CULTURE & ARTS

What The Purple One Can Teach Us About Life, Death And Grief

Prince was human and yet, also, somehow more.

My best friend's dad once drove Prince in a limousine. He was warned beforehand not to look Prince in the eye. When Prince got in the backseat, however, he couldn't resist taking a look in the rearview mirror. Their eyes met and Prince shrieked. This was my first hint that Prince may not be human. 

It's always strange to hear of a celebrity's death and watch the world mourn collectively, losing someone we've never met. It feels like a veil being placed over a screen when we all hoped we'd one day see the person in real life. But how much, for us, has really changed?

Celebrities always feel a bit immortal, with their ability to live in our fantasies and populate our imaginations, appearing everywhere all at once. Prince, though, felt far more so, always seemed something other than human -- something otherworldly, androgynous and forever young. Like a hyper-sexual baby deer that came to you in a dream.

When last week Prince was hospitalized and shortly released, the overwhelming response was, "Oh please, don't worry, he will outlive us all." It reminds me of seeing him perform in Oakland in 2011, when, clad in furry boots, he came out for nine encores, each time sneaking out like a mischievous child pulling a prank. It felt like he'd never leave the stage. 

Part of the reason Prince's death is so hard to digest is because he himself was so many things, an amorphous alien whose blood is likely made of sparkly purple fog. He was not just Prince but Prince Rogers Nelson, Jamie Starr, Christopher, Alexander Nevermind, the Purple One, Joey Coco, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and a symbol that cannot be typed. His identity wasn't just in flux, a proudly self-fashioned construction, it came and went outside of language, at times literally impossible to pronounce. He was, by his own pronouncement, not a woman, not a man, but something that we'll never understand. 

In the symbology of the Tarot, the Death card, one of the most misunderstood in the deck, signifies not an end but a transformation. Specifically it points to the moment of realization that, in order to grow or change or start anew, you must leave part of you behind -- let it go, let it die. In Tarot world, death isn't just a final culmination, it is, like life, eternal and ever-present, a dark unknowable undercurrent that greets us every time we close our eyes. 

Black is often the color most associated with death. But as Tarot lore reminds us, it is just as much a symbol of life. Black absorbs all colors, and death comes to all life. But in much of the world, purple is the color most associated with grief and mourning. Also, quite fittingly: extravagance, individualism, ambiguity, the unconventional, the artificial, passion, creativity, mysticism, magic, the subconscious, inspiration, imagination, sensitivity and pomposity. The Purple One embodied all this and more, harnessing not only the most visionary forces life had to offer but the mysteries beyond them. 

It's hard for me to think about Prince without thinking of my dad -- a conservative, Jewish dude who revealed, closely before his death, shocking just about everyone, that he thought "Purple Rain" was the most beautiful song ever made. Everyone close to him was perplexed at my traditional dad's covert love for someone who signified all things sexy and queer. Even his brother wasn't sure if he was joking, serious, or just very ill, but after his funeral, he blasted "Purple Rain" at the cemetery and smoked a cigar in his honor. My dad's love for Prince, unless it was a fever dream, signifies how, in all his eccentricity, he was something universal, irresistible, ubiquitous. 

It's easy to me to mourn for my dad, and to feel his death as something single, sweeping and absolute. But death is not just one thing, one time and one place. It's forever only in the sense that it always already was and has been. It's hard to mourn for Prince when he seems so above it all, so utterly out of this world. But the way he embodied transition and transformation in everything he did, the way he didn't just wear purple but was purple, demonstrates how, for all of us, people are so much more than bodies and life is so much more than inhabiting them. 

Prince was human and yet, also, somehow more. This week we lost a part of him, and a part of all of us. But in his purple power, Prince became a force of life, of music, of sex and love. That energy we need not grieve, for it is with us now, stronger than ever. Because against logic it still seems like he is still with us.

It's not easy to grieve someone like Prince, someone who is more than human. But Prince serves as an important reminder that none of us are. 

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Memorials To Prince
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