Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jordan Almonds

"A psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It's not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It's really showing you how much your wish to know is an anxiety state—and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what's going on...That's what's happening anyway actually, but it's concealed...by fantasies of knowing who we are." Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, interviewed in The Paris Review, Spring 2014

My grandparents, Pailadzou and Haroutoun
I want to tell you about the Jordan almonds at my Aunt Lucy's house. At Middle Eastern weddings, every guest is sent home with a little parcel of Jordan almonds wrapped in white tulle and tied with a satin ribbon. Because almonds are bittersweet, like life, they are sugared in hopes that life will be more sweet than bitter for the newlyweds. The almonds are always dispensed in odd numbers, so that the couple, as well as the almonds, remain indivisible.

          Why do I want to tell you? It doesn't matter, what matters is that I want to tell you. 


          She was really my Great Aunt Lucy, my grandmother's younger sister, who was a spinster. In Armenian the name Lucine means Of the Light. She was the homeliest sister, the runt, with sallow skin and bulging, pale blue eyes, so pale they appeared amber in the light. Her nose was too bulky for her slight frame and she had ulcers. 

          Lucy was shuttled from one sister's family to another, always a source of disharmony. She talked about the men behind their backs to the wives. The men merely sensed her contempt, they suspected its hidden depth, beneath her pathos. But the married couples fought, and they knew she was the cause.

          Her mother's last words to my grandmother were: Always take care of Lucy, promise me. 
A plaster cast of my Aunt Lottie's left hand
          Where are the almonds? It doesn't really matter about the almonds, but the more I want to tell you, the more elusive they are. Why is that? While I think about Lucy, I see her smiling at me. Raised eyebrows and a smile full of, I don't know, mischief. We were collaborators, she and I. My feelings for her were unmarked by my mother's distaste or my grandmother's pity. Lucy had a small slate and taught me the English alphabet with a piece of yellow chalk. I read my very first word with her, four letters, one syllable, sounding it out aloud. I was startled by my own utterance. Hand. I suppose I felt like a conjurer. There was power, and I possessed it.

          I speak Armenian with an Adabazartzi accent, although I've never set foot in Turkey. I'm not fluent, except sometimes just as I fall asleep. It's as if I'm overhearing my mother and grandmother conversing. Almost always about something boring and complicated, instructions of some kind. They speak softly so as not to disturb me, but if I become fully conscious of their voices, I startle and wake up.

          When my mother was dying I spoke Armenian to her sometimes. Just short phrases, like, "How are you?" or "How does this taste?" Armenian was her first language. But she didn't understand; she told me she'd forgotten. Maybe I'll forget English when I get old, revert to Armenian.

          Lucy was the only one who spoke both languages fluently, and she was the only one who never married. She wore a pen on a ribbon around her neck, the way the others wore their wedding bands. 

          That sounds a bit contrived. Am I trying too hard? Lucy wore a pen on a ribbon around her neck, period. And my mother called her a showoff. What do you think? Is it all part of the digression, and the digression is really the subject? But there's no subject because we can't ever know ourselves. Somewhere else in that interview, Adam said, "What psychoanalysis at its best does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in a coherent, narrative way...It's only worth knowing about the thing that makes one's life worth living."

          What if it's not pleasure that makes life worth living? What if it's just the search for meaning—not finding it—just the sense of purpose we find in exploration. What if happiness doesn't make us happy?

          I don't like Jordan almonds, but I do love sushi. 


          Lucy displayed her almonds on a commemorative dish from Niagara falls, beside the radio and a vase of plastic flowers. Jordan almonds, it turns out, are inedible, hard as a pebbles, and they taste like chalk. I know because I stole one of Lucy's frothy little wedding sachets and locked myself in her bathroom so I could try one. When she found the candies and tulle at the bottom of the waste basket, she was angry with me. She may have called me a thief. With her accent, the word came out, "Teef." I may have laughed and cried at the same time.

