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The Dead Will Talk To You Now, Or At Least Listen, In Santa Cruz

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A visitor to Morgan Brown's "phone booth" has a private, one-way conversation with somebody gone from her life. (Photo: Courtesy of The Lab)

If you could pick up the phone and call someone dead, who would you call? And what would you say? On Sunday, a pop up telephone booth in downtown Santa Cruz offers you the opportunity to answer those questions. The installation is called Conversations I Wish I Had.

Morgan Brown lost her mother in a car crash. In 2012, a big rig truck driver on meth swerved into oncoming traffic. It took Brown awhile before she felt comfortable being open about her grief. Now, she’s touring the country with her phone booth, to help others connect with their emotions over personal loss.

No, it’s not a real phone booth, and nobody talks back to you, but it does give you permission to open yourself up, in any way you see fit.

“I’ve had people talk to childhood pets. I’ve had people talk to people who are alive but they’re estranged from. I’ve had people talk to their former selves. You can interpret died or death in any way that you need to,” Brown says. After Santa Cruz, Brown will take the booth to San Francisco.

Many people will recall a phone booth famously set up in ŌtsuchiJapan where families who lost loved ones in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami could imagine they were staying in touch with them. The story is beautifully told by producer Miki Meek on This American Life.

Morgan Brown's "phone booth" brings to mind an excerpt from this poem by Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi. “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep!”
Morgan Brown’s “phone booth” brings to mind an excerpt from this poem by Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi. “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep!” (Photo: Courtesy of The Lab)

Brown insists she came up with her phone booth independently of the one in Japan. Whatever the case, the cathartic appeal of a chat with the dead is the same. Brown provides a “directory” to help get you started. “There’s a book of call prompts designed to carry you along in the conversation,” she says.


The booth in Abbott Square is part of a larger conversation the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is encouraging about that transitional threshold between life and death. Saturday, Brown hosts another pop-up, one in a series she calls “Death Cafes,” for MAH members. MAH exhibition catalyst Whitney Ford-Terry explains it’s another opportunity to normalize conversations about death and dying. “It’s a casual environment, an atmosphere that isn’t morbid and morose. It’s just an opportunity to talk about the things that are most important to you,” Ford-Terry says.

Inside the museum, another installation called Spoken/Unspoken features intimate recordings from Hospice Santa Cruz County patients in end-of-life care, like Tana, who offers practical advice. “Get your passport when you’re 16. That was a dumb thing I waited so long. And don’t wait till the end of your life to be peaceful, chill and groovy.”

Then there’s Elvira, who tells us her father was abusive. “He’s still my father. Even though he’s gone now. Never got the chance to tell him I loved him or nothing, you know,” she says, over a mediative musical soundtrack performed by A/B Duo (Meerenai Shim and Chris Jones). “You have to learn to forgive and let it go,” Elvira says, sharing what sounds like a hard-won truth.

“The opportunity to work with such powerful material was hugely appealing, if also intimidating,” says composer Lanier Sammons, who went through various interviews conducted by hospice workers, selected a subset, edited them down, and composed music to run under them. “Elvira jumps out for her willingness to talk about some very hard things in her life and to forgive, from such a genuine and vulnerable place.”

Sammons adds, “Ultimately, I came away from the process thinking that knowing the end of your life is approaching is really a gift.  The perspective the folks in the piece have achieved from that knowledge, and from processing it with hospice care and support seems so, so valuable.  I think some of that willingness to share comes from their desire to give the gift of that perspective with the rest of us – because there’s no reason we can’t operate from that place well before we know or expect that our own stories are wrapping up – and they can teach us how to do that.”

Me? I talk to dead people all the time. I like to invite them, one at a time, to occupy the passenger seat in my car, and offer comments about various goings on in my life while I commute.

But here’s my advice: pick someone you love and tell them you love them, today, while they’re around to get the message.

Spoken/Unspoken; Stories on Living and Dying continues at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History through March 25, 2018. For more information, click here.

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