A friend treated me to the MOMA exhibit of Francesca Woodman’s photography today. Her photographs are emotionally grueling as much as they are poetic and otherworldly — a startling oeuvre for an artist who killed herself at 22 years-old. Amid her reckless vulnerability, guileless experimentation and the prescience of her deadened gaze, it’s hard not to notice clues of a yearned-for redemption. Therein her photographs lies an openness to the other that occurs in a blinding blast of exterior light, a haze of translucent corporeal form as it moves during long exposure, and the compositional beauty of shapes in a beauty-less squalor. When I encountered the images which captured her in a morbid dance with her dead grandmother’s belongings, I heard instantly the song echoing in my own heart: my own missing grandmother.
My grandmother and I saw each other completely and despite this, loved each other wholly. It also helped that she spoiled me unabatedly, but that’s the providence of a grandmother. She has been dead almost 15 years, but her absence is as fresh as it was the moment her eyes beseeched mine in her final suffering — the moment I abandoned her, glancing away in my callow inability to reckon the totality of loss.
She bore only one son, who bore only two daughters — and the Lee lineage, with now dead branches of ancestors from roots undoubtedly in antiquity, is a felled tree. Yet she loved her grandaughters not just all the same, but perhaps even more so because of her own experience as a female in an overvalorized patriarchal prison of a culture.
Two years ago I bore a son, who, because of circumstances way outside my grandmother’s understanding, will carry the Lee name.
A year ago, I was putting my then 7 month-old son to bed. When I entered the bedroom, a portrait of my grandmother caught my attention in a way that doesn’t occur with belongings one lives with for years, photos and mementos that over time become as invisible as they are fixture. But on this night, her photo struck me as having a new punctum, that this old image existed suddenly in the present tense — a realization that my grandmother had been of life, incredibly overwhelming the sum of the lifeless ink and paper that represented her as such.
As quickly as that photo caught eyes with mine, I put it aside, and put my son to bed. As he fell asleep, a shadow whisked down the hallway outside. I assumed it was my partner, and when it was clear that it wasn’t, a primitive fear prevented any deep consideration and propelled me out of the bedroom and upstairs like a child fugitive of the dark.
When a rationality returned, I returned to check on my sleeping boy, and when I drew near him, I took in a startling sight — a security blanket had been tucked under my son’s chin, his arm embracing it, with the blankets wrapping him in the way I had left them. Incredulous, I sought my partner for what would be an easy explanation: Did you cuddle his security blanket under his arms?
What are you talking about, I’ve been up here the whole time.
When I showed her the sight of our son, somehow having found his “lovie” left nowhere near his sleeping body, tucked in his arms like only a loving guardian would do, a shockwave of love and gratitude for my grandmother flooded in, just as an equally terrifying openness to the utter unknown seized me — the magnitude of an untranslatability — which would never let me speak of it again.
Today’s Advice: “And yet – beyond what is, not away from it but before it, there is an other that occurs. In the midst of beings as a whole, there is an open place. There is a clearing, a lighting… This open center, therefore, is not surrounded by what is; rather, the lighting middle itself encircles all that is, like the nothing we hardly know.” — Heidegger.