          I made her a valentine at school, a big, red heart I'd cut out myself. It was perfectly symmetrical and I had glued it onto a paper doily. When she taped it to her wardrobe, I was so proud that I asked her if I could have it back. She was mad, just like she was with the almonds. She called me an Indian giver and said I couldn't have it back. Shame and greed made me blush, but I didn't cry. But this isn't about valentines, right?
A mess

          Lucy died a virgin. The Armenian who owned the factory where she had worked proposed to her. She was old, but he was even older. He gave her an engagement ring and she even wore it for awhile. It was her last chance to stop being a burden and she knew it. But she gave back the ring anyway. 

          I love hamachi sushi with spring onions; I guess I prefer savory to sweet. Does that make life worth living? I don't know. I know I'm supposed to be cleaning the house right now but I keep coming back to the almonds instead. The almonds are a digression, right? Aunt Lucy's a digression. Only follow digression, digress long enough to track the hidden meaning. Maybe I've stumbled on why psychoanalysts are so humorless. There's no end to digression. All I know is my house still needs cleaning. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fifteen Steps

Directions for accomplishing the impossible:
How to banish the love impostors 
1) Assure your dear Gurdjieff friend, who stops by just before the shit hits the fan, that you will recognize your true spiritual path when you see it. Really. Ignore her raised eyebrow. Then ignore her warning, "Just make sure that you're paying attention." Tell her, "I am," and try to disregard the whining tone of your own voice. 

2)  Pretend there is still half a chance in hell of matching your unresolved feelings for your first love with the fact of who he actually is (a drunken whoremonger who is completely over you and with whom you have nothing in common).

3)  Catch every dirty scrap of attention he flicks in your direction, every half-assed platitude, and recast it in the image of your own unresolved feelings.

4)  Tell him about Never Was—the guy who just offered you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sample the path not takento live with him in mystical, blessèd union and explore all dimensions of your relationship for three whole months. Yes, in your house, with your teenaged kids. Because, after tearful negotiations, his wife has granted him a leave of absence. "I dare you," says the married man. Feel the juices flow.

5)  Be gratified when First Love says, "He's married and full of shit." Less so when he adds, "Why do you always fall for the tall, crazy ones?"

6)  Seriously consider the once-in-a-lifetime offer for 10 whole days before it dawns on you, this is not a good offer.

7)  Feel confident that the whoremonger First Love really "gets you" when he says, "You'll get hurt, I know you. You can't have sex without love."

8)  Feel like weeping when you read his next message which says the four most poignant words in any language: I miss loving you.

9)  Be overwhelmed by emotion until, 10 whole minutes later, you notice it. You notice what his message actually says, "ivy i miss loving you."

10) Recall that his spelling and punctuation suck and that Ivy is an Asian prostitute with doll-like features. You've seen her before in pictures, posed on a king-sized bed in nothing but heels and a lace thong. Now begin to notice how long it takes you to observe what is already in plain sight.

11) Marvel as Ivy's Customer continues, "meant to say you remind me of the beauty of Ivy and that tall guy should think again before trying to invite himself into your bed." Watch as the verbal diarrhea continues to dribble, "That last message got written wrong . I was drunk , late at night and my hand slipped on the Facebook keyboard . That girl only twenty two years old. Just a friend . You ever make that mistake on Facebook ?"

12) Observe that it takes you less time than you imagined, mere hours, to move from a state of raw hurt to outraged humiliation to something resembling relief or gratitude, or a state of grace. Unfriend Ivy's Customer on Facebook.

13) Open the last message of Never Was, after having declined his generous, once-in-a-lifetime offer. Read, "You just squared the circle. Congratulations." Then ask yourself what the fuck that's supposed to mean.

14) And wonder just why it is talk like that makes you hot, why your particular, peculiar taste has always wavered between the rare, incomparable pleasures of Tantra and S&M, and why Never Was can say things like, "I come for you, all of you," in the same stream of consciousness as, "If you expect me to stay you will be sadly mistaken." Wonder why time is starting to speed up and slow down, why fantasy doesn't get you off like it used to anymore.

