Tag Archives: death

the dictionary project author interview: brent hendricks

Photo by Kate Bernheimer

Photo by Kate Bernheimer


I read Brent Hendricks memoir A Long Day At the End of the World on an airplane ride, flying from the desert where I live to the swamp where I was born. And this liminal space was a fitting and somewhat eery space for musings on death and life; on the disintegration of expectations, relationships, bodies; on the apocalypse. My friend and writer Frankie Rollins once talked about how driven we are as humans to stories and to story our existence. “Look at all the post-apocalyptic novels and films,” she said. “We can’t even imagine the ending without more story.” And when we are through with these stories, we return to ones of creation. The big questions like that of our own mortality, as individuals and as a collective, jar us into story-making. I think what I appreciate most about Brent’s book is its meditative quality, returning and returning to unanswerable questions and events to try to make sense of them, to hold them to the light in an attempt at understanding. Please enjoy his interview below.



1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:


At some point in college, I think after reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoier, I decided I’d look up every word I came across that I didn’t know. This meant lugging around a dictionary in my book bag or paging through one of those giant dictionaries propped up at the library in the old days. After a while, because it took some commitment, there was a degree of ritual to the gesture and the dictionary became a kind of sacred text for me. A monkish act, in the only way I knew how.



2. What is your current favorite word?

Dark, because it feels so ancient and old-school Anglo-Saxon. You know there’s that Auden poem, “The Wanderer,” where he explicitly employs pre-Norman invasion words to create that weird (as in “fated”) Dark Age effect: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.” Doom’s a pretty good one, too, come to think of it.



3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?


Dingle, of course, because if not connected to “sea-dingle” I automatically think of dingleberry. I doubt I’m alone in this irritation. The compound word is an Americanism that, in single conflation, reveals the essential difference between the two cultures.



4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?


Well, “berry” was one of then. Remember that terrific Robert Hass poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” ending with “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”? “Berry” is also of Old English derivation and, at the risk of revealing too much, I’d have to say I used to love eating blueberries and blackberries. However, those innocent days are all but past due to the above corruption.



5. I have been reading your new book A Long Day at the End of the World: A Story of Desecration and Revelation in the Deep South. I remember talking to you about this book at a party at the side of a pool a few years ago when it was still in draft form and many of questions and ideas you expressed then reverberate through the book now: particularly the “whys” of death and life and our attempts as humans to reconcile our own deaths and the life and death of our world. I think we all have stories from our lives we need to write our way into and out of. What was at the root of your need to write this particular story?


Money, first, which I wanted more of. And second, fame, which I also callously desired. I’m really much more famous than I used to be. Third, though obviously an ancillary cause, I truly felt the gothic nature of the Tri-State Crematory Incident — the largest mass desecration in modern American history — deserved some storyline expansion, particularly as my father’s body was one of those left abandoned at the crematory site for five long years. There were bodies piled up in pits, bodies stuffed into metal vaults, bodies scattered through thick brush of a North Georgia crematory — blackly fantastic, all of it. And fourth, less overtly significant than the first three, I was demonically captured by Giorgio Agamben’s take on Walter Benjamin’s take on Saint Paul’s take on messianic time, or “now-time,” or “the time of the now.” My thralldom, if that’s what you call it, led me to believe I could project, contemporaneously, many different histories unto the present. That I could bring past events forward onto the page.  It’s a method really, a dark one, forcing me to cast onto my otherwise expiatory road trip (a terrific and rarely used narrative device) such unrelated and “shoehorned” events as the conquistador Hernando de Soto’s rampage through the South, the civil war and civil rights, environmental degradation and its consequences, the Book of Revelation, and some other botanical stuff about flowers. The causes, then, are many, involving most of the deadly sins and my own demonic possession.  It’s really quite disturbing.



6. Could you define “desecration” and “revelation”?


In ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament, “apocalypse” means “revelation.” In this context, for me at least, a revelation reaches far beyond the realm of personal insight so as to suffuse a moment of “now time” with the fullest of  possibility, while intimating, in relation to the horizon of that moment, some inevitable end-point. Usually happens if I have a second cup of coffee.


