Homesick for Yesterday

Blue, blue, my world is blue
Blue is my world now I’m without you.
Gray, gray, my life is gray
Cold is my heart since you went away.

The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis has been hosting a month-long program called ArtBites. Once a week, folks who sign up for the program go to the museum and traipse as a group to one of the pieces currently on exhibit. We sit, like elementary students, on low stools and the curator guides us with questions through an exercise in seeing.

This week, I felt raw when I walked out of the museum.

The curator had chosen an assemblage, which reminded me — not in content, but in style — of a dear friend from those days when I was striving to be an artist. Not an artist as I am now — one who paints for the pleasure of creating images, but an artist whose work is exhibited, viewed by an audience and sold. I found myself longing for the hours we spent in conversation, longing for his creative imagination which was large enough to engage a second set of hands (mine), longing for the community of fellow artists he created with his amazing goodness.

“Goodness” is probably an odd choice of words to use when speaking about an artist. While the word is often found in spiritual literature, artists are usually praised for the work of their hands, not for their character, not for the way in which they walk in this world. I could just as easily — perhaps more easily — write of the amazing work he has created over the years, but at the Shrem this week, I was missing his friendship.

I was missing the sense of rightness I experienced in my life when we were together — not just the two of us, but the whole coterie of artists his temperament drew together. The path I tread at that point in my life was not well-traveled, but it was comfortable and it was mine — so completely mine that every path since has felt like a search for the treasure of that authentic moment. I’ve learned to put one foot in front of the other. I have experienced joy in other activities, but the longing to belong again as I did then has never left me.

At the Shrem, I pulled my stool back, away from the assemblage, because I was afraid I would cry if I sat too close. I didn’t expect that kind of homesickness to wash over me in this contemporary museum — so new the inaugural exhibit is still up. I didn’t expect it to blindside me while looking at works by California artists; my friend’s work is so solidly rooted in his Midwestern ag background. (What in the world do beads — or were they pool balls? — have to do with the price of grain, hunger and the impact of GMOs on the human body?)

When I pulled my stool back, I created a space in the line of stools which another woman quickly filled. Initially, I thought she stood and moved to stand directly in front of me, blocking my view entirely with her ass — flat as it was, it still blocked my view, in order to see a part of the piece she could not see from her location. However, since she remained there, I was forced to move or to be excluded from the experience offered by the Shrem. I took her seat.

In her seat, I could read the words scrawled across the bottom of the assemblage. One phrase struck me: “Love is Blue.” About the time the work was created, one of the pop hits was a song by that name. I commented on this, and Flat Ass challenged me, saying there was no way of knowing that. I wanted to say, ‘I can read the date on the label, and I happen to remember that time in my life quite well (bitch).’ Instead, I pulled out my phone, googled the song, and provided the information which confirmed my observation.

As I sit here now, I wonder if that little verbal spat didn’t take us in the wrong direction. On the canvas portion of the assemblage were spheres, each with a single dot, which suggests they could have been beads from a broken string. Some were dark blue, some were lighter blue and some were white. We were told the number of spheres was equal to the artist’s age at the time the work was created. What if the color of the sphere indicated a year in his life lived without someone he loved?

I also wonder, though, about the symbolism of the woman filling the space I left vacant. Isn’t that what happens in life — what is supposed to happen in life? When one person moves, another fills that person’s place. Why, then, could I not push away the loneliness I felt participating in that exercise  as I pushed the museum’s over-sized door to leave? Do some people leave a space which cannot be filled?

I texted my friend before returning to work. I don’t do this often, because nearly 20 years have passed since we worked together on a project, and our paths have diverged. But in that moment, I ached for what will never again be.


One thought on “Homesick for Yesterday

  1. As I read Mary’s experience at the art museum, I was overcome with emotion. Waves of sadness and compassion for Mary and everything that has been were interrupted by a few smirks and anger at Flat Ass. Mary has again read my mind from 1,000 miles away; I’ve been homesick for something this last week.

    What is it about the first week of March that always brings this feeling? Is it that winter is finally giving way to spring? Like the frost laden soil, has my resolve to get through winter left me feeling weak and vulnerable? Is it the overwhelming dread that eventually those cows are going to calve? Or is it that I get nostalgic for a week off to do what I want?

    I’ve been thinking about geese lately. Growing up on the Coteau, migrating birds seemed to be the door keepers of spring. The Canadian geese sent their scouts ahead and found water in every open pot hole. The snow and blue geese came in droves, covering hillsides to look like snow packs. Hutchies would confuse me with their markings and size, while a few Brandt geese would trail along. Occasionally a bald eagle would stalk the loners. Northern shovelheads and canvas back ducks would come soon after.

    As corn and soybeans became a viable crop west of the James River, the snow and blue geese started migrating further west. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until yesterday as I was making enough coffee to go to a bull sale. I heard their squawking, and was transported back in time 15 years…and then I looked out the window. Thousands dotted the sky. They began their characteristic funnel cloud to land only a few hundred yards from my mailbox. As I drove up the road, a bald eagle flew in front of my windshield. It was beautiful. It was nostalgic. It moved me to wonder and to tears.

    I met Jay a few minutes later, and together we followed the geese flocks north and west. By the time we got to the bull sale, there were only scout geese left. Jay got his bidder number and we went to look at the bulls. One of the bull sellers is a young woman fresh out of college. As I watched her quiet confidence and her extensive knowledge of her work, again I felt nostalgic. I remember being 23, full of confidence and excitement for the future, and ready to prove myself in a male-dominated industry. Did I miss her excitement? Or did I just (temporarily) forget the few hours of sleep? The mistakes? The debt I begged for? Did I envy her age because it seems so much easier to be 23 (and a woman rancher) in 2017 than it did in 2003? Could I REALLY be homesick for my mid-twenties?!?!?

    Mary asked a very important question: can a void inside us never be filled again? I wish I knew. Maybe what fills us (our loved ones, our work, our hobbies) migrates much like the geese. Maybe we’re like the Canadian geese and return each year to the same ponds with the same friends. But maybe we’re like the snow geese and continue to extend our limits. Maybe we’re a hybrid of the two. Maybe, like migrators in the spring, we chase the frost lines in our souls and wait for a summer day.


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