The Undertaking

By Thomas Lynch

UndertakingThomas Lynch describes himself as an internationally unknown poet, though my impression is that is fake modestly for the sake of the mild joke, since from his own accounts he seems relatively well-regarded in poetry circles. More importantly to this memoir-of-sorts, he is a third-generation undertaker in a small Michigan town. I was looking for some insight into how undertakers view death when they deal with it daily and in such a practical way. Lynch kicks the book off with a treatise on funerals that can be summed up with his repeated phrase, “the dead do not care.” It is occasional humorous, but more often, uh, bracing, like cold water or a slap in the face. It isn’t really a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one.

That is, until he goes off on tangents on wider subjects, and his old-white-maleness starts showing. Sympathizing with a friend’s divorce, he bemoans how the ex-wife seemed to just callously stop appreciating poetry idolizing her body. I started side-eyeing the author a bit there, but he really gets going at the end of the book. A lengthy screed against assisted suicide, stemming from a more interesting description of his brother’s post-mortem cleanup service, veers way off course into anti-abortion territory with a wide variety of willfully ignorant arguments that made me dislike the author quite heartily. The glib snarkiness that had seemed darkly funny at the beginning became pretty nasty towards the end.

The Good Death

By Anne Neumann

The_Good_DeathThis book was way more depressing than I’d anticipated, and I already knew it was called The Good Death. Author Ann Neumann was inspired to research and write this book after she spent a year caring for her dying father. After he passed, she wondered whether he’d had a ‘good death,’ and what that even means in our world. I was interested to read it, of course, because I have some questions about that, myself.

I was looking for a more personal, introspective look at what death means in our lives and how we judge other people’s death, but Neumann is a journalist, and quickly veers off into wider-scope political and institutional controversies around end-of-life care.

After a brief personal introduction of Neumann’s inspiration, the book begins with looking at end-of-life “comfort care,” and how the health care and legal industries define the boundaries of palliative care vs. medical intervention. Because her father had mentioned it as he declined, she discusses assisted suicide, analyzing the arguments made by advocates and protestors. This leads Neumann to further explorations on forced feeding, capital punishment, and disability activism. There are clear linkages between the topics, but the book feels a bit loose and tangled as a whole. It asks a lot of questions and inspires a lot of thought on difficult topics, but doesn’t reach many conclusions.

She does weave personal stories throughout, initially from her experience caring for her father and later as a volunteer with Hospice, and those parts were the most interesting to me, her witnessing the ends of different lives, but also the least deeply explored. I imagine that the journalism experience that benefits her when untangling legal documents and political arguments perhaps hobbles her in more personal reflection.

I was glad to read it because it inspired me to really explore some of my assumptions around life and death, but I finished the book feeling that everything was just in a bit of a mess, and there was no clear way to fix things in the future.


DCEagleCamOn a more cheerful note, I am completely entranced (possibly to an unhealthy degree) by the DC Eagle Cam, live-streaming an eagle family of two adults and two eaglets nesting in the National Arboretum. The adults are such good parents, and the eaglets are completely precious and growing quickly!

Gabriel: A Poem

By Edward Hirsch

Perhaps I should add a tag for “mourning” here? I feel like I readreadread as much escapist nonsense as I can take in, but then suddenly get jerked to a stop by some book that looks like it might address my reality in an important or useful way. I saw this headline from NPR on my facebook feed: “A Poet On Losing His Son: ‘Before You Heal, You Have To Mourn’”, and I thought, that sounds promising; I don’t feel like I’m healing much at all yet – maybe I just need to mourn some more.

I’m actually not that big on poetry, either; I have great respect but little understanding for it. The following excerpts caught ahold of me, though:

Some nights I could not tell
If he was the wrecking ball
Or the building it crashed into


Like a spear hurtling through darkness
He was always in such a hurry
To find a target to stop him

Turns out this…was not an easy read. It has taken me two months to get through 78 pages of short lines of poems (and an additional month to post about it). I’ve been reading other books, too, of course, because I couldn’t bear to take this one on my commute with me. So, I read a few pages at home until I needed to stop and then I waited until the next day.

I truly don’t really get poetry. Even reading this, I don’t understand how Hirsch has managed to capture so much of what I’ve been going through more accurately in like 15 words than the various prose books have in pages and pages of text.

Hirsch dedicates the majority of the poem to describing Gabriel and their history together. And there were so many similarities: Gabriel was adopted like Thomas, was raised in an upper middle-class and highly academic family, and had serious teenage rebellion that included drug use and short stints of homelessness.

