What is Presence? Five Examples.

“Every figure has presence. You can barely have any standing object which doesn’t.”
Barbara Hepworth

In her free-swinging collection of thought, Dorothy Parker compared Hemingway to the Grand Canyon. Indeed, there is something about Hemingway. Something in his writing, his journals. He was the kind of man who climbed stairs to write and was captivated by bullfights. But what was he like?

In her inimitable style, Parker responds: He was grand. Hemingway had presence. Presence is strongly felt and broadly defined.

Modernist British sculptor Barbara Hepworth saw presence in every physical thing. Maya Angelou saw presence as something to learn and perfect.

I define presence thus: To the question “What does it feel like to stand next to this person?” presence answers, “It feels grand.”

“Two Turning Forms” and other work by Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Sidney Lumet on Katharine Hepburn

American film director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) recalls the first time he met Katharine Hepburn:

When we first met, on Long Day’s Journey into Night… I stepped through the doors of what seemed to me a fifty-foot living room. She stood at the opposite end of the room and started toward me. We’d covered about half the distance when she said, ‘When do you want to start rehearsal?’ (No ‘Hello’ or ‘How do you do?’) ‘September nineteenth,’ I said. ‘I can’t start till the twenty-sixth,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then,’ she said, ‘you’d know more about the script than I would.’

From Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies

Michael Peppiatt on Francis Bacon

Peppiatt, a journalist and writer, became Francis Bacon’s primary biographer in the 1960s, chronicling the rich inner and outer demons and passions of this unique artist.

A small man is sitting just behind me on a stool by the bar, talking in an exaggeratedly posh, camp voice and waving his cigarette holder about. He is oddly dressed, in a stained sweater and ancient trousers, with his head nestling in the upturned collar of a grubby shearling jacket. I don’t remember seeing him come in, but now he looks as if he has always been there, as if he were the pub’s mascot, addressing his running commentary to the whole room rather than anyone in particular. I recognize him right away … I edge closer … and blurt out my request for an introduction.

From Michael Peppiatt Francis Bacon in Your Blood

“Two Turning Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Stephen Fry on Emma Thompson

Fry and Thompson became friends and co-performers in the well-known comedic troupe, The Footlights, during their Cambridge University days. Fry on his classmate:

She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed. Her voice, her movement, her clarity, ease, poise, wit…well, you had to be there… This girl was really something. Medium height with a perfect English complexion, she was gravely beautiful, extraordinarily funny and commandingly assured by beyond her years. Her name, the programme told me, was Emma Thompson.

From Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography

Maya Angelou on her mother

Has there ever been a human so capable of love and forgiveness or so openhearted to those who loved her as Maya Angelou? I will never forget reading this passage Angelou wrote about her own mother.

She crawled up on the delivery table with me and had me bend my legs. She put her shoulder against my knee and told me dirty stories. When the pains came she told me the punch line of the stories, and as I laughed, she told me, ‘Bear down.’ When the baby started coming, my little mother jumped off the table, and seeing him emerge she shouted, ‘Here he comes and he had black hair.’ … When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket, and she brought him to me. ‘Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.

From Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter

Douglas Adams on the Rwandan Mountain Gorilla

In 1988, Douglas Adams, beloved creator of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, joined zoologist Mark Carwardine on an excursion around the world to find endangered species and vault these beautiful creatures to the sphere of human care and empathy. Their encounter with a Rwandan mountain gorilla is, quite simply, one of the most unforgettable stories of an animal encounter I’ve ever read.

The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the world was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, ‘Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us, and the gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off in to the undergrowth.

From Douglas Adams’s Last Chance to See

“Idol” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What is presence? Whatever it is, it is not embellished or fancy. It isn’t persona.1

Presence is real, surprising, and generous.

Theater legend Anna Deavere Smith wrote a soul-enlightening book called Letters to a Young Artist encouraging young artists to find their strength and nurture that of others.

She defines presence perfectly: “Presence means you hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it.”

As Deavere Smith abounds with presence, she shall have the last word:

I saw a man in New York City in the late seventies kissing trees on a regular basis. Of course, such an action is bound to attract attention, but presence is not merely the attraction of attention. When he kissed a tree, it took my breath away. He was an older man with white hair. It was his level of commitment that gave him presence.

From Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist

Do Things Exist Where They Are Buried?

“Death means you stop being, you cease from thinking, or feeling, or wondering, and at least you’re lucky in that you don’t have to worry.”
Jorge Luis Borges

We do not tolerate nonexistence. It is a question of place. To exist, something must be somewhere. Originally, “exist” means to be placed. Most of the time we exist in our body. This is comforting.

