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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

I Walk Among the Living and the Dead

Michelle LaFrance

Table of Contents

Keywords: depression, anxiety, writing, death

Categories: Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place; Reflecting on Academic (Over)work and/or Precarity; Disability, Illness, and Survival (When the World Doesn’t Want You To); Writing the Process of Writing

Content warning: death


We walk every day in the cemetery.

Through the long winter, we wend between the damp-stained headstones, crypts, and cenotaphs. The sky is slate. My little chihuahua—a bolt of blonde energy, trotting and zooming over the uneven ground. Me—one heavy foot in front of the other through the sleeping yards and on brick lanes.

This essay—a series of vignettes—ruminates on these days of learning to work/live/move during the winter months of the Coronavirus pandemic of 20-21. It is at once a mediation on productivity. . . it is at once a refusal of productivity as I once defined it.



Bobby, my little dog, and I are members of the K9 Corp, a membership-based group of dog walkers who are allowed off leash access to Historical Congressional Cemetery and its 35 acres of burial grounds. Congressional Cemetery has been a fixture of the DC landscape for over 200 years; included in L’Enfant’s plans for the city. Yet an active burial ground and registered as a National Historic Place and a National Historic Landmark, the cemetery is the resting place of a long list of DC and national notables. Cenotaphs for congressional leaders, as well as memorials for gay and lesbian veterans, Indigenous, and African American figures dot the landscape.

In recent years, the cemetery has also become a neighborhood center, hosting a number of community-focused functions each year that I only sometimes attend, such as theatrical reenactments of the lives of those interred at the cemetery, goat yoga, family movie nights, and neighborhood happy hours in the public crypt (no longer used for the storage of bodies). Environmental and apiary activists have installed a chain of bee hives and are deep in research about wild bees on the grounds, while educating guests visitors about the importance of native species, pollinator habitats, and sustainable practices.

But, most famously, Congressional Cemetery is home to the 600 human and over 700 canine members of the K9Corp.



In March 2020. . .

Spring break. And then we did not go back to campus. 

The grocery was out of flour and sugar.

I bought a ukulele.



My walks become a daily ritual as pandemic lockdown stretches in interminable uncertainty and I slip minute-by-minute into what is the deepest depression of my adult life.

The rest of the day is work in front of a computer, blurring and burning eyes, isolation and 24-7 close living with my partner in a 900-square feet condo in southwest DC.

People in the city, in my neighborhood, are sick and are dying.

On my walk,

Body and breath. Respite.



Almost a year into sheltering in place—January—I can barely speak the word “depression” out loud to my partner. (A therapist would be asking me about suicidal ideations, plans, self-abuse, my alcohol intake, my sleep patterns, am I exercising? My partner just listens and says he’s glad I’ve told him, finally.)

Even then, I would describe it in passing, as if it were just a moment.

It’s over.

I’m handling it. I’ve controlled the freefall.



—Hoover’s burial plot is on the smaller side and surrounded by wrought iron fencing. His headstone is unremarkable—squat, gray, polished. There’s a black metal bench in front of the plot, for those who wish to sit as they pay their respects.

—I have heard more than one gay man in DC joke about having raucous sex on Hoover’s headstone. That’s my favorite DC-based rite-of-passage story.



While the first snowdrops poke from the frozen ground in mid-February, I begin to toy with calling my daily walk a “productivity hour”—a little bit of a “fuck you” to the ridiculous cultural messaging that I keep seeing in my newsfeeds—that odd pressure some of us are still feeling to use the extra time to create a masterpiece or become experts in a new skill. Other people are writing and crafting and making music and cooking and creatively keeping their children and families entertained. 

I am walking.

Sanity hour. A break. Hookey.

There’s an onslaught of online articles that tell me other people are also struggling with depression, anxiety, fog, hopelessness, listlessness, an inability to work. “Languishing” the NYTimes names this feeling. Equal parts inertia and angst, dread and anxiety. And finally, a VOX article I read all the way through—

Lockdown was not a sabbatical:

Don’t worry if you haven’t grown as a person during the pandemic.



