By Kate Iselin
I broke up with my boyfriend on a Tuesday afternoon in late October. Like almost anyone going through a break-up, I was sad: devastatingly sad, achingly sad, filled with the kind of sadness that made my bones tremble and my head throb and my heart press itself up against my ribcage like a prisoner trying to escape a cell.
I lay in bed from morning to midnight, drifting in and out of sleep while listening to podcasts with my face pressed against a tear-damp pillow.
I didn’t just experience sadness: I revelled in it, indulged in it. I told everyone I knew: I’m sad, I’m so sad, no-one has ever been as sad as me. I handed myself over to sadness so completely that by the end of the week, I felt it had permeated every inch of my being. Then, like a ghost departing a body after a possession, it left me; and without sadness, I slowly encouraged myself back to functioning again.
I swore to change my life: I flung myself in to running, hurled myself in to yoga, declared myself a vegan and even started meditating.
But that’s not to say I spend every day feeling overcome by happiness. My life changed, after all, with that break-up: someone hugely important to me ceased to be a part of my every day existence, and although I often experienced feelings of anger and resentment towards my ex, I also missed this person deeply. Sometimes I cried for how much I wanted my ex close to me, one hand in mine. I was sad, sure, but there was something else: I was grieving.
And that’s where Lisa Bowen comes in.
Lisa Bowen is the creator and facilitator of Vestige, a performance art piece that gives participants the chance to grieve a non-death loss. She’s not a funeral director, rather, she’s an artist and an officiator; a person who will design a ceremony in which you can mourn a lost childhood toy, say goodbye to a job, farewell your old car, or in my case, commemorate the ending of a relationship.
Vestige was most recently held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of their monthly ArtBAR event, and I was told to meet her on the second-floor terrace at 9:20pm. The only thing I had to bring was an object that signified my loss, an object that I must be prepared to destroy.
The terrace was arranged like a small chapel: rows of seats were organised like pews on either side of a walkway that led to an altar draped in black. I arrived early, but there were already people beginning to crowd around.
Prior to my ceremony, Lisa held a consultation with me in a back corner. Holding a clipboard, she asked a series of questions that would help her design the most fitting ceremony for my loss: did I have any music requests? Would I like to give a speech? Did I want to also read a poem or piece that felt significant? And how did I want to destroy my object: perhaps, she suggested, I could slash and then burn it. I nodded yes.
I walked ahead of Lisa down the aisle and towards the altar. We sat in silence for a few moments as we listened to my first music choice, and then we stood. She introduced herself, introduced me, and then informed the audience of what I was grieving: the loss of a relationship, but also my confidence, self-belief, and ability to self-love. These things had gone missing towards the end of that relationship, and I was both grieving their loss and celebrating their recent, hesitant, return.
Lisa handed me the microphone and I spoke briefly to the audience, introducing my object – a book – and flicking through the pages to show them the message my now ex-boyfriend had written there for me. I read a poem – a short piece by Melbourne artist and poet Frances Cannon – and then Lisa handed me a sharp knife, with which I was to cut the book to ribbons before we placed it on a small barbecue.
It was a strange, bizarre ritual: standing in one of my favourite galleries, ceremonially destroying a book that had been gifted to me, as an audience clapped and cheered me on. This wasn’t how most people got over relationships: whatever happened to just downloading Tinder and moving on the old-fashioned way? But what I realised in those short few moments as I unsheathed the knife was that I wanted the drama, I wanted the ceremony, I wanted to greedily take every moment I could and dedicate it to every emotion I had ever felt. That night, something happened to me that had never happened in my relationship: I was permitted to focus on myself.
With the knife in one hand, I began dismembering the book, but before I was done I flipped back to the beginning and cut my name from the message that was written for me. I put it on my tongue, chewed it, and swallowed it with the remnants of my glass of champagne. Then we placed the book on the barbecue, Lisa held the blowtorch to its side, and Baby, I’m Burnin’ by Dolly Parton began to play as the pages burst in to flames.
I had expected that the ceremony would make me sad. But I wasn’t: I noticed that I was smiling, a giant wide grin that I couldn’t get off my face, and I realised that I wasn’t just happy to let go of my sadness, but happy to have had a relationship so important that its absence led to such a strong feeling of loss. The flames on the book licked the air and the wind came down to greet them, carrying pieces of blackened paper and ash away in to the sky over the harbour. It carried with them all of my memories, the good and the bad, the in-jokes and arguments and kisses and uncomfortable moments, the weekends we spent away and the evenings we spent curled together in my bed, the things he did that left craters in my self-esteem and then the things he said that filled them back in so completely it was almost impossible to see the scars.
Lisa and I filled a small urn with the ash, and as the ceremony ended she took a photo of me with the vessel. There I am, smiling in a Polaroid picture: my sadness now so small that I can hold it happily between my hands.