Embracing the Skeleton and Opening the Door.

Admittedly I get lost in my thoughts when big things happen. I think it’s natural, to an extent, at least for me, and probably for a lot of creative types.

I don’t consider myself a strong person. I’m not overly brave. I do what’s needed, and I’ll admit to having the tenacity of a rabid wolverine on occasion. Other times, it’s my instinct to push to be left alone. At the moment, I feel somewhere in between the two.

I’ve had a lot of questions about  the passing of my friend and mentor that pertain to the fact that I was there when he moved on. While I won’t go into it here, a lot of it surprises me. Why should I back away from something like that? Why should I be afraid? I mean yeah, I don’t want to go tomorrow – I’m far from ready in my own life, but while I’m sad, devastated, ripped open…I wasn’t afraid to be there or keep seeing him. If anything, it’s humbling to be in the presence of something that much more enormous than yourself. It’s one of those things that brings you to your knees in so many ways. The terror I had wasn’t from possibly seeing things happen or losing him (that would be the sadness and grief), but of the utter enormity of the situation.

A long time ago I on a trip to the St. Louis art museum and wandered into the basement where the tribal art was kept. Renaissance art and tribal/cultural stuff are favorites of mine, so I was happy to wander. I came face to face with this gigantic stone disk – it had to have been as tall as I am. I think it was Mayan, though the details escape me and I’m not finding it online. One one side was a dancing figure in full dress and the background was light. On the opposite side on a dark, dark background was the same dancing figure, but as a skeleton. It knocked the wind out of me.  It was that same enormous impact, to be face to face with the two sides of the same coin – literally.

This is what you are and this is what you will be. There’s no escaping either, and they are joined hand in hand. It’s a deep, primordial feeling of awe that that piece inspired in me, and there was fear there, but also a whole lot of other emotions I can’t really name. I really like what Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes about – that it’s not life and death but life/death/life – it’s a cycle, a circle. Seasons are evidence of that, relationships are proof of that, life events are proof of that, and while we can’t always directly see the second birth in a literal sense when it comes to people, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I suppose in fairness I should disclaim that I’m not exactly a stranger to heavy situations. I’d lost two siblings by the time I was five – as a small kid it was hard for me to understand those Sesame Street moments about taking a baby home from the hospital or seeing kids in my class have their parents show up with siblings. That wasn’t my reality, and I had no concept of that being normal in my personal life. I was blessed with a sibling later on through adoption, but I also saw what losing a child does to people in a very close up way. It isn’t just the loss of one life…it’s the loss of a way of life for all involved.

I’ve lost all my grandparents, and friends of all ages through the years – some my own age, some older, some younger. I’ve known the bittersweet departure of four-legged family when it came time for the furry editor to take his leave on Christmas morning this year. 

I’m not saying this for sympathy – yes, those moments hurt. They are definitely major moments in my life, but I say all this to give you a picture. I’m comfortable in cemeteries – I’ve spent a lot of time in them and I find them peaceful places to hide out and think. I’ve been to a lot of funerals – ones I’ve had a direct connection to, others known through my family or professionally (which happens when there’s clergy in the family), and in high school I sang at a few here and there. The thing is, while I have the same hesitation about thinking about death as anyone else, it doesn’t quite register as an enemy force to me. It isn’t this other thing…it’s part of the thing that we’re all part of. Truth be told, if we knew birth was coming, we’d probably be freaked out about that too, because it’s the only other change of such enormity in our lives. Those are the only two equalizers when you really come down to it. The rest of the space between comes down to luck and choices.

Maybe it’s because I got the chance to prepare and spend time with my friend that I’m…while I’m hurting, I’m not experience the volume of emotions that I have in the past. When my grandfather died I was covered in a tidal wave of emotion. Not only was there grief and missing him, but it felt like a lid was opened and every toxic emotion I could possibly feel about myself rushed out and had to be dealt with. I don’t quite know why that was the catalyst, but it was a rough time. This time, it’s far more…dare I say, positive? I was prepared what I felt, and being able to talk to Mark and spend time with him helped me keep the focus on him and the time we’ve had together.

While I have a profound respect for the situation, people’s fear surprises me. I don’t know what comes next. I don’t claim to. No matter what you believe, you’re going to have to go off of some kind of faith – faith that there’s something, faith that there’s nothing, faith that it’s some specific thing….that’s what belief and faith are and why they’re not called fact. There’s always the .000000001% chance that the universe is actually governed by cosmic dolphins and we won’t find out until the very end.

I personally believe there’s more than just this, but I also don’t like to stick to a clear view of what that thing is, something that endears me to very specific religious types everywhere as you can well imagine. My feeling is it’s not up to me to pre-dictate or pre-imagine what comes next, but I don’t think that shedding a body is the end of things. After all, energy isn’t created or destroyed, but transformed. For all we know, that transformation is very specific to the individual. Embrace life well so you can embrace death just as well. If anything, it was humbling to watch my friend’s last week because it was one of the most joyful deaths I’ve ever seen. Being able to thank people and share his feelings with them and arrange things and keep a smile on his face…that was incredibly humbling to watch.

