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How Can I Say Goodbye to My City in the Middle of a Pandemic?

By Ligaya Mishan

Edward Hopper’s “House at Dusk” (1935). © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts © 2019 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.
 
Edward Hopper’s “House at Dusk” (1935). © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts © 2019 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

In T’s advice column, Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q: I’m moving out of my city at the end of the month. How can I properly say goodbye to everyone I know in the age of Covid-19? — Sam Mulcahy, Boston, Massachussets.

A: Immediately, I worry for you: Are you still able to move? Who will help you? Is it safe? The world has stopped. Our lives have been overwritten by an invisible script, lines of genetic code, droplets hovering in the air. You were preparing to say goodbye to those you love, already a wrenching event, and then that was taken from you by the lockdown. Separated and isolated, we have all had to say goodbye, with the risk, for some, that what we think is just for now could be forever.

And yet, I feel more connected to my family and friends than ever before, especially those who live elsewhere, whom I’ve loved so long that I take them for granted, thinking of our relationships as ancient trees, certainties, strong enough to survive without daily sustenance. In those blithe pre-quarantine days, I didn’t have time for them, because I thought there was no end of time. Now, the virus has collapsed distances. It doesn’t matter if the person I’m FaceTiming is down the street or a thousand miles away; they’re equally far but also miraculously close. I’d forgotten the solace of sinking into an hourlong phone conversation with an old friend who knew me before I even was me. And the strange intimacy of Zoom gatherings has pushed me out of my natural introversion: Where once I might have spent the entirety of a party hiding in a corner, talking only to those who drifted within orbit, here I am looking everyone in the eye, grateful to be surrounded.

Deanna DikemanDeanna Dikeman’s “Leaving and Waving” (December 1998).
Deanna Dikeman’s “Leaving and Waving” (December 1998).

Of course, you can make arrangements to meet (if not embrace) friends in person, on masked dates six feet apart in the park, but perhaps the revelation is that you don’t, in fact, have to say goodbye; that geography is immaterial to the bonds that matter. This may instead be a time to think about how to truly see the people in your life. The Missouri-based photographer Deanna Dikeman spent 27 years recording her departures from her parents’ house in Sioux City, Iowa, capturing her ageing father and mother waving from the driveway. The images became part of a larger series commemorating her family’s life through their most ordinary gestures: shovelling snow, swatting a fly, pinning laundry to the line. But it’s the scenes of farewell that cumulatively devastate and demand that attention be paid. After her father’s death, her mother stands alone. The last pictures are shot in a retirement home, and finally there is only the house without its owners, the garage door rolled down, yellow leaves on the lawn.

ShutterstockThe Ise Jingu shrine complex in Mie Prefecture, Japan, 2014.
The Ise Jingu shrine complex in Mie Prefecture, Japan, 2014.

I wonder if there’s a deeper question here, of how to deal with a sudden and acute awareness of impermanence. You were about to enter the unknown when the unknown came to you. This isn’t just an interruption, some strange interregnum after which life will resume; it’s a break with all that came before. Perhaps in the ongoing erosions of modern life we’ve forgotten what it means to endure. The most sacred Shinto site in Japan, the shrine complex Ise Jingu, has been torn down and wholly rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century (barring periods of warfare), in a ceremony known as shikinen sengu. The point is to preserve not the physical object but, as the art critic Noboru Kawazoe wrote, the “intangible essence” within it; to understand that the past is not a finished story but an ongoing event, part of a continual becoming.

Courtesy of Cai Studio. Photo: Wen-You CaiCai Guo-Qiang watching “Sky Ladder” (2015) on Huiyu Island, Quanzhou.
Cai Guo-Qiang watching “Sky Ladder” (2015) on Huiyu Island, Quanzhou.

The Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang has made an art of ephemerality, sculpting in fireworks and gunpowder. Perhaps his greatest work, “Sky Ladder” (2015) — a ladder nearly 1,650 feet long, pulled upward by a helium balloon and set aflame — existed for 100 seconds and will never be replicated. Cai had tried for more than two decades to mount the project and finally succeeded in the predawn dark of June 15, 2015, working in stealth, without permits, to send the ladder soaring above the small island of Huiyu off Quanzhou, China, his hometown. For a moment, a path was blazed to heaven. Only a few hundred people saw it, and he intended it for only one: his 100-year-old grandmother, who watched it from her sickbed on a cellphone, and died shortly after.

Left: © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Right: © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley, London, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles and Regen Projects, Los AngelesLeft: Gillian Wearing’s “Best Friends for Life! Long Live the Two of Us” (1992-93). Right: Gillian Wearing’s “I’m Desperate” (1992-93).
Left: Gillian Wearing’s “Best Friends for Life! Long Live the Two of Us” (1992-93). Right: Gillian Wearing’s “I’m Desperate” (1992-93).

No goodbyes, then. Just a change of address. And one last image, from the British artist Gillian Wearing, who in the early ’90s walked the streets of London asking strangers to write down their thoughts and hold them up as she took their portraits. The resulting series, “Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say” (1992-93), interrogates the stereotype of British reserve, marking the chasm between public posturing and private angst. The American cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” In Wearing’s pictures, a policeman silently asks for help; a smirking man in blazer and tie, outwardly a master of the universe, confesses, “I’m desperate.” But there is hope, too: Two women share a sign, laughing, their inner and outer selves at one. “Best friends for life!” they declare. “Long live the two of us.”