15) Silently chant your Gurdjieff friend's warning, in the background of every thought, feeling, and observation, with every waking breath, like you are uttering the Holiest Name of God. "Pay attention!"

Friday, August 8, 2014

Singularity

Long ago, before memory, there was a single point of infinite energetic density. Because a point is that which has no parts or magnitude, we know it exists only in relationship 
to something greater. But there is nothing else: here is a point without context.

          Before separation—before the idea of it can be conceived, before anything—there is loneliness. Totality is unimaginably lonely, so terribly complete that separation is conceived, as a salve.

          Longing for companionship, the whole must divide itself. With the mightiest effort of
consciousness the whole splits, explodes into an infinity of parts and particles. An explosion of unimagined diversity.

          But now, like the singularity, each part of the whole knows only itself, longs, in its perceived isolation, for union with something greater than itself.

          In the way an amnesiac might experience homesickness, the yearning for separation and reunion emanate from one source, animating everything.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Schadenfreude

Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, "Solo for Two"
Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading them to experience the same emotions as those around them. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, in which people transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others.~"Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks," Adam Kramer, et al.
Our beliefs about what we are and what we can be precisely determine what we can be.~Tony Robbins
Let your smile be your umbrella.~Bing Crosby
Ever since I decided to write something cheerful, I've been fighting the urge to binge drink Sapporo beer, protest Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their own land—then protest the other protesters because this genocide has been going on for 50 years already, so what the fuck, motherfuckers?—also to use the compound word 'motherfucker' in every possible sentence, and to sulk. 

          I've been picking fights under the guise of standing up for myself, making up stories to explain why I'm uneasy, why others should censor themselves so I don't have to. Curt, my first love, writes to me from Southeast Asia, 8,000 miles away, and I'm displeased. Poor, sensitive Charlotte. Curt describes getting a massage in a curtained cubicle in a shopping mall, beside a Starbucks. He's tired from all that shopping so Curt pays 400 pesos, about six bucks, for a one-hour massage. The girl asks him to remove all his clothing and she watches as he does this. She asks him to lie on his stomach. He tells me how good her hands feel on him, how sensual. She asks him to turn over and, of course, he's hard. She's 20, he writes, with big lips and a willing smile. I've cleaned up his version a little. Yes, okay, a lot.

          I am not cheerful; I'm a sullen, angry motherfucker.



I start telling him the fantasy I had the night before—to put us on more equal footing, I think, as if perhaps I hope to ease the shame of remaining untouched. Even to me, my words sound prudish and absurd. I hit the Reply key anyway and go to bed.

          I dream I'm dressing for a wedding I've been to before—the wedding of a friend that took place a few years ago. For the real wedding, I wore clothes that felt unnatural and stiff. I'm always embarrassed when I have to dress up. Here I wear a beautiful, sweeping gown that looks weightless and fragile, like it's made of gold leaf, with a snug, black velvet bodice. But it's strapless and if I can't find something to cover my big bare shoulders and swelling arm fat, I will miss the wedding. Getting dressed beside me is my date to the wedding, and I'm surprised to see it's Curt, who is totally unaware of me. But there are two Curts—they're knotting each other's ties—and I can't decide which Curt is mine. If I don't sort that out, I'll definitely miss the wedding.  



The next day Curt asks polite questions about my stupid fantasy and I'm even less cheerful.

          In an effort to cheer the fuck up, I try to explain myself to Curt although, as I said, I suspect I'm just making things up to justify my black mood. But what if my lies are actually the truth I've been avoiding? 

          It's true. I do want Curt to be reverent and kneel at the altar of First Love, the same way I do. He can pay for three blow jobs a day for all I care, just don't tell me about it. Be different with me. I want to be passionately in love and, because I'm not and don't expect to be again, the next best thing is memory. It turns out it's like visiting a grave, though. Here lies First Love. Still, I want Curt to admit our graveyard isn't the best setting for a blow job with a stranger.

