Death and Neckaces

Ok. I started a very long post a few days ago and it got erased!  Then I spent a lot of time finishing the post and part of that got erased! Major frustration!!! I’m feeling blog post guilt for not posting in so long!

I thought of calling this post “Death or Necklaces”, but, as is the way of blog writing, I know there will turn out to be some connection between the two topics. Already they are connected, as the main topics related to art therapy and psychology that came up while I was on vacation in the woods upstate.

On my vacation, I brought only several books with me all of which were related to therapy; luckily I was reading “Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass” out loud to my daughter every night to offset the fact that I didn’t bring any “vacation” books, such as novels. (Note: good rule for next vacation and for other therapists, only bring books unrelated to our profession when going on vacation or staycation.) The main book that had a huge effect on me was Yalom’s “Staring at The Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death”. I started reading it the first night and couldn’t stop myself from reading it every night, until about page 248, when I had to stop, as it had become too overwhelming. I think this happened somewhere in the middle of vacation. I found myself thinking too much about death, dying, death anxiety, and loss. I know the book brought me to the point of tears, but oddly I can’t remember what it was that I was reading in it that did that. I’m also not sure what I was reading about when I put the book down. I had already read his chapter about his own experiences with death and death anxiety…

Oddly enough, a long vacation already has an element of loss and awareness of how the present slips into the past and how the future is limited, as the “longer than a week” vacation has a beginning, middle and end. Having about 18 days away afforded me the kind of reflection about the vacation itself that was due to its length and my being hyper aware of the vacation’s having an end date, the “death” or “expiration date” of the vacation… For, in contrast, with a short week’s vacation, one barely has time to get used to it before it is over. So this book topic oddly resonated with my having my first long vacation as a therapist, and as an adult actually, as I never before took such a long vacation,at least in the past 15 or 20 years…

I spent most of that time in the woods with my family, on a small pond populated mostly by frogs and a few crayfish. The frogs were a highlight of our stay at our friends’ “Froggy Pond Cabin”. A daily activity involved going out in the paddle boat and spotting frogs. As they are well camouflaged both day and night, it was very exciting to find a frog at the edge of the pond, and then just sitting and watching a frog, as, surprisingly, many of them sit quietly in the same place not moving at all, even hearing us talk to them and about them or at night shining a flashlight on them. Each evening as the sun set, the place was filled with a chorus of frogs croaking, calling to each other. At times I could also hear frogs in some other nearby pond. Their voices were wondrous and strangely had no connection whatsoever to the “ribbit” frog talk in the English language. (At least “moo” is a close enough approximation to a cow’s real sound!)

I mention the frogs to start the topic of being far away from the city in nature and strangely, very close to death all around us. The first night we were there I was not that surprised to find the corpses of 2 dead mice in the house, which had decayed to such a point that their skeletons were viewable. Last year, staying at the same place, I had found a mouse newly dead and seen some live mice, so I was very aware that I would likely encounter a dead mouse. I have seen many dead mice in my lifetime but nothing like these two. They looked like they could soon become fossils. Somehow the extra time of their being dead, the idea that they had died long before we got there, to discover them like that was very strange and the eerie feeling it brought up stayed with me as the vacation continued. They were under a bed, and I developed an irrational fear of seeing them again, as well as guilt at the edge of my mind that I wanted to clean up this mess, but couldn’t bring myself to do it as they seemed enmeshed with the carpet. There was something very spooky about accidentally spotting them with my flashlight at bedtime with my daughter, who may have even asked to look at them. It was also strange as Alice in Wonderland encounters a live talking mouse soon after arriving at the bottom of the rabbit hole. The aliveness of the creatures in that book was even more interesting as we encountered some out in real life, both alive and dead. We saw live moving caterpillars and dead ones, all sorts of spiders, mostly alive, and many other insects including some creepy variety I was unable to recognize, as well as one dead frog found at the end of vacation, which was saddest of all, as we had become so friendly with the frogs.

I go on about dead animals as well as live ones and fictional talking ones because dead creatures of other species are all around us, and usually we remain unaware of them. Of course every time you enter a supermarket, no matter what you eat, there are dead animals there… The first night when I began the book with his introduction to the concept of death anxiety, I had a premonition that I would have a dream about death, and I did.

