Friday, June 30, 2006

June 19

June 19
I woke up feeling surprisingly well, considering how much I had had to drink the previous night. Word had gotten to us yesterday that a good friend, Katie, had killed herself in a particularly gruesome manner on Friday night. She was such a unique and great person. She struggled with finding the point to life; like so many she fell to one of the two extremes with regards to what, exactly, life means. She rightly perceived that there is, in the end, no real point to life. I’m sure one could rightly argue that there is a point, and it is to pass on your genes, but such a non-cerebral pursuit is hardly satisfying to those seeking something profound.

But on the other hand, any life is extremely meaningful, and in fact, has whatever meaning and significance you choose to bring to it. The cold fact of Katie’s passing this mortal coil has brought such suffering to so many people shows that on some level her life held so much more meaning than she ever conceived it could.

Katie’s death shook some of my confidence in my convictions, and caused me, in the early stages of grief, to revisit the thoughts and ideas (and the feelings that those thoughts and ideas generate) I have regarding life and death, and that kept me up for a good deal of the previous night. I struggled with duality, what I had thought of as a sort of dynamic tension between a deeply ingrained human (or perhaps animal) will to survive and our other deeply ingrained instinct to relieve suffering. It occurred to me that I, too, was falling into the mistaken notion that this duality was two things. But the desire to survive and the desire to end suffering are really two human differentiations of the same thing. You survive because of what you fear or suffer, and you suffer because you live with the fear of losing life (impermanence), and because of the human tendency to transpose our being upon our possessions, we can actually see losing certain parts or aspects or impermanent features as threats to our actual being.

All of this was racing through my mind last night, and into this morning, so I thought that a walk through the woods might do some good for me. The weather was cool and mild, with a layer of clouds to prevent the sun from beating down and sending the summer insects into a frenzy. I chose to go to the woods above Hoffman Park, probably because it bordered a cemetery, and of course death and morbidity was much on my mind at the moment.

As I pulled into the parking lot, it started to sprinkle. I looked at the sky again to see if I had maybe misjudged the contents and intentions of the clouds, but they looked fairly thin and light, and I felt fairly certain that a sprinkle was the worst the weather would get; worse, of course, being a relative term, presuming there is something wrong with getting wet—a concept which I learned back at the stumps was bullshit.

By the time I had reached the entrance to the woods the precipitation had stopped and the sun broke out from behind the cloud cover, shining with noticeable heat and intensity, but within the woods it was still cool. As I was entering the woods, a woman and her dog were leaving. Both were very friendly and wished me a good morning, which I returned wholeheartedly.
As I entered the woods, I heard ominous-sounding cries of crows and blue jays rather than the calls of red-winged blackbirds and robins that encompassed me down by the river. I wasn’t but a few steps into the woods when I noticed that the vegetation along the edges of the path was chewed to shreds. I noticed one small tree at first, and examined it closely…I couldn’t think of any animal that would chew up a tree quite in that fashion. Then I saw that all the trees along the path showed similar damage and figured that the park department must have come through to groom the paths to keep them from being overgrown.

I walked on down the path, wondering if, when I got to the fork in the path, if I would turn right and go up the hill deeper into the woods or if I’d take a left and wonder around down by the cemetery. The mere thought of the cemetery got me thinking of Katie again, of course. I hoped that she would be laid to rest in that particular one, so that I might visit her on some of my walks, and then immediately thought myself selfish. In fact, it occurred to me, gravestones and cemeteries really are, in the end, for the living. Anything that was Katie is long gone now…gravestones give our brains something to deal with besides abstract concepts such as impermanence.

At the fork, I turned left and went uphill as the idea struck me to construct a makeshift monument to her by stacking some rocks. I’d never talked to her about rock stacking, although I’d been meaning to, and now never will, but I have a feeling she would have thought it was cool. The specifics of the plan had not gelled in my mind, and rather than overthink it, I thought I’d just let the whole experience unfold as organically as possible, being sure that’s how Katie’d want it.

I walked uphill for a while, past the crumbling sandstone of the natural retaining wall that was carved out of the hillside. Near the top of the hill, there is an outer ring which, I believe, goes around he hilltop, and within that outer ring, an inner ring that traces around the hilltop a little farther up. When I got to the outer ring, I was faced with the prospect of going left or right, and I chose right. Only about ten paces down this path, I spied a small trail going up a steep incline off the main path. I went straight up it without delay.

The short, steep path went nearly straight up about eight to ten feet, then crested and dipped down a foot or two. Then it lead a very short way to a small fire pit. It did not appear to have been used recently; there were no ashes in it, and three small paths radiated off of it, each about 120 degrees from each other. The area was very small, and seemed to have a sort of mystical aura about it.

Standing in this confined room in the middle of the woods, I wondered if Katie had ever been to this spot. In all likelihood, she had. The spot was secluded and very quiet, as it sat so far above the main path, and I was struck with the idea that I should stack some rocks here, as a sort of monument in her honor, some thing that I could return to, focus on, and even maintain as a memorial.

