Happy Halloween, boils, ghouls and non-binary spirits. Welcome to the Return of the Newsletter. Not only I am sending one for the first time in a few months, I've decided to resurrect a feature from the very early newsletter days: regular essays. This month's essay is seasonally appropriate. Following that, I've got some links to website posts, new photos and the latest podcast episodes from the Jen digital empire. (If you're looking for my regular round-ups of recommended internet articles and reading/watching/listening notes, those are now on my website and linked below.)
Thanks for hanging around. Reach out and let me know how this newsletter strikes you and if there's anything else you'd like to see more of—or less of, but I'm way better at more, so temper your expectations about less.
Last week I went to Graceland Cemetery. It is a historical burying ground and arboretum that has been sprawling quietly on the north side of Chicago for more than one hundred and fifty years, covering well over a hundred acres. Wide paved paths wind around swathes of graves and trees. In its center is a large pond; in its southeast corner is a reclaimed prairie. While you can still be buried in Graceland, it is more typically a hub of active life, circled by walkers, runners, photographers, painters, portrait posers, and dogs, all grounded in the silent conviction that nothing ever really goes away.
I went to Graceland last week to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather and take photographs of its vaults and headstones against the autumn trees. But it probably would be unusual to wander a cemetery and not turn to deeper thoughts, and lately, anyway, I have been thinking about the specter of death. Not in any sort of specific way, but as an element of the world that we rarely confront directly, unless we have to. It’s most accurate to say I have been thinking about thinking about death.
Graceland Cemetery came to be in the general era of the Victorians, and the Victorians were aces at thinking about death. Even the practical American breed of Victorians seemed to face it, and fetishize it, more than we do now. This cemetery is full of elaborate monuments and heartfelt headstones, not to mention the scenery. It was designed as a garden to be enjoyed by the dead and the living alike, and I find something essential in the acceptance of both experiences as parts of a whole. It is in itself a memento mori, a reminder that death is inevitable. Life in the face of death is what life is. The richness is defined by the shadow, and you have to pay careful attention to the shadow to comprehend the full shape.
Modern society has partitioned off death, making it untouchable and unknowable. We largely live in the denial it will ever happen, except in the inconsequential abstract. There is a mutually exclusive binary: death, bad; life, good. But how much good can you get out of boundaries that were designed for avoidance rather than significance? Life is good, but not because death is bad.
Recently, I have seen many dire predictions and expectations for the world as a whole. Systems are crumbling, safety nets are snapping. The painstakingly balanced foundation of much of modern life is showing cracks. But the responsive outpouring of pessimism confused me. I realized that I have always known that I live in a broken world. As far back as I can remember, everything was broken: homes, bank accounts, bodies, jobs, relationships. I assumed everything beyond that was broken too. It never occurred to me that I was only supposed to live if the world around me was intact and functional. It never occurred to me that life was supposed to be anything but finding hope in the cracks and building what you could anew, even if what you built would be swept away again. That was just the deal. It was a disadvantage of circumstance that has turned out to be a blessing of perspective.
Maybe it is the sort of perspective that sees peace in a cemetery and restorative symmetry in its extremes. It’s the sort of perspective that carries around its own memento mori and uses its fear of the dark as constructive material. Things break and die and so do we, but the fact of it is far less frightening than the consequences of not accepting it. And to thrive we have to do more than accept it: we have to face it, celebrate it. Live with it. Everything always goes away, and that will always stay just the same.
Over the past month, I posted two lists of links, books, movies, television and other items of note at my website:
I also posted some new batches of photos:
Over at the Quiet Little Horrors podcast:
- We tackled the wild world of Hag Horror with episodes on Strait-Jacket and What's the Matter with Helen?
- For the lead-up to Halloween, we shifted things up a bit and talked about the fun of horror movies while covering The Tingler and then shared a couple of our favorite horror movies we've never talked about before.
On the occasion of Cecilia’s nineteenth birthday, Mr. Woodburn proposed an outing to the conservatory, and because Cecilia could not produce any plausible and also polite excuse not to, we went.
There is a new short story up on my website. If you would like to read a dark little gothic-tinged tale, take a turn with "The Artist at Work."
Stay safe, stay spooky.