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The great tree in the backyard has died, leaving a wide-branched skeleton over the shrubbery underneath. 

The house sits on the side of a small hill in a middle-class neighborhood and the ancient red oak grew at the crest, with a regal view of the mountains surrounding Asheville, N.C., the Swannanoas to the south, the Black Mountains to the north.  

Soon after moving here in 2012, I wrote a blog (link here) about that tree, seeing it as a kind of mythological presence. It was lord of the hilltop and a kind of noblesse oblige permitted it to shade our yard in the summer. But now the king is dead. 

I know dead. It is different. 

Winter trees mimic death, no doubt. But the mere lack of leaves is not the same thing. In fact, all winter long, you can see the tree progress, from leaf loss to slow bud expansion. There is vitality under the thin brown and greenish skin of the twigs. They fairly pulsate. Yes, from a distance, the tree seems lifeless, a network of empty branchings against the sky. But look close, and you can see the constant change over the winter season and the slow building up to the explosion of spring. 

Many years ago, I was living in the Piedmont of North Carolina and had a line of red maples across the yard along the street. That yard was my Eden; it had more than a hundred species of plants, from trees to shrubs to weeds. I knew every one intimately. There was the great black walnut just off the porch, the hundred foot pecan in the back, the chinaberry and sweetgum on the side and an ancient apple tree to the south with a line of wild roses at the border of the property. But my favorites were the maples. They showed me that the trees were well named, for they were not simply red in the fall when their leaves turned, but red all year long, with red twigs tipped with buds that spread their bud scales in February to show a blush hidden underneath, to the ignition of red flowers to the red “polynose” seeds. Finally, the first leaves unfurled a florid red before gaining their green. 

When I left that Eden to live in Seattle, I didn’t know how much I left behind. Seattle certainly had its attractions, but I couldn’t help but notice that all the trees I saw in those vast forests were either Douglas firs or western red cedars. I came back to North Carolina in large part because I missed the infinite variety of its nature. Helas, I never regained my Eden. 

Eventually my new wife and I moved to the Sonoran Desert and found mesquite and palo verde. They were gnarly and dense, and so much of the foliage there only threw out leaves when the weather gods managed to squeeze out a bit of moisture from the sky. For most of the year, they looked dead. When we both retired, we moved back to the Blue Ridge and the trees that were our psychic comfort food. 

And that red oak, at the top of the hill was a reminder that Eden is still possible, even if it remains merely a spark. And now it is dead. 

There are a lot of adolescent and romantic ideas about death. Popular culture is filled with them. Death head tattoos, zombie movies, goth pallor and Chatterton’s death. Whether it is the grim reaper or Kali, the goddess, the pale horseman, the Dance of Death or little devils running around with pitchforks. There are coffins and graves, tombstones and crosses. But these are merely symbols, and far removed from the real thing. Death is not a going someplace, death is cessation, an emptiness, a nullity. 

A dead tree is simply defunct. It has passed from a thou to an it. It has been hollowed out and left an unchanging corpse. Not unchanged — it is being decomposed by saprophytes and brown rot, but unchanging in that it no longer produces the life that pushes leaves out of their leaf-tip capsules, no longer stretches new growth from the fingertips of twigs and branches. 

I remember driving through Yellowstone National Park after the great wildfire of 1988 and seeing into the distance miles of blackened trunks. It was a kind of moonscape, with not a living thing to see. 

Life is not something invested in a body, but something the body generates, as the tree produces leaves and fruit. So, when the red oak dies, it isn’t as if an élan vital has left the corpus of the tree, but as if the wood itself has given up, ceased production, closed the shop. It stops. Life is not invested, it is generated. 

The tree looks different. There is an absence in its woody bones. 

I know dead. I saw it when my wife died. She was ill over several years, slowly declining. Then, at 7:28 a.m. I saw her stop breathing. Then another gasp, and then nothing. Her body ceased generating the life that had worked the gears and levers of her muscles and psyche, her organs and mind, for 75 years. When a light bulb had burned out, one doesn’t ask where the light has gone; the light simply has ceased being generated. And one cannot worry where life has fled; the body has stopped manufacturing it. The factory has shut down. The body begins immediately to grow cold, the flesh becomes like damp clay. 

