Sitting shiva, but not in a bad way

About a year ago, I went out for Indian food with C. and Marin County Mike, and we ended up talking about mourning, funerals, and the disposing of remains. Fortunately, I haven’t had too much experience lately with the loss of close relatives (or friends, who are tthe relatives we choose to have), so I was mostly listening. C. and Mike both agreed that having an actual burial, with a coffin and everything, gave the death a physical presence that allowed the deceased’s loved ones a sense of closure, a tactile measure for which they could use as a springboard to move on. I argued gently that, actually, I want to be cremated, and have my ashes strewn over White Rock Lake, and that seeing both of my grandmothers put into the ground—paternal in July 2004, maternal five months later—did not help me in the grieving process at all. Again, though, I was mostly silent.

The conversation, however, got a mental marble pinging around in my brain. There’s something I don’t understand about myself one bit: Whenever I have to buckle down with a project, particularly an intellectual one, particularly one that requires lots of reading and writing, I say that “I need to sit shiva with it.” As in: “I can’t go out to the movie tonight, C. I’ve gotta sit shiva with this blog entry on avantgarde film.”

Now, I know what sitting shiva actually is, and I have a great deal of respect for the practice. (Although seven days seems a bit much.) So why has this been buried in my mind as the go-to catchphrase? I can’t even remember when I first read of or heard about it. I’m not Jewish, so it wouldn’t have come up in daily conversation. Yet I use the phrase regularly. What’s the deal? Do I consider intellectual exercise a sort of mourning and, if so, for what, exactly? Surely there’s a Hebrew or Yiddish phrase for intense study and reflection.

In any case, I fear I’m being terribly disrespectful to bonafide Jews, which is not my intention. Frankly, I usually associate intense study as pleasure, as an invigorating affirmation of life, so I’ve managed to turn shiva’s meaning completely around. But it’s fascinating how we borrow—and abuse—words and phrases from other ethnic and cultural traditions, and incorporate them to our lives, regardless of how well they fit or what the original contexts were.

Back in February, I was serving on the screening committee of a local film festival. One afternoon, the group of us popped in a DVD to be judged, which turned out to be a documentary called something like “Atlanta on the Down Low.” Usually, we gave features at least 15 minutes to grip us, but this one’s handheld video camerawork, de-saturated colors, and murky, unstable sound, and plodding narrative drive had us groaning from minute one. “What is this going to be about?” someone asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I responded. “We’re an edgy festival. This one’s gonna be about gay black males in Atlanta.” People looked at me quizzically and rolled their eyes until, five minutes later, it became painfully apparent that this was going to be a bad documentary about gay black males in Atlanta.

Ah, white people. The majority of the screening committee had been using the term “down low” in its most generic form, but it had a specific connotation in the black community long before articles about furtive, complicated African-American homosexuality began appearing in newspapers in 2002 and 2003. Silly me—I thought its original meaning was common knowledge by this point.

Again, culturally specific terms become diluted until they’re safe to use at-large, and the original content has been dissolved. I hope I’m not contributing to that trend with my use of “shiva.” All of this is to say that I’m sitting shiva with a few work-related manuscripts this month, along with fine-tuning a couple of projects of my own—I’m keeping the latter on the down low for another four weeks or so.

So, excepting the monthly “Out and About” and “Quick Hits” entries, you’re probably not going to see much of me until mid-September, after the Toronto International Film Festival is over. I’m not saying you won’t hear a peep from me—I just came back from my annual sojourn to New Orleans, with my little brother in tow, so there’s stuff percolating—but don’t expect much. Check out the sites to your left, or even my greatest hits. See you (relatively) soon.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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