Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mercury



My grandmother’s name was Pailadzou, but the inspector at Ellis Island translated her name as Mercury—the winged messenger of the ancient Roman gods. Sometimes I like to imagine the inspector. (He looks like Kafka, but with glasses.) Who was this gatekeeper between worlds? Such an important figure in my grandmother’s future, and for future generations, shouldn’t be anonymous. Was he was a poetic existentialist trapped in a stifling, bureaucratic job? Did he fall instantly in love with my beautiful grandmother, sympathize with her plight, and decide then and there to give her an auspicious name? Or was he just bored and cynical?

          Pailadzou Tutunjian was born in Ada Bazaar, Turkey, in 1894. She grew up on a farm and had to quit school to work. Eventually a wealthy Turkish family in Constantinople employed her before she secured passage on a ship called The King Alexander in 1921.

          My mother, Roxanne (Araxie), was born here and grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by extended family who trickled into the neighborhood. Armenian was her first language. Her father, Haroutoun Sanossian, lost most of his family in the massacre. She told me she hated hearing him talk about it. He would get so angry.

          My mother and grandmother raised me, but I’m only half-Armenian. I understand Armenian but I can barely speak the language. Still, I clarify my own butter to make pilaf, the way my grandmother taught me, and I’ve been told I have an Ada Bazaartzi accent.

          My grandmother’s sister, Aghavny, buried a daughter on the death march. I learned that only recently from a cousin of mine over email. I don’t know for sure if my grandmother was on the march because she never talked about it. Armenian families were driven from their homes with whatever they could carry and forced into the Syrian desert. Many died along the way, or were killed. 
My grandmother, Pailadzou, second from right, with her siblings.
Her sister Aghavny, seated center, holds her daughter's hand.
          My grandmother’s silence troubles me. You mustn’t confuse it with the silence of the Turks—a denial that serves as a continuing violence to every Armenian and anyone who values human rights. Denial means we allow it to happen again and again today, to the Palestinians in Israel, to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, to everyone everywhere who is targeted because of race or ethnicity.

          My grandmother had kind, sparkling eyes. Even well into her 80s, she prepared dolma, tended our garden, and I can’t remember a day when she wasn’t cheerful, energetic, and loving. I understand my grandmother’s silence as a way of ensuring a sense of stability and normalcy. Keeping her mouth shut came at a price I can only guess at. Some mornings she would wake up with her mouth covered in blisters. My mother and I always knew this meant she had dreamt of the massacre, but still she wouldn’t speak of it. It’s easier for me to imagine the inspector’s face than my grandmother’s suffering. Only once do I recall her describing an atrocity: how the Turks, laughing, stabbed the bellies of pregnant Armenian women as they were giving birth. I assumed that this was something she had heard about. There is so much I will never know about the woman who raised me. I wish now that I could raise my voice and speak for her.


This year (this month, in fact) marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide, and the AG Campaign for Genocide Awareness website has gathered hundreds of personal accounts and family stories. I'm honored that my grandmother's story has been included here (in slightly different form) with so many other important stories.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Mars


A few years ago, NASA put out a Call for Haikus as part of its project Maven (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission). NASA received an astonishing number of entries for the contest—12,530 in two months—far more than they'd expected. In the end, they changed the rules and more than 1,100 poems were included on a DVD and placed in a rocket to Mars. It takes 10 months just to get to Mars, where the spacecraft will orbit the planet and transmit information back to us for about a year and eventually, when it runs out of fuel, enter the Martian atmosphere and burn up.

"The contest resonated with people in ways that I never imagined," said Stephanie Renfrow, who worked on public outreach for the project. "Both new and accomplished poets wrote poetry to reflect their views of Earth and Mars, to share their feelings about space exploration, to pay tribute to loved ones who have passed on and to make us laugh with their words."

