“Rarely does anyone remind you, and you always forget, that loss has an anniversary,” a friend once told me over a slowly warming beer. Moments of loss dot and darken the calendar, turn and tighten your stomach, and end leaning awkwardly on the corners of your eyes. No one warns you of this. If they can, they help you past those immediate images that rush in full of presence–color, sound, and warmth–when the day slows to waste the moon and hound the dawn with silence, a silence that is always at your elbow and tight against your hip. But when these moments return, we often face them alone, as maybe we should, and in the encounter emerges an opportunity to grow even as we feel shaken. And reflecting on the pain we feel is not to succumb to cynicism but is instead to keep that pain from defining us, a point Ulysses’s mother reflects on in William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy: “Unless a man has pity he is not truly a man. If a man has not wept at the worlds’s pain he is only half a man, and there will always be pain in the world” (131).* When painting the scene “Tree among Hills” these thoughts gave me a vague sense of purpose.
Space and Place
As with most children, I used to climb trees, fascinated with elevation and the opportunity to see beyond the limits of my corporeality. In this act, I experienced the construction of a human geography, using the technology at hand to explore my relationship with the physical and emotional dimensions of the space. As Yi-Fu Tuan * suggests, a landscape “feels spacious and friendly when it accommodates our desires” (65). Whether realistic or otherwise, a landscape conveys information about our perception of space that might shape an emotional response to it, a response that turns it into a “place”: space “that feels thoroughly familiar” (73). Climbing trees allowed me to inflate the space of my youth into what Tuan refers to as an “articulated geography” (83). Linked perceptions that could contain my dreams alongside impressions of my past that fed hopes for my future.
The Landscape: Loss and Redemption
Suspended in this matrix, these fantasies filter through landscapes, painted as well as real, investing them not only with the familiar and so comfortable but also with potentiality. A sense of freedom and possibility that even when unrealized motivates us to continue to engage in the process of becoming, traveling, as Lucille Clifton notes, “through this to that.”* This sense of fantasy guided me as I painted. I wandered among the emergent shapes. One moment I traced along the transition between color and canvas while the next I filled in those shapes with the feeling of depth and dimension.
As in my youth imagining my hometown, I’m not sure what I have created. The tree and surrounding landscape might reflect some loss that remains quietly draped in my subconscious. Maybe a childish impression among the woods out back that never fully emerged into my consciousness. Perhaps the structure of a shadow that is hunched beneath the weight of menace. Maybe the painting carries those subliminal images that filtered in on the day she left. Muslin moments that even now flutter in the faintest breeze. Those impressions that etch memory–a tiny scar across the bridge of her nose carried with her since childhood, or the hesitation above my arm of a newly tentative touch. Maybe it is the haze of our lips on the two glasses left on the counter (the rims touching), or her eyes averted and lips shut tight. Maybe loss is echoed in the distance she wrapped around words suddenly pulled free from emotion, carrying nothing but “a long time gone.”*
Along with these instances of loss, maybe the painting also carries fantasies of their redemption. The early glow falling among drifts of snow on a winter morning. Quiet music playing and warm coffee cooling among the still and hazy light. Maybe redemption is there in her eyes, just a bit too wide and curiously bright, that time she saw me approaching from down the hall. Her lips parted and catching the light. She leaned with her palms open and held out to me in anticipation, a finger along her wrist. That touch that would sift across the chill of her skin. These fantasies leave me bent, reaching for a tree filled with beautiful things. Baubles of the past hanging with potential, the possibility of her breath whispered across my cheek, the brush of her fingertips at the nape of my neck, or her look back that feels like “don’t leave.” These possibilities will, in that place that continually becomes me, quicken these baubles with the shudder of life and maybe the permanence of love.
*Saroyan, William. The Human Comedy. New York: Dell-Random House, 1971. Saroyan was an Armenian immigrant and wrote about his family’s experiences in California during the 1940s.
*Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977.
*Clifton, Lucille. “Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary’s).” Quilting: Poems 1987-1990. New York: BOA, 2000.
*I take this phrase from John Hiatt’s song “Long Time Coming.”