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Death as a Work of Art

A creek in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas in the Fall. (Getty Images)

Alice Driver grew up in Arkansas in a house her father built in pieces over decades. She was raised by her father, a potter, and her mother, a weaver, as part of a community of back-to-the-landers who wanted a life of self-sufficiency apart from mainstream American commercialism. At Oxford American, she shares the story of her dad’s wish to build his own tomb on his own land. “He wanted his death, like his life, to be a work of art—a tomb he designed and filled with ceramics—and one that would allow him to define death on his own terms.”

…my sense of life and death was informed by nature. As a result, I felt only curious, at home with natural life cycles and possessed by the idea that I needed to find my place among the land and its creatures, to test my mettle…Under piles of hay, I found nests of baby copperheads, their bodies well-fed, hourglass stripes glistening. I swam across the Little Mulberry River when it was brown, swollen, angry from flooding, fighting against the strength of the current. I was raised in equal parts by my parents and by the land.

For them, buying the land was my dad’s way of committing to a different way of life than the one he had witnessed growing up. His father had a corporate job and hated it; he smoked and drank and was rarely around to be a father to his five boys. He died of a heart attack when my dad was fourteen, and at the funeral home, my dad remembers burning up with anger because, he said, “They were torturing my mother and trying to get her to spend more money on a casket because my father deserved it.” Much of his life, as I’ve witnessed it over the past thirty-eight years, has been a reaction to his dad’s life and death.

As dusk set in, he looked out over the field toward the Little Mulberry River. “This is one of the few places on the planet where I feel connected,” he said. “I didn’t want to join the system. I wanted to create my own reality, and I’m going to create my own reality on the way out too.”

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‘The Sea and Sky Decide What They Will Allow’

William Barents' ship in the ice during the third Dutch expedition in search of the North-East Passage, 1596-1597. Engraving from Peregrinationes, by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598). (Getty Images)

In this moving account of reporting her book Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World at Outside, Andrea Pitzer traces the journey of William Barents, a polar explorer who died in 1597 on his third voyage to the Arctic along with five members of his crew, in an attempt to find passage to China.

When her journey is unexpectedly lengthened, Andrea experiences both the natural wonders of the North and the shock and sadness of returning from her voyage to learn that her cousin has died, the memorial service already complete. “Joe is gone, with his PTSD, his alcoholism, his terrible jokes, and his love for so many people. He’s already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration.”

Now, 423 years later, we see the long timbers that formed the base of the shelter where Barents and his men spent months praying not to die. Blizzard after blizzard came, until more than an inch of ice built up in the cabin’s interior.

Pacing out its dimensions—roughly 36 feet long by 22 feet wide—I walk through the space where the crew huddled in fear as a polar bear rampaged on their roof, trying to claw its way in. I stand on the site of the fireplace that couldn’t keep them warm, at one point nearly killing them with toxic fumes from ship’s coal they burned. I wander along the beach where the men dragged makeshift sleds over ice and snow for miles, scavenging firewood.

Wonders keep coming, day by day. A bird lands on Sasha’s head while he’s at the wheel. We spot a polar bear running on the beach. The Arctic makes itself known to us, though not always on our terms.

The trash-studying biologists have the most worthwhile mission of anyone on the boat: by scanning the ocean and exploring shorelines on foot, they’re using equipment to map where washed-up litter is and isn’t found in the Arctic. But ultimately, the sea and sky decide what they will allow. Plans for exploratory landings can blow up at the last minute. A bear sighting or fog can kill any chance to gather data from a particular spot. It becomes apparent that my ghost-chasing forays, Alexey’s meditation, and the natural challenges thrown up by the sea will make it harder for the scientists to get their work done.

Sasha appears on deck with his accordion and begins the same Doga waltz he played before. Dozens of walruses swim to where he perches near the gunwale, on the port side of the boat. They listen, watching him. Occasionally, a small mosh pit forms, then dissolves. Mostly his audience floats before him, snorting and hawing with rapt intensity while we look back.

