Oct 11, 2011

Anything but that.

I have an affinity for cemeteries.  As a kid, I biked and played in a nearby cemetery much more than I did any park.  I knew the names and the scant stories revealed in chiseled lines.

When my husband and I became friends so many years ago, it charmed me that he loved his family cemeteries.  He took me out to meet the family--generations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins---filling nearly half a pioneer cemetery---and my heart was his.  Yeah.  I'm like that.

Now we take the kids and they recite their family history from the stones. They are 8th generation Idahoans on their dad's side.  On my side, only 5th.  His family came out in covered wagons.  They were miners, explorers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, guides, and they even had one mad hatter in the bunch.  My family came later, in jalopies with chairs strapped in the back for seats.  Pushed out of Kansas in the dust bowl, they started new farms from sagebrush-covered land.  On my dad's side, half are illegal immigrants---from Canada.  They were ranchers who strayed a little south from Alberta, only to find themselves Idahoans by circumstance and, only later, marriage.

My husband and I made the trip back to my family cemetery in Kansas---and I cried to see the generations of names mirroring my own, proof somehow that the family stories were real. These people once were solid enough that they needed buried once they died---and so their stories became more solid too.
Last week I visited The Ketchum Cemetery in Ketchum, Idaho.  I don't know anyone buried there.  Not really.  I just know the stories.  And no, I don't mean the stories Ernest Hemingway wrote, although I know them too.  I mean the stories I grew up hearing---about the great man living in and killing himself in my home state.  I remember seeing the images of Hemingway with the Pioneer Mountains in the background. I remember the adults in my life talking in hushed voices about the mixture of celebrity and brilliance, guns and alcohol abuse---imagination and delusion.  When I said I wanted to be a writer, they thought of Hemingway and they wanted something better for me.

In Hemingway, my family saw proof that writers suffered from unstable minds. Perhaps I bought into the mystique myself.  I did seem to have a penchant for broody scribblers.

I was nearly out of high school by the time it came to light that maybe Hemingway wasn't so delusional.  He thought the FBI followed him, bugged his car, pored over his bank records in the dead of night.  Largely discounted by those around him, what must he have been thinking?  Depression did run in his family. Ernest's father, brother, one sister for sure (maybe two), and later his granddaughter---all committed suicide.  His father's actions worried him enough that he once asked his son, Jack, to exchange a promise that neither would ever kill himself.

When Hemingway kept seeing feds, when his friends and family turned to him with sympathetic eyes and said, time and time again, that they didn't see anyone---what must Hemingway have thought?  He thought shock therapy would be a cure.  Instead, the therapy took away his ability to write and, with it, his will to live.  And the damn thing was, he still saw those feds everywhere.

It wasn't until 1984 that a Freedom of Information request resulted in the release of Hemingway's FBI file:  120 pages, 15 of them still blacked out.  Some of the notes were from surveillance while Hemingway was at the Mayo Clinic for shock treatment.

Yeah.  No wonder the treatment didn't make Hemingway's delusions go away.

Many have gone to great lengths to suggest that the FBI killed Hemingway, first making him delusional and then somehow arranging for the shock treatment that took his will to live.  They suggest this, in part, because Hemingway often described suicide as an act of cowardice.

I hear those words and I hear the words of my own dad, spoken with the same intense anger.  Although my father did not kill himself, he did battle the darkness that prematurely ended the lives of family members--some of whom are now buried in that cemetery of my childhood---the place where together we'd ride bikes and run carefree through deep grasses.  I hear Hemingway's words and I hear the fear that so often lies beneath anger.  I believe he went for the shock treatment to save himself from hallucinations he wasn't having.  Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness.

Perhaps it was my own family's fear for me that made them look to Hemingway and tell me I should not be a writer.  Not that.  Anything but that.

And yet, even as I look at the solid stone that marks that solid stories of Hemingway's life, I know I can't live my life in fear. Fear of darkness does not just end dreams. It can also keep them from beginning.


38 comments:

  1. Me too! I'm fascinated by cemetaries and graveyards! Creepy but lovely and very mesmerising places

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  2. Fantastic blog, Johanna. Very interesting.

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  3. Johanna, I love the pictures and share your fondness for history through respect for the dead. My father's family ranched in and around the Shoshone, Ketchum, Gooding areas since the turn of the last century. I remember stories about Hemingway. I'm told he hunted on my grandparents' ranch. But mostly, Johanna, I deeply appreciate your closing message. Thank you for this post.

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  4. What a lovely way to start the day...a beautifully written and informative post!

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  5. A lesson learned from those who came before us. Thanks, Johanna.

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  6. Beautifully written Johanna. Thank you.

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  7. You always write so well, but this one is extra wonderful.

    "Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness." These words are so very true. Each person's "dark" may differ, but each can lead to something far worse.

    I have always loved Hemingway. Thank you for reminding me why.

