Looking for Our Names

“Looking for Our Names” by Stephanie Khattak. Mixed-media watercolor, ink, gouache and acrylic tape collage.

We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.

Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.

Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.

It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.

We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.

But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.

As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.

I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.

There is a light and it never goes out.

When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)

There is a light and it never goes out.

My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.

There is a light and it never goes out.

Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”

It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”



*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too:

Shiny, Happy People

“Shiny, Happy People” by Stephanie Khattak. iPad Pro and Apple Pencil using the Procreate app. Animated in Photoshop.

I had a friend, let’s call her “Michelle.” We were always mistaken for twins although we were polar opposites of each other. She is blonde and tan, I am pale, with very dark hair. If she is California, then I am New York City. Or Transylvania.

But, we are both tall and we went everywhere together. Like Gori and Washimi in the anime “Aggretsuko.” (We wish, haha.)

Michelle and I discovered the “alterna-kid” lifestyle at the same time, which coincided with our year on the Pre-Drill dance team.

On Pep Rally days, we had to wear what the general population called “chicken suits.” They were about what you’d expect for a small town school in the early 90s and by that I mean MODEST and poorly-fitted: a loose, polyester leotard with puffed sleeves and a high neckline, topped by a full, circle skirt that was too short to lay right and too long to be flattering or alluring in any way. And they were really, really yellow, accented with purple, including purple bows in our fluffy, teased hair, which didn’t really help with the chicken comparisons.

By the third month of high school, we had made cool new friends: guys and gals who wore plaid, combat boots and thrift-store t-shirts. Most days, we wore these things too. (Sporadically, since our parents had just spent money on “normal” back-to- school clothes that they wanted their money’s worth out of.)

But on Pep Rally day, we were were two baby chickens in a cloud of bats. We were “alternative,” dammit! That wasn’t going to change just because we sometimes had take a break from stringing beads and scribbling penciled Morrissey lyrics on the sidewalk to shake pom-poms and kick our legs in formation.

Maybe we weren’t the only “alternative” kids on the dance team, because some of our show pieces were choreographed to alternative rock. Including R.E.M.’s “Shiny, Happy, People,” complete with Happy Faces on sticks. Although it’s possible that someone in charge just didn’t have a firm grasp of irony (some say the song is based on Chinese propaganda posters.) Or, maybe they did, and Michelle and I weren’t the only ones sneaking in small rebellions back then! Who’s to say, really.

Anyway, fast-forward to that May, neither Michelle nor I were chosen to advance to the varsity squad. I would like to say I was too cool to care, but I wasn’t. I was devastated! I believe I may have even fallen to the floor, “railing at God” style.

We had practiced for hours! We had shown leadership and displayed team spirit! We had done everything that was asked of us! Maybe we weren’t the best, but now it was implied that we were among the worst? Just because when we did a drill turn to the left in our auditions, we ended up facing each other? Or some other minor offense? No way. It was a bitter pill to swallow.


But here’s what happened after that.

We continued to hang out with our friends, having adventures and those minor, essential, thrilling rebellions. We had more time to explore our personal preferences, discovering more different types of music, books, trends and movies that weren’t really mainstream in East Texas. We developed our own unique tastes and perspectives.

We had more energy and mental space to pursue other extra-curriculars that we really enjoyed, like Future Homemakers of America. We fit in and excelled there, volunteering with special needs kids, competing at conferences and learning life skills that I, personally still use.

I even tried out again the following year. I didn’t advance that time, either, but my life was much more full and diverse then. I was briefly and appropriately sad, and then hung up my dance shoes for good to focus on other things.


In the big picture, Michelle and I weren’t meant for the dance team, and that was okay. First because it had to be, and then because it just was.

Taking a cue from Stipe and co., eventually we took that disappointment and “Put it in (our) heart where tomorrow shines.”

There’s a saying about “gracefully letting go of things not meant for you.” At the time, I didn’t let go of that part of my life as gracefully as I should have, but in my defense, I was 15 and kind of dramatic histrionic.

But maybe Michelle and I weren’t meant to be “Shiny, Happy People,” ironically or otherwise. Maybe we weren’t meant to be two more chickens when we had other lives waiting just outside the coop.