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Know the West

Mute, riven, blessed

All over the West, white roadside crosses and spontaneous, humble shrines mark the holy sites where the souls of human beings have left this world.


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.

In the 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 earth.

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.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of The Wet Engine, about "the muddle & mangle & music of hearts."