Wrong title

The 32-year old had a large tattoo across his sternum of a cow skull decorated by roses and a rope burn around his neck. There was no escaping the permanence of his choices in the cramped prep room where I saw both. They were mine to tussle with now as I stretched his skin back into place after his autopsy.

I am familiar with that claustrophobic space in the mind where it feels like each decision is a final one or should be a final one or god, let’s hope it’s the last one because the thought of doing this shit again or making the wrong decision is devastating. It’s the control corner of my brain, the place where I fall under the illusion that everything depends on me.

I am less familiar with just accepting whatever results come from my decision. I try. It feels like a constant state of confusion.

A week later, my friend got a call that her father had died. She wept for a while before another friend and I drove her back to her house in the dark countryside, east of town. On the way there, she talked about her father’s 3-year illness, her clairvoyant abilities, her cat’s death a week earlier and how peaceful she felt now, having decided back then to move home and take care of her father.

When we arrived, her dad was in a bed in the living room while groups of family and friends crowded into the house, spilling into the yard. I sat in silence most of the night on her porch listening to our friends try to verbalize the moment.

Later in the car, while a high hat shimmied across Kool Keith’s Super Hero, I realized I did not want to renew my license as an embalmer in the state of Texas. It has been on my mind since I the last time I paid to renew it, but next month is when it would actually expire, bringing the reality of the choice to bear.

“Embalming” in Texas doesn’t just mean injecting folks with chemicals; it encompasses all parts of prep room work, including the necessary washing done before green burial cases, which I prefer to do. It would greatly limit my ability to work as an independent contractor by restricting my abilities to only arrangements and paperwork. It would undo a lot of the work I have done to distinguish myself from other funeral directors in the state as a hands-on body worker who rejects chemical intervention.

Yet, I am weary of keeping it. It would require me to pay money to the state that would further support all the fallacies of embalming, starting with the name itself. If the license was for “mortuary tech” or some other body preparation title, I’d more likely reconsider. But “embalming” just upholds a label that I’m pretty against. It is almost confusing to see it next to my name.

“What a great choice,” my friend said about the high hat on the Keith song. “That’s the kind of music I want to make, a single beat over some dope lyrics.”

I’m not an embalmer, I need to be real about that.

Letter of Recommendation: Barton Springs after the Eclipse

On Tuesday, my mother sent a text that said “Vickie passed away, no details yet.”

My great aunt had died in a nursing home in Milwaukee, a block from a funeral home I used to work at. Vickie used to introduce me as an “embalmist” to the other residents she played cards with when I would drop by the senior living center to donate overflow flower arrangements after a funeral. I read the text, sat at my desk and indulged in many memories of a woman who was always old and always cheerful; who had embraced her upcoming death for 30 years, so much so that if we didn’t speak about it each time we visited it felt like something was very wrong.

On Monday, my office celebrated the solar eclipse with a themed party in the parking lot. They distributed protective eyewear and handed out Milky Ways. As is with most office parties, the performance outweighed the occasion and I stopped looking at the bitsy crescent crossing the sun after just a minute. I wondered about showing up for a ceremony that acknowledged total darkness happening somewhere else. I searched for, but did not feel, a change in temperature.

Later in the afternoon on Tuesday, I went to Barton Springs. I had planned to meet a friend there to dip in the chilly water once before the summer ended. Though I credit this place as a reason I moved to Austin 10 years ago, I had left it alone in the last couple of years, assuming others were enjoying it more than I would. That day, I expected it to be less crowded now that school had started and the work week was on a roll, and I wasn’t wrong, but I still felt confused about why more people didn’t show up that afternoon. The day was perfect. The sun did not feel harsh on my skin, the air felt warm but not heavy.

I crawled onto my towel next to my friend and explained to her that my great aunt had died and I was feeling bad about it. She died alone and in advanced dementia that made her very agitated, so much so that it upset my mother, who had stopped making regular visits about a year before.

I said this after we had both jumped feet first into the turquoise springs, cold enough to suck the air out of your lungs and just as beautiful.

Skin still cool, sun still up, my friend told me about her grandfather who is currently suffering out the same fate from a nursing home in Montana.

“He is beyond humoring anyone who visits him,” she explained. “He doesn’t have the energy for that”. Which is why her aunt and her sister, the primary caretakers, were on vacations right now. Why her father decided against going to visit him this summer. “If they need to take care of themselves right now, it’s ok.”

