I see them all the time. Naked white crosses on the shoulder of the road, on the other side of the ditch, at that bad curve on the highway.
There’s one on a high
riverbank, where a kid drove off into the river and the car sank
bubbling and they found him blue a day later.
There’s one near the beach where two lanes merge into one,
where if you are drunk and driving too fast through the utter
darkness of the ancient forest, you maybe miss the merge and hit a
fir tree bigger than a house and turn into past tense, cold meat, a
story people tell.
There’s one on the most innocent
farm road you ever saw, where nobody should ever have an accident,
but a girl did one bright afternoon and no one knows why.
There are four of them together like a silent tiny white forest,
four kids roasted when their car flipped and rolled and burned. The
grass was black there for the longest time.
And I live in
Oregon, where a spontaneous shrine grew and grew and grew by the
school fence at Thurston High School in the old timber town of
Springfield in 1998, after a 15-year-old kid named Kip Kinkel shot
his mother to death and his father to death and then walked into
school with two guns in the morning and opened fire and murdered
two kids, Mikael Nickolauson and Ben Walker, and wounded 25 other
kids before a wrestler named Jake tackled him.
days after blood trickled along the white, polished hallways of
Thurston High School, thousands of people walked to the chain-link
fence outside the school and tied things to the fence: photographs,
flowers, balloons, quilts, a commencement gown and cap, notes,
verses from the Bible, every conceivable form of prayer and
mourning and memory. The shrine stayed there for weeks and weeks
and weeks. No one had the heart to order it dismantled. People came
all day and night to that hole in the world where prayers went up
into the sky like a river of tears. The fence is still there, naked
now, and a friend there tells me people still stop at it day and
night and pray. A chain-link chapel, open to the elements, soaked
in rain and rue.
To me, these places are holier than any
church, in the same way a mother’s belly is holier than any
church, because those sweet bellies and those roasted holes in the
grass are where souls entered and left this intricate realm. They
are places of mercy and mystery.
Hospital beds, ambulance
gurneys, wet ditches in wars, seething smoking holes where
gargantuan buildings were destroyed by murderers in airplanes,
quiet bedrooms in quiet houses, icy mountain ledges, howling seas,
serene back gardens while digging in the compost — we die
everywhere, and everywhere that spot is henceforth holier than
before, to us anyway.
We do not spend much time thinking
about the deaths of the million infinitesimal creatures with which
we share the land, but they die too, ebbing away in tiny tides,
their unique and miraculous sparks drawn home into a coherent
energy and love we only dimly sense, here and there. To me, such
sensual experiences are sacraments, the moments when you feel
divine breath in your ear and divine fingers on your face.
We are alone, each and all of us, even as we swim in the
ocean of love and grace that is our joyous work here; and we will
die alone, each of us, leaving our bodies behind at some moment
brooding in the future. And bed or beach, highway or hospice, those
who love us will mark that spot, and then mark the spot where our
bones are laid to rest or ashes swirled into the thirsty sea.
So I mark the spots where girls and boys and infants and
women and men have died along the roads, the naked white crosses,
the flowers and flags. Once, in these spots, something left the
The words we have are so thin. Life, soul, the
miraculous energy that drives bone and meat toward love and light,
the electric prayer of her, the hymn of him: gone. But not gone. Is
there a wilder, crazier, truer belief than that? And if life is a
miraculous opening, why cannot death be a miraculous opening also?
So maybe those thin naked white crosses in the rain, that
dripping chain-link fence at Thurston High, are not exits after
all. Maybe they are the holiest doors. Maybe they are not holes
where something emptied out. Maybe they are holes through which
something pours in, a love so far beyond our ken that we can only
stand there, mute, riven, blessed.