One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore. —Andre’ Gide
Recently, three generations of our family attended an opening at a local art gallery.
The exhibit’s title, “The Big Sleep,” is, as you may know, a euphemism for death.
“Conversations on Finality” is the specific focus of this visual conversation created by art, a sort of “death café” for the eye, a mixed-media discussion of the various terminals we face in life. The different works frequently addressed the theme of physical death, but others took us further into this major metaphor of our lives.
One sculpture I can’t forget is a cast bronze by Steve Love. Barely bigger than your laptop and standing approximately 12 inches, “Crossing” depicts a little rowboat, just big enough for a man, a woman, and boatman holding an oar that reaches to the water below. He stands forward in the boat, and looks ahead toward the far shore as he moves the little boat through the water. Behind him sits a naked man to one side of the boat, his arms violently gripping the rail, his body tense, seeming to ask frantically, “How did I get here? How do I get back?” In stark contrast to him, in the aft of the boat sits a naked woman, motionless—she is stilled, her hands in her lap. Her gaze is not into the water or even toward the now-invisible shore she has left forever; instead, she focuses inward. She seems to be thinking: “I am here. This is what is now.”
After gathering my many initial responses, I allowed the critical part of my brain to engage. I began to see more details, like the froth in the small boat’s wake, just little hints of water and wave amazingly cast into the dark metal sculpture. The artist’s careful technique aptly described a boat not hurrying, but moving deliberately, steadily. For, why hurry? Time has no seat on the trip from life to death. This poem beside the sculpture communicates the sculpture’s end-of-life theme:
[For a bronze sculpture titled “Crossing”]
Death is a journey,
Across the river Styx to the gates of the underworld,
Over the Jordan of Death to the promised land,
Following in a boat the sun on his journeys in the Upper Waters.
Across the Great Stream!
Our ancestors came out of the sea.
At birth we emerge from the embryonic fluid of the womb,
And into the dark churning waters we depart.
The artist stood nearby, as we are always appreciative of in a gallery opening. Steve Love is familiar to me, as his sculpture “Twisp” was the subject of the art installation ceremony I enacted last summer at the Twisp Ponds site. I knew him to be a man of few words, a refreshing combination of humorous and erudite, and in possession of more than a little insight into life’s big themes.
“Thank you for your woman”—these are the strange words that came out of my mouth—and I motioned toward the sculpture before us. He looked into my eyes for a short moment and then gracefully answered: “You’re very welcome.”
“I can’t figure out why she, of all three figures, affects me the most. She is the least detailed and the still-est.”
“She is stoic . . . and serene,” he answered. “She has accepted what is, and does not fight it.”
That was it. Especially in comparison to the poor fellow at the side of the boat who appeared to be contemplating a panicky jump overboard and a swim back—to where?—she was instead gathering herself for this journey. She was taking stock. She had opened herself to the real, to change, and was now preparing to be transformed. She was quietly becoming.
Yes, the sculpture was about death. But not only that. It was also about how we live.
The truth is, hard change is a part of life. We need to mark important but sometimes painful passages in order to be able to, like the woman in the boat, consent to let go of the shore. Like her, we need to stop and contemplate the leaving behind in order to grasp the importance of the journey itself. This release begins the necessary transformation from was to is. Release prepares us for what will be.
As I stood in the gallery with my husband, his aging mother, and our adult son contemplating this wise artwork, I saw its relevance to how we live. In its commemoration of the journey that transformation is, this work depicts our own choice: we can try as hard as we can to resist change, or we can accept it.
Celebrancy helps us to discover new lands, because it creates ceremonies that hold sacred a vital and creative space for pause, allowing for acceptance, assessment, and contemplation before we set off toward whatever awaits off shore.