I feel like breathing a sigh of relief, y’all, just to hear someone in book-reviewing-authorityland say that they liked it. While in reality, I’m not shocked—I believe I wrote a fine book—I ALSO have just been so close to it for so long that I forget it might actually function successfully out in the world. Does that make any sense at all? I feel a little like one of my heroes who does a very different kind of writing, Allie Brosh of the brilliant cartoon Hyperbole and a Half. She wrote somewhere that when she left home to start her first book tour, she half-expected her publishers to meet her at the airport and say something like “Haha! There’s no book! You actually believed us! Fool!” This first review is the opposite of that evil laugh laden nightmare.
Here’s the thing. To see an actual reader—not a “pro” of any sort—say that the book made death fascinating to her, just made my day. I wrote her a thank-you note. (This may seem weird to you, but it’s how I was raised.) I did not write in this thank-you note: “Good! It worked! The book worked! Hahaha!” even though that’s what I felt like writing. “Worked” meaning: “Communicated the thing in the meaningful way I’d hoped.” Oh, thankgoodnessitworked. Even for one person.
(Note: You can still pre-order the book at your local bookseller, or on Amazon. But you knew that.)
(*I had decided not to read reviews at all, but then my husband emailed me the Publisher’s Weekly link with the note: “Uhh, I really think you should check this out.”)
Oh, and finally, thanks to Creative Loafing Atlanta for naming me one of “20 People to Watch” in 2014. I’m just warning you: I’m a terrible dancer. Enthusiastic, though. That might be worth watching for a minute or two.
I kind of want to walk into this photograph. I love the Dia de los Muertos tradition of placing candles, flowers, incense and sumptuous picnics at family graves—and I was thinking of writing something here like, “Go decorate the grave of your loved one today!” But even as I thought it, I considered the two graves I’d be moved to visit. There’s one grandmother–the one we called Banny—who’s buried in Pennsylvania, and another (whom we called Nona), up in North Carolina. I live in Atlanta—like so many of us today, I’m geographically distant from most of my family members, living and dead. The family cemetery plot is becoming more and more rare in this nation. So if you’re moved to, why not light a candle or two at home today? That’s my plan. Viva, Banny and Nona!
What else. Oh, I know.
We’re planning a party! A book launch party!
And you are oh, so invited.
Mark your calendar for Friday, March 14th at 7:30 pm, and come on down to Manual’s Tavern in Atlanta for live music, raconteurs from Carapace, Atlanta’s amazingstorytelling outfit; and more. A Capella Books will be selling brand-spankin’ new copies of American Afterlife (Did you see the pretty cover? Yes, of course you did); I’ll be signing them, and, if I have my way, there will be marigolds.
Last night, I read a Facebook post from the comedian Patton Oswalt, of all people, responding to the tragedy in Boston. It wasn’t cheeky or sassy at all. He just talked about how–and of course, I’m paraphrasing–even horrific acts don’t destroy goodness or serve as some evidence of a basic evil in humankind. I went to bed thinking about that and woke up with this poem by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno running through my brain.
Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, “Poem About Light”
You can try to strangle light:
use your hands and think
you’ve found the throat of it,
but you haven’t.
You could use a rope or a garrote
or a telephone cord,
but the light, amorphous, implacable,
will make a fool of you in the end.
You could make it your mission
to shut it out forever,
to crouch in the dark,
the blinds pulled tight—
still, in the morning,
a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking
its optimistic finger
through a corner of the blind,
and then more light,
clever, nervy, impossible,
spilling out from the crevices
warming the shade.
This is the stubborn sun,
choosing to rise,
like it did yesterday,
like it will tomorrow.
You have nothing to do with it.
The sun makes its own history;
light has its way.
We went to the historic cemetery for the same reason the two of us visit any historic landmark: because we both love true stories and the feeling of the past in those rare moments when fine details cause time to accordion in on itself, resulting in a rush that resonates from intellect to gut to your bones. We live in Atlanta, a city where history has been largely erased.
Sometimes? And I’m not kidding, here—It’s hidden below ground. I’m thinking now of the zero mile marker post for Terminus, the city that would later become Atlanta. That post is still physically located in the same spot where it was first placed in 1850, but now it’s in Underground Atlanta, a subsurface shopping mall boasting “220,000 feet of commercial space” with a side of history.
(From the “History” page on Underground Atlanta’s website:
“The railroad depot that stood between Pryor Street and Central Avenue was where Scarlett O’Hara and doctors worked frantically over Confederate soldiers, wounded in battles surrounding the city in the fictional movie ‘Gone with the Wind’….A Union camp was established near Underground Atlanta.”
Hoorah for mash-ups of history, fantasy and the present day! Care for an Orange Julius, Colonel?)
