Memento mori. This phrase is written deep within the skin of my left wrist, in the handwriting of my best friend. It sits on her ribcage in my own scrawl. My first ever tattoo, I got it together with her one day after discovering we had both hung onto the phrase and the meaning behind it, years beyond learning about it in our art history lessons, back in Italy where we had once lived. It is my personal motto, a reminder to myself to not get mired in the way things are right now, to be prepared for when they will end.
You could spend pages on pages writing about the history and use of the phrase memento mori, but the gist of its literal translation is this; remember death. Pretty emo. Really though, if you dig a little deeper, the more sunny meaning reveals itself.
Remember death may be how the words themselves translate, but the intention is that you should remember that everything ends—life, good moments, bad moments, relationships, jobs—everything has its time and place. The point of remembering this is to appreciate things while they happen—to savour the good and suffer through the bad, knowing that something else is coming… eventually.
Still, endings can be so jarring and unsettling that they generally get classified under the “bad things” column. Breaking up, leaving a job, saying goodbye to a friend, moving—these are life events that we live in fear of.
And yet, somehow, these endings give us the one thing that is most valuable: self-knowledge. To let go of something we worked hard for—something that for whatever reason is no longer working—and subsequently realizing that to do this doesn’t hurt as much as we thought it would, shows us what actually means the most to us. The dread before something ends—the thought that we’ll lose: the joy it gave us, the love or sense of belonging attached to it, the prestige achieved through it—is often replaced by a euphoric sense of freedom, once the door has actually closed and we face our future without it.
Even people, be they colleagues, friends or lovers, who we once believed would always be a starring player in our story, are rewritten to a bit player or even off the page entirely, with shocking ease. Your parents probably have old photo albums full of pictures of their friends from when they were around your age. Try a little experiment; bring them their albums and ask them to name everyone in the photos. Watch them falter after only a couple of key faces. The truth is, very few things in your lifetime will actually last decades. For many, it will only be their relations by blood—parents, siblings or children—who are constants. For some lucky souls, there will be a life long love, or life long friends, or a business partnership that spans decades. But the fact that something isn’t built to last forever, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Memento mori; enjoy its season and prepare for the next to come after.
Easier said than done. I dread change more than most, hence the permanent reminder on my body to accept change will continue to happen to me. How do we learn to enjoy the endings rather than fear them? How can we see the inevitable as a chance at something better rather than simply a loss?
First, I think it’s important to appreciate the luxury of grief. The sadness of loss is one of the truest, deepest and most life affirming feelings you can experience. If the end of something you once treasured makes you grieve, lean into it. Mourn things the way they deserve to be mourned. Rather than ascribing to the Instagram era’s need to always look like everything is So! Great! Always! be honest with yourself. Losing something that matters to you sucks. Feelings of heartbreak and anger will only fester and bloom into something ugly inside you, if you don’t allow yourself to experience them. Give your wounds fresh air, let them live on the surface, and they’ll eventually scab over and heal themselves.
That said, know when grieving has crossed the line into wallowing. Once you’ve shed your tears or vented your frustration, close the chapter. If something is ending, it doesn’t matter if it’s how you wanted things to go; it has reached its inevitable conclusion. Realizing that we don’t get a say in the fact that things end, but that we do get to choose our reaction, is the key to keeping the reins of our own lives tightly in hand. As Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art puts it so gracefully, “so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”
And once that grieving is done, and you’ve pulled yourself out of the immediate tailspin that follows a major life shift, look to what is coming along to replace the thing you’ve lost. Endings and beginnings are one and the same, and beginnings—while potentially equally painful in their tendency to push us out of our comfort zone—make us stronger, and teach us more about ourselves than we had the potential to learn in our previous chapters. We are part of a generation that is destined to reinvent ourselves again and again over the course of our lives. Rather than a settled career in one company, or an early marriage that must sustain through a lifetime’s worth of self-evolution, we step out on the ledge in every area of our lives and look for the chance to climb even higher. This freedom is a challenge, and can be embraced as much or as little as we want, but it’s ours and it holds more opportunity than what was given to any generations that came before.
I am forced to take my own advice, as I say goodbye to this column, and the home it’s had at FILLER since the very first issue. I feel the loss, as I’m sure the other contributors do as well. But I choose to celebrate its lifespan, and take my own motto to heart. Memento mori friends, let’s embrace the joy this magazine has given us, and know that its end is just another beautiful beginning for everyone it has reached.