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Sound & Vision & Memory

Lots of deaths last week. First Bowie, then Alan Rickman – and, maybe a notch or two lower in fame if not in awesomeness, American poet C. D. Wright. I knew her a little, so to me her death seems about as big as Bowie’s and Rickman’s.

When people die, either people we know privately or public figures who we all know, we seem to be faced with a problem that’s hard to get a grip on because it seems, in some sense, so stupid: what do we do? We get this news and we feel like we need to do something.

When my partner and I heard about Bowie, it was the middle of the night. I sort of woke her up to tell her, actually. She got out of bed and we put on “Sound and Vision” and danced around the living room. She has a special “Sound and Vision” dance where you bop around with your knees pressed together.

In some way it seems perfectly natural and human, this compulsion to get up suddenly in the middle of the night and dance around to an old recording. In another way it’s fairly inexplicable. Someone we’ve never met dies, the death will affect our lives in no way whatsoever, and we have to get up and dance? In the days following, we were all playing Bowie music, over and over, Bowie marathons. Maybe now, with Alan Rickman gone, we’ll need a Harry Potter marathon. (Actually I just paused in writing this to reserve Die Hard from the library.) And of course a C. D. Wright poetry marathon is never a bad idea; maybe now is the time.

We do more complicated things too. We suddenly remember, or maybe learn for the first time, that Bowie’s personal history is not unproblematic. We didn’t do that when he was alive, but now that he’s dead, because we feel we need to do something, we do it.

We call all of this activity “remembering.” That’s not exactly right, of course; “remembering” is something we do in our minds, but after a death we seem to be looking for things to do with our bodies and our words. It isn’t hard to understand this impulse as a seeking for formal closure to a relationship — because we have relationships with celebrities, maybe different kinds of relationships than we have with our friends, but relationships all the same. When a friend dies, we go to a funeral, maybe carve something into a rock and put it in the ground; that’s our closure. When a celebrity dies, we watch something on TV, read an article, revisit their work. It seems fitting that we turn to media to mourn the end of a relationship that existed, for us, in the media — that we turn to recordings to mourn a relationship that was always mediated by recordings. Today, of course, we have new kinds of relationships; when one of our Facebook friends dies, what do we do? I guess we post on Facebook.

And we might also feel, every time this happens, like we want to do something more. Like we haven’t done enough. We went through the ritual, did the dance, finished the media marathon, but … is that it? Is there no bigger ritual? Isn’t there some vow we should be taking, some way we should be changing our lives? It’s like all this “remembering” activity doesn’t really resolve our need for closure, but just gives us something to do until we can forget.

Next time someone dies, how about this: let’s think about what we’re doing. Let’s think about how we humans mark the ends of lives. Let’s think about how we mark the ends of relationships. And let’s think about how we mark beginnings, and middles, and other transitions. And non-transitions, the sounds and visions of every day. In other words, let’s take that impulse to “remember” the dead, and see if we can fan it into the energy to remember everyone, every thing, all the time.

That way every time someone dies, we’ll get wiser.