Loss and the Meaning of Art

Beatrice
Beatrice

I’m finally finishing this blog post. It’s been a year since I lost my childhood dog, Beatrice, to cancer. As with most unpleasant experiences it came with a lesson and I’ve been meaning to publish something about it ever since, but sometimes it’s better to put things on the shelf until you’ve gotten a bit of distance and perspective.

For those of you that have ever euthanized a pet you know the experience is one of intense guilt, sadness, and loss. For 13 years my dog was a dear companion, a great friend and a constant source of wordless, non-judgmental support. In my formative years this unconditional love got me through many life-changing experiences. No, Bea was definitely not human and I’ve been blessed to have escaped that experience thus far, but she certainly taught me some of my most treasured lessons to date about the nature of love.

Now, before I get all crazy dog-lady rest assured this post isn’t intended to eulogize my dog. No, before Beatrice left she taught me one last thing: she taught me about my relationship with art.

July 2009

My sister had recently moved abroad and my family and I had been back from our visit overseas for barely a  week when I got the request to come home.  The 4 hour train ride from Toronto to Ottawa is no small commute, so I knew “the dog’s really sick” could only mean the worst.  Melodramatic maybe, but I packed black.

As I stared down the barrel of what would inevitably be an extremely uncomfortable journey on public transportation (I’m a crier), I was faced with a rather mundane but uneasy question: What was I going to do during the trip?

Movies might have been a good distraction and maybe I’d be a Rhodes scholar if it wasn’t for my penchant for getting lost in a maze of bad YouTube videos, but I didn’t want to just ignore the situation by loosing myself in something meaningless. This meant something.  It was my first experience with loss and I wanted some comfort and help with my resolve.  So instinctually and without hesitation, I reached for my art books.

My hand immediately drifted to Baroque & Rococo: Art & Culture.  I wasn’t sure why I did that (Rococo especially…not my favourite), but sitting on the train and leafing through the book, one phrase immediately popped into my head: Et in Arcadia Ego.

The Painting

Les Bergers d'Arcadie
Alternate Title: Les Bergers d'Arcadie

My fingers found it easily.  Index > Nicolas Poussin > Page 269. I set my eyes on the famous baroque painting.  The scene is set in Arcadia – the mythical pastoral paradise/idyllic land of endless summer where life is only about simple, fulfilling pleasures. It’s the place you’d want to run away to, especially if you were avoiding something.  But this Arcadian scene is different from most.  A few shepherds are huddled with resigned, contemplative expressions.  They have found a tombstone and one of them is tracing the inscription to make sure he’s understood.  Et in Arcadia Ergo – I too [death] am in Arcadia.

I let it sink in.  Three hundred and seventy years earlier a man put a paintbrush to canvas and created a scene that betrayed the heaviest of realizations – that life simply cannot occur without death.  Even in this fictional garden paradise where life is nothing short of perfect, death is simply inevitable.

If I have ever doubted the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it was gone in that instant.  I sat there, with a few tears running down my cheeks (much to the discomfort of the lady beside me – sorry!), and in a split-second I silently accepted what my next two days was going to bring.  Yes, loss is heartbreaking.  Yes, it was going to hurt even more (oh god, did it ever) – but three hundred and seventy years had gone by since that painting’s creation and the realities of the human condition had not changed.

Grief can make you feel really alone, but staring at that painting gave me a sense of solidarity with this 17th century man from France and in a way, with every single person who came before and after him.  It was my turn to find my tombstone in Arcadia.  If those shepherds could be stoic, maybe I could try to be too.  In the end, neither of us had a choice.

“Paintings with a mood bring us into contact with, and allow us to respond to, other worlds – both those that are inviting and those that are frightening”  (pg. 19 Minor, Baroque & Rococo: Art & Culture)

Looking back on that moment, a year later, I finally learned what art and visual culture is (to me at least).  It’s learning what it is to be human.  From the noblest thoughts to the most frivolous trivialities, art is the ability to transcend the boundaries of space and time and step into those ideas or emotions in someone else’s head. It’s not constrained by words, it’s not roped in by reality.  Heck, it can even be just a line of colour.  But in it, you can find solidarity and strength when you need it, or a challenging dialogue, or sometimes even just find yourself supremely bored.  For me, art is a community where you are never alone and you’re always a glance away from going somewhere you’ve never dreamed of being.

In the end, nothing can ever replace the people or the living beings we come to love in this life.  However, my dog Beatrice, in the sunset of her time with me, reminded me that even though I was losing a good friend, at least I could find quiet support in another.

….I miss you B.

Happy Holidays from Ottawa!

photo care of Jaime Woo (www.jaimewoo.com)
Vidal Haus Tree, photo care of Jaime Woo (www.jaimewoo.com)

There’s nothing like a few days off to rest and recharge the mind. I touched down in Ottawa 2 days ago and am happy to report I haven’t left the house since. It’s a welcome change from the bustle of Toronto, to be sure. Truthfully, however, it’s mostly due to the fact that I detest winter in Ottawa.* It’s incompatible with my footwear and in the battle for affection, I choose you Cole Haan, I choose you.

In my quiet time here, I’ve had the opportunity for great reflection. Being a first-generation Canadian with no extended family on the continent, Christmases have always been rather quiet. This year, however, with the inevitable passing of my dog (RIP Bea), and with my sister’s new life in Switzerland (she got engaged!), this Christmas has also had the eerie resemblance to an Agatha Christie novel. And then there were three…

The loss most palpable to me is that of my dog (I love you Carolina! I get to call you!!) There are so many little subconscious behaviours I catch myself doing which are so superfluous once a pet is gone. After 13 years, I don’t have to push the bread so far back on the counter anymore because no one is going to try to sneak herself a piece. When I pour myself some water, I find myself turning to pour some into a bowl that doesn’t exist anymore. When I drop some crumbs on the ground, I have to go sweep them up because my little furry vacuum just isn’t there. I may have shed a tear when I reached for the dustpan. I saw my father come across a picture of her yesterday and I watched him do the same.

In the end, while I’m a bit sad, I’m overwhelmingly happy. If, at the moment, the worse pain in my life is the loss of a beloved pet who led a full life, I’ve lived a charmed one. So, in the spirit of the season, I’m finally going to finish the blog post I started 6 months ago about what I learned when I said goodbye. Not because I think Christmas is depressing, but quite the opposite. When talking about our greatest and most transformative loves in this life, even when they’re over, it’s always a celebration.

*Minus Winterlude. Everybody needs a hug from an IceHog or Bonhomme at least once.