner socks. (Have I previously mentioned that my fear of being cold is on a par with my fear of rabid dogs?  I’m likely to become a broken record as I lament any kind of frigid air encountered once I´m far from my well-stocked-for-cold-weather closets and drawers.  I’ll give you my apologies from the get-go for overstating my case.  Forgiven?)

Oddly enough, I chose to wear my canvas trail runners instead of my heavier, geared-for-winter boots. There was a method to my madness: I wanted to make sure that the “blue Altras” were going to serve me well for the long haul. They are the same size, brand, and model as the “pink Altras” which passed the 16-mile test a bit over a week ago, but I had yet to be convinced that my toes and the balls of my feet were as happy as I wanted them to be in “the blues.” This was to be their final testing to determine if they were Camino worthy. (I thought I had resolved this issue back in the fall; I set the shoes aside until a few weeks ago, and they haven’t seemed as broken in or comfortable as I had remembered.)

Barb and I were about half a mile from Valhalla Memory Garden when Barb explained that it was actually Rose Hill Cemetery she had meant to suggest. No problem.  Instead of turning towards the latter at a certain intersection, we just continued walking towards the latter, an historic cemetery where many well-known “city fathers” are buried. On route, we came upon a cemetery whose existence we had actually forgotten: White Oak Cemetery. Like nearby Rose Hill, White Oak is, interestingly enough, maintained and managed by the City of Bloomington’s Parks and Recreation department. As far as I know, the city doesn’t organize any ball tournaments for the long-term residents, though with three cemeteries in close proximity, there would be plenty of players to form a league.  Well, if only the potential players could shake off the cobwebs and get back in the game, so to speak.  No offense meant; they no doubt earned their extended 7th inning stretch….

After noting a few of the older stones and reading a sign that informed us that at least one burial dates back to 1810, we proceeded to the significantly larger Rose Hill whose earliest residences arrived around 1820.  Barb and I truly didn’t do justice to the cemetery.  I’ve been there on walking tours, brochure in hand to help me locate the graves of some renowned figures, find especially interesting monuments and carvings, and learn some tales about nicknames and colorful local history.  But on even a quick walk around the perimeter, doing our usual jabbering, we did spot songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s tomb.  And those buildings on campus, ones in which I taught through the years–Ballantine, Wylie, Kirkwood–why… those were more than names picked from a hat (duh!); they were named for professors who have long-since hung up their tweeds and set aside their pipes in order to rest on “the hill,” amidst plentiful roses.  As we walked, we spotted a monument shaped like a guitar, others, very old, in the shape of tree trunks, one with a scene of Dorothy skipping along with Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.  There’s a story there I’ll not likely ever know.  Stories.  Lots of stories.  Known and treasured by some who remain behind, but by fewer as one generation gives way to the next.

But brrrr!  The day wasn’t getting any warmer and some clouds were moving in.  In addition, our tummies were talking.  As we walked towards the town square for our soup–thrice-roasted eggplant for me, cabbage for Barb–an idea began forming in my head.

“What would you think, Barb, if I walked you half-way to your house, and we went by way of Covenanter Cemetery?” I asked.

“Works for me,” she replied.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I have driven passed the corner of S. High and E. Hillside/E. Moore’s Pike through the years, but I had never stopped in to visit this sweet little corner-lot cemetery with its quaint and inviting fieldstone fence.  Covenanter isn’t a cemetery that “just anyone” can be buried in; I’m thinking that it is reserved for some of the city’s original families and their descendants.  My former next-door neighbor Mary Ina used to talk about it, knowing it would be where her body would one day be laid to rest.  And then, without any effort at all, I spotted her stone!  And that of her mother whom Mary Ina had cared for at home until the elder’s demise.  I would sometimes sit with Pearl when Mary Ina had errands to run, as  Mom was prone to taking off to wander.  Nice to have this mini-visit with them.  A little trip down memory lane, to when I was a new bride moving into my first–and present!–house.

Barb and I parted company, she heading south for her home via connecting neighborhoods.  I had walked a bit over 9 miles at this point.  The sun had left us permanently, but my handwarmers had plenty of heat left in them and I was cozy warm.  More than cozy: I had actually started to sweat a bit by the time we reached Covenanter Cemetery and had removed my fleece jacket and stored it in my backpack.  I had a decision to make: would I give my “blues” the full test?  Try to give them their 16-mile trial?  And if so, where would I head, because going home was out of the question; if I walked directly home I’d only get in 11 or 11.5 miles.

