sdkfhsdlk

death

Our Collective Breath

by Susan Henderson on June 22, 2020

How are you doing? I feel like I need to check in with you. What are you actively doing to keep safe and emotionally well? What are you actively doing to keep others safe and emotionally well?

I thought I’d spend much of 2020 on my novel-in-progress. I have 33 wobbly chapters pinned to my bulletin board, waiting for my attention, but life had other plans. In March, my father got terribly ill. I went back to my childhood home in Virginia to spend time with my folks. Then a pandemic swept across the world, and I decided I’d better get to New York before it locks down. After only a few days back home, I broke my hand—naturally, the one I use for writing. Then, one night while my husband attended a Zoom meeting in one room of our house, I took a call in another room and learned my father had died.

If I sound emotionally distant writing all of this, it’s the only way I can tell the story right now.

I went back to Virginia (this time in a mask) to stay with my mom for a month. When I returned to New York, exhausted and unmoored, I flipped on the news and watched another black man murdered as he called out, “I can’t breathe.” I can’t get the image out of my mind of that cop looking so nonchalant, one hand in his pocket, as he killed a human being.

My heart feels called in too many directions.

Let me first speak about my father, whose death still doesn’t feel real to me. Here is a clipping from The Washington Post—I wrote this one. Supposedly, there will be a formal obituary written by one of their reporters, but it’s in a backlog since there are so many deaths these days.

This newspaper clipping doesn’t speak to my grief. I put that into an essay I was asked to contribute for the anthology, ALONE TOGETHER: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19. The book comes out September first, and I hope you’ll read it.

If there’s anything I can clearly take away from the past many weeks of heartache, pandemic and protest marches, it’s how we’re all connected. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our actions, our very breath, can either harm or strengthen the lives around us. That is both terrifying and empowering.

The sign above helps me re-examine the way I thought I was battling racism in the past. Like COVID-19, we must assume we have the racism virus, and we must take active steps to flatten the curve and, if we work and work at it, to bend that curve. Simply being kind people won’t do. Posting statements of love and equality won’t do. One time gestures won’t do. Policy changes that nibble around the edges or focus solely on law enforcement won’t do.

Cries of “I can’t breathe” call out in compelling shorthand America’s enduring racial chasm in every measure of well-being: health care and infant mortality, wages and wealth, unemployment, education, housing, policing and criminal justice, water quality and environmental safety. These are words from the recent NYTimes op-ed entitled What the Courage to Change History Looks Like, and the entire piece is well worth reading.

Let’s talk in the comments section about how to engage in, rather than shrink from, this moment. Let’s talk about the uncomfortable work of holding ourselves, our friends and colleagues accountable. How can we use whatever power and platforms we have to change the systems we’re a part of? What are some ways to get (and stay) active in local elections, school boards, city council? Share your thoughts. And let’s give each other the space to be clumsy and make mistakes because that’s the only way to break old habits and build better ones.

*

Some thank you’s are in order… I was honored to be a part of the judging committee for the 2019 John Leonard Prize. Congratulations to all the brilliant finalists and to the winner, Sarah M. Broom, for her memoir, The Yellow House. I’m grateful, as well, to Jack Smith, who elicited my thoughts about character change for his article “Change of Heart” in the June issue of The Writer magazine. More thank you’s: Greg Olear’s Sunday Pages, National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Notes, Robert Gray’s Shelf Awareness (where he featured books that discuss mortality), FSG’s Work In Progress, the Big Sky Journal, TTC Books, Harper Academic, Changing Hands Bookstore, Bookhounds, Wishful Endings, and Jean Book Nerd.

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

Wayétu Moore, The Dragons, the Giant, the Women

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Seamus Heaney, Aeneid Book VI

T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir

Ann Napolitano, Dear Edward

Anna Burns, Milkman

Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House: A Memoir

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth

Victor Hugo (translated by Julie Rose), Les Misérables

Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Alice Hoffman, Faithful

Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing

Cameron McGill, Meridians

Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche

Sarah McBride, Tomorrow Will Be Different

Bryan Washington, Lot: Stories

Harriet Shenkman, The Present Abandoned

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Hannah Tinti, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is in Trouble

Ellen Meister, Love Sold Separately

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black

Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World

Marie Mutsuki Mockett, American Harvest

Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day

Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

 

And a few re-reads:

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

Heather O’Neill, Lullabies for Little Criminals

*

Last thoughts: As we learn to engage more in the urgent issues of our time, how do we also take care of ourselves and make time for our own dreams? And where is that line between self-care and simply exercising the privilege to disengage? Would love to hear from you in the comments section. I’ve missed you.

 

 

{ 24 comments }

Question of the Month: Post-Mortem Photos

by Susan Henderson on November 6, 2017

What are your curiosities regarding the dead and the dying and our customs for mourning them?

LitParkThanosArchives1

The Flicker of Old Dreams, my new novel that’s narrated by a mortician, explores all kinds of death—the death of a town and a way of life, the death of a body, the death of a spirit.

I’ve been obsessed all my life with looking closely at the things others find uncomfortable or hurry past. And our often-peculiar rituals for mourning the dead have particularly consumed me.

And so, when I first stumbled upon a post-mortem photo, I couldn’t turn away.

LitParkThanosArchives2

This mother died in childbirth. Two of the triplets died as well.

Sit with that shock for a moment, the bereaved family members dressing and arranging them so lovingly. Needing to do this though it must have also felt wrong. And then to see that death, and not peace, crept into the mother’s eyes.

But it’s the photos of the living with the dead that wreck me. Just imagining the grief.

LitParkThanosArchives3

This little boy is holding his deceased sibling. All of these pictures, by the way, come from The Thanatos Archive and appear in the book, Beyond the Dark Veil.

It’s jarring, isn’t it? The photo is both tender and gruesome, an expression of profound grief and also a portrait of our greatest fear. I wonder, when I look at photos like these, whether it soothed some family members while haunting others.

In my book, a post-mortem photo is taken in the opening pages. And it is touched upon throughout the novel. I wanted to walk as close as I could to death and to grief and see what it all had to say to me.

Talk to me in the comments about what these photos stir in you. Tell me stories about your family rituals for mourning, or for bypassing that painful process.

NovLitParkBooksRead

As always, I’ll share the books I’ve read since my last post:

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ronlyn Domingue, The Plague Diaries: Keeper of Tales Trilogy
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird
Stephen King, Firestarter
Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead
Marcia Butler, The Skin Above My Knee
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Misfit’s Manifesto

SusanSueLaurelJuliaMargaret copy

Oh, and I owe some thank you’s:

To Jill Tardiff, National Reading Group Month Chair, for inviting me to be a part of a panel celebrating the WNBA’s centennial and National Reading Group’s 10th anniversary. It was a pleasure to talk books, writing and publishing with Susan Larson, Laurel Davis Huber, Julia Franks, Margaret Wrinkle, and a great joy to spend time with friends (Melissa Connolly, Wayétu Moore, and Kimberly Wetherell) who showed up for support.

Thanks also to Library Journal, Virginia Stanley (Director of Library Marketing), and Bookish Roundup for the kind words.

And last but not least, gratitude to those of you who’ve pre-ordered The Flicker of Old Dreams and added it to your GoodReads lists!

That’s it for now. I look forward to your stories in the comments section!

{ 32 comments }

sdkfhsdlk