Monday, January 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami's Running Man

by Duncan Mitchell
At 7:25 every morning, he is halfway through his jog up Linden Lane as we are driving halfway down. He's an elderly man with a mask-like face and pencil-thin mustache that must have been fashionable once, in another century. He dresses casually but carries an elegant leather briefcase. The most remarkable thing about him is how he pitches himself forward in a blind fury, rushing up the hill in a way that makes him look as if he's about to fall or break into a flat-out run, like a cartoon character who has suddenly materialized in the real world.

          If our paths happen to cross at the intersection farther down the street, that means we're early. Running Man is totally focused, never looks right or left but down at the pavement. Only when he crosses the street he mutters something and sometimes shoos speeding cars away with his free hand. Then again, if he's already crossed Spruce Street and leveled off at the top of the hill, that means we're late. 

          My kids never notice him, even when I point him out, as if he's inconsequential or even invisible. They're groggy teenagers, still floating in the uneasy limbo between their warm, dreamy bedcovers and school. The truth is they notice very little during our morning drive.  

          It's a tree-lined street (Linden trees, of course), with well-tended Victorian houses on both sides. Nothing terribly unusual about it. This was the route I used to walk to school when I was a kid, in all kinds of weather, and it hasn't changed much in a generation. In my dreams, though, the hill is steeper and instead of leading to school, the road often takes me elsewhere—a hospital, a service station, maybe an apartment building, could be anywhere. The point is just that I'm often dream-walking on this particular leafy street, alone or not, and it provides me with a familiar backdrop for a thousand different moods or dramas, or may even lead nowhere.



Haruki Murakami writes often that dreams have no place in stories or novels, that it's nearly impossible to do it right. And then he goes ahead and writes dreamlike novels stuffed with the dreams of his fictional characters.

          Haruki Murakami would let the children sleep in one morning, on a snow-day after a blizzard. Standing in the kitchen, deciding whether to feed the cats or go back to bed, the mother looks out the sunny window at the blank features of her own familiar street, but all the recognizable details have been erased by snow. 

          The mother tightens her bathrobe and tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear—a small, translucent ear, perfect as a seashell (though my ears are large and flat). It is during the execution of this habitual movement that the mother makes her decision. She will shovel the driveway and keep her daily appointment with Running Man. The side streets haven't been plowed yet and most everything in their little town will be closed, schools and businesses. 

          Surely he won't be running anywhere this morning in two feet of snow. But she has to know if he'll be there. The mother briefly imagines their different roles as the interlocking gears of a clockwork, necessary for the smooth functioning of time and orderly unfolding of events. It's only a small irritation, on a par with a single, ticklish strand of hair that falls loose across her face, felt but unseen. Only an irritation like that, she tells herself, will drive her mad if she doesn't take care of it.

          The mother rinses the carafe, spoons coffee into the filter, and presses the button after pouring tap water into the coffee maker, the same way she always does on regular schooldays. It's a silly idea, this little outing, but it will harm no one, and by the time she comes back, her coffee will be ready.

          Haruki Marukami would have something both extraordinary and mundane happen next. Maybe the mother decides she's being foolish and defies herself by passing Linden Lane and stopping at the old diner on the next block. She's surprised that it's open. It looks exactly as it did when she was growing up—she was almost sure they'd redecorated years ago. Even the waitress looks the same. Suddenly she's hungry, and wonders what she'll order from the menu. If it was summer in Kyoto, the mother would order barley tea, but it's New Jersey and everything has disappeared under two feet of glittering snow. 

          She's glad she didn't give in to herself, that she has been able to execute this small measure of self-control. Without looking at the menu, she orders coffee, orange juice, two eggs over easy, hash browns, and sausage links. This splurge will be her little reward for holding back.

          She would be reminded of some bizarre childhood memory—the blinding light reflecting off the snow would bring something to mind, or maybe the little tubs of jam and butter that come on a thick plate with her triangles of wheat toast. Whatever it is, it will be illuminated later on in the story, but now it's interrupted by the conversation of the man and woman at a neighboring table. They speak to one another as if they were having an intimate conversation in total privacy. Since the young couple and the mother are the only customers at the diner, their voices sound amplified and the mother quietly derails from her own train of thought and hangs onto the couple's conversation while she pretends to look out the window. 

