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On Grief and Ghost Ships
A month and a day ago, on Lundi Gras, a member of the Krewe of Dead Beans approached me as I watched the marching group walk down the street and handed me something. When I looked down, I saw it was the Death card with red beans glued on the back.
Dead Beans, afterall, is a marching krewe that pays honor and tribute to the dead, decorating their blazers and dresses and pants and tuxedo jackets with intricate portraits of those who have passed, shaped out of black-eyed peas and kidney beans, white beans and black beans, lima beans and split peas and, sometimes, rice. They begin at the bayou and walk through the streets of the city, brass bands playing tributes and dirges, people on the sidelines watching them pass.
But when this woman handed the card to me and I realized what it was, part of me recoiled and wanted to hand it back. Because while the Death card can be about death, the hard thing that undercurrents all our lives, oftentimes, when it appears in a tarot reading, the card is about something that scares me just as much or even more: change. Radical change, rebirth, a complete reorganizing of life as we know it. What Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön refers to as the condition of being alive: continually being thrown out of the nest.
A stranger handed me the Death card. And now the card is resting on the altar of my beloved dog Maggie who has been gone from this world now for a year and a half. It sits beside a packet of marigold seeds handed to me by another member of the Krewe of Dead Beans.
My niece Reese, who was visiting with her family over Mardi Gras, moves like a pinball through space and through life. Her makeup and personality call her to be in perpetual movement. It’s as if her small frame simply cannot contain all her inquiry or energy and she moves around, cartwheeling through my living room and asking one question after the other. She fills the space with her voice, telling stories, barely pausing for breath. She has endless excitement and zero impulse control. She is seven.
When she was over at my house visiting and I turned my head for just a moment, she shouted out, “What’s this?” And I looked over to see she was holding up the small carved wooden box that holds Maggie’s ashes. My stomach lurched.
“No, Sweetie, please put that back.”
Her sister, Ellie, still very high energy but more subdued by age and introspection, was also there and turned to look at me.
“Those are Maggie’s ashes,” I told them. “My dog who passed away.”
“You burned her?” Reese said, with Pixar-character big eyes.
I muffled a burst of laughter while I thought about how on earth to explain cremation. And how to do so without overstepping conversations about death and grief better handled by their parents.
“Well, you know how sometimes people die and they are buried in the ground?”
They both nodded.
“Other times people are cremated into ashes and their loved ones either keep them or scatter them somewhere that meant something to the person who passed.” I was so stunned by the moment, I didn’t give the best explanation. But it satisfied them and they were quickly on to the next thing.
Earlier that same day, at my parents’ house, I told the girls about the movie Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and they were deeply curious. So after watching the two short videos that initially went viral, we later made sundaes and curled up on my couch to watch the full-length film. I’m an only child so my cousin has made me an honorary aunt and I take this role very seriously.
I had seen the movie and was aware that a big part of the plotline involved reckoning with grief. Maybe the whole of it. Marcel the Shell lost his family in a freak accident, the human couple staying in Marcel’s house went through divorce, and Marcel’s grandma, voiced by Isabella Rossalini and also in shell form, dies. So I was planning to stop the movie before that point but my cousin and her husband picked them up before we got to that point.
But the next day, Ellie and Reese couldn’t stop talking about Marcel. They imitated his voice and had already memorized catchphrases. They wanted to finish the movie.
I told my cousin Amy that the grandma dies.
She said, “Well, one school of thought is that kids can handle more than we think.” She and her husband were both fine with it.
“Good,” I said. “I just wanted to check with y’all before.”
The girls were jumping up and down, ready to watch.
“Just so you know,” their dad said. “There are sad parts.”
Reese stopped and looked up at me. “What happens?” she asked. “Does the grandma die?”
And then she said something about how when something dies it's still with you. And I think she then told a story about squashing a bug before flitting away.
“It’s funny how she thinks about death,” Ellie said. At ten, she understands better its permanence.
“Well, she’s younger than you,” I said. “She doesn’t understand things in the same way.”
So we watched the movie.
“Aunt Lisa,” Reese said. “Will you warn us when the sad part is coming up?”
I told them I would.