          Curt replies. After delivering a scathing monologue on the judgmental and hypocritical attitudes of the west, Curt apologizes for his insensitivity to my feelings. Weirdly, I know he's being sincere. It's even possible he has understood me quite well. Although he probably just thinks I need to get laid. A dense fog is lifting and in the new emotional landscape that's starting to take shape I see nothing familiar.

          I read a new poem by Dani Kopoulos in the Summer issue of Sufi Journal, and write down the lines

all the complexities
of our oneness and separation 
are made simple
and beautiful
by impermanence.

let that haunt you
and you'll know what to do.

          I watch a new TV program called "Married." In it, a middle-aged couple goes on vacation hoping to rekindle their romance. They've just met the couple from the next room; she has a belly-button piercing and perky tits, and her boyfriend looks like a body builder. Once inside their room, as the married couple start to touch each other, they hear the couple next door fucking like animals. Meanwhile, our married couple is struggling; every position they try is uncomfortable; at one point her head stops bobbing under the sheets and she whines, "If I go on any longer I'm gonna get lockjaw." He mounts her proudly but slips out after a couple of thrusts and can't make himself rise again. Then she falls asleep while he lies awake in the dark and listens to their neighbors pounding and moaning. 

          That makes me cheerful.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Tree That Falls Unheard

The sliver of new moon has been sighted so the month of Ramadan is now officially over and Eid begins. It's a bit like Muslim New Year. The kids are off overnight with their father's family to celebrate, and now limitless opportunities appear to open before me. With no one else around there's no particular role to play (not the nurturing or exacting mother; not the grieving daughter; not the apologetic, dysfunctional slacker; nor spiritual seeker; nor the fat, aging spinster).  

          A lover could spend the night, or I could pray for insight, or I could watch porn or blast music or eat fillet mignon, rare, fried in butter with mushrooms, along with a bottle of chilled Prosecco.  

          I forget there are still a few bottles of wine in the basement and make iced coffee instead. I walk around the house, switch paintings on the wall, eye the placement of pictures and books. Rearrange a vase and a bronze statue. Imagine what the rooms will look like when the 70 boxes of books standing in wobbly towers are finally sold and gone and the wandering gaze no longer trips over what shouldn't be there: I shouldn't be there. But tonight that's of no consequence, simply because I am here, alone, with no one to worry about and no one worrying about me. Tonight the house is mine and I fill it completely with my singular presence.

          I could watch a movie, call a friend, write a poem, color my hair, paint my nails, paint a picture. Instead I spend the next few hours gathering papers from all over my mother's bedroom, sorting and discarding papers, setting up a logical filing system with a labelmaker, file folders, hanging Pendaflex files, and arranging everything in its proper place, in a single file drawer, in a simple, easily intelligible order. 

          I take a break and fix another glass of iced coffee and prune the two ferns in the kitchen so only a few lush strands of green are left. I water both pots and sweep the floor of all the dead clippings and take the garbage out. 

          I think how much I love living alone and creating my own world. Or maybe expressing my own world is a better way to put it. I imagine other people in my space, sharing it, enjoying it, comfortable and happy to be here—once I've perfected it—and I feel expansive and optimistic. I worry that I may be happier imagining a shared life than actually sharing it.

          Around midnight the thunderstorm begins. The black sky blinks and rumbles and the windows rattle. I remember to let Pablo in before it rains and feed him. All four cats curl up with me in the living room and fall asleep. I wish I was sleepy; that coffee will probably keep me awake all night.

          I turn off the lights and go upstairs to my bedroom in the dark. I can sleep without clothes for a change, so I do. I snuggle into bed and Pablo soon joins me. I let my mind wander before reaching for my flashlight, reading glasses, and book. I turn to look outside, seeing black on black. When lightning flashes, the window of sky turns white. In that heartbeat I relive a memory. The feeling reminds me of the stories told by people on the brink of death, whose whole lives flash before them in a millisecond, but this is a lifetime compressed into one brief, insignificant image—and from a perspective that seems to be other than my own. 

          To be honest, I don't pay attention until the next lightning flash, when it happens again. Exactly the same image, same feeling. I'm not sleepy and I have nothing better to do. This time I wait for it; and it comes.

