In the summer of 2010 I travelled to an artist resort in Melaque, Mexico to study watercolor with the co-owner and resident artist, Nancy Lennie. The picture to the left shows how La Paloma looked in the brochure. I arrived with visions of warm sun, clear skies, exotic birds, and bursts of tropical flowers overflowing the borders of shaded gardens.
But summer is the rainy season in Melaque. When I arrived, the sky was cloudy and dark. My cheerful room was a perfect artist’s retreat, though. A large table was positioned beneath a picture window that looked out over the swimming pool and, beyond that, the ocean. The rugs and bedspread were bright and colorful and the tiled kitchen was roomy. Bright watercolors filled the walls. Later that night, when no one was about, I eased naked into the (“clothing optional”) swimming pool, which was just outside my room.
The water was a pleasant temperature and I floated on my back undisturbed, staring up at the darkness. Because of the clouds, I could not see a single star. There were underwater lights in the pool and when I turned over to swim on my stomach I was startled and momentarily frightened to see that there were crabs on the bottom of the pool. They looked dead.
The next morning I woke up early and took a walk on the beach. It was so cloudy that I couldn’t tell where the ocean ended and the sky began. The sky was filled with large pterodactyl-like birds and, to add to the prehistoric ambience, a long serpent-like fish with a mouthful of sharp teeth lay dead on the beach. From time to time one or more of the birds (which I later found out were called frigate birds) would swoop down to catch fish entrails cast into the ocean by a lone fisherman sitting in a rowboat cleaning his catch. There was something very sinister about it. I felt as if I were in Jurassic Park or maybe even in the Jurassic Age.
When I went back to my room, I painted this picture and named it “The Illuminated Sea” after an acupuncture point of the same name. The sea is both dangerous and life-giving. It teems with life and unknown treasure. To Freud, the sea represented the unconscious, the repressed. To Jung, it symbolized our shadow self: the unacknowledged parts of our self that we cannot accept because they don’t fit with social expectations and conventions or with our own self-image.
The Illuminated Sea acupuncture point is connected to the water element and to the season of winter, both of which represent higher vision, wisdom, introspection, fortitude, and spiritual vitality.
Later life is often referred to as “the winter of our life” or “the winter of our years.” Ideally, it is a time when we are able to look back at our life and inward at our shadow in order to find meaning, integration, and hope. We achieve wholeness, or what the psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity.” We are able to accept who we are and what our life has been without shame, resentments, or regrets and to take pleasure in our positive memories. If we are not able to do this, Erikson points out, we risk despair, hopelessness, and fear of death.