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Life & Death In Michigan

Do you remember that post when I was brushing my daughter’s hair and I thought What will you do, little girl, when they find your dead daddy hanging from the oak tree of his boyhood home? Creepy. I know. But the thrust behind writing that post was my need to question the substance of what I think, to mine it, explore, to find figurative gold in the literal ore. With this approach to what you think and feel, more depth accrues, life opens up in mysterious ways, becomes richer, and you might discover hidden tunnels in yourself that lead away from your constant role of literal protagonist in a static biography. The world is suddenly filled with whispered secrets yearning to be heard.

NONETHELESS, in spite of my attempt to deliteralize my goofy thought, when people heard I was going to Michigan, where my boyhood home remains, I received more than a few requests to stay the fuck away from oak trees. But I needed to see it: the house, the church across the street, Randy’s house two houses down, the bedroom window, the oak tree. But check this out:

How’s a guy supposed to hang himself from that wee thing? Apparently, my oak tree was struck by lightning and this is its paltry replacement. That little tree made me smile. Look how it tenaciously reaches. I’ll be here awhile.


You wanna see something scary?

Not everything needs to be written.


On some upper level of the mind where thought has not yet dripped into feeling, I knew that my grandpa had died and my uncle too. I heard the news. I burned candles, stared out the window, and wrote about them. But will it make sense to you when I try to explain that they didn’t feel dead until I was home? I sat next to my aunt at dinner in a seafood restaurant. But my uncle wasn’t there in a way that was stark and menacing. He no longer held his place in the town that raised him. He didn’t drive its streets or coach the football team. We visited my grandma but my grandpa wasn’t in the basement sipping scotch. He wasn’t home.

I found quiet places to sob in my hands.


God, I love my mom. She’s a little tree, origami, where I’m from. She took me to the cemetery to show me the growing family plot and water the flowers. I listened as she whispered to her mom, her dad, and her brother. It took me a lot of books to unlearn enough to speak to the dead, to listen too, but she does so instinctively, quietly, from her own gentle heart and the wisdom borne of suffering. After the flowers were watered and the stones were patted with kissed hands, she showed me this:

It’s my feet, standing on the ground reserved for my burial.

“Dance with me, old woman!” I cried, dancing on my grave, extending my hand. Surrounded by death there is still time left. “This is where things get blurry, mom.” I lectured, shaking my ass. “This is where the dead become real and we fade into fictions!” I did the robot. I did it well. “Where distinctions fall and we ALL come to dance!” Actually, I did the best I could. I lied about doing the robot well but, in my imagination, I dance like a star.

My mom just shook her head and smiled at me. “You’re crazy.” she said. She says that all the time. My mom’s blue eyes are so big and deep, you could dive right in them. She’s where I’m from.

Reader Comments (20)

As a funeral director- this makes me happy to see someone in acceptance as opposed to complete denial of their own eventual circumstances. You are very much alive BHJ.

July 26, 2011 at 4:04 AM | Unregistered Commentersep

Beautiful. Really really.

July 26, 2011 at 4:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterMisty

that's just a lovely plot. dance away, dance hard. that little tree has a lot of growing to do.

July 26, 2011 at 4:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterBon

I read this first on my phone, and I had to come and see it on my computer screen because the phone wasn't enough, didn't do justice to that picture of a Michigan house that looks so much like my parents house in Michigan.

I know just what you mean when you say the deaths of your grandpa and uncle didn't feel real until you were home, with your family. So sorry for your losses.

Dancing on your own grave...that makes me laugh. :)

July 26, 2011 at 4:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterKathryn (@kat1124)

Doing the robot on ones grave has got to be a great feeling.

July 26, 2011 at 5:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterWilliam

I recently danced at a funeral. Wept along to Dancing Queen at the request of the deceased. I didn't do the robot. My death-dancing relies heavily on the shoulder-wiggle-finger-waggle.

July 26, 2011 at 5:27 AM | Unregistered Commenterafteriris

Oh, I hoped you would write about your gravesite.

Your love for your mum makes me love you. She's where you're from ... and you're where she's from. Beautiful.

July 26, 2011 at 5:52 AM | Unregistered Commenteredenland

Oh, perfect. Ddi you see the episode of Northern Exposure where Ed agonises over what to buy Ruth Anne for her 80th birthday and buys her a grave site out in the beautiful landscape, and she goes to see it with him and the program ends with them dancing together on it? It's so gorgeous :)

July 26, 2011 at 6:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterJo

"hidden tunnels in yourself that lead away from your constant role of literal protagonist in a static biography." = Love.

Your mom sounds awesome.

July 26, 2011 at 7:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

PS re Jo's post... YES! I haven't even thought of that show in years, but that episode is amazing.

July 26, 2011 at 7:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

Man. Such mother love. Such gorgeous, enviable mother love.

Dare I say that you are lucky?

July 26, 2011 at 8:14 AM | Unregistered Commenterslouchy

Your visit home was a joy from beginning to dreaded end. Life is at it's fullest when my boys are together here. The cemetery is where I go to find peace..when missing my family is about to make my heart explode. It took me a long time after we lost Uncle Duke but it is where I feel closest to all of them again. Keep dancing, my boy, it lifts the heart and makes the spirit whole again. I love you more than life itself...

July 26, 2011 at 8:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterMom

Wanted to respond because it will add one more shout out to Northern Exposure. And of course because your writing is something I look forward to daily. Creating amazing visual images is certainly in your wheel house. Dancing the robot....indeed.

July 26, 2011 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarcusss


July 26, 2011 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterAmelia

I'm just glad you didn't do "the worm."

July 26, 2011 at 3:33 PM | Unregistered Commentermuskrat

I think it's great that you know where you will be buried. This is a topic my husband and I have discussed more than once. We have no "place" in mind. I tell him, if I go first, I want you and the boy to take a trip to somewhere wild and wonderful, take along a cup of my ashes and scatter them anywhere on that journey that feels right. He tells me he wants a big rock somewhere that has his name on it.

Beautiful piece, BHJ, and all the richer that your mom responded so eloquently. To your mom: I know the feeling, I have a son that fills my heart with a love so big I have no measure for it.

Thank you for sharing this very gorgeous stuff.

July 26, 2011 at 7:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterClare

Thanks to you and your mom for just killing me right where I sit. Thanks a lot. I'm too sensitive for this sort of thing. :)

I smiled the whole time I read, though, while you were killing me. It's a living thing, this one.

July 26, 2011 at 9:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterLaurie

Man. This... something like this just ties me up into all kinds of fascinatingly painful little knots.


July 27, 2011 at 7:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterTwoBusy

I love this: The stones were patted with kissed hands.

July 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterJen

huzzah, huzzah!

July 28, 2011 at 6:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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