Was there really a decision to be made? Wasn’t it obvious?  I needed to head to another cemetery, didn’t I?  I recalled hours earlier when Barb explained that she had never intended to go to Valhalla, that she had merely misspoken or been confused about the name.  So yes, I retraced our route from the morning and when I came to the decision-making corner, I turned down the dead-end street, walked to the “no trespassing” signs,  and walked through the workers’ only area of this, the largest by far of the city’s graveyards.

Now I’m a Chicago girl.  Even if you’ve never been to cemeteries in Chicago, you can easily imagine–and rightly so–that they go on and on, for block after city block.  They have lanes and avenues and section markers and, truly, you would never find a grave if you didn’t have a map and a lot number to which to refer.  It would be insane to attempt it.  I won’t swear that I could get in 16 miles if I walked every avenue at Holy Sepulchre on West 111th Street in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, but surely if I also went to some of the adjacent cemeteries on that street I could do so.  (Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis invites cyclists to enjoy riding the 25-miles of roads there.  Just saying.)

Valhalla, I admit, is not huge in the same way.  But it’s big.  Big enough that a few years ago I drove into it at rush hour time, hoping to find a rear exit and avoid some traffic as I was in a hurry to get home to dinner.  Ten minutes later, though, I was still driving around, convinced that there was no other entrance/exit but unable to find the road which would lead me back out!  I felt trapped!

I had also been in this cemetery while on a bike ride (entering, as I had just now, through the “cemetery workers only” area).  On a bike, it is never that crucial to “get it totally right” when choosing your route.  What’s another mile or two or three or even four?  But I was walking, and I had quite a few miles under my soles already, so I was careful to pay attention and maintain a sense of where I was at all times.  16 miles would be good walk; 18 would be two miles too many!

It just can’t be heped: it is a lot easier to be mindful and to pay careful attention when you are alone.  Sure, companions can point out things you might have missed and can interpret things you don’t understand.  Still, somehow–at least this is the case with me–when I am alone I am more observant, if only because 1) I don’t want to get lost; 2) I want to have something to share with others when I am done; 3) being observant is like having a lively conversation with myself as I wonder and conjecture about what I am seeing.

I decided to walk the perimeter.  And quickly, as the day was getting on.  But I noticed the aging trees.  Hard to be absolutely sure in the winter, but, besides being huge, a fair number of them had seen better days, just might be dying.  I’m thinking that some of the trimming was done by untrained workers rather than by professionals.  It seemed obvious to me that Valhalla was not hiring the best arborists in Bloomington.  Somehow, though, the less-than-pristine trees created an eerie, somber, even decadent mood not altogether unfitting for a graveyard.

I noticed also the diversity of the cemetery.  Why should I be surprised in a university town as diverse as Bloomington?  And yet I was.  I came across the Korean section and then, to my surprise, quite a significant section where the names were… I’m generalizing and guessing “Middle Eastern” and the lettering on the stones… Arabic?  Stories.  More stories.

I saw a large family stone with a familiar name.  Ah, I had just seen Becky not two days earlier.  So that is where she will rest when she joins her “Dr. Frank.”

No sooner had I wondered if there would be a so-called Catholic section and, if so, if I would recognize it, when I came upon a sign announcing that very thing.  Without leaving the paved lane, I kept my eyes open.  Over there, Mary Jo’s name carved on the stone where she’ll some day lie next to Kenny.  And over there, Barbara’s name and a spot waiting–a long wait, I hope!–for Barb to take her place next to Mike.  How many names might I have recognized, how many faces conjured, had I walked through the stones themselves rather than merely catching glimpses from the road?  I’ve been in Bloomington almost 50 years now….  On this side of the earth for almost 70 years.  Dust to dust.  Ashes to ashes.  Sobering, on many counts….

I was not sorry to come back around to the office and the back lot where the cemetery work trucks waited to be put into service.  I once again trespassed in order to head towards home.  It was time.

I had logged 16 miles on my own Mardi Gras “parade” by the time I walked through the back door, tired, but, I’m happy to say, very much “alive.”   I’d visited four cemeteries.  I would receive ashes the next day, but I’d already had my reminder about coming from dust and returning to it.

My “blues”?  They seem to have passed the test, and remained on my feet until bedtime, another six or seven hours later. They are now my “Cemetery blues.”  They, like their owner, will be Camino-bound soon.  They will walk across northern Spain towards Resurrection Sunday, when, in word and in songs, we’ll ask:

Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?

¿Dónde [está], oh muerte, tu aguijón?  ¿Dónde, oh sepulcro, tu victoria?

                                                 1 Corinthians 15:55 / 1 corintios 15:55