Greetings Dear Ones!
Here in Ashburnham, the Giant Silent Requiem has begun, with the cricket chorus singing its last, hushed “Te Deums” from the grass. We are having the kind of crisp yet warm and sharply focused Fall days that New England does best. I look with glad and wistful eyes on the shameless glory of Death as it flutters in a thousand vibrant hues around me. It is Magnificent.
It is time to dig a grave, though I know not for whom and I know not for when. I am a shepherdess. All I know is that, come January, I cannot spend a FOURTH winter with a deceased sheep in my garage, wondering which Spring will thaw first, the ground or the smell? The old-time farmers around me say I must dig a hole now, before the frost, so that I will have a safe place to put a corpse, should the inevitable occur. My sheep, though they think of themselves as house pets, are too small for the rendering plant and too large to flush down the toilet, so we have to be practical and prepared. It makes sense, though every year I think it Cannot happen again… can it? This year, I will dig the hole.
In the tailoring shop, a little boy needs to have his suit pants hemmed up for a funeral on Saturday. He is too little to be much concerned about the reason he needs fancy pants—he is more interested in the pin cushion. I smile at him fondly and think about how Children host the best funerals. My mind wanders back to the day, a day just like today, when I learned that Heaven comes in every size:
……A soft breeze causes the oak leaves to etch the cobalt bowl of sky like green razor blades. There is the occasional plop of an acorn hitting the sand in the playground. I am monitoring the outdoor free play of cheerfully grubby Waldorf students aged 5 to 11. I have been hired to lead arts, crafts, and story-telling sessions one day a week for a handful of after-school students who must remain until after five p.m. because both of their parents are busy working full-time jobs to afford the dizzying private tuition of this school.
Suddenly, a group of excited children rush up to me with bright eyes and dirt-streaked faces. “Miss Willow, Miss Willow!” they cry. (I have told them I used to be a tree. I firmly believe in telling children outrageous possibilities before their minds harden and set like cement. Unable to disprove a negative, they cheerfully embraced the notion and took great delight in telling me what they used to be. A charming little lass said she had been a beautiful sunset!)
“Look!!” they clamor, “We have found a past Chipmunk!” A past chipmunk? I wonder. What the hell is a past chipmunk? I don’t understand. All I can think of is Dicken’s “A Christmas Story” and the ghost of chipmunks past. Then I notice that one of the children is proudly displaying in his bare hands the lifeless remains of a very stiff chipmunk.
“Oh,” I say, “a PASSED chipmunk. A DEAD chipmunk.” I notice that folks in New England say “passed,” as in “passed away,” more often than they use the word dead. And they tend to abandon the word “away.” I have often been confused to hear someone say “My aunt passed last night.” And I think, passed what? Gas? A Kidney stone? A driving test? What did your aunt pass? Only by observing the concerned and sympathetic responses from the other New Englanders do I surmise that the aunt in question actually passed AWAY. Perhaps the notion of “away” frightens them at some level so they drop it. Most New Englanders never see any reason one should ever go away and, Heaven forbid, leave New England. (Unless it is to go to Florida, which to them is New England but with palm trees…) But why they don’t say “died” intrigues me. This notion of passing over some sort of “Rainbow Bridge” or through some imaginary curtain or membrane between worlds seems pervasive in this land that birthed the Transcendentalist movement. I remember my dear friend Margie saying to me with intense certainty and quiet excitement from her hospice bed in her living room, “Nancy! I know where the Kingdom of Heaven is! It’s just right there!” she said, eyes shining, pointing to the kitchen. Ever after, even now, I do believe that the Kingdom of Heaven IS in the kitchen.
So here Life presents us with a dead chipmunk. Far from being afraid of death or even germs, they crowd round him, taking turns to study him up close and stroke his stripes with thin, gentle fingertips. Death has made him accessible to them in ways that Life never could. He is perfect. We can perceive no clue as to why he died. He did not seem a victim of foul play. He left no note disclosing his personal anguish.
“Where did you find him?” I ask.
“Under the trees, over there,” comes the chorus.
“Probably he fell out of his home in the tree,” says one of the littlest.
“Don’t be silly,” corrects a bigger child, “chipmunks live underground!”
“Speaking of underground,” I say, “This guy needs to get there soon or he is going to smell very bad. He needs to return to the earth and feed the tree that has been feeding him.”
