Fragments on Absence

*

I.

“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” — 2 Corinthians 4:18

“My hunch is that the affective outline of what we’ve lost might bring us closer to the bodies we want still to touch than the restored illustration can. Or at least the hollow of the outline might allow us to understand more deeply why we long to hold bodies that are gone.” -Peggy Phelan (1997)

 

I have been thinking about presence and absence. More specifically, my attention has been drawn to the more phenomenological-oriented concepts of presence and absence, the experiencing of the absence, experiencing the more potent presence within the absence.

The death of a loved one can create an emptiness around which their daily routines and possessions continue to orbit. The hairbrush, the favorite chair, preferred groceries unopened, their own private rituals (of which only the ephemeral remain but not long), knitted blankets, books, photograph albums, medical supplies, etc. Everything that populates a world, even if that world is mostly contained in only a few rooms, remains and points to the emptiness that has taken the place of the body.

My family has experienced two deaths within as many months. We were left reeling, shocked by the loss. Still unable to fully process the loss of Anna’s mother, Linda, we were given the news of Eleanor’s dad, Austin. Everything seems to point toward the emptiness in the universe left by their departure.

St. Augustine Lighthouse on the day prior to Eleanor’s birth

 

In 2013, there was a sinkhole that opened up in Seffner, a small town east of Tampa, that swallowed a man, pulling him into the unending fissure. He was never found. The earth took him. One moment, he was sleeping in his bed. The next, he was lost completely. The man’s brother claimed that he heard his voice calling out to him from the chasm. Then, it went silent.

At around 8 p.m. on Good Friday, Eleanor spoke with her father on the phone. They talked about Easter plans and family. Conversations with three-year olds can be difficult when video is not involved. Disembodied voices. At approximately 11:30 p.m., her father was gone. His disembodied voice was the last communication with her. Then, silence.

Now, silence.

 

II.

How do you create the foundational supports needed for a toddler to grieve? You share stories. You read to her, provide analogous situations with characters she trusts. You listen to her. She is going to move quickly from one idea to the next, and within that motion, she will say something that stops you. She’ll ask for you to draw Christmas trees that represent both her great grandmother and her father. She’ll want to see both of their names, their full names, written next to her full name. Then, she will just play.

 

Austin, Eleanor, and Kaylla in 2014

 

The next day, she’ll tell you that she thinks you need to grow hair “just like daddy’s.” She’ll forget that her daddy is not picking her up from school, and you’ll have to open the wound again. You’ll reread age-appropriate books about loss and grief that have characters that are elephants, pigs, and fish. She’ll depend on these stories sometimes. Other times, she will not want to hear these at all. Most likely, this will be because she doesn’t want to stare directly at the absence. The absence is too painful. It is too painful even when it involves elephants, pigs, and fish.

How do you support your wife through her grieving? You listen to her. You share stories. You read to her. You give her space to think. You watch her heart break into pieces, knowing there is nothing you can do about it. You listen.

Even when she is silent, you try to listen.

 

III.

I keep thinking of the visual, of language and story, because it is what I have that I can understand. We all need some balance for our equilibrium during times of stress, and these are my balances. However, these things are insignificant concerns when experiencing the loss of a loved one. They only serve to help put my mind on something other than the loss.

I keep thinking of works of art that famously confront the absence, like Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (wherein the artist actually erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning in 1953). The erased work was mounted in a gold-leaf frame, its absence made iconic, an almost religious object.

I am remembering Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin(realized in 1995). The Reichstag, wrapped in a womb-like white sheet, was rendered absent but not invisible. The fact that the prominent and historically significant building was “hidden” made it more present.

I am remembering the power of the fourth photograph snuck out of Auschwitz by members of the Sonderkommando (described and analyzed by Georges Didi-Huberman), blurry with foliage and empty of the human figures of the other three photos. Yet, their absence (and the absence of the brave photographer) seems more like presence, with the knowledge of history.

