Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Birthdays and Death-days, an Absence/Presence Story

I'm having a particularly difficult time writing this, because of the way in which this post has needed to inhabit a space that is simultaneously celebratory and morose. The post is motivated primarily by two concurrent events. First, today marks the one year anniversary of my plunge into the blogosphere. The second, infinitely weightier event, is the untimely passing of an old friend's father. I had concluded that the easiest, and perhaps most reverent, course of action would be to write two separate posts and to leave it at that. In the midst of my emotional and intellectual head-scratching, however, we lost Ms. Whitney Houston, which has made it feel even more important that my celebration and mourning remain intertwined. I've tried to let this potentially insensitive tension guide my thinking but, as with anything worth writing, it remains difficult.

In spite of my Danger-prone blogging pseudonym, I am very fortunate to have only experienced death in the most peripheral way. I've witnessed the death of acquaintances, friends-of-friends, and distant relatives, but never a passing in which I had real emotional stakes. Even now, my attachment to both of these losses is distant. I obviously didn't know Whitney as anything more than a diva figure (a position we shouldn't undervalue), and in the past ten years, I have lost touch with both my friend and his father (though I was once close to both of them). Nonetheless, I do feel both of these deaths, and they have both occasioned serious thought on my part. I think this paragraph treads some questionable ground, so I should be clear: my thinking centers around these two passings because of their temporal proximity, not as a way of analogizing them. Tragedies cannot be analogized; grief can't really be compared in any productive way. All I can concretely say is that both have affected me, and that my (admittedly distant) grief in both cases shares a similar affective core.

What is it about death, exactly? It wounds us, it scares us, it fascinates us in some strange way. No small part of my own attachment to death is the fact that every death I encounter reminds me of my own potential to end. In that way, my reaction to death feels inappropriately selfish, a discomfort which I find quite interesting.

Having just come from a funeral service, I am struck particularly by the awkwardness of grief, both our own and other people's. Though perhaps outside of culturally available scripts for grief, this awkwardness feels really important. Unbalancing as it is, extreme awkwardness makes us feel our proximity to other people in the most visceral sense. It underscores the fact that death organizes and mobilizes us in ways that life, commonplace as it is, cannot. Death creates strange intimacies and brings us into contact with figures from our past, friends-of-friends, and total strangers. Funerals become both a staging of grief and an environment in which these oblique and decidedly un-permanent relationships play out.

I don't have any concrete conclusions to draw/arguments to make, but I am wondering about the publics of grief and the way in which the performance of death becomes about diagraming a particular life. At the funeral, the priest proposed (correctly) that everyone present had their own interlocking and overlapping stories to tell about Mr. Rob. To me, this indicates a desire to map out a life and to account for our own (inevitably complex) intersections with another person.

At its core, though, our mourning always brushes up against celebration. Dear old Emily Dickinson wrote, "The absence is as the presence" (I cannot find a citation for this, forgive me if I've misquoted). Said another way, we do not mourn that which we did not celebrate, and mourning is celebration of another kind. And so, if feels strangely important that my halfhearted musing about death should coincide with New Queer's first blogoversary. Despite my uneven posting habits, this sustained writing project indicates a definite presence, in contrast to the sharply felt absence of death. My blogging efforts have helped bring about, or at least chronicle, a noticeable improvement in my ability to write and think, a progress that stands in opposition to death's haltedness. There's an appropriate symmetry to celebrating my blogoversary on the heels of a funeral, continuing to build and progress in proximity to death, and to celebrate every step, movement, and blog post along the way. When I die, let them pour streamers (or possibly Pokemon cards) into my open coffin.

So, I am left thinking about birthdays and death-days, about progress and passing, about the euphemisms we invent, the stories we tell, and the emotional baggage that we try to avoid. (As a short side-note, the copy of Nella Larsen's novel sitting on my nightstand has me thinking about the numerous conceptual puns we might explore regarding "passing." Why do we use an action verb as a euphemism for death, the most literally immobilizing human experience?) Mr. Rob, Whitney, you are both missed in complex and surprisingly simple ways. Happy Birthday,  New Queer. Let's toast to many more years of sporadic posting and bullshit before Will Danger finally lays his pen, his party hat, and his ten-inch stilettos to rest.

A short note for my own funeral: Drag optional, presents not expected but encouraged. In lieu of flowers, you may drop jewels/pages from Mrs. Dalloway/pogs into my casket. Whitney was slated to perform, but I guess that's probably not going to happen. Bjork, maybe? Alanis?

At any rate, here's to more years, while we have them. Let's let the late Queen of the Night sing us out: