It was a very meaningful for me to be at Portland Community College during Earth Week where I brought my art installation “Momento Mori: Our Oceans in Crisis”. I had some powerful conversations with a diverse group of people from all over the world and dedicated our mandala to the people of Micronesia. One student, a kindhearted man from these small islands in the Western Pacific Ocean shared with me: “I am a climate refugee. My people are leaving their homeland to relocate to Australia and other countries due to rising sea levels and contaminated food sources from oil spills from tankers.” He was very grateful for my message as he feels that the world has not acknowledged them. He put a very real face to the climate crisis.
Many of the young students also gave me hope. After viewing my exhibit, a young woman shared with me that she felt sad. When I asked how she processes her sorrow around ecological issues, she said she goes to the beach and picks up other people’s garbage. Action is indeed the antidote to despair.
I put together a list of suggestions of what each of us can do on a daily basis to make a difference including self care and ways to get involved. You can view that here: What You Can Do Flyer
You can learn more about the nature mandala ceremony here.
For love of the EARTH!
Memento Mori is the Medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality.
This installation creates space to make visible what is invisible. To question: What are we willing to “see” and acknowledge? Do we veil ourselves to mask feelings of despair around the truth of a changing world including climate change and species extinction? Do we have the courage to bear witness to the beauty of our world, to break open our hearts for what we are losing, and be inspired to take actions to protect life on earth?
Much of what is now threatened by the ecological crisis isn’t visible to the human eye such as plankton, microscopic organisms that float on the surface of our oceans. Plankton comes from the Greek planktos meaning wandering or drifting. The neon-colored phytoplankton are responsible for half of the carbon dioxide that is naturally removed from the atmosphere. As well as being vital to climate control, phytoplankton produces as much oxygen as all the forests and terrestrial plants combined. However, some scientists argue that we have lost 40% over the past 60 years. What now? New research also illustrates the staggering amount of plastic being ingested by zooplankton, the foundation of our marine food chain. On average, we are losing 200 species per day.
Our grief is born of love and by allowing ourselves to feel our despair, we also discover gratitude for the miracle of life. With this exhibit, we are able to “see” that our very existence is intricately linked to the health of plankton and our oceans, both of which are currently under stress from our current way of life. Seeing the fragile beauty of these organisms, we recognize our innate interconnectedness in the web of life and respond with actions to slow the damage.
There is hope. I believe we each have the power to make a difference in our day-to-day lives—economically, politically, and in our consumer choices. I also believe in the power of human creativity and that each one of us has a gift to offer our world in service to other beings and to the earth. I invite you to find that one thing that breaks open your heart and that inspires you to, in the word of Gandhi, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Profound gratitude to Christian Sardet and The Macronauts, Plankton Chronicles project for permission to use their photography for this project. planktonchronicles.org
From my November Newsletter:
In our sleep,
pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop
upon the heart
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful
grace of God.
I first discovered this quote from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus while doing research in graduate school a decade ago. Robert Kennedy had recited this to a crowd during a campaign stop upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Kennedy was speaking to a grieving nation and it also resonated deeply with my own grief journey after the deaths of my brother and mother 25 years ago.
If we don’t turn away and numb the pain, those profound moments of loss that we all experience have the power to break open our hearts and to remind us of that which is most essential. Love, family (biological or chosen), health, community…a peaceful, sustainable, and just world. And for me, beauty and art of course.
Today, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the abhorrent backlash against those of the Islamic faith, most of whom likewise desire a safe home, food on the table, and a peaceful world, may we have the wisdom to recognize that we are one human family.
I continue to be inspired by my experience at the Parliament of World Religions last month with so many inspiring visionaries from all faith traditions. A Sikh woman, Valerie Kaur, spoke of Revolutionary Love. I’m attaching the video link here and hope that you will be equally as inspired by her message.
Like many of you, I feel deeply the heaviness of our world but give thanks for this precious gift of life in all its complexities and possibilities. Thank you for your support and as always, I welcome your thoughts.
A blessed Thanksgiving to all.
In gratitude and love,
Twenty-five years ago I never thought I would see a sign that read, “The Beginning of the End of AIDS.” Today is World AIDS Day and I just viewed part of the on-line panel discussion with former president Bill Clinton, Bono, physicians, scientists, and global activists working to end the AIDS pandemic. This sign was on the wall behind the panel. I was moved to tears by the end of the conversation when they read off the numerous organizations working to eradicate this horrific disease from the planet. They believe it is possible. Wow. Back in the early days of the epidemic, when my brother, his partner, and so many other young gay men were dying and first diagnosed there were few agencies (The Gay Men’s Health Crisis was the only one in NYC) working on the frontlines of the disease and there was so much denial and fear. Even our political leaders refused to acknowledge what was happening. Reagan and Bush, Sr. never mentioned AIDS while in office and for a long time I blamed both of them for my brother’s death. The late 80s. A different era.