To tell it more accurately, the zero milepost is actually kind of adjacent to Underground, in a small, usually-locked office owned by Georgia State University. Not a lot of people know about it. The same is true of a lot of the history here, which is what makes it deeply satisfying, in a scavenger-hunt sort of way, to experience brushes with it. Or maybe I’m just the sort of budding historiphile who’se also a masochist. I’m not sure yet. (Seriously. I went to New Orleans a few weeks after this and the living, breathing presence of history everywhere I turned kind of totally blew my mind to pieces.)
Anyway, I had a magazine assignment to write a short-short about historic cemeteries around town. My smart editor ticked some off—“You know, so, Oakland and South-View of course, and maybe one or two more.” South-View is a renowned historic African American cemetery. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been.
I did not admit I’d never been. Well, I guess I’m admitting it now.
South-View Cemetery is in Jonesboro, just south of Atlanta, and it’s huge. 200 acres, first established in the late 1800s, during Reconstruction. The interpretive brochure on the Cemetery is refreshingly blunt.
“Blacks had grown tired of the disrespect they were forced to endure in order to bury their family members and friends. They had to enter cemeteries through back gates, and even wade through swamped to conduct funeral services. They were told, ‘If you don’t like it, start your own cemetery,’ And so they did.”
A small group of business owners established South-View in 1886. Reverend and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Senior, are buried here, as well as a host of famous names like Alonzo Herndon and John Wesley Dobbs. Others, too, not so famous: Business-people who ran grocery stores and nightclubs. The first principal of the first black high school.
And if you stop for just two seconds and consider this as you walk the place and look at each quiet grave, you realized how extraordinary this was. Schoolteacher. (Carrie Watts.) Drugstore owner. (Clayton Yates.) These were the first generations of people to obtain these roles after Emancipation from enslavement, in circumstances geared absolutely against them. Walking through South-View, we watched the strata build for successive achievements: Here was the first African American man ever to graduate from West Point; here was grandfather of Atlanta’s first black mayor.
Midway through the audio tour we came upon a gravestone whose rounded top bore a broken bite-mark. This was the grave of George “Union” Wilder, a Civil War veteran who was shot and killed, according to the audio tour, after arming his neighbors during the imprecisely-named “Race Riots” of 1906 in Atlanta—really, a widespread slaughter of black citizens by white citizens following a race-baiting gubernatorial campaign and a series of fallacious newspaper stories about the rape of white women by black men.
According to official accounts of the time, 25 black people and one white person were killed. Historians have since placed the likely number of deaths of people of color at more than 100. Although South-View contains a number of unmarked burials from the riot, Wilder’s is the only identified grave.
20 years before the riots, Henry Grady optimistically proclaimed a “new south” composed of a people unified, looking boldly forward, with no rancor or bias in their hearts. One ordinary Sunday a century later, we visited a place that put us face to face with evidence contradicting that ideal. That evidence is small, easy to walk right by without noticing, and nearly impossible to read, but once you see it, it’s striking. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
Mil gratzie to Atlanta magazine for including me in its “50 Things Every Atlantan Must Do” issue. I’m #29! Well, my recommendation is.
Specifically, it’s about four extremely cool historic cemeteries worth checking out. It’s the April 2013 issue, cheek-by-jowl with all sorts of other “Hey, did you know this crazyneat thing is right in your backyard?” style activities.
1,200 Curfews is a live double-album of the Indigo Girls that I listened to a lot in college. In the decade after then, I busied myself discovering what my husband calls “weirdo music,” and set those old tapes aside. And then my last car with a tape deck died.
This last week, I find myself returning to the duo’s first two albums and to this live one–and Marshall has just had to deal with my earnest dishwashing harmonizing and repeated declarations to no one in particular: “That is just a good song!” Rediscovering this fact.
“Virginia Woolf” is one whose particular greatness bypassed me when I was 19, but whose meditation on deep connections between people across time and mortality just floors me now, with the reassurance “It’s all right” repeating into spiraling, gorgeously constructed harmonies that climax at 5:33, a break in Emily Saliers’s voice in this live recording seeming to indicate either some mortal uncertainty or conviction.
“The Wild Kindness” is a song at the end of the album American Water. Somehow, in this age of digital playback, I had forgotten the song existed. Then, earlier this week, I heard, floating across the house from the speakers in the other room, “I’m gonna shine out in the wild silence/and spurn the sin of giving in.” At the tail end of an album that’s about grappling with some cynical, gritty realities as well as internal battles of depression and substance abuse, the sense of redemption in “Wild Kindness” is throat-closingly pure to me. And of course, there’s that wordplay and those simple melodies that make me want to hug David Berman, the (now defunct) band’s songwriter and endearingly oft’ off-key singer.
I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness
and hold the world to its word.
As a teenager, I didn’t hang around in graveyards wearing black, listening to Bauhaus and smoking clove cigarettes. I have never been a smoker. I grew up in the suburbs, in profoundly and blessedly uninteresting times. I was a kid, then a teenager, then a twenty-something, who led a relatively safe life. I experienced no traumatic deaths.
And I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide on a whim to start finding out all I could about cooling boards, cremation, and Victorian mourning jewelry made from human hair.
