Cheimonette

Artwork and writing by Eden Gallanter.

Eden is a professional artist, author, and scientist, and is the creator of the Cheimonette Tarot, sold in over 30 countries, across 6 continents.

The Composite Series

It's been a long time since my last post. For the past two years, I have been in a Ph.D. program, training in neuropsychology, and I haven't had time to do much artwork.

Then I got to a point where I became completely overwhelmed. In the aftermath of this, I realized that art really needs to be at the center of my life—no matter how valuable or interesting I might find other careers, my heart can only be in one place at a time.

So, I dropped out of school and went back to being an artist. The best part is that I got to keep my position in neuroscience research, and am still working in that part-time. Science feels a lot like art, except that the execution of an idea requires different materials than I'm used to using.

Anyway, here's what I've been working on recently: a series of seven paintings that take a Kantian approach to objects as transcendental schema—finding the "Tree" within three overlaid individual trees (in this case, Baobab, California Live Oak, and Dawn Redwood). Here is the finished painting (shown first), followed by previous iterations of watercolor underpainting leading up to it, in chronological order.

I also did another piece based on a similar concept: "Islands", which depict three overlaid islands, both from perspective view and an aerial view. They are loosely based on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago (which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever had the privilege of visiting), Tuckernuck Island (part of Nantucket), and Föhr, an island on the Danish border of Germany, and the birth- and death-place of a beloved lifelong friend of mine named Tilly, who died at age 96 last year.

I've started another one, "Bridges" which is by far the largest watercolor painting I've attempted. I plan to complete seven of the series in total, with "Towers", "Birds", "Ships", and "Tunnels" yet to come.

In any case, it's good to be back. And, as always a big "thank you" to my fans of the Cheimonette Tarot. Your continued patronage, kind words, and enthusiasm has given me the confidence to return to making art. If the Cheimonette Tarot continues to be so successful, then maybe I can make more things that people will love.

Lots of Love,

Eden

The Bridge Between Love and Death

There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.

-Margaret Atwood

Let's say that fiction is a vital component of human existence.

If so, poetry, art, music, dancing, and so forth is all merely part of a natural drive to exalt our limited personal experience beyond what we call real life—the practical parameters of our survival as living, social creatures. Fiction can be created everywhere: putting on makeup, lying to your father, magic tricks, having a crush on a movie star, playing chess. Fiction is ready to come out and play at the least excuse. Fiction is art, it is beauty, it is a wonderful game that everybody wins. Larp (live-action role playing) is literature, except it is created by a group of people in real time instead of by, say, a haggard-looking, brilliant, overcaffeinated, godlike Author who, without involving himself in the convoluted drama of his characters’ lives, creates, peoples, and finally perfects his little world before releasing it into the wilds of the public imagination. In larp, the creator and the beholder are one.

So what do we need fiction for? We need it to fill in the gaps. Even scientists couldn’t do much of anything without theorizing, and nobody could do anything at all without stitching all the bits and pieces of what-we-know-for-sure together with our untested ideas, our wishes, our delusions, or our educated guesses.

The endless procession of marriages between what is true and what is beautiful.

And the one fact of existence that, alone among all others, is surrounded by the widest chasms of unknowability, is that all existence must come to an end.

There are only two views which correspond to the duality that is man: animal and spirit. According to the one the task is to live to enjoy life, and put everything in to this. The other view is: the meaning of life is to die.    

 -Søren Kierkegaard

This year I played two larps about death. The first one, “The White Death”, lasted about an hour. The second game, “Just a Little Loving”, took three days. It wouldn’t be right to compare the two games as equals—while both were extremely important experiences for me, the White Death specifically prepared me to have the incredibly lasting and profound experience I had in Just a Little Loving.

 Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

The White Death is about mortality and immortality. It is an abstract, wordless game based on an allegory about a group of settlers trying to set up a community in the mountains, but dying off one by one when winter storms hit. In it, death was a release from suffering and circumscribed consciousness. We all began the game as human beings (miserable, ineffective, and hopelessly restricted to base animal drives), and we were given several props to work with: white balloons, white sugar, and white paper, representing dreams, survival, and faith, respectively. These provided us with a way to develop a relationship to our own death. My character, like all the other “humans”, had a random and unique physical disability, and several meaningless prejudices (mine were a hatred of people taller than me, and an attraction to people with brown eyes). From the beginning of the game, my character had decided that life wasn’t worth living. She clung to her dream and her faith as desperately as the others held onto survival. Standing still in the midst of a cluster of stumbling, moaning humans, she held onto her white balloon gently but persistently.  And when a tall man with blue eyes took it away from her, she began to wail, and then they both wept together, sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, sharing a single dream between them.