“Yes!” they agree. “We need a funeral!” And immediately, the older girls assume command of the situation. They know exactly what must be done. Everyone springs into action.
“We need flowers!” they bark over their shoulders as they dig. The older boys, having had the fun of looking at the chipmunk quickly lose interest in being bossed around and head back to their former game of kickball, all except for a younger boy named Charlie, who has the velvet eyes of a poet and continues to hold and stroke the chipmunk as if he is made of spun glass. I love how gentle he is with Death in his grasp.
“We don’t know who you were,” he says softly to the chipmunk. “We can’t notify your family, or your synagogue, or your friends. You are just an unknown chipmunk. But we know you were here and we know you must have loved jumping around in the grass looking for all these acorns. You must have loved the warm sun and the tickly grass. And acorns, of course.” He keeps up a sad, steady, soothing (if somewhat repetitive) murmur to the clump of fur in his palm.
Meanwhile, the girls have transitioned with smooth efficiency from whatever momentary flicker of grief they might once have felt for the loss of an anonymous chipmunk to busily digging “the tomb of the unknown chipmunk” under the direction of the self-selected Planners. They scoop the ground with sticks and dirt-darkened fingernails, clawing back a chipmunk-sized opening in the earth’s crust. Some pick flowers from the nursery school garden next door and are yelled at immediately by their bosses, “Hey! We’re not allowed to pick those!” Shamed, the girls freeze and drop the crumpled flowers where they stand. Common, honest, law-abiding dandelions will have to do. Finally, their preparations are done and they summon Charlie to lay his tiny burden to rest on a little golden bed. The headstone is a scrap of board they found by the equipment shed and inscribed with colored chalk “R.I.P.” The foot stone is a pine cone. They fill the hole above him with flowers and layers of warm dry sand, jostling each other for position. Eventually, dusty and satisfied, they stand up in a ring around the grave.
“Well,” announces one of the Queen Bees after a moment of quiet, “That’s all done! Thanks for coming, Chipmunk!” There are no tears.
“Wait,” says Charlie plaintively, “we need to build him a stairway to heaven, like the ancient Egyptians. How will he reach it without our help?”
“Don’t be ridiculous Charlie,” snaps one of the girls, “recess is almost over. We don’t have time for a project like that!” Her collaborators shake their heads and snort their unified mutual contempt of the idea.
“Come on,” pleads Charlie, “It won’t take us all that long. Chipmunk Heaven is really only about up to here.” He gestures to the side of his ribs. The girls ignore him and run off to the swing-set tossing their pony tails like young horses galloping away.
Charlie remains alone, slump-shouldered, staring at the grave—thoughts, neck, and head fully yet invisibly immersed in Chipmunk Heaven. For this dreamy poet-child, a puddle is a galaxy, a bathtub is an ocean with an Antarctica of bubbles at one end—the whole of the universe merely a whisper in God’s ear. The dung beetle has a kingdom. The mouse has a commonwealth. A patch of grass is an ant safari. The sky is not some overturned bowl above us—it begins right at the moment his feet touch the earth, just like he has been taught in art class. His own boy’s world is where this series of intertwined circles, spheres, and cosmoses overlap in magical, transcendental Venn diagrams of existence—with him at the very center. Suddenly his eyes light upon a stick nearby. He grabs it and props it at an angle from the edge of the grave to reach the nearby fence. He steps back and smiles. His plan appears to be that the soul of the chipmunk will make its way up the stick, over to the fence, and thence up a steep climb the rest of the way to his Eternal Glory.
Moments later, the bell rings, and we are summoned inside to the humble human doings of snack, craft, bathroom breaks, and stories. I follow the rushing bodies slowly, reluctant to part from the golden light shimmering on the oak tree, waist up in Chipmunk Heaven myself…
These Autumn days bring us graves to dig, and threats of cold and dark—yet they shine with the promise of Chipmunk Heaven too—in the lights of dusty smiles, in the warmth of noisy collaboration, and in shared beliefs that we were all Something Else once and something else to become again when we return to Mother Earth. For now, we Live—in that sunlit space Between—in the games we play, the work we do, and the love we share. And, unbeknownst to most of us, from the ankles up, we run and breathe and reside in a myriad of concentric Heavens for every living creature from wee tiny beetles to great mastodons. The ancient poets and the earth-streaked seven-year-olds know it to be true. And so it is.
Be well, my darlings, and do Good Work!