Frida Kahlo is My (Death) Spirit Animal

Frida Kahlo is My (Death) Spirit Animal

So it turns out that my Death looks an awful lot like Frida Kahlo.

Girl with Death Mask -

Girl with Death Mask -

I love yoga and I love meditation and I love Ojai. Lucky for me, these three things converge twice a year when my longtime friend and yoga teacher Julian Walker hosts his Transformative Yoga Retreats. I've been going on and off for several years, so I know the flow of the weekend: we get grounded on the property first, getting acquainted with each other before slipping into long spaces of noble silence and deep meditation in the early morning, dive headlong into our intentions for the weekend, then step into the fire of our intentions and our regrets, ask for forgiveness (of ourselves and others), and emerge on the other side of our discomfort on Sunday morning, transformed by a solid weekend away from our everyday distractions.

A few weeks ago, I returned to the historic property after a 2-year absence due to both family travels and Coachella (which has become a retreat of sorts for me). The place where Julian holds his retreats is one of my favorite places in the entire world, a beautiful vineyard-draped Craftsman home on an Ojai hillside facing the Topa Topa Mountains, perfectly placed for viewing the "pink moment" at sunset when the slopes blush in the waning light of the sun. There are darling "glamping"-style tea houses dotting the property, as well as a yurt and several communal rooms inside the original 1909-built Greene + Greene home. The gardens are sumptuous, filled with succulents, citrus trees and bee-buzzed flower bushes. The yoga room occupies its own sunny yellow structure, with warm wood floors and a magnificent hearth in the center. It is a very happy place for me.

Because this wasn't Mama's first rodeo, I knew what to expect. I went through the motions, mindfully and with great joy, but didn't feel there was much for me to "work" on. My life rules. I travel, I make my own schedule, I spend a great deal of time with my family and beloved husband, I create art, I have the opportunity to participate in the world community through my work in Haiti, I take classes to engage with all sorts of interests. Through Julian's retreats, I've made peace with so many of my lifelong demons and sadnesses. In that sunlight-soaked yoga room, I've had revelations aplenty, cried buckets of tears and set fire to past mistakes. In many ways, I grew up in that room, and sometimes I feel like my role at retreat now is to hold space for others, to be a strong, grounded energy for those who need to fall apart, so that they know they will be able to get back up again and rebuild themselves intentionally.

And so it was on Saturday afternoon that I found myself lazily moving through my yoga practice. The sun was low and we'd had a fun time in town, buying magic stones and applying glitter tattoos that reminded us to "BREATHE" and "BELIEVE." I was smiling, I was happy, I hummed along to the music. And then Julian read this poem, and suddenly my easy side bend dissolved under the weight of my sorrow. 

When Death Comes

by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

And suddenly I was in the middle of a recurrent vision I have of my own death, looking up from my deathbed as an old woman at my daughter Emmeline and her family. She is smiling and encouraging me, holding my hand, urging me to leave this mortal coil so that I can move on, move forward, move beyond. (Heavy stuff, no?) Cue the crying, sobbing mess of a human lying in a fetal position on the yoga mat.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
— Mary Oliver, "When Death Comes"

Right, so, Frida Kahlo.

Me and Frida in San Angel, Mexico City.

On the last morning of retreat, we round out the edges of the weekend experience with a closing circle. Centered around the sacred tissue box, the circle is traditionally a sob-fest/love-fest that lasts forever, or until we're called up to the house for one last yummy organic meal before stripping our beds and going home. There is a brief yoga session, then a bit of moving meditation/dance, then circle.

In the moving meditation, eyes closed, Julian asked us to invite whatever we'd been working on to join us in the dance. I played along, saying silently, "Okay, Death, let's do this." What came to me, as a vision, was the head and limbless torso of Frida Kahlo, corseted and winged (because why wouldn't it be?). "Huh," I thought, "so that's a little freaky."

But still I invited it, my Frida/Death, to dance with me. When it collapsed to the floor, exhausted, I yelled, "Get up!" And it did, but this time it flew. Which made me laugh. And for a brief moment, I recognized the absurdity of it all, my resistance to Death, my insistence that Death is an enemy rather than a friend, my ignorance of it and total denial of its value. 

Later, when I mentioned all of this to Julian and we had yet another discussion about Death, he sent this to me: 

And I've been working with that: enjoying the finite nature of a good book, a delicious cake, a beloved friend. And hopefully, when Death comes and snaps shut its coin purse, I will embrace it like the incendiary, lunatic genius that it is. 

Frida Kahlo pictures found on

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