In retrospect, I think this character was about my experience with a dear friend of mine, who had been struggling with depression, addiction, and suicide for a very long time. In many ways, she and I are very much alike, and we became close in the autumn of 2013. Life had been hard to her, and I wanted so much to help, and in order to do that I tried to feel for myself that hopelessness and its drive towards suicide. I saw it could be welcomed as the ultimate release from suffering. A life without hope of real human connection, with only the inevitability of suffering and failure, would truly be unbearable. I liked to think that I would find mere consciousness its own reward, even if life held no warmth or happiness for me, but I found out, in the White Death, that of course this could not be the case. I might beguile myself with empty dreams and unwritten beliefs, but it would be presumptuous to imagine that I could generate all my own happiness. My character wanted to be free of the oppressive, meaningless loneliness of life. And when I was finally drawn into the darkness by the dead, I was freed of my human disabilities and prejudices, and the first human I welcomed into the afterlife was the man who had stolen my dream, because he had sat down next to me and wept, too.

The White Death was a truly hopeless world, and I think that’s exactly what major depressive illness feels like. But the world we live in doesn't have to be meaningless, and depression and addiction are not, in fact, hopeless conditions. My friend remains one of the most wonderful people I have ever met—imaginative, creative, curious, brilliant, and breathtakingly artistic. The world is a more beautiful place because she is still here. The White Death was an immaculate death, one that freed us from our suffering, hopeless, and dying bodies. The living color of the mortal world was to us only an impurity, which would be inexorably subducted beneath the perfect, lifeless, crystalline structure of the snow that covered the blessed dead. I grew less afraid of death after this game, more accepting of it, and, I hope, more understanding and forgiving of the darker side of the human mind that seeks to die.

                 Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

                Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

             By contrast, Just a Little Loving was full of life and color. Death was real, but we needed to make the most of whatever time we had left, in order to be together. The very structure of the game was oriented towards living, and even suffering was just another way to interact with others, to deepen a character and add even more meaning to his or her life. Death was not a beautiful release, it was just the end. If you died, your character was gone and a new character would be given to you, with all your former connections effectively destroyed.

And this world wasn’t abstract at all; it was real. New York City, 1982-1984: the specter of AIDS. My character was a young gay man named Francis, who had come from a terrible childhood where he was neglected, abused, and ultimately rejected by his family, but who, in spite of everything, had made a good life for himself. He had a stable relationship and was well-liked among his friends. He had a brilliant dancing career, a close-knit community in the drag scene, and meaningful counseling work at the LGBT Center. When the first rumors of the “gay cancer” arose, he couldn’t run away, as he had from his destructive family life. He had to confront the new danger while remaining devoted to his identity as a gay man and to those he cared about. He had a very fine line to walk between putting himself and his community at risk, and loving the gay community the way he wanted to, using the only the available, insufficient facts about HIV to make such decisions. He lost a great deal to this terrible epidemic, and through no real fault of his own. He lost dear friends, he lost his relationship, and he even lost part of his own identity.

 Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

 Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

The three days of this larp are really three years—annual 4th of July parties, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, set in Saratoga, NY—and Francis transformed dramatically between that second and third year, when his boyfriend Tony left him without saying goodbye, falling into heroin addiction and HIV, and when the science around AIDS finally produced better prevention data and an HIV test. Francis developed a great deal of courage, and matured from a lighthearted boy, trying to keep the monsters in his past at bay, into a strong young man, more serious about the work and people that matter to him, more generous with his love, and more brave in his vulnerability. On the one hand, he felt he didn't have much more to lose. On the other, further loss would have been devastating. He managed to blend his fierce independence with a beautifully raw emotional intensity. He became strong enough to intentionally lay himself open to being hurt, in pursuit of genuine honesty and generosity towards those he loved.

