Driving in Michigan
Grief, tie-dye, and "after"
It is difficult to identify people in the time of Corona.
It is especially difficult to identify people in the time of Corona when you are new to a place, and you have befriended people who are also new to said place. I speak from experience: last Friday, when I went to go for a late-night workout with one of my buddies (FYI, this gym requires 3 vaccine shots, masks, booked time slots, and has 30 foot ceilings and air circulation. I believe in both science and the pandemic), we could not find each other.
I arrived a little before she did, in order to warm up a tetchy shoulder. By the time I had transitioned from the warm-up area to the main gym, however, there was still no sign of her. I had just sat down on one of the communal benches to drink some water when I realized we were right across from each other. We grinned masked grins and waved; a moment later, she was settling next to me on my bench. “Hi!” she said. “I couldn’t find you! I was looking for tie-dye!”
Her words sent me into a private free fall. I knew exactly which tie-dye my friend was talking about, but it wasn’t just that. I wear it, I have it, I’m used to people noticing that I wear it. It was the fact that no matter how much time has passed, I forget that my relationship to that tie-dyed shirt, and others like it in my bureau at home, is for the most part entirely unknown to the people who observe me wearing them.
The item in question is a tank top that I dyed in either 2012 or 2013. It’s not my best work: the striping is horizontal and a little wonky, and the temerity of the dye (the colors have HELD) can only offset the homemade-ness of it all so much. But I love it. I work out in it regularly, wear it at least once a week the moment outdoor temperatures sneak past 65 degrees Fahrenheit. There is an inordinate number of photos of me in jeans, sneakers, and this tank top. It is also so old, and so well-worn, that it smells terrible. Truly, I am a crime every time I wear it; for the good of humanity, I need to stop trotting out this ancient, sweat-tattooed piece of cotton, and put it in the trash or give it to a textile recycling project. But I know I won’t. This happens with all of my tie-dye. There is a lot of it. I have had it for many years. A lot of it reeks. And I cannot, will not, get rid of any of it.
Fifty percent of me comes from the state of Michigan, though I am not technically “from” it. My father grew up there, and it has been the home base for his siblings and their kids (my cousins) for decades. Many of my aunts and uncles and cousins live there now, or are working on moving back. I also went to college there, and have friends all over its perversely two-state-sized sprawl. As several of my fellow non-Michiganders who have wound up living there often observe, “god, it always comes back to fucking Michigan, doesn’t it?” It’s true. “It” does.
Michigan’s infrastructure is, at best, a crapshoot. The winters are brutal, the summers heave with heat, and there is not enough money to keep up with the repairs that this swinging climactic pendulum necessitates. The roads in particular bear the brunt of things, falling prey not only to temperature shifts but the scourge of salt from October until April. One of the state jokes I learned while living in Michigan during undergrad went, basically, “you can tell if someone’s a drunk driver, because they’re driving straight.” To drive in such a way that you might be able to preserve at least one of your car’s axels, you do often end up driving in Michigan as though you are intoxicated. Even more so in winter, because then, there’s snow on the ground and you’re depending solely on your memory of where potholes are in the road and the efficacy of your snow tires. It is universally understood, however, that the road will win eventually, no matter how good your memory is; cracks are going to keep on surreptitiously surfacing in the asphalt, opening their mouths and swallowing your front tire. It’s just a matter of when, and how badly.
Grief is not unlike driving in Michigan.
The year I turned thirteen, one of the grandkids in my dad’s family— one of the cousins in the generation I’m a part of— died in an accident in northern Michigan. He was nineteen. It sucked the air out of the world. Life got rewritten, family got rewritten, all without his parents, siblings, peers, community, or extended relatives having a say. And it would take years for the intricacies of those rewrites to really bear out; what disappeared, and what stayed. One example: he was a hockey player, and roller hockey was a much-loved part of extended family get-togethers, cousins and uncles crashing around on a beat-up tennis court every summer. After 2005, the hockey games fell off. Other examples: certain music got played at family gatherings, certain other music didn’t. A weird, underlying quiet would make itself apparent in the middle of a seemingly unremarkable moment.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I really recognized these changes— patches of white noise, dark masses with a pull like that of a dying star, phantom moments over a shoulder— for what they were: the infrastructural disruptions that are grief in a life. We had shared this loss as a family, sure. But also, it was not at all shared; we each had to navigate our individual Michigans, drive in VERY different winters and on very different, grieving roads. His parents and siblings were navigating something that uncles or aunts or cousins could not fathom. The aunts and uncles were driving through grief that was alien to the cousins. We cousins were floundering somewhere else in our proverbial vehicles, totally lost. And while sometimes our routes crossed, or we hit matching potholes, the same metaphorical snow storm, more often than not we each had to operate on our own.
