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 people incarcerated at New York’s infamous penal colony, Rikers Island in lieu of a personal appearance there. He was supposed to give an art class there in 1965 but canceled due to illness. He donated the then new gouache-ink-and-pencil sketch, specifically “For the dining room of the Prisoners of 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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Woman, why are you weeping?
— Jesus to Mary Magdalene (John 20:15)
For a long time 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 quite a few were taken in the prime of their lives — victims of violence, disease, or addiction. 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 then. We were young and she, was 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, perhaps 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 fucked up knack 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 partner in crime had told her sister the same thing. 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 sublime. My personal belief, borne of personal experience 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 excised the parts he felt were contradictory to the core message of the Nazarene of love and hope. And believe me, there is much 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 always present, 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 love 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. There is a gospel, not accepted by the mainstream church, which describes Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth… 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 — nurtured and guided 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 any other disciple, believed in him. All those other motherfuckers, betrayed and denied him, didn’t they?
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 never attended. It was as if all that loss I was holding on to came out like a river. It was at once one of the saddest and most liberating experiences in my life. I read somewhere the other day that the opposite of loss is finding. I know that sounds simple, but it is 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 another way, a way that avoids the long days of aching, oftentimes 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 sometimes cry at funerals but I understand death differently today. A teacher 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 life and 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. I reflect mostly how fortunate I was to have been in their lives to witness their glorious and beautiful power — their shining power of example. Today, I walk away from funerals feeling a lot like I do after watching a great performance: sadness, yes, but also a sublime exhilaration. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Too often grief is seeing only what has been taken away from you. The celebration of a life is recognizing all that we were blessed with, and expressing that gratitude. When I die (and we all will die eventually) I hope this is what people will feel for my own performance and that people will celebrate life and not just mourn my death. Only a Higher Power of your choosing will know the extent to how I have lived my life will cause recriminations. A part of me finds some humor in that. Shit, in the famous words of Curtis Mayfield, “If there’s a hell below/ We’re all gonna go.”
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 continue reverberating and in that way create more beauty and more life. That our lives are never ended, but live in our deeds and actions… and our memories.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…