How The Dead Teach the Living: A Dying Reader’s Guide
“all day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.”
The summer that I turned 20 I met Jack Kerouac. He didn’t meet me. Much time had passed, the earth wedged too firmly between us. I washed my car carefully in preparation, filled it with bright sunflowers, photographic equipment, Kerouac’s sweeter and lesser known books: Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax. He was a child once. His brother died. He died. I was dying, too, like everyone. Outfitted with a few interchangeable clothing items, I drove headlong up I-95 with my sister. Supported by cheap cigarettes, syrupy gas station cappuccinos, fast food bean burritos, and romantic notions of “road-going,” we crossed from Savannah, GA to Lowell, MA in one 23-hour stretch. I saw New York City for the first time, ghastly greenish smoke hovering over a monstrosity of metal and glass, all hard corners and potholes, car horns and grimaces. We bought tomatoes in Virginia. I split the flesh and sucked the seeds from them, enjoyed the wilt and wrinkle of the peel on my lips.
By morning I was sitting at his grave, too stunned to speak. He had been real as the earth is real. The ground was dry and cracked. Ants crawled from a small tunnel where his chest would be, beneath the body of his wife. I laid sunflowers for him, for her, for the friend whom he had loved so much that he married his sister instead. Always longing for home, the warm brown walls. I sat with him, sun on my neck. I sat, fingers, bones, twisted dry grass, tore a skeleton of veins from a pungent green leaf. My heart beat and beat, air heavy with impending rain as it passed through my lips. I wrote and folded a note of thanks, placed it on the hot flat headstone with many others. Rain fell. I took pictures of my sister, droplets in her hair, on her cheeks. We will never be so young again.
They understand death, they stand there in the church under the skies that have a beginningless past and go into the never-ending future, waiting themselves for death, at the foot of the dead, in a holy temple. – I get a vision of myself and the two little boys hung up in a great endless universe with nothing overhead and nothing under but the Infinite Nothingness, the Enormousness of it, the dead without number in all directions of existence whether inward into the atom-worlds of your own body or outward to the universe which may only be one atom in an infinity of atom-worlds and each atom-world only a figure of speech – inward, outward, up and down, nothing but emptiness and divine majesty and silence for the two little boys and me.
My mother and my father taught me fear of death. True to the schism of their divorce, they each adopted alternate approaches. My father implied his power to wield it, the sink and shake of a knife through the stiff smile throat of my plastic piggy bank. My mother demonstrated her power to succumb, equated the black hole of her misery with the smooth muscles of her throat, which she fed with pills and swallowed as the black hole pulsed and pulled her down, my mother, reformed in her hopelessness to imagine annihilation as something better than anything that had come to her, or would. Something in her lived despite herself, and they plied what was left with electricity and the shock of surveillance. She showered sparks for a year, returned to us later with a perm, pill packets, alternating weekend visits.
That was the beginning, the brown walls of home. Lessons accumulated until I carried my fear of mortality the way that others carried breath and bones, only I noticed.
My father taught me fear with one hand while he handed me books with the other. Alone in the long hours of the night I learned the transformative power of the printed page. Kesey, O’Connor, Salinger, Tennessee Williams, Hermann Hesse, Fariña, Kerouac. My father did not know women writers. Skewed in my visions, I imagined New York City, the stink of the Bayou, the thick of wet woods splitting open to the teeth of a saw. At 12 I moved to my mother’s, small southern town, Bible belt. I carried New York City with me, a wish of gleam and rising, the hard metal of aspiration.
My sister and I drank in graveyards, explored the dark suck of the spaces beneath others’ tongues. Pinestraw fires under bridges beside churches. Everything leading to a steeple that points resolutely up, the way that skyscrapers do. We learned to undo: bras, buckles, Bible Vacation School. We learned the power of knives, drugs, fire, thumbs. Alligators moved unknown around us, dust rising like a cloud round the tires that ground dirtways to us and away. In the heady crush of drugs, love, and deviance I forgot that I was dying, until reminded. There were many reminders: goldfish, bad trips, suicides.
On September 11th, 2001, I was 18 and living alone in Savannah. I still hungered for a greater city, a city of promise and change. When I saw the Twin Towers of New York fall I remembered death. Fireballs, the crunch of glass, the recorded and replayed running of people screaming through the streets. They jumped, so tiny. Arc, velocity. They fell. Senators singing on the steps. Who is not with us is against us, the president thundered in the dark of my living room. I remembered death, woke with it ice-cold and heart pounding in the night.
Loss is a practice. Losing a tooth or innocence, losing a lover, a parent; the passing of night. Each book read is a practice of loss: an intimacy shared between reader and the lingering arranged passion of a writer, living or dead. Terminated with the final turning of the last page, and you alone there heart pumping in lamplight, breath caught in your throat, transformed and gone nowhere. Suddenly aware of how absurdly arranged your hands and fingers and arms and feet are, stuck there under the covers, pulsing. You hold the book, wonder how to breathe yourself into the fold of the pillow, the dark of sleep. The creases in the spine testament to how sometimes you refuse the effort, revive instead the story spun by someone passed or passing.
I loved Keroauc because he talked about death, his brother’s, his own. Mortality, impermanence, dissipation as much a part of his works as exhilarated, mad-hearted joy. I read Kerouac to learn how to die, and in so doing to learn how to live. I visited his grave to know the end of the story: he did it okay, he was okay, the ants spilling from the earth. Peace there, the dry grass, the wind through the bushes, the rustle of spiked shiny leaves. Sun on my neck, I sat with him.
In this way he taught me, his words on the page like the roll of prayer pulled forth on the preacher’s tongue, a cadence that resonated with darkness and death as often as it shot up loud and blinding to speak of the point of the steeple- up, up, as gold and pulling as the gleam of fluorescent church lights on the toe of my Mary Jane shoe. Kerouac got in my skin, sent me shivering, hair rising, as his words sunk to my muscles and tongue and burst from my mouth; feet, thighs, knees moved to his rhythm as I paced and read aloud, singing with the frenzy and illumination of it all.
There are words seared like brands on the page, words that carry the force of the writer that bewitched them to contain the worries and wishes of the moment in which they were laid. From these words we learn history, possibility; we learn how to live, to love, to wish, to overcome, to die. We explore the nameless in us, the censored and queer, the rejected and unknown. We visit these books like touchstones to remember who we were and mark the differences of now, our seizures of faith, our softened edges, our growth. Good writing condenses the rolling expanse of the universe to a few characters on a page, and then inspires and expands the reader to fit it all within them.
Such books are rare, their potency peculiar to what and who we are, what we are looking for when we encounter them. I don’t read Kerouac anymore; I don’t long for New York. I am far too tired and crabby to drive 23 hours to sit with a misogynist, racist, closeted queer dead man. But I am always looking, and if I’m not too guarded, too careful, still I can open a book and see the words afire on the page, prepared to illuminate, ready to burn.
Risk is inherent to writing, to reading. The dying must walk through the fires of the dead to know who we are, why, what we haven’t yet found. “This book is a time-machine,” Anna Joy Springer said, as she prepared to read from The Vicious Red Relic, Love. All truly great books are- time machines, transmogrifiers, resurrections of ink, wood, and thread. Accept no less, give no less. Each book a link to everything we will never live, what passed before we were born. Study that, sit with it, sun, lamplight. All this too is part of you, a guide, an awakening. Wake.