Sunday, November 8, 2020

Absence and Presence: A New Appreciation

In these times of COVID, my husband and I have carved out a two-mile walk through nearby streets that has become part of our routine as we avoid the gym. It has become a well-worn path and over time I have identified landmarks that I check off mentally as we pass. I carry my phone and take pictures of our sightings of the albino squirrel and the reflections of golden leaves on water that conjure images of Klimt paintings. My favorite images warrant many photos, capturing them in a different light or a new angle. I have a new appreciation of Monet's studies of haystacks as the light changes.

With our spate of warm weather, I’ve been walking that route frequently, a chance to savor the sun’s warmth before we descend into winter. One of my favorite landmarks has been two trees juxtaposed that I named the sentinels. 

One was half dead with a hollow where once branches emerged. It wore a necklace of growths, perhaps fungal, but had an odd beauty in its irregularity that had first attracted my attention. I first discovered it in the spring and rediscovered it many times as the light and the seasonal changes drew my attention again and again. I have almost 20 images of it on my camera roll. Along the way I attempted a painting of it.

This week I set out on my route and suddenly stopped short when I approached the sentinels, those stalwart trees that stood guard. Did I have the right spot? Something was not right. Then it hit me like a gut punch. Where my necklaced tree had once stood in dialogue with its companion, there now was a stump. I was surprised to realize that what I was feeling was grief. Something was not right with the world, my world.

 It occurs to me that absence and presence is a theme that keeps knocking on my door. I first began to paint it when my mother passed away. Each morning she would create collages at the kitchen table. After her death I took a photo of her chair with its well-worn cushions and her sweater hanging over a neighboring chair as if she were going to return shortly. And I painted it. This time the idea of absence and presence had begun to enter my awareness as I realized how present she felt in her absence.

Every ten years the Minneapolis Institute of Art does the Foot in the Door show where artists are invited to enter an artwork with dimensions of one foot by one foot. Ten years ago, I waited in a long line streaming out the door during the winter to submit my entry.  I remember finally gaining entrance and slowly winding my way up the stairs. This year it was much simpler as a virtual show. The piece I entered was yet another one on absence and presence. It was part of an environmental series on the many ways our environment is changing. Remember when you used to capture fireflies in a jar as a child? They’d come out at night and the sky would be filled with them. This piece was dedicated to those fireflies that I now seldom see. Also, in the image is an elm tree that we had to take down this year because of Dutch Elm disease. I had seldom noticed it until it received its death sentence. My appreciation grew as I realized how it held our yard in an embrace, curving around the outskirts, defining its contours, once again in dialogue with its companions. It now feels quite barren in its absence.


I’ve been thinking a lot about absence and presence this week as our 46th president was selected. For much of my life I’ve taken democracy for granted. I failed to appreciate how it held our lives in its embrace, defining the contours of a world which we assumed was the norm, until it wasn’t. The past four years I have learned a lot about that democracy I never much noticed until it eroded. I think we all have.  Absence and presence. It relates to many things, people, insects, trees, even democracy. We take many things for granted, only deeply appreciating them in their absence. Sometimes we don’t get a second chance. Often we miss something in dialogue with something else. I always thought of my sentinel in conversation with its neighboring tree. When I saw the neighboring tree without its companion, that was the moment it struck me that something was missing. We too exist in conversation with each other. We are not isolated beings. We are all sentinels of our democracy, partnered with each other. This week I have felt particularly emotional because it is the beginning of a national conversation. I am not the only one who took democracy for granted and I am not the only one who reached out to grab onto it and hold on tight.

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