(Philippe de Champaigne‘s Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time – MUSIC: “Great Day” by Senking)
Yesterday, as I ambled my way through the galleries of a Monet exhibit, I considered the life of this über-talented French painter who gave us the possibility to see the simple details of a scene in new ways that touch us emotionally, and evokes memories of experiences related to the images he chose to draw our attention to. He also, like us, contemplated the existential angst but believed in the immediacy of experiencing each moment without the expectation of some other form of reality other than the one he was experiencing. He lived his life from the perspective of authenticity, total presence, and clarity.
Later on, during a harp and pipe organ performance, at the same museum, I observed the faces and behaviors of all the other people gathered around in the same place while listening to the simple, but sweetly melodious compositions of Debussy, another French impressionist artist. On my left side, an Asian lady was solving a Sunday paper crossword puzzle on a clipboard, together with the musical program notes underneath, that was resting comfortably on her lap. Very rarely would she raise her head to look at the performers, but went on completely absorbed in the music and in her task the whole time.
As I continued my observations, I couldn’t help noticing an older white lady, farther away, who was attentively watching the performance. Her face deeply carved with wrinkles, markedly displayed the passage of time in her physical form. Some other people would come in, listen for a moment, and leave. An elegant older man, properly dressed in a black suit sat in the row in front of mine. He was there for his friend, the harpist, who was playing there at the museum for the first time before leaving for Cleveland, Ohio. She was there at the invitation of her other friend, the organ player. The harpist, a woman probably in her late fifties, showed an impressive control of her instrument, which corroborates the fact that she has indeed built a solid academic career. She had saved a chair for her friend, who arrived early and lucked out a seat as soon as a middle-aged woman decided to get up and leave with her friend who arrived in the room. The spot the harpist had saved for him was strategically chosen near the area where she would be playing. If I were him, I would have got up and taken the seat she had saved. The seat would have given him a front row view to appreciate his friend’s hand skills while her fingers beautifully caressed the strings of that majestic musical instrument.
The organ player was this short, burly man, who not only had an impressive ability as a player but also as a speaker. He commanded the space and his words got everyone interested in the music pieces he was about to play. The page turners’ sexual connection with the players has always been a recurring fantasy of mine. The relationship between page turners and musicians always make me go off in thoughts of secret lovers and forbidden affairs.
Children were present as well, sitting on the floor and enjoying the experience. There were people of all kinds: couples holding hands, rich middle-aged women dressed in sparkly blouses, and those who wanted to capture the moment through pictures and videos, so later they would be able to share them on their social platforms of choice.
This all made me think of the passage of time and how soon we would all be replaced by another generation repeating similar social activities. I could not shake off the uneasy feeling that we are all equals, that we all suffer and have problems, but the simulacrum of our social identities put up a facade of normalcy and emotional detachment. I could see on the faces of each individual the presence of their stories. If you let yourself pay attention, you can actually see that. And it’s a beautiful thing. It is our vulnerabilities that bring authenticity on how we show up in the world. The truth is that soon we are all going to die, vanish, disappear. It is the acknowledgment of this fact in every moment and every experience that is giving me the possibility to reflect and be less afraid to live my life without imposing so many unnecessary limitations on myself. I look at all the people around me and I see them dying with me, I see their bodies changing, decaying and disappearing, just like my own physical body. This realization is giving me the courage to appreciate my life and be true to the changes passing through me that go on reshaping the way I think, the way I act, the way I live.
The moment I was conceived I began to be in a relationship with someone or something. I began a relationship with myself. Throughout my life, I go on a series of continuous relationships. Being in a relationship is no easy task for anyone. It requires the ability to stay present, mindful and accountable. Relationships are at the very center of our personal and spiritual growth.
We are social beings, and we live, for the most part, within a community whose basic purpose is to keep us safe and give us a sense of belonging. How can we experience differences if we tend to orbit around others who are similar to us? Isn’t by being exposed to what is different from us that will gradually open our views of who we are and facilitate the changes necessary to our growth? Why is so difficult to accept differences?
I have always accepted the fact that my beliefs are constantly changing, and therefore are as insubstantial as the air I breathe. The most difficult part of growing is to acknowledge those parts of my personality that are identified with the useless pursuit of the inaccessible attempt to keep life and everything else static, stationary and predictable: the insane ability to live in denial.
I feel I am losing my mind every time I seem to find myself closer to the madness present in me. As I watch myself journey through time, I see the exhilarating awareness of my expanding consciousness in direct opposition to my ever-decaying body. As my physical body dwindles away, loses its luster and contemplates its own extinction, my sense of who I am opens up and gradually expands to an impossible extension that goes beyond any limits I had ever thought imaginable. Between a blessing and a curse, I don’t have the option to disagree.
Knowing I am going to die puts in perspective the attachment I might have to things and conditions I dared to think were unquestionably mine and under my control. All of a sudden, everything I do is overwhelmingly scrutinized under the lens of my befuddled, scared mind. Like a defenseless child, my mind tries to cope with the sensations of abandonment, existential loneliness, and universal despair. As I dive deep into the Mariana Trench of my existence, fearing the Challenger Deep lying in wait, I have no option other than complete surrender to this insane mystery in the depths of the ocean within me.
Why is it so hard to live completely without meaning or delusions of grandeur? It seems I have always reached an impasse at every phase of my life. At every corner lies a question unanswered and the dread of making choices, only to regret a second later. Holding on to the belief and the behavior that I can control things insanely contradicts with the life I try to live. The pain becomes immeasurable, and the agony of delayed actions perpetuate a state of stale conformity to a familiar kind of suffering.
My body speaks to me like a volcano about to explode. How many opportunities have I missed? How many crossroads have I stood too long staring at the paths in front of me without taking the first step to continue the journey? I, from all people, who continuously help other redefine and recalibrate their own sails so that they can follow the natural course of their lives, resemble a sullen stalled horse that voluntarily isolated itself under externally inflicted psychological pressure.
I go about looking for temporary relief underwater, but the underlining cause of an overarching anxiety lies on the surface of the ocean. How can we know if we are making progress and being authentic if the unrelenting uneasiness grabs hold of us and keeps us muzzled and unable to have our voices heard? I look around and I see others struggling the same way, a ghostly, hazed look hides their light from shining through. If I let myself get stuck in this process, I will always hold others captive, lest their actions might destabilize the illusory harmony of my foibles.
In the spirit of Memorial Day, this time, I would like to pay respect to all the ones who have passed on, veterans and civilians alike. They give us the gift of their deaths as a way to celebrate life in all forms, all experiences, and ways to be. It is the evolution of life on this planet that we are writing with our stories when we allow ourselves to be who we essentially are.
It is with this perception and acknowledgment that I am becoming a man beholden to all the other ones I meet, indebted to all, and forever grateful for the way I can make myself graciously accepted, quirks and all.
n. pl. memento mori
Memento mori literally means “Remember you must die”. The early Puritan settlers were particularly aware of death and fearful of what it might mean, so a Puritan tombstone will often display a memento mori intended for the living. These death’s-heads or skulls may strike us as ghoulish, but they helped keep the living on the straight and narrow for fear of eternal punishment. In earlier centuries, an educated European might place an actual skull on his desk to keep the idea of death always present in his mind.
*American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
*And also from Merriam-Webster