One paragraph in my original story of this tree stands out for me: “This is not a tree of beginnings, not a tree of new fruit, but the kind of tree that functions as a ‘witness.’ It sees all that happens. It cannot change what happens; it cannot interact. But it knows. What it knows, we mere humans can never fully know, but myth tells us over and over, it is not necessarily a happy knowledge. The Garden of Eden may have contained the tree of immortality, but my tree tells me of a longer time, when everything passes. It is a tree of the knowledge of death.”

I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll.

I am sitting at the edge of a continent, looking out at a flat expanse of grayish blue, which falls away from me, and when I force myself to notice it, rolls downward at the horizon and below my line of sight – it is the rounded top of a ferris wheel revolving eastward at some speed.

Nearer to shore, the color is broken with bands of white, breakers on the beach, but further out it is expansive. Somewhat below the horizon, far out to sea, a hurricane is sending its message in waves to our shore. Wind blows the trees nearby, and the surf is riled. There is mizzle in the air. The storm has passed here once again, only glancing at us as it moves by.

When we are young, the sea is romantic. It is the cradle endlessly rocking, we write poems about it, spindrift and seawrack, we stare out at it as if we were expecting to discover our adventure.

Many of us manage to maintain this sense of awe in the face of the waters, but for others, the sea has become a summer rental, or a weekend away from the city. If you were privileged to sail across the ocean on a ship, you will change your attitude in another way: It will become a daily monotony of wet flatness. Either way, the ocean will lose some of its mastery over us.

It is the edge of a continent. I have been back and over that continent more times than I can count, and have a body memory of its extent. I know in my bones the size of it, measured in days on the road, in the exchange of one horizon for the succeeding one. There are hills, cities, forests, grasslands, rivers, traffic lights – let’s not forget the traffic lights – and the homes of friends we stop to visit.

Looking east from here, though, out to sea, the globe is not speckled with features; it is uniform, save for the wiggle of waves and the rise and fall of the swell. It is a face without eyes, nose or mouth. And one senses that if you were to reach the horizon – that edge of your vision from any single location – you would find only another, identical horizon the same distance hence.

Inland, the picture is busy, it is our daily lives, the commerce between people, the schedules, the hubbub, the striving, the disappointment. It is populated and squirming. In that sense, it is life.

Outward, the sea shows us blankness of the non-human cosmos, seeming to be unlimited, at the very least, with no surveyor’s stakes plotting out squares of ownership. It is the blankness of death, and therefore, death itself. It is why we stare out at it, why it stares back, why it fills us up so we are like a bottle overflowing.

I have seen three of the planet’s oceans and several of its smaller seas – small but still immense. I have lived on the Atlantic shore and on the Pacific Coast and felt very different oceans. I have sailed on both. I have seen the Indian Ocean, and felt the warm, humid air, thick as a fur coat, from its shore. I have seen the North Sea and the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. And all of them leave me with a sense of a flatness stretching out like a drumhead, but curling down over their horizons, and always, I know that past that eye-reach is more flatness. More water; more swell, more wave, more whitecaps, more low clouds, shifting with the barometer.

The oceans are not infinite, I know. They are not eternal, I know. Byron’s encomium is nowadays wishful thinking: “Man marks the earth with ruin; his control/ Stops with the shore.” Pace Byron, but we are fouling the seas quite efficiently now.

Nevertheless, that does not change our sense of the watery parts of the world. They beckon us to our life adventure – at least in our minds, they do – and they speak what Whitman called the low, delicious word, “The word final, superior to all.”

They remind us of the vastness of the universe, our measly place in it as pismires, our short parole upon the watery planet, to be revoked at a time unknown to us – a knock on the door, a suitcase packed ready to go.

No doubt it is why the oceans look so beautiful to us. They promise that there is something larger, less transitory, less mutable.

I look out on the Atlantic this morning, storm offshore, waves pawing the sand around like a cat playing with a mouse. I look up at the clouds, gray as the water beneath; I look beyond them.

“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Romeo and Juliet in frame
“All great love ends in death,” Stuart said.

“Maybe in literature, but not in real life,” I said.

“Yes. All love ends in death. On one hand, sometimes it’s love that dies and then you are stuck. But even if love doesn’t die, the lovers do.”

“You mean like Romeo and Juliet?” I asked.

“Yes, like Romeo and Juliet. Like Tristan and Isolde.”

“But can’t love end happily?” I put forward that possibility; I’ve been married 30 years.

“Yes, but even the most successful love ends in death,” Stuart said. “Either for one or the other and eventually, both. They may be 80 years old, but eventually, love ends in death.”

“Oh. I see what you mean. It’s a trick. Like a trick question.”