          On my last day of work, many years ago, a particular student—the apple of my eye—wanted to have his picture taken with his favorite mentors. I hate to be photographed, but I did it for him. We gathered in a small courtyard, among the shady trees, side-stepping the rotten watermelon left out for the turtles, and posed, an adult on either side of the boy, all three of them seated on a bench, and myself and my colleague arranged behind them. But the photographer had paused. 


It's this pause that keeps flashing now. In the pause I mutter like a ventriloquist through my fixed smile, No one will notice if I slowly slip away. Standing beside me, the only person who hears is my colleague, the other apple of my eye (who also hates having his picture taken and with whom I should not be in love), who I will soon amputate from my life like a diseased part. 

          No one notices that I'm gliding invisibly out of frame. I'm so relieved to be out of the picture—a picture of loss, of not belonging—because I've been laid off, because the boy is leaving and I won't see him again, because I won't see my lovely colleague anymore, because he doesn't love me. I hear him grunt, Uh-uh, through his smile.

          Without looking, my colleague reaches out one of his long arms, grabs my shirt and pulls me back. He keeps his arm tight around me so I can't move till the picture is taken. 

          I view this scene as if I'm standing offstage; the photographer and subject are blocked by our silhouettes, I see only our backs, his and mine. A flash of jumbled emotion and perspective. 

          When the light flashes, this is the vision that surrounds me, that must be in me, and is also at an unreachable distance. I don't want to see the colleague anymore, no more secret pining or dreaming, absolutely no desire to return to that job I had loved before. But the lightning puts me everywhere at once, on the brink of loss and its opposite. 


No more coffee before bed, I think, and feel around under my pillow for the book. The book is by Freeman Dyson, intended as a condensed, simplified history of the universe. I read each paragraph several times till some meaning sinks in, but most of it sinks all the way out. The beam of my flashlight falls on Euclid's definition of a point. 

          A point is that which has no parts or magnitude.

          I read it a couple of times and I think I finally get it. A point only exists in relationship to something else; it has no independent existence. Without at least a single point of reference—a relationship—sense-making is impossible; just 360 degrees of unrelieved, indecipherable chaos. But with nothing to refer to, a point itself is alone and infinite, meaningless.

          It reminds me of my sister's pragmatic approach to the baffling question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" My sister says that in the absence of any creature with aural cilia to translate vibration into sound, there's no sound. That's true, of course. But perhaps as long as the idea of sound exists, the concept is real, whether or not anyone actually hears it. That might be enough. Just because something is an abstraction doesn't necessarily make it unreal.

          Dyson goes on to explain the Almighty Abstraction, the superstring. But how to grasp at this invisible thread? Euclid, he muses, might have defined a superstring as a "wiggly curve which moves in 10-dimensional space-time of peculiar symmetry." You can practically hear Dyson chuckle while he tries to imagine how a lay audience will receive this news. (Drooling? Stupefied?) But to his credit, he patiently tries to get us to accept something inconceivable by ruthlessly cutting away what we already kind of understand and accept:
Imagine, if you can, four things that have very different sizes. First, the entire visible universe. Second, the planet Earth. Third, the nucleus of an atom. Fourth a superstring. The step in size from each of these things to the next is roughly the same. The Earth is smaller than the visible universe by about 20 powers of 10. An atomic nucleus is smaller than the Earth by 20 powers of 10. And a superstring is smaller than a nucleus by 20 powers of 10. That gives you a rough measure of how far we have to go in the domain of the small before we reach superstrings. (Infinite In All Directions, by Freeman Dyson.) 
I read this several times before closing the book. Excuse me, I think, but my fucking nostrils are actually the size of a fucking multiverse, seething with those unseen fuckers—those god damned superstrings? I'm freaking out because I shouldn't have had that second coffee. Perhaps I should re-think living alone. I'll just close my eyes now and take it easy. I'm in my bed, in my house, the kids are fine, the cats are fine, the papers in order. Breathe. In through the superstring-snotted multiverse I call my nostrils. And out. In and out.

