I realize I’ve had a long latency in my blog posting. It has been a busy, busy few weeks. First, this semester of graduate school was the final one for me. I’ve finished all my coursework—now all I have to do is my final dissertation! But in addition to grad school, I have also been involved in a very intense 5-week course on personal knowledge management called Building a Second Brain. It’s stimulating, and I’m learning a lot, but, as I said, it’s INTENSE! And then, finally, I’m moving out of my home of almost 25 years. I’ve been saying for a few years now that I’m overdue for my Swedish death declutter, so the move is undoubtedly providing the incentive to do just that, but I must admit, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed.
But I always seem to find time to read. I recently finished a new book by one of my favorite authors, Brené Brown. The book is called Atlas of the Heart, and the author attempts to give language to emotion—an ability that psychologists refer to as emotional granularity. Why is this important? Because language allows us to make sense of what we are experiencing, words bridge understanding for ourselves and connections to other members of our human family; as the author states, “Language speeds and strengthens connections in the brain when we are processing sensory information. But newer research shows that when access to emotional language is blocked, our ability to interpret incoming emotional information is significantly diminished. Likewise, having the correct words to describe specific emotions makes us better able to identify those emotions in others.” Frankly, as divided as American society seems to be, any strengthening of human connection would be a positive. I highly recommend Brown’s book. It is well-written, flows well, and is easy to read. Most readers will find it applicable to some of their own life experiences.
A chapter in Brené’s book that resonated most with me was entitled ‘Places We Go When We’re Hurting.’ The emotions she wrote about in this chapter are ones that we have all experienced—anguish, hopelessness, despair, sadness, and grief. I don’t know that I will ever be able to wrap my brain around the fact that, in a little over two years, over 7 million human beings died as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. And I know that I’m not unique in my feelings of loss and despair.
In writing about anguish, Brené shared an image of an oil painting that profoundly affected me. The painting is called, aptly enough, Anguish and was painted in 1878 by August Friedrich Schenke. It has been displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia since 1880 and has twice been voted one of the gallery’s most popular works. I don’t know that I can explain why a painting of a mother sheep standing over the dead body of her lamb affected me so deeply, but it did. Here is the painting:
I would be interested in any comments about your reactions to the painting. Did it affect you as profoundly as it did me?
So, as I gazed at the painting and reflected on the feelings of hopelessness and anguish we all feel when we lose connection to a loved one, I also thought about how humans have always dealt with these emotions. Connection seems to be critical—connection to one’s spirituality, connection to family, friends, and often connection through creativity.
I guess you’re wondering what photographs of Jupiter have to do with anguish? One of the best writings I have ever read about loss and grief was by Pat Monohan, lead singer for the band Train. Monahan wrote “Drops of Jupiter” soon after his mom passed away following a battle with cancer. In the song, he imagines that after dying, his mom’s spirit could go anywhere, and so a person would be likely to go explore the universe. You can check out the video here: youtube.com/watch?v=7Xf-Lesrkuc
As he explained in a Buzzfeed News interview, “It’s a story about my mother coming back after like swimming through the planets and finding her way through the universe, and coming back to tell me that heaven was overrated and [to] love this life, you know?
Drops of Jupiter in her hair is one of the most beautiful poetic metaphors I’ve ever read, I think. And the idea that those we have lost will come back to us after touring around the universe—to teach us, to continue to love us—is also beautiful.
Here are the lyrics to Monohan’s song that I’ve interspersed with some of my artwork—inspired by the song’s lyrics. The idea is that the connection between a mother and her child cannot be broken by death.
Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
Reminds me that there’s time to change, hey, hey
Since the return of her stay on the moon
But tell me did you sail across the sun
And that heaven is overrated?
Tell me, did you fall from a shooting star
Now that she’s back from that soul vacation
Tracing her way through the constellation, hey, hey
Reminds me that there’s room to grow, hey, hey, yeah
Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
But tell me did the wind sweep you off your feet
And head back to the milky way
And tell me, did Venus blow your mind
Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried chicken
Even when I know you’re wrong
Five-hour phone conversation
The best soy latte that you ever had, and me