Oh the beauty, the loneliness, the devastation of the soul – all captured in this magnificent painting called The Isle of the dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1883.
Böcklin, was a Swiss symbolist painter who combined mythical stories with real-world inspiration to create striking fantastical paintings.
‘The Isle of the Dead’ is loosely based on the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, near where he had an art studio. It was where he had laid to rest his baby daughter, Maria. No wonder then that ‘The Isle of the Dead’ is a bleak, desolate place, with a lonely white figure journeying into its shadow.
When I first saw this painting, without knowing the history, it brought me to my knees. The white figure, alone, once again visiting that dark lonely place where only she can go. That she stands ready as she knows that in this lifetime she is sentenced to revisit this dark place again and again. This is her place. Her place alone. And strangely for that she is eternally grateful – it is where she gets to be again with her precious child.
The pain of the loss was equal to the love that I had for her
When my child died I learnt that my favourite place was deep down with the tsunami of pain in my heart. It was that that connected me to her and gave me some peace. I learnt not to look away. The pain of her loss was equal to the love that I had for her. And that love was as big as the universe, so there was no getting away from the loss in this lifetime. I made peace with that.
But dear reader, I do not write to make you sad. I write to explain how my life has been made more lovely, more peaceful, richer through embracing the sadness, the difficulties and the hardships of life. I really do believe that the worst pain we can subject ourselves to, as human beings, is to buy into the myth that life must only ever be wonderful, magical and that nothing must change.
In Mark Carney’s Reith Lecture he charts how the world had come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. How so many of us turned away from the inconvenient truth of the current and looming horrors of climate change. He even suggests that we turned out back on the whole concept of death – in a world where economic value had replaced God, death is for “losers” some could say.
And then Covid happened and death was back on the table. And perhaps also we were all left face to face with our own fundamental vulnerability – the fragility of human life. Did we all pause and look into the eyes of our loved ones, young and old, and remember that it is the ties that bind us that really matter in the end even though the object of our love may not be “economically viable”.
As millions of people stepped up to help their fellow man through volunteering for the NHS, food banks, or just giving more/a smile of acknowledgement to the people who beg on the streets – governments across the world seemed to step up and decide that when it really comes to it human life has the highest value of all.
For me there is such hope in this shifting mindset. Life and how we live it is everybody’s business – or should be. What madness is it that we lock ourselves away in gated houses that are way too big for us, when our fellow man sits on the street without a home, a hot meal or a loving embrace. There is a saying that parents can only be as happy as their unhappiest child, maybe this should apply to our wider world.
I learnt helplessness, vulnerability and the power of acceptance when my 15 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Until that point I’d believed my own “bull***t – a pointy elbowed middle class entitled Mother and a journalist to boot. I’d faced down many opponents and mistakenly thought that friends in high places, knowing how to work systems and knowing how and when to fight. I had this cancer thing – it was only a matter of working my way around the system.
Ha I could feel the Gods laughing at me – my best was completely pointless in the wider plan. It was a freezing snowy winter’s night, the wind was howling and shaking the windows of the hospital and there was snow on the ground. Still so beautiful, I thought. But the very fabric of my whole imagined life was being blown apart – I felt like I was in an emotional war zone. I remember to this day my head in my hands, tears streaming down my face, running through the hospital corridors. Before that moment I had always searched for a doctor. That day I needed my priest.
Physicians who work on children’s cancer wards (if there is a heaven or whatever please God let these people be first in the queue) wait patiently for the parent to reach this point. As they know that it is in the acceptance of death that one can really start to live again. I am so grateful for my breakdown, at it enabled me to start loving and living with my child exactly as she was. I had 12 months in this state with my youngest girl and it held some of the most profound and wonderful moments of my life.
Or as Lao Tzu, the first philosopher of Chinese Daosim said “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
At Christmas, like many of you I rest more on the empty chairs around the table. And like you there will be more this year – but so thankfully they will be back again next year. And for that I cannot tell you how joyfully grateful I am. I will weep, as I always do, and I will wonder, as I always do, what she would have been like now. All grown up, those beautiful deep green Irish eyes and the courage of a lion.
This Christmas I will write, as I always do. Only this time I will share with you if you care to read/to listen and I hope to persuade you that there is such beauty in the acceptance of sadness. That despite whatever happens in life there is always a reason to be hopeful and to learn to love life again.
And for my sake, as much as yours, I will search out beautiful pieces of art, literature, poetry that will help us on our way and remind us all that despite everything it really is a very beautiful world indeed.
I love this quote and wish that you find many friends like this in your life
“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself-and especially to feel, or not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”
― Jim Morrison