I went to build the stack on the westward path radiating off of the fire pit, and soon saw that it was less of a path and more of a small room. It was an ideal location for the stack, sort of out of the way (the stack location was difficult to see even from the pit a few feet away as it was obstructed by vegetation), and with a nice little space to sit and reflect.

I hurriedly gathered up a few loose rocks and set them up. Looking at them, something seemed wrong, and I decided it was the haste and lack of attention to detail that went into it’s construction. I unstacked the stones and left the fire pit, getting back down on the main path, determined to walk around thinking about the stack and its meaning, and to find appropriate stones for its construction.

While walking, I decided that the large stone I had used as a base for the original stack was good and proper…it was big and had a nice growth of moss that I was sure Katie would have liked. Along the path, I came upon a small upheaval of dirt, and in the dirt was a piece of sandstone with a v-shaped notch out of it; it sort of looked like the walking man or a ‘k’, and I deemed it appropriate for my project and picked it up, carrying it along as I continued down the path.

Later I came to part of the path where, on the left side, the hill rose sharply, and had been eroded away a little, exposing a substrate of sandstone rocks that resembled a crumbling retention wall. I noticed one of the rocks, small and thin, had the impression of a leaf on it. I picked it up and went on up the trail.
Soon I was at the top of the hill, on the inner circle path, and walked westward past all the deciduous trees until I came into a grouping of pines. Here, a small path darted off the main one, headed into the center of the inner circle path.

The small path lead to a campground with a fire pit which was surrounded by rocks and logs for sitting. There was a cushion of dry pine needles on the ground. A few paces away was a nice stack of firewood. This fire pit didn’t seem to have been used lately either. I was pretty sure that Katie had been here in the past, and I stepped with reverence around the site. Then, I thought, it was time to go and finish my work. (include other sites w/ birch cross and lean-to?)

I followed the main trail back to the site I had chosen earlier, where I started stacking. First, I put down the base rock, the big one with the moss and a rounded top, on top of which I placed a thin, flat rock that I’d gotten from the fire pit. Next I laid down the rock with the leaf imprint. I set the rock I’d taken from the upheaval and put it on the leaf imprint rock, but a little off center, and on that I balanced an awkwardly shaped but nonetheless beautiful stone, standing on its edge.

When it was completed, I took a step back and looked at it. I still wasn’t sure if I liked it, but it was made out of rocks I was sure Katie would have liked. It was also unstable, like her. I think her instability contributed to her beauty. Her instability, her fragileness, her frailty…all these things that some might consider imperfections or flaws, these are what made her a truly beautiful person.

I knelt there, on the soft forest floor, contemplating these things about her, when I noticed a low whine of machinery in the distance, one that kept getting closer and louder. I tried to ignore it and concentrate on Katie, but soon the noise was so much I couldn’t hear myself think. A chipmunk suddenly darted out of its hiding place, not more than three feet away from where I was kneeling down. I only saw it as a blur; it was gone so fast. It must have been hunkered down, anxiously waiting for me to finish my rock stacking, so it could get on with its life. I smiled to myself, realizing that I, too, am going to have to get on with my life at some point. But for now, I think I’ll have to try to be patient with my grief.

After the path-clearing thrasher had gone by, I got up and left the small secluded site.

I was walking down the path, thinking I’d leave the way I entered, when I heard a series of sharp, quick buzzes. At first I assumed that the noise came from the machinery that had just been by, but then I caught sight of a moth fluttering frantically on the path. I’d never heard a moth buzz before, so I knelt down for a closer look.

Once I got down to the moth’s level, I saw that it was so frantic because it was being attacked by a bee. In all my walks through the woods, I can recall countless butterflies and moths jittering by me and thousands of bees buzzing furiously past me, sometimes hitting me at full speed, angrily intimidating this creature about a millions times their size, but I hadn’t seen this hunting, this death, that I came across on this day when I was most able to witness it with such gut-wrenching empathy. The moth was obviously in its death throes, staggering, already dumb under the spell of the venom. I sat and watched for a few minutes, rooting for the moth to find some reserve strength and escape, but I knew better, of course. I tried to take a couple of pictures, out of some sense of need to document morbidity in the physical realm, but soon the bee knew the moth was done for and focused on me as his most pressing threat, stabbing at me in a series of unnerving aerial maneuvers. I backed off more a good couple minutes before racing past the now motionless moth.

I arrived at the fork in the path at the base of the hill, but instead of turning left and exiting the woods the way I had entered them, I proceeded down towards the cemetery. When I got to where the path exited the woods by the cemetery, I stopped short upon seeing a small gathering in the graveyard. It didn’t seem to be a funeral, as the grouping of people seemed casual and informal, and there was no hearse or coffin. Some of the people gathered were obviously somber, however, as they hugged and shook hands reassuringly.

Off on the edge of the cemetery, obscured from view from the group of people there, but visible to me, was a large pile of dirt, dark as if it was a little wet. This, I surmised, was where they put your dirt when they dug your grave. I fantasized that this was Katie’s family checking out a plot for their daughter, that this was her dirt, but I had never met anyone in her family, and I had no real clue whom these people were. Inside I knew that this was a stupid, self-serving fantasy; after all, other people do die.


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