          Haruki Marukami might have the couple talk about their missing cat. The wife loves the cat as she would her own child, she says, not excessively—and he's jealous, that's what she thinks. She wants to keep looking for the cat but he insisted on stopping for breakfast. Why else would he let the cat out in a snowstorm, she says, except to lash out at her. You think any emotion you can trigger you can just rework it into love

          He doesn't deny it. He says very calmly that there's no reason at all why she can't love both him and the cat at the same time, but for some reason she won't. She's emotionally stuck, like a record that keeps skipping back to the same refrain over and over until you have to move the needle by hand. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, heavy-lidded with messy hair, and he yawns abruptly before sipping his coffee. If you're asking me if I have hope for us, he says, I do. Look, already there's movement. The cat's been gone only a few hours and already you've forced us out of the house. It wouldn't surprise me if you found your way back to me today.

          "I felt nothing before, but now I'm pretty sure I hate you. That's all," the wife says, looking bored.

          "That's just the beginning," he smiles.

          Haruki Marukami would have the mother pay for the meal and have an enigmatic exchange of words with the waitress. She would leave a tip before stepping out into the bright snow to make her way through the tunneled sidewalk. The mother would walk up to her parked car and notice that there is still time left in the meter. She looks at her watch; it's already 7:45. He must have walked the full length of Linden Lane by now and could be almost anywhere, or nowhere. Probably he never even left his house this morning. Why should he?


Running Man is both predictable and anachronistic. Why does an old man who clutches a briefcase look so furious and impatient every morning and why does he always run? I've noticed that whenever he stumbles, on uneven pavement or a fallen branch, he makes up for lost time by trotting the next few steps. She knows when he's actually running because he pumps his arms. And then he mutters as the briefcase bangs against his leg. 

          There was an article I came across recently describing a strange neurological phenomenon. People afflicted with Parkinsonism, an incurable wasting disease, first exhibit rhythmic tremors of the fingers, hands, mouth, and so on. Like the most devastating battles, Parkinson's takes place internally, a black hole at the center of our interior cosmos. As the substantia nigra, that vital lump of black matter at the deepest core of our brain, gradually self-destructs and the brain is increasingly unable to communicate with the nervous system, victims' faces appear frozen and mask-like, revealing nothing of the inner life. Usually, you can recognize the walk of someone with Parkinson's by their halting shuffle. Their shoulders stoop and they drag their feet. 

          My uncle fit this description perfectly, and also experienced a symptom called "freezing gait." Freezing gait is exactly what it sounds like. One is suddenly interrupted in the act of walking and those who experience it describe a sensation of being glued to the spot, frozen in time until, eventually, mysteriously, they resume walking. 

          The article I read, however, discussed a different phenomenon I hadn't heard of before called "festinating gait." With this symptom of the disease, people are compelled to rush. There is a physical and emotional urgency that is irresistible and infuriating. Instead of shuffling or freezing, they break out into a run—even if there's nowhere in particular to go—and once they're off, there's no stopping them. Individuals are as trapped in their movement as they are in paralysis.


Seemingly disparate themes assemble—movement and paralysis, dreaming and waking, control and surrender, love and indifference—and one begins to wonder about the relationship of these opposites and consider the the whole coin rather than its two sides. In other words, aren't opposites simply two random dots linked by the same line? And if so, what might happen when we focus on the line rather than the dots?


          Haruki Murakami might insert a cliffhanger here, maybe let us free fall for a while. Should we continue? Murakami wouldn't have to ask.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlotte

Every day I cherish the act of writing freely about what I believe. While I often fear causing offense, I try my best to stand up to that fear and express myself honestly. Like Charlie Hebdo, I believe we must refuse to succumb to fear.

          I enjoy irreverent laughter and political satire. At the same time, I also find Charlie Hebdo's obscene depictions of Prophet Mohammed extremely offensive, hateful, and deliberately provocative towards a much wider audience than the (presumably) intended target of their political satire, the fundamentalists. I am offended in a similar way by the propaganda of white supremacists, Nazis, homophobes, and their ilk. Are they entitled to their beliefs? Yes. Am I a white supremacist, an antisemite, or a homophobe? No. And I'm not an Islamophobe, either.