In the third act Francis tried to give back, not just to the gay community as a whole, which he now did every day in his counseling work at the New York City LGBT Center, but to his friends. Trusting and being trustworthy was both very simple and very frightening. He had an unshakeable belief in those he cared for—the support and love he had to give was always real. This realness was a liability for him, but he took a leap of faith by offering his simple, trustful friendship.

If the community he loved was really going down in flames, than he was going with them, with no regrets. He lit a sky lantern for Reginald with his Club Diamond family, holding hands, helping them let go. He sat with Diane and listened to her romance woes. He kissed Nate, calling him "mama", telling him how beautiful he was. He hugged Marcus and told him he was going to be wonderful up there. He blew kisses to everybody who said hello. He supported his best friend Artie, who always came to him for help and whose loneliness touched him deeply. He promised loyal friendship and assistance to Tony, who finally came to Francis and Artie, apologizing for the way things ended and asking for help getting off drugs and into a better life. He watched every last person at the party seek forgiveness, or resolution, or hope, or redemption, and he felt with them all.

And then he stood up on the stage, and with everyone watching him, sang a love song to Daniel, who had left Club Diamond to work on a cure for AIDS. It was a song without demands or expectations. Francis was offering love without strings attached, without making Daniel have to choose between having a life purpose and living a beautiful life.

 Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

"I love you," said Francis, afterwards.

"I'm positive," said Daniel.

And Francis didn't even flinch.

            On the last morning, at the time of the lottery of death, Francis felt absolutely frozen. He thought of Tony, addicted, homeless, and now HIV positive too. He thought of his new relationship with Daniel. He thought of Nate and Walter, his beloved surrogate parents at Club Diamond, both HIV positive. He thought of his dear friend Reginald who he had lost to AIDS the year before. Francis felt like he was looking out of a deep, cold tunnel. In his mind, they had already left him, and he was alone on the grass sobbing, as defenseless as he had once been as an abandoned child. And this time, there was no hiding behind a fortress of ruthless independence, flying free of life's cruelty and insisting that he never needed anything from anybody. He had chosen this community and thus acknowledged his own longing for them.

And it was unspeakably frightening to want something so much.

He walked to the graves, holding the hand of the man he loved, staring at the grass and feeling a million miles away, carrying funeral flowers for as-yet-undetermined fallen comrades, sure that he was about to lose everything and feeling utterly defenseless. He thought, I will die if they die. These people are my life.

He held on to Daniel's hand as if it was the one thing keeping him from drowning.

And then he let Daniel's hand go, and walked among the coffins.

And the names inside did not belong to him or to his dearest friends.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. Maybe he smiled. Maybe he kissed Daniel. Maybe he went to each of his friends and embraced them. Maybe he cried.

I don't think he did any of those things, though—I think he just laid his flowers on the dead, and gently touched the shoulders of those who were mourning, and found Daniel's hand again.

And the funeral song played, and pieces of his heart shattered and flew out to join the bereaved, and Daniel and Francis slow-danced to Dusty Springfield's song "Just a Little Loving", and Daniel said, for the first and last time, "I love you", and the game was over.

The Lacuna

I’ve been meaning to write a thing here for many months, but a Bermuda Triangle of compunctions, scattered attention, and incredible busyness has prevented me from getting anywhere.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this year has been the biggest year of my life. I did two things I never imagined I would even want to do: I got engaged and I applied for a doctoral program. More than a thousand people all over the world now own my artwork, too, the Cheimonette Tarot deck. I get little notes from them from time to time, telling me how much my art means to them. I also moved three or four times, depending on how you count it, made many new friends, lost a few, and recovered from what I can truthfully say was the most terrible time I’ve ever experienced. Trauma is strange. There are these weird phases of confusion, denial, hectic energy, empowerment, terror, depression, and regression. There was also a little anger. I guess for most people, there’s normally a lot of it after a traumatic event, but I find it hard to hold onto anger. It’s so easy for me to see the other sides of a situation, and even when I have been treated unjustly and unkindly, I can see the reasons behind it, and anger quickly fades into sadness and compassion.

Like many things, compassion can work for you and against you. Sometimes both at once.