As I’ve shared here before (click to read), art has always been my way of processing deep feelings, especially my grief in the wake of my brother’s (and my mother) death. I credit art for saving my life during those dark years and you can see some paintings from my early years by clicking here. The painting shown above titled “Scarlet in A Wind” was inspired by the song a former friend of mine wrote for me about my loss and love for my beloved brother Richard. The red ribbon being the AIDS ribbon. As we mourn and remember all the precious beings who have been taken by this disease, may we also celebrate those angels among us who are working tirelessly to end the suffering of all those who continue to live with HIV/AIDS. May it be so.
Scarlet in a Wind
Sad ribbons blowing
Scarlet in a wind.
Sad ribbons blowing
Twisting ‘round her heart.
Thoughts flying skyward
“Dearest angels in the sky
I had no time to say good-bye.
Your greedy wings took him away.
I didn’t know it would be today.
Didn’t you know that he wanted to stay?
All of my tears couldn’t keep you away.
Golden harps sang too soon.
Wind from your wings swept through the room.
Why did you need him so soon.
We needed time to grow and bloom.
All the things he might have been
are erasing in the night.
A father with child or a funny old man.
Now a dad lives on past his son.
Too soon. Too soon.
Tell him I love him.
Tell him I care.
Tell him one day
I will be there.”
© 1996, Joanne Nelsen
Although my grief has subsided over time, I can’t help but feel a few pangs of sorrow on Mother’s Days. Like many of us, I am missing mother love from the woman who gave birth to me. Hard to believe it will be twenty years next month since my mom died suddenly from heart failure. I was out of the country at the time and returned home a day too late, to find her gone—poof—vanished into thin air, or so it seemed. It had only been ten days since I left but it felt like I had just waved goodbye to her as I headed to the airport for my vacation to Bora Bora. The last thing she said to me was: “I hope you have so much fun that you don’t finish your book.” Then she was gone. She died nine months after my brother’s death from AIDS. Not being a mother myself, I can only imagine how heart wrenching it was for her to see her only beloved son suffer in such pain in those final weeks, days, moments. I felt the anguish having been present as well but not through the lens of a mother. Friends who are parents now tell me it is their worst nightmare. I couldn’t ease her pain.
During that same period of time, my brother’s partner also died as well as a very close friend of mine from a brain hemorrhage. There was so much death around me. I was broken and ill prepared at that age to deal with my grief. I also didn’t have guidance or the wisdom to find my way through this emotional landscape and I began a rapid descent into darkness.
To the world, I probably appeared to be functioning but on the inside and when alone, I was nearly suicidal. St. John of the Cross and what is now commonly referred to as the “dark night of the soul” were unknown to me then but looking back I see that descent as the initiation into my spiritual journey and it took a decade to fully emerge into the light—a dark cloud having comfortably settled in above me over the years. Aside from the possibility of a few guardian angels, I believe what “saved” me early on was finding a compassionate therapist and the act of painting. [Shown here is my painting that honors what my mother loved most. Her wedding dress (my father), gardenia (her favorite flower), our home in New Hamsphire, and her five children.] This is why I believe so passionately in holy listening and creativity to transform the wounded heart and why I feel called to bring these healing modalities to others on their journey as well. This is the gift that has emerged out of my dark night of the soul. Gifts from my mother. Compassion. Being of service to others as well as to the healing of the Earth.
There are many gifts that emerge out of our suffering and numerous examples of this happening in our world today. In our grief, we often begin to ask deeper questions about the meaning of life. Why am I here? What is my purpose? How best can I serve? Our suffering brings life more fully into focus and enlivens us to what is most essential. For most of us, that is LOVE. Love of the other, family, the beloved, God/Spirit. And for me, love of the Earth. Tomorrow we will celebrate and remember our mothers. I honor my mother and bow to all mothers around the globe for their tireless devotion to raising our children—our future generations. What a sacred task they have in our world. Blessed be! And may we also celebrate the Great Mother of us all, Mother Earth who gives and sustains all life. May we honor and protect her from harm. May we send a prayer of healing to the Gulf of Mexico and all the creatures who are and will be affected by this crisis. In gratitude and love.
Here is a poem written by my late brother for my mother:
In my mother I see this lady of grace
An uncertain mystery ‘neath filmy lace.
