So maybe the pitch, the attention grabber here, is how can one possibly make the topic of “Grief, Death, & Dying,” into anything remotely a good thing? It’s so morose: it’s something that we are conditioned to avoid at all costs. Sounds like a pain in the ass right?
I took a class from the University of Oklahoma called, “Grief, Death, & Dying,”… I mean Okies right?? You wouldn’t catch that toxic negativity at the University of Texas, home of Bevo… am I right??? Or am I right??
Well needless to say, it is was one of the more meaningful classes I’ve had. We watched a documentary of how someone dealt with dying from AID’s… and how his partner also dealt with it. I think there was also a moment where we held hands for a bit… but hell, I’d rather be doing that then trying to go over Bernoulli’s Formula Equation at A&M anyway. Gig ‘em.
One of the books we read was by Margaret Craven, about the Canuck Native Americans and some dying clergy person ventured there and how they learned to accept loss. It’s a thing. I shared it with my parents. They read it and validated it’s application. If you aren’t a clicker on of the links & the pictures, here is a summary (not one I wrote mind you)…
According to the Kwakiutl people, if you hear an owl call your name, your death is imminent. When Margaret Craven’s novel opens, young Anglican vicar Mark Brian, newly assigned to the Kwakiutl town of Kingcome, hasn’t yet heard the owl, but he is gravely ill and doesn’t know it. His bishop, knowing that Mark is unlikely to live more than a couple of years, has assigned him to the most difficult parish in his bishopric, a group of remote Indian villages on the British Columbia coast, among a people who are also waiting for the owl’s call as their culture slowly dies.
When Mark arrives at the village, he chooses to observe and to serve, to be available and to be involved, always letting the people teach him and relate to him in the way they choose. He refuses the bishop’s offer of a new house to replace the dilapidated vicarage because he doesn’t feel right about asking the men of the village to transport and assemble it. He eats and enjoys the same food as the Kwakiutl villagers, and he takes an interest in their work and their rituals. When other white men come to the village, he treats them as their behavior deserves, not granting them special status because of their race. He suffers with the people and so becomes one of them. He is the ideal man for this work.
At times, this seems like an overly romanticized account of two cultures meeting and learning to honor each other, but the novel is more complex than that. The Kwakiutl, we are told, have never been at war with the white man, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been conflicts. When Mark first arrives, the villagers are waiting for a permit to bury the body of a recently drowned child. When the official from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police comes to sign the permit, he scolds them for not leaving the body where it was found, even though it was found in the water, possibly not even dead, and the tide was coming in, which made leaving the body on shore impossible. Ridiculous rules like this are just one sign that the villagers’ lives will not be able to continue as they have been. Their old ways have been pushed aside, and the world is moving on.
The inexorable march to the future is most evident among the young of the village. The teenagers all must attend a residential school at nearby Alert Bay, and whenever they return for holidays, the growing gulf between the generations becomes more tangible. Peter, one of the old men of the village, talks to Mark about the parents’ pain:
“It is always so when the young come back from the school. My people are proud of them, and resent them. They come from a far country. They speak English all the time, and forget the words of Kwákwala. They are ashamed to dip their food in the oil of the óolachon which we call gleena. They say to their parents, ‘Don’t do it that way. The white man does it this way.’ They do not remember the myths, and the meaning of the totems. They want to choose their own wives and husbands.”
He faltered as if what he was going to say was too painful to utter.
“Here in the village my people are at home as the fish in the sea, as the eagle in the sky. When the young leave, the world takes them, and damages them. They no longer listen when the elders speak. They go, and soon the village will go also.”
The overall tone of the book is elegiac, rather than angry. This is no polemic against the white man, although anger does at times burst forth, as when the warm-hearted matriarch Mrs. Hudson, grieving the loss of a young village woman to prostitution and drugs, lifts her head and looks directly at Mark, saying slowly, “What have you done to us? What has the white man done to our young?” We see then that anger has been an undercurrent all along, and now we share it as we watch what happens when the Indians are allowed to buy alcohol but can no longer hold the great dance-potlatches that were so important to the life of the community. We see the white man’s hospital boats taking care of the sick, and we see the boats taking the young away, to new opportunities and new lives. Craven never tells us what to think about all this; she just observes the events and lets readers draw their own conclusions.
Craven, a white American journalist, wrote this book after visiting the Anglican mission at Kingcome and other villages in British Columbia in 1962. Although Craven’s perspective as a white woman may have led her to over-romanticize the Native life and the relationship between the mission and the village, I was generally impressed with her approach. Her descriptions of the scenery, the rituals, and the village life give evidence to her keen powers of observation and attention to detail. Her style is subtle enough that telling details and revealing moments can easily slip right by if you aren’t reading attentively. This is a short novel, shelved in the young adult section of my library, but it’s not a quick read. I had to read the first half twice, in fact, after I realized at my book group meeting how much I had missed. But if you give it your attention, you’ll find a lovely and tragic story within these pages.
If you are still reading this, quite frankly I’m freaking surprised. So after all the f’ing around let’s get to the heart of the matter shall we? Death is just as much part of the human experience as birth is. We (as an American society) look at death as something to be avoided at all cost… and to be mourned, birth instead is to be celebrated.
In our society, we ask each other, “Hi, how are you?” The expected response? “Fine, you?” Anything but such an equivalent garners avoidance. How often do you hear as a response, “Terrible, Thanks for asking!” And if you did, my guess, for the most part, you’d tend to avoid that person and the difficult conversation that might ensue. Ewww social awkwardness. I know I would. It ain’t something I’m proud of.
So Nora… must be a Texas name. Norah Jones from Grapevine High & all and Nora here from Austin. Nora McInerny lost her husband due to cancer… it wasn’t pretty. And she started a podcast, “Terible, Thanks for Asking,” And there was an appetite for such a thing. Talking about the subject of loss and embracing Grief, Death, & Dying instead of running away from it… you’d think Goths and the music of the Cure would be the only audience for such a thing. But the podcast is wildly popular and there seems to be a demand for someone addressing this topic head on. As part of life, we all suffer loss, whether it be from the loss of a loved one, a pet, a divorce… it’s just as much part of life as gain and birth is. I remember the first time I recall my Mom, Sarah Johnson Swinney cry. It was at my Great Grandfather’s funeral as I recall. It had an impact. We had to go up front and see him and it sticks to this day. As a society we get further removed from death and loss… and seeing a loved one prepared for the viewing… we sometimes have lost that mourning ritual. Now it’s much cleaner, more removed.
So I invite happiness and all. I invite good things. But if it is toxic positivity, we must question that. If our culture wants us to only be happy and there’s a pressure to be so, that ain’t reality, that ain’t life in a balance. Death is every bit as much of the yin and yang of the human experience as life is. And to embrace that and celebrate the lives that had an impact on us and pony up to how we are really feeling at any moment in time is needed. To deny that is to deny truth. To deny the process of grieving. We all have experienced loss… change, the death of a relationship that we assumed was there for our full existence. Instead learn how to let some shit go… and when relationships fail, or people we thought would always be there are gone… don’t let it destroy you. Arrive on the other side like a Phoenix from the flame. Stronger than before from the experience.
Maybe this will have little meaning for any of you out there. Maybe it will help one soul. Maybe it will just be me BS’ing on like an American-Irish-Native American pondering on life meaninglessly like we do. I dunno….
But next time you have reason to grieve whether it be from death or dying or loss… do it your own way…. and know it’s okay to embrace a non-rosy aspect of life from time to time. Because that’s more real than always pretending to be blissfully happy.
A good thing.