—Leonard Matlovich, a gay man discharged from the airforce in the 70’s, rests just a few headstones to the east of Hoover. Matlovich’s epitaph reads, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

—People lay stones on Matlovich’s gravestone, drape it with pride flags, and on occasion leave champaign flutes and handwritten notes in tribute.

—Someone planted thistles in Hoover’s plot the year before last and they grew unabashedly. Tall, sharp and arrogant. Like the man himself.

—The bench for visitors to Hoover’s graveside is always empty.



I have never known how to write about my experiences of depression and anxiety. Most often, I’d simply prefer to hide or ignore their impact upon me and my relationships at home, at work, and in the world. It strikes me as deeply narcissistic, even spoiled and ungrateful, to complain at all about my life, my mind/body, or my work.

There’s so much in my life.

I am strong. I am so lucky.

Focus on the positives.

I have a long reserve of mantras that used to work well for hard times—“Go times,” as I’d call them:

Work the problem. Do the work.

Make it work.

Push through.  

The pandemic hollowed out these habits.

Nine months into lockdown and the written word is coming slower than ever. In fits and stops, an essay I have wanted to write for ages is dying, a book project is languishing, my thoughts will not take shape, an idea voices itself, and three finger strokes later, I am slowly talking myself out of writing anything at all.

All I want to do is write.

I cannot write.     



—John Philip Sousa’s headstone is massive—ostentatious sandy-gray-yellow-granite. There are plaques and offerings.

—Visitors leave Sousa wreaths. The Marine Corp band plays beside his grave at least once a year. Who doesn’t love a marching band?



When I walk, I am not my job.

. . . I am not my failing vision.

. . . I am not my schedule.

. . . I am not juggling 18 graduate students in a remote classroom.

. . . I am not the typos that give away my visual disability.

. . . I am not forgetting the name of a student who I have known for a year or more

. . . I am not forgetting the name of that student’s daughter who appears on screen for a few moments.

. . . I am not talking more than I should because I am in charge here.

. . . I am not trying to be a better person.

. . . I am not failing to use my words.

. . . I am not terrified that one of us will get sick.

. . . I am not straining to read the tiny print of blackboard’s default setting.

. .  .I am not my inability to sustain healthy relationships.

. . . I am not demanding the best from my students.

. . . I am not demanding the best from myself.

. . . I am not failing to meet someone’s expectations again.

. . . I am not shirking my duty to unmake this institution so that new scholars can remake it.

. . . I am not half-assing everything because that’s what I’ve got.

. . . I am not too old to be teaching any more.

. . . I am not the unhealed wound that persistently returns me to this same place.

. . . I am not the lessons people want me to learn.

. . . I am not my menopausal mind foggingfogging, what?

. . . I am not thinking, “Writers are such fucking narcissists.”

. . . I am not thinking “No one cares what I think anyway.”

. . . I am not afraid I will fail to say what I mean.

. . . I am not worried that my care for another person didn’t come through when I said no.

. . . I am not my fear that I am not smart enough, polished enough, hardworking enough to hold on to my academic appointment.

A thought is not a place, but a movement, a movement, a movement.



Online articles now ask how the pandemic has remade the workplace—will productivity rebound? Will the global economy boom? There’s concern that people are quitting their jobs or intentionally choosing unemployment. No one wants to work.

“Why Your Brain Feels Broken,” a headline in the NYTimes.

“Your ability to focus may be limited to 4 or 5 hours a day. Here’s how to make the most of them,” the title of a WaPo article.

Is it clear, as some claim, that the pandemic changed relationships between workers and employers, workers and work places, workers and work? The new workplace is promised to be be kinder, more employee-centered, and flexible.

Same shit, different day.

Am I supposed to be dreaming bigger? Where is my hunger? Why do I find the presumption that I will “grow” through this so patronizing? 

“The pandemic has made everyone think about what really matters, and it isn’t ‘hustle culture’, working around the clock or pledging yourself to your employer. . . ”



—Marion Barry’s grave is epic—a polished chocolate marble with bronze plaques and a carved likeness of his handsome, aging face.

—Barry’s grave is often visited by friends, family, and those who remember him. Former Miss DC’s visit in full beauty-pageant regalia: sashes, tiaras, and high-heeled, white, patent leather boots.



