Meaning in Crisis

May 24th, 2011

With Memorial Day coming up in America next weekend, I was thinking about how much I appreciate people who blazed the trail that I now walk. Even if I never knew them, if I didn’t particularly like them, even if they died in wars that I disagreed with, they lived and loved the best they could and made a difference to the whole.  As the Indigo Girls sing, “Each life has its place” and I am growing to believe that EVERYONE is my teacher. Sometimes death is the only thing that brings the significance of someone’s life into your consciousness.

Last weekend I spoke at a funeral for a woman who was a local artist. I knew her quite well, and loved her from the minute we met. She was easy to like and attracted positive people into her presence. But it was only in her death that I truly began to appreciate all she had taught me. What follows is something close to what I said at the funeral.

The Indian spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, once said,our souls all come from the same paper but what makes us unique is the creases formed in the paper from all the folding and unfolding of our life experience.” Today we honor the life of a uniquely beautiful and creative woman. Liz understood symmetry, appreciated colors, and resonated with fine form. When I think of Liz in the context of the Krishnamurti quote I think of Origami. In Origami, a flat piece of paper is transformed into an animal, a flower, a shape or some abstract design. The crane holds a special place of honor in the world of Origami. The incredible thing is that these forms were crafted just with folds and creases.

Liz’s life was like a piece of Origami. She went through ups and downs like all of us, and ultimately had to come to terms with her own death, the greatest challenge of all. Liz’s husband John told me that soon before her death, Liz told him that she had made peace with her death. It was a tender moment, and spoke volumes about John’s quiet reassurance. I can’t help wondering if it was partially Liz’s appreciation of form that gave her an insight into the beauty of imperfection that brought her peace with death.

Artists throughout the centuries have come to profound spiritual realizations, which often came about through disillusionment and the agony of their own creative brilliance. Rembrandt was an artist who lived his odyssey out loud through his paintings. He had a brief, 8 year, marriage to Saskia. In the early years of their marriage Rembrandt painted Saskia in the form of Flora, the goddess of Spring and fertility. He portrayed her as an exquisite beauty. When Saskia gave birth to their child, she became ill and never recovered. She lived her final years bid ridden. Rembrandt chose to portray her with stark honesty, lying in bed with sunken cheeks and a frail body. It was such a huge contrast to the early Saskia paintings. How did Rembrandt resolve his experience of the two Saskias in such a brief time?

The answer to this question may be found in one Rembrandt’s most famous works, The Three Trees. The focal point of the piece is the three large trees. Nature is active with swirling clouds hovering above and puddles of sunshine in the fields. There is a lot taking place under the shade of the trees; an artist sketching, a couple fishing and the faint impression of a couple in love. Rembrandt seems to be placing himself all over the etching, coming to terms with his own life. Nature is revealing its cycles through it all. The resolution is that life moves and changes and the only meaning is the meaning you place on experiences.

Rembrandt’s Three Trees etching seems to be an example of Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi is a Japanese phrase that indicates that beauty is often found in things that are old or worn or even uncomfortable. Wabi Sabi is the honest emotions and inner perspective that can see beauty in imperfection, meaning in chaos and life in death. Wabi Sabi is a single cherry blossom nestled in a pile of debris after an earthquake. Wabi Sabi is a family photo on the front lawn after a tornado. Wabi Sabi is a precious last kiss before death. Wabi Sabi, like nature, appreciates beauty without attaching to beauty because all things change and die. There is symmetry even in death.

Wabi Sabi honors the aging process. Lines and wrinkles aren’t signs of decay. They are the unique creases in the paper that map the unfolding of your life. The limps and slumped shoulders aren’t signs of weakness, but reminders of character and a lived life. The love handles in your middle are nothing but love given and received. Each body tells its own story.

The Wabi Sabi of Liz’s last days was the image of her in bed at home where she wanted to be, the curtains closed except for a thin stream of light casting shadows on her face. The bed clothes neatly made, with one of the corners folded like an envelope and one of her feet peeking out from under the sheets like an unread letter. Her face gaunt and her cheeks sunken. And a glint in her eye that spoke of peace and acceptance.

We gathered for Liz’s funeral on May 21 just hours before the prophesied end of the world. The prophecy seemed trivial in the context of an actual ending of life. Life is beginning and ending every day, and in every moment. There is too much to experience right now, in both the ups and downs of life, to be distracted by trivia. The only possible response to end times prophecies in the light of the death of a teacher is to live each day as IF it’s the last. Then get up the next day and do it again. The incredible symmetry of life is waiting to be noticed.

May you remember that without darkness nothing comes to birth, as without light nothing flowers.
May nature teach you patience as snow covered grass.
May the earth teach you courage as the tree which stands tall and strong.
May survivors inspire optimism as the seed which rises in the spring.

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  1. Jeanne Maxon says:

    WOW!  You have given me enough to hold and process for a long time!  Thank you for your quiet eloquence in appreciating the wabi sabi in each of us.

  2. Dear Ian — WHat beautiful thoughts, and what a lovely tribute to your friend, Liz! I think I’ve told you this, but it bears repeating what a wonderful, honest way you have with words. It is a rare gift! Thanks for sharing it.