Thirty-six million
miles of whispering welcome.
Mars, you called us home.
     —Vanna Bonta, United States

Stars in the blue sky
cheerfully observe the Earth
while we long for them.
     —Luisa Santoro, Italy

Mars, your secret is
unknown to humanity
we want to know you.
     —Fanni Redenczki, Hungary

These were among the top five poems that were selected. They are probably written by earnest SciFi enthusiasts and utopian techno-nerds with dreams of colonizing Mars, but they read like little death wishes, each of them. Each its own spiritual SOS; a message in a bottle, times 1,100.

When the Call for Haikus appeared on my newsfeed those years ago, my heart quickened and I had already written five poems about the absurdity of sending poems into space before I became exasperated by my own absurdity and threw my haikus in the trash. Later, the glibness of some of the selected poems would piss me off, as well, and I found myself losing patience with whoever was judging the submissions. Stuff like this, the first-place winner:

It's funny, they named
Mars after the God of War
Have a look at Earth
     —Benedict Smith, United Kingdom

The likelihood of a Martian, or anyone else in the neighborhood, having a DVD player is pretty low. Pen and paper would have been the way to go for dramatic impact, but I suppose the weight of 1,100 poems would have prevented liftoff.

Lately I've been wishing one of my own crappy poems were out there now with the other eleven-hundred Chosen Ones. My words would have been circling Mars for about six months already, having traveled an unimaginable 442 million miles to get there. I want to imagine my words leaving a trail that leads through the universe and all the way back to me like a vapor trail, or breadcrumbs in a forest. I want to imagine my words encircling a planet the color of rust, a place wholly incompatible with life. Imagine, the defiance of our own words orbiting Mars, unspoken, just because we can. Our secret selves—our out-of-body selves—made manifest and swirling through space, unseeing, unseen.

And years from now, out of fuel, our orbit growing nearer the dead planet with each pass, our destination looming closer and closer, we will finally arrive, in flames. How our rainbow-words will blacken the molten disk. Perhaps an ash or shard will drift intact, if we're lucky, into the red desert. Our frozen ash. (I looked it up; in summer the temperature can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but the poles in winter drop to -195.) No one will see this, no one will know about our absurd act of faith except us, right here and now. 

Night always descends:
Flicker of stars, the red blot.
We run out of words.

Imagine how little any of this matters, and how much.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Day After Valentine's Day

The day before Valentine's Day, I happened upon an unretouched photo of lingerie-clad supermodel Cindy Crawford displaying her authentic 47-year old charms. I noticed because the leaked photo instantly went viral so it couldn't be overlooked. Women seem to want to praise Crawford for her empowering message of self-acceptance—as if her wrinkles alone will give the rest of us permission to accept and celebrate our own aging bodies. But the fact seems to be that she didn't authorize publication of the photo and, so far, has declined to comment. 

          The next day, her husband of 16 years, Rande Gerber, wished his Instagram followers a Happy Valentine's Day, posting a photo of his wife reclining poolside in a tiny bikini, looking uncannily taut and smooth.
His caption is, She got flowers and I got her. Happy Valentines Day@cindycrawford.

          What are insecure, aging women to make of Gerber's response?

          I don't know about the rest of you, but I love it. It moves me, the way only old love can, with its utter defiance of convention, its indifference to hard facts. Sure, we all long to be accepted for exactly who we are. But aren't we more than sagging flesh? 


