This painting is symbolic of the fleeting nature of life, as well as the cyclical Life/Death/Life nature that is part of our existence.
“The Life/Death/Life forces are part of our own nature, part of an inner authority that knows the steps, knows the dance of Life and Death. It is composed of the aspects of ourselves who know when something can, should, and must be born and when it must die.”
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from Women Who Run With the Wolves
In 2007, I went to Boston for the first time on a trip through New England. I saw amazing parts of American history, like the Old North Church, where Paul Revere displayed the signal lanterns to warn the people about the British troops arriving; the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time to the public; and the Granary Burial Grounds, where Paul Revere and Samuel Adams were laid to rest.
While touring the Granary Burial Grounds, the grave markers stood out to me. This symbol, the winged skull or death’s head, was on many of the graves.
Eerily beautiful, I was curious about it and wanted to know more.
I learned that the winged skull or "death's head" was the first gravestone design of the colonies and is tied to the Puritans, who were opposed to any type of religious icons because of their ties to Catholocism. The symbol was meant to serve as a graphic reminder of death and resurrection.
I was intrigued by it and filed it away somewhere in my memory.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I started reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.
If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. I’m only partially done reading it and I’ve underlined and earmarked almost continuously.
Chapter 5 is called Hunting: When the Heart is a Lonely Hunter and it tells the legend of the Skeleton Woman: Facing the Life/Death/Life Nature of Love. It’s about how true love relationships, and how life in general, require submission to this life/death/life nature to be fully embraced and enjoyed.
Here are some excerpts that stood out to me:
“We have been taught that death is always followed by more death. It is simply not so, death is always in the process of incubating new life, even when one’s existence has been cut down to the bones.”
“It is true that within a single love relationship there are many endings. Yet, somehow and somewhere in the delicate layers of the being that is created when two people love one another, there is both a heart and breath. While one side of the heart empties, the other fills. When one breath runs out, another begins.”
“Poets understand that there is nothing of value without death. Without death there are no lessons, without death there is no dark for the diamond to shine from.”
“Skeleton Woman, … can also be understood as a woman’s unused and misused Life/Death/Life force. In her vital and resurrected form, she governs the intuitive and emotive abilities to complete the life cycles of birthings and endings, grievings and celebrations. She is the one who peers at things. She can tell when it is time for a place, a thing, an act, a group, or a relationship to die.”
“What dies? Illusion dies, expectations die, greed for having it all, for wanting to have all be beautiful only, all this dies. Because love always causes a descent into the Death nature, we can see why it takes abundant self-power and soulfulness to make that commitment.”
“Love costs. It costs bravery. It costs going the distance.”
“To love means to stay with. It means to emerge from a fantasy world into a world where sustainable love is possible, face to face, bones to bones, a love of devotion. To love means to stay when every cell says ‘run!’”
“What is the not-beautiful? Our own secret hunger to be loved is the not-beautiful. Our disuse and misuse of love is the not-beautiful.”
These are pretty amazing words.
Reading this chapter about the Skeleton Woman and what she symbolizes brought to mind those winged skulls that I had seen ten years ago in Boston. I kept thinking about them and if you’re an artist like me, you know that sometimes there are just things that come to your mind that you need to paint or create.
I kept putting it off because it seemed too dark, too morbid. But honestly, it’s the farthest thing from that. Yes, the skull is a symbol of death. But it’s also a reminder of life. The mix of the skull with the wings is beautiful to me.
Not only is it symbolic of life after physical death, but it’s also symbolic of so much else.
Life after emotional death. Life after trauma. Life after fear. Learning that true love means part of us has to die and come back to life. Learning that to be fully alive, we must face the darkest parts of ourselves. Our deepest fears have to come to the surface and see the light or we will live half dead.
Memento Mori literally means “Remember Death”. Remember that you could leave this earth today. Remember that to live and be fully human and fully alive, you have to face that one day death will come. Accept that it’s okay that there are some things in our lives that need to die in order for us to move forward and take care of ourselves.
Maybe it’s time for a relationship to die. Or maybe it’s time for us to let go of that fantasy world and face the reality of true love and “touch the non-beautiful in another and in ourselves” as a path to a deeper love.
Or maybe it’s time for a job to die. A fear. A tradition.
Some things have to die for new things to be born.
Death is scary. But it’s part of life. We have to face our fear of death to find new life. Literally and figuratively.
I hope this painting and these thoughts help me and you to appreciate life today by remembering that it’s fragile. I hope it also helps me and you ask ourselves what needs to die in our lives so that we can generate more life?