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.

2 comments:

  1. What if a person would like to be with you on an evening like this. It wouldn't be an evening like this. What's the point of defining a point. It's no fun to compare yourself to other levels; either you won't be noticed because you are too small, or because you are too large. Furtunately you can be noticed by things of the same size, and this 'thing' just noticed you are great once again.

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    1. Thank you for sharing yourself with me, Beloved Thing.

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