The Absent-Presence…

Grief is a kind of breach within time. Loss is a metered distance in the measures of our days, marking the ending of one passage or phrase, and holding the tension in the expectant tempo of the next.

Grief enforces a pause. Loss enlists a lingering. And so, we wait…

Some of us wait with an almost zen-like serenity of stoic acceptance, and others of us writhe in anticipatory uncertainty and tension, perched upon the edge of a seat, helpless and angst-ridden, knuckles white, jaws sore from unconscious clenching, nails chewed to the quick, as we search for something solid to bite down on. On a good day I find myself somewhere between the two. Like a Buddha of existential dread, sitting on the edge of my seat, holding a half-lotus posture, writhing in my attempt to accept the uncertain helplessness, conscious of the clenching, meditating with and on the dark anxiety of the Koan called depression; a zen monk of pessimism in training, studying the middle-way of melancholia.

There is almost an inherent musicality to the movement of the absence brought about by grief, a rhythmic structuring in the rupturous arrival and the absent-presence of loss. 

John O’ Donohue assures us that “Grief…has a sure structure”, and it is “Only by listening to the burden that has come” to us that we will “be able to discover its secret structure.”

To be clear, I am not writing as one who has arrived at grief’s grand finale, but rather as one only a few bars into the morose melodies of a suffering serenade, and still firmly clutched by the fermata of loss. But, already I’ve noticed the seemingly patterned fluctuations within this grieving orchestration; the rising anguish of the allegro and the falling forfeiture of the Adagio.

Though we long for the dissonance to resolve back into a more accordant harmony, there is an art here amidst the pausing tension of grief, absence, and loss; a carefully-crafted composition, a delicate design.

John Dewey writes that “Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension.” Instead, the artist “cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total.” 

Instinctively we may push back against such sentiments. We feel so discordant, so inharmonious, so ill-composed, perhaps even so de-composed, that we question how there could be any beauty, any art, to be found here.

Indeed, as Dewey explains “There is no art without the composure that corresponds to design and composition…But”, as Dewey goes on to say there is also no art “without resistance, tension, and excitement; otherwise the calm induced is not one of fulfillment.” Perhaps, for there to be any kind of fulfilling resolve there must first be a resistant tension.

The tension is the trickster that moves the story along,and creates an opening where a way had become blocked.

John O’ Donohue writes that “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself again.” But, O’ Donohue importantly points out that “This sore gathering takes time.” We are often so eager to return to normalcy, so anxious to move past this place that confronts us with the unavoidably presence of absence that, in the hurry, we further scatter the pieces. O’ Donohue advises us that we “need great patience with [our] slow heart[s].” He says that “It takes the heart a long time to unlearn and transfer its old affections” and that “This is a time when you have to swim against the tide of your life.” It seems for a while that you are advancing, then the desolation and confusion pull you down, and when you surface again, you seem to be even further from the shore.”

I can personally attest to this almost nonsensical cyclicality, this ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of stability and despair, contentment and anguish. Some days start with a sense of self-assured sturdiness. Others begin with a bluster of confusion and sadness. And some days, like a pendulum swinging wide, I move along the spectrum of the two. This is simply the rhythm of the tide, the pulse of the metronome; back and forth, the tick, then the tock, low then high and back again, the push and the pull. The shore line expands and contracts. Like music rises, falls, and resolves; this is simply the structure of the song. 

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