Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society”

Every now and then, life makes me depressed and irritable – sound familiar? Some days, a cascade of little things goes wrong and irritations intrude, all of which tend to put me in a funk. Sometimes, I lose the big picture and swerve into a funky rut from which it is hard to steer my way out.

I have found two effective cures for this condition, more potent and long-lasting than calling upon mere temporary diversions. These never fail to restore my proper life perspective: Cemeteries and old yearbooks. Oh, and one more: A scene from the movie , “Dead Poets Society.” Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I treated ourselves to a two-night stay in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, California. Our accommodations, which were within easy walking distance of the old Point Pinos lighthouse, were not elegant – but very comfortable and satisfactory. Linda had a bit of a problem with a cemetery located just across the road and within sight of our patio window – a bit creepy at nightfall, thought she!

 The next day we walked through that cemetery on the way to the lighthouse, and, like so many other times in the past, I experienced that initially unsettling, yet ultimately peaceful reaction that I always feel in a cemetery – namely, the reminder that we all have limited time on this fine earth and that all of our personal trials and tribulations amount to little in the overall scheme of this vast universe. These periodic reminders are, to me, a refreshing tonic; for my wife, not so much – cemeteries are still a bit unsettling to her. Even so, we both lingered as we always do in a cemetery, and perused the names and dates on the tombstones. “What kind of person was Emma, the ‘dearly beloved wife’ wrenched so early in life from her family?” we ask ourselves. The older and more remote and neglected the cemetery setting, the more vivid are our musings about the permanent residents all around us. I recall other such occasions. One of the most memorable for us was an old, lonely hillside cemetery at Jacksonville, Oregon which we visited as a family many years ago. Off the beaten path, it was quiet and serene, there. 

The most moving tombstones there were the tall, old-style pointed slabs dating to the mid -1800’s which bore poetic recollections of dear children and young spouses cut down in the prime of their brief lives. We took pictures and copied some of the beautiful inscriptions, relics of a time-past when the use of language was a far more common art-form than is the case today. These had great impact on us and the girls, their ultimate message being: Life is short; do something noble in your allotted time; do not waste your time and energy on hatred and bigotry, for we are all made of the same, fragile stuff.

One other very memorable graveyard experience took place some seventeen years ago on the English moors around the Bronte parsonage, the house where Charlotte Bronte and her siblings lived with their father, the parish rector. We arrived on a sullen, chilly, and leaden afternoon to tour the house and grounds, all of which were fascinating. Being a parsonage with an adjacent church, the grounds near the house were thick with old gravesites – not tidy little granite slabs flush with the ground, but large old markers and very tall, pointed vertical slabs of dark stone standing like an army of sentinels over the closely spaced burial plots.

Bronte Parsonage_1

Bronte Parsonage_2

As we began our tour of the gravesites, the skies turned darker, and the wind came up across the moor, whistling through the graveyard. “My God,” I thought to myself. “This is like a staged movie or a descriptive scene from a Jane Austin or Bronte novel; it couldn’t be more dramatic!” The graves were old and intriguing; they sent that same message: Don’t take yourself and your troubles too seriously; you and they shall pass, ere long. The message is at once both unnerving and one of peaceful resignation and realization. The net effect for me is a restored life perspective and a renewed determination to make good use of my time.

Old Yearbooks?

I have always been fascinated by old photographs (see my post of March 12, 2013: “Photographs: The Power of Time and Place”) and, especially, old school yearbooks. In my earlier years, my yearbook fascination puzzled me, seeming somewhat off-beat, but I ultimately figured out why they especially intrigue me. School yearbooks are about youngsters and young adults. Their content hints of promise, the future, and the possibilities inherent in the young, serious and somber faces which peer back at you from the page when you stop to look closely. 

1925 Quad Cover

1925 Quad Football 

I have a 1925 Stanford University Quad whose pictured students are now long-gone. It is fascinating to look at them, to read where they were from and what they studied, and to contemplate what kind of life they led and what legacy they left. I managed to do some internet research on the young woman whose ownership signature and senior picture grace this book’s pages. I discovered that her father was an important turn-of-the-century architect in Sacramento, California, responsible for a number of important structures, there.

More Life Perspective: My Favorite Movie Scene of All!

Dead Poets Society

Although not in my top six favorite movies (see last week’s post, June 16, 2013), “Dead Poets Society” contains my favorite film scene of all time; it relates beautifully to today’s post. The staging of the scene is brilliant as is its message, and Robin Williams’ acting is superb as Mr. Keating, the new-hire, maverick English teacher at Welton, an old, very toney, and rigid prep school with a direct pipeline to the Ivy League.