Death mangles this comfort. If we are in a body and that body folds or collapses or ceases, where do we go?1

Charles Dickens is buried in Westminster Abbey. I’ve stood over his stone, given him an earful about his female characters. Something of him is down there. Thomas Hardy is there, partly. His stone is next to Dickens’.

However, only his body is there—his heart is in Dorset. Where does Hardy exist?

We do not tolerate nonexistence. We even carry the load of bearing witness so things that are no longer can still exist, in some way.

When C.S. Lewis lost the love of his life, “H.,” he suffered deep sorrow not knowing where she was.

Where is she now? That is, in what place is she at the present time? But if H. is not a body—and the body I loved is certainly no longer she—she is in no place at all.

From C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed

Lewis, a devout Christian, was not appeased by his faith’s post-death assurances. He needed an H. to exist empirically. To be placed.

Faced with the voids of nonexistence, the endless flux of the universe, we the living exact certainties. Certainties like stones, graves, internment, prayers, moments of silence and flowers for companionship. We shout to the universe: “Look, I exist, I do these things empirically! You may have Dickens, but you don’t have me!”


Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Near our home in England, there is an old stone church, an old stone graveyard, and an old stone entitled (can I use that word?) “Ellen.”

Ellen existed empirically a century ago; now, her body is buried with her family. I visit Ellen often (she spent a life turning her head at the same word I do). I approach her stone, give a spry wave, announce my existence.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Last winter was horribly cold, and one night I visited Ellen. Something in me worried she was cold, too. Wait. Is a person underground? What is she doing under there? Was she trapped in the casket? Was she trapped in her body? Was she cold? I returned home, shivering.

I didn’t visit her for a while, and she slipped from my thoughts until recently. I was reading Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, a wonderful book on the hollow post-death absence. A family loses a mother and is visited, besieged rather, by a large testy, maternal crow. It would have to be a crow, wouldn’t it? To fill the hole left by a mother? The crow fixates on the family and acts as a sort of Mary Poppins “I’ll stay until the wind changes” guardian who plugs the lack of “mom.”

I considered Ellen. And felt sorrow.

We buried my grandfather this month. Interred him. (Can I say that? Can I say he was in-terrified?) I am terrified without him.

I suppose he exists in Michigan. And in my memory, so deep in memory I forget he’s in Michigan. That will change. Grandpa existed fully to my dad, to me less, to my daughter even less, to such an extent that she will have only her version of my memories. Her children, merely their version of her version of my memories of a man that once existed.

The more abstract truth becomes, the more we return to things we can touch and feel and see. Like gravestones, plots of earth, photos.

But, do these things give us comfort?

Lewis considers:

I remember being rather horrified one summer morning long ago when a burly, cheerful labouring man, carrying a hoe and a watering pot, came into our churchyard, and as he pulled into the gate behind him, shouted over his shoulder to two friends, ‘See you later, I’m just going to visit Mum.’ He meant he was going to weed and water and generally tidy up her grave. It horrified me because this mode of sentiment, all this churchyard stuff, was and is simply hateful, even inconceivable, to me. But in light of my recent thoughts I am beginning to wonder whether, if one could take that man’s line (I can’t), there isn’t a good deal to be said for it. A six-by-three-foot flower-bed had become Mum. That was his symbol for her, his link with her. Caring for it was visiting her.

From C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed

We left popcorn and donuts in Grandpa’s grave, in case he gets peckish. An act of caring, of connection.

Jorge Luis Borges said death means we stop being. Maybe he was right, maybe death is the exact moment of nonexistence. Maybe that is why we fear it so. Or maybe we cease to exist when no memory of a memory of a memory of us remains. When there is no more sorrow.

From Wendell Berry, a sublime poet on the intrinsic value of keeping nature whole the poem “The Meadow”:

In the town’s graveyard the oldest plot now frees itself
of sorrow, the myrtle of the graves grown wild. The last
who knew the faces who had these names are dead,
and now the names fade, dumb on the stones, wild
as shadows in the grass, clear to the rabbit and the wren.
Ungrieved, the town’s ancestry fits the earth. They become
a meadow, their alien marble grown native as maple.

From Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

Clare Millen's "The Quiet", acrylic on canvas.
“The Quiet” by Clare Millen a Cambridge-based painter. Millen’s work is primarily based on the light and movement of nature but captures the thingness – memory, longing, uncertainty – that humans so often impose on landscapes. Learn more.

