STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

I made these earrings (one of two sets) when I grew past fearing what anyone would say about them, and they are my favorite ones to wear! (A professional classical violinist bought the other pair.)

I’ve been doing a little digging on death lately.

Maybe I should backtrack and explain.

I always thought I was the only person obsessed with death and dying. I think about it all the time. Partly because I’ve had a few brushes with it, partly because I’m anxious in general.

I worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Whether I’ll achieve any of my goals or not. Whether I should just be happy with the goals and blessings I already have. Whether anything of me will last (beyond the world’s largest and most interesting garage sale). Whether I’ve done right by my kids, my family, my husband, my art, my writing.

Becoming a hospice volunteer was part of my exploration about death. I’ve learned so much, grown in so many ways. Still learning. Still growing, with every single client.

Many people think people who do hospice work are “better”, or “braver” or “more noble” than your average person-on-the-street, that we have a better, more evolved understanding of death. We’re not, and we don’t. When our own loved ones are in danger, or dying, we are just as much at sea as everyone else.

We’ve simply learned a little bit more about being as opposed to doing, or even worse, fixing. (Though, as my incredibly grounded volunteer supervisor Lorraine would say, “Hospice is full of recovering fixers…!”)

I’ve been reading an odd book called STARING AT THE SUN by Irvin Yalom, a therapist who deals with death anxiety. Working on the assumption that our fear of death is at the heart of most of our anxieties, he works to assure us that understanding this can lead to a richer LIFE. He talks often about the basic needs we humans have, and how even the best therapy–a sharing of healthier ideas–is enormously improved when the therapist deeply connects with his patient. Because ideas-plus-connection is an incredibly power force for healing and reconciliation.

Connection. Such a simple word, and one whose strength we can easily overlook.

But everything we do, everything we yearn for, is to garner for ourselves love, and meaningful connection.

When I’m fighting with my husband, what I am pushing down deep inside me is how much I yearn for his good opinion, for his love and respect. When he accidentally breaks the connection between us with a clumsy comment or a snitty response, I am devastated. But I cover up for that devastation with anger.

Vice versa, too.

Why am I yammering on about death, and connection?

Because this is why I make my art. And this is where the power of my images, the power of my story, the power of the cave that inspires me, comes into play.

I try to shine a little light on the wonderful, and frightening, and sad, and awful things that make us human. I try to figure out what holds us all together, while still allowing each of us to dance to our own unique music.

I’m reading another book about prehistoric art called THE CREATIVE ICE AGE BRAIN: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience Written by an art historian who is also an artist, it celebrates the unique nature of this human thing called art. The things Ms. Alperts says about ancient art could be said about almost any art being made today: It is unique to the maker as it simultaneously reflects the culture the maker lives in.

I’ve always felt that these artists of the distant past had something to say, something so powerful it reaches across eons of time to touch us today. Creating “…echoes in our modern hearts”, it is something that has lasted far, far beyond the original intentions of its makers. It is the ultimate connection that arcs across 30,000 years, perhaps more.

Don’t we all wish we could leave such a legacy?

At the same time, the message (not being written to us) will forever remain lost, an enigma.

And someday, the knowledge of these paintings, this works of art, these carvings, and our study of them, will be lost forever, too. Because nothing lasts forever.

Such is the mystery of life. Such is the mystery of death.

Oddly, the most moving comment I read in Dr. Yalom’s book was the idea that “ceasing to be” in death is remarkably like “not being yet” before we are born. In both spaces, we will have no consciousness, no sense of being. Why is one frightening, but not the other? Because now we know what we’re missing! (A little death humor here….)

I don’t have a great wrap-up for you today, or even a great thought. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about the last few days, as I stumble my way through this amazing, challenging, beautiful, sad, tragic, happy, confusing, astonishing life.

I’m also starting to de-clutter my studio. That always makes me think of death, too. (See the remark about the world’s biggest garage sale above.) I promise you a lighter piece tomorrow!

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17 Comments

Filed under art, craft, death, hospice, lessons from hospice

17 responses to “STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

  1. Oh yes. I know what you mean. I am that way as well. I have spent the past few days clearing my studio. Getting rid of the old. What do I want to do next? Will I even be here to have a next? After all, I have been an artist for over 40 years. I have amassed a ton of work. At some point the faucet turns off. Interesting thoughts on the space before living as opposed to dying. yes they are the same. But of course we don’t see it that way. As you say, we know what we are missing now. I always enjoy your thought provoking posts. I spent the last two days deleting all the blogs I no longer read. I kept yours of course.

  2. A very moving post today-thank you for sharing such personal thoughts. Like caregivers, maybe lots of artists are “fixers”……
    Carved into the marble over the doorway to the building where I have my studio are the words “ALL PASSES-ART ALONE ENDURES” Perhaps.
    http://www.debralepage.com/blog.html

    • Debra, you’ve mentioned a thought I left out of my post: Everything we know about these ancient people is known THROUGH THEIR ART. Everything else is gone. Isn’t that astonishing? We think of art as something decorative, a luxury, when in reality, it may be all that survives of us, ever.

