Whenever there’s a death in the family, I feel like I’ve been smacked in the face with the truth that nothing is permanent. I am never ready to say goodbye and I cannot imagine life without this person. Without their laugh, or guidance, or love. How can the days just go on as if everything is still all right? How can this huge loss feel so insignificant to the world? How can we love knowing it will lead to loss?
When I wrote a few months ago about the Tibetan sand mandalas, many people commented to me that it was such a shame to destroy the artwork. After weeks or months of meticulously building the patterns and pouring the grains of sand, they wiped away the design. Why would they do that? Because it is the perfect symbol of art imitating life. Nothing is permanent. Everything can be gone in a few moments. And yet it is still important to create a labor of love. The mandala’s beautiful story is laid out, with layer upon layer of meaning. It is built upon years of knowledge, experience, and patience. The monks treat each grain of sand as an essential and important part of the whole. In the end though, we are left with pictures as the only evidence that something so beautiful existed.
I can’t help but think of nights star gazing. There are two different feelings we get when gazing at the stars and planets twinkling back at us from across the universe.
One- we feel tiny. We feel insignificant. We realize that there are millions of suns, each with planets, and our Earth is just a grain of sand in the wide ocean of space. Me standing on this Earth is just one of 7.5 billion other people standing on this grain of sand. My lifetime of (almost) 40 years is a blink of an eye compared to the 200,000 years of modern humans roaming the Earth. My joy, my pain, my heartache, my celebrations, they’re all in a few minutes of time passing by and are then… gone. In the grand scheme of things my worries are just one breath in the atmosphere.
Or two- we feel connected. We feel meaningful. We realize that the glow from those distant stars took light years to travel here in order for us to see it. All the millions of years of the stars burning, the Earth spinning, hundreds of thousands of years of humans evolving, people coming together in love and making generations upon generations of children, the thousands of choices of my life all adding together to push me forward on my path, it has all lead to this moment of gazing at the sky and appreciating the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of it all. The beach has no beauty without each grain of sand joining and flowing together to form the shore. I am a piece of the whole. As Carl Sagan said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” We are part of this huge, never ending expanse of space and time.
Grief is a mixture of these two feelings. Realizing that although this time of pain feels like it will last forever, in truth time will pass and the pain will change. It will lead to new knowledge and patience, it will help us design a new pattern for the rest of our lives. Like the sand mandalas, someday we too will be swept away and our loved ones will mourn our loss. Nothing is permanent. It all flutters and swirls around us and we are a part of the whole. We are made of starstuff and we return to it.
With these thoughts in mind, I painted my latest works of art. I painted people with no boundaries. Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.” I painted these women in that light, with the understanding that there is movement and change in our little universes. We are full of light and energy and connections. We are full of darkness and chaos and stardust.