Desecration is just everything else — all the non-illuminating instances that exist outside the glow of that second cup of coffee.



7. Please respond to the following words* and definitions, picked exclusively at random for you:



hole  (hōl),  n.  [ME.; AS. hol.  orig. neut. Of holh, adj. hollow; hence akin to G. hohl, hollow; IE. base *qaul-, *qul-, hollow, hollowed thing, as also in L. caulis, stalk, cabbage (cf. COLE, CAULIFLOWER],  1.  a hollow or hollowed-out place; cavity; specifically a) an excavation; pit: as, he dug a hole in the ground.  b)  a small bay or inlet; cove: often in place names. c) a poor or deep, relatively wide place in a stream: as, a swimming hole. d) an animal’s burrow or lair; den; hence  2.  a small dingy, squalid place; any dirty, badly lighted room, house, etc.  3.  a prison cell. 4. a) an opening in or through anything; break; gap; as, a hole in the wall.  b)  a tear or rent, as in a garment.  5.  a flaw; fault; blemish; defect: as, we found holes in his argument.  6.  [Colloq.], an embarrassing situation or position; predicament.  7.  in golf, a) a small, round hollow palce into which the ball is to be hit.  b) the tee, fairway, greens, etc. leading ot this: as, 18 holes of golf.  v.t.  [HOLED (  ), HOLING],  1.  to make a hole or holes in.  2.  to put, hit, or drive into a hole.  3. to create by making a hole: as, they holed a tunnel through the mountain.


Following the medieval practice of sortes biblicae — in which a person with a question randomly opens the Bible to seek God’s answer — I’ll do my best to seek guidance in these similarly plucked words. I’ll therefore use these offerings to assist with my primary existential question: Should I actually dig a hole in the backyard and climb in it? I wonder about this a lot. I am not kidding.



ha·bit  (ˈhabit),  n.  [ME.; OFr.; L. habitus, condition, appearance, dress; pp. of habere, to have, hold], 1.  costume; dress.  2.  a particular costume showing rank, status, etc.; specifically, a)  a distinctive religious costume; as, a monk’s habit.  b)  a costume worn for certain occasions: as, a woman’s riding habit.  3.  habitual or characteristic condition of mind or body; disposition; as, a man of healthy habit.  4.  a thing done often and hence, usually, done easily; practice, custom, act that is acquired and has become automatic; hence, 5. a tendency to perform a certain action or behave in a certain way; usual way of doing: as, he does it out of habit.  6.  an addiction: as, the alcohol habit.  7.  in biology, the tendency of a plant or animal to grow in a certain way; characteristic growth; as, a twining habit.  v.t.  1. to put a habit on; dress; clothe.  2.  [Archaic], to inhabit.


Okay, so I will dig a hole in my backyard and climb in it — because, over time and with practice, the act might be “done easily” and even lead to a certain “tendency” in the ground, “as, a twining habit.” This “twining” sounds like something pretty revelatory, too, as long at can still happen to an animate object.



ten·der·foot (ˈtendərˌfo͝ot),  n.  1.  a person who tends, or has charge of, something.  2.  a small ship for supplying a large one.  3.  a boat for carrying passengers, etc. to or from a large ship close to shore.  4.  a railroad car carrying coal and water for a steam locomotive, to the rear of which it is attached.


Okay, now I’m totally confused as to the dictionary god’s will, because I thought a tenderfoot was a “novice” or “greenhorn.” Is God (or the dictionary god) telling me that I’m a greenhorn at interpreting signs and divine wishes. Are the heavens mad at me? I guess I’ll just stand out in the backyard for a while, shovel in hand, and try to think it all through.



Jute  (jo͞ot), n.  [AS, Iote, Yte: L. Iuta], a member of any of several Germanic tribes that lived long ago in Jutland: Jutes invading southeastern England in the 5th century A.D. spearheaded the Anglo-Saxon conquest.


Okay, back on track, right? Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — in naming the third Germanic peoples who originally invaded England and so helped to create all those Old English words in the first place, I think we have a winner. I should definitely dig that hole and lie in it. That’s exactly what a Jute would do.



