Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dispatches from Death Week

Half of my students were missing this morning, and I can't say that I blame them--who wants to sit in a stuffy classroom and discuss two essays about death on such a gorgeous spring day? I'd rather be outdoors too, but I'm the one who assigned these essays and I'm going to have to lead my students through them, even if some of them would prefer not to. 

I'm not sure how this turned out to be Death Week in all my classes; I planned the syllabi separately and certainly did not intend to pile up all the morbidity in one big decaying lump. Yesterday's reading in Concepts of Nature stumbled over a rotting carcass and tomorrow's considers an entire landscape of decay, while in American Lit Survey we're reading Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," a poem I last taught at this time last year while my mother lay dying.

Now I'm awaiting word from my dad on some recent health problems while trying to plan a trip to Florida that has been delayed twice by forces outside my control (and while Hurricane Matthew may have been more powerful, I'd rather weather a dozen hurricanes than ever again have to deal with customer service at Spirit Airlines), so naturally my Creative Nonfiction class today was all about death and its rituals.

We read the remarkable "Pyre" by Amitava Kumar alongside Thomas Lynch's incomparable essay "The Undertaking," in which he breathes new life into the cliche about one hand washing the other. I knew I would get weepy if I lingered too long in the final pages of that essay so I'd hoped to set the students loose to talk about it, but half of them were missing. It was just me and a few brave souls talking about how we make sense of death, how rituals help us translate trauma into narrative. 

My students wrote beautifully about rituals they've observed, mostly not morbid: the pre-game rituals of softball players, the orderly steps we take in getting our faces ready to meet the world, the delicate choreography involved in deciding when and whether to greet someone we sort-of know who is about to enter within "interaction distance." 

And I talked about the ad-hoc rituals that arise spontaneously when disaster strikes--the piles of flowers outside the dead celebrity's mansion, the teddy bears piled near the shooting scene, and the roadside memorials marking sites of tragic accidents. I showed my students pictures of the memorial marking the space where the woman died in our creek a few years ago (read it here), a sturdy sign her family erected just up the road from my driveway. The bobble-head whale, sparkly dolphins, and angels that glow in the dark remind me every time I see them that we all grieve in our own ways, some more colorfully than others.

And now I steel myself to teach "One Art" tomorrow. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," insists Elizabeth Bishop, but I'm not sure I agree. Just thinking about teaching that poem makes me tear up, suggesting that I haven't yet mastered the art of losing my mother. Then again, how can we possibly know how we'll handle the losses we have not yet faced? Maybe we won't know whether we've mastered the art of losing until we face our final loss, the last loss that erases all the rest. Maybe, as Bishop suggests, all the other losses are just practice.

But who wants to talk about such morbid stuff on a beautiful spring day? Let's go outside and look at the birds and the flowers and bubbling creek. There'll be time tomorrow to think about death. Today, I'm going to gaze in wonder upon a bright blue bobble-head whale.


radagast said...

Stunningly, beautifully written.

Bev said...

Thanks! It feels messy and unpolished to me, but at this point in the semester, that's how everything feels.