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The Soldier in the Cemetery

In these social-distancing days the green spaces have been mobbed, especially in good weather. Our usual walking venue (Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum) has been busy, so today we decided to head over to the Forest Hills Cemetary, an old school New England cemetery where e.e. Cummings and Anne Sexton are buried, and which is a lovely pensive place especially for lovers of old trees. It might seem odd to walk among gravestones and statuary during an ominous pandemic, but we needed the quiet. And it was quiet, and apart from one rude intrusion from what sounded like an ATV, we could eavesdrop on the many birds conversing, both our standard all-the-time birds plus the migrators passing through in the hurry of an early Spring. People were sparse, except for a group of birders who decidedly were not practicing social distancing – but it’s hard to be pissed off at birders. A thin mid-level overcast was broken by occasional bolts of pearly sunlight, and the air was warmer than cool and cooler than warm, so jackets kept coming off and then back on. I’ve often felt the place was rather sweet in its melancholy, with all those consoling trees, and the trees continued to console even as the walk, today, was unquiet. Usually the pleasantly brooding calm seems to keep the demons at bay. Today they seemed to be watching us.

We found my statue. Of course it isn’t “my” statue, I didn’t make it, but it’s a rare piece of public art that speaks to me deeply. It shows a soldier for the Union during the Civil War. The citizens of West Roxbury, MA had it built as a tribute to what we usually call the “brave young men” who gave their lives for a noble cause. The images are almost always heroic. But not this one. From the first time I saw it I was amazed and moved. The young man is washed through with enigma and loneliness. He seems to miss not only his family or other loved ones; he seems to miss everything. His face is a pensive rictus of perplexity. He does not understand where he is or what he is doing or what knot of fate caused him to be here. I think it is very beautiful that this is what the citizens of West Roxbury, MA wanted this statue to say. No “valiant heroes” here. Just a young man silently asking those grave unanswerable questions we tend to shy away from. What does this have to do with wine? On the face of it, nothing at all. What does wine have to do with anything, one might ask. Not much, one could reply; it’s just a thing we like to drink. Yet now and again we are stopped in our tracks, as I was, literally, today on my walk, and as I have been once in a while by the enigma and paradox of a beautiful wine. How can this fleeting and rudely temporary thing – it will be piss in a couple hours – seem to conjure eternity, loss, love even, delivered by a nexus of scents and flavors themselves ephemeral? Finally who cares how we find our ways in to all this? “Soul,” whatever. The place where you’re another kind of self; it doesn’t matter what you call it. Many of us are tippling down those obscure paths these days. People are drinking down their “special” bottles, we are craving touch, we are looking for union even as we are forced to separate, all of us standing alone among the trees, gazing at the ground, trying to figure out exactly how we got there.

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