          At 74, Jane Fonda (who is famously outspoken, physically fit, and insecure), had this to say about The Eye of the Beholder in terms of her relationship with 70-year old Richard Perry:
I have never had such a fulfilling sex life...I feel totally secure with him. Often when we make love I see him as he was 30 years ago.
          Maybe as long as we have imagination and recognize what it is we really, deeply desire, the distinction between fact and fantasy is trivial, even if we're not supermodels or movie stars. 
          I spent this Valentine's Day alone. My kids and I exchanged kisses, hugs, and chocolate, and then they had sleepovers with friends so the house was all mine. I nibbled Lindt chocolates while watching a movie my kids would have hated and then I read in bed till I fell asleep. Did I mention I was surrounded by cats and that there was a magnificent snowstorm in progress? That I slept with Pablo (my cat)?
          Other years this solitary state of affairs would have depressed me—but not because I don't enjoy my own company. I would have despaired (or at least pouted) only because of this damned Third Eye I've got. In Hinduism and other esoteric, mystic traditions, the third eye is associated with extraordinary perception and out-of-body experience. But my third eye seems to have been hijacked by a nasty Republican or a punitive middle-manager, sometimes a controlling Jewish mother, or one of the mean, popular kids from high school, but it is always someone who bitterly disapproves. The Eye sees an 80-year old crazy-cat-lady in pajamas, alone in a big house (while the rest of the world is having sex), gobbling chocolate, a frigid agoraphobic who will never, ever have sex again, never to spoon or cuddle again, never to love or be loved, who will die alone in shame/squalor/anonymity. And with lots of wrinkles. 

          It's probably the same eye that makes me edit a sentence nine times.

          I've tried to poke out this eye, but it won't budge, so at some point, I must have just turned the damned thing around. I redirected it to other Valentine's Days with Rambo, the ex: that unwavering annual ritual of supermarket flowers, tacky lingerie, and mandatory sex followed by hours of criticism and weeks of The Silent Treatment.

          I really do love movies, books, chocolate, cats, snowstorms, my house, and the pleasure of my own company.

          What if I'm not lonely or lacking, just alone? What if I'm happy, but because my happiness isn't for reasons I think are valid, I'm duty-bound to be miserable? Fantasies of the perfect Valentine's Day, the perfect family, lover, or life can help guide us, but they can also get in the way of our experience of what actually makes us happy. 


          
The day after Valentine's Day I finished reading the critically maligned novel,"Fifty Shades of Grey," (which has sold over 100-million copies, so the joke's on the critics). It shares a lot of the same criticism that was heaped on "Twilight," which is no surprise. In fact, "Fifty Shades" author E L James started her literary career sharing her work on a "Twilight" fanfiction website. The aim here is not Literature, and that isn't the criterion on which these books should be judged. These blockbusters represent the highly individual erotic fantasies of two middle-aged moms—they're not supermodels or Pulitzer-prize winning authors—and they appeal to ordinary women. 

          As you know, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is porn. (Erotica, if you prefer.) (Or Adult Romance, if you must.) And one of the great things about it is that it's written by a woman. The difference is point of view, emotional attachment, a genuine storyline, and proper reverence for the Almighty Clitoris, for starters. But instead of applauding women's erotica, feminists are outraged at the political incorrectness of the Dominant/Submissive paradigm, citing the novel as an endorsement of abuse. Even the BDSM camp is pissed off, patiently (boringly) explaining that "Fifty Shades" gets it all wrong and is foisting a lot of dangerous misconceptions on an already ignorant public. Yawn. (The funniest is Anthony Lane's review of the movie in The New Yorker.)

          But since when is political consensus a prerequisite for fantasy or arousal? 

          I downed the book pretty much in one go and enjoyed it, and that was probably because I didn't read it like a novel. When something didn't work for me, I just did some quick mental editing and pouf! it was gone. For instance, when Ana, our heroine, repeatedly misuses the term "subconscious" or makes reference to her writhing, panting "inner goddess," that gets shut down. Whenever Christian, our hero, says Ana is "bewitching" or "beguiling," that goes, too. Embarrassing transcripts of their email correspondence which try too hard and fail to be witty and risqué...No. The list of edits goes on and on—how many times does she have to run her fingers through his "copper-burnished hair" or remind us how hot he is? 