Easter marked just over a month since Linda’s death. It was the first major holiday since she left us. I try to see her mother through Anna’s memories of childhood and her father’s memories shared while she was in the hospital. I want to see a true picture of her. There is a photograph of Linda and Anna walking together on Easter Sunday. Anna looks to be about Eleanor’s age and smiling, and her mother looks elated and confident. John described her as a tough lady, someone that would fight for what she loved. Linda loved her family. She loved her family more than herself.

 

Anna and Linda on Easter Sunday

 

We received the call from Anna’s brother that she had died . We had just visited her two days prior. Her brother and his wife were visiting that evening just before she died. We did not see it coming. She was making a much quicker recovery than had been anticipated.

Linda was excited to see everyone, wanted to not waste time. She kept saying that she had a second chance. When we were not able to be there with her at the rehabilitation center, she was using Facetime throughout the day with John to keep connected while recovering.

Then, Linda was gone.

Our daughter, Kendyl, and I went to the room to collect her things, photographs, Eleanor’s drawings, her clothes.

The staff had a difficult time producing her phone, which seemed inexplicable to me. She was tethered to the device. It was her connection to the world outside of her room. It carried her voice to those she loved.

The staff found the phone. Linda was still gone.

 

IV.

Maybe presence is more potent after the loved one has left their recognized form? In their absence, we truly see them, recognize them, miss them. The total awareness of the fact that they will not be returning stops thought.

Anna shared that she felt her mother’s absence this last weekend while at a family gathering. The feeling was intense and stayed with her the entire evening. There were no real words to convey the intensity or to define the feeling any better. There was a break in language that morning, no one knew what to say when her mother’s ashes were spread. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The limit of our known world is the end of life. When confronted with death, we can lose our ability to communicate.

“What does it mean to write what is not there. To write absence.” -Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter (2017)

When confronted with the unknown, I grow more obsessive. It is a defense mechanism, a protection from the fear of the unknown, the chaos. It is a way to escape acknowledging the absence directly. So, my mind tries to reach for references, ones that seem to circle the trauma:

Derrida’s concept of “trace,”

Blanchot’s “always-already past,”

Or Barthes’s search for feeling/connection in a photograph of his deceased mother.

We are language. Our language, whether in image or text, creates a picture of our world. When we are very young, we begin to learn how to use language to control our environment. We ask for things, and if we use our manners, we sometimes get those things. We learn to name things. We learn our own names. We can identify things and potential things. We develop the ability to effectively predict things. Progressively, we begin to formulate our identity with language.

Sometimes, the very same language that connects us, that creates our world, fails.

I can’t truly write about Linda’s absence, just as I can’t truly write about Austin’s absence.

I can’t write about these things, because I don’t know if I can handle looking directly at them, giving words to them. So, I write their presence instead. I write their presence, and I write around the absence.

 

V.

“Out of this same light, out of the central mind,

We make a dwelling in the evening air,

In which being there together is enough.”

–Wallace Stevens, Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramou

 

From the moment Anna introduced me to her mother, she accepted me, loved me. Linda immediately recognized something about our relationship, something she understood.

 

“Signs are arbitrary because language starts with a negation of loss, along with the depression occasioned by the mourning. ‘I have lost an essential object that happens to be, in the final analysis, my mother,’ is what the speaking being seems to be saying. ‘But no, I have found her again in signs, or rather since I consent to lose her I have not lost her (that is the negation), I can recover her in language.’” — Julia Kristeva, Black Sun (1992)

 

I remember Linda’s voice, the rhythm and dynamics of her speech. I remember her mannerisms, her countenance when she was completely engaged and when she was obviously not. Anna and her siblings have so much of her captured in their memories, a complex tapestry of their perception of their mother. I remember her joy at our wedding, during the final moments of daylight, the blue hour. In my handful of perfect moments that define and capture Linda for me, I see her and John watching me marry their daughter, listening to our vows, witnessing our commitment to one another.

