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Monday, October 27, 2008

Reflections on Visiting a Hillside of Crosses

All kinds of people from church-goers to gangsta-rappers wear crosses. It’s a powerful and almost universal aesthetic device that pre-dates Christianity by many thousands of years; what began as a tool for veneration of the nature god is now a piece of trendy bling.

Its ubiquity does not diminish its fascination. In the foyer to our apartment I have a simple rustic wood cross, a memento of my visits to Santa Fe, that I bought there because it reminded me of some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Several years ago I went to an Ad Reinhardt show in Los Angeles and saw all kinds of crosses in what seemed, at first glance, to be monochromatic paintings. These were crosses as aesthetic devices, not religious symbols.

Riding east on the BART train towards the Lafayette station a hill comes into view that at first glance looks to be covered in tall white flowers; they might perhaps be lilies, or, if one’s eyesight is growing unreliable, melting snow, but within a few seconds it becomes clear enough that they are white crosses, insubstantial memorials to the dead. Yet the slope is too steep to be a cemetery, the crosses are too close together to be grave markers and are too flimsy to be permanent.

A simple black number on the hillside, like those on amateur athletic fields, is updated regularly; today the count is 4770, the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. The memorial has been controversial since it was begun a few years ago by a man named Jeff Heaton and some local peace activists.

A few days ago I returned to the site and walked around to get a closer look. There are no stickers advertising anybody or anything. A few crosses have been adopted to represent specific individuals with names, photos, jackets, beads, and flowers. While most of the crosses are white, some are multicolored, and a few are covered in mosaics or plastic flowers. Some have Islamic and Jewish symbols as well as Christian. I am reminded of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, not in terms of the material or permanence, but rather in the core idea: that the people who gave their lives in an unjust war must be recognized. This war has inflicted pain on all of us. No member of my immediate family has gone to Iraq, but the raging debate over the Republican administration ended some good friendships.

Walking up the hill behind the crosses in the late afternoon I can see a vista that captures the essence of living here. The beautiful golden hills and oak trees in the autumn afternoon feel unchanged from my childhood, although now the transit system provides a link all the way to the airport in San Francisco. Looking down the hill again I wonder again what do the crosses here really mean? Are they an aesthetic device within a common language or do they relate to an evolving understanding of what a core Christian symbol might mean in this modern age?

From any angle the crosses fill much of the hillside, but there is room for more. The Bush administration does not let the media show any of the soldiers killed in action nor any coffins coming home. Indeed, unless we know a combatant personally we have no way of understanding the damage to our soldiers until we see the occasional veteran interviewed on television. And those are the ones who survived. In this way, the crosses may be the simplest possible reminder of each American life lost.

But again, what about the symbolism of the crosses? When I was young my family went to churches of many denominations all over the East Bay. In the end we didn’t really settle on one particular church, although my parents made a relatively easy choice and sent an annual donation to the church a block away – now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. It was a beautiful building by Wurster Bernardi and Emmons, but there wasn’t a cross in sight. Perhaps God wasn’t so much in the cross as all around.

Crosses have beautiful proportions. Ad Reinhardt painted crosses in almost all of his mature work, but he always said that he never intentionally painted anything, including crosses. He was like the artist Donald Judd – it’s just what’s in front of you. With Reinhardt, it takes a while for the eyes to adjust and see the different layers. Go slow and they come into view.

I have often wondered why Georgia O’Keeffe painted crosses so many times. Living an often solitary existence in New Mexico her work is contemplative, but not necessarily Christian. Her Black Cross, New Mexico from 1929 uses the cross to divide the canvas but not evenly. She wrote, “For me, painting the crosses was a way of painting the country.”

In this stretch of an Arcadian suburb I am moved by the grass roots spontaneity of this simple memorial that reminds commuters that individuals, over four thousand individuals and their circles of friends and family, have been devastated by this nightmare. Maybe the cross was the easiest symbol at hand. Might there be a more permanent symbol of this war and these eight years of hubris and arrogance? The crosses on the hill don’t offer up any easy answers. But contemplating them for a few minutes in the afternoon light, like looking at Reinhardt or O’Keeffe, and wrestling with the angels and demons that make up the life of this country, may point me in the right direction.