We have a collective cultural blind spot when it comes to death. Often, we are asked to minimize our pain; to pretend we are fine when we aren’t. We have been taught how to gloss over terror, rage, and anguish becoming plastic versions of reality. In order to live fully we must be willing to release our conditioned hiding; to recognize our common longing for authentic presence.
While the human spirit is transformed by loss such change typically starts as unbearable, excruciating, pain. Pain that crumbles the world as you know it, brings you to your knees, and reduces your sense of self to disjointed fragments. In these moments we need containers for the unknown and portals to places beyond words or conceptual ideas. We need people who are unafraid of deep emotional process. We need art to heal the broken heart.
“A poem, a song, a painting, or a dance can awaken the tender places in the heart. The corners of the soul can become heavy with sadness or numbed by an unidentified depression. Art has a way of extracting the stuck and pulling us out of despair. This is why I am a musician, a dancer, a lover of the creative–so that I may walk and work in flow with life. So that I may live fully: art and soul.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
To Live Fully
Last night I was at an extraordinary community event. An evening of cabaret supporting the Grief Support Network; an organization started by Wendy Stern after the death of her son. Collectively the pain of many losses was honored in dance, poetry, and song. Heart wrenching and uplifting, we were reminded of the power of the human spirit to be transformed by adversity.
Consciously making space for loss is essential if we are to heal our collective wound of minimizing pain. Last night we gave grief a well deserved place of honor. We wept for ourselves and for each other. We hugged and held each other. But we did not stop there. We also danced! We danced our tearful, joyful, ecstatic celebration of life.
The Grief Support Network draws upon the wisdom of other cultures in how grief is honored. For example, they will be bringing Sobonfu Somé from West Africa to Boulder next month to learn from her cultural traditions around loss. Sobonfu shares that her community does not rush grief away. Rather they ask questions that create space for pain such as “Do you remember that he died?” “Have you grieved enough?” “Have you cried enough?”
Music from the Heart
Earlier this week my choir began a new song, Gwyneth Walker’s The Tree of Peace. Initially learning a piece of music involves a patchwork of notes and words. We had not yet really listened to the essence of the piece.
Our conductor stopped us. She asked us to reflect for a moment upon the Syrian refugees and the photo of the young boy, dead, washed upon the shore that had circulated in the news throughout the week. We collectively tuned into the pain and the ravages of war. We reflected on those who help and work for peace. Now we returned our attention to the music:
“Oh my sister and my brother, all who walk upon this earth, fold to your hearts each other. Where mercy dwells, the peace of the lord is there. To live rightly is to love one another, each kindness a gift, each deed a prayer. Listen to one another. Walk with reverence in the steps of those who have gone before, where forgiveness and wisdom has stood. So shall the wide earth become a temple, each loving life a psalm of gratitude. Then shall all shackles fall. The violence of war over the earth shall cease. Love shall tread out the fire of anger, and in its ashes plant a tree of peace.”
Our voices opened our hearts, we listened with the ear of compassion, and we embodied this masterful work. This is the power of art in community. (You can read more here on the healing power of music).
Feeling without Flooding
Watching the news, listening to the radio, or scrolling through your Facebook feed and it is easy to become flooded or overwhelmed by the pain of the world. It is also easy to become desensitized as a means to shut off our empathic resonance with what we are seeing.
There needs to be a balance of staying aware and self care. I encourage you to pause and take a deep breath. Each time you see an image or story of terror, death, or pain take a moment to close your eyes, check in with your body, notice any tension or shock. Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? Stay sensitive, not desensitized or overloaded.
Make choices about when to look and when you have seen enough for today. Turn off the news at that point. Look at the blue sky, play music, paint, dance what inspires you.
Art and Soul
Poetry has the power to transport us into the realm of the soul. In the months after the September 11th attacks people connected to poetry as a means to cope with the tragedies that occurred. An interview between Alice Quinn, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, and poet, Deborah Garrison, looks at this connection. Garrison describes, “There was almost a poetic horror to that day, in that one moment you suddenly registered a before and after, and the poem seems to be a form that captures the largeness of one moment, and the largeness of one day.”
This poem by Adam Zagajewski was first published in the weeks after 9/11; re-appeared this week on my Facebook feed and feels as relevant today as it was 14 years ago.
Try to Praise the Mutilated World
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Inhale, exhale, feel your emotions, and move your body. Have you grieved enough? For, grief has a way of extracting the stuck, pulling us out of temporary shutdowns—so that we may walk and work in flow with life. So that we may live fully: art and soul.