Friday, September 7, 2012

When Absence is Present

This has absolutely nothing to do with God. It's about absence.

But I'm gonna start with that tendentious line from people who insist upon some abstruse truth about God: Absence of proof isn't proof of absence.

Again, this post has nothing to so with religion or god or any of that, by the way. It really is about absence, and what, if anything, it is. Or means. Or whatever. So, if you want to praise sweet Jesus, kill people who draw cartoons of Mohammad, institute prayer in public schools, prohibit lascivious eye glints in the U.S. Constitution or fly airplanes into buildings, you're safe in reading this.

Hmm. Where are we going with this? Let's start with the mundane thing that just happened, in which I (a) shuffle out to our little deck to fire up the barbecue, and (b) discover an entire unsmoked cigarette on the little table.

Absence revealed. Sarah, my daughter, left it there. She'd been visiting all month from Istanbul, and returned home, leaving, not nothing, but an absence.

Absences can be important (and I'm listening to the Giants-Dodgers game, in which I obsess on the absence of Giant pitcher Tim Lincecum's absence of a decent two-seam fastball, which is another story but really kind of on point in its own way). Absence is not nothingness. Absences can be palpable.

Sometimes, though not always, they're illuminated by some trope or other. Here, e.g., let me shamelessly steal from Carson McCullers' "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" image of a note written in water instead of ink, whose content is revealed only when the paper is held before a fire, and the hidden words become clear. That damned cigarette is a signal of Sarah's presence.

Or, her absence, as it were. As was, similarly and also e.g., the Hotwheels pickup under the davenport her five-year-old son--our grandson--left behind. It's always nice to have a trope of one's own.

Okay, so, the cigarette: It's bad, she shouldn't be smoking, it's a bad example for the kid, it's stinky, and so-on and so forth. It's snippets of conversation Sarah and I have had for years, though less so lately. But it's more than that.

She's 39, now, with gray hairs Lollipop-guilding their way into her blonde locks, with extra pounds taking longer to banish, with all the other life-inducing sags and creases making their marks, with, if not regrets, second thoughts about a host of life decisions. 

But I see that cigarette, and I sense her absence. The absence isn't a nothing, nor is it a reminder of Sarah's having visited. Rather, that damned cigarette is Sarah at  eighteen months, her diaper fluffing out that little navy blue skirt with the little flower print, at two, when she belly-crawled under the Christmas tree and reached for an ornament, at eleven, when she scored her only two goals ever and got to keep a kitten, at twelve, when her assistant principal called us in because Sarah answered the call to play high school football, at sixteen, when she got kicked out of school, and so on.

And, sort of similarly, the Hot Wheels pickup: I don't recall the exact location off Shattuck Rd. where I had to pull over when Ender's father called and announced my grandson's birth, but I remember the sunlight, the smell of the car, the scowling woman in the car behind me. And while I'm sorely tempted to note the many highlights of Ender's five years' of existence, you sort of get the point. The entire time, faded, is gone, but it is quite present.

To wit: The absence of Sarah, of Ender, is palpable. It's as present as the spaniel pestering me to take her outside for a dump. Absences are not vacancies, not nonexistent whatevers. And their tropes, their metaphors--the forgotten cigarette, the toy pickup--don't prove absence, really, so much as they call attention to it.

And I cover my body in absence as much as I do with a comforter on a cold night. But this is only part of the issue.

Because, I'm starting to think, absences are as much a foundation of our lives, for better or worse, as our myths. Myths? You fill in the blank on that one ("I believe in "..." the "....". And so on. Everybody has one.

Absences? Well. Sort of roads not taken, but more, as in stuff that might have happened in other ways than it did. [Editor's note: concrete examples, please.]

For example [sop to editor], think of all those persons in your life whom you liked (or loved) more than they liked (or loved) you. That smart kid in, say, the third grade, whom you maybe admired but who couldn't see you. The really super popular kid in the eleventh grade who asked you who cared about you? A college crush who seriously thought you were kidding? A rising colleague you helped behind the scenes but who publicly dismissed you as a nonentity or even sold you down the river?

Well, but for fortune, these could have all gone another way. That someone you had a crush on but were afraid to say anything to might have acknowledged you in a dozen ways rather than humiliate you with craven indifference. But he/she didn't, and so it goes. Deal with it

And remember the absence of what might have happened. In fact, embrace it.

Because, so it goes, but for the absence of what didn't happen, an essential part of you exists. It's sort of memories you never had, but it's really way more than that. If you look at the building blocks of your life--the morals, the convictions, the experiences, the warnings--the absences are as big a block as anything. 

I'm totally going to run with this. It's metastasizing the more I think about it.

Parallel universes, anyone?