          To that end, je ne suis pas Charlie.

          I stand in solidarity with everyone who values free expression and abhors violence, and I join everyone who mourns all the precious lives that were violently taken yesterday. But I am appalled by the defamatory cartoons, which I consider to be a generic hate crime against Islam and Arabs.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Afterlife: The Secret Life of Objects


Morning sunlight on a bowl of clementines reminds me of how I spent last night. In a hotel high in the Italian alps. I had ordered lunch: prosciutto and melon and bread, with a bottle of Pellegrino. Instead of finding a table, though, I took my tray and walked to the back of the same line of customers to order coffee. While others conversed in Italian and German, all in sunglasses and fur-trimmed parkas, I squinted out the window.

          This must be why I was here, to bask in the exaggerated scale of dazzling, snow-capped peaks and their deep, cold shadows. A wall of glass framed the spectacular panorama behind the line of tourists inching their way forward. The scene was dizzying and almost unbearably close, like being inside a huge aquarium. At this altitude the light was blinding, but I seemed determined to take in the view while I waited. Why on earth hadn't I simply eaten my lunch at a table and come back later for the coffee? 

          Logic was pointless; even dreaming I knew that. To understand anything inside the dream, one needs an emotional cipher. So I was waiting, impatient, though I needn't have been waiting or impatient; and I was awestruck by the view. These are my clues, when I'm ready to consider them.

          In my alpine dream I'm not divorced or grieving my mother's death, don't have two teenagers and four cats, in an old house in central New Jersey with a flooded basement and no prosciutto, fast asleep in my dark bedroom in the middle of the night. In my dream I'm wide awake and the sun is shining.

          Who are we when we dream?  I am a lonesome traveler. A hungry traveler, waiting at the end of a long line for a cup of coffee while I could be eating a meal. Distracted by what others are more or less taking for granted.

          Why is it the most basic questions—who am I when I dream? where am I when I'm dead?—don't plague everyone else to distraction. I marvel at this, on and off, every day. How do they carry on as if nothing is out of the ordinary? As if those concerns were beside the point when they are the point. Maybe it's too risky to ask and end up with nothing but the red herrings, religion, philosophy, psychology, quantum physics, all the magnificent dead ends. 

          The answer to such questions must be buried, like treasure, in the secret life of every object. 


This isn't a dream: I was paralyzed. Invisible inside a white spacesuit, even my face was obscured by the astronaut's helmet. This is the recurring image I had of myself as I lay in a hospital bed in the Intensive Care Unit. 

          Every morning a nurse lifted my gown and injected a blood thinner into my belly, two inches deep, to prevent deep vein thrombosis. She apologized in advance, but I felt nothing. At regular intervals, nurses turned me from side to side to prevent pressure sores. Because I was incontinent, a urinary catheter was inserted, but my period had come several weeks early. I felt nothing, lying in my own blood. There were IV lines in my arms and threaded through the shallow veins on the back of my hands. While I could still use my thumb, the call button was taped to my hand, but I could only whisper and my speech was severely slurred. Most of the muscles of my face no longer worked, giving it a mask-like appearance, though I was still able to open my mouth, move my tongue a little, and blink. My sense of taste was gone. I choked on thickened water and coughing produced something that sounded like the repetitive, slow-motion wheeze of a machine that fails (and fails, and fails) to start on a cold morning. 

          Nurses would rush in to ask how I felt when monitors indicated a sudden drop or elevation in blood pressure, and then do nothing. Since the body's responses could no longer be predicted, medication presented its own dangers. I fainted repeatedly but often had no idea I'd lost consciousness unless a nurse happened to be standing over me. "Charlotte, are you with us now? You just passed out, hon." I couldn't understand what had made them think I'd fainted. There had been a drop in blood pressure, they told me, and my eyes were glassy and unresponsive.

          Guillain–Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune condition where the body attacks its nerves, causing progressive paralysis that affects breathing, swallowing, body temperature, blood pressure, and causes intermittent back pain that is 10 on a scale of 10. It has no known cause and cannot be prevented, but intravenous immunoglobulin therapy often hastens the natural reversal of its course. IVIG contains plasma collected from the antibodies of healthy donors and is administered four hours a day for five consecutive days. Most people recover fully in a few months, though others will retain some lasting paralysis, nerve damage, or weakness. Only a tiny minority of those afflicted will die of cardiorespiratory complications.