 

I see her sitting in her chair, sharing her recipes with Anna one Christmas, written on aging paper, crumbling from touch. I can picture Linda directing the baking, John performing the action under her guidance. I didn’t actually witness this. I have only ever heard of the stories from Linda and John. But, it sits as part of my memory just as if I were there.

 

I remember their personal stories, their shared life. When they arrived home after their wedding, their refrigerator was full, John’s parents providing this appreciated gift. They have told me this story more than once. They both acknowledge it as one of the sweetest gestures they received.

 

John and Linda

I remember how gentle John and Linda were in the hospital when she was finally able to speak again. I remember how their hands touched and how they held one another closely. I will always remember how he whispered to her after she had left her body.

I remember the day Eleanor was born, the smile on Austin’s face. I picture his singing to Kaylla as she was in labor. I didn’t witness this either. I was in the waiting room. Anna recounted this to me more than once. She held onto this memory, maybe because it showed his true nature. Young men are difficult to understand, their actions are usually at least part mystery, even to themselves. Austin had a young man’s temper, a young man’s frustration with the world. He also had a young man’s dreams and a drive to create his world in the appearance of these dreams. He was a rich tapestry of memory, and on the night of Eleanor’s birth, he was profoundly gentle. This memory and the memory of him with Eleanor, patient and hopeful, are how I think of him.

 

Austin and Kaylla, July 2nd, 2014

There is a lightness in being able to articulate these thoughts, being able to commit them to language. I don’t know how the next few months or years will unfold. I know that our family has become closer, more protective of one another. We are discussing more, working to understand one another daily. Language, like life, can end abruptly, without warning.

I have no idea what I set to write here, and I don’t think it’s finished or complete.

I know I need to start thinking about presence more than absence.

I need to hold time for a little longer, be completely present.

 


 

 

Advertisements

Looking Past the Other in Digital Communication

*

When reading articles via the internet, it’s probably a good idea to just steer clear of the comments section. This is especially true when reading something that is related to issues of equity or accessibility for all. Trolling in the form of racist, sexist, and other fear-fueled rants can seem like the dominant mode of communication of many participants in this space. It can seem as if individuals are talking over and past one another, and communication is not founded on true dialogue.

Dialogue, Paulo Freire asserts, is an “existential necessity” that is inherently a vital part of learning (1968, p. 89). The act of participating in dialogue is an indicator of humility and the willingness to learn. It can provide participants the opportunity to recognize one another, the essential elect of identity development and respect. The willingness to think outside bias, to critically examine our biases, is at the heart of learning about the other and ourselves. It is our responsibility to one another (Buber, 1937). This may seem frightening, because it essentially places us in the unknown, the uncomfortable place of not being able too easily categorize and identify others. This identification makes life very simple. However, being uncomfortable is the only way we truly grow. The old saying reminds us that moss does not grow on a rolling stone. Stasis equates to a stillness that is not unlike death.

St. Johns River, Jacksonville, 2017


 

Margaret Wheatley expresses the significance of being uncomfortable: “We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly. We rediscover we’re creative” (2002, p. 37). This discovery can help give meaning to our lives and enrich those with whom we interact. Basically, we learn more about ourselves through others. It sounds simple…and it is…if we are ready to be uncomfortable.


MIT Press, 2017


 

Byung-Chul Han’s most recent English translations, The Agony of Eros (2017a) and In the Swarm (2017b), both discuss the absolute need for our encounter with the other. He warns that the digital medium of expression “is taking us farther and farther away from the other” (2017b, p. 24). Our ability or inability to articulate ourselves is exacerbated in the digital medium, and “nonverbal forms of expression such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language” are lost almost completely (2017b, p. 21). Our inability to plan for this learning leaves us with no “other” with which we may view new perspectives and understandings of the world.The visual images are constructed for us to see ourselves (or our closest analogue), thereby making everything the same. This massive normalization ends the need for an other, and it destroys the possibility for imagination or fantasy (2017a). We must be able to perceive through another viewpoint, one that is truly the opposite of the one we hold, so that we may engage in thinking that is infinitely more complex.