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‘Breonna deserved better’

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND - JULY 05: In an aerial view from a drone, a large-scale ground mural depicting Breonna Taylor with the text 'Black Lives Matter' is seen being painted at Chambers Park on July 5, 2020 in Annapolis, Maryland. The mural was organized by Future History Now in partnership with Banneker-Douglass Museum and The Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. The painting honors Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department in March 2020. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

In recounting her mother’s inability to remember her own grandmother’s name, and in considering her daughter Brianna, Louisville poet and activist Hannah L. Drake remembers and honors Breonna Taylor vowing that, “never again will a Black woman’s name be forgotten.” Read her essay and listen as she delivers her poem, “Formation” at The Bitter Southerner.

I had to search deeply for the names of Black women. I thought of my name, my daughter’s name, which just so happens to be Brianna. I thought of the name of my mother, the name of my great-grandmother lost forever, and something inside of me said, “Not today. Not now. Never again will a Black woman’s name be forgotten. Her name deserves to be remembered.” She would not be another Black woman, erased. She would not be another Black woman, similar to Alberta Jones, who never found justice in Louisville. She would not be a memory hidden underneath bluegrass and bourbon. She existed. She was here. She lived. She breathed. She had a future. And she had a name. A name that this city and this nation needs to remember.

It is in Louisville that I was reminded as a Black woman, I will always be screaming to be heard.

However, I refuse to be silent. This city, this state and this nation have silenced Black women long enough.

So, I say her name, Breonna Taylor. I say her name loudly. I say her name often, fighting back the tears. I find myself whispering her name. I find myself pausing as I say my own daughter’s name, Brianna. I find myself taking Breonna’s name in my mouth, chewing it and spitting it out boldly for the world to hear. I say her name along with the other Black women that have died and that have been forgotten in the dialogue about Black lives mattering. Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, Aiyana Jones, Breonna Taylor. Women. All Black and all women, which at times is a double edge sword — race and gender — where rock and a hard place often collide.

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Sold! On Going (Once!) to Auctioneer School

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In this fun, delightfully nerdy piece at Texas Monthly, executive editor Katy Vine attends America’s Auction Academy to practice her patter and learn how to develop and confidently deliver her own auctioneer’s “chant.”

We sold a horse. We sold Yeti coolers. We sold wireless meat thermometers, Craftsman shop vacs, trailer tires, and vintage saddles. When stomachs were growling, we sold popcorn snacks. A rum cake, made by one woman’s ninety-year-old Hawaiian grandmother, sold for hundreds of dollars. A three-speed 1921 Emerson fan and a football signed by former Oklahoma Sooners coach Bob Stoops each went for much less. In desperate times, we sold whatever we saw nearby: eyeglass frames, an American flag, a Texas flag, folding tables, a lectern—even the very microphone we held.

We were six days into an eight-day course at America’s Auction Academy, practice-selling everything in sight.

Live bid-calling is like a series of contracts, and when an auctioneer says “Sold,” accepting the bid, the highest bidder is on the hook. Therefore, each part of the chant is crucial. “A chant is made of three components: a statement, a question, and a suggestion,” Jones began. The jumbles of syllables between the numbers are called filler words. The class scribbled. The basic chant Jones proposed—the one we would employ for the remainder of the class and that would provide a soundtrack for all our dreams and nightmares—was “One dollar bid, now two, now two, will you give me two?

This chant was the “Dick and Jane” of the form, the starter set upon which we would build our own auctioneer identities. A chant is as much a trademark to an auctioneer as James Brown’s scream and Bob Wills’s high-pitched holler were to them. All chants, Jones stressed, must be conducive to rhythm, melody, and clarity, exploiting words that easily roll off the tongue…The numbers need to be clear; the filler words are there for pleasure—to add an energetic, pressing, hypnotic quality. Filler words should give buyers time to consider their next offers but not so much time that the rhythm of the chant is broken. A clunky chant could lead to a hoarse auctioneer and confused or sluggish audience members, reluctant to bid.

