If I had to tear open my insides and look straight at the heart of my worst, darkest, scariest secrets, what would they look like? With this piece, “By the Grave and Thee,” I didn’t want to overthink my primal fears. I wanted to put a face on death, the ultimate fear.
In seeking imagery for my idea, my first impulse was to look at archetypal symbols used in various cultures. I wasn’t surprised to see the owl used in many cultures throughout time to represent the dark side of life. Actually, the owl isn’t seen as the scary or evil one, but as the one who sees through the darkness. He is the revealer of secrets. I thought him a perfect guide for this piece.
And then I couldn’t resist using some of my favorite religious imagery from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The Darmapala Yama from Tantric tradition and Kali, the Hindu destroyer of death have always fascinated me, because in my culture angry red people with skull necklaces, sticky-outy tongues, and sharp teeth tend to be interpreted as the opposite of the good guy. Yet these Gods of Wrath are the dispellers of darkness. You would definitely want them on your side when facing your worst fears.
I dressed the owl in a skeleton costume because there it is a pretty clear symbol in our society of the dead. It rings of death, but the fact that is a recognizable outfit for parading around late in October makes it a benign and sort of funny rendition of the real thing.
In the end I depicted not the dreaded monster of evil that lurks within (if there is one) but an army of defenders against such darkness. In seeking the most fearful imagery and the animal most associated with the night I found characters that were accustomed to the dark side of things. They face the darkness on a constant basis. It’s their job. For the owl, sustenance comes from the night. In the case of the wrathful Gods, their whole nature is shaped by it. This idea helped me to rethink my perceptions of dark and scary things. It became about my ability to reveal secrets.
The minute I decided to turn around and look at the nightmarish stuff that might be haunting me I immediately took some of the mystery out of it. Just the intention of painting this piece took some courage, and that is a step in the direction of seeing clearer. I’ve heard that we’re only as sick as our secrets. Being willing to reveal my secrets was the impetus for the painting, and as soon as I decided upon it, I had a sense of adventure and curiosity. (A bit of trepidation wasn’t far behind.) I stopped seeing the unknown as dreadful and started wanting it to show itself.
My intention to peek into the shadows isn’t simple because I’ve been using distractions to avoid it. Those engrossing diversions (as seen in my paintings) have to become more uncomfortable than the idea of facing who I am without them. My diversionary tactics are known to me. They are comfortable, no matter how festering and ineffective they’ve become. They keep me hidden and in the long run create more pain than what I’m running from. The thing is with the secrets that lay beneath the diversions: I don’t know how painful they are until I look.
Seeing my dark side does require some helpful, kick-ass guides. It’s not pretty in there. If we’ve been alive very long, we all experience nasty stuff. And we’ve done nasty stuff. I don’t have to look far in this world to see wicked situations and behaviors. If I stick my head in the sand and say, “This isn’t happening,” I live in a half-alive dream world where I miss out on reality. I may have difficult emotions about the dark side of life, but if I want to be an engaged human I must find a way to experience them without being “taken away” by them. If I witness the painful awfulness and can say, “I feel fear and guilt,” (or what have you) I give the object of my observation permission to just be there. I don’t have to take it on as a task to fix, a burden to bear, a foe to overcome, a sign of ultimate doom, or a monster that will destroy me. I don’t have to do anything but observe. The lessons it has are inherent in it and unfold on their own accord.
If I ever feel like I’m hot stuff for being a good example of whatever role I’ve taken on, whether it be for my career, my role at home, or my status as a good citizen, my ever-present dark side can remind me I might not want to boast too much or too long. My humanness and its inherent dark side is synonymous with my propensity to make mistakes from a place of distorted perspective. It shows itself with plentiful regularity, giving me ample opportunity to learn lessons, experience a broad spectrum of emotions and thoughts, and above all, to desire humility as a running state of mind. Humility demands equanimity—seeing all parts of myself with unconditional acceptance. With humility my dark side has no power to destroy me, make me ashamed or feel crazy. It recognizes the darkness as no more threatening than a dark night. Becoming more comfortable with my dark side makes me more like the owl. I can be more skilled at revealing my own secrets and more at peace with whatever I find.
So what are the owl and the Gods of Wrath protecting me from? The “real” bad and scary thing that I need protection from is ignorance. The denial of faults, the lies I tell myself that keep my eyes closed and my heart shut. The fear of this and that, the myriad emotions that protect me from even admitting I feel fear. Lack of knowledge [based in lack of faith] keeps me in a hellish prison where the same mistakes keep repeating themselves and I refuse to see. The thing is, the minute I decide to look at this ignorance, or even have the willingness to do so, I open a floodgate of Grace that begins the healing process. The very act of opening my mind to the idea that there might be something wrong, and that I might look at it someday, is an unlocking of possibility. Even in its feeble intentionality, it begins breaking down barriers. It is wrapped in Hope, the immense and powerful foe of ignorance.
The act of painting this piece gave me a whole new outlook on death and fear. I was reminded of the Day of the Dead, a grand party dedicated to the remembrance of our deceased loved ones, and a celebratory tribute to that looming transition that will come to us all. The Day of the Dead flies in the face of our cultural tendency to hide death, shove it in a stinky corner, and speak of it with woe and dread. Far from being a miserable affair, the carnival is a heartfelt commemoration of our ancestors, and brings to the subject of death ideas such as reverence, humor, community, creation, memory, inspiration, and devotion. These ideas open our hearts to viewing death as the natural and even beautiful part of existence that it is.
The process of completing my owl painting became more than a revealer of secrets and a peek at fear and death. It evolved into a devotional tribute to that great aspect of being I once sought most to avoid. Becoming more comfortable with my shadows is by definition a furtherance of emotional maturity—benefit enough for my investigation. But to have gone deeper to find not just tolerance but reverence for death and fear, that was the big surprise. I am still taking in my newfound perspective and finding more to be curious about. What a revelation when you poke your nose into the last place you want to look!