          After the fourth IVIG administration, my neurologist paid a visit and said that while they had hoped the treatment would reverse the symptoms it had proven to be unsuccessful in my case. The symptoms had worsened each day and it was likely that a respirator and feeding tube would become necessary during the next 24 hours. The neurologist was handsome and I was pleased that he looked into my eyes whenever he entered the room. The first time he visited me, I was secretly thrilled by the way he had held my gaze and told me, "You're in for a wild ride." But now his attention quickly waned, shifting to my mother. 

          He assured her that while I wouldn't be able to speak I would still be able to communicate by blinking my eyes. He patted my leg under the white cotton blanket in the way medical professionals do to indicate compassion, but I couldn't feel anything. I didn't ask how I would communicate when the nerves of my eyelids stopped working. I smiled at my mother, to reassure her, but she didn't smile back. Then I remembered she couldn't see me smiling. I was smiling but no one saw it. My body was becoming more like any other object—furniture or a piece of statuary, or a spacesuit. 

          It was clear to me I could do nothing to influence the outcome of events. This fact was enough to convince me survival was unlikely. I was vanishing, already disappearing before I was gone. I would be leaving two very young children, too young to remember me, in the care of a man I didn't trust. I would break my mother's heart. And they would all move on. 

          Whenever I began to panic about my children, my insignificance would chill me into a fraught, emotional stillness. I wanted to make sure my kids would always know I had loved them, that they were first and last on my mind. For hours, my mother would sit beside me while I mentally rehearsed, Tell the kids I love them. It took time before I had the courage to say the words out loud. I didn't want to be upsetting or melodramatic. When I finally spoke, my mother nodded in a matter-of-fact way. I wasn't sure she had understood me.

          On the fifth day, after the last IVIG treatment, the doctor performed his usual tests. He asked me to squeeze his finger and I focused all my concentration, but my will and my body were disconnected. He asked me to push the sole of my foot against his palm as hard as I could. I bore down mentally, holding my breath, for as long as I could. I felt nothing.

          But my big toe had moved slightly, changing the trajectory of my life.

          There would be rehab and months of physical therapy, but no respirator or feeding tube, no orphaned children or broken hearts. No vanishing. My favorite nurse, Donna, was delighted. She told me quietly that I had been given a rare, spiritual gift, that my life would never be the same again.

           For years I waited for the epiphany. My kids' father told me the neurologist had confided in him. Before the reversal of symptoms, the doctor had felt that if I survived, I would never walk again. In his experience, all people who had this condition were susceptible to it because of some profound emotional weakness, a inability to stand on one's one. He shared this information with me so I would make myself strong, so I would see how lucky I was to have survived and rally myself.

          But I was more concerned with my eye twitch. As the nerves repaired themselves, my brain rapidly fired signals to test and correct errors in synaptical connections. My eyelids fluttered almost continually while the muscles around my mouth twitched. The neurologist assured me that it was just part of the healing process, but after a year, the left side of my face was still out of sync. Ten years on, my eye is wonky and my smile uneven. When I press my lips together, to eat or kiss or smile, one eye pulls shut. The neurologist found this interesting but not uncommon. As the most delicate nerves surrounding the eye regrow, he explained, they may establish faulty connections. He said one of his patients now cried whenever she ate; another just had a pronounced limp. I was lucky, he said. I was alive. He told me he knew I wasn't ungrateful, but his statement carried the impact of a challenge.  I was pissed off, but unable to put my finger on why. Yes, I was glad to be alive, I told him, but why should I be glad to be disfigured? 

          As I continue to await my epiphany I remember the empty spacesuit, how it felt to be unseen and to apprehend the fact of my eternal insignificance. Behind the helmet I can sometimes make out a tiny, single-celled creature peering back at me, unseeing, pulling levers and throwing switches. About the size and shape of a thumb, it reminds me of the character Plankton from SpongeBob, a cartoon my children watched. Like that character it dabbles with naïve, absurd dreams of domination, but I sense that the creature itself is controlled remotely, from an incalculably distant location, by something unknowable. By merely looking at the mask, it's impossible to be able to locate the true presence.