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1600 Days in Solitary Confinement, and Counting

Women's Prison (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images)

The United Nations says that solitary confinement, otherwise known as “restrictive housing” or “administrative segregation, is a form of torture, yet incarcerated people are still subject to this, and many other forms of abuse. At Dissent, Justine van der Leun tells the story of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris, a registered nurse and mother of three incarcerated for killing her abusive partner. Her legal team was reluctant to recount her victim’s behavior because they didn’t want to disparage a veteran. Harris has been in solitary confinement for over 1600 days awaiting a hearing. “Harris did not push the attorneys. ‘The stigma and shame of allowing myself to continually accept abusive behavior is stronger than the shame of being a convicted murderer.’”

In a solitary cell in a central Texas prison, as a global pandemic and protests raged, Kwaneta Yatrice Harris was eating cold bologna sandwiches on the better days. On the worst days, she was given nutraloaf, also known as discipline cake: a rectangle of meat, potatoes, margarine, syrup, liquified egg, and anonymous vegetable.

The food was slid through the door of a windowless room the size of a walk-in closet where Harris has been held since 2015. Eventually, she will be returned to a general population unit to serve the rest of her sentence, the estimated end of which is in 2058, when she will be eighty-six. Throughout her time in prison, Harris, like many incarcerated people, has been subject to questionable disciplinary cases brought by guards, including, most recently, the offense of “aiding” me to telephone her under a fraudulent name. She did not do this, but she is still being penalized. Punishments vary: nutraloaf is one of them; more time in solitary is another.

Harris did not work because she was in “restrictive housing,” or “administrative segregation,” which is what Texas calls its solitary confinement. In late 2017, the state announced that it would do away with solitary confinement as a form of punishment, but the reform, in practicality, only affected seventy-five people, according to a 2019 report by the Texas Civil Rights Project. Solitary has been classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days. After the pandemic lockdowns, many know this. Millions of people stayed at home for months, increasingly distressed, cut off from community. Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.

But true solitary is nothing like shelter-in-place: no quilts or sunlight, no fridges or Netflix or Zoom, no quick bike rides or walks around the block or brown-bag cocktails on the sidewalk at a six-foot distance. I’ve been told by several individuals who have lived in solitary for months and years that the experience magnifies the senses: You can smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away. You will clean every corner of your cell on your knees, which grow calloused. You’ll become desperate for touch. A woman in California kept a pet cricket and tore off one of its legs so it couldn’t leave her. A man in Minnesota nurtured a baby mouse and taught it to sleep by his head in a Folger’s jar.

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One of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s ‘Unsalvageables,’ 30 Years Later

A disabled and orphaned Romanian child lies in his bed on November 24, 2009, at the Targu Jiu orphanage, southwestern Romania, after being transfered from Bilteni's orphanage, which was considered to be the worst place for children under the dictatorship of former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu. Twenty years after the death of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the orphanages are still full of children and adults, because the regime�s policy which previously rendered abortion and contraception illegal, is still very strong in the minds of the population. (THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

At three weeks old, Izidor was abandoned at a state-run hospital for “unsalvageables” in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania — left behind by his family because one of his legs was deformed. Estimates say that under Ceaușescu’s regime, 170,000 babies, children, and teens lived in “child gulags” subsisting on thin gruel, often in filthy, horrific conditions. Deprived of loving care of any kind, those that lived were often under-developed physically and mentally, and found it difficult to form attachments with other people. At The Atlantic, Melissa Fay Greene reports on how growing up at the hospital affected Izidor’s capacity for empathy and attachment and how his emotional makeup has affected the American family that adopted him as a teen.

Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.

