There seems to be a reasonable consensus among cosmologists that our universe originated in an event known popularly as the Big Bang in which space-time appeared and expanded, not from a single point outwards but from all points simultaneously.
Many people experienced Chris as just such an expansive force of nature: her restless intellectual curiosity combined with her open-hearted joie de vivre were infectious. In her presence, you could escape the gravitational pull of your own self-imposed limitations. I would say, along with many others, that I am a more caring and creative person, a bigger person, and I hope a better person, as a result of our relationship.
The question I asked myself this morning as I lay in bed, was how do I keep on expanding, now that she has gone? Without her example constantly before me, it’s a real challenge to keep moving and growing, to look to the present and the future as well as to the past. At my lowest ebb, when I’m feeling abandoned and alone, I want to shrink until I disappear.
But, I know that it would be a betrayal of all that she stood for, to fix this moment in my mind as the apogee of my life and do nothing or, worse still, either willfully or by neglect, to allow my universe to contract. So I do what she taught me: I delve into my writing to live more generatively and creatively; connect as best I can with the folk in our various tribes; and try to do “good” work in the world.
And there are still some bright stars in the firmament who invite me to join them in the cosmic game, encourage me to believe that life is still worthwhile, and insist that I don’t play small.
Without them I would indeed be lost.
Chris wrote me an email last September from her hospital bed where, unable to sleep, she had been watching a BBC documentary Seven Ages of Starlight on iPlayer.
red giants are alchemists!
gold ejected into the cosmos
so we are stardust after all
In the last few months of her life, Chris became fascinated with cosmology. In her later writing and artful practice, she explored the idea of a “cosmic self” coming from and returning to something greater: a unity, a oneness, a universal whole.
She meant this both literally (the incarnation and disincarnation of our physical substance) and metaphorically (the re-framing of our place and purpose in the cosmos). She tried to give form to her thoughts in words and diagrams. Here’s a page that she wrote/drew at that time, trying to piece it all together:
It’s fascinating, complex stuff and I have several of her notebooks yet to read to delve under the surface, though I suspect that some of her insights will be beyond my current understanding.
What I love most about the page is the note she has added at the top: “welcome home stardust.” It comforts me to know that Chris faced her own death with a sense of homecoming.
Just five days before she died, Chris Nichols interviewed Chris about living artfully. The conversation was filmed and edited by Chris Nichols’ son Ric. I found it almost unbearably poignant to watch at first, but I’m sharing it because it’s a wonderful memorial to Chris’s indomitable spirit and creativity.
The diamond-shaped object shown in the film, on which Chris has, in her words, “sprinkled some glitter” – actually gold leaf – is a mort brod, an ancient form of memento mori inspired by one we saw hanging in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall a few years ago.
Chris designed it and made it herself with the help of local artist Nicola Clarke whose extra pair of hands compensated for Chris’s increasing lack of dexterity. It hangs in a window by the front door of Folly Cottage, as a sign of mourning and as a daily reminder of the transience and preciousness of all our lives.
In the last few weeks of her life, Chris wrote about the idea of a cosmological self, and what it might mean to more fully acknowledge that we are intrinsically and unavoidably aspects of the infinite and terrible beauty of the universe. Artful as ever, she expressed this expansive sense of belonging – her “juicy edge” – in the images decorating the mort brod, as you can glimpse in the film.
Thank you Chris and Ric Nichols for making this film and allowing us to share it.