Presence in Absence

Objects contain absent people

Julian Barnes

I was watching a TV show last night about the wonders of New Zealand and its people. The host was very engaging. He had a syrupy voice that almost hypnotized me at times. At one point, I was nodding off when he spoke the words above. Huh? What did he say about objects? And what does it mean?

The day after, it’s clear. Dear human beings remain in place after they move on in life or in death. They continue to reside in precious objects. Such as …

1. I wrote a book about my loved one, called Jodiette: My Lovely Wife. About 1200 copies are spread around Canada and beyond. One sits on Anne and Ihor’s coffee table here in Toronto. Jody radiates from the pages.

2. The totem poles of Haida Gwaii, a huge island off the mainland of British Columbia, stand guard. Twenty-six of them tilt in the abandoned village of Ninstints. Hundreds of years of the Haida people remain in the wood.

3. I’m sitting in the waiting room of a walk-in clinic on Weston Road. Six others wait with me. The chair beside is empty and I think of the thousands of sick people who have put their rear end down in that spot. May they all have found health.

4. I wandered through the 911 Museum in New York City last week. I came upon a piece of paper, charred at the edges. It was a report about some project that a company was initiating. I imagined some young account executive holding this sheet as he or she spoke to colleagues and bosses. The person was still there in the paragraphs.

5. Value Village is a thrift store in London, featuring lots of quality used clothing. I go to Wellington Fitness next door and often see crowds of folks coming and going with their treasures. I think of the folks wearing other folks’ clothing and wonder if the energy of the previous owner shines through to the new one.

6. I bought a wooden mask in Toubacouta, Senegal in January. The smile is big and the eyes are wide. The fellow offering it said that his great-great-great? grandfather carved it over a hundred years ago. That man’s hands are still in the crevices of the face, in the high cheek bones, in the joy.

7. I’ve been privileged to see many bears in the Canadian Rockies, even the occasional grizzly. And yet most times on the alpine trails there was no sign of the majestic animals. But I would look to the way ahead and realize that the bears were here – I just couldn’t see them. I would sense their footfalls on the dirt and exposed rock.

8. At home I have a ticket stub for a Bruce Springsteen concert in Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, around 1980. What lives on in that little slip of stuff is … me. A younger version. Dancing in his seat. In love with life, just not as deeply as now.

9. I’m still in the waiting room, and a huge window allows me to look across the street to a brick building. Its side is covered with a mural, depicting Weston Road as it once was. A streetcar rumbles down the street. A two-storey brick building is topped with a bell tower. Mother and daughter are strolling on the porch of what might be a general store. The people are created in paint but they stand in for real folks who walked this street decades ago. And the artist’s love lingers on the wall.

***

Ghosts from the past
Real in the present
Leaning into the future

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