And they were okay. And they loved the movie. And I watched them watch the sad parts and understand. And I thought about how I loved sad things when I was little: because they matched how I felt sometimes on the inside, because they made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the knowing that things don’t always turn out okay, because they gave me an opportunity to feel.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ghost ships of my life. Cheryl Strayed coined the term when she wrote under the pseudonym Sugar for an advice column at The Rumpus. Her memoir Wild wasn’t out yet, she hadn’t skyrocketed to Oprah Book Club fame, and nobody knew who Sugar was except that she was a writer who used narrative and culled the experiences of her own life to speak kindly to those reaching out with hard questions and deep aches.
In one column, where the person writing in was contemplating the choice of having a child, Strayed wrote about the ghost ships of our lives, set to sea. All the routes not taken, all the paths unjourneyed, all the selves unfound and unexplored. The metaphor conjures an image for me of a wide open sea on a foggy morning and the faint silhouettes of all the ghost ships named could’ve been. In one ghost ship, I am married with a family and I am ushering those kids through life in the way I too infrequently and with less responsibility do with my nieces or the niblings that have been born from friends’ partnerships. That ghost ship knows what it means to have experienced being pregnant, growing a whole other being inside my body. I bandaid knees and pack peanut butter sandwiches. Someone cries out Mommy when they are in the depths of their hurt and pain and they are calling out for me. The ghost ship where my books are already published, sitting in stacks in every bookstore. The ghost ship where I tour the country playing music. The ghost ship where my parents are proud of me for entirely different reasons than the ones in this life. The ghost ship where a loving partner of twenty years massages my shoulders at night or makes us a meal before we do the dishes together, playfully flicking foam at one another before falling into an embrace, after all those years of knowing so many different selves. So many ships. All the versions of my life that could have been.
We all have these ghost ships. We hold within us not only the selves we are and have been but the selves we could’ve been, the selves we are yet to become, the selves beyond our own limited imagining.
I watched Everything Everywhere All at Once again weeks ago, before it won the Oscar. The last time I saw it was in the theater. Over a year into the pandemic, masked and alone save one other person in the empty theater, just having recovered from a terrible bout with Covid-19. And the film was hard to follow–my brain still foggy–but I remember feeling shattered by it in the most wonderful way. I remember weeping.
And I thought about Evelyn and the disappointment of not having life turn out as you thought. Of the ways tiny decisions move us in different directions into very different iterations of ourselves. And about how, after all, after everything and every universe, all Evelyn wants is to spend time with her daughter and husband in their run-down laundromat. It turned out that the most important version of her life was the one she was already inhabiting, but she couldn’t have known that before the cracks in everything let her see what was possible and return.
I have read much about how when you lose someone, especially a parent, what you miss isn’t the most dramatic adventures or memories, it’s the simple things. The act of being together, eating a meal. Or being able to call and talk about your day. It is the ordinary that makes up so much of our life. So it makes sense that the ordinary is what we would pine for most. The smell of someone’s perfume. The particular shape of a loved one as we hug. The sound of their laughter. I have a friend whose father died years ago, and I was also friends with her father. He was a yoga teacher and a member of my meditation community. Often he would clear his throat and cough in this totally disruptive way–filling the room with a scraping sound. He died quickly from cancer and what my friend said in the wake of his passing was that she would give anything to hear her father’s stupid annoying cough again. The things that annoy us in life become the things that remind us so intensely of someone's humanity in death. No, that’s not right. These things remind us of their particular humanity: the they they were. Those specific pieces are what make us feel most connected. They are the definition of that person alive.
When I’m not writing, I feel stopped up and it is because the feelings have nowhere to go. I feel things so intensely and without an outlet, I hold it all in my body. There simply isn’t enough room. When I write, the page is a channel, a lowering of the dam instead of the disaster of a full bursting. To feel is a beautiful gift and also a responsibility to be cared for.
What we all need is more room to feel deeply and totally. Without judgment. Without being told we are too much. Because our death and how we feel about it is so wrapped up with how much we want to live. I think part of what being middle aged and seeing all my ghost ships out on the sea has shown me is that I don’t want to die having held back from living. I want to make extraordinary moves. I want to feel it all.
So welcome to The Feelings Union. This is a place to feel deeply and to acknowledge what it means to be in the world in a skinsuit with a thrumming heart. I’m really glad you’re here.
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