I glanced right and stopped walking. A nearly monochrome arrangement unrolled itself before me like a Chinese scroll being read. This language I couldn’t speak, but I understood it. I wish I hadn’t seen bones at first, but so it was. The fallen tree seemed to me an ancient carcass, and for a few moments, I flashed back to a time before memory. I saw ruined towers of a forgotten kingdom, stone walls fallen and overgrown, heard the sad wind ask “why”, and wondered at the struggle that brought down this dragon. Where were the people? What happened? A twig snapped and I saw a moccasin-clad Native American walk up the slope, eyes forward, looking for something I could not see. I heard his children murmuring in the distance back and to my left across the gully. I smelled his family’s fires, and as the faint blue smoke drifted, the vision shifted to a valley of bones, desolate and abandoned that all began to shake and float as if they were being remade.
The dogs scouring the ground for scents broke the vision, so after looking at the scene again trying to burn it into my consciousness, I raised my voice and said, “this way”, and we all passed through the gate that’s never closed and made our way back to the house.
That was January/February 2018. Kate would be killed a couple weeks later. Family members on my wife’s side would pass away in the months to come, with the most recent passing happening a couple of days ago. One was 99 years old, one was much younger. There would be good news this year also, but we seem to reflect upon the losses more as if we let a fire go out, as if we let something slip away. As if we could’ve done something. I could’ve kept the dogs tied or caged. They could have kept the bodies of their loved ones alive with machines, perhaps. As much as it hurts, we must release our grip on that which we love - even our own lives.
Love requires freedom. We simply must let things go. We must open the hands that grip this veil of an existence. I had another life. It is gone. Relationships are permanently altered. I buried Kate, and my wife’s family buried and will bury family members. More dying is coming. It seems like an end - a permanent end - or worse, a cycle of ending. It truly looks and feels like we will never again know them or hold them. This seems rational. It seems like, in our own time, things change beyond recognition, faster and faster, but dying remains. Dying seems to be constant and cycles cycle but hear me:
Love isn’t rational.
Love speaks life.
Love cloaks itself as mercy to break cycles.
So as I looked into a scene that had seen abandonment, violence, death, falling, freezing, and the sinking experience of being never seen, never known, I subconsciously made a tiny choice. Do I look into loss that spans human history - what appears to be a conveyor belt of death - and melt into oblivion, sink into the idea that we are just biochemical entities responding to biochemical stimuli and all is for naught - will I subtly buy into the idea that we are cosmic dust puffs, or
will I see all of this before me as being held and walk towards it, even though it seems senseless? Will I step forward believing that we are more, our passions are more, the Earth is more, the Cosmos is more? Will I believe the voice that whispers of our lineage and tells us that dying is not the end? This scene presented me with that choice. “Is this Life? Do we just live and die? Am I any different from this tree, from the cows that made the path, from the path, cold and snow covered, from the black birds that dart between limbs, or from the leaves?”
A Choice to Believe
My thoughts swirl from age to age. I see the forgotten poems and grand overtures. I see fires in the night. I see humanity building over graves and ash again and again. I see a maw that cannot be closed or satisfied. Dragon bones. Fighting. Smoke. Loss. Will.
I see a man step near the grave of his dear friend. I see him weeping. I see him take a great inhalation before he raises his voice. Love through tears. To look into all of this, into Death itself, and decide to walk towards it is not rational and demonstrates unparalleled freedom. It looks at the impossible and believes something else. It looks at the seemingly impossible and decides to love anyway.
I hear “…can these bones live?” and "Talitha kum!"
The thoughts swirl and vanish, leaving this painting. This work is just a painting, and everything else.
Thank you for reading.
Below are a few details from the process. I can’t find most of the images I made of the earlier stages, but if I find them, I may add them if anyone wants me to.