For the first time in my life, I’m walking to my grandparents’ grave without either of them being buried today. My grandma was the second one, and she died six years ago. Haven’t given myself time to go there since. Did I become a martyr of my domineering mind?
I’ve received a fulltime job as copywriter, and am starting in a few weeks. I’m letting my thousands of little (and bigger) projects go for now, and take some time off. Walk. Visit friends. Let the losses slide of my back. Early this morning I decided to go for a walk to the north. Out of the city, into the land of my ancestors. Flatlands. A deeply manmade structure which scared me when we drove here during my childhood. Flat grass, straight, arranged ditches and many little houses packed in villages as far as the eye can see. We’re in one of the most populated countries of the world. Windmills.
I think it’s the first time that I so thoroughly enjoy it here. It may be the freedom of simply walking out of my door, into the fields. Or the cacophony of the birds, whose names I still don’t know. Their volume overrules the sounds of the roaring highway just behind us. Or perhaps it’s the red sun that is now at about 10° above the horizon, shining in my face as if to tell me to take off my new hat for it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I am sure that one day, when my grandpa felt like taking a detour, he crossed this little bridge here, in the middle of what was nowhere at the time, just for his enjoyment. Or the reflecting shadows of the water’s wrinkles on the moving straw, which combined mesmerize me into dreams. I’m amidst serene tumult.
That’s not to say that while I walk along the little path here, away from the deafening noise, my soul transcends along with the millions of glimmering dewdrops, slowly releasing themselves from the young blades of grass around. Or actually it is, now that I imagine it to. I’m liberated, even from myself. Especially from myself. Even if just for a little bit of time.
My grandpa was a kind, calm man when I knew him. His white hair surrounding his bald crown was long enough to be combed back. That looked pretty cool. So did the loose skin of his big thin hands, with thick blue veins meandering over them. I remember him sitting back on his couch, circling his thumbs around each other. He must have been furling his inner disagreements there. His lost memories. His missed chances. His incapacities. But I did not see that then. I was fascinated and he smiled gently. He always served us with chocolate, slices of sausage and other snacks. He limped a bit, when walking to the kitchen. His hip had been replaced.
Neither he nor I spoke much in company. What we would do, is hold each other’s gaze for a while. It told me I was his grandson, and that words aren’t always necessary to know you have a connection with someone. Still, I am not under the impression that I knew my grandpa that well. We lived about 400 km away from each other. Visiting them meant travelling hours and hours in the car. We slept there occasionally as kids, me and my sister, but most of what I remember from him were grownup visits where we did grownup things such as sitting at a table and eating and drinking. Though he did teach me how to play chess.
Once, he took me on a bikeride through these lands. I was a kid. Eight maybe? It was flat. And long. Kids from Luxembourg aren’t used to long bikerides. I think this one took several hours. I do remember enjoying following him on the bike, and stopping to have a chat once in a while, but there’s one memory that stands out. Somewhere near the end of the trip, he told me something about a bird around. My response? “I’m not very interested in that”. I possibly had to pee, or was tired, or was saturated with information. Maybe I was looking forward to a chocolate milk he promised me somewhere at the end of the road. I don’t remember his reaction, but today, a part of me feels guilty about it. Anyhow, years later, my grandparents were surprised to learn that I was going to study biology. And when it comes to bird species, they were right: I still don’t know that much about them.
“Grutto!” yells one of them from quite close. Hey. I can tell it’s panicking because of me. It probably has a nest. More interesting: I suddenly understand why it’s called Grutto in Dutch. I never knew, nor have I ever heard it that clearly. Was it trying to teach me his name?
When I visited my grandma after his death, I felt drawn by my grandpa’s encyclopedia. I walked there, took one of the 20 books of the shelve, opened it, and picked a random word. It was ‘dode hand’ (‘dead hand’). I had never heard of that word. It read something like this: “The dead hand is the property of the Church that is not inheritable by non-church members”. I was certain this was a message, related to him.
Moving to the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam was a personal declaration to look for my roots. My ancestor’s history. Figure out my family’s lives. In the meanwhile I have learned a bit about life in the city, before the war, during and afterwards. Things have changed quite radically. The past is gone, yet with a little bit of conversation and imagination, you can summon a vivid reconstruction of how life used to be. Walking in these wetlands is a similar attempt to reconstruct a forgotten past. Untangle a life of people who mattered little, yet stream forward in history through the very blood that rushes by my pen. Even if just for this moment, they are my entire world.