        
The basement floodwaters have finally receded, leaving behind a silty layer of mud and human waste that exploded from the main sewer line because of overgrown tree roots or too much toilet paper clogging the pipe. Before scrubbing the floor with bleach, I start scooping shit off the floor with wads of paper towels, but after a few rolls the doorbell rings. It's the Sewer Authority, responding to my desperate email. 

          I follow a man with a badge to the curb where he kneels on the margin of grass between the sidewalk and the street. He uses a long poker to pry open the cover of the cleanout. He is a solemn man and works at it patiently for several minutes, without irritation. The metal cover is about the size of a dinner plate, but disproportionately heavy. Once it's removed, the man aims his flashlight down inside the hole and motions for me to take a look. I think of the shock of those women, the disciples of Christ, who had come to anoint his body only to find an empty tomb, so maybe that's why I hesitate. Like the believers, what I see is both shocking and anticlimactic. I turn to the solemn man for an answer.

          "That is human waste," he says. It looks like a smallish, water-logged turd centered on a salad plate. This is the evidence that has been painstakingly unearthed in order to explain everything. I think I recognize my own shit—this mild-mannered, passive-aggressive turd, it's clearly mine. 

          "It's exactly where it's supposed to be," the man says, as if this is an adequate explanation. "The problem must be on your end." Maybe, after paying $300 for a professional to run an electric snake to clear the pipes, with the prospect of scrubbing shit from the basement floor for the next two weeks, knowing that it will all happen again, when I least expect it, that's why I forget all about it.

          Meanwhile, barely noticed, Plankton and my turd begin to form a single entity.

To be continued...

Friday, November 21, 2014

In Arabic

When I was learning numbers, it was hard for me to recognize sifr.

          One and nine look like themselves, as you can see, except they lean a bit to the left. Two, three, and six look like variations of our number seven, four looks like our three, five like our zero, and seven and eight resemble the letter V and its inverse. I learned by relating each number to something familiar.

          Till I learned sifr, I had been accustomed to the expansiveness of zero and its reassuring visual reference to infinity, where 'all' and 'nothing' connect. But in Arabic, zero isn't an endless loop whose generous curves skim the line above and the line below. Arabic represents zero with a speck—a speck that's come unmoored from its lines and lists a bit to the left. A trivial mark, sifr could easily go unnoticed, in the way nothingness does. At the same time, sifr is a full stop, the same way a period ends a sentence.

          Only because of its very foreignness and irreducibility has sifr stayed with me. It's the only number I can remember now.

          What a beautiful word for such a miserable speck. Sifr. It starts like the moist hiss of a wave breaking on a shore, the anticipation rolling into a prolonged purr before trailing off into the fulfillment of silence. Listen:


          We whisper it like a sweet nothing, and this is fitting because sifr is absence. As long as we remember the disappeared, absence is our constant companion. We even make room for it, pushing grief aside and assembling memories like a welcoming committee.

          Our word 'cipher' comes from the Arabic sifr, but conveys the paradox of non-being more explicitly with its double meaning, 'nonentity' and 'a key to a secret, coded language.' How do we make the inexplicable meaningful and how do we find meaning in emptiness? If absence always relates to presence—to what once was and now is not, or what might be but now is not—the reverse must also be true: in some way, being always signifies non-being.

          Four thousand years ago, nfr was the word Egyptians used to signify not only 'zero,' but also 'beauty' and 'complete.' Its hieroglyph is an abstraction of the human windpipe, heart, and lungs,


and was used in the construction of the pyramids as a reference point to indicate 'above' or 'below.' Without it we are disoriented, above and below have no meaning and all directions share the same empty space.

          I think of all this now because I have begun to notice that I miss my mother more, not less, as time separates us. I'm preoccupied by her absence and find myself searching for a different alphabet, a secret language, that will allow communication between living and dead, above and below. Finally we are left with something indivisible, beyond symmetry, more a living part of our being than our pumping blood or the air we breath, but at the same time independent from us. Zero multiplied by even the greatest number is still zero. Over and over, the closest I get to my mother's presence is when I'm conscious of her absence.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Creep


Yesterday morning started in a perfectly ordinary way. After I dropped the kids off at school, I made coffee, checked my email, and proceeded to Facebook-stalk the girlfriend of an old crush before running some errands. What appeared in Girlfriend's place was a picture of a bandaged thumb with the caption Sorry, this page is unavailable

          At Old Crush's page, there was another bandaged thumb. Might as well have been their two middle fingers flipping me off.