I dreamed about having a dog that was only 2 and dying of cancer. I was talking to the vet who was telling me it was over and I had a hard time believing her because the dog was so young. The dog was the same kind of unusual dog my close friend had and recently lost in a very traumatic sudden manner a few weeks prior. Also, in the dream, my own dog, who died in 2009, was there in the background, a kind of ghostly presence. It was a very sad and emotional dream and very vivid.  The dream resonated on many levels. The obvious one was that it was about a recent loss my friend experienced that touched me, and about my own loss of my dog. What did not occur to me until now while writing about it is the idea of the dream being about my own death anxiety, if I look a little deeper or apply the idea that everyone in the dream is me. Perhaps I was telling myself to live as though I had very little time to live. A few days later, when I told my daughter about the dream because she was curious, I was struck by her saying, “Oh you had that dream because you are do sad about Claude (my friend’s dog who died suddenly and traumatically), and you think about it a lot.” She was right in terms of the vivid urgency of the dream and seemed more aware than I about the effect of Claude’s death upon me. Her short life experience of death is of my own dog’s death, so she senses a lot about my own sensitivity to dogs. She remembers him and learned a lot about death because of it. My own experiences of death that I remember, besides having turtles and a hamster, happened when I was much older and lost my first beloved grandmother at about age 13, though I am sure I thought a lot about how strange death is and what happens when you die, and other typical childhood wonders about being put in a box in the ground, etc. Being a native New Yorker, I have more vivid memories about my concern with garbage and where it is dumped. (Recycling did not exist.) I remember spending a lot of time being freaked out by the idea that there is a limit to the space on earth, and how do we manage to keep generating garbage, where does it go, and why does it not overpower us because of the constant continuance of it. What will we do when we have no more room to put the garbage? I think this coincided with my wondering about dead bodies accumulating and a limited amount of space for them. It still bewilders me that at some point there will be no more space for cemeteries…

What struck me about this book was the author’s philosophical approach to death and death anxiety. He is a therapist, but quoted a lot of philosophies to his patients and discussed philosophers and philosophy a lot in the book, as they deal a lot with the subject of death and human existence. Questions arose about what makes a life meaningful, how do we deal with the fact that many years from now even our most famous authors and philosophers may not survive? Our art will likely be eventually destroyed, millions of years from now, so even the idea of living on through what we make is ultimately an illusion and delusion. The only thing that can save us from the anxiety of nothingness and not being or even being remembered is his idea of the concept of “rippling” like water in a pond, our effects upon others in our relationships, whether as friend or mentor, that is, to, in life, have a meaningful effect upon others. I agree with Yalom that when we die we cease to exist. That’s it. Concepts of reincarnation or after life are just false comforts for death anxiety. To really deal with our death anxiety we have to face our mortality and accept that we will disappear completely. Although unlike Yalom, I believe in synchronicity and unconscious connections and sometimes maybe in some idea of fate or that things happen for a reason, ultimately I have to agree that death just happens and that’s that. There is no explanation for babies and children dying. Or our pets dying too young or dying at all. It doesn’t happen for a reason. The only way to deal with the fact of death and our own mortality is to live as much as possible in the present moment. It’s why we are drawn to dogs, cats and children. They bring us into the present moment so we can indeed be here now. Sex functions the same way. I have seen countless movies where people seem to be inexplicably drawn to having sex after a funeral, for the obvious reason that it is a way to move away from thinking about dying and that our lives will end like blowing out a candle.

“Staring at the Sun”, Yalom calls this book because we really can’t do it for too long, or we get blinded. We need to be aware of our own anxiety about our own death, but we can’t be too preoccupied with it, or we will cease to live. The only unanswered questions I felt he did not address were about suicide and suicide fantasies. Those people who fly straight into the sun and have their wings melted, what about them, the people who deal with death anxiety by trying to control death and take their own lives? He does not grapple with that subject, though he has plenty to say about his experiences of working with people who know their time is limited and that they will die soon, and how much he has learned from these very awake people. I was also just curious about other aspects of suicidal ideation, such as people who fantasize about being dead and at peace as well as the phenomenon of a person failing at a suicide and reporting that in the middle of it, s/he changed his/her mind about it. Did  death anxiety save such a person, or the desire to have more life? Probably these two ideas are tied together.