The moment I say fuckit and push from my computer to go walk is pure relief.

Not everyone has this choice, I know.



Writers walk—that’s no secret. 

Famous dead white male authors advocated for walking to get creative juices flowing—Thoreau, Dickens, Rousseau. Today’s authors remind us that our bodies and our minds are connected, that breaks, selfcare, good eating habits, sleep and work-life balance are central to sustaining creativity. . . and output.

Steven King walks.

Michelle Obama walks.

Mary Oliver walked and loved the one perfect thing that was her life.



—Last week, a grave I’d passed obliviously a hundred times, revealed itself to be for the man who mapped the Oregon Trail. I’ve already forgotten his name. 

—The gravesites of important women are harder to find, too—Adelaide Johnson, suffragette and artist, and Cokie Roberts’, news reporter. I’ve looked more than once and have never found them.

I could have been standing on one and just never knew it.



I walk in the cemetery with my little dog.

A cemetery is itself a story of life, of relations, of the collaboration that is memory. 

All those people dead this year, dying still, while I sit, writing, thinking about my writing, thinking about whether I will ever really be a writer, teaching new student writers. . .from a small desk in the corner of the bedroom. . .

The ukulele is dusty and out of tune in a corner.



It really isn’t that I don’t want to make the “best” use of my hours or my productivity.



—At the Mueller family plot, docents have posted a laminated booklet of info:

Caroline Pauline Mueller (Lena) . . . died of Spanish flu on February 3, 1919. . .Nearly 3,000 DC residents succumbed to the 1918-1919 pandemic, which killed more than 600,000 nationwide.

—What does a tombstone smell like? Why are all these statues. . . women?



A savvy writer, my goal was always to end up here, in a conclusion.

I have braided the story—cemetery, my dog walks, my depression, my struggle to write while sheltering in place, the discourses of productivity that animate our collapsing public/private spaces—to tease out their interconnections. (I have not once used the term “neoliberal.”)

What did you do with your pandemic time?

Were you productive?

Were you your best self?



. . . If I am walking. . .

Because the speedwell and purple dead nettle was in full flush on the hillside.

Because there were dandelions and witch hazel and redbud, then locust, flowering princess trees, catalpa, mulberries, plums, and service berries.

Because a quiet corner is ecstatic with the scent of honeysuckle.

Because my little dog wiggles and rolls in the clover, and barks, and runs.

Because the months and the days and the weeks and the nights and the email are all one long stretch of samesamesamesame unless I walk and see the many little signs that winter has crested, spring is edging in, spring is almost here, then here, then truly-madly here, spring is finally here.

How does that go on my CV?



Once the cemetery had no walls. 

My writing teacher mind tells me that integration here would be achieved via a final specific point. . . something about how walking at first appeared to be an escape, but in fact was integral to the processes I actually relied upon. . . 

But there I would be.

Interpolated into academic knowledge-making once more.



I walk each day in the cemetery.

I wend between the graves and memorials and monuments.

Summer has come in lush force. 

I breathe.

Weeds are overwhelming fence lines and wrought iron, tickling stones, and threading across open earth. There is big blue sky. There is my little dog, who is unstoppable sunshine and play.

The uncertainty is less interminable, the newer new normal is yet emerging. We may not be out of it just yet, or perhaps we are, or maybe no one actually knows.

Thinking too long on the realities I did or did not experience, the many graces somehow afforded me, but not others, I will find myself again without words, useless in the face of my own story and its privileges.

I am safe, I tell myself. I have contained the freefall.

The rest of the day is writing in front of a computer, this piece taking shape as I work and rework it. I write the last few words and think I may call this one done.

I will walk among the dead again today.

I will find what is living.



Dr. Michelle LaFrance invites you to join her in riotously joyful creative play to remake our institutions as we know them. She is Associate Professor of English at George Mason University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in writing, community writing, WAC and Composition pedagogy, ethnography, and feminist/cultural materialist methodologies. Her monograph in process is on the hybrid forms of literacy-as-belonging at the Historic Congressional Cemetery in DC. She teaches creative nonfiction through community centers in DC and is an avid home brewer, community volunteer, and concert-goer.

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