      Although I’m beginning to think those plastic clamshell packagings may outlast even the cockroaches! (Sorry, sorry, I can’t stop with the jokes.)

  3. Beth Wheeling

    Wow! Luann, you and I are living in the same place! Perhaps you have heard about Tory Hughes. She is connecting to Byzantine art called Trezibond and recreating it in polymer clay. I am reminded of Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat that I attended many years ago where we were asked to get our food and then sit with it before us and contemplate the people who produced it; the people who cleared the land for the farmers who grew it; the people who transported the raw materials; the cooks and chefs who prepared it, and our own ancestors going back as far as we can to imagine… the spark of life that has come from them through all of us. I have always been fascinated by loss and “the breakdown before the breakthrough.” as it is called in certain circles. Yalom certainly can stir up one’s existential issues!
    When one is near death there is always the question of legacy usually comes to the foreground but it can also be in our own mental foreground by the need to leave a legacy. Every year brings more reminders that our time is limited. I have not have children so I do not have a physical legacy. But I do feel that I am in touch with the eternal thread that we are all a part of. I feel it most in the Southwest, particularly Canyon de Chelles and Mesa Verde. I am in Albuquerque a lot because they have a great polymer clay group that brings amazing people to their city. The timelessness of the place feeds my soul, although as a child of the tropics (Miami) the winters seem rather bleak for me, but not having the seasons change also tends to make one less aware of time passing.
    You write beautifully and you address issues that many people are in touch with. Keep up the good work! This is a wonderfully thought provoking discussion on a level that I rarely encounter.
    Blessings.

    • “…the breakdown before the breakthrough.” What a lovely idea! Makes the pain a little more bearable.
      Thank you Beth, and let me say, from your writing, I bet you DO have a powerful legacy already. :^)

  4. Dianna mammone

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad we are having these conversations. It might be scary at times, but at least it’s authentic.

    • Dianna, it’s so nice of you to say that. I think this is the first article I didn’t “wrap up” with a finished thought or conclusion. It’s odd, but I worried about that. I’m so glad you enjoyed the conversation anyway! :^)

  5. As my health fails even faster than before I work so hard on finishing up things.I dont want to leave a mess for others to detangle.It is a struggle now.Everyday is harder.And yet I know my small actions to tidy my mess will assist and I feel ok with that.Love and hugs in your search.
    Tanya

  6. marj

    Thank you for your thought provoking message. I too have been preoccupied with getting rid of stuff to make life easier for those that follow.
    I volunteer in a thrift shop and the “stuff” is amazing – gifts that have never been used etc. And since my husband passed about three years ago and
    I have been trying to get new homes for his things, of which there are many many – as he was a jack of all trades, woodworker, carver, stained glass artist, etc. it is a process to find good homes with younger people for all that good loot. It seems that if there is a skill to learn, we tried…… and collected the necessary supplies to go with the process. And after clearing out three estates for relatives, I know how much work goes into that and how tiring it is…. mentally and physcially. But lightening the load is really exhilarating and paring down to less is such a good thing. Having the attitude that you can always find more helps — especially in getting rid of fabric, books, yarn, wood, glass, etc. There are no shortages in this world of supplies as there are so many people downsizing. Love your blog – you always have good thoughts to share. Marj

  7. A wonderful sincere post—thank you for sharing. I too feeling anxious when I think about the fact that I will die someday. I often think, what’s going to be my contribution? We have no children—who will take care of me when I age, and who will remember me when I’m gone. Last but not least, why am I here? Somehow, being with my father through his death has made the actual passing less frightening, but still not without anxiety. I’ve bought a few books on the subject, but can’t manage to get myself to read them? I’ve had “How Then Shall I Live” on my shelf for years. Maybe it’s time…
    Again, thank you for sharing.

    • Laura, as one of your yoga students I feel you’ve already begun creating a legacy with your calm, centered teaching and the way you urge us to be at peace and forgiving of our bodies. At the very least, you’ve already created an incredible ripple effect!

  8. As usual, Luann, I gain something from all your posts, but probably the most from this one. My father recently passed away, and I find that I think of him often and at odd times. Yesterday in the car on my way to work I was thinking of him and blurted outloud, “Where are you, Dad?” When I think of Heaven, I think of a physical place and it’s bewildering to me that I feel the need to find it on a map. I took care of Dad in his last weeks of life and I still want to know that he’s OK…that God is looking out for him. Hospice, by the way, was a blessing to us. We could not have done it without those great ladies. The best piece of advice they gave us was to tell him how much he meant to us, how well he took care of us, and how we would take care of Mom for him. It was hard, but I managed to do it and I could tell he appreciated it. I have no regrets.

  9. Pingback: EVEN GOOD CHANGE SUCKS | Luann Udell

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