The oven clock in our kitchen in Dubai is perpetually fast. Each time we reset her, try to realign her with the hour of consensus among other gadgets, she bounds forward again, leaning into the future. She has done her part to encourage our timelineness as a group; her red digits offer a kick of urgency with every glance. She has also created a perpetual mini-cycle of self-doubt, as I frantically triangulate her proposed hour with other available data, and not because I can’t subtract a reliable difference of, say, 10 or 15 minutes from her time, but because she runs increasingly fast, so that I don’t know if today she is 12, or 14, or 17 minutes ahead of the rest of us, or if someone has recently reset her and on this morning she happens to be on time. I can’t reliably quantify the gap, so I swing from number to number like an orangutan through branches, grasping at what’s available, and counting out the minutes.
The intangibility of absence defines it, and maddens the people it touches. These days, too many of my dearest suffer from absence in its many mutable forms:
there are holes where there should be people, holes where there should be safety and assurances, plans and dreams manifested, and holes where there once was hope.
Mid-diatribe on the dissatisfaction of absence, my partner recounted an anecdote about a personal trainer who carried kettlebell weight for every pound lost by one of his most challenging clients. A lack of something for one corresponded to an addition for the other. I seized on the idea, interested at the prospect of making absence tangible. Because when it hurts, or when it’s hard, or when replacements and substitutes don’t satisfy, I want something to hang on to, bite down on, hold close.
In the face of absence, we start swinging from the numbers, clinging to figures, building data-driven boxes around air because if we can’t feel the air at least we can touch the box, smooth sides and sharp edges and all. We count minutes and miles and months. We count tries and measure progress to distance ourselves from nothing, toward something, maybe even toward something else. We pile up likes and follows as if they were surplus harvest that will sustain us through the lean season, as if they were a bounty become need. We consult algorithms to find footholds in the sand. The counting passes time; the numbers, with their curves and codes, shelter us from the chaos that awaits just outside our doors.
Every now and then and especially in moments of self-pity, I corral my senses into remembering, for a moment, that feeling of waking up in the morning, newly emerged from a stifling sickness, and basking in the wild freedom of uninterrupted inhales, exhales, chest rising unimpeded, sinuses clear, headache abated, the world at my feet. That bodily clarity, coupled with gratitude at the forces of healing, is the nearest experience I can imagine to feeling–and enjoying–absence.
Sound popular wisdom advises counting your blessings in times of want, need, and desire, which are different angles of relationship to absence. This usually means looking around for what you have and hold, for what is available to you. I also push the other way, redefining what I’m grateful for using the very concept I’d like to avoid: absence. Look past it–what are you free from? What do you have none of, and are glad for it? What do you prefer to miss, given the alternative of having it forever?
I just checked the clock again: 18 minutes fast. There’s a gap I don’t mind, a space where I can find a bit of extra time, and fill it with nothing. Absence can be heartbreaking, but it precedes presence and predates our planet and ourselves. Before something, there was nothing. Take heart: something, maybe even something else, will come to you. It always does.
**Images from Hinckley, Ohio and Dubai, UAE.