I extended my pale, chubby legs in front of me and thought about how agonizing it is to be unable to give others what they want, to have to rely on a divine logic that all will be well if we give up control. The hillside we lay on was still comfortably dotted with couples and groups dewy with spring water illuminated by the fading sunlight. Dusk was slowly approaching, as it does in the summer, drawing out its promise of relief from the heat and brightness.

The pool still offered its sharp cooling tactics, available to anyone willing to leap in the air.
“Are you going to go in again?” My friend asked.

“Nah,” I said. I’d just as soon wait for the moon to show up.

family time

There was a moment in Dachau when my mother and I were waiting for our meal at an italian restaurant when I felt how time is experienced precisely as Philip K Dick wrote about in his Exegesis and VALIS.

Meals in Europe are leisurely events, forcing us to slow down and make room to think, however I was agitated; morose from having just visited the Holocaust memorial site at the camp and frustrated with the conversation we were attempting to have. We were talking about the past, mine and my mother's, and I had to say out loud that I had spent the last decade in Texas and it had gone by so fast.

After I said it I paused and looked at her. I saw a frown on her face that she wore when she was my age. I realized that ten years ago could have been forty or fifty and I saw her as a younger woman unaware of the next ten years because she was still living in the last ten years. Time overlaps in this way and when we look directly at the present we can see it all plain as day. I stared at my mother across from me and could see past what she was doing at that moment and into her future when she will still be with me

I remembered feeling the same way when I read the timeline of the day the Camp was liberated in the museum. It felt so incredibly close, as if it had happened in my lifetime as opposed to right before it.

I talked to a 70-something year old woman today who said she finally read a journal that her and some friends had jointly kept during their trip to Europe over 60 years ago. She was 19 in 1952 and on that trip she learned her father had died. She had to leave, but her friends kept writing in the journal and gave it to her when they returned.

Only now did she feel she was ready to read those entries written after the death of her father. She said even as an old woman she felt 19 again, processing war-torn Europe and the sudden loss of her father. She said she was grateful that we aren’t just our emotions-those alone could kill us-but physical beings in a space where we can just experience them. It’s that memory coil concept that Philip K Dick gets at. We’re constantly being informed on a loop by the past present future and time is a construct of this experience but it is all happening at once.

A scene from my book

A woman named
“Sarah Wambold” tweeted at Sarah. Sarah checked her profile. Sarah replied
thanking her for holding her tweets and they indeed should meet sometime.

Sarah wrote it as clearly as she could and he verified every letter. They sat in silence for
several minutes before he told her his website couldn’t verify her. He gave her
no real answers as to why but she wasn’t all that surprised. She knew this
version of her was the most mistakable. She wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Sarah sat there
purposeless, watching the more liquid parts of her identity flow silently
around an immovable rock. Sarah wiped away dampness with the back of her hand
as her former boss, cheeks still wet, rushed out the side door. Later, Sarah
stood smoking in the broken gazebo at her apartment complex, dialing
her sponsor’s number and then hanging up, until finally speaking to her in
mumbled phrases.

“You’re already
getting over it,” she told Sarah and that’s all she remembered. Still wasn’t clear for a long time, until it was.
Still was a
mess that Sarah was digging up constantly, with booze and bad advice.

Exposure

There has been an slightly visible rash on my arms and neck for about 5 days that I’m itching using only the pads of my fingertips. I saw a tweet about trypophobia this morning and I clicked on it and I could not be more sorry that I did that.
The images attached to that tweet are causing an unrelenting panic racing through my brain. I have never had such a reaction to images before. Once, when I was driving on I-35 almost to the Riverside exit headed south out of downtown, a truck carrying a load of tubes passed me. I almost passed out when I saw all of the holes ahead of me. Still, the memory of that hasn’t thrown me into the fit of discomfort I am in now. 
I read what I could of the article before the pain in my neck became too great. It is torture, coupled with this ambient rash that I thought was caused by stress.  The article mentioned something about the hole imagery reminding us of poisonous creatures. I think about my rash differently now, which could be caused by an insect bite obtained while abroad. We ate outside almost every meal and there were bugs everywhere in Europe.
I feel unspeakably connected to the world right now, uncomfortably so. Hours after I saw the phobia tweet a person I follow sent what I am assuming was an unrelated tweet about being a ‘carefree tube full of holes’ and I almost wept.
My throat feels dry and the there is a v-shaped patch of itchiness at the base of my neck between my shoulders. I imagine my skin back there appearing like the hole-covered appendages in the images I saw. Knowing on a microscopic level my skin actually does look like this, I am ready to be dead.
I dreamed of bombs in the sky last night. They were more like fireballs in a bright blue atmosphere. I was in bed by 8:30pm so I missed most of the nuclear war bragging between the two psychotic leaders, however since these holes that cover us are too open, too present, too agitated,  everything is bleeding into the next thing.