          There was one section, in particular, that rubbed me the wrong way (don't) where Ana's broken some rule and is about to get a really serious spanking. The beautifully built-up scene is interrupted by Ana's somewhat unprecedented fear and Christian's bewildered, touching sensitivity. At that point I had to stare off into space and do a mental rewrite before I could return to the book. Those flaws don't matter, in the end, because E L James and I were collaborating, as lovers do. In pure fantasy, though, there's no need for negotiations or consent.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami's Running Man

by Duncan Mitchell
At 7:25 every morning, he is halfway through his jog up Linden Lane as we are driving halfway down. He's an elderly man with a mask-like face and pencil-thin mustache that must have been fashionable once, in another century. He dresses casually but carries an elegant leather briefcase. The most remarkable thing about him is how he pitches himself forward in a blind fury, rushing up the hill in a way that makes him look as if he's about to fall or break into a flat-out run, like a cartoon character who has suddenly materialized in the real world.

          If our paths happen to cross at the intersection farther down the street, that means we're early. Running Man is totally focused, never looks right or left but down at the pavement. Only when he crosses the street he mutters something and sometimes shoos speeding cars away with his free hand. Then again, if he's already crossed Spruce Street and leveled off at the top of the hill, that means we're late. 

          My kids never notice him, even when I point him out, as if he's inconsequential or even invisible. They're groggy teenagers, still floating in the uneasy limbo between their warm, dreamy bedcovers and school. The truth is they notice very little during our morning drive.  

          It's a tree-lined street (Linden trees, of course), with well-tended Victorian houses on both sides. Nothing terribly unusual about it. This was the route I used to walk to school when I was a kid, in all kinds of weather, and it hasn't changed much in a generation. In my dreams, though, the hill is steeper and instead of leading to school, the road often takes me elsewhere—a hospital, a service station, maybe an apartment building, could be anywhere. The point is just that I'm often dream-walking on this particular leafy street, alone or not, and it provides me with a familiar backdrop for a thousand different moods or dramas, or may even lead nowhere.



Haruki Murakami writes often that dreams have no place in stories or novels, that it's nearly impossible to do it right. And then he goes ahead and writes dreamlike novels stuffed with the dreams of his fictional characters.

          Haruki Murakami would let the children sleep in one morning, on a snow-day after a blizzard. Standing in the kitchen, deciding whether to feed the cats or go back to bed, the mother looks out the sunny window at the blank features of her own familiar street, but all the recognizable details have been erased by snow. 

          The mother tightens her bathrobe and tucks a strand of black hair behind her ear—a small, translucent ear, perfect as a seashell (though my ears are large and flat). It is during the execution of this habitual movement that the mother makes her decision. She will shovel the driveway and keep her daily appointment with Running Man. The side streets haven't been plowed yet and most everything in their little town will be closed, schools and businesses. 

          Surely he won't be running anywhere this morning in two feet of snow. But she has to know if he'll be there. The mother briefly imagines their different roles as the interlocking gears of a clockwork, necessary for the smooth functioning of time and orderly unfolding of events. It's only a small irritation, on a par with a single, ticklish strand of hair that falls loose across her face, felt but unseen. Only an irritation like that, she tells herself, will drive her mad if she doesn't take care of it.

          The mother rinses the carafe, spoons coffee into the filter, and presses the button after pouring tap water into the coffee maker, the same way she always does on regular schooldays. It's a silly idea, this little outing, but it will harm no one, and by the time she comes back, her coffee will be ready.

          Haruki Marukami would have something both extraordinary and mundane happen next. Maybe the mother decides she's being foolish and defies herself by passing Linden Lane and stopping at the old diner on the next block. She's surprised that it's open. It looks exactly as it did when she was growing up—she was almost sure they'd redecorated years ago. Even the waitress looks the same. Suddenly she's hungry, and wonders what she'll order from the menu. If it was summer in Kyoto, the mother would order barley tea, but it's New Jersey and everything has disappeared under two feet of glittering snow. 

          She's glad she didn't give in to herself, that she has been able to execute this small measure of self-control. Without looking at the menu, she orders coffee, orange juice, two eggs over easy, hash browns, and sausage links. This splurge will be her little reward for holding back.