          Lightning continues to flash. Each time, I'm comforted by the hand that pulls me back—even though I know in the end, in the dark, he lets go. There's some comfort in the darkness as well now, unseen and inconceivable, as real as anything.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

One Slipper

We could start, This is the true story of a mother who lost a son. Those are facts. Or, This is the true story of a hero whose comrades called him Captain of the Future. These are also facts. But instead I will begin with a deceptively small fact that also happens to contain within it the mystery of our very existence, of Hamid's disappearance—and the uninterrupted relationship between the living and the dead.

This is the story of one slipper.

          As we know, our story starts in many places simultaneously, but we will meet Hamid on Sunday at midnight, standing watch on the bridge of a cargo ship headed for Nova Scotia. A tall, lanky sailor in his mid-30s, he has brown eyes but a curiously hard, blue-eyed gaze. The gaze is at odds with his soft mouth, easy laugh, and the head of dark, childish curls. Hamid's lifetime of extraordinary experiences leaves no trace on him, he will always look boyish. We often mistake such men as souls on whom life has left no impression
—shallow men, reckless men—men untouched by the vicissitudes of life. We can't see the interior, how deeply the invisible, unexpressed self is marked.

          In another part of the world, where Dutch is spoken, there is a woman with strikingly similar features. She is also tall, but rather sturdy, with the same delicate nose and full lips. Her wavy, white hair is swept up into a loose bun with an assortment of combs and pins. Unlike her son, she has always looked far older than her years. She dresses modestly, in sensible shoes and heavy stockings, a cheerful scarf always fastened around her throat with a Victorian brooch, no matter the season. Her gaze is as warm as Hamid's is cool. She transmits a feeling of gentle candor and care. She is radiant with the knowledge of life's vicissitudes, conveysin the crinkle of her eyes when she smiles, in her marvelous laughter and the way she listens, nodding her head thoughtfullywhat we can only call the radiance of love.

         Standing watch for four hours while much of the ship sleeps, Hamid must have time to think about more than navigation. Perhaps he thinks about his girlfriend. Perhaps he contemplates his last trip, or his next. Last year he was captain of a ship bound for the Amazon, leading his second clandestine campaign to protect the South American rainforest. On that trip he suffered a brain hemorrhage, but still managed to guide his ship to port, as befitting a captain. His current assignment as second mate is the last part of his recovery before leading another Amazon campaign in just two months' time. 

          What does he think about? We don't know. All we know is his watch ends at 4 am. Later, his mother may imagine Hamid in the dark, before he heads to bed, leaning on the aft bulwark, waiting for the sun to rise starboard over the Atlantic while having a smoke. Hamid is probably tired, but in July at this hour the open sea refreshes and the ship's forward movement through vastness is reassuring. He takes in all that surrounds him like a deep blue breath filling his lungs: the deep blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the ocean, the endless wind. The water barely glimmers in that first light, under the fading stars. Everything is possible right now, is poised to happen. Hamid is alone on his planet and all that surrounds him is his. He exhales and the sun rises.

          We know something is wrong when the sun reaches its zenith. Hamid fails to appear at noon for his next watch. A general alarm is sounded to signal man overboard. The ship changes course to return to the place where Hamid was last seen eight hours before, at 44° 05 North latitude and 61° 30 West latitude. Every inch of the ship is searched and the Canadian Coastguard is alerted. Five ships and two planes are dispatched to conduct a massive search. 

          What we find on Monday evening, after 18 hours searching, is a single slipper, on the aft deck near the port side.



What happens next, when the search is called off, will be different for all of us. We will, each of us, tell a story of our own. Did he jump? Was there another aneurysm? Was he pushed? Is he hiding somewhere? Did he really sit on the bulwark to watch the sun rise and lose his balance? What does it feel like to fall backward? To be alone in the ship's waketo shift, between one moment and the next, from watching the the ocean to being the ocean? Was he cold? Did he watch the ship sail away? Perhaps it is out of respect for his mother that I rarely contemplate such questions. 