RuPaul as a spiritual guide

An image of myself keeps popping into my head, one that represent a positive person/symbol I sometimes catch a glimpse of. I’m in 8th grade and it’s the last day of school. I am wearing a pink feather boa, purple shorts and tons of Jane. iridescent makeup. I am giving lots of attitude with my arm around my friend Maddie who is matching my campy pose with sweet smile.

My intention had been to dress up as RuPaul. None of my classmates got it (except Maddie) which I had assumed was because they were ignorant of Ru’s divinity.

However,  it’s probably more true that I wasn’t getting anywhere near Ru’s look or any drag persona for that matter. I appeared more like Girl Scout disguised as a hologram, a very tame attempt at a racy look. It lacked all of the identity politics that make drag so great and of course, I don’t possess RuPaul’s undeniable beauty. But I had woken up with a spirit of subversion and wild expression on the last day of my junior high years and I wanted to embrace it. I could learn something from that now. 

I have admired RuPaul for decades and recently, when I’ve been feeling sad I listen to her podcast or just I think about her and it brings me right out of the sadness and loneliness. Her mantras about identity being a scam are powerful. I repeat them to myself when I find I am (once again) not fitting exactly into some identity I don’t really want anyway. When she says other people are just god in drag it helps me visualize the common energy shared by everyone, and I can find some appreciation in the interactions I have with others.

Death Salon Seattle

I booked my trip to Seattle in the fall to attend Death Salon. It will be the first time I’ve attend this event where I am not presenting. I am really looking forward to taking in the panels and activities strictly as an attendee this time. I am supposed to renew my funeral director license around the same time and I am hoping the information I learn at this event will re-engage me with the industry. Despite being an outsider-y event, I could really use some help feeling interested in the funeral world as a whole. Lately, I’ve felt exhausted by it.

It’s helpful to admit  that I don’t know much about certain things, like pet death care and death with dignity laws so that I can be open to hearing from experts who do. Much of my own exhaustion, truth be told, comes from rejecting guidance from others. It’s a problem I want to be relieved of.

Events like Death Salon are helpful and approachable for industry workers and laypeople alike, as it puts me, a funeral director,  in touch immediately with a  public response to a perhaps crazy idea, like Katrina Spades post-mortem composting. Other funeral industry events, like the Texas Funeral Director Convention I spoke at in June,  are so focused on themselves it is hard to get a sense of how the community will benefit at all from the discussion.

Here are a few events I am looking forward to:

Brian Flowers – Green Burial: The Intersection of Ecology & Ritual

I have been deep in thought around creating a meaningful after death ritual that is specific to green burial. I am curious to see how others are approaching this same idea.

Tanya Marsh – Regulated to Death: Re-Imagining the Funeral Services Market

Tanya has been helpful in answering many of my legal questions over the past year. As we move into a new market with the rise of alternative funeral options and different needs, I am really grateful to be able to hear her talk at length about what this means for the industry and how we can change the laws for the better.

Alternative Deathcare – Jeff Jorgenson in conversation with Nora Menkin

Jeff is an old friend who runs the excellent Elemental Burial and Cremation in Seattle. Nora Menkin runs People’s Mortuary, a non-profit burial service in Seattle. Essentially, my two dream places to work. I am really looking forward to hearing more about the realities of running these business.

 

Also, I am going to go to a baseball game, which is not a planned activity but I have always wanted to visit SafeCo field and take in a game by the water. Sounds pretty chill as I write this from Texas in July.

Low

Everyday last week, I listened to Cat Marnell read the audiobook of her drug-addiction memoir, “How to Murder You Life”, while commuting to and from work. Cat herself doesn’t bother me, she isn’t hateful or anything and she would probably be fun to talk to, but I really didn’t like this book. Her reading it made it even more insufferable. Every time she wrote about screaming, and there is so much fucking screaming in this book, she would scream so obnoxiously I had to shut it off or skip ahead.

I kept listening to her read because I wanted a better understanding of how much work and pain goes into writing a shitty book. I know vaguely about this from the little writing I have done. I have a lot of fear around writing/finishing anything more ambitious and that typically shows up in the question “What do I want?”

