Over the winter break, I was privileged with an abundance of reading time. I finished whole books! Each in turn provided so much joy, sustenance or entertainment or any combination of the three that by the end of the break my literary appetite was temporarily sated.
What did I read, you ask?
Going into the break I was finishing up, Dr. Joy Degruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which after having heard her speak at the NAIS People of Color Conference offered a welcome and necessary recap of her arguments. Reading allowed me to deepen my understanding of the lingering impacts of slavery over generations. I had never invested in making those direct connections previously between slavery and my own family’s (behavior) history.
After that, I was ready to read Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Written as a letter from an American born son to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, as readers we are drawn into personal spaces at once intimate and charged. I don’t know what I expected but I found poetic passages page after page which blew me away.
But the books I really want to tell you about turn out to be a rather unusual pairing: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Death and Anger, Anger and Death! What a combination for the holidays!
Caitlin Doughty has made a name for herself on social media with her youtube series, Ask A Mortician and goes by the handle @TheGoodDeath on Twitter and Instagram. Smoke describes her initiation into the undertaking industry at age 23 when she got her first job at a crematory. Besides being a gifted storyteller, Doughty shares her wonderings about the way death is done in modern Western societies, particularly in the US. In the tradition of excellent non-fiction, she provides tricks of the trade alongside a bit of historical background mixed in with squishy messy details of preparing the dead. Author Doughty had me interested in all of it. Smoke emerged as an unexpected page-turner.
Before arriving at the conclusion that humans are “glorified animals” and that “We are all just future corpses,” Doughty describes how she came to this point early in her career as a mortician:
Less than a year after donning my corpse colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world. p.168
She reminds us through stories and wit that “death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” (p. 228) And this makes so much sense to me. Considering what my own “death values” are and where they come from is certainly a mental-emotional exercise in my future. Smoke provided me with an basis for reframing death and burial as processes that complete my humanity rather than erase it. That’s pretty significant.
If Smoke was the beer, Burn It Down was an extraordinary chaser. Behold, 22 essays by women from a variety of backgrounds all illuminating ways of thinking about, experiencing, managing, and expressing anger. So many spoke of the taboo surrounding feminine expressions of anger – about the shame and also manipulative capacity of tears, of being labeled hysterical, emotional, bitter, deranged… That rang entirely true and at the same time, I could also see parts of myself in the stories of those women who flew off the handle, who got loud and vocal when necessary.
While reading I thought of my many girlfriends and how seldom we have chances to be this frank with each other. Which is the beauty of having this collection of women’s voices which validate our right and need to feel and express our rage, particularly when we open our eyes to the underlying patterns in society which place all manner of hurdles in our paths. Especially striking for me were two essays, each penned by trans women, which made me think again about what it means to identify as woman.
Sheryl Ring caught me with this:
“…the reality is, I am a woman, and therefore, I am what a woman looks like. Every trans woman is what a woman looks like. It’s not that we all pass – it’s that whether or not we “pass” is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. (From “Crimes Against The Soul,” p. 191)
And in her essay, “On Transfeminine Anger,” Samantha Riedel proposes a vision of what could be:
Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation.
That is a form of vision that I don’t find everywhere. Until I read that passage, I hadn’t really recognized my own deep appetite for pictures of what we could create, what alternatives to abrasive and harshly competitive existences might look like.
A different perspective that resonated profoundly came from Lisa Factora-Borchers, a daughter of Philippine immigrants who writes about living in middle Ohio and why she stays. She describes conversations with her kids and I am reminded that my friends, colleagues and I are navigating similar talks with our own kids and with students.
When we drive on Highway 62 and pass the Confederate flags and the billboards declaring “one man, one woman = real marriage,” I see it now as an opportunity to give my kids what I wish I always had: an example of how to embrace anger; how to use it as a natural resource, whether facing injustice of critically interpreting political and religious propaganda. “You see these big signs?” I ask my kids when we pass religious billboards. “There’s a lot of people out there who are afraid of anything different from themselves. People who are afraid will try to tell you who to love, how to love, or who to be friends with, but we’re not afraid of other people just because they may be different from us. That’s just not who we are.” (From “Homegrown Anger,” p. 189)
The struggle to convince our children that we have agency when there are whole industries dedicated to demonstrating the opposite can weigh heavily. In Factora-Borcher’s essay, I am reminded that I am far from alone; that as I teach my children, I can teach myself.
I’m sure it’s no accident that I raced through these essays and Doughty’s account of the undertaking industry in the matter of a few days. I clearly was in the market for some #RealTalk. Doughty takes time to meditate on what it means to handle the dead and death in a society that would prefer to pretend they don’t really exist. Throughout the book she makes a strong case for reclaiming death and its subsequent ceremonies as a natural part of life. Meanwhile, Lily Dancyger’s curated essays assure me that acknowledging and expressing my anger will not kill me. Either way, I’m better prepared on at least two counts.