I think a lot about death — not in a morbid way, as such, but as a sort of logical outgrowth of my cosmological beliefs. Think of it as a sort of religious logical proof:
IF we believe that the dead are still with us, or at least potentially with us;
AND we believe that it is to our mutual benefit to develop relationships with those many dead;
AND there are a lot more dead people out there than currently-living people;
THEN of course you’d think about death a lot, because your life is ineluctably braided through with the lives of those who have lived where you live, birthed who birthed you, loved who you love, worshipped as you worship. The dead are a part of the living.
I had that truth brought home in a very real and emotional way this past weekend. I was very fortunate to be a part of a production of Two Boys Kissing, an oratorio by Joshua Shank based on the novel of the same name by David Levithan. Levithan’s novel tells the story of two high school boys, Harry and Craig, as they attempt to break the world record for longest kiss. Harry and Craig’s story is intertwined with that of other gay teens, and the narration is first-person plural: the story is told by a Greek chorus of the gay dead, specifically those of the generation of gay men lost to HIV/AIDS in the height of the AIDS epidemic. In Shank’s adaptation, a literal chorus sings the story, accompanied by six narrators who give spoken exposition.
I was one of the narrators, and the task felt incredibly weighty. There’s all the usual responsibility of a performer to their audience, of course: as performers we have an obligation to bring our audience along with us on the emotional journey we are building on stage. But in addition, there’s the weight of voicing. It’s one thing to sing a pop song on stage and put all your joy/yearning/heartache/peace/enthusiasm into it, in hopes that you can transmit those feelings, through photons and sound waves, to those watching and listening. That’s hard stuff already. But to then also take on the mantle of the seer, to use your body to give voice to those who no longer have a body with which to speak, but who nevertheless have voices that long to be heard… that is, to me, a great responsibility.
And so, as so often I do, I turned to the tools of my religion. I’d hoped, a week out from the concert, to do some trance work and try to get a handle on everything, but time got away from me. So Tuesday night, our antepenultimate rehearsal, I murmured a brief prayer during the instrumental overture: “Mighty queer dead, who have stood beside me and so many others, help me to be your voice and to speak and sing truly.” That rehearsal was almost more than I could handle: I was awash in a flood of emotions rawer than I’d felt since the start of the rehearsal process, some 8 weeks earlier. I made time that night.
I won’t get into too many specifics, but: it was a good experience. A very good experience. I invited them join me in the Otherworld: “uncles, angel grandmothers, queer dead who I have never known, you who suffered and died in the 80s! You who cared for your brothers! You who survived, only to pass on later! I ask you, friendly dead, if you wish, to join me at my good fire, to share drink and friendship with me.” And they did. Over time, trance deepening, I saw shadowy faces, heard friendly voices. I remember a hand reaching out tenderly and touching the side of my face, then dropping and grabbing my hand. It was all too brief; seemingly as soon as the party began, the guests were departing, and I was left alone with only Garanus beside me. But before they left, I asked the mighty dead if they would accept me dedicating my triangle knotwork pendant to them, and they agreed with a general laying on of hands.
Saturday and Sunday I wore that pendant under my costume, and I sang and spoke with all the truth that I was able. I felt like I teetered on a knife’s edge, feeling as much as I could while keeping my composure to perform my role. I think I balanced well. But never once was I able to sing three phrases without my voice breaking: “We do not start as dust. We do not end as dust. We make more than dust.” At our birth we emerge, brilliant and shining with the blaze of life and the blessing of the spirits that surround us. And at our death, though our bodies decay and fall to nothingness, we do not fade to dust, but instead stand as beacons that glow across the veil of the Otherworld to guide and comfort and protect. In my time as a scholar and a bard, in my time as a Christian and as a Druid, I have learned many things. But this truth — that we are not now alone in our lives, nor ever have we been — is the greatest gift I know. I am deeply humbled by the opportunity to speak for the dead, and enormously fulfilled.