A reflection on the Behnkes

Back in April, I read from my book about the Green-Wood Cemetery in the historic chapel at Green-Wood. In attendance was the family of Sergeant Joseph Behnke. In Green-Wood, I write briefly about encountering Sgt. Behnke’s grave. He was killed in Iraq in 2004. An excerpt of Green-Wood including that section was published online by the journal EOAGH.

The Behnke family came across that excerpt online, and we have since been corresponding. I met them for the first time at the chapel. Included here is the picture they brought of the snowman at Sgt. Behnke’s grave that I write about in Green-Wood. I met his grandchildren, who built the snowman, his wife Miriam, two of their sons, and two nephews.

For me, meeting the Behnkes has transformed a moment of reflection at the grave of a soldier I didn’t know into something much more. It has become a glimmer of understanding about what it means to lose someone in war. I think that’s a really important experience for every U.S. citizen–and the Behnkes have been generous about sharing some of their feelings with me. See more about Sgt. Behnke’s brother Mike’s reaction to the book.

The experience also returns me to the reasons that I started writing about Green-Wood. The cemetery has been in existence since 1838, and it includes approximately 600,000 graves–everyone from Samuel Morse, inventor of Morse Code, to poor 19th-century immigrants who didn’t speak English. As a result, it allows for the kinds of vast-ranging reflections about American history that my book undertakes, and that the cemetery itself offers to visitors.

When I was writing the book, my experiences of Green-Wood were solitary. I was looking for a place to get away by myself and think. The beautiful grounds offered an escape for me from a variety of griefs personal and public, and writing the book became a way for me to understand and survive those sorrows.

Now that the book is “in the world” and I have moved far away from Green-Wood, I have begun to experience the cemetery through people like the Behnkes. The book is over, but the project (learning, healing, surviving–for those of us who are very lucky) continues.

Green-Wood process

A friend who is teaching Green-Wood to her creative writing class recently asked me to jot a few notes about the process of writing the book. I thought I’d share them here as well.

It took me six years to research and write Green-Wood (more or less). I wrote it by taking notes–during and after time in the cemetery, and while reading source texts. I literally cut the notes into separate bits and then organized them by theme or “thread”–like, “birds of paradise” or “industrialism.” I covered the walls of my room with homasote boards (kind of like bulletin boards) and tacked up the notes so I could see them all at once. Then I used various techniques to weave the threads together–I tried actual thread to make connections, but that didn’t work very well. I spent a lot of time on my knees on the floor arranging and rearranging bits.

You can’t tell this from the published book, but I designed each 8.5 by 11 page as a visual and textual unit (hence the asterisks). That gave me a constraint to work within. So the task was to organize bits of text on each page, and then order the pages.

Of course that sounds more organized that it really was. There is probably another Green-Wood worth of notes and threads that didn’t get into the book. And actually I first wrote an entire Green-Wood manuscript that had discrete sections of poetry and prose that just wasn’t working, so I tossed it and started over.

In terms of content, I just sort of followed the cemetery and the source texts where they led me!