A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.

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Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.

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Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

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