Part III: Radical Maps
Talking about “mourning as an atheist” presses upon nuanced nerves. There is no singular “atheist” approach to rupture, no ritual towards which we turn in the aftermath of loss. Talking about mourning requires a deliberate lens, one attuned to the psycho-social detriments of loss in lived experience.
In Part I and Part II, I’ve been inching closer to something that I could intuit, but couldn’t quite define. Now, I’m beginning to crystallize what the “underlying mechanics by which we let go” might be, why they might be shared across religious and non-religious spheres, and why the atheist experience might be so conducive to revealing them.
In both J.Z. Smith’s and Freud’s works, ritual is crucial because it does something. When we talk about rituals in relation to mourning, we must talk about ritual as a function, not only as a performance. That functionality imbues ritual with its power, and it is that function that makes the act of striving for ritual so important. The something that ritual does traverses boundaries of belief systems to reveal a heavier human need to re-root oneself back into the world after loss. What Freud deemed a “spontaneous end” is, instead, the end function of ritual taking root.
When Ritual Goes Wrong
Every morning, Kristi and I would wake up at 7:08 am. We didn’t do this because we were early risers. We did this because our hotel room was right above Chef Mickey’s, the hotel’s premiere (re: only) sit-down buffet restaurant. Every morning, the 7:00 am breakfast seating would begin. A few minutes later, a rousing song-and-dance number would commence.
Music blared through the hotel’s atrium as wait staff, cast members, and costumed characters ran into the restaurant singing and dancing.
Good morning! Hey! Good morning! Hey! It’s Mickey time!
Kristi and I opened our eyes and stared at each other from across the room.
Hey, hey, it’s a perfect day! Time to play! *clap clap clap*
Kristi grabbed a pillow and pressed it over her head.
Oh what a day! Mickey and his friends all say—!
I dragged myself out of bed and fumbled with the in-room coffee maker. Kristi threw the pillow onto the floor and began to get ready for the day. I muttered along to the song in what was either a Pavlovian response, or the progression of fast-acting Stockholm Syndrome.
Hey! It’s a perfect day! *clap clap clap*
This routine became our morning ritual at the hotel. This routine was also a reminder that ritual is plastic: It can be magical and meaningful to some, and ineffectual to others.
Immediately after my father’s death, I was struck by how inconceivable it was that the world looked the same as it did when he was still alive. The hospital hallways still churned with frenetic movement. The mica flakes in the parking lot asphalt still glittered under the glow of the street lamps. My boyfriend’s car was where he’d left it.
Everything had the audacity to appear unchanged.
Kristi and I spoke about this liminal aftermath of loss, the space in which the world is both unchanged and forever cleaved into befores and afters. And while ritual doesn’t sew this split, it does acknowledge it. Ritual is a kind of radical mapping, a chance to chart yourself back into the world after you’ve been knocked out of it.
Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
Months before we stepped onto the plane, Kristi and I were talking on the phone, reveling in the anticipatory beginnings of the trip. “We have to go to the Magic Kingdom first,” she said. “But what are the things that you have to do there? What are the things you and your dad did that were most important to you?”
There was only one answer.
Disney’s Epcot is a strange amusement park. It was supposed to be a prototypical living community of “the future.” It was also supposed to be a permanent world’s fair. As a result, Epcot became an amalgamation of two mismatched parks: Future World (which, at this point, is not so futuristic) and the World Showcase (which becomes infinitely more fun after you turn 21 and can Drink Around the World).
Though Epcot didn’t provide the same fairy tale whimsy as the other parks, it did provide a locus of exploration that my father and I quickly adopted as our mutual favorite. By the time I was 7, we knew the park by heart. We always went on rides in a particular order. We ate at the same restaurants year after year. We went to the same stores to buy stuffed animals for my ever-growing collection.
Both my father and I loved Epcot. Maybe it was the immensity of the iconic geodesic dome known as Spaceship Earth. Maybe it was the encapsulation of the narrative of human evolution and cognition told through stories of science and discovery. Or maybe it was simply that my father loved it so much that I loved it because of him.
Epcot was our ritual, and one I was going to have to recreate without him.
“Epcot,” I said. “We have to go to Epcot.”
Kristi laughed. “Really?! Epcot?!”
“My nerdiness knows no bounds.”
Abstracted from particular theological and religious contexts, rituals that mark loss effectively map us into non-worlds. Not only do they mark the devastation of the loss of a particular person, but they also highlight the disorientation of the living left behind. Ritual affirms grief’s ability to destabilize, and acknowledges the bereaved’s leap to the liminal. In the immediacy of grief, we are jettisoned out of the narratives we’ve sketched of the world and into a new realm, one of impossible sameness in the face of blistering difference.
