I would like to thank all the people who were kind enough to inquire about my sister. I’m happy to say she’s doing well and recuperating from her operation, which turned out well and it seems her growth was benign. Thanks again for everybody who expressed concern and offered support. You really don’t know how much that meant to me.
Today’s blog art is by the great Salvador Dali. I can’t find an image of it, but Dalí made a gift to the men’s prison in lieu of a personal appearance there. He was supposed to give an art class to the inmates in 1965 but cancelled due to illness. He donated the then new gouache-ink-and-pencil sketch, specifically “For the dining room of the Prisoners Rikers Island”, as he inscribed it. And he sent some encouraging words for the boys: “You are artists. Don’t think of your life as finished for you. With art, you have always to feel free.”
It was stolen by correction guards in 2004 and is believed to have been destroyed.
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(For my friend Iris)
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
— Jesus to Mary Magdalene (John 20:15)
Earlier in my life, I refused to go to funerals. I simply wouldn’t go. On one level, I didn’t want to see my loved ones garishly made up lying in some casket. I have seen many, many people leave this existence. Most of the people I was raised with are dead or dying. I grew up in a violent world and some were taken in the prime of their lives. On another level, I didn’t want to come face-to-face with death. Especially death warmed over as I used to call funerals in mainstream US culture.
I didn’t like funerals. Didn’t like death…
So I never went.
Then one day, I was shopping with a lover and she picked out a dress she loved so much she said, “This is the dress I want to be buried in!” We laughed about it. She was young and beautiful, full of life. She was the Bonnie to my Clyde, committing crimes of life in that devil-may-care way only the foolish and young can justify. We didn’t last long together, less than two months, but we created so much drama in one another lives that we would become forever attached. Years later, after all had been done between us, she died in my arms.
People have a habit of dying around me.
When it came time to make preparations, her sister confided in me that she knew what dress to bury her in and when I saw it, it cut me deep because it was that very same dress we picked out that day so many years before. When I told her sister, she smiled because my former lover was serious about being buried in that dress and had told her sister. I wasn’t planning on attending her funeral, but her sister insisted.
I am not a practicing Christian. I don’t accept Jesus, or anyone else, as my savior, nor do I believe in a literal translation of the Bible, Old or New. However, I do think that some of the teachings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth are beautiful and sublime. My personal belief, borne of experiences and investigation, is that the core teachings of Jesus were corrupted for personal and political gain. Thomas Jefferson held similar views and he wrote a version of the Gospels, now known as the “Jeffersonian Bible.” In it, he extracted the parts he felt were contradictory to the core message of hope and love of the Nazarene. And believe me, there’s lots of contradiction in the Gospels.
When Jesus finds Mary Magdalene crying at the door of the tomb, he says to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” As I see it, Jesus wasn’t asking a rhetorical question. He wanted to know why we worry and sob and fret when hope is underneath everything, if we could just tap into it.
For me, Easter is about liberation, and it’s especially meaningful for a person like me who sometimes feels chained to moodiness and negativity too much of the time. The celebration of the resurrection is a chance for us to acknowledge Jesus’ message of hope and in so doing, grab the hope that is already there.
Anyone else notice that of all the people he showed himself to, it was the women first? In fact, of all the women, it wasn’t his mother, but Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus appeared first. I don’t take Jesus’ resurrection literally, but there is a message there that resonates with my own life. Jesus’ life, like mine, was a redemption song. And like Jesus, it was the women in my life who tended to me – tended to me through my own passage to a new life. Maybe this is saying something about the Feminine Principle and how far we have moved away from that healing force. For me, this was no accident of the Gospels. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene because she, more than nay other disciple, believed in him. All those other bums, betrayed and denied him, didn’t they? ::grin::
When I cried at my ex-lover’s funeral, it seems as if I cried for all the loved ones I had never said good-bye to – the one’s whose funerals I didn’t attend. It was as if all that loss I was holding on to came out like a river. It was one the most liberating experiences in my life. I read somewhere the other day that the opposite of loss is finding. It’s a deceptively profound statement.
Grief is what we add on to loss. It is a learned behavior, specific only to some cultures. It is neither unavoidable nor universal. In some Buddhist cultures, for example, you will never see someone cry at a cremation. Their cultural perspective on death is one of acceptance in a way foreign to Western theories of grief and loss.
Similarly, when Jesus appeared to the disciples he asked, “Why are you troubled?” Jesus says to the disciples in Luke’s gospel when he appears to them after his “resurrection.”
My Buddhist practice has slowly transformed my view of grief – has actually opened the door for me to see that there’s an alternative to grief. It’s not that grief is wrong, only that there’s another possibility. Loss of a loved one can be viewed in a second way, a way that avoids the long days of aching, sometimes crippling grief.
Over the years since my ex-lover’s death, I have attended many funerals and have had two others die in my arms. I rarely cry at funerals now, because I understand death differently today. A monk once explained it to me in simple terms. “Have you ever been to a concert and experience the shouts of ‘more!’ coming from the audience when it came time to end?” he asked. “Usually, the musicians will play one or two encores, but eventually they have to pack up their gear and leave. I’ve experienced this many times and when I’m going home, I usually reflect on how great the music was and how lucky I was to have been there. I never felt grief at the end of a concert.”
And that is exactly how I experience death today. I see it as if a magnificent concert had come to an end. I revel in the wonderful performance. I was there shouting loudly, “More!” when it came to end the performance. My loved ones struggled to stay alive a little longer, but eventually they had to let go – they had to pack up their instruments and “go home.” Today, I choose to see instead what magnificent lives my friends and loved ones led. What powerful inspirations they were in my life. What shining powers of example. I reflect mostly how fortunate I was to have been in their lives to witness their glorious and beautiful power. Today, I walk away from funerals feeling a lot like I do after watching a great performance – exhilaration — I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Grief is seeing only what has been taken away from you. The celebration of a life is recognizing all that we were blessed with, an expressing that gratitude. When I die, and we all will die sooner or later, I hope this is what people will feel for my own performance and that people will celebrate life and not just mourn death.
Whatever your belief, this has to be part of the message of the resurrection, whether you understand it as literal or not. That the concerts of our lives continuing reverberating and in that way create more life. That our lives are never ended, but live in our deeds and actions.