Today I found out that a wonderful man who I have known since I was 18 years old died last year, almost at the same time my life blew up. I found out because I wrote him to invite him to my wedding. His name was George Hudson, and he was the head of the English department at Colgate University. He led a student group to Japan every year, and had wanted to take me to see the Japanese gardens. He led tours over the Swiss Alps for the Smithsonian. He was in the John Donne Society. He had a son he loved. He was a big, avuncular man with a beard, who regularly made the 3-hour drive to take me out to dinner when I went to Cornell for graduate school. I wrote him about my relationship problems, my confusion about what to do with my life, my adventures, everything. He saw me grow up. He was always interested in what I had to say, and he believed in my abilities as a writer and as an artist. I really, really loved him, and it hurts so much that I never got to say goodbye.

 

Today some friends of mine had a baby, and another friend announced her pregnancy. A landscape architecture firm I interviewed at in 2010 just called up out of the blue and offered me a job. Mikolaj and I are talking about when to have children, and my beloved father, who has had too little happiness in his life, is 85 years old, and I am 35 years old, and sometimes I have this cold, twisted feeling in my middle that it’s too late for me, somehow, to find all this happiness: my life partner, my life’s profession, my future, but I have.

 

2014.

In the beginning, I lived nowhere.

I slept in the beds and guest-beds of friends.

I had a home, but I couldn’t go back there anymore, and by the New Year I knew it.

People I had trusted and loved had hurt me very badly indeed.

And no matter how I tried, it seemed there was nothing I could do to avoid hurting them when I left.

I was feeling strong and brave, but I wasn’t sleeping.

I had been within shouting distance of having a nervous breakdown.

 

Months later, when I had a place to live, I slept.

I could do nothing. I hardly knew who I was. I laid in bed staring at the steel ceiling.

We travelled. We went to Sweden, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.

We travelled to New Hampshire to visit my best friend.

We moved into a tiny room in an artist’s warehouse together.

We travelled to Australia.

We travelled to Germany, Ireland, England, and New York.

We signed a lease on a beautiful apartment in Palo Alto together.

Somewhere in there we got engaged, and my parents, to my great amazement, were overjoyed.

I’d always been proudly independent, but I knew I needed help. I needed a relationship I could rely on. I needed to do something meaningful with my knowledge, talents, and energy. These things crystallized around me with extraordinary, almost unbelievable rapidity. In almost no time at all, my whole life had transformed.

The hunger for experience is strong. It carries us to the far corners of the universe, if we let it.

Are we running away from happiness, and don’t know it? Maybe it’s not really happiness if we run towards it.

The flight from the familiar world can last a long time.

Sooner or later, we run up against danger. I had always felt like nothing could really hurt me. Like, not really. Not lastingly, anyway. I had gone to a middle school where I was bullied and emotionally abused by the teachers. I had had my brushes with death and heartbreak. Each time I had recovered myself with amazing resilience. Last year, I came up against something that seriously hurt me. I am not okay. I will be okay, and I know it, but for a while, it broke me as nothing had ever done before.

In the belly of the Whale, Jonah lifted up his voice in despair.

That empty darkness of the wishing well is a lacuna, where stars might be born, where life might at any moment arise from the black, primordial sea.

The thing about trauma is that it overlays itself with your own terrible past. Trauma makes the monsters even more terrible than they really are, and however you have learned to cope with deep wounds is what you’re stuck with. If you’re lucky, you make it through with your wits about you. Overlaid trauma is actually kind of useful, because then you get to heal all your wounds at once.  One way or another, eventually, after a much longer time than you wanted, the monster’s shell breaks, and you look inside and find,

nothing.

There are no monsters.

The whale is really a lacuna, and it can suddenly bloom with life, or it can swallow you whole. Or both, in my case.

In a way, the emptiness is its own kind of monster.

And if no life blooms there, get the hell away. You’re not a god, after all. Let it go.

 

Thank you for liking my stupid English essays, Professor Hudson. I wish I could knock on your office door one last time, and tell you how my life turned upside down in 2014. I wish you could come to my wedding, and welcome me into the world of Stuffy People Who Have Doctoral Degrees with your wisdom and your good humor, and tell me stories about your Bernese Mountain Dog and your amazing son and your life’s adventures.

It is better to be free than to be happy, we said, and experience is its own reward.

Thank you. I am going to miss you so much.


“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.”

—Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and an Auschwitz survivor, who lost everything it is possible for a person to lose. “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Copyright 2014 - Cheimonette