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.