But what did happen is I was watching this TV show, maybe you remember it, called Six Feet Under. I was obsessed and didn’t know why. And that actually led to my writing an article about a green burial cemetery, the nation’s first, near Westminster, S.C. In a green burial cemetery, nothing that doesn’t biodegrade completely is allowed to be buried. That means no embalming and no metal clasps on caskets.
I thought I was doing the story because it was kind of quirky and fun—you know: all those jokes that emerge when the preacher, the priest and the rabbi meet up at the Pearly Gates. And there is a dark humor inherent in any death road-trip—including the one that I found myself taking as more and more people started telling me their personal stories, and as I immersed myself in American death customs past and present.
I ended up collecting stories from ordinary people who find themselves involved with death—those who proffered various memorial choices, and those forced to make them. A funeral voyage on the Atlantic, a klatch of obituary writers meeting in the desert, and a Midwestern museum that introduces us to our death-obsessed forebears: the details in these personal stories build upon one another to reveal a landscape that’s usually hidden in our ordinary lives—until the day it’s not.
However, as I worked, I realized something. I was having a hard time with tone. Tone is defined as the narrator’s attitude toward her subject matter. The earliest chapters I’d completed were filled with ha-ha humor, a sort of put-upon wackiness that, as time passed, made me cringe more and more as I read them. Because there’s the gallows humor that shows up all by itself—and then the there’s humor you add in when you’re not comfortable.
And I wasn’t comfortable.
So, the book was stuck. I was stuck, too.
Here’s why—and it’s something I’ll tell you now, at my own, superstitious risk. Like so many Americans my age (now mid-thirties), I am still a death virgin. I’ve lost two grandmothers and borne witness to who-knows-how-many violent movie and television deaths. But closing an intimate relative’s eyes, shutting his mouth, and digging his grave–that’s the stuff of my real nightmares.
Sure, I talked a blue streak (and still will) to anyone who would listen about things like bizarre early ads for embalming fluids and colonial funereal fads. But then I engaged in other conversations: with the memorial photographer who created moments, fixed in film, of true connection between parents and their dead or dying newborn children. The forty-something woman who tended to a roadside memorial for the daughter who’d died in an auto accident at the age of twenty.
Obviously, not wacky. Not funny. All of a sudden, it seemed, instead of investigating Death as an abstract cultural concept, I was mired in actual loss. In grief. In questions provoked by true absence. And it scared me. It still scares me.
It took coming to terms with that fear to find the authentic voice of this work. I was able to start separating the humor that belonged in these stories from that which was me, dancing around and trying hard to assure everyone that none of this was real.
Because it is real. Long conversations with people really working with grief turned into conversations about what it means to lose someone. What it means to be left—and to continue living—until you stop, too. All of this went into the book, now. It had to. Changed now, the book went on. It was still funny in places, but actually funny, not defensively, aggressively so.
It’s been more than five years since I took the plunge and started writing about why Americans make the choices we do when it comes to remembering our dead, and I still don’t have all the answers. I’m not a grief counselor or a minister or a funeral director. I’m not even a mourner. Not yet. But I will be. And so will you.
It’s this knowledge that stalls and paralyzes us very often, but isn’t it also what keeps us going? Keeps us asking the questions so big that their abstraction makes them sound hopelessly trite? What’s next? Why are we here? What’s the right way to mark all this?
We find the answers only in glimpses, writ-small, in particulars we can touch and taste and smell. This moment with the people we love. That glorious view at dawn. The smell of the city after it rains. After all, this sensory life is our only means of accessing any abstract Truth. In that larger sense, we are all wandering blind. And I think that’s rather beautiful.
(the part of you that wants to have fun. What do you mean by that?)
And then I ran across this little ditty that I wrote last year, and I think: Yep. This expresses it. Okay.
So, drink & enjoy.
Flat out, till you were breathless, the dancing forming this connection between you and everyone dancing around you? Even if no one was around—if you were alone in your kitchen with a can opener and your suddenly very-freaked-out cat, remember how it felt like everyone you loved was there? You didn’t feel alone, and this was because of the dancing.
What I Don’t Want to Talk About When I Talk About Dancing
I don’t want to discuss the movement of the body in some cheesy fake-poetic way—about how you shake your hips or shimmy up and down. Not only does such talk make me cringe, thinking too hard about the dancing ruins it, because you can’t simultaneously be in the moment and worry about your technique of being in the moment. (Like writing. Like doin’ it. Like drawing. Like talking. Like living each day not-as-an-existential-crisis.) This is why photographs of real people dancing generally look terrible.
This essay is part of a service I helped put together (along with two other fabulous ladies) about Generation X at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. Writing this really got me thinking about what incredible luck I had to grow up in this particular pop cultural era (–although, of course, might it be possible I’d think that no matter what generation I claimed? A question for another time). I’ve spoken with so many ladies for whom this was true: Sassy was our fairy godmagazine, showing up just when we needed it.