          She would be reminded of some bizarre childhood memory—the blinding light reflecting off the snow would bring something to mind, or maybe the little tubs of jam and butter that come on a thick plate with her triangles of wheat toast. Whatever it is, it will be illuminated later on in the story, but now it's interrupted by the conversation of the man and woman at a neighboring table. They speak to one another as if they were having an intimate conversation in total privacy. Since the young couple and the mother are the only customers at the diner, their voices sound amplified and the mother quietly derails from her own train of thought and hangs onto the couple's conversation while she pretends to look out the window. 

          Haruki Marukami might have the couple talk about their missing cat. The wife loves the cat as she would her own child, she says, not excessively—and he's jealous, that's what she thinks. She wants to keep looking for the cat but he insisted on stopping for breakfast. Why else would he let the cat out in a snowstorm, she says, except to lash out at her. You think any emotion you can trigger you can just rework it into love

          He doesn't deny it. He says very calmly that there's no reason at all why she can't love both him and the cat at the same time, but for some reason she won't. She's emotionally stuck, like a record that keeps skipping back to the same refrain over and over until you have to move the needle by hand. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, heavy-lidded with messy hair, and he yawns abruptly before sipping his coffee. If you're asking me if I have hope for us, he says, I do. Look, already there's movement. The cat's been gone only a few hours and already you've forced us out of the house. It wouldn't surprise me if you found your way back to me today.

          "I felt nothing before, but now I'm pretty sure I hate you. That's all," the wife says, looking bored.

          "That's just the beginning," he smiles.

          Haruki Marukami would have the mother pay for the meal and have an enigmatic exchange of words with the waitress. She would leave a tip before stepping out into the bright snow to make her way through the tunneled sidewalk. The mother would walk up to her parked car and notice that there is still time left in the meter. She looks at her watch; it's already 7:45. He must have walked the full length of Linden Lane by now and could be almost anywhere, or nowhere. Probably he never even left his house this morning. Why should he?


Running Man is both predictable and anachronistic. Why does an old man who clutches a briefcase look so furious and impatient every morning and why does he always run? I've noticed that whenever he stumbles, on uneven pavement or a fallen branch, he makes up for lost time by trotting the next few steps. She knows when he's actually running because he pumps his arms. And then he mutters as the briefcase bangs against his leg. 

          There was an article I came across recently describing a strange neurological phenomenon. People afflicted with Parkinsonism, an incurable wasting disease, first exhibit rhythmic tremors of the fingers, hands, mouth, and so on. Like the most devastating battles, Parkinson's takes place internally, a black hole at the center of our interior cosmos. As the substantia nigra, that vital lump of black matter at the deepest core of our brain, gradually self-destructs and the brain is increasingly unable to communicate with the nervous system, victims' faces appear frozen and mask-like, revealing nothing of the inner life. Usually, you can recognize the walk of someone with Parkinson's by their halting shuffle. Their shoulders stoop and they drag their feet. 

          My uncle fit this description perfectly, and also experienced a symptom called "freezing gait." Freezing gait is exactly what it sounds like. One is suddenly interrupted in the act of walking and those who experience it describe a sensation of being glued to the spot, frozen in time until, eventually, mysteriously, they resume walking. 

          The article I read, however, discussed a different phenomenon I hadn't heard of before called "festinating gait." With this symptom of the disease, people are compelled to rush. There is a physical and emotional urgency that is irresistible and infuriating. Instead of shuffling or freezing, they break out into a run—even if there's nowhere in particular to go—and once they're off, there's no stopping them. Individuals are as trapped in their movement as they are in paralysis.


Seemingly disparate themes assemble—movement and paralysis, dreaming and waking, control and surrender, love and indifference—and one begins to wonder about the relationship of these opposites and consider the the whole coin rather than its two sides. In other words, aren't opposites simply two random dots linked by the same line? And if so, what might happen when we focus on the line rather than the dots?