We all fantasize about peeking in at our own funerals. What would people be saying about me? we think. Another useful fantasy is to imagine that you are told you have a month or a week left to live. What would you do differently? If your answers look very different from your life right now, you know you have urgent work to do in therapy and in your life. If your answers are close to your present life, you are living more fully, but there are always changes to make and ways to awaken yourself more now here while you are still breathing. In my family we have a goodbye ritual when any of us are leaving the house, that, though a quick one, serves as a way to ensure that even if tension was in the air about something, we know we acknowledged our bond before the possibility of ultimate separation. As I not only live in NYC but close to Ground Zero, I am hyper aware of the concept of leaving the house or someone else leaving and never seeing each other again…

Bringing me to the topic of necklaces… On my vacation I made a lot of art with and without my 4 year old, so my art was very influenced by the materials we used as is usual. The one different thing for me was a sudden desire to use beads and make necklaces. It probably started before vacation when I took my daughter to Beads of Paradise in New York City, and we picked out beads and made necklaces. I had thought of it as a fun activity to do wuth her, but when I got home, I hunted out my beads that I bought years ago on a trip to new Mexico and made another necklace. It was then that I had that “aha” moment when you do something without thinking about it, and suddenly you really like it. So on vacation I brought those beads with me and got obsessed with not only making necklaces but getting more beads and sorting the beads by color and starting a kind of collection of beads. It became my alone meditative time at the cabin because my daughter did not show interest in beading.

Sitting outside and putting beads on a string was a discovery similar to my discovery of knitting many years ago. I didn’t take jewelry making of any kind or beads too seriously when I started learning about art therapy. I had the usual bias that somehow it wasn’t as creative as drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. That bias disappeared over the years as I witnessed the therapeutic effect of working with beads and other media traditionally thought of as “crafts” rather than “art”.

In any case, I had a few stray thoughts about beading as a process and what makes it so enjoyable and therapeutic. For one thing, it is like origami in that it is shown in the moment. While origami can be a performance akin to a magic trick, the necklace is also “finished” and has a definite end point. Wearing your own art can be empowering, and I’m sure it’s a part of what inspires people to become jewelry designers. Making a necklace out of colored beads also has the feeling of taking part in folk art and traditionally thought of as “woman” folk art activities such as quilting. The necklace, like the vacation and the life span, has a beginning, middle and end. I was making long necklaces so the middle became the focal point where I had the most fun picking out the extender and the special beads to put on it, and then continuing up the other side, carefully trying to copy whatever pattern I had invented for the first half of the necklace. (Note: this is where my writing got erased, so I’m not sure I remember everything I said on this topic…

For some reason, making these necklaces (see below for some photos of some of the ones I made), reminded me of the three fates in Greek Mythology. Definitely one of them is spinning something that has an end to it and is meant to represent the individual’s fate, life span, etc. Interestingly, the three fates are older unattractive women:

The Moirai were described as ugly old women, sometimes lame. They were severe, inflexible and stern. Clotho carries a spindle or a roll (the book of fate), Lachesis a staff with which she points to the horoscope on a globe, and Atropos (Aisa) a scroll, a wax tablet, a sundial, a pair of scales, or a cutting instrument. At other times the three were shown with staffs or sceptres, the symbols of dominion, and sometimes even with crowns. At the birth of each man they appeared spinning, measuring, and cutting the thread of life. (Quote lifted from Wikipedia.)

Besides the meditative quality of the repetitious action of beading, there is the linear quality to it, with one following another. When I made mistakes I had to take out all the beads up to the mistake and start again. Of course now I think I had some profound thoughts connecting death awareness to necklace making, and I have no idea what they were… Another interesting point Yalom makes in his book is that we often live with a false presumption of immortality or of death always being far into the future. He uses the example of starting to write a book with the assumption that one will be alive to finish it. I would even venture to say that some procrastination connected to writing or finishing a written work may be related to an underlying death anxiety. Anyway, making these necklaces is not quite the same process as they do not take so long to make. Another interesting point is the accidental dropping of beads and sudden loss of a pattern.

Ultimately there are many connections between actual death, death anxiety, separation and loss, hyperconciousness, forgetting the fact of one’s own death, the living dead, etc. One thing that struck me as sad is the difference between a memory, which in some ways represents a lost moment in the past, that one can never have back, and the gaps in memory of one’s own life story; for some reason, I get sadder at the idea that so much of my life involves moments and episodes of living that I have no memory of. Having a dim memory or an awareness that the memory may not be factual is not quite as bad as the “blackout” of moments of life. However, memory and time could be a whole topic on their own…