Without confrontation with the other, we are doomed to live empty lives, lonely and incomplete. There is a small piece of a recent poem by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (that is part of his series of poems that begin with a line from Osip Mandelstam, The Easements) that reads:

“as I’ve found in the stars

no friend, the lake

no brother, the current

no story to live with.”

 

I don’t know why my thinking takes this path, but it reminds me of the other as being the source of desire, the source of a true narrative. Without the necessary encounter with the other that produces co-constructed knowledge for the benefit of both participants, our individual life stories are stillborn (Han 2017b).

Perhaps comments and social media posts are not really avenues for actual discussion. If that’s the case, I don’t understand the necessity of providing a vehicle for reader voice if it isn’t to inspire dialogue.

Embrasures at Fort Clinch, Fernandina Beach, Florida (2017)

 


 

Note- The article that prompted this brief line of though is located here. The comments section yielded some replies that were blatantly racist and sadly myopic.

 


How To Become Who You Already Are

*

“What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.”

    -Ezra Pound

To become who you already are, you’ll have

to go looking. Ridiculous as it sounds,

you won’t find it from there, and you won’t 

Find it alone. You’ll need to keep moving

to keep up with an ever expanding universe.

You’ll need to find an island, one

with fire still inside. You’ll know you’re there

with your fingertips. You’ll feel a

low volcanic vibration, unexpected

and elevating the earth beneath you.

Consider writing a play, one without end.

Your story should reflect like sunlight on water,

and be performed on an outdoor stage.

Create characters with storybook names, 

known only to you and your closest friend. 

Name your theatrical park after memory, and 

embellish it with angels both in flesh and 

in stone. This is where you’ll find your mirror.

Build a home that echoes your voices,

leave the windows open to a cappella birdsong. 

Finally, but most importantly

If you are going to believe in anything

               (anything at all),

believe that the rest of the world 

has changed with the both of you 

for as long as you possibly can.

(For Jason and Katrina Lewis)

A Partial Record of My Education

*

“Those who love wisdom must investigate many things.” – Heraclitus

“I write-and talk-in order to find out what I think.” – Susan Sontag

In 2014, I graduated with my doctorate in education, and this seemed miraculous to me. A sustained focus, logical arguments, and the synthesis of an area of literature were inherent in the task of writing a dissertation, and I didn’t feel like I’d ever be able to live up to this challenge. As a child, I felt most comfortable with image and sound based communication. Music and visual art are such a large foundation for my thinking. I’m pretty certain this had to do with my mother taking me to museums and libraries, playing records in the living room regularly, and encouraging my growing interest in drawing.

Images could convey ideas that were both at the surface of my thinking and buried in my subconscious. Painting or creating something visually interesting and potentially communicative was something that came naturally. The imagery did not have to mirror reality. It could be completely conceptual. I was driven by the need to play with things that had an uncertain end. Not being driven to an actual destination, instead being propelled forward with intuition and curiosity, liberated me from having to make any sense of what I might be feeling in a way that would communicate to another. It was a drive to create.

This drive has pulled me in many directions at once. I have obsessively composed with sound, painted primarily textural (if not always aesthetically pleasing) images, and sometimes incorporated sound with paintings. Notes and small drafts of “diary” or journal entries have always been included as well. The outcome of these experiments was a amalgam of forms. I’m never quite certain how a thing may turn out…what form or hybrid it may take finally. I don’t even know if the outcome is the final version of a thing.

My default thinking is in fragments. If there are connections between the ideas or works, I have no knowledge of it during the process. It is always a dive into the unknown.