For now, I hear Cat's voice in my head when I ask that question. Hers seems to have taken over my own inner voice. Is she that powerful a writer? No, I am just a personality sponge and am so susceptible to other people’s irrationality, carelessness, justification and attempts at humor for attention that I immediately adopted it as my own.

Cat and I are very close in age, which is too bad only because I would have definitely gotten more out of this book if I were 16. That’s not meant to be dis. She is successful at writing instructively, hence the “How to” of the title, hoping that her disgusting stories will deter others from going down her same path. It probably wouldn’t have stopped me from becoming an addict myself, but it would have made me consider a little more fully the question of who I was trying to become.

I was completely influenced by the same magazine culture that Cat describes being obsessed with in the book. I was also desperate to be drunk or high at all times, from a young age. Once I got sober, almost 3 years ago, I started to see how much time I was spending talking to myself in the voices of other people, aligning my ambitions with theirs, totally out of touch with my own self, my own ideas. By the time I reached the point where Cat is protesting hard against XOJane’s body-positive, real-girls-only, stance on beauty, I became more gentle toward what I had been listening to. Cat wanted the unattainable glamour of magazine culture to be the Right Way, the same way I wanted...someone else to answer the question of what I wanted, for me. We nearly kill ourselves to attain an ideal or idea that either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter to anyone but us. It’s incredibly hard work to actually have to change your mind.

I am glad I read the afterword, which I felt was the best part of the book. She seems to have a clearer idea of what she is writing here and acknowledges the difficult process she had putting the book together. That was helpful for me to hear right now,  which is why I will disregard the rest of the book and appreciate only what she said about pushing through humiliation, self doubt and despair to finish what she started.

 

See them for what they really are

I've been moving over the past month and going through my old photos because I want to get rid of most of them.

I've thrown several photos away, which is a relief however there are still so many that I feel obliged to keep them even though they don't reveal anything or make me feel all that good.

One I am keeping is of me in my first car, wearing a Rainbow Bright t-shirt and an army green jacket with an American Cancer Society pin attached to it, which I got from the organization when they awarded me a scholarship. I had written an essay about what is means to be a cancer survivor, my plans for my future, etc. It was a symbolic gesture.

Without re-reading it, I am fairly certain that I did not write about identity theft, which is what I’ve come to realize it means to be a childhood cancer survivor.  People want to feel good about themselves because their donation saved your life or something. I know now I do not have to believe that but growing up it was hard not become a sick people pleaser for awhile.

I also have a medal around my neck. I think I got it for swimming. The ribbon it's attached to is red, white and blue and I'm holding it out away from my chest. I am looking at something beyond the camera, in the distance behind it, emotionless. I don't know who took this picture, but I am familiar with this pose and expression; I did it frequently when I was a teenager.

It was an attempt at humor. It was also my smug nature. I styled this photo and struck this pose as a way of mocking the awards I was given upon graduating high school.

The uncomfortable realization here is that I've reached for this same effect too often in adulthood as well. Wanting recognition, then rejecting it-even mocking it-when it comes my way. For the most part, I've stopped doing this; at least now I am very conscious of it when I do do it.

For now, I'll keep this photo as a reminder that insincere actions don't usually work out for me.

One photo I am throwing out is of my college roommate helping our friend glue devil horns on his forehead before going out for Halloween one year.

It's not a well framed shot, neither one is paying attention to the camera. I already have several pictures of this night that I am keeping, though some that are actually less interesting than this. This one looks an accident.

The background is too dark to see who else is at the party and I am tired of keeping party pics around for the sake of having them. I partied a lot in college. It wasn't epic or life-affirming. I definitely did not write that in my essay about the future of a cancer survivor even though I always knew it was part of my plan. 

I have a lot of useless pictures of this time.  I feel good about having one less.

Cemetery work

I found out tonight that one of the city's favorite pedestrian bridges, the one that goes across Lady Bird Lake and alongside Lamar Blvd, was built as a way to cover a pipe that moves the sewage generated by the high rise condos out of downtown.

The path of rich people's shit can be traced all over the work I do as well, which is currently to create a non-profit for cemetery rehabilitation and sustainability. There are two cemeteries in Austin that have sewage leaking into them, and as they are no longer generating income, no one is concerned with cleaning them up.

Somehow, I have found myself wading into this river of fundament, trying to 'build a bridge' between the current plot owners and the city to re-route the sewage in order to connect the space with potential future plot owners.

 I was explaining this to a friend a while back who asked me objectively why the shit was an issue. I answered honestly: it's really not. Objectively, we could have shit running over graves or through downtown but we're not conditioned to like that. And most importantly, I am not conditioned like that. This stuff is disgusting to me, I can't even handle it when coworkers talk lovingly about potty training their babies. 