She is mine and she is yours, shining
Like twin suns in our own starry night.
Unconquerable and undiminished, she is our light;
And so, guiding us through rocky terrain
As if only ‘twere casual summer rain.
How my thoughts do run to thee
In any chosen season, be it shimmering
Spring or a faltering fall, you visit
Me in my peaceful sleep like the
Kiss of sweet angels sent from heaven
To be my recompense in the long nights silence.
Rejoice, my fragrant soulful woman,
womb of this all too solid flesh,
Celebrate the love of all whom you know
And I will see you when summer breezes blow.
–Richard H Livingstone, Jr. (1974)
It has been another month since my last post here. I am just now getting psychically grounded after I was rear-ended at a traffic light on the 26th of last month. Like most of us, I was simply going about my life. In this particular case, I was heading to the market for a loaf of bread to go with my mother’s ‘famous’ spaghetti which had been simmering all afternoon in preparation for dinner with a dear friend that evening. It was raining and dark, but I was was feeling very alive and joyous, singing, when my car was suddenly struck with great force from behind. I have been in a few small fender benders in my life, but for some reason this particular accident struck a deep cord in me. The accident literally stopped me in my tracks and I have been sitting with the notion of impermanence more attentively these days. I have been a student of Buddhism for many years, both in my meditation practice and as a framework in which to encounter life. Certainly the teachings around suffering—the First Noble Truth being that suffering exists—offered me great insight and comfort when I was in a very dark night of the soul twenty years ago after the deaths of my mother and brother (among others at the time). But it has been twenty years since I have experienced the death of someone close to me except several of my beloved four-leggeds. Like all of us, I have had my share of disappointments—loss of friendships and lovers, but no physical deaths close to my heart. I seem overdue somehow. On a smaller scale however, my accident—which totaled my car and left me with some neck injuries—was also another reminder for me of my mortality and how quickly life changes. Change. Impermanence. The cycle of life, like the cycles of nature. I wonder, do we need these traumas, small and large, in order to remember how precious every moment is when we get too complacent about life? I believe there is some truth to this (and wrote about this in my master’s thesis) because these experiences often bring us more fully into the present moment and closer to Spirit, or God. “The wailing of the broken heart is the doorway to God.” —Rumi (Trans: Coleman Barks). Last night, we held a sweat lodge ceremony at my spiritual community for one of our members who is journeying through a dark night of the soul after a series of familial deaths. There amidst the darkness, in the womb of Mother Earth, we each spoke of our grief and loss—both recent and distant—as well as the darkness that comes before the light and the gifts that grow out of our suffering (however long that process takes). We remember that we are grieving because we dared to love so much. It was beautiful, healing, and an honor to bear witness to the deep sharing from the heart.
Over the past two decades, I have worked to not take life for granted, to see the beauty everyday even amidst the grief at times, and acknowledge that death is an inevitable fact of life. As a result, I ask myself often: “What it is that I am here to do, to be?” But life, as it will, happens and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in busyness or fear especially now with a deep recession and our world in the midst of change. My accident forced me to slow down, stop, and so I am asking the question again and realize that I have been attempting to do too much. I believe we all have many gifts, but also that there is one gift that we are here to serve, to bring to the world. “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” —Buddha. And in answering the question for me, art is always at the forefront of this conversation. How can art and beauty be a vehicle for healing ourselves and our world. I quote this often but feel it bears repeating many many times! “How do we find beauty in a broken world? By creating beauty in the world we find.” —Terry Tempest Williams
So, it is with humble gratitude that I allow myself to be a messenger for spirit to work through me in order that I might create art/beauty that moves the heart. I don’t normally show my work until it is complete but several people have asked me about my process lately, so I wanted to post these photos from my studio. The teal Buddha is complete as you can see on my web site and waiting for its owner to take possession. Inspired by my process in creating the Buddha, the feminine face of the Buddhist tradition asked to be revealed as well, so Kuan Yin or the Goddess of Compassion (She Who Hears the Cries of the World) called out to me. I am answering that call. In closing, from Spiritual Artist, Alex Grey’s book, Art Psalms.
Life is always lived at risk.
We may grow complacent
And not realize it.
We may not smell the fresh sweat
Of anxiety or excitement,
But what are we breathing for?
Touch the nerve of passion
And live for greatness.
Fear of failure stops many,
But Death stops everyone.
So love without restraint,
Create the New,
Follow the courage of your highest dreams.
Fate favors your daring.
Risk surrendering to Love,
And gain your Soul.