A Walk Through the Boneyards of Portsmouth, New Hampshire

"Every day above ground."

“Is it just me, or did people go extra hard with their Halloween decorations this year?”

My brother and I are out for a walk in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where I’m visiting him and his family. The day before I was with my sister and hers at an apple orchard in Massachusetts, where I saw my parents too. My reason for traveling through New England is to hand deliver gifts I bought for my niece and three nephews while I was in Scandinavia. The trip has been a success.

The orchard we visited is the Red Apple Farm. When I was a child it was just fields and fields of apple trees, with a small farmstand out front. Now there are food trucks and a brewery and a live band that’s really going for it. The cider is crisp on my tongue as I sit and watch my father—who wasn’t the world’s best father—energetically play with my nephew. Sometimes not great dads make really good grandfathers.

Things change, is what I’m trying to say.

“Maybe it’s because people are working from home and have more time to decorate.”

My brother and I are walking by the Piscataqua River. We pass the Point of Graves Burial Ground—which dates back to the late 1600s. It’s filled with sailors and shipbuilders and sea merchant’s wives.

Across the street is another graveyard, but this one is in someone’s front yard. Every papier-mâché headstone mourns something in Portsmouth that’s changed, like the “Whaling Wall” mural—which was painted by Robert Wyland in 1993—that’s now being torn down to make room for condos. A victim of the city’s growing development.

“Maybe it’s because death feels a little closer this Halloween,” is what I don’t say.

It’s too pretty a day for such thoughts. Besides, many of the Halloween decorations are playful. A skeleton tending to a garden of Venus flytraps.

Another watering its lawn and playing with a skeleton dog.

Another skeleton—a hunter—waits in a deer blind, rifle in hand.

While a group of skeletons across the street cheer for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Still, most people I talk to these days are worried. Seasonal depression is creeping in. The winter last year was so dark. So lonely. This year will be different, sure, but it’s as if our bodies don’t understand that yet.

We’re all holding our breath.

Whenever someone asks me how I’m doing, I respond with, “Every day above ground.” It’s a saying I picked up from the old timers at a bar I worked at in San Francisco. It’s a weird thing to say. I know that. But to me, a celebration of life. A verbal memento mori. What a blessing! To be above ground. To be able to witness what comes next.

I say those words for the same reason I wear skull rings and skull t-shirts and have skull tattoos. Yes, death is closer than you think and can come at any time. But the point is to remind yourself to live. To enjoy the ride.

I think about all of this as I stare at a skeleton that is a storey tall, sitting on someone’s roof.

“Look at that. A Bartlett.”

My brother and I have made our way into another actual cemetery. Bartlett is our grandmother’s maiden name, she herself raised in New Hampshire. The person in the ground in front of us—who we know nothing about—is almost certainly related to us. We stop at the tombstone. The air is brisk, one of the first true fall days of the year. The leaves haven’t peaked yet, but they’re starting to turn. We are silent as we listen to the wind move through the branches of nearby trees.

When I go back to New York, I’ll get my pandemic tattoo. Another memento mori. And I’ll see so many friends. And then I’ll go on a trip to New Orleans, to see even more friends and celebrate a loved one’s birthday. I promise my brother that I’ll come back up to see the kids again around Thanksgiving.

It’s all part of the plan, to stay true to a commitment that I made to myself during the pandemic. A commitment that I remake while my brother and I stand in silence at that tombstone of an unknown relative in Portsmouth. This winter will be difficult, but not as tough as last year. And while I’m here I’m going to celebrate. Even if sometimes joy can feel like a silly decoration. I’m going to do my damnedest to enjoy myself and whatever time I have left.

Every day above ground. Each time I say it, it’s a prayer.