          What I do ask is similar to the question Where is Hamid? But what I really ask is Where is Hamid's slipper? The question is wordless, akin to the turning of a lighthouse beam, round and round, illuminating nothing. I probably think of the slipper every day, worrying over its whereabouts but unable to ask. 

          Sometimes I think, He is still Captain of the Future—he is already there.

          Sometimes I wonder about my vanished friend in Sri Lanka. Was he tortured and killed by the army, or by the rebels, or is he living up in the hills, married, with grandchildren, alive? I've asked humanitarian aid workers and people in his hometown to help me but, as with Hamid, there are no answers. In the absence of proof, I indulge in a memory that seems to have nothing to do with Hamid or my friend, to serve no intelligent purpose, except to frame a crucial question, wordlessly.

At the end of a quiet street in the city of Colombo, a narrow strip of sand divides the Indian Ocean from a sea wall. The sand is coarse, its grains as big as demerara sugar mixed in with black pebbles. Through a gap in the wall, we see men walking along that margin of sand, never glancing at the breakers that come so close, or the ships out in the distance. It must be midday because the men don't cast shadows. They walk briskly, purposefully, sinking into their own footsteps, sometimes swallowed ankle-deep or tripping over stray flip-flops scattered along the beach, tangled in seaweed. Not one of these sandals has a mate. 

          The missing sandals, the men in their urgency, where do they end up?

          Sometimes I think, All the oceans of the world are connected.

          Sometimes I think of how every summer, as a child, I would lean over the bulwark on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, entranced, as if being daredby the churning wake.

          Hamid's mother died last year, the same year that my own mother died. As I go through my mother's belongings, weighing the significance of each object before deciding what to do with it, I find something Hamid's mother brought us decades ago, before Hamid vanished, and which suddenly brings me face-to-face with Hamid's slipper.    

          The polished stone is as beautiful as I remembered it to bemysterious, round and flat, like the moonand nearly as big as the whole well of my palm. Although the stone contains many colors, it is predominantly a deep mineral-red streaked with blue and gold. It has always reminded me of the Earth and the Moon. Holding it, one feels connected to something. 

          Hamid's mother explained that she had brought it back from Delhi, where every summer she tended a Sufi shrine. Beautiful stones, such as this one, are left at the saint's tomb as reverent offerings. I remember how she stroked the face of the stone before giving it.

          Dutch sounds strange to English ears, at once soft and gutteral. My mother said it sounded the way she imagined gnomes might secretly converse. Sometimes, instead of saying goodnight, my mother and I would imitate the way Hamid's mother would abruptly stand and take her leave. 

          "Well, I go now," she would say. But in her lilting Dutch accent it came out, Fell, I go now. And she would smile her radiant smile, and we would smile back.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mahal Kita

"Has it ever struck you that making a work of art is a very odd and unnatural activity? Let us have a look at the painter: a creature created out of dust takes dust of various colors and with them creates something quite apart from himself and, what is even stranger, something that seems to have no practical use."                                                          ~William S. Heckscher, art historian and artist
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Art is indeed a very odd and unnatural activity. It creates meaning and beauty out of dust. If I were writing a novel, I might have tried to stop Curt from resigning from his job, selling his house and leaving the country to follow his tropical bliss on the other side of the planet, never to be seen again. There would be a declaration of love, a conversation, consummation, a fight, something. In fiction, I would enjoy a scene. 

          But there's no escaping the end when he leaves for good. As long as he is he and I am I, he leaves. The beginning always contains the end. Without the formula of a good story—a classic five-act dramatic structure consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, or the basic three-part structure with setup, conflict, and resolution—our dramatic arc just tapers off.


          He knows I'm sad but swiftly changes the subject, cracks a joke. I know he loves me only because of how he sometimes signs his emails. He doesn't know I googled Mahal kita; it means I love you in Tagalog. 

          And unlike the the impractical domain of art—with its sleek, astonishing self-contained worlds, suspended in frozen time between the brackets of a frame or the covers of a bookin this world time goes on and there's nothing we can do about it.