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.

Filtering by Tag: death

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 Great Ineffable

In July of 2012 I went to Portugal to give a talk on Occupy Wall Street and public spaces in the United States at an international conference about cities and social justice, at the University of Coimbra. (I have my friend Ella to thank for this entire endeavor—not everyone can manage to generate so much inspiration in me from such a minimum of in-person friendship, but Ella has truly wondrous talents in this regard.) My talk there did not go especially well. The skills I have developed over the years for public speaking come and go, and, in the clutches of a tremendous undertow of heartbreak, loneliness, existential crises, and politics, my confidence rolled merrily out to sea with the tide. All in all, it was probably okay.

The conference was replete with people backed by large institutions, and I was the only one I knew who wrote a paper independently. Perhaps my shy speech went over with the rest of the group in the way of Van Gogh's lousy table manners or Wagner's appalling romantic life.

"Well, she's an artist, after all!"

I can only hope.


Before visiting the tiny little medieval town of Coimbra (Portugal's old capital, and at present a hotbed of abstract science and impassioned student anarchists, to my great delight), I spent four days in Lisbon. I had a lot to think about, and Lisbon, with its beautiful buildings spanning more than a thousand years (Lisbon is also one of the most cheerily colorful cities in Europe: baroque buildings in soft easter egg colors, red roofing, elaborate painted tiles, and Lisbon's special mosaic Portuguese pavement all contribute to the riot of complex visual noise, subsiding abruptly into peaceful monotony when your eye reaches the mouth of the Tagus river), was ideal for the sea wave-gazing, bonfire-gazing, train window-gazing, aquarium fish-gazing impulses I have when I have a lot on my mind.

Watching the world go by, and watching its constituent parts describing the internal architecture of the great natural entities: oxygen, water, the vernacular growth of cities and townships, the melt and swell of geological landscape sculpture, the role of the ego in a larger world (the fish moving ever so slightly with the surge, building on the current like a dancer uses the movement of her partner to execute a high kick or rotation), is an ideal blank canvas for thinking. Order is forever in love with chaos.


I'd wander the streets of Lisbon all day long with my sketchbook, listening to the sounds of the city, daydreaming, drawing and writing down whatever came to mind, but mostly letting my mind wander while I trudged up and down the steep cobbled streets and alleyways of the city.

I seemed to grow smaller during the day, as though my mental hurricane dried up in the powerful heat of the summer sun. I let all the terrible thoughts fly out of me, like a tower filled with blackbirds against a hot, white sky. At night, I filled my mind back up with books. One of the books I read was "Just Kids", Patti Smith's story of her life-long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It was the best love-story I've ever read. Patti and Robert made an enormous amount of art together, and supported each other through incredibly hard times. They went through phases of sharing absolutely everything together, and growing apart and into solitude or the lives of others. They remained inseparable in so many ways, but also seemed, almost effortlessly, to avoid the mistake so many make in love: mistaking the beloved for yourself.

“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Total intimacy, total freedom. The most beautiful thing in the whole world.

"The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

Sao Domingos
Sao Domingos

This book articulated what I had always believed about my life's work and about human connection. The fact that I have never loved Patti Smith's music (though I have always respected it) merely added to this feeling of oceanic solidarity; if I can find such a treasure in a gift that is not meant for me, than I am more intimately connected with the world than I had dared to hope.

Alone in my guesthouse room, jumbled among the rooftops and jutting chimneys, with the moon hanging low in the sky and the fantastic heat of the summer nights, I felt something like relief, like salvation, like happiness, although I was not yet happy. Nobody could tell me any longer that what I wanted did not exist. Slowly, the strictures surrounding my identity were crumbling away. It was a process that began in the years after middle school, and accelerated when I met my present community. It is an ongoing process today.

Last week my friend Conor shot and killed himself. He was not a very close friend, but he was a friend, and he was a part of my community, my chosen family. There was this one night that Conor got pretty drunk and needed a place to stay overnight, and I was happy to be able to lend him my bedroom. I could tell that things were hard for him, and it felt like such a huge gift for me, to be able to do something for him. I was so happy to be a part of his safety net. It reminded me that I was, for the first time in my life, part of a community. It reminded me that I wasn't alone. Every time I saw him at a party, I tried to edge my way into a conversation with him to see how he was doing. Although Conor so tragically did not survive this depression, the fact that he did reach out felt like a gift, and one that included me. Conor's depression took so much away from him: his sense of intimacy (though it was there for him all along), and his freedom (which was, heartbreakingly invisibly, within his reach too).

I don't really feel that we, Conor's friends and community, failed Conor. I wish more than anything that there had been something to prevent him from that last and final fall—a serendipitous situation, a friend in the right place at the right time, a windfall of rationality and common sense, blind luck, anything—but ultimately I think that we belong only to ourselves. I wish he could have seen that it was going to get better, or felt (as I feel) that life was an irresistible adventure, even in the midst of terrible suffering, and that he couldn't help but stick around to find out what happened next.

The End
The End

To all those (my smart, sarcastic, jolly friend Luke, my sweet friend Conor, my artist-dancer role model Lisa, my Russian bear of a childhood friend Dima) in my life who have taken their own lives, and to the many more who have been tempted or who have tried, please reach out. You are alone and you are not alone. You belong to yourself but you are surrounded, inundated, by a fine, filamented web of love and generosity, which will reach out to you if you can only find out how to reach out to it. Keep trying, please, and hold on.

I miss you so much.


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