          Call me old-fashioned, but isn't the main point of voyeurism not to be seen—while the other main point, of course, is to see? Well, now suddenly our primary rules of engagement had been reversed. They saw me, but I couldn't see them.

          What kind of perverts do that?

          No, I told myself, it's not possible. I'm just being paranoid. After all, how could they know I peep? 

          I decided to check out Girlfriend's blog. No new post, but it was reassuring to see I hadn't been blocked there. Until I noticed my name at the upper righthand corner of her blog. Apparently, every time I stalk her blog, the hit appears in her stats, charlotteheckscher.blogspot.com. I basically left my calling card. 

          What makes Girlfriend more interesting than Old Crush? Well, for starters, her privacy settings were more lackadaisical. But aside from that, she's the opposite of me. I'm a middle-aged, ethnic, squat out-of-work neurotic with no mojo, and the author of a confessional, angsty, kind of depressing blog. Hang on, there: I'm me, while  Girlfriend is a hybrid of Angelina Jolie and the girl next door, barely out of college and already at the top of her field, who writes a professional blog which is both creative and—wait for it—inspiring. She took trapeze lessons and learned how to fly a helicopter not only because those things are cool, but because those things scared her. She's badass. 

          Girlfriend is also double-jointed.

          Old Crush not only pales in comparison, but peeping on her reaffirms three indisputable truths that I don't want to forget. One, you define who you are; two, you only have power over yourself; and three, I forget, but three was good, too.

          So, while I imagine them huddled together in mutual outrage (or climbing a mountain or sky diving, but still outraged), I am mortified and so ashamed. Did I knowingly give them permission to spy on me spying on them? No, I most certainly did not.

          There are two sides to that peephole, people. And now my privacy has been violated. I wonder what those two saw and how they imagine me and—dear God, what if he kept my crazy love letters and showed her what a whack-job I am? (Once I wrote about my eyes rolling back in my head when I accidentally bumped his arm. My arm was bare and his was hairy, so sue me.) Absolutely mortified.

          I just remembered the third thing. The third indisputable truth is that life goes on. 

          So this morning after I dropped the kids off at school, made coffee, and looked over my email, I checked their two busted thumbs, and wrote about it—and I even alliterated. (Peephole, people, that's not too bad.) I feel better already.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Stuck Angel


Nobody talks while we sit in a row of metal chairs, slumped against a wall of glass overlooking a parking lot and the highway. Our turning away seems to hint at some mutual vulnerability or defiance—like we're waiting for something worse than a haircut. Maybe a firing squad.

          An aproned blond pushes a broom around, sweeping a growing mound of hair: black, gray, brown, and even some yellow clippings all swish together on the dirty linoleum. Is it just me or does the sight of this make everyone want to gag? The others don't seem to be watching. The aproned woman swirls her broom around every barber chair with a flourish. Big breasts jiggle under her tight apron and sometimes I catch her eyes. They're cornflower blue, but she's clenching her teeth.

          I wonder at the mingling of strangers' hair and notice all the customers share a look of boredom and defeat. Some look at their iPhones while others appear to fixate on something unseen by the rest. I suppose I fit right in, killing time, waiting to be called.


When I'm bored in a public place, I usually pull out a black Pilot razor point and a small Moleskine notebook I keep in my inside jacket pocket. It's my concealed weapon.

          If I need to appear alert, I might doodle elaborately. My rule is cover the blank page with as much cross-hatching as possible, because nothing satisfies like that staccato rhythm filling up a whole, blank page.


          Another kind of doodle requires discerning negative images on a blank page and filling those in with the hatch marks. It's easy once you train yourself to see it, no different from looking through closed eyes and actually seeing what's right there in front of you—it's everywhere, no limits at all. The vague, green shapes that materialize in the dark after you close your eyes appear pinkish against the white page. When Michelangelo said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free," have no doubt. The man wasn't a bullshitter or a mystic, he was just being observant.