          Haruki Murakami might insert a cliffhanger here, maybe let us free fall for a while. Should we continue? Murakami wouldn't have to ask.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlotte

Every day I cherish the act of writing freely about what I believe. While I often fear causing offense, I try my best to stand up to that fear and express myself honestly. Like Charlie Hebdo, I believe we must refuse to succumb to fear.

          I enjoy irreverent laughter and political satire. At the same time, I also find Charlie Hebdo's obscene depictions of Prophet Mohammed extremely offensive, hateful, and deliberately provocative towards a much wider audience than the (presumably) intended target of their political satire, the fundamentalists. I am offended in a similar way by the propaganda of white supremacists, Nazis, homophobes, and their ilk. Are they entitled to their beliefs? Yes. Am I a white supremacist, an antisemite, or a homophobe? No. And I'm not an Islamophobe, either.

          To that end, je ne suis pas Charlie.

          I stand in solidarity with everyone who values free expression and abhors violence, and I join everyone who mourns all the precious lives that were violently taken yesterday. But I am appalled by the defamatory cartoons, which I consider to be a generic hate crime against Islam and Arabs.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Afterlife: The Secret Life of Objects


Morning sunlight on a bowl of clementines reminds me of how I spent last night. In a hotel high in the Italian alps. I had ordered lunch: prosciutto and melon and bread, with a bottle of Pellegrino. Instead of finding a table, though, I took my tray and walked to the back of the same line of customers to order coffee. While others conversed in Italian and German, all in sunglasses and fur-trimmed parkas, I squinted out the window.

          This must be why I was here, to bask in the exaggerated scale of dazzling, snow-capped peaks and their deep, cold shadows. A wall of glass framed the spectacular panorama behind the line of tourists inching their way forward. The scene was dizzying and almost unbearably close, like being inside a huge aquarium. At this altitude the light was blinding, but I seemed determined to take in the view while I waited. Why on earth hadn't I simply eaten my lunch at a table and come back later for the coffee? 

          Logic was pointless; even dreaming I knew that. To understand anything inside the dream, one needs an emotional cipher. So I was waiting, impatient, though I needn't have been waiting or impatient; and I was awestruck by the view. These are my clues, when I'm ready to consider them.

          In my alpine dream I'm not divorced or grieving my mother's death, don't have two teenagers and four cats, in an old house in central New Jersey with a flooded basement and no prosciutto, fast asleep in my dark bedroom in the middle of the night. In my dream I'm wide awake and the sun is shining.

          Who are we when we dream?  I am a lonesome traveler. A hungry traveler, waiting at the end of a long line for a cup of coffee while I could be eating a meal. Distracted by what others are more or less taking for granted.

          Why is it the most basic questions—who am I when I dream? where am I when I'm dead?—don't plague everyone else to distraction. I marvel at this, on and off, every day. How do they carry on as if nothing is out of the ordinary? As if those concerns were beside the point when they are the point. Maybe it's too risky to ask and end up with nothing but the red herrings, religion, philosophy, psychology, quantum physics, all the magnificent dead ends. 

          The answer to such questions must be buried, like treasure, in the secret life of every object. 


This isn't a dream: I was paralyzed. Invisible inside a white spacesuit, even my face was obscured by the astronaut's helmet. This is the recurring image I had of myself as I lay in a hospital bed in the Intensive Care Unit. 

          Every morning a nurse lifted my gown and injected a blood thinner into my belly, two inches deep, to prevent deep vein thrombosis. She apologized in advance, but I felt nothing. At regular intervals, nurses turned me from side to side to prevent pressure sores. Because I was incontinent, a urinary catheter was inserted, but my period had come several weeks early. I felt nothing, lying in my own blood. There were IV lines in my arms and threaded through the shallow veins on the back of my hands. While I could still use my thumb, the call button was taped to my hand, but I could only whisper and my speech was severely slurred. Most of the muscles of my face no longer worked, giving it a mask-like appearance, though I was still able to open my mouth, move my tongue a little, and blink. My sense of taste was gone. I choked on thickened water and coughing produced something that sounded like the repetitive, slow-motion wheeze of a machine that fails (and fails, and fails) to start on a cold morning. 

