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.

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.

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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flotsam

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.