          Now in really dull meetings, a place where doodling is frowned on, I like to transcribe what I hear verbatim, as fast as I can. Sometimes I do it in cafés, too; maybe I just like eavesdropping.

          But when I can safely abandon the pretense that I give a shit about what's going on around me, I'll start writing something that pulls me right out of wherever I am. It could be a letter, a list, a complaint or maybe some simple observation, even a story or a poem.

          The thing is I haven't felt like writing a thing for weeks and right now I'm jonesing for that out-of-body experience, out of the mortal barbershop-body, so personal to each of us and as disposable as our swept up hair, off this ugly metal chair and right through the window, unimpeded as a shaft of light.

On impulse, I decide to try something a little different: I will write down whatever nonsensical shit comes into my own head, just like taking dictation or eavesdropping on my own stream of consciousness. My only rule is no censorship or embellishment. I can be the Michelangelo of mental blocks, instead of marble ones.
Often we look to others for our refuge and recreation. When this fails, we flounder and begin to doubt everything—as we should. We creep back home into ourselves and it is there, from our comfy, moonlit seabed that we notice we are the riptide. Briny and amniotic, we pull inward. Weather changes, tides turn, the wind lacerates what it had caressed. But that's not the point. The point is down here—the whole point is just this: somewhere Willie Nelson strums "All of Me," and somewhere else a sitar reverberates Panchali Ray. Because the strings don’t matter in the end. The point is the plectrum. Falling as we slip, as we sleep, our expectations are carelessly, quietly slashed. Our knives, asleep in the wooden block, each in its own bedtime notch, know nothing. Impaled in tight slits that serve no other purpose, we suppose. Open-mouthed as a choir. Just because we don't hear them, sweetheart, it doesn't mean they don't sing.
          The pages of my notebook look pink in the dimming light. The sun goes down earlier now, it slants in orange through the big window behind me and turns the whole room a shade darker. The hairdressers squint in the glare that bounces off the mirrors. The only place light settles is on the pages of my notebook and over the black-and-white framed poster at the back of the salon. A larger-than-life angry female head with messy blond hair that falls asymmetrically on either side of her face—or maybe it's just cause she's tilting her head. She looks like she's on the verge of asking a question and she really doesn't want the answer.

          "You're waiting for next available, right?" Standing over me, she looks a lot older. Partly because she's not dancing with a broom, and also cause up close I see frown lines around her eyes and mouth and the soft little puckers of skin around her throat. After I sit down at her station and she's snapped on the black cape I feel her fingers in my hair assuming possession. I can't see myself in the mirror because of the glare and I let my eyes close because because they're tearing up.

          "Sorry about the sun," she says, as if it were hers, and I can just imagine her walking it on a leash, tugging on the little fucker when it starts snapping. "Should I just clean this up for you?" She pinches some outgrown hair on the nape of my neck and I open my eyes. 

          "Please," I say.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Golem


I know a lot of people who throw out their old journals. The reasons they give are genuinely inspiring and boil down to the sentiment Let's unburden ourselves: Disengage from a dead past so that we may go forth lightly. Implicit here is the idea of moving forward without dragging around the corpses of all our previous, failed incarnations. We change, and naturally we're embarrassed by our discarded personas. 

          Yes, embarrassed. An acquaintance of mine allowed me to see a few pages of her old journal before she trashed the entirety. I had to beg her—not only because I don't know her well, but because she no longer identified with the person she had been decades before. She found her other self a little boring and self-preoccupied—"embarrassing," she told me—and gave me several random pages only after I promised to destroy them when I was finished.

          Reading those pages I entered an exciting city I've never lived in. I was beautiful and young, a daring, free spirit, whose worries, observations, ways of thinking and being, so far from my own experience, were now mine to live. What a tremendous gift!

          However, as someone who used to keep a journal for many years myself, I found something unsettling about my acquaintance's relationship with her reader. It was not the same relationship I had with myself in journals. She confided, it seemed to me, in a mysterious being other than herself—a being who would bear witness, who was selflessly interested and invested in her life and well-being, but who offered no comment and asked nothing in return. What the being did offer was silent, unconditional acceptance. Rather like a golem, the creature from Jewish folklore who is made out of inanimate material, like a lump of mud (or wood pulp pressed into paper), and brought to life by sacred magic and the recitation of the alphabet. The golem has no voice; its sole purpose is to protect its master by any means necessary. This is what their relationship felt like to me, my acquaintance and the mysterious being she had been addressing, except her own inner strength was such that the golem need never have intervened on her behalf. My acquaintance needed no defending.