“No, it’s not a trick, except that it is a trick the universe plays on all of us. I don’t mean it as a trick.

“Romeo didn’t have to die the way he did,” Stuart went on, “but he had to die eventually. Even if they got married and lived long lives, he would have to die some time, and then, Juliet loses him anyway.”

It is the underlying metaphor of all tragic love stories, he thought. His own, for instance. Stuart had never seen a great gulf between literature and his own life. Others, well, they may be banal and ordinary, but his own life had all the electricity of a great book or epic myth.

The one thing that separated Stuart most from the accountants and dentists of the world was that he recognized in himself the hero of his own life — the sense that he was the main character in a story of infinite significance. When something happened to Stuart, it happened to the universe.

The joke was, of course, that this is true. But there was a stinger, too: Although it was true, the universe is so vast that no matter how big it was to Stuart, it added up to zilch in the big picture.

“That is truly depressing,” I made a sour face.

“But that is not the real issue,” Stuart said. “The real issue is the frame.”

“The frame?”

“Yes. This is something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Every comedy ends in a marriage, it is said. The curtain drops and the audience goes home enjoying the happy ending.

“But, if we followed Beatrice and Benedick after the end of the play, in a few years, at least, there would be divorce — or more likely, murder. Happy endings are always provisional. So, there is an artificiality to comedies that is ineradicable. The happiest comedy, if drawn out to the uttermost, ends in dissolution.”Raphael

“So, you’re saying that the frame — the curtain — reveals any art as an artifice.”

“Yes. And not just in theater. Take the photographs of Garry Winogrand. We are meant to see the frame — the edge of the photograph — as an arbitrary border drawn around some episode, but beyond the frame, there are other people doing other things. This has become something of a trope in photography.

“It used to be that we understood the frame in a painting — say a Renaissance crucifixion, or a Madonna — as merely the point at which our interest in the visual matter evaporates. It is the Christ or Virgin that sits in the middle that is meant as an object of contemplation. A frame could be larger or smaller and still contain the essential action.Tintoretto, La crocifissione, Sala dell'albergo, Scuola di San R

“In Baroque painting, there is often the growing sense that the frame cannot contain the action, but that there is something worth knowing just beyond the edge. That sense has become central in certain strains of contemporary photography. winograndA photograph may contain an image of someone looking back at the camera, over the photographer’s shoulder, at something behind him that we can never see.

“The first kind of frame serves as a kind of fence, or corral in which the important information is contained. The second is more like a cookie cutter, which sticks into the welter of existence and excises this small bit for us to consider.

“That is the frame, the ‘beginning, middle and end’ that gives us such satisfaction in a play or opera.”

My concern at this point is that I could see that Stuart was unwinding his own life from the bobbin, and holding it out in his fingers to examine, and what he was finding was deflating. What set Stuart apart from most people was about to be undone. siegfried

I had known Stuart since college, and what made him glow from the inside was not just his energy — or jittery intelligence — but his sense that he was the star in his own movie. Or rather, that he saw in himself a larger, mythological version of himself playing out among the chess pieces of the universe. He was Siegfried voyaging down the Rhine; he was Odysseus; he was stout Cortez.

Don’t misunderstand, please. He was never grandiose — in his exterior behavior, he was as normal as you or me. But inside, was something larger, bursting to get out. He saw the world swirling the way Van Gogh did. For Stuart, every bush was the burning bush. Take away that internal furnace, and what would be left of Stuart? He would have grown up. Not something that any of us who knew him would wish for.van gogh

“This is the fundamental fallacy of American conservatism,” he went on, making another 90-degree turn.

“They seek to enforce a static vision of society, of law, of human behavior. They keep telling us, that if only we would do things their way, everything would finally be peach-hunky, into eternity — the happy ending that we know (and they don’t admit) is always provisional. They see a — excuse me for the exaggeration — ‘final solution’ for something that has no finality to it.

“Politics — real politics — is always the flux of contending interests. You want this, I want that, and we wind up compromising. Conservatives see compromise as surrender, precisely because they see politics with a frame. Get the picture right, and then it is done. Deficits are erased; the wealthy get to keep what is rightfully theirs; order is established. It is the underlying metaphor of all Shakespeare’s plays: The establishment of lasting, legitimate order, final harmony. stew

“Only, we know that after Fortinbras takes over, there will be insurgencies, dynastic plots, other invasions, a claim by mainland Danes over island-dwelling Danes, or questions of where tax money is going. It is never ending. Fortinbras is only a temporary way-station.

