When I run, I go to Mountain View Cemetery. I love seeing how it changes, how it stays the same when the world around me is so precarious.
When I returned home last Saturday, my toddler announced, “Mommy, when I get bigger and older, I want to run through a cemetery.” I laughed.
Little does she know she’s been here many times as a baby. I wrote a poem about the experience of walking through here with her two years ago as the world was on edge, COVID “sweeping the world / like my father in a game of Risk.”
That military image feels devastatingly apt right now as I run past gravestones and think of Ukraine. All the suffering they have endured and are still enduring. All the lives and homes lost. All the loss. The horrific war crimes the Russian army has committed in Ukraine, particularly against women and children, has shaken me. One of the questions I keep circling back to: “Where does all that hurt go? What does a country like Ukraine do with all that grief/rage/trauma?” I don’t have answers.
I recently read an interview with Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska in Vogue. When asked what can ordinary citizens do to help Ukrainians, she says:
The main thing is not to get used to the war—not to turn it into statistics. Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action.
I suppose running and praying through a cemetery is one way I don’t get used to the war. There is death all around me here, including death from war. I notice how young the men are in the numerous memorials throughout the cemetery, many of them younger than me.
But I also run through the cemetery because there are signs of life all around me too: from cherry blossom trees to blooming heather, from freshly cut flowers to surprising gravestone offerings like big, juicy oranges. I need these reminders lately.
I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.
While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.
The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.
It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.
The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.
It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.
Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.
They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:
The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.
While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:
The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.
These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.
He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.
Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.