My grandpa grew up as a farmer, but through hard work became a manager in a company. He was the last one in my family lines to make that choice. Independence from the land. There were stories around him. Dreams. Meetings with deceased spirits. Predictions. At some point he developed automatic writing. He explained he would just lay down his hand with a pen in it, and then letters would shape themselves. Words, sentences, and new meaning would arrive without his conscious interference. He thought it was the input of a spirit, or a higher power. He once wrote something like: “Hendrik”, that was his name, “watch out what you do with your life”. He had a moterbike accident the next day.
Much has changed. Biodiversity dropped over here, electricity poles were built, the land is slowly being invaded by the ever growing civilization. Landprizes here have skyrocketed, and the farmers are slowly being replaced by rich people with big cars who spend the final decades of their life in retreat. Most I meet jog. They catch up with the sweat they failed to let to the land. I picture ghosts, hovering ahead of them, drawing them forward towards… what? What is it I am looking for? Which ghost precedes my steps? The tiny asphalt road bounces up and down when joggers come by. It is laid out over what used to be swamp. Utterly unreachable to man. But the Dutch built dykes. We showed them.
People would visit him to receive messages, until it suddenly stopped for ever. His explanation for the loss of his gift was that his ego started interfering. But by then he had already written what has always interested me most: a few pages in Latin. He did not know Latin. In an attempt to translate it, he discovered the text was about the evolution of the soul. That we all make steps forward, and then go back, and that we are all part of a slowly evolving collective consiousness, floating among us in the aether. That what we think of as our own awareness is merely a part of that bigger whole. A befriended priest offered to translate the manuscript for him. My grandpa gave him the papers, but never got them back.
After the incident with the encyclopedia, I’ve enjoyed imagining that those handwritings of my grandpa are still hidden in an occult library of some church in these lands. That they were in fact breathed into this world by some divinity or local spirit. That there is a holy grail somewhere, linking me back to something bigger and more meaningful. A unique message that would consolidate my spiritual quest and reveal the limits of the mechanistic paradigm. A proof. That the church was always aware that there’s more going on there, but that they shield us from it, because they want to remain in power.
The truth is that this fantasy inside me is slowly being overgrown by a sense that spirits in the west are dead, the document has disappeared and I’m perfectly fine without both. The transmission of lore is now all around us with the internet, and the format of film and imagery has made it more effective than ever. Oculus rift and hololenses are already catching up with our dreams. We are slowly immersing ourselves in representations that seem so real that it will be harder and harder to tell the difference. As opposed to believing in ghosts of the ancestors, which people all over the world have done for as long as they existed.
But what of reality? What is reality? Was the text of the manuscript really written in meaningful Latin? Or was my grandpa’s mind playing creative tricks on him? Did he, without knowing, gather some of his little knowledge on the language to create a sloppy text, imagining it was given to him? Did the priest simply forget it, given its insignificance? If so, what of the striking double, even triple meaning of the word ‘dead hand’? Was it a remnant spirit of the past, guiding me there, or was it just a lucky hit, short circuiting my sense of what is real? If it was true, am I making his same mistake by publically writing about it?
The grave has no answers. It is static, grey and silent. Both names are on it. There are freshly cut tulips here as well. White with red ones. Who put them here? A distant cousin? My uncle or aunt? Great unlce? I haven’t been in touch. And these grape hyacinths in the pot? How long have they been around? Did my grandma choose them? I vaguely remember them having these in the garden. I wipe some of the dead blossom of the smooth stone and have another look. A drawing of a hawk. Our name.
They are dead and I’m alive. There’s a world of difference between us. A world the nature of which I have never been certain of. Perhaps I’m here to remind myself that even if I do not know, I can still surrender to the stories. Accept them, like I would accept a film. I can dream a new truth. Revive the dead by recounting them. Let them live through me. How could I forget? How did I forget? Did I forget?
Am I here to accept that my own spiritual connection with nature was harmed with my grandpa’s choice to abandon the land? That in reality, I was always more interested in comfort, computer games and films, and that this was already written in the stars when I was born? That I am here to let go of these roots, and set the next step forward, into a virtual world of engineered redemption? Am I here to accept that humans will keep conquering these lands until even the tiniest patch is rid of its diversity, then recreate it in a different, imaginary world? Will there be life in that world?
No. This is not an end. There is no conclusion here. We can always go back. We can still go back. Nature can teach us. Nature will teach us. This is merely a meeting of life with death. Mysterious.
I don’t stay long, why would I? To find peace? I have more to do today. I’m a city boy now, living a civilized life in the great metropole that watched over us for generations. They are dead now, their memories gone. There is no reconciliation. The bird has flown.
There’s only one bus here per hour. Turns out I don’t have to wait long. No chance to go back. What would I expect to see anyway? In the shimmer of death, it’s still life that matters most. I’ll be back one day.