The opening scenes during the credits constitute fine film-making, but the fun begins on the first day of class as we briefly follow a group of male “preppies” through their initial classes in chemistry, trigonometry, and Latin. Now, they file in and take their seats in Mr. Keating’s English classroom. As they patiently wait for their instructor to appear, the front door to the classroom opens; Mr. Keating walks slowly down the center aisle, whistling quietly to himself, and then disappears back into the hallway through a rear door. The students look around, puzzled; some tittering is heard. Suddenly, Keating pokes his head back through the door and shouts, “Well, come on!” while motioning the class to follow him.

They are now standing in the building foyer, just steps removed from Keating’s classroom. He herds them closely together, facing the built-in glass display cases along the wall which house athletic trophies and numerous team and student photographs dating back to the early 1900’s. He hands one of the lads a hymnal and identifies a verse for him to read out loud – page 542.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a-flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“Why did the writer say that?” Keating asks. A voice in the back offers, “Because he’s in a hurry?” “No, thank you for playing anyway! It’s because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating replies. “The Latin equivalent of all that is, ‘Carpe Diem’. What does that mean?” “Seize the day,” responds a capable Latin scholar in the front. Now, Keating asks them all to step forward as a group, closer to the display wall in order to carefully peruse those faces from the distant past, there on display – faces that almost nobody ever stops to notice in passing.

“Look at them, boys – they are just like you, hormones racing around and all.” Keating assures his charges that, by listening closely, “You can hear them whispering their legacy to you….hear it?” Expressions are intent and ears are cocked toward the frozen images on display – only the steady ticking of the clock on the wall can be heard. After a long pause, a soft, barely decipherable and throaty whisper floats among the assemblage as Keating inauspiciously moves to the rear of the group: “Caaarpe….caaarpe ….carpe diem! Seize the day boys!”

 Keating reminds the group that these lads “speaking” to them in this manner are now “fertilizing daffodils.” Did they live up to their potential, their high hopes and expectations which were not much different from those of this, the current class at Welton?  Did they seize the day – each and every day that they were given? 

As the boys exit the hall together on the way to their next class, one exclaims, “That was weird!” Cameron, the by-the-book student with the red flat-top seriously wonders aloud, “Think he’ll test us on that?”

Life will test them all on that; they were indeed fortunate to land in Mr. Keating’s class and receive such a valuable lesson so early in their young lives.

6 thoughts on “Refresh Your Life Perspective! Old Yearbooks, Cemeteries, and the “Dead Poets Society”

  1. This post brought back such great memories of the Bronte graveyard and the one in Jacksonville … I’d totally forgotten about the latter. I find that I most remember the fireflies and the eerie stillness of it all. Thanks for helping me dredge up the memory!

    I find that cemeteries are so much less off-putting to me now than they used to be. Not to get all theological here, but I’ve come to believe so much in the communion of saints — that when our lives end here, they don’t end forever, and those who have died are up there rooting for us as we muddle through life. I find such comfort in that, even though (of course) when I lose someone close to me, it is devastating. But the cemeteries seem like a gateway, somehow, to the next stage … not an end. Just my coffee-fueled thoughts!

      • The fireflies were in the old town cemetery of Lexington, Virginia – where the great southern civil war general Stonewall Jackson is buried. That was in 1986. I don’t remember the year we went to Jacksonville, Oregon. Wasn’t that also the scene of your great jelly-bean escapade in the hotel dining room?

    • Thanks for your thoughts – and keep drinking that coffee! Your faith puts the cemetery perspective in a more positive light, and that is good. I believe that facing life as it is and accepting it for what it is (change it for the better, if possible) is so important. Your strong faith is a big asset in that process.

  2. Thank you for the eloquent reminder to live each day to the fullest. I, too, wonder about the lives of people from the past seen in photographs or on headstones in a cemetery. I think of a high school friend who died shortly after we graduated and feel sad for all she has missed, and grateful for all I have experienced. A recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial in NYC was heart wrenching. All those souls who started the day as an ordinary day were truly blind sided. No faces to see, but all the names engraved around the pools were enough to cause me to feel great emotion. How can one not, especially when reading the name of a woman, “……….and unborn child.” Now as I approach the age when Mom died, I have an even deeper appreciation of how young she was when her life ended, and what she missed out on. Not to mention what I missed out on by no longer having her in my life. That pushes me to make the most and the best of each day and live in the moment, not only for myself, but for my family and for Mom, too.

    • Cemeteries and monuments like the 9/11 memorial in N.Y. can be unnerving as reminders of how short life is, but, hopefully, for most of us, any depression at the thought is more than out-weighed by the beneficial effects of the wake-up call. Thanks for your comment, Karen!

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