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  8. Thanks, Pat. It's good to know I'm not alone. :)

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  9. Last week in Ketchum I attended "Women Writing and Living The West," which was part of The Trailing of The Sheep Festival there. Women ranchers shared their family stories and the experience was so moving. You would have fit right in. I live-tweeted part of the event and you can read some great quotes here: http://twitter.com/johannalive

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  10. Thanks so much, Joanne---and thanks for your mention on Twitter too. :)

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  11. I’ve been to some interesting cemeteries in different parts of the world. You can learn a great deal about a culture from their cemeteries. Hemingway’s brilliance with words was amazing. Thanks for reminding me.

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  12. Your last lines of this article, "Fear of darkness does not just end dreams. It can also keep them from beginning," will be with me a long time. In fact, I think I'll post them on the wall by my desk as a touchstone for the dark times.

    Fascinating blog, Johanna. Utterly captivating. Thank you for opening up and sharing it.

    Take care,
    JC

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  13. Thanks, Kristina. Your words mean a lot to me.

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  14. you never fail to reach for the right word

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  15. Just what I needed to hear today, Joanna! Thanks! & Here's to the light!

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  16. Marvelous blend of photo, history and personal experience.

    A quite beautiful post with which to start the day. Thank you.

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  17. I second Kristina's "extra wonderful," and hold close memories of a tiny Texas graveyard where blue bonnets helped me reconcile with my stubborn Southern grandfather.

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  18. Well done, Johanna. He was my hero when I was a teenager. I never cared that he was a sexist, or that many thought he was over rated. The day I heard the news of his death I felt a deep loss. The echoes of darkness and light in the cemetary only further to show us the impossible conflict of man on this earth. I grew up in the neighborhood in Brooklyn that contains Green-Wood Cemetary where Houdini is burried. Thousands still flock there to do rubbings. We ran around the toomstones and hid behind the large houses of stone containing generations of families. Our fascination with death is only matched by our equal or greater fascination with this brief mortal life.

    Loved the pictures and the story of his family and yours. There is in truth no more than six degrees of separation in each life :)

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  19. I never cared much for cemeteries until I visited my husband's family graveyard. It's tucked away in a small clearing among the trees at the back of an Illinois cornfield. To find it, we had to drive over miles of gravel road, then down a dirt path beside a pig farm. It's so peaceful that when you walk in it, you sense the ghosts' outrage at the intrusion. Many stones are nearly worn away. Some of them bear traces of dates from before the War Between the States. It's really an amazing place where I swear stories crawl through the grass and curl around the trees branches.

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  20. Thank you, Jess. Your words mean a lot to me.

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  21. Thank you, Zehra. As an admirer of your writing, I count that as high praise.

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  22. Julia--Definitely. Here's to the light!

    KjM--Thanks so much. It's so good to see you here.

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  23. Thanks, Terri. Those graveyards are special places. Thanks also for the Facebook link. Much appreciated.

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  24. I love the detail about Houdini. I wonder if there are people with scrapbooks full of rubbings from cemetery stones. Hmm.

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  25. I would love that cemetery. My husband has one family cemetery where the fence around it keeps the cattle out. It's tucked away like that--behind a farm and down a long, dirt lane. It's very welcoming though--no outrage there. I have more a sense that they'd like me to stay and visit long past when it's time to go home.

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  26. I enjoyed your site--as well as writing, I have a massive genealogy project on the go for both sides of our family,- so I am interested in history and graveyards and anything that documents the past. I love you pictures--would like to be able to see the full ones behind the site. I am a country girl through and through.

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  27. I do have fond memories of a family cemetery, but I never really thought about how those ancestors influenced my writing life. Thanks for sharing such powerful thoughts with us, Johanna. Your beautiful words and photographs never cease to impress me.

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  28. Anything but that. http://t.co/vgFN4YYK via @johannaharness

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  29. I really love this piece. It's got everything and then some. Cemeteries! Hemingway! Family history! Disclosures of self! GRRRReat photos! I especially love the photos with the "old camera" edge shadows. photo-shopped or?

    This reminds me also of where I grew up. There was an old cemetery just a block down the rural road we lived on. I spent a lot of time there over the years, walking dogs, reading tombstones, talking to ghosts(who never talked back, dammit, though they were So definitely there).

    Favorite Hemingway - The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

    Thanks for this, Johanna

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  30. Today from @Johannaharness - Anything but that. http://t.co/Y7NlbRyh < Cemetery! Hemingway! Great pics! Familial fear & loathing! Go. Read.

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  31. That's a very powerful, thoughtful (and honest) post. Great pictures, too. I didn't know about Hemmingway and the FBI, though I was aware of the depression and the disastrous 'treatments'.

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  32. Johanna, I love this. What a beautiful essay. "Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness." Yes. Not a good way to live one's life.

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  33. I loved this Johanna! I love looking at old graveyards and have searched many out in NE Oregon, and some in ID, too. Really liked what you had to say about Hemingway. Great job. I'm going to put this on Facebook right now.

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  34. This is a powerful post. I, too, love old graveyards and Ernest Hemingway.

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