Philemon  (fəˈlēmən), [L.; Gr. Philemon, lit., affectionate], a masculine name.  n.  1.  the Epistle to Philemon, a book in the New Testament which was a message from the Apostle Paul to his convert Philemon: abbreviated Phil.  2.  in Greek mythology, an old man who, with his wife, Baucis, shared what little he had with the disguised Zeus and Hermes.


Wait a second. What is Saint Paul (by way of the dictionary god) trying to tell me here … that I should free the slaves within me? Maybe he’s saying it doesn’t matter what I do. Dig or not dig. Lie or not lie. According to Paul — am I being directed to this? — the messianic vocation is to seek the revocation of every vocation (1 Cor 7:29-32) (Agamben, The Time That Remains), with my vocation being to wonder continually about my particular existential question. Forget about it, Paul seems to be saying. Remember there’s not much time left, which may or may not be self-evident, and which may or may not necessitate climbing in a hole. After all, and like always, there’s only the time that remains. 






Brent Hendricks is the author of A Long Day at the End of the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013).


*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition, copyright 1955


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Every year since 1975, photographer Nicholas Nixon has taken a black and white image of his wife Beverly "Bebe" Brown and her three sisters. In each image, the sisters are photographed in the same order.


hale (ˈhāl),  adj. [northern ME, hal, same as Midland hool (see WHOLE); AS. hal, sound, healthy)  sound in body; vigorous and healthy, especially as used of an older person: also spelled hail. –SYN. see healthy.


By the time I was ten, I had lost both my grandfathers. By the time I was twenty, I had lost my grandmothers too. I look on my friends who have their elders still in their life with no small bit of envy because I wish I had gotten the opportunity to get to know these beloved family members as an adult.

Our culture in this country is so youth-centered. We are anti-aging. We deny death. We deny our own impermanence. We buy creams designed to stop fine wrinkles. We do crosswords to keep our minds active. Tummies are tucked. Faces are lifted. But this is just crown molding. Structurally, we are the age we are. Our bones know how long they have belonged to this body. Our sinew stretches, our skin shifts, our faces and our minds begin to lose some of their elasticity.

Something is lost in our inability to recognize our own mortality, in our unwillingness to acknowledge the act of death as inexorable from life as the act of birth.

As we age, several things happen to us physically. Among them: our cells multiply slower. We produce fewer of some cells, like T-cell lympocytes, which help with our immunity. Other cells don’t die when they are meant to and we can be at increased risk for infection. Aging changes our responses when exposed to environmental toxins. We lose height because our discs compress, our posture changes, our hips and knees curve, our joints shift. We lose the arches in our feet. Our bodies can’t regulate temperature as easily as we age. Our weight changes: by the time we are seventy-five, the amount of our body made up of fat has doubled since we were twenty-five.

Other things happen to us mentally. With the normal aging process, not accounting for instances of Alzheimer’s and dementia, we begin to lose our memory. This process actually begins around age thirty and progresses steadily from then. Monika Guttman writes in the article “The Aging Brain” that brain weight and brain volume decrease as we age, with brain weight decreasing five to ten percent from age twenty to ninety. Other physical changes in the brain include the grooves on the brain’s surface widening and the swellings on the surface decreasing. Also, we develop clusters of dying or damaged neurons, called “Senile Plaques.”

Our bodies and minds age largely not only in accordance with our genetics and environment but with how we treat them. If we exercise and eat well, our bodies age better. If we keep active and keep learning, our minds age better.

However, whatever we do to keep healthy, inevitably, we age. We age because that is a natural part of the process of life. And as we lose certain aspects of our body and mind, we gain others. Our bodies bear the marks of our experiences in the form of stretch marks and scars and injuries. Our minds serve as containers for all the stories we have learned, the books we have read, the conversations we have had. Containers for days of celebration and days of mourning. And as these memories pile on each other, we may have less control over which ones appear, but we also have way more to choose from.