Would that be so bad? To not exist, to be utterly forgotten, and to have no one suffer my absence? I do not long for death, but once dead, I long to fade quickly from memory and sorrow. To the place where strangers visit my stone, wondering “Who was this Ellen?” and then turn home, calmed.

The Latent Greatness of Small Things

“I have a crazy, crazy love of things...I love all things, not just the grandest, also the infinitely small.”
Pablo Neruda

There are approximately half a million surface-feeding earthworms in any given acre of soil. Nature’s backhoe. Epigeic worms weave the autumn detritus, mote by mote, into the earth. Meanwhile, burrowing anecic worms force air into soil-like billows. Through simple design, earthworms thread nutrients, water, and air into life-fabricating soil. Although, it takes years and years (and years).1

Charles Darwin suggested few animals have played such an important part in history of the world, as have these “lowly organized creatures.”2

What, exactly, does he mean by lowly? A pun on the fact that they are beneath our feet? (Herein, I shall substitute “small,” less pejoration). It is important we define the terms, otherwise anything could be lowly, small.

By “small,” I mean—likely as did Darwin—not grandiose. Simply constructed, small is something mostly inconsequential to its environs, yet, in the right conditions, demonstrates surprising greatness. And by “greatness,” I mean presence, holding one’s space and welcoming others into it.

Imagine a small, circular clay disc. Handmade, the size of a penny. Small and simple. Perhaps precious to its owner but invisible otherwise.

And yet, in the hands of a professional, like British ceramic artist. Fenella Elms,3 this small disc can be turned, angled, tilted, even nestled between other discs, and suddenly, we have movement, depth, even a narrative.

"Flow" by Fenella Elms featured in "The Latent Greatness of Small Things."
Rhythm and light at play in “Flow” by Fenella Elms. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Was there a wind? Did they stir? Who placed them so? Suddenly, this small disc is a subtle but demonstrative meditation on nature’s energy and currents.

Or behold these small, smooth flanks of pink shell. Like rosy nail beds.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The fragments have a narrative. We know a creature layered calcium carbonate, lived in it, abandoned it. Waves and sand broke it apart, filed it down. But it’s still not great.

Yet, add multiples—many, many multiples—in a completely haphazard way, and they aggregate to form place. A much larger place than it ever was as a shell. This small pink shell becomes a rosy-pink beach, a place, a location, something to experience.

Pink Beach, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda spent his life gesturing towards the small, compelling us to notice. A republished selection of his work Ode to Common Things collects poetry about the greatness of the mostly inconsequential.4

When I pick up
a bar
of soap
to take a closer look,
its powerful aroma
astounds me:
O fragrance,
I don’t know
where you come from,
is your home town?

From Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Bar of Soap”

Environmentalist Rachel Carson, a biologist and gifted writer, called the small “a window to what matters.” In her 1962 book Silent Spring,5 Carson paid vital attention to the power of agricultural toxins at the smallest possible level:

It is only when we bring our focus to bear, first on the individual cells of the body, then on the minute structures within the cells, and finally on the ultimate reactions of the molecules within these structures – only when we do this can we comprehend the most serious and far-reaching effects of the haphazard introduction of foreign chemicals into our internal environment…The extraordinary energy –producing mechanism of the body is basic not only to health but to life the nature of many of the chemicals used against insects, rodents, and weeds, is such that they may strike directly at this system, disrupting its beautifully functioning mechanism.

From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

Positioning our gaze at the cellular level,6 showing the harm of pesticides and insecticides, Carson not only noticed the small, she also left no question as to its codependency with the large. Her writing catalyzed the modern environmental movement and changed the way we view habitat dependency and human environmental responsibility.

Let’s notice the small. The seemingly insignificant. Let’s be affected by the microcosms which, in the words of Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, “occupy a space only be charitably be called a spot.”

From Szymborska’s poem “Microcosmos:”

They don’t even have decent innards.
They don’t know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are – or aren’t.
Still they decide our life and death.

From Wislawa Szymborska’s Here

Let’s notice the snails, the earthworms, the soap. What current, place, or life lies therein? What latent greatness can be ignited? What single beginnings can be sparked?

Of our beloved, hardworking worm, Carson echoes Darwin: “Of all the larger inhabitants of the soil, probably none is more important than the earthworm.” Carson’s minute focus, unfortunately, makes our beloved earthworm rather large, but it retains greatness.7