          This had not been my experience of journal writing—and may not even have been hers. That relationship remains secret, perhaps even unknown to the author. But in all configurations, each of us is more than a voyeur. Immensely troubling questions began to assemble as a result of this love triangle.

          To whom are we writing when we write a journal? This question is the mud that shapes the muscles of the question that follows, Who do we address all day long in our private thoughts? We already know what we're thinking before we put it into words, otherwise we wouldn't be able to put it into words—so why put into words for ourselves what we already know? To whom do we silently tell our life story all day? Who is our narrator? Then the muscles sprout a question with wings, If I'm always in a relationship with myself then one of us is an impostor. Which one is the fabrication? 


I've been disinclined to write lately. My mother's birthday just came and went and now, as the one-year anniversary of her death looms, I'm distracted by our mortality—hers, mine, all of us. This is not encouraging. On the contrary, facing futility is tiresome and embarrassing and thoroughly contraindicated for positive forward movement through life. But writing is a way of seizing time—freezing it, reliving it, sharing it—so I keep trying. 

          After my mother's surgery, she had no recollection of having awakened, wide-eyed and thrashing, frantic to free herself from the breathing tube that was lodged in her throat, she began to turn blue with panic. Another time, after the breathing tube had been removed, she woke up briefly and when I kissed her she smiled at me as if beholding a miracle.  She said only one word to me, hoarsely because her throat was sore from the ventillator. She whispered "Beautiful" and fell asleep again. 

           For a long time I was troubled by this amnesia, which the doctors had said was to be expected. For her, these two significant events in her life had never occurred. But they happened for me, in some limbo where the boundary between reality and unreality is unclear.

          With her gone, this troubling territory has expanded exponentially, in every direction, and I seem to have lost my bearings for good.
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
Among my father's belongings, my sisters and I recently found a large manilla envelope labeled, in my father's spidery handwriting, Camping Diary. I nearly threw it out because camping interests me even less, if possible, than it interested my father. But that in itself provided the first clue that the contents were worthy of my curiosity.

          The folder contained documents from my father's internment during World War II. During this period, Churchill's mandate to "collar the lot" made being German—even if one was fleeing Nazi Germany—a punishable offense. My father got as far as England before being herded with hundreds of other prisoners of war onto the SS Ettrick, which headed for Camp Farnham in southern Quebec. Just a few days earlier, the sinking of the Arandora Star, a ship that had been torpedoed en route to another Canadian internment camp, killed 800 aboard. 

          Included among the pages of my father's Camping Diary was a small, blue, handmade book titled, Prison Scrapbook. I don't recall ever seeing it before. Now, 15 years after his death, I feel I'm traveling deep into my father's secret life. Not the man I knew, who was already in his late 50s when I was born, but a young stranger who was being held captive in a foreign country.   
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited

          Would Wilhelm Heckscher's prison scrapbook interest anyone else in the world? Why did he keep it, and for whom? And why didn't he share it with us? I would like to share it, as a historical document and as a testament on survival, on how to find beauty, meaning, and hope under the most repressive circumstances, as a manual on remaking the world in one's own image. My father didn't defend himself or the other internees by physical force. Instead he founded a prison school from which young men were able to take entry exams and matriculate at Canadian universities. He gave prisoners a purpose and a future. Neither of which I feel particularly able to provide myself at the moment, despite my privileged circumstances. There is shame in this lack of resilience, in the incapacity to adapt, that all depressives share. My father was never depressed.

          I want to find comfort in the appearance of the scrapbook. It endured—my father didn't, we won't, even the stars won't. Now 70 years after his release from the camp and an as-yet undetermined amount of time before the demise of our solar system, here is Heckscher's prison scrapbook. Ta-da. For now, it's here, as we are, and the future where we don't exist does not wipe out the past. Without a map or a golem, this must do.


© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited 
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited 
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
© 2014 Property of Charlotte Heckscher and Family - Unauthorized reproduction prohibited
I'll post the entire scrapbook after I've scanned all of it: this was just a little preview.