At age 3, abandoned children were sorted. Future workers would get clothes, shoes, food, and some schooling in Case de copii—“children’s homes”—while “deficient” children wouldn’t get much of anything in their Cămine Spitale. The Soviet “science of defectology” viewed disabilities in infants as intrinsic and uncurable. Even children with treatable issues—perhaps they were cross-eyed or anemic, or had a cleft lip—were classified as “unsalvageable.”

Neural pathways thrive in the brain of a baby showered with loving attention; the pathways multiply, intersect, and loop through remote regions of the brain like a national highway system under construction. But in the brain of a neglected baby—a baby lying alone and unwanted every week, every year—fewer connections get built. The baby’s wet diaper isn’t changed. The baby’s smiles aren’t answered. The baby falls silent. The door is closing, but a sliver of light shines around the frame.

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John Lewis: ‘Get into Good Trouble’

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

At age 80, after 60 years as a civil rights leader advocating non-violent protest for social justice, John Lewis has some encouragement for the ongoing struggle. At The Bitter Southerner, Cynthia Tucker writes about Lewis’ prolific history of activism, the people and principles that have inspired his work, and his advice to anyone determined to help make a difference.

As so many of us were, Lewis was ecstatic when Obama was elected, but he knew better than to believe that it heralded a “post-racial America.” Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013, he said, “If you ask me whether the election of Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment.’ There’s still too many people 50 years later, there’s still too many people that are being left out and left behind.”

And, so, he kept on working, casting votes in Congress for progressive causes and making speeches around the country encouraging young people to “get in good trouble.” March, his graphic novel trilogy about the civil rights movement, was on The New York Times bestseller list for six consecutive weeks, introducing the power of nonviolent protest to a generation of young folk bored by speeches and history texts. (That trilogy, by the way, would be an excellent resource for the many leaders of the protests who are advocating non-violence and for those who intercede when they see interlopers at the marches fomenting trouble.)

And what about voting as “good trouble”? In an impassioned essay in The New York Times, well-known Democratic activist Stacey Abrams acknowledged, “Voting feels inadequate in our darkest moments.” Yet she urged those sick and tired of being sick and tired to cast a ballot. (She also quoted Lewis in the essay.) “Voting is an act of faith. It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power,” she wrote.

Lewis, of course, echoes that. “I happen to believe the vote is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society,” he told me. “We cannot give up on the democratic process. We have to vote.”

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Palliative Brownies

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In this stunning excerpt from her new book “Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco,” published at Guernica, Alia Volz remembers her parents’ underground marijuana brownie business in San Francisco, California, at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Fifteen years before the first effective treatments were available on the market, “marijuana emerged as a palliative remedy for many AIDS-related symptoms, particularly for the nausea and appetite loss that accompanied the deadly wasting syndrome.”

San Francisco struggled under the highest density of HIV/AIDS cases in the western world. The first effective medication wouldn’t reach the market until 1996—fifteen years after Bobbi Campbell hung his warning in the window of Star Pharmacy….My mom joined the underground network of dealer-healers breaking the law to get soothing cannabis into bodies of those who needed it at the dawn of the medical-marijuana movement.

When my parents’ marriage collapsed in the mid-eighties, my mom and I moved back to the city full time. At nine, I was deemed old enough to help my mom bake. I tagged along on deliveries, which had become tours of sickbeds, and saw firsthand the relief our home-baked edibles brought.

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Four Stories from Wuhan

WUHAN, CHINA - JUNE 02: (CHINA OUT) The Residents sit outside for breakfast on June 02, 2020 in Wuhan. Hubei Province, China. Wuhan tested 9,899,828 residents between May 14 and June 1 in a citywide drive to screen novel coronavirus infections, according to a press conference on Tuesday. As a result, no new cases were found, with only 300 asymptomatic infections. (Photo by Getty Images)

In Wuhan, China, nine million people were in quarantine for 76 days between January and March as COVID-19 went through the city. At the California Sunday Magazine, a student, a noodle shop owner, a tech worker, and a delivery driver share their personal stories of struggle, loss, and unexpected kindness in the wake of the virus. Read the story by Shawn Yuan, and check out the illustrations by Joey Yu.