“Existence is a seething, roiling cauldron and sometimes this bit of onion and carrot comes to the surface, and sometimes it is something else. It is never finished, there is no frame, no beginning, middle and end.”

“So, where does this leave poor Juliet?”

“Juliet?”

“Yes, where does this leave us all, we who are all bits of carrot. We who are married for 30 years, we who entered the field of contention, worked for our required decades and left the battlefield to become Nestors — or Poloniuses. All this washes over us and we see that, in fact, we have a frame. Existence may not have one, but I do. I am getting old. 67th birthdayI just turned 67 and I feel it. And I know that my Juliet will die, or I will go before her. We do have, in fact, a frame, a curtain that draws down and leaves us — as Homer says — in darkness.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said, “and this is my point. Every one of us lives two very different lives. You can call them the external and internal lives. The first is the life in which we share the planet with 7 billion others. We are a tiny, insignificant cog in the giant machine. The second is the mythic life, the life we see ourselves as central to, in which we are the heroes of our own novels or movies, and everyone we know is a supporting actor. If we live only in the first life, we are crushed and spit out. But if we live only in the second life, we are solipsists. Sane people manage to balance the two lives. A beautiful counterpoint.

“We are most engulfed by that second life when we fall in love. We are certain that we invented this condition. No one else has ever felt what we feel. It’s comic, of course, but it is also profound. Without this feeling, life is unbearable. We have to have meaning, and meaning is created by how we imagine ourselves.

“Politics hovers oddly in the intersection of these two worlds. We need to sober up and consider the other 7 billion people if we are to create useful policy, but we mythologize those who lead us, and those who lead do so most effectively when they mirror back some version of mythology. The most extreme example I can think of is Nazism in Germany. A whole nation bought into the fantasy. Disaster follows.

“But all ideology is ultimately built on mythology: on a version of the world with one or two simple dimensions, when existence is multi-dimensional. The political myth is always a myth of Utopia, whether right-wing or left-wing. And it is always a static myth: Racism ends and everything is great, or government spending is curtailed and everything is great. That simply isn’t the way existence is.”

“The world is always bigger and more varied than our understanding of it, and it will always come back to whack us upside the haid.”

“Right. The conservative sees the world only with his ego eyes, not from outside himself. That frame — his death — is something he cannot see beyond. There is something egoistic about conservatism. Often selfish, also, but the selfishness isn’t the problem, it is the egoism — the frame they put around the world, the static sense of what is finally right — the so-called end of history. In this, the conservative — or at least the tin-foil-hat variety — is no different from the dyed-in-the-wool Communist. Both see the establishment of their Utopia as the endgame of human existence.” hubert robert

“You’ve been reading Ovid again.”

“How did you know?”

“The Pythagoras chapter.”

“Right again. Panta Horein, as Heraclitus said: ‘Everything is flowing.’ As Ovid has it, even landscapes change over time, and Hercules’ brawn withers and Helen’s breasts sag. Cities grow and are demolished; Mycenae gives way to Athens, to Alexandria, to Rome, to Byzantium and Baghdad, then to London and now to Washington, with Beijing waiting in the hopper. ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ “

“How’s that?”

In saecula saeculorum: World without frame.”

 

This is the Information Age, a century choked with facts and factoids, bites and gigabites. Yet, for all the blizzard of data, it has been a century of drought for Truth.

As the century has progressed, we have become increasingly suspicious of the very idea of Truth, to the point that many younger people simply no longer believe there is such a thing.

I ran into this attitude in a university art seminar I was asked to address. The brightest and most talented student in the class took exception to my exhortation that they use their art to discover truth.

Art, of course, often pretends to address “universal truths.”

“There is nothing universal,” she said, giving words to the common belief, which in itself is a sweepingly universal statement. “It’s all just personal preference.”

I asked her if she didn’t think that her art had validity for her viewers.

“No, it’s just my version. I don’t expect anyone else to believe it,” she said.

Why, then, I wondered, did she bother to make art? What was the point, beyond self-gratification?

It was, as I saw it, utter capitulation.

Yet, I still understood why she might think that way. It was a previous “universal truth” held by everyone from Aristotle to Southern Baptist Convention that prevented women from making art in the past — or at least kept them from being taken seriously. Universal truths held people back, subjected them, disenfranchised them, enslaved them, justified the status quo and glorified local circumstances — that is all she cared about the subject.

