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Death, Dying, Change

A Piece About Life As Art, Written in 2020


In this blog, I am augmenting my usual sharing of how to move towards joining Mother Earth in life, in death. Through turning towards the inevitability of that, we can rejoice and feel the true vastness of our wonderful planet.

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A feather, a needle, some thread, plus a handful of beads are what I picked from Michel’s sewing basket. Jean went for the fabric paints. Jean and I had flown down to Arizona to check on our friend Michel Henry whose cancer was alarmingly progressing. Soon after we arrived, Michel, who seemed slightly better, informed us in a matter-of-fact way that a dream, followed by a recent brush with death, had inspired her to make her own shroud. She explained that she had long been involved in the making of clothes and ritual objects and that it felt natural that she would now dedicate her love of sewing “to prepare for the other side of life.” What a surprising request, but our friend’s serenity was as moving as it was convincing.

To honor her partly indigenous bloodline, Michel had patterned her shroud in the shape of a thunderbird, and along with family and friends, we were asked to complete the white cloak-looking piece of fabric with feathers that she had cut out of suede. I set out to work quickly, and my beading became my prayer. I felt the same connection and reverence I would have felt had I been handling a rosary or a mala. Experiencing Michel’s clarity was a turning point in my own quest for meaning. I left feeling that Jean and I had been part of a very special version of a quilting bee. Our culture is known for denying the proximity of death. Some say it explains how we have become oblivious to the reasons our planet is on the brink of irreversible collapse. Therefore, it seems time that we re-examine the inevitable reality of death as a way to appreciate the gift of life. “If we live with the understanding of impermanence, we will cultivate and nurture love,” so says beloved Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. Love is the way to a good Life, Love is the way to Life, period. Who would disagree? When I faced the crisis affecting the Earth, my sorrow broke my heart open, and I began speaking on her behalf as an artist. I do art for Earth’s sake or Life’s sake; I specialize in life as art, and that is why I have been led to calling myself a heartist, my way of saying all human beings are creative. Whether I settle on certain colors for an art project or select matching dishes and flowers to set my dining table, I gather, I choose, I place. “I art, therefore I am!”

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Embracing death as an inescapable aspect of life is something I have been contemplating for years. I love life and, despite my spiritual inclination, the prospect of death causes me a lot of emotions. That is, until the day I designed ‘My Last Performance Project’ (my memorial.) About twenty years ago I began saving my hair—a life-art gesture (doubling as art material collecting), and it quickly became a practice. Every time I pick up a piece of hair, on my shoulder or my brush, I think of the final motion, that last breath called death. Not unlike a Buddhist nun carving her tombstone, this self-arising practice has helped me embrace with the whole of my being what I had not been able to comprehend before. My goal for this last ‘performance’ is to spin a thread made of my hair. Hair and thread, symbolically representing life-force and human destiny, might set the stage for the living to transcend the pain of loss as well as to accept the final journey, the way I have gradually been doing. More and more of us have accepted the idea that spirit transcends death and is the key to having a beautiful earthly life! I cannot be attached to what will happen during “my last performance,” however, there is an image that I find inspiring. A circle of mourners holds the spun hair thread; each person is a pearl of a special rosary that stands for the oneness of all things. As I am “working” on the piece, I am seeing the light of a new day rise over the great mystery of death and finding answers to the questions I have held long enough. Obviously, I will not be standing in that circle, yet I will be there—indeed the Great Mystery. As we are the artists of our lives, another essential and creative endeavor is to plan how we wish our body to be disposed of. At 78, I notice changes in my body—toenails thicken, evoking claws; skin dries and hardens like a pelt-to-be; hair grows in unexpected places—weird occurrences that make me feel closer to my animal self and consequently to my beloved Mother Earth. Am I slowly re-inhabiting Gazelle whose name I took when I became an American citizen? Am I preparing to return to the non-human world? The question for me now has progressed from where will I go to what form should my defunct physical body become? Cremation seems to be steadily favored, and for a long time I thought it would be my choice. However, when I meditate on soil— the beautiful dark soil that has been the norm in my corner of the planet, a soil made of the weathering of rocks, a soil ripe with seeds, leaves, trees, and creatures like insects—I rejoice. I have always loved how beings cannot separate, are often gathered together; and when I accept how some creatures burrow and mix everything up, I break into a smile of recognition: This is who we are, a Mixed Bunch, so why not join in and contribute my flesh, present it as my gift expressing the greatest gratitude for all that Earth has given me. As I reflect on my life-art dedicated to the Earth, the idea of mixing the matter of my earthly existence to contribute to the future matter of my beloved, the Earth, entices me like nothing else—because truly the Earth is my Mother. One day, forty-five years ago, I heard her cries through an impoverished and polluted great river. This is when I realized that the Earth had given me so much that I had to do something; hence my “doing art for the Earth.” After my slow journey of growing into full embrace of what is to come, the last earthly gesture I can do is to nestle into the arms of my Mother as my ultimate performance. Indeed, we are the artists of our lives.

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