Believe me, I’m not downplaying pain or grief or the feeling of being wrenched apart from the inside out. I know those intimately and I’ve seen the effect on those around me. Those who know me well know I am going through a ton with this most recent loss. It hurts, badly. I’ll be fine and then it will hit me. Still, I guess I don’t quite understand the fear of death as a thing. If anything, I don’t like the thought of not getting everything done that I want to, but that’s also because I’m type AAAA and a Virgo and one of my quirks. That doesn’t mean I refuse to acknowledge it so I don’t get hurt. It saddens me that we’re living in an age where dealing with one of the biggest, most intimate life events is almost seen as something to get over with quickly so you don’t have to deal with it unless you’re directly effected. I don’t understand staying away from someone who you care about out of fear. I don’t understand not looking at it, because it’s not going to hurt you. I’m not going to judge it, but I don’t get it, especially if there are surviving friends and family that need support. Especially if there’s a memory that deserves to be shared.

There’s a story I really, really love that shows up in Women Who Run With the Wolves. It’s an Inuit tale, and while Dr. Estes uses it to examine romantic relationships because the story has a definite romantic tint to it, I think it really applies to any kind of relationship: family, friends, lovers, self, your relationship with life in general. 

The full story is here, but basically there was a fisherman who went out fishing. What he didn’t know is that he was fishing where a corpse had been dispose of ages before, and his hook caught on her ribs. so when she surfaced he was terrified and rowed to shore. Of course she followed because she was caught on his line, and when he took shelter she was right there with him. At some point fear turned to empathy and he untangled her, setting her bones right. As he slept he fell into a dream, and cried in his sleep. The skeleton, having been dead a long time, was so thirsty, so timidly crept up and drank of his tear, then used his heart to will herself flesh and body again, and when he woke up they knew they’d be together.

I get a lot of people will find this intense, but put aside your reservations and think. At some point we all have to face the facts that the people we love are not perfect. They’re going to hurt us. They’re going to disappoint. They are human. There are disgusting aspects to being human, no matter how comfortable and cozy you are with your family or how chummy you are with your friends or how head over heels you are for your partner. They’re going to leave us, whether because it’s the end of the relationship or the end of life. Things change. Life changes and little deaths occur all the time. That doesn’t mean they end. At some point you have to embrace these facts anyway, if you really, truly love the people involved. It’s more than warts and all…it’s the entire enormity of the universe and all – can you stand before someone (even yourself or your own life) and look upon it and all its vastness and love it even though it will leave you and it will not always be pretty? Even if you will be hurt and be resentful and disappointed and sad and have to figure out how to move forward over and over again? Can you deal with all of that and still declare that a relationship with anyone is fully, truly worth that and can you find beauty in that fear, in those hurts, in those sadnesses that will help you remember that they are worth it when they happen? To truly love is to embrace life that turns to death that turns to life, it’s to embrace the skeleton woman, terror and all, and that’s something that this most recent experience is slowly helping me to understand. That’s what I felt long ago when I saw that disk of life and death in the museum….all the terror and joy and awe and massiveness of what those simple paintings meant. 

One of my favorite poems that continually brings me to my knees is by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and is called Abre la Puerta. You’ll have to scroll on the link, though the whole article is intriguing, but this is one of the few places I’ve found the whole poem. It’s a viewpoint I’m still growing into, but one I believe in. A wound is not just a wound, but a door, an opportunity to find a blessing or to do good or feel something. We need to stop looking at hurt and death and other things as one-dimensional and bad, and start finding ways to open the door and figure out what we can do with them. Where can we help? Where can we do good? What is needed? What is the good part you can see in all of this? The divine can be found in many different places, and hurt is not always just hurt, but an opportunity to pass through and do more. 

Mark taught a lot of those lessons through just being who he is, and I definitely think of him every  time I read this. Although the hurt is very real, there’s also wisdom with this experience, and hopefully an opportunity to move forward and be more from having experienced it. 

6 thoughts on “Embracing the Skeleton and Opening the Door.

  1. Some deep deep stuff and much appreciated. I think I could write a small volume on how death has affected my life and, in essence, taught me to live more. Keep up the great work and great blog.

    1. Thanks, Peter. I went back and forth on whether I was actually going to post this one or not and just decided ‘Screw it, I’m going for it, it’s worth talking about.’ Thanks so much for the kind words.

  2. Interesting that in the story, it is through the heart that the dead become alive again. This post shares the beauty of loving someone through that final transition. Its hard, but worth it. Thank you.

    1. I love that story so much – I’ve only ever discovered it because of my admiration for Dr. Estes, but it’s become one of my favorite folktales. The Theatre of the Imagination box set actually has her telling it in a lecture and it’s worth listening to that and her discussion on it – she puts so much fire and emotion into her lectures, it’s truly special. Thank you for commenting – obviously this wasn’t an easy one for me, even though it’s something that has a lot of feeling behind it. I’m glad you liked it.

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