The past two months have included more than a few occurrences of fragmented thinking and organization that has not yet solidified into a coherent statement or group of thoughts. My regular lists of reading, listening, and watching have increased. I have rapid and incomplete connections between ideas and forms (text, image, sound, memory, etc.).

notebook march 2017

March-April 2017 Notebook, Thinking in Lists (more)

Recently, I have been reading Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy (Bubbles, Globes, and Foams) that have finally been translated, Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen (2013), Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter (2017), Kafka’s late writings, Wittgenstein’s late writings on culture and aesthetics, Kadinsky, Susan Sontag, a biography on Eric Dolphy, so many disparate essays, and massive amounts of poetry.

Lately, I have been awed by the visual artwork of Rosy Keyser, Titus Kaphar, Fernando Zobel, Hito Steyerl, Julie Mehretu, Rebecca Horn, and Agnes Martin.

As I have written before, my sister told me once that whatever I put into my head must eventually come out. In what form will it arrive?

It eases my mind to know that others seem to have the same attraction to this process of discovery (like Sontag’s diary entry below).

From Sontag’s As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (with my scribbles)

Probably due to the Sloterdijk, the fact that Eleanor is beginning to trace the letter O, and my attraction to the simplicity of the ensō, circles and spheres have dominated my visual thinking. I seem to find them everywhere. From the Book of Genesis to NASA’s documentation of space trash, I seem to collide with imagery that represents a circular/spherical containment or a cyclical process.

 

Day 5 of Creation (Book of Genesis Illustration, 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle)

From Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity (2015)

Iannis Xenakis- from Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1992)

Iannis Xenakis- from Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (1992)

What will be your legacy?

*

What will be your legacy?

In 2003 (as I remember), I was asked this question. The question followed the most concise history of time I had ever seen: a timeline drawn in chalk across three of the four walls of a classroom by a professor as he spoke to his class. He speculatively marked the beginning of all time and walked through major historical events, such as the birth of the planet and the end of the dinosaurs, all the while contemplating on the significance of time. Right before his line ended, near the very end of the third wall of blackboards and after just beginning to chart the dawn of the human species (literally just a few inches of wall contained everything from the first humans to the Crusades to World War Two), he stopped briefly to ask someone their birthdate. He marked it on the line. His hand moved probably less than a millimeter. He marked their death. Then, the last remains of the chalkboard and his continued walk across the fourth wall of the room was accompanied by just this description- Time will continue, the endless march of time. You were here so briefly. What was important to you? What was changed for the better by you? What did you do with your brief existence? Anything? What will be your legacy?

Like any talk meant to inspire, this question could have been forgotten. I have heard it hundreds of ways. What made this different was the individual asking it. He wasn’t trying to become the next self-help guru or to land his own TED talk. He was simply trying to set the stage for and facilitate future lessons to align to the differentiated goals for students in his course (on the lifelong professional development of our own abilities in leadership). Students could, upon reflecting on this question, begin to connect the learning experiences to something personally held to be important.

Things appear to be divergent. To an outsider, every action or word uttered may appear to be completely reactionary or disparate events in a life. However, once one knows something about their potential legacy…once someone really understands what drives them, all decisions…every action is fueled with more responsibility to the vision one had set for themselves and the world around them.

I believe this idea of legacy works for all people, organizations, etc. It is what helps to provide one with a personal “brand”.

I have been asking this question of the educational leaders I’ve interviewed over the last couple of months. I ask them, at the conclusion of course-based questions: What do you want your legacy for education/students/teaching/etc. to be? Why? What is (fill in name of school or district or group of people) like after you are gone? What are you doing to affect that change now?

The answers are all different. Every individual has a unique vision of their legacy, whether they want to change the educational landscape for struggling students to those that want to change the opportunities for potential careers in their district from access to technology-rich programs to those that just want to be forgotten.

As I just write these brief, unedited thoughts in the middle of the night, I am thinking about my personal goals, my mission, my potential legacy. I wonder if those with whom I work have ever considered these things. I wonder if our team has a collective mission…or if there is a thought to what our team legacy will be. What is our brand and why?

 

Photo- shot from Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, on my way to running the New York Marathon again in 2011.