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Elan Vitae


  • Shena Driscoll Salvato


Years seem to have passed by in minutes. The silence between us during those years, in all forms, hasn’t been intentional. There wasn’t a reason to stop communicating, nor did we not have anything to say. On the contrary, we likely had too much to say. Too much to not be able to precede each update with a long hug, accompany it with the rise and fall of a familiar laugh. Births, losses, joys, wars: it’s all too much to convey in a text or call. That physical distance, between continents, across oceans, has, in a comforting way, held space for us, like a large body of water holding the heat as Earth tilts away from the sun, still steaming in the morning light as snowflakes begin to melt into its still-liquid surface. Our connection was simply suspended, like a VHS tape on pause, bouncing in the darkness of an exhibit room in a contemporary art museum, left for the viewer to interpret: not moving forward yet not completely still. When we suddenly leap ahead those eleven-some years and finally press play again, the hug is long and authentic, the conversation picks right back up as if no time has passed. No awkwardness, no uncertainty, just all the familiarity and comfort of an old co-worker, an old housemate, an old friend.

A fitting place for us to meet is both practical and uncanny: half way in between, in the mountains, right over the border from my adopted state and in the far corner of her home state. A small town in the mountains, characteristic of the one we lived in decades ago in the Cloud Forest, where she talked incessantly about a magical place, far to the north, nestled between glacial-carved lakes, so alluring that I had to see it for myself once I returned to the States. I did, and for 21 years now, it has been my home. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be there. If it weren’t for us, we wouldn’t be here, drawn to art: a common interest, something to make together, something neither of us creates enough time for now. We casually browse from exhibit to exhibit, floor to floor, building to building. Two old friends sharing a new place. Only in retrospect do I realize how the threads of connection were woven between our own experience and the exhibits.

Exhibit A: White Noise by Joseph Grigely

In the next room, two white, curved, rooms-within-a-room have a small entrance and exit, one at each end. From the outside, what’s inside is a mystery. Upon entering, papers are meticulously arranged on all walls, plumb and level, from floor to ceiling, a life-size jigsaw puzzle surrounding us, but with spaces in between and all edges straight, just one delicate pin holding them each in place. In the absence of a draft from an open door or window, the papers hang in stillness. In one space, shades of white, in the other, a multitude of colors. In both spaces, many combinations of sizes and textures. These words, in their former present moment, in distant circumstances, were understood between two: one able to hear and the other, since the age of ten, only able to understand through these visual, hand-written representations. Had the words been spoken between the two, they would have evaporated into the ethers. Now, here they are, saved, curated, displayed, visible, shared. One handwritten note catches my eye and stays in my memory, where the writer asks, “Can you still hear your own voice in your head?” As we reconnect and sort through the multitudes of our own conversations, might we ask the same thing of ourselves?

Exhibit B: The Handphone Table by Laurie Anderson

There we sit on small round stools, across from one another, like it was yesterday, poised, to anyone watching, to talk, to listen to one another from across the long table. Our posture, though, would appear odd to anyone outside of this context of an exhibit in a contemporary art museum. We each read the instructions and place our elbows in the intentionally worn divots of the hulking yet simple wooden surface, hands pressed tightly to our ears. Just as during those years in between, there’s no interaction or communication, but the current of connection is still there. At a space typically used for gathering and communicating, it feels strange to block out the sounds around us. We look at each other, and although I can’t see it, I can feel my face immediately burst into the tell-tale look of surprise. I didn’t know what I would hear, but I didn’t expect it be that close to me, that present, as if all other sounds in the public space had disappeared. Instinctually, we stood up, walked around the table, and switched places. To my surprise, the sound was different from the other side. What we’re really doing, I think as we face one another, is not blocking out the sounds of others, but listening to ourselves: allowing the sound waves of the space around us to move through this once-tree-now-table and into our bones. Will this remind us to allow our own inner voices to flow?

Back home

Earth rotates toward the east, revealing the sun over the horizon through newly exposed limbs and branches. The silence of the birds long flown off to sing in southern climes is almost startling, and the leaves, no longer rustling from their stems on the branches, rest in stillness on the forest floor. One day, but not today, the wind will sweep them along to continue their journey toward decomposition, to serve as shelter for animals on the ground, eventual nourishment for the tree that created them, a crisp crunch for the feet that will be cushioned by their fall as the walker seeks solace and rejuvenation through the tall trunks, beneath the arching branches. This very morning, twenty-one years ago, I hadn’t yet seen daybreak from this hill or known the ridge to the southeast, whose view has once again been gifted to us by those fallen leaves.

Maybe what we’re really seeking in silence and stillness, in absence and presence, is the relative contrast that comes with time for observation, for listening. We, old friends, needed to not only revisit one another, but unexpected inspiration, and in doing both, revisit ourselves.

Photo credit: Image by Virvoreanu Laurentiu from Pixabay

For context and visuals on Joseph Grigely’s White Noise at MASS MoCA, visit

For context and visuals on Laurie’s Anderson’s The Handphone Table at Mass MoCA, visit

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