Toward the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his own mourning, and there were even more similarities: the desperate practicalities that have to be done even though you are barely holding yourself together, the agonizing over what you were doing the exact moment your loved one died, what you were doing just before that when you could maybe have done something to prevent it instead.

Yeah, this was a tough read, but a lot of the lines continue to echo in my head, and I know that I will read it again in a year or two, as well, when hopefully things are a little better.


Leftover Life to Kill

By Caitlin Thomas

Book CoverJoan Didion mentioned this book in The Year of Magical Thinking, saying that when she read it in her 20s, she was exasperated with what she felt was Caitlin, Dylan Thomas’ widow, wallowing in self-pity, but that she could relate better now.

I was immediately struck by the name, because at times it describes my own feelings perfectly: how on earth am I going to get through the potential decades I have left when all of my plans for the future involved Thomas?

Unfortunately, Caitlin Thomas’ own strategy of alcohol, drugs, and shallow affairs while living off others’ charity in a small Italian villa is not the most helpful, and I have to admit to agreeing with 20-something Didion, that Caitlin’s raging against the world gets to be a bit much, even while I often feel similar myself. I would say that the entire book reflects my state of mind at the very worst 10% of the time, an emotional state of impotent rage and self-pity and self-destructiveness that I spend the rest of the time fighting against.

The most important piece of awareness this book did bring to me, though, was gratitude for the job that I often have to drag myself to with a combination of internal threats and bribery. I was occasionally resentful of Didion’s freedom from the need to work and juggle finances during her own recovery, but Caitlin (I’m avoiding calling her Thomas for obvious reasons) describes the emptiness of her days and her need for any sort of task to fill them (though she also refuses to find one), and I recognized that my work has kept me on a more structured path than I would have been able to create for myself during this time, and I am (grudgingly) grateful for that.

So, while the book was eventually worth while reading if only for that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not particularly interested in the subject matter for one reason or another. Caitlin most often comes across as the stereotype that shows up in Austen novels and other period pieces of that time, always complaining of the ill treatment she gets from everyone around her, from no possible cause, since she herself is nothing but kindness, and would be more than happy to be of assistance to others if only she were in a better condition to do so.

I also had some doubts that I would even be able to finish the book, since Caitlin has an incredibly difficult writing style, which uses punctuation marks in very strange ways that actively block comprehension. Semi-colons are often used where comas should be, and comas are just sort of haphazardly thrown in wherever, along with the random colon and hyphen, as well. I eventually decided that I wasn’t going to get so hung up on reading comprehension, and instead was simply going to charge through the book at 50 pages a day and I would simply settle for taking in whatever I was able to at that pace, and that ended up working fairly well.


The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion

Book CoverOn Wednesday, March 19, I sat in the living room and wrote my last post on this site, while Thomas, my partner for almost eight years, lay down for an afternoon nap that he wouldn’t wake up from. Thomas had been quite ill for several months, and I thought I had to some degree prepared myself for any possible outcome, but the immediate implosion of one’s life is literally unimaginable. There is no way to prepare for this, and no way to understand it without going through it. I don’t have the words for what the past couple of months have been like; everything seems insufficient.

A couple of weeks later I ran across a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I went back and forth on whether to read it; I wasn’t sure I was ready, but a phrase on inside blurb resonated with me: “This powerful book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the ‘weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness…about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.’” I felt so cut loose myself that even reading those words felt like a stabilizing force.

The Year of Magical Thinking describes the year in which Didion’s adult daughter almost died of a sudden blood infection and her husband did die of heart failure. She describes her various emotional states, along with research she did around the psychology of grief. I could read this book when I rejected more direct help books because I could experience her story at a little bit of a distance, even while I felt “yes, this is exactly how it is” at the same time.

It wasn’t always the same, of course; it couldn’t be since grief is so personal. I also had to remind myself that Didion writes from a world of great privilege: both she and her husband are renowned authors, very comfortably off in both finances and independence. They had top-quality medical care, and Didion was able to spend all her time and resources with her slowly recovering daughter and her own slow emotional recovery. Several times I had to decide not to get resentful of what she had, but instead to take advantage of what she was giving—a thoughtfully written account that kept me from feeling quite so isolated.

Several people expressed concern about reading this book right now, since it is not an uplifting or inspirational story. However, the reality is so much worse that her words were soothing and comforting. She doesn’t have any answers because there aren’t any. Didion simply gave me a way to define, and then begin to accept, something that still often seems indefinable and unacceptable in a very literal sense.