The century has had its belly full of horror perpetrated in the name of “universal truths.” Cambodia cleared out its cities and slaughtered its citizens in the name of a great truth. The Soviet Union starved its provinces and imprisoned its best in the name of a “historical truth.” Germany’s big truth was a big lie and ended in genocide.

And in the centuries before ours, truth had a nasty habit of justifying colonialism, war, racism, the subjugation of women and the worst aspects of jingoistic nationalism. Just read any 19th Century justification of slavery. Is it any wonder that we have become nervous and twitchy about anyone claiming a franchise on Truth?

Even in our own time, those who profess to know the Truth habitually kill those who don’t agree. It doesn’t matter if they are Christian or Muslim, Tamil or Sikh. Truth is too often just a good excuse to blow each other to kingdom come. The nightly news carries new proof of this every day.

Yet, the loss of a sense of universal truth is in some ways just as bad.

We have no core beliefs to unify our culture; it fragments into interest groups and the groups fragment into individuals, each with his own desires and directions. The groups quarrel and soon, like Tutsis and Hutus, they are at each others throats.

Seven billion screaming ids. Either way, people wind up dead.

It used to be one of the functions of art and literature that it tested the veracity of purported truths, taking exception to ideas that had become outworn and making provisional stabs at creating substitutes. Art was the attempt to find universal truths that could stand up to the sulfuric acid used to separate the gold from metals more base.

As D.H. Lawrence said about the novel, meretricious ideas are easier to spot in fiction than in everyday life.

But the problem now is that it isn’t just that we no longer know which truth to believe, but that we simply don’t believe there is any truth.

We have reached an uncomfortable impasse. We need belief to make life meaningful, yet we cannot allow ourselves to believe in anything. Every faith, institution, political faction and ideal has proved at some level to be a tissue of hypocrisy. We decry our own cynicism, but recognize that at some level, it is merely realism.

Some retreat into conventional orthodoxies; others free float, aimless in an increasingly valueless society.

But there is another alternative: starting from scratch to see if we may discover for ourselves something like universal truth and build the whole thing all over again.

If we could only find a starting point, a single truth that everyone can agree is universal.

I suggest there is one such truth: We all die.

Death, if nothing else, is common to all 7 billion people on this planet. It is common to all living things, and metaphorically, common to all inorganic things, too. Perhaps if we recognize the universality of death, we can allow the possibility of other universals, even if we tread such territory gingerly.

If there is one truth, perhaps there are others. At the very least, it puts the lie to the canard that “it is all just personal preference.” At least one thing isn’t.

Death may seem a grisly place to start, but it doesn’t have to be.

The raw fact of death, when we are willing to be aware of it, also brightens and colors the gray ordinariness of daily life. It is what philosopher Martin Heidegger meant by the term, “authenticity.”

In simple terms: Death makes life more immediate.

If we ignore the fact of death, we can become bored with small things. But if we keep our death in mind, even mud becomes magic.

Perhaps just as important, it isn’t our own death that we feel most poignantly. We may not experience our own deaths at all — at least we have no reliable reports from after the fact — but we do feel the deaths of those around us in a profound sense of loss.

A sense of loss may be our second universal truth: It is certainly at the root of much mythology, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the current New Age belief that Native American culture is somehow “in harmony with nature” and that our own culture is somehow cut off from it.

This loss is not merely generated by our awakened sense of our own mortality — in the face of loss, our own deaths often become insignificant — but of the recognition that we extend beyond our egos: We love.

Love — this opening up beyond self-interest — is perhaps a third truth, for whatever cultural inflection it picks up — and make no mistake: despite the rumblings of the Republican right, love is manifested in a million forms — the basic truth is that we all manage to break out of our blind egos and forge connections with others.

From love, we can begin to build a sense of morality. By breaking from our own egos, by imagining what it is to be other than ourselves, we begin to understand how our behavior affects those around us.

Young artists often deal with death in a symbolic fashion: skulls and blood. It is the mainstay of prison art, tattoos, heavy metal music and adolescent — primarily male adolescent — fantasies. Yet such doodling has as little to do with death as with art.

Such things are mere conceit.

It isn’t until we are older and come face-to-face with loss, that we begin to understand the meaning of death and the hundreds of emotional consequences that follow.

Beginning with one uncomfortable truth and wind up with a complex web of things, including that which makes us happiest.

I recommend to artists, not that they get all morbid, — quite the opposite — but that, starting with the universality of death, they may begin to build once more a fabric of belief that will sustain the human spirit.