          Nurses would rush in to ask how I felt when monitors indicated a sudden drop or elevation in blood pressure, and then do nothing. Since the body's responses could no longer be predicted, medication presented its own dangers. I fainted repeatedly but often had no idea I'd lost consciousness unless a nurse happened to be standing over me. "Charlotte, are you with us now? You just passed out, hon." I couldn't understand what had made them think I'd fainted. There had been a drop in blood pressure, they told me, and my eyes were glassy and unresponsive.

          Guillain–Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune condition where the body attacks its nerves, causing progressive paralysis that affects breathing, swallowing, body temperature, blood pressure, and causes intermittent back pain that is 10 on a scale of 10. It has no known cause and cannot be prevented, but intravenous immunoglobulin therapy often hastens the natural reversal of its course. IVIG contains plasma collected from the antibodies of healthy donors and is administered four hours a day for five consecutive days. Most people recover fully in a few months, though others will retain some lasting paralysis, nerve damage, or weakness. Only a tiny minority of those afflicted will die of cardiorespiratory complications.

          After the fourth IVIG administration, my neurologist paid a visit and said that while they had hoped the treatment would reverse the symptoms it had proven to be unsuccessful in my case. The symptoms had worsened each day and it was likely that a respirator and feeding tube would become necessary during the next 24 hours. The neurologist was handsome and I was pleased that he looked into my eyes whenever he entered the room. The first time he visited me, I was secretly thrilled by the way he had held my gaze and told me, "You're in for a wild ride." But now his attention quickly waned, shifting to my mother. 

          He assured her that while I wouldn't be able to speak I would still be able to communicate by blinking my eyes. He patted my leg under the white cotton blanket in the way medical professionals do to indicate compassion, but I couldn't feel anything. I didn't ask how I would communicate when the nerves of my eyelids stopped working. I smiled at my mother, to reassure her, but she didn't smile back. Then I remembered she couldn't see me smiling. I was smiling but no one saw it. My body was becoming more like any other object—furniture or a piece of statuary, or a spacesuit. 

          It was clear to me I could do nothing to influence the outcome of events. This fact was enough to convince me survival was unlikely. I was vanishing, already disappearing before I was gone. I would be leaving two very young children, too young to remember me, in the care of a man I didn't trust. I would break my mother's heart. And they would all move on. 

          Whenever I began to panic about my children, my insignificance would chill me into a fraught, emotional stillness. I wanted to make sure my kids would always know I had loved them, that they were first and last on my mind. For hours, my mother would sit beside me while I mentally rehearsed, Tell the kids I love them. It took time before I had the courage to say the words out loud. I didn't want to be upsetting or melodramatic. When I finally spoke, my mother nodded in a matter-of-fact way. I wasn't sure she had understood me.

          On the fifth day, after the last IVIG treatment, the doctor performed his usual tests. He asked me to squeeze his finger and I focused all my concentration, but my will and my body were disconnected. He asked me to push the sole of my foot against his palm as hard as I could. I bore down mentally, holding my breath, for as long as I could. I felt nothing.

          But my big toe had moved slightly, changing the trajectory of my life.

          There would be rehab and months of physical therapy, but no respirator or feeding tube, no orphaned children or broken hearts. No vanishing. My favorite nurse, Donna, was delighted. She told me quietly that I had been given a rare, spiritual gift, that my life would never be the same again.

           For years I waited for the epiphany. My kids' father told me the neurologist had confided in him. Before the reversal of symptoms, the doctor had felt that if I survived, I would never walk again. In his experience, all people who had this condition were susceptible to it because of some profound emotional weakness, a inability to stand on one's one. He shared this information with me so I would make myself strong, so I would see how lucky I was to have survived and rally myself.

          But I was more concerned with my eye twitch. As the nerves repaired themselves, my brain rapidly fired signals to test and correct errors in synaptical connections. My eyelids