Voices in the Graveyard: Zelda and Scott

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What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off?  What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction?  I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question.   I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers.  Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.

I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.

Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall.  Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful.  And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds.  They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style.  And it seems they have it still.

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The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby. 

A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:

DSC_0917 Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church,  Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown.   The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC.  Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful.  The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.

And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least.  Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful.   Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious.  I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere.  Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.

 

I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold.  I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.

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3 a.m. and a Jazz Joint Jive

The Fitzgeralds attend a formal event, circa 1935.

Good morning all you bright eyed people.  I can’t match your pep today.  Not close.  I’ve been awake since 2:30 -in -the -morning.  Ugh.  I had a lot on my mind. There was the  good– an upcoming trip to Scotland.  There was the bad–  some worries over people I love, some anxiety  about the 101 things I need to check off my to do list by . . .well, yesterday. And there was the odd– namely, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  They came calling around 3 a.m., in just the way you might expect them to, as if they were still staying in The Plaza in New York, waking the other guests with drinking and dancing at all hours, not to mention frolicking in the fountain fully clothed. (I’ve never understood why their contemporaries took offense at the fully clothed part– seems to me that this part of the equation was their best nod to courtesy and decorum. Am I wrong?)

Obviously, they didn’t actually burst into my room and party the night away.  They were, however, very loud inside my head.  They kicked about and chatted away and both charmed me and bothered me in the unsettling way that senselessly tragic stories bother me.

If you’re asking yourself why the Fitzgeralds would descend upon my sleep-adled brain and refuse to budge for hours on end,  you’d have to ask them.  I will cop to having more  than a passing fascination with them, but less than an obsession.  They’re a puzzle to me–a tangled mess of talent and tragedy, of what might have been and what was.

They’ve always been stowed in my pocket– fellow travelers,  entertaining raconteurs, rather rude house guests (as they proved last night). Every now and again I take them out and have a gnaw at them.  Lately, they’ve been emboldened though.  I suspect this is because I pass by their gravestones frequently*, and when I pass I often think of them.   I never stop to visit.  I always think that I should.  I plan to do it some day.  Maybe next week, I tell myself.  Or when the weather is nicer.  But I never do.  So, guess what?  They’ve come to me.  That’s one way to do it, I suppose.

I’m a little worried that they’ll start showing up frequently.  I think an excorcism is in order, by way of a visit to their graves– flowers in hand and apologies for having been a stranger so long.  I do have a couple of hours free tomorrow morning, and if the sun shines bright and the chill breaks . . . maybe I’ll pay that visit and report back to you.

*Where are they buried?  In Rockville, MD, as unlikely as that may seem.  Scott grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and came East; Zelda was from Montgomery, Alabama.    Scott had a long family history in Maryland, though, and when he passed away at the age of 44, from a heart attack and years of alcoholism, he was brought to Maryland to be buried next to his father.  Unfortunately, the priest at St. Mary’s Church refused to allow Scott a burial there, as he was not a practicing Catholic.  He was buried in a nearby protestant churchyard, by a minister who had never heard of him, in a service attended by only 20 or 25 people.  “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” he once wrote.  He knew the story arc well.  But years later, and after her mother had also passed in a tragic and early death by fire, their daughter petitioned St. Mary’s to allow her parents to be moved to the family plot there.  This time, it was allowed.

It’s a happier resting place than what went before, but still an odd fit.  St. Mary’s is an old church, but the church grounds now sit on the edge of a monstrous intersection that is a main thoroughfare for morning commuter traffic into Washington, DC.   It’s tucked between apartments, shopping strips, and a large Metro station.

I say it’s an odd fit, but, you know, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to look up one day, as I motor by, and see the eyes of Doctor T J Eckleburg looking down on me from a billboard above that very spot.  Nobody escapes the judgement of those eyes.  Not fleeing from a jazz joint, not laid to rest by the roadside in Rockville, and certainly not on a daily commute to and from our nation’s capital.

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The Sound of Silence

This morning, I was tinkering with a partially written (but long ignored) post from a trip to Nashville  in 2017– wondering if it was worth reviving, completing, and posting.  Somewhere into this thought process, somewhere toward the bottom of a cup of coffee, as I was figuratively walking away from that post– leaving it once again in blog-post-purgatory– the universe began pelting me with spitballs, each one hitting me with a ping that whispered “Nashville.”  So, yes, that post will pop up some day.  But first, I bring you a little info of note– the spitball that hit me right in the eye/the delicious morsel of Nashville trivia that popped up, unbidden but perfectly timed, in my news feed this morning.

On this day in 1969, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recorded an album.  It was never released. 

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.  Recorded. An. Album.  Together. And it was never released.

How is this possible?  That’s like panning for gold and throwing back a shiny nugget.  Maybe the tracks weren’t up to snuff?  Maybe they just didn’t congeal together as an album and didn’t fit well with anything that came after?  Maybe people just forgot about them?  (Could a recording session with Dylan and Cash be so mundane that you just forget about the tracks it produces?)

According to an article from the website Open Culture, “On February 17 and 18, 1969, Cash and Dylan recorded more than a dozen duets. Only one of them, a version of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” made it onto the album, Nashville Skyline. The others were never officially released, but have long been circulating as bootlegs.”  (You can access the article and a recording from Dylan and Cash here.)

So, there you go.  A random post, but too shiny a nugget to throw back.  Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recorded an album, and, if you are resourceful enough, you might be able to scare up a few tracks somewhere.  Cash and Dylan, and their rough around the edges but pure poetry music, is too good let lie in silence.

Johnny Cash & Bob Dylan

 

 

A Tale of Two Ebenezers

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“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.”  The Scotsman, December 24, 2004

Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings.  Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.

These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions.  He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east.  None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable.  The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”

Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale.  But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?

It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary.  And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843.   While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say).  It was evening and the light was dimming.  He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.”  What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?

Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it.  Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.

Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant.   Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man.   Dickens needed better glasses.

You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid.  Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment.  However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace.  Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church.  It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space.  Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.

The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade.  It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.

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The front façade of Canongate Kirk

The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily.  In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952.  This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done.  The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war.  The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing.  And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.

Still today, the interior of the church uplifts.  To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).

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If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk.  I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!

A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)

 

Washington, DC . . . 1974

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Kodachrome memory of a first trip to Washington, DC.  August, 1974.  (That’s me on the left, and that’s the adoring entourage who used to follow me everywhere.)

We’re standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which looks out to the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument in the hazy background.  Pandas were still a new fixture at the zoo, buses weren’t air conditioned, skirts were short, hair was long, and Nixon resigned as we packed our own bags to leave for home.  By then, our feet were tired, we were hot to melting point, and we thought we’d really seen some history.

We weren’t wrong.

But history keeps marching along, in a sometimes dramatic form, and here I am back in DC again.

Watch this space for more photos, more sore feet, and certainly some history.