But it is a good reminder that on some level all this shit talk is acceptable. I aim to get there.

Dallas 2016

Planning a holiday trip around a murder scene should have been my first inclination that I was out of ideas in 2016, but it took six days in Dallas to really get the point across. I had agreed to end the year there with my folks, who would be flying in from Iowa via Omaha. The last time I went to Dallas I wasn’t all that impressed, but agreed to try again because I wanted to see Dealey Plaza, a desire shared with my dad who has never been able to reconcile first hearing of the place as a 5th grader.

I finally decided there was no other way to get to Dallas than on I-35, in my own car. For weeks I debated in my head about renting a car in Austin, or taking a bus to Dallas and getting a car there. My mother had emailed to tell me she rented one just in case. The day before I left I texted her to cancel it, which was the most communication we’d had in weeks. Time took up my time. I wondered what else I’d have to say when we were all together.

I leaned into my own fantasies about being stranded along the interstate as I vacuumed the floor mats which were covered in mud from various séances in the woods I’d grown accustom to having this year. I was averaging two days of 20 minute meditation a week and struggling to accept the fact that my feelings were my choice, the most adult thought I’ve probably ever had.

Low grade car anxiety is not reality, but it ends up creating one that looks like pulling off the road a lot.

I heard about George Michael at Buccee’s in Temple. I put his music on shuffle and hit repeat on Freedom90 a few times. You can’t help but wonder how people die; can’t help but wonder if they saw it coming or not.

I was unsatisfied with Dallas right away, unable to grab more than a few brief glances of the glowing skyline while I weaved through the downtown exchanges. I waited in the cell phone lot at Love Field and tried to write a few sentences in my journal. I only had a few pages left; I wrote so little for public consumption in 2016. Early in the year, when I met my boyfriend's father for the first time, he asked where I was from and if the Klan was bad up there. I decided then that I was just going to listen.

Carrie Fisher was alive when we started the tour on the sixth floor of the book depository. I held the tour device to my ear and listened to an overload of information about the 60’s, Kennedy, Oswald, Texas, investigations, conspiracies, bullets, eye-witness accounts, books, brain matter. I saw two “X’s” on the pavement causally driven over by daily traffic. To the East I saw the sight of six more murders. When I got cell phone service back Carrie Fisher had died.

To save from drawing conclusions we went to the George W Bush presidential library which is something of an art gallery showcasing multi-media work desperate to make a point. Multiple screens play videos clips of his speeches that create ambient lines of a poetry about insecurity, “There’s no going back/Pride turns into prayer”.

Bush paints to relieve stress and it shows. Ted Kennedy also painted and I saw that, too.  A bunch of daffodils for Laura Bush. I saw “Love, Forgive, Evolve” painted on a garage door of a house at White Rock Lake as we rode our bikes along the path. I caught my parents in a few cute pictures in between their intolerable bickering.

I dreamed of cutting my hair off while drinking cocktails, pouring liquor straight down my throat and wading through clear water with my skirt in my hands. Warren joined me toward the end of the week and together we tried to see the Jenaro Goode pieces at the Goss-Michael Foundation but it was locked and surrounded by memorial bouquets. Shekhar Bhatia, a journalist from the Daily Mail who was parked in front of the gallery, waved us over and gave us the information. When someone from the gallery did appear, he took off away from us exclaiming “No Comment” before any of us had a chance to ask questions.

If you don’t want to talk about it, 2016 was your year. The troubling avoidance to recognize pain or meet each other where we were really at, not just at the show or the bar or the reading or the conference or the debate watch party or the protest or the voting booth meant we would have to acknowledge that some of us couldn’t quite make it there all the way.

We spent the last night in Dallas at an arcade where men in wranglers and cowboy boots played rhythm and fighting games alongside teenagers in hoodies and piercings. I died immediately in a shooting game that had a lagging frame rate but I couldn’t even blame that for my early demise. My avatar spent the entire game staring at the wall while being bombarded by bullets from all sides. Warren told me to look out but I couldn’t even turn around.

On the drive back to Austin, we stopped in Killeen to see Warren’s dad, a disabled veteran of both gulf wars. Our arrival woke him from his afternoon nap but once awake he was uncharacteristically playful, a heartening sight given that he just started chemotherapy again. Who knows where that energy came from, but I did realize I’d been chasing down that holy ghost for the past year, trying to figure out what motivates me.  I don’t expect that to change in 2017.