Creative quest #1: Cycles of life and death

My approach to exploring some of life’s most uncomfortable questions and how they intersect with tech and art

“Cycles of Life and Death” by Bernadette Cay. Charcoal and pencil on kraft paper.

Creative quests

As a “scanner” with many skills and interests, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to fit art into my life. I’ve finally found one that fits: creative quests are now the foundation of my current artistic practice. 

Here’s my process:

  1. Pick a theme and ask questions. I pick a theme that’s top of mind at this stage in my life and the questions I have around it.
  2. Collect different perspectives and experiences. I collect interdisciplinary perspectives, offline experiences and tech trends around the theme to help inform possible answers to the questions.
  3. Make art. Someday, maybe later this year or even years from now, I may make art about it to share the journey with others.

The themes tend to be on the weighty side of the human condition, themes I know I’m not alone in having questions around. 

Instead of an academic point of view, I hope for the quests to be experiential and from the point of view of a working professional. How might a working professional explore these bigger questions without going to graduate school? How might the answers inform daily life?

The structure of my creative quests are a contrast to my otherwise analytical way of thinking. They are driven by process and curiosity, not by the execution of a pre-defined result. Instead of a definite “start date” and “end date”, my intuition will help inform when I’ve satisfied my interest. I don’t aim to find definitive answers to these difficult questions, but rather to consider them for myself.

Creative Quest #1: Cycles of Life and Death

Why these topics? Why explore them now?

I’m on sabbatical from the tech world and discerning my next steps. There’s endless advice available on how to approach one’s career. 

Another perspective to consider is something to the effect of, “In light of knowing I will die someday, how should I live?” Taking it one step further, how might you consider that question without living from a place of fear? 

Such thought experiments have been useful wake-up calls for me before. For example, a guided visualization of my funeral was one of many inspirations for starting to make art again after ten years.

“For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.” – Sally Mann

These words from photographer Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still describe one part of my interest in this creative quest. At the other end of the life spectrum, the beginning of life is top of mind as friends and colleagues around me are starting families and as I’m discerning my own choices around this.

Life, death and tech

In the past five years alone, it’s become much faster to create new products and services (e.g. AWS, mobile app development tools). The question is now less of the “how” to build but more about the “what” to build.

What technologies are we creating to support these important life processes? Some that come to mind are Honor (in-home elder care) and Winnie Labs (parenting).

What about technology that enables more meaningful connections and life experiences, given what matters most at the end of life? Some that come to mind are the proliferation of delivery and in-home services, 7 Cups of Tea (online therapy) and Hey Vina (Tinder for making platonic female friends).

How does the belief that you’re not going to die affect how you live? When I mention this creative quest to one engineer, he looked me straight in the eye and told me with absolute certainty that he is not going to die, citing life-extension endeavors like Calico.

How can birth and death be more spiritual and embodied experiences? Birth and death are currently highly medicalized experiences. Yet there’s a yearning for something deeper, as evidenced by the growing demand for birth doulas, end-of-life doulas, improvement of hospital architecture and more natural burial practices.

Snapshots

Here are some notes from the three months so far that I’ve been on this creative quest. The experiences so far have focused on end of life. I hope to do more around the beginning of life later in the year.

Zen Hospice Project

The Zen Hospice Project applies mindfulness to the dying process. Their Guest House is a six-bed residential care facility in the Haight. I heard about the Zen Hospice Project through BJ Miller’s TED Talk.

I participated in a workshop on mindful caregiving. We did an exercise to face our own fears around death, to avoid projecting them onto the patient. 

In addition, this exercise shifted my perspective on life and death itself, showing that as we age, we gradually lose our skills and abilities (e.g. motor skills, vision, memory). We were invited to consider the emotional impact of these painful losses and the impact to one’s sense of “self.”

YG2D Open Mic Event

YG2D” is “You’re Going to Die,” a movement to “bring people creatively into the conversation of death and dying.” I attended one of their sold-out monthly open mic events at The Lost Church in the Mission. Folks can sign up to tell a story, sing a song or read a poem in this safe space. The stories and performances, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hilarious, brought the audience to both laughter and tears. One beautiful poem that was read was The Well of Grief.

When Breath Becomes Air

At thirty-six years old, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book explores the question, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?” The exchanges between Kalanithi and his oncologist were especially interesting to me. Each time Kalanithi asked about how much time he had left, the oncologist had the same reply: “What’s most meaningful to you?”

Your help

These creative quests can also help cultivate the practice leaving room for serendipity. Several of the most interesting experiences I’ve had or books that I’ve read on this creative quest came from recommendations from friends, from events I saw on my Facebook News Feed or from other unexpected sources.

If you have any related resources you’d like to share that you’ve found interesting about the cycles of life and death, such as podcasts, articles, experiences or events, please let me know.