Holywell Cemetery inspires thoughts on how to live

By: Dominic Sanfilippo – Staff Writer

Last week, I moved into my new room at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, which sits on the eastern edge of the old city near the River Cherwell and the dense treeline of the University Parks, away from the constant chatter, noisy tour buses and towering spires that make up both the city and University of Oxford’s center.

St. Catz, the largest of Oxford’s 38 colleges, is a place full of quiet intensity. Living and working in close quarters with around 650 other students, researchers and professors is exhilarating and exhausting, often at the same time. I still haven’t gotten used to the surreal scene of nightly 7 o’clock dinner in the hall, where the entire college waits for the headmaster to say something in Latin before we can start eating. (Think “Harry Potter” without floating ghosts, wands or robes.)

On Saturday, it hit me that I probably should take a break from my reading (because I was falling asleep in my chair), so I started wandering around the outskirts of our college’s grounds and into the rest of Oxford. I knew there was supposed to be a small, peaceful graveyard just past St. Cross Church; lo and behold, I soon stumbled upon the entrance to Holywell Cemetery. Holywell is a wild, overgrown place; flowers and vines have wound their way around gravestones with writing so faint they’re almost illegible, and the forward march of time seems to have forgotten about Holywell generations ago.

As I was meandering through the graveyard, one of the names etched onto a headstone struck me—Kenneth Grahame. Grahame, Grahame… it was so familiar—who was this guy? I wish I could tell you that I suddenly remembered that Grahame, of course, was the celebrated author of the children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows.” (I didn’t, though. I Googled it from my phone.) I paused and stood at his grave, thinking about all the seasons that had passed over it. The epitaph on his headstone read, “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alistair, who passed the river on the sixth of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature before him the more blest for all time.”

“Pass the river.” Huh. Not a phrase you hear too often, nowadays. If you happen to come across a river, it seems like a bridge or a little speedboat would do the trick quite nicely. In other places and times, though, rivers are and were forces to be reckoned with. Their rushing waters have connected people and objects and ideas over vast stretches of the earth for millennium, and they can swallow you up whole as quickly as they can carry you safely into an exciting new part of an adventure. They’re life and death, all in one.

As we make our way across the big river that we’ll all eventually have to pass, we make little crossings every day—every moment, really. The new classes that we start every fall, the trips we plan, the projects we finish, the jobs we apply for—these are all supposedly big splashes in the river, the obvious, external signs that we’re making our way forward. There are more subtle crossings, though, that often pass us right by.

Sometimes they’re laughter that seems to go on forever, a glance from a stranger on a subway that stays with you, or a sunset that hits the treeline just right. Other times, they’re moments of vulnerability: the sudden feeling that you’ve made the wrong decision, nervousness about the future or a sense of smallness and loneliness in a world that sometimes seems too big, chaotic and messy to make sense of.

They’re all part of the Big Pass. Maybe life and death are one moment, one glimpse, one crossing that we experience as a million little fragments. In Sherman Alexie’s novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” the 14-year-old protagonist, Junior, is struggling to find meaning and joy in his ordinary reservation life apart from his beloved drawings. He muses, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are little lifeboats.”

Jump into your lifeboats, whatever they are, and hold them tight. Decorate them even, go wild. Throw streamers and confetti all over them, hire a DJ, have a huge party and invite anyone and everyone. You’ve got quite a lot of lifeboats, you know. Your friends and family that love you more than you could imagine, and the unique talents, dreams and stirrings of your soul that make you, you. Your lifeboats make you up and make the Pass worth it; they make you, reader, into a person more extraordinary than you could even imagine.

Lately, it seems like the world has been weary and the river rough in lots of ways, from senseless violence across the globe to loved ones passing from our lives too soon. Don’t fret: it gets better. It always has, somehow, and it always will.

When you run into a little crossing today, whatever it may be, meet it head on. It could change everything.