Similar But Different
By Lauren Gallow
Arrived at the Henry Art Museum by bus at 1:45 p.m. Bumped head on handrail when exiting bus because stupid girl wouldn’t move to let me pass. Everything was horrible.
Walked in and it was confusing. What do I do? Where do I go? Finally got it straightened.
Grabbed clipboard, book, ledger, pencils, and stool. Instructed on how to proceed: enter the gallery, find animal that spoke to me, sit, and speak back to it. Read from the book as though I was reading a bedtime story to my animal. Soothing it, calming it. Transcribe any sections of the book that felt meaningful or memorable.
“These joined processes of reading and transcribing are an address to the animals,” Ann Hamilton says of this aspect of her exhibition the common S E N S E on now at the Henry. “These animals are represented in images and materially present in the cultural artifacts on display.”
I found my animal. A tan, white, and black quilt of feathers woven into a beautiful tapestry. But it wasn’t fabric, it was a scan of a bird’s plumage. A real bird. A dead bird. And yet in death, the most beautiful. It was the first image I had spotted when I entered the gallery for the first time last Saturday. I remember wanting it, wanting to rip the newssheet off and fold it neatly into my folder. They said I could take only one animal image. I want that one.
The ripping. It was quiet, yet uncomfortable. Soft, yet violent. A noise to break the empty silence, but a noise that emphasized taking, breaking, and folding it up into your folder. To take. Why? But I wanted it so badly. So I took one. And then another. And then another. The stacks of photocopied newsprint seemed infinite, they would never run out. So I took them.
But today, I merely sat with my animal. I did not take him.
I settled my stool close, but not too close. I examined him. The newsprint had been ripped in one section, one of the bottom corners hanging loosely from the edge, dangling like a broken arm.
I opened my book. I chose my birthday as the starting date, because that seemed as good a day as any. It’s coming up, you know. 30.
Immediately, I got nervous. Self-conscious. Who would hear me read? What did I sound like? What if I messed up?
Finally, I convinced myself none of that mattered. I looked at my bird, his feathers the softest, downy brown with a splattering of black dots and dashes. I looked back at my book. I began.
“December 20: Over orchards smelling of vinegary windfalls, busy with tits and bullfinches, a peregrine glides to perch in a river-bank alder. River shadows ripple on the spare, haunted face of the hawk in the water. They cross the cold eyes of the watching heron. Sunlight glints. The heron blinds the white river cornea with the spear of his bill. The hawk flies quickly upward to the breaking clouds.”
These log books, accounts of days spent in the field looking for birds, bird watching, they were just like my mom’s. I have piles upon piles of old journals filled not with the juicy details of my mother’s inner thoughts, nor the daily accounts of people in her life (i.e. me). Instead, they are filled with birds.
“January 10, 2002. Woodland Lake still frozen over. Saw an eagle + great blue heron + belted kingfisher. Must be hard to fish when there’s no open water. The lake’s been frozen since mid-December. Sure do miss the ducks.”
Sometimes, every once in a while, there is an incredibly juicy entry: one including a drawing of a bird. Filled with color and the record of her hands, her touch. She spent time in these books, filling them up with her favorite birds. And what is immediately apparent in these journals is how much she loves these birds. The care she pays them in her drawings, the devotion that pours out of her words.
Sitting in the gallery at the Henry, holding this book about birds, looking straight at a bird, both of the birds dead and once, twice removed. Absence being the most present thing. In that moment, all I could feel was my mother. Here I was, surrounded by her in the biggest way, yet missing her in the other biggest way. I can’t touch her. Her physical body is gone. And yet I feel her. All the time.
How do I reconcile that? How is that possible? It defies everything I’ve ever thought about my physical reality and my relationship to it. Feeling doesn’t necessitate touch. I always thought, I touch something, and then I feel it. That was how it worked. But what if it was possible to feel, feel a person or a human presence, without the touch?
I can’t deny that I’ve felt my mother in a handful of powerful moments since her death. In a coincidence so beautiful I couldn’t even have made it up, the first time I felt my dead mother’s presence involved a bird. I was walking her dogs and I looked up to see a hawk watching me from the streetlamp above. The hawk and I kept eyes the whole time I walked under her. I looked back to see her watching me still. She was my mom. I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wept uncontrollably and had to sit on the street corner while the dogs paced around my feet.
Everything’s the same, and yet, everything is different. Nothing has changed in my physical world, but my interior world has been flipped upside down. All the furniture dramatically rearranged. Chairs have been recovered, carpet has been replaced. Nothing is the same in there. And yet, everything is the same out there.
And when I read this line from The Peregrine to my dead bird friend, that sort of made sense for the very first time. “Line from peregrine about same but dif.”