At a Stranger’s Funeral

The back of the pew is the only thing holding up your spine, and so you bear the discomfort in silence. The sounds of mourning hang around your head like the sheet of hair you chopped off that day you decided you were looking for a reawakening. How does it feel to attend a stranger’s funeral? It feels like someone close to you died and everyone forgot to tell you, so that when you got home and saw the slippers still perched at the threshold of the door and Our Daily Bread folded on the bedside table you didn’t suspect anything. The deceptive warmth of the mug of coffee in the kitchen and the indent in the cushion on the left side of the sofa led you to believe that this did not happen. This is what it feels like to attend a stranger’s funeral. It’s something like waking up in a hospital bed and reaching to scratch an itch on your arm only to snag your nails on the threadbare bed sheet. Or maybe you lost everything in a fire, except it can’t be because you are cradling an armful of your grandmother’s faded photo albums, and your mother is smiling at you from a sepia-tinted frame, and so are your aunts and uncles, and they have a dog called Popsy, and your grandfather is calling you to sit on his lap and tell him what you learnt at school today. So the smell scratching the walls of your lungs must be the egg you left on the stove because you had your face buried in a romance novel. You did not just come back from a long day spent in traffic and your house is still upright and not crumbling around you. Your arm is still there, and so is the person you loved, and so is the armful of ash that you insist on calling your memories. And the edge of the pew is digging into your thighs, but it is actually the side of your bathtub. It is 1am and you are in your apartment that is empty of everything but an overnight bag and the comforter that has been passing as your bed. You supposedly have “amazing things” ahead of you but right now all that exists is your naked self shivering since the towel dropped to the floor about four wails ago, and your phone won’t stop vibrating and lighting up. You don’t pick up because you have run out of ways to steady the wobble in your voice. So you will reach for their arm, or your arm, or that one treasured pile of ash that used to be a family portrait. You are not really here and everything is as it should be.

6 thoughts on “At a Stranger’s Funeral

  1. Reblogged this on she who writes reality and commented:

    Speaking of “hiding” behind fiction…

    I wrote this blog post at the end of a very odd few months. I had moved to a new city two days after my college graduation, and would spend the summer working retail before my graduate program began in September. One of my closest friends, someone I had known since age 10, was on her way out of this new city as I was on my way in. She had also just graduated, and we only got to spend a few weeks together before she moved on to her own uncertain post-grad life. The only other person I had been close to was someone I had to keep convincing myself was best kept on the distant edges of my life, so as not to let him back in. I would wonder for months if that was the right thing to do.

    I was drifting around this new city, a strange half-version of myself that I couldn’t recognize. I’m not simply attempting to romanticize my story, to riff on the lonely girl in the big bad city narrative. I mean this literally; I often felt like I was outside myself and observing me from a distance as I

    sold beige clothes I couldn’t stand to (mostly) beige people I could tolerate only a little more, and was somehow good at it (?)

    took the “T” to random places in the city and walked around to see what there was

    wondered if it would really be so bad if I was no longer around to sell the beige clothes, or sit on the T, or take up space in the world

    It may not sound like it, but I also felt a lot of moments of contentment, and being at peace, especially after spending 4 years always within arms reach of several people in college dorms, with hardly a moment to oneself.

    This blog post eventually turned into a short story with the same title, recently published in Blackbird. (You can find it here.) It was the first story I turned in for my first MFA workshop after my strange, isolated summer, and it felt a lot like dying to have a group of twelve or so strangers debating “What exactly is going on in this story?” because I couldn’t answer that myself. I would soon find out that most of graduate school, apart from the more scholarly and theoretical classes and sometimes even then, would consist of strangers picking through the disjointed pieces of your life you dared to share, to find out which bits would make for the best story with the highest “stakes.”

    Now, I don’t think about dying as much I did then, or rather not in the same way. I’m again in an odd position, at the end of my graduate program with a job I adore but will probably not be able to remain at beyond graduation, and a recently found love for teaching as much as it can drain and exasperate a person. I have also found that my mind is not vast enough to contain the worlds and lives I have come to know and create through all the reading and research I’ve done. I need to get them out.

    This post-grad uncertainty feels a lot more acute, against the backdrop of political leaders who are trying to killing us in many of the same ways others have before, but just more boldly this time. My main priorities are to do the thing that keeps me living– to write– and to find a way to use that to access the material things that make living possible, ie. to be paid to write, or to do something else that keeps me clothed and fed so I can write when I’m not doing that other work. Even as I continue to focus on this writing I love with every bit of myself, it’s frightening to face all the external pressures that dictate the metrics of your success: institutions that place rubber stamps on your forehead and on your novel pages, being followed/retweeted by the *right* editor in hopes of the much sought after follow up email, being recognized “at home” as more than someone begging for Western attention and so on. I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding as if I harbor bitterness for these things, because I don’t, not necessarily anyway. I knew going into graduate school would afford me access to people and places that I may or may not have had without it, but I am still frightened by the latent, ugly competitiveness, at times seeming like less of a community and more of a collective clamoring for elusive spots in the *right* journals or on the *right* podiums.

    You would probably click out of this page if I said I didn’t want to be read, because me and my writerly ego definitely think my work is worth reading. This blog wouldn’t exist otherwise. I’m writing for myself, but I love that my mother and aunts read me, that old school friends I haven’t spoken to a while read me, that acquaintances and internet strangers alike see echoes of their own struggles with mental health and other things in my words. That’s more than enough for me.

    I simply want to be left alone to do this thing that I love, this thing that keeps me living, to write, and to do it as often as I can and need to (which is everyday) and to do it as well as I can.

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