The only thing that is the “same” about grief, as it is experienced across all people, is that it is both demandingly loud and cruelly mundane. Whether it’s the death of a person, the death of a relationship, the loss of a future, the hopes had for ourselves or someone else— whatever form grief takes, it alters everything yet demands that we carry on as though nothing has happened. Beyond that, most similarities split. We’re all left casting around, trying to move forward as the tomorrows and their sharp teeth— the roughest parts of the road— demand to be paid their due, over and over again. We hope to stumble across a kind tomorrow, a stretch of better-paved road. Catch a break. But it’s hard. I think of kind tomorrows as one of the white whales of grief; miraculous, but elusive. Often, they are happened upon when least expected, particularly in the early days of loss. Then again, sometimes, they can be conjured: a good thing in the wreckage of “after” can be brought to life, if everything lines up just right. Which brings me back to the old, tie-dyed tank top that got me started on this whole internal trip:
Somehow, in the midst of the first weeks of their grief, my cousin’s parents managed to bring a kind tomorrow to life. And to share it with the rest of us.
When the extended family gathered in Michigan— actual Michigan— the year we lost my cousin, my aunt and uncle invited us all to join them in tie-dying for a morning. They suggested that doing it together every year could be a way to remember their son, their children’s brother, through something that he had enjoyed. To say that this idea stuck would be grossly misstating the reality: tie-dying swiftly became a focal point of the familial culture, summers bursting with loud primary colors and over-dyed pajama pants and hands that stayed purple for days. By the time I got to college five years later, I know that I, at least, had become notorious amongst middle school, then high school, classmates, for the regularity of my tie-dye wearing (I have to imagine many of my cousins were similarly known). This continued as I progressed through my degree. And even once I started working after school, I would occasionally wear one of my tie-dye shirts on Fridays, under a button-down cardigan or oxford shirt, paired with “good” slacks and “good” shoes.
I can tell you where I have worn specific pieces, when, and why. This particular shirt, I wore over my competition suit before each major rowing race I medalled at at U.S. Nationals. That pair of shorts, I wore almost every day in my first week of dorm living at Michigan State, trying to feel normal in a setting that felt like a foreign country on a foreign planet in a foreign galaxy. I know where the tie-dyed handkerchief that each of us received at the most recent family wedding is in my apartment right now, amidst the many boxes I still have not unpacked since moving to Canada. I can tell you about one of the long-sleeve button-downs I wear while trying to do online graduate school, and about how it was one of my early attempts at dyeing something bigger than a t-shirt. About how, that year, my cousins referred to the weird, spotty dye jobs that we kept producing as “contagion” patterned. The tie-dye is more than just something that the family has gotten surreally good at over the course of our time navigating grief (some of my cousins are artists with it now). Tie-dye is, for us, a living memory of loss and what has come after. It makes me think of Kay Ryan, and one of the many perfect poems in her catalogue. “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” asks why there is no permanent record of the millions of mundanities that comprised Ryan’s partner’s life before they died:
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
be so hard. (Ryan, The Niagara River)
As I look at it, the tie-dye sort of allows us, as people who loved and love my cousin, to keep a record of the whole story in such a way that what is centered is a celebration of a life. Even in the context of irreparable loss, and the ludicrousness of navigating an emotional geography that knows neither maps nor timelines, we have evidence of a life’s grand and damaging parade. Several of my cousins have children, now, who make tie-dye, wear tie-dye, too, lengthening the parade into new territory. It’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance, honestly, seeing the act of remembering carried forward by a generation that cannot remember. A generation that, unlike ours and our parents’, only carries the “after” of loss. They have no knowledge of “before,” which is maybe a new addition to the infrastructure of grief; the relegation of loss to time and memory. I suppose that’s what getting older is, at any age, in any stage of life. The grief changes, but never disappears. As I said at the top of this essay, Michigan is stupidly huge— none of us are going to run out of road.
But I’ll tell you what does run out in Michigan: winter.
Spring is an impossible hallucination of color, summer is a saturation of blue and green, fall is something I cannot give you in words. There is a time, in Michigan, where you can see the road in front of you and also the sun. Especially in the north, where my cousin grew up. Especially there, on the lake, in the breeze, all of the earth alive.
There are roads there, and then, in Michigan, and I firmly believe that all of us have a right to them. To be able to hurt less, and to breathe more, in the after that is grief. To somehow glory in our own grand and damaging parades, wearing the tie-dye or being alive or whatever the hell it is, even if it’s just for a second. For an eighth of an inch traveled on a Michigan road.