Dairy Arts Center

A Bright, White Light

A Bright, White Light

by Brandi Stanley

A written response to Emily McIlroy’s exhibition The Lilies How They Grow (March 4th – April 9th, 2022) including images courtesy of Emily McIlroy, Elliot Whitehead, and Drew Austin

This work was produced as part of the Visual Literacy Program at Dairy Arts Center

Can funerals be held for the living?
I am neither dead, nor alive.
Both dead, and alive.
Buried deep in muddy soil.
The first pulse of a heart in utero.
Starved like a wolf before dinner.
So full I want to vomit.
I am surrounded by bright light. 
Not clouds, really. Not a soft thing. Something more piercing—a light that holds me, but also cuts through my awareness so fiercely that I haven’t yet sorted where I am.
If heaven is meant to be saccharine, this is not that. If hell is endless terror, then it is not that, either. I sense a violence may have taken me here, but something beautiful, too. I can’t, don’t, feel my body. Still, I appear to be tumbling.
As I turn over and over through space, images peek through here, and then again, a bit later. In each flash, I feel a deep comfort, then tragedy, then peace. Even without my body, everything is visceral, grotesque, a carnival of oddities: a beak on a shivering muscle, a river in the belly of a beast, jewels sewn into the skin and feather of a swan. I taste iron; I scream in ecstasy. At once, everything is both gorgeous and horrific. Meat, slaughtered. Laughter, loud.
I push my awareness outward, and as though cupping my hand, I scrape up the ethereal. Dark oil oozes out of it until it can’t be held any longer, and then, a release.
An opening. A way through.
All this magnificence tempts. I want to stay here, where all is known and full and extreme.
But then, a whisper—
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
In an instant, I fall through the gate—flicker open my damp eyes, arms spread wide, prostrate in the grass, and breathe droplets heavily into the air until I am one again with my own flesh.
Until I forgive myself for still being here.

Is death simply an encounter with life at full volume?

Being human means only being able to experience reality in four dimensions. At our disposal, on any given day, we have height, width, length, and time. Time, though, even still lies a bit beyond our grasp. Limited as we are, we consume our existence in manageable chunks. We swallow each day in metered doses, only sometimes allowing ourselves the full breadth of our senses. So, some joy here, a small annoyance there. Too much of either and the bounds of sanity get a bit murky. Our bodies, fed too much pleasure or pain, tend to melt into nothingness.
Maybe this is why the French call orgasm “la petit mort.”
But if you’ve experienced loss, you know what it is to have all of your boundaries obliterated. To be catapulted into reality in full detail. Every dimension, all at once. Here, but not. Rage and love, mashed together.
Life turned up to full resolution, though, can be too much. Trauma, after all, is when your body can’t handle the amount of information it must process, like a river trying to make its way through the head of a needle.
As such, the experience of grief is often described in fits of depression and apathy. We turn ourselves off in order to survive the deluge of feeling. Every once in a while, though, when we allow ourselves to peek beyond the veil, to really look at death, what we often see is so much aliveness, it’s blinding, painful. 
Maybe this is why people with near-death experiences always recall a bright, white light—the combination of all colors on the spectrum. Beauty, love, loss, terror, confusion, absurdity, all vibrating through you at once.
It’s not surprising to me, then, that Emily’s “The Lilies How They Grow” started, in part, with an escape into the piercingly white light of Alaska. A refusal to remain cut off, turned down, tuned out. Wilderness isn’t where you go when you’re interested in taking it easy; it’s where you go when you need to find something else that pulses at the same cadence as your soul. Wild, dangerous, breathtaking.
Back on earth, it’s easier to be gray than every color at once. But in prayer, in heaven, in hell, we are allowed overwhelming abundance, to be everything and nothing, without hesitation.
The problem is, once you really know love and grief, regular life becomes intolerable. After all that light, everything else—the morning traffic, your boring office chair, and waiting on hold for your cable company—seem too damn trivial. It becomes too difficult when the “real world” asks you to shut off your newly-widened senses every day because you know anything less than heaven is a half-life, at best. 
As Audre Lorde once wrote, “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”
It’s not that loss feels good when you’re in it. Quite the opposite, really. But you are ruined for the mundane once you know it. 
Perhaps this is why artists are our best shamans. Without much effort, for anyone too scared to live forever in the wilderness, they’re able to shuttle us back and forth between worlds, translating the ethereal we can’t yet hold into material objects that say: 
Ride on the back of a lion.
Drink honey.
Fling your spirit into good work.
Break levies down with your tears.
Jump off a cliff.
The lilies will be here to catch you.
And it’s where we’re all going eventually anyway.

Meet the Author

Brandi Stanley (she/her) makes a living out of making connections—science and art, fermenting and theology, permaculture and social movements, neuroscience and dance. If creativity is the ability to connect the seemingly un-connectable, that’s the art she practices. In love with the space between things—the intersections and the paradoxes—she’s constantly looking for what insights can be gained when we mash the unexpected together and the growth that happens when we learn to hold complexity. These days, she does that by running a podcast and writing a newsletter, both under the name This Plus That, where she’s interviewed guests like authors David Epstein & Charles Eisenstein, and well-known artists like Ashley Eliza Williams and Tyler Thrasher.

Find more of Brandi’s work on her website, instagram, youtube, or twitter

This work was produced as part of The Dairy's Visual Literacy Program

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MARCH 2020

As of today, 3/12/2020, The Dairy Arts Center remains open and operational. Should scheduling changes occur, ticket holders will be directly notified by The Dairy Arts Center.

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