I know I am young still, but I have, even over the past five years, seen changes that reflect aging in my face and in my body. For the first time ever last month, I had an experience with tendonitis from overusing the muscles in my shoulder. And while sometimes I bemoan these changes, I also recognize that these changes mean that I have had this time to live, these experiences to live in and through.  I look back at pictures of myself in my early twenties and what I notice more than the changes in my physical appearance is the difference in my experience which seems to be evidenced in my carriage, in my eyes. So much has happened since then.

The last pose in all forms of hatha yoga is shavasana or corpse pose. Some yoga teachers say this is the most challenging pose, to lay on the ground, completely still, feet and hands facing up. In taking care of our bodies but not trying to stop their natural process of aging, we honor all that is contained within them. In doing the shavasana pose in yoga, we prepare ourselves for our final shavasana. In this position, our entire being is vulnerable. And this is how we are in death, when our lives are over and we have no more left to do. We rest.

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sco·to /sko-to/ [<Gr. skotos, darkness; akin to Eng. shade] a combining form meaning darkness

This week’s post is by writer Elena Aguilar.


prefix meaning darkness.

But it wasn’t the darkness that caught my attention; it was the light that streamed through the corridor and bounced off the freshly polished floors, scrubbed tile walls, and gleaming lockers. The light flooded the space, suggesting a way out of the despair that has long engulfed this middle school deep in East Oakland, in the flatlands inhabited by only the dark-skinned, the dark-haired.

I have worked in the Oakland Unified School District for fifteen years, many of those as a teacher and now as a leadership coach, supporting principals to transform their schools. I arrived at Frick Middle School early. I like to be early. In the last few years, this school has slowly, steadily been getting better. I had time to appreciate the generic appearance of the hallway, devoid of the tagging that will soon be scrawled on walls. The summer cleaning was complete; the new year would start in a few days.

I meandered into the office, where I met the administrator who was expecting me, where I was told: “One of our kids was killed last night. An eighth grader, 13 years old. He was walking down the street with his brother and was shot.”

I want information, I seek it out. But as the details emerge, the official and the unofficial, they make no sense, none at all; they create a sad, messy narrative of poverty and violence, another grim end result of centuries of institutionalized racism and classism. Yet the details also raise uncomfortable questions about individual responsibility, because ultimately, one man chose to pick up a gun and kill another human being. I reach for academic theories, spiritual explanations, words and meditations, but they offer nothing to quell the senselessness.

It is very unlikely that my own son, my own dark-skinned child, will be another black man killed in the ghetto. I know why my boy is most likely assured of a different outcome than thousands of other boys in Oakland. And yet, on a fundamental level, I do not understand why I will sleep well tonight while Jimon Carter’s mother will not.

scotopia:  vision in dim light; the ability of the eye to adjust for night vision.

I returned to Frick the following week. The principal reported that the opening days had been smooth, that grief counselors had been on site, and that learning was underway. “We have to preserve this place as a refuge,” I was told. “We try to keep it as normal as possible.”

Jimon was shot three blocks away on a bleak boulevard traversed by hundreds of kids every day on their way to and from school. I stood on the narrow sidewalk, imagining the body of the teenager on the ground. When he saw Jimon fall, his brother ran to get an uncle who was nearby. The uncle described holding the boy: “I wanted to see if he would flinch to let me know he was there, but there was nothing there. His eyes were closed, his mouth was open, and I saw the hole in the back of his head.”

A couple of girls approached me. “Did you know Jimon?” asked the tall one with long braids. “He was my neighbor.” They exchanged memories of Jimon and his identical twin brother, Jivon; then they listed the men they knew who’d been shot, stabbed, beaten, and “messed up” on the streets of East Oakland.

“I wonder if he saw that light when he died,” said the short one. “My granny told me you see a bright light and you just have to go into it and that’s where you get to find all your loved ones who’ve already passed.”

I had to leave. I had to pick up my boy from school. We’d walk the three blocks home, along streets lined with oak trees and rose bushes, where no child has ever been gunned down, where there are no memorials to remind children of their murdered neighbors, memorials that another mother walking her six year old home from first grade will have to explain.

Elena Aguilar is a writer and educator in Oakland, California. She writes about education for Edutopia www.edutopia.org/spiralnotebook/elena-aguilar and has a personal blog at www.elenaaguilar1.wordpress.com

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