ORIGINALLY POSTED AT GHOST.IO ON 1/8/2017
This blog was established on the first day of the new year, yet it’s only a week later that I’ve deemed myself of having thoughts worthy enough of christening (or profaning) the infinite white space.
In the past week, I’ve listened in full to Caitlin Doughty (of Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician fame) narrate her memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; I’ve read four different iterations of the Eucharistic Prayer inherited from Chapter 4 of The Apostolic Tradition as well as Book 8 of Augustine’s Confessions; and I’ve watched the 80s throwback bid Beyond the Gates. (More on these later)
At a glance, I feel myself coming across as a stay-at-home mom of the Oprah Book Club variety just as much as I see myself as a 2edgy teenager in a World Religion’s course. In both cases, my collective media intake is try-hard and incongruous—or so it would seem.
Of all of the grotesque and emotionally riveting details of Doughty’s nostalgia and education, the section that stood out the most and spoke to me as if I was the only boy in the world was when Doughty found her new life as a hands-on crematory operator acting out the foreshadowing inconspicuously laid out in her former life as a medieval history student (without giving too much away, the crossroads is burning babies).
I started out my English grad track being consumed by Romanticism, a passion I inherited from my Bachelor’s track, which was inherited from my abandoned degree in film. (My first set of crossroads was a chance meeting with Ken Russell, auter and re-visionary historian, director of Gothic, the hyper-sensual mostly-true account of the overlapped lives of the Shelleys + Byron.) Over time this matured into a focus on Frankenstein. But after a hurdle in my academic progress, a suicidal meltdown at the top of the ivory tower, my track changed yet again.
My final thesis in my MA was on the attraction to and the repulsion from the the impression of the corpse in literature and in sculpture. I was cheeky enough to call my opus ‘Sculpture as fetish: the conflict between thanatophobia and necrophilia in aesthetic literature’ and to share a segment of it with my peers at a student-run conference (which I was part of the board of). What this meant in real life was that I was The Dead Marble Butts Guy. (Much of my research revolved around the monument of a drowned P.B. Shelley which is infamous for its hourglass figure and pert derriere.)
My mental breakdown and suicidal tendencies followed me into the last act of my first graduate degree. I was being groomed for the PhD, but I didn’t have the certainty in me to follow through. The PhD, to me, was billed as a competitive, unfriendly and voracious gladiator’s pit rather than the fellowship of communal scholars that was advertised to me in Classical paintings of the great teachers. I applied for college teaching jobs stateside and hoped that being a working professional would be a more gratifying and fulfilling application of my knowledge and experience than the PhD circle pit. In my mind, I was going to be part of the cultivation of new young minds and the ensurer of enriched and awakened lives.
I had no delusions about the difficulty of teaching, as I was surrounded by other teachers throughout my grad track, nor was I (having immediately started work mere weeks after my commencement ceremony–which I skipped out on) out of college long enough to be removed from the student’s mindset. Even such, I could not have ever anticipated the trauma of the college environment from the instructor’s pov, nor was I prepared for the words that came from the mouths of proverbial babes.
In my first year of teaching ENC 1101 alone, I was a confidant to students’ anxieties about work, finances, probation, sexuality, gender, physical and emotional abuse at home, failing relationships not to even mention anxieties about the coursework itself and the topics we broached in class. I was a bystander rendered helpless by campus inaction to a student who brought a gun to school, threatening one of my actual students during class time (outside of my classroom, mind you), and a perpetrator who attempted to rape another student (not one of my own) outside the elevator to one of the main buildings. In both cases, school security handled the issue with resentment and begrudging effort to the bare minimum procedures; in the case of the former, the investigation was dropped within hours, in the latter, a non-descript blank email with a .pdf attachment was sent en masse to faculty only.
The 2016 election cycle brought a whole other sense of dismay to my professional life when I realized that several of my students, bright and affable young things, who had gone out of the way to befriend me on several social media networks after having passed (for the most part) my courses had also gone out of the way to vote for Donald Trump. Suddenly I wished I had been one of those ‘problematic professors’ who actively pushed a leftist agenda in my classroom, since I was already on the shit end of the stick as an out LGBT professor. And while there were other factors that contributed to my realizing that I couldn’t stay committed to teaching, but the Professor Watchlist was where I drew the line. Unlike other academics, I can’t see landing on the PW as a rite of passage or a badge of pride; in an age of campus violence in a city ravaged by mass assaults by gun, particularly those targeted at the LGBT community, it’s a target on my back.
By December 2016 I was a student again, this time as a theology candidate. Although at best I’m a quasi-wandering Jew with a Catholic stint in my pre-pubescent years with a penchant for Satanic imagery, theology felt like the right step. It was also the perfect complement to a mental health counseling degree and certification and the necessary amalgam to create the perfect pedigree for a Bereavement Manager.
Here I am. The threat of dying in Trump’s America chased me back to death’s door.
But there are fantastic things happening in the end of life care and death care communities, much of which can be seen in following the highlights of the Death Positive Movement, things that motivated my passion as an English MA candidate and things that I’ll (hopefully) actually be able to enact as a theology student and counseling professional.
If that alone doesn’t motivate you, dear reader, to bear witness to the rest of this blog’s testimony, then maybe at least the curiosity of wondering how the listed readings contributed to my train of thought will encourage you to read beyond this inaugural entry…