I’ve explored a large number of spiritual traditions. As a youngster, I was trying to find a god that didn’t offend me with its misogyny and bigotry. As an adult and an atheist, out of curiosity about how different cultures deal with the big scary issues facing a living, sentient being. One of the biggest, scariest issues is, of course, dying.
Everything dies, even mountains. So why is it so terrifying? Some Native traditions refer to death as the Great Mystery. That about sums it up, doesn’t it. I’ve had plenty of people in my life go off into that mystery. Relatives of great old age and friends of great tragedy or accident. Nobody has come to tell me what happens next, if anything. So I’m left to deal with the idea of non-existence in whatever way works best for me. We all hope to live long and fabulous lives, but the truth is that death is walking next to all of us, all the time. We don’t know when she’s going to put her hand on our shoulder and say, “Come now. It’s time.” And that’s kind of terrifying.
Even with the wonderful pragmatism of Buddhism in my pocket, it’s a hard thing to give space to in my consciousness. I don’t hold all Buddhist beliefs to be literal truths, but plenty of them hold symbolic water with me. Reincarnation for example. I don’t believe my spirit, if such a thing I do possess, will go anywhere when I die, but I will be in actual fact reincarnated. My body will be broken down into its individual elements by a host of fascinating and necessary creatures and fungi collectively known as “decomposers” and be taken up by the grasses and trees whose roots have found my remains below them (I’m a green burial advocate, so I mean, for all intents and purposes, to be composted), which will then be preyed upon by whatever eats them, and in turn by whatever eats them. So maybe “recycled” is a more accurate term than “reincarnated”, but whatevs. This, to me, is right and proper. I was borrowing those elements from the universe, and I must return them when they’re due. Like a library book. My elements aren’t mine to keep, but belong to the universe collectively, and in time must be loaned out to something else. I could be a nebula someday.
I’m not the first sentient being to deal with things like Life! Death! Universe! symbolically. Art has a long history of being a coping mechanism and method of expressing Shit Too Big To Deal With. So to be honest it always kind of surprises me when people ask me what’s up with all the death. I want to ask them how they deal with it. Not in a judgy way, but I’m legit curious. It’s not even really death, exactly. Just because there are a lot of bones and carrion birds (don’t get me started on bird mythology, because we will be here all night) and whatnot doesn’t make the story specifically about death. The story I’m almost always telling is about transition and in-between-ness (“liminal” is the dictionary word for those people or things in between two states, which spellcheck refuses to believe is a word, but it totally is, you can google it). Dying happens to be the big one for a living thing, so it shows up often, but there are many other liminal states to be meditated on though the medium of art. There is no such thing as an end, only a shift. People don’t cease to exist, they cease to be people. What they are next is pretty open to interpretation depending on your belief system, but the transition part is non-negotiable. A mountain, when it’s no longer a mountain, is dust, sand, magma. It hasn’t disappeared though. People don’t. Planets don’t. Because Library of Universe. Many of my materials are well along the path to returning their elements to it, and I’m there to help. Like a good little decomposer/recycler/agent of karma.
For whatever reasons, people like to make huge, complicated ideas that belong on a continuum into either/or equations. I’ve had to deal with this personally as a card carrying mentally ill person. People like to categorize me as balanced or unbalanced, but the fact is that I’m both, either or neither, depending on the day (or the hour). Sometimes, when my chemistry is chill, I’m very normal. For years I refused to discuss my malfunctioning circuitry with anyone, choosing instead to pretend so hard to be balanced that no one knew what to do with the unbalanced me when it happened. It wasn’t a good way to deal, though it left me with a valuable skill set. To this day I pass so well nobody knows I’m whackadoo unless they’re around me a fair bit. I’ve learned not to have the inside conversations in my outside voice. I’ve learned to respond to being touched like mammals are supposed to instead of flinching, and stopped organizing the pasta alphabetically. Sometimes though, I’m laying on the floor talking to the people that live in my brain who aren’t me, or not being able to leave my house because, AAACK! WORLD! That effort needs expressing somehow, too. The things inside you can’t let off their leashes but that can’t stay inside indefinitely or you lose touch with the difference between subjective reality and the one we all more or less agree is real (don’t get me started on quantum theory or we’ll be here all night).
I’m also a first gen. My parents came here from somewhere else, and like lots of immigrants, they wanted their kids assimilated like, now. So I didn’t grow up with a strong sense of either place. My family was very different from the other kids I knew, but also not like any Latino family I knew either (which, growing up in a very homogeneous suburb, consisted of my Puerto Rican friends from summers in San Juan, so maybe I didn’t have a great representative sample for comparison). I sit between two cultures and don’t feel fully a part of one or the other. People who feel rooted in their culture express their feelings for it all the time through artistic mediums. People who don’t feel rooted though, also have feelings that need dealing with. Feelings of in between-ness and dislocation.
I’m not sure at what exact point I decided that this medium was a good one for expressing All of the Things. The weirdness in my head, my feelings about non-existence, the ways of being in between two sharp points in the world and still feeling authentic. But I did, and it works for me. And I have the huge compliment of being told at every show how well it speaks to other people. People who are liminal people, people who are members of one or another counter culture, but also people whose freak flag doesn’t fly very high at all. People who work with death, grief, or mental illness as part of their jobs. People who occupy places society doesn’t explicitly approve of, or that aren’t well defined. It’s satisfying as hell. I’m really just sitting in my basement playing with glitter and junk and wondering if anyone is going to get this, and it seems that, yeah, they do. Not everyone does, but that’s fine. Not everyone likes shrimp or BMWs.
We all have to deal with Shit Too Big To Deal With in some way or another.