YI (A student, age 23.) My father and I went to the funeral parlor in Hankou district to retrieve my mother’s ashes. When we were standing in line, we saw a man about the same age as my father, who was likely also retrieving his wife’s remains.

I remember watching a movie about a girl who died, and when her family went to mourn her, they didn’t seem that devastated. At the time, I thought, Why aren’t you crying? Why is there still a smile on your face? The scene at the funeral home was similar. People seemed relaxed. Nobody appeared very sad. It was as though people had already been drained of their tears.

I was handed a small silver bag containing my mother’s ashes. I was shocked at how, when a body is cremated, it amounts to so little. I had chosen a wooden urn, and a staff member of the funeral home put the ashes inside and wrapped it in a red and gold cloth. After, another staff member escorted us out with a black umbrella. It was barely raining, so I asked him why he was holding it. He said he didn’t know.

CHEN (A delivery driver, age 32.) Before, our society rarely paid attention to delivery drivers. Now, it definitely knows more about us. Wuhan people are incredibly warm and generous and insisted on giving me masks: Sometimes when I delivered their order, they would throw masks down. Usually, the delivery fee is 5 yuan an order, but customers have been giving me tips — which is not a common practice in China — and now every order earns me 7 yuan. These two months, I’ve averaged around 10,000 a month, much higher than usual.

Late one night, I went to pick up noodles for a young man. I thought the shop owner had made a mistake because he handed me two servings, but it turned out that the customer had bought an extra one, just for me.

On Valentine’s Day, there were a lot of orders for flowers and chocolate. One guy, when he made his order, told me that his girlfriend likes lilies the most and requested I bring her some. I searched and searched but couldn’t find lilies, so I called him and told him. He was very understanding and asked me to buy a bunch of fake flowers instead, and then he bought me a bunch, too. I’m not a young man anymore — what’s Valentine’s Day to me? But it still made me very happy.

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COVID-19 and the Fight for Justice

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 08: People protest outside of One Police Plaza on June 8, 2020 in New York City. More than 500 former and current mayor's office staff joined with city agency staff to demand policy reforms on the NYPD amid the nation-wide protests against police brutality and racial inequality. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

COVID-19 has not been vanquished in the United States — in recent days, some states, including Arizona, North Carolina, and California have reported their highest numbers of cases to date. And yet, the U.S. Coronavirus task force is winding down and states are relaxing restrictions. Large crowds are in the streets protesting the death of George Floyd and the U.S.’s history of systemic racism against Black people. Although many protestors are wearing masks and trying to maintain distance, police protest response tactics, including kettling and the use of tear gas, can help the virus spread. What might this mean? As Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal report at The Atlantic, it means that those fighting for justice are those that may end up suffering the most.

The protests have led to unusually agonized public-health communication. They have not been met with the stern admonition to stay home that has greeted earlier mass gatherings. Given the long-standing health inequities that black Americans have experienced, hundreds of public-health professionals signed a letter this week declining to oppose the protests “as risky for COVID-19 transmission”: “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States,” they wrote. Yet the protests are indisputably risky, and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned the gatherings might “seed” new outbreaks.

Americans have not fully grasped that we are not doing what countries that have returned to normal have done. Some countries have almost completely suppressed the virus. Others had large outbreaks, took intense measures, and have seen life return to normal. Americans, meanwhile, never stayed at home to the degree that most Europeans have, according to mobility data from Apple and Google. Our version of the spring lockdown looked more like Sweden’s looser approach than like the more substantial measures in Italy, or even the United Kingdom and France. Swedish public-health officials have acknowledged that this approach may not have been the best path forward.

People partying in a pool may live while those protesting police brutality may die. People who assiduously followed the rules of social distancing may get sick, while those who flouted them happily toast their friends in a crowded bar. There is no righteous logic here. There is no justice in who can breathe easy and who can’t breathe at all.

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