The first coffin I carried weighed 1,000 pounds.
Struggling and slipping under the gravity of it, I thought only of Mouse Hunt.
Do you remember that movie? There is a scene where Nathan Lane is carrying his dead father down the stairs. Before they make it to the hearse, he drops the recently deceased. The body races down the stairs, smashes into a fire hydrant, and is launched from his box directly into the sewer.
This is what I assumed would happened to me. (Despite the absence of stairs, fire hydrants, hearses, streets, or sewers).
In my mind, Granddaddy would be launched in the air NOT wearing a suit, but in the mustard-gold Vanderbilt Commodores sweater I always remember him wearing.
Later I learned my presence as a pallbearer was mostly for ceremony and I wasn’t carrying much weight at all.
Turns out 132-pound teenagers can’t be counted on to haul dead people.
It probably seems like I talk about death a lot these days. It isn’t intentional.
Even now the voices of internet gurus echo in my head:
- “Is this on message for you?”
- “Is this really part of your brand?”
- “Can you really build loyal readers if you talk about depressing things?”
- “How is this convincing someone to buy your books?”
And the answers are:
- “I don’t know”
- “I don’t know”
- “I don’t know”
- “It probably isn’t”
Since that first funeral, I have carried dead family members on at least 4 more occasions. I guess I have exactly the right temperament for the job — my emotions are stable, my expressions are non-threatening, I can be counted on to not make a scene, I can successful cry a single tear for the occasion. But even with my experience at the job, each coffin feels heavier.
You would think I would get used to the weight of a life lost.
Grandaddy never saw me graduate and Pawpaw never saw my wedding and I never got to see Inez to Florida and Emily never sang with me and Mawmaw’s best efforts never persuaded me to shave my beard. I never made a copy of my book for Bill to read and I never had a real conversation with Peyton and Chris will never come by my house for Halloween again.
These things aren’t regrets, exactly. But they are a reminder:
Ghosts and art are part of the same process.
Those gone from my life form the foundation of who I am. They directly impact my thoughts and actions. Their memory is indelible.
This phenomenon is not confined to just me.
Frida Kahlo carried literal scars from polio and bus accidents and a broken back. Her ghosts can be seen in her painting.
Julie Cameron suffered through a divorce with Martin Scorsese, then slid into alcoholism. Her ghosts can be read in her books.
Amy Winehouse watched the small, quiet life she envisioned for herself vanish in the wake of The Industry. Her ghosts can be heard in her music.
We react to pain by contracting. It’s not our fault, really. When a wound is inflicted, the body races to cover it up so it can heal.
The spirit often reacts the same way because we do not want to get hurt again. In our safe little cocoon of indifference, no tragedy can befall us. (This is of course complete illusion because tragedy is not an event. It is a condition of being alive).
Instead, the proper reaction is to expand. To say “Yes! I felt this! It hurt! Now look at it!”
You think the work you do is small. It won’t get you on national television. It won’t earn you millions of followers online. This may be true.
But, as it turns out, none of that matters.
Your creation is not a piece of content. It is a vehicle for healing.
Today, I will beg: Make art. Honor your ghosts. Do it now.
It is the most important work you ever do.
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