This is what Freud misses in On Transience. His “spontaneous end” of mourning does not happen suddenly. Instead, it is the long, grueling work of re-mapping oneself into the world from the liminal. What appears sudden is an ongoing crawl back to the “is”, the building of a new ontological narrative brick by heavy brick.
As a reward for not teaching hundreds of happy children a slew of new swear words at 7:09 am, Kristi and I stopped by the gift shop. We settled on tasteful and understated rhinestone tiaras (pink for her, silver for me), and put them on before we left.
We hopped on the monorail and, to our unabashed delight, were the only people in our particular car. We ran up and down the cabin as we snaked towards Epcot, stopping to take glamorous photos of ourselves stretched across the padded seats.
We called our friend Jimmy to tell him that we’d hit the holy grail of Disney rarities. He didn’t pick up. We texted him about 400 photos, stopping only when we pulled into the Epcot station.
The first glimpse of Epcot’s iconic geodesic dome was an affirmation of home. Though I had been fairly composed thus far, returning to a place I mapped so thoroughly with my father seemed impossible without him. I was there, but elsewhere too, sketching a line between the fog of grief and the tangible pavement beneath my feet
Kristi left the Epcot itinerary to me, which was both kind and probably smart, because we both knew I was going to be bossy as all hell.
The way we progressed through Epcot was itself a ritual, a recreation of the routes my father and I followed faithfully years before. We rode Spaceship Earth, and though we snickered at the animatronics, we were awestruck when the ride moved into a dome filled with thousands of stars. We spent hours at the park’s miniature aquarium, The Seas, watching turtles and dolphins curve through azure tanks. We rode Soarin’ and squealed as we pretended we were flying.
We wound our way towards the edge of Future World, to the pavilion with Journey into the Imagination, a slow-moving ride that celebrates creativity and features the not-so-famous-but-still-totally-awesome dragon Figment.
Outside the ride, we sat by the jumping fountains, a series of platforms that send jets of water arcing from one dais to another. My father and I always stopped there and tried to catch the water as it leapt by.
“You have to get a picture here!” Kristi insisted, pointing at the fountains and taking out her camera. As I posed by the fountain, tiara and all, I realized just how much cartography lay ahead: The fountains were one small affirmation of here-ness, one small cell of an immeasurable map. We had to keep charting our way back into the world, even though each turn was a reminder of the impossibility of remaining.
After Future World, we made our way to the World Showcase, a half-circle of miniature pavilions designed to look like city blocks of different world countries. Like mature, responsible adults, Kristi and I had decided to Drink Around the World. Each pavilion has a bar, and each bar serves drinks that are unique to its country. Kristi and I decided that consuming 12 drinks in 3 hours was both doable and smart.
We began in Mexico (Tequila!), got margaritas, drank them in under ten minutes, and immediately decided to skip the next round. We rode the now-closed Maelstrom ride in Norway, then snaked our way through China and Morocco, staring at the gleaming sunlight on the lagoon.
A Function of Rooting
Ritual is a function of re-rooting, a kind of public acknowledgment of the liminality into which grief and loss jettison us. And while the World Showcase is a strange patchwork map, there was something comforting in its familiarity: The nostalgia of the past and present maps overlapping for one brief moment before they broke, and the liminal blurred the cartography.
Ritual—regardless of tradition or lack thereof—is pivotal because it functions to do the impossible: To affirm that in the space of grief, we are both present and wholly absent, that we are both tangibly in the world and navigating the intangible terrain to make our way back to it.
Kristi and I stopped for dinner at the American Experience Pavilion and sat by the lagoon as we ate burgers and fries. We planned our next day’s itinerary. We didn’t talk about our fathers or about the absences sutured to our sides like shadows. We didn’t talk about impossibility of being in that place without them.
Maybe our notions of here-ness, of presence and rootedness, are illusory. But they are functionally necessary. The stories we tell ourselves about our world and become the maps we rely on when we falter. The work of grief is the return to once-familiar terrain, a radical revision of story and image. The movement of a parent from present to past.
As we left, the monorail curved through the park as it carried us back to the hotel. As we were on the tracks above the lagoon, the monorail stopped to give passengers a chance to see the nightly fireworks. We leaned against the window, bathed in bursts of pink and green. Suspended above the ground, we were somewhere, though we knew it wasn’t for long. It was just us and the lights, flashing prismatic in the sky.
Meghan Guidry (Harvard University) Meghan is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies bioethics, humanist philosophy, end-of-life care, and health policy. Her research focuses on the disconnection between ethics and technologies, assisted suicide, and other cheery subjects. Her interests include creative writing, swimming, language philosophy, medical sociology, and coffee. You can check out her books at Empty City Press, find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter @MeghanGuidry1.