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 breathe, 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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


I'm in the kitchen, filling a shopping bag with black-and-white photographs—of people I don't know posing in places I've never been—pretending to be unmoved. I'm a grownup, after all, with a life of my own, and I want to unclutter and unfetter. I'm wise enough to recognize that it's the memories of my father I cherish, not objects. And so it becomes easier to discard all the flotsam. All of it's flotsam now. Although I admit I do love the heavy gold ring that my father always wore and that I rarely take off. But even if I lost the ring or pictures of my father that I particularly love, I know these things are not my father. They're just reminders—miraculously tangible reminders—of someone I won't see again.

          I regard each photo my father took before stuffing it into the bag, and when the bag is full I jiggle the contents around so I can cram more in. Her face bobs up out of the flotsam, a smiling stranger. Instead of pushing her down, I edge more of the picture out. She's young and quite lovely, looks intelligent. Instead of pushing her down, I arrange her just so, get my camera, and take her picture. Then I continue to fill up the bag.

          My father took all but two of the pictures, so when I come across a photograph of him peering down into his Rolleiflex, I pause. I guess he's just taking a light reading, but he's standing in an open field, dressed in his habitual suit and tie, with elegant cufflinks, and at first glance he seems to be taking a picture of a paper bag. His face is barely visible; it's clearly another throw-away picture. I shove the photograph into the bag and observe the way he seems to pop out, like a jack-in-the-box. I get my camera again. This time I photograph my father in the bag, photographing a bag.
          And then I give in.

          And I take out all the pictures, one by one.

          This is my father's profile. Without a doubt, this is my father's shadow. See how textured his shadow is, with long, dry grass and pebbles embedded in the hard dirt? Feel the blackness bristle? It's a picture of my father, but also a picture of his absence. The index finger lifts—to beckon, to point, to pause? A vaporous shadow wafts from his head like the mist of a migrating soul, escaping in wisps, like thought or heat. Breath, life. But it's just a tree casting a dappled shadow. 

           It's tempting to rearrange the photographs to resemble a clear narrative. This man has a boring face but he's so attractive. His mouth, and the proportions of each feature to the others, the precise way his ear is poised above his jawline, a pictograph of listening, directly across from his flared nostril, breathing. The way the fleshy chin, below, balances his bristling hair and sharp gaze, above. A gaze that penetrates something we can't see. (The thought forms, No one has ever looked at me that way.) 

          I might be tempted to put these pictures last, the sharp photo followed by the overexposed one. Suggesting, perhaps, how we fade away, but also how we endure. But then the impact of this tide of images would diminish. Its force comes from its mystery, the collection of apparently random moments.


          In black-and-white, sculpture looks more natural in its surroundings, no longer incongruous, as if a nude old man were really reclining on a boulder in the middle of a plaza, thinking hard about something, disinterested in passersby. The scalloped curtains hanging in the balcony windows contrast with his bare flesh, making the old man appear more naked and alive, and the windows more empty. 

          I'm not sure, but this may have been the dilapidated villa where my father and his students stayed while they studied art history in Rome. It hardly matters to me, those details I miss. Never mind that I don't know the story of the house or its inhabitants. That's the part of the wreckage that sinks first. What floats to the surface is just this moment in life when my father paused. When we see what he saw.

          One might look at these cacti as as an ode to memory and the passing of time—and continuity—before and after, and now long after. The photographer made a decision to return to the tree after its bloom had faded. He was telling himself a story. Now I tell a story.

          A story that is his story, but also not. He must have known this woman and this garden. In my story, this is a picture of an old woman posing in a garden of statues. She has no past or future, she simply poses, plantlike, sculptural. 

          This may or may not have been the pet goose of my father's first wife, in Italy. It's purpose is fading, out of context, or maybe it's being restored to a purer existence, free of association. But that's a lie. As long as there is someone to look at it, it will mean something. It's a picture of a goose and a moment in my father's life which has passed, but which we can still experience in this form. Like the way a star's light travels to us long after its death. 

          I love this picture because of the glasses. Are they dirty or simply so illuminated that the subject's eyes are obscured. What's reflected? He sees out, but we can't see in. I like the way my father cropped this picture down to its essential components, a face and glasses, an impenetrable gaze.

          I imagine my father directing this nervous young girl to sit just so, and the girl's mechanical compliance becomes a turning point. She experiences the thrill of how it feels to be looked at, really seen.



          Spanish moss hangs from the trees on Ossabaw Island, catching most of the light. Although the trees' growth is slowed, they manage to survive anyway, quite beautifully. Spanish moss isn't parasitic, nor is it really a moss or even a lichen, but something called an epiphyte, which is rootless and takes its nourishment from air and rainfall. The Latin name, which might have mildly interested my father, as a Latinist, is Tillandsia usneoides, but it's more commonly called 'air plant.' A home to rat snakes, several varieties of bats, and jumping spiders. Such facts were uninteresting to my father. What interested him was a different kind of drama—not nature, but something resulting from his own interpretation.


          We're always so fascinated by ruins. Why do we find them so beautiful? Instead of being frightened by the demise of a civilization, we'e awed. We are awed to participate in history, to witness something that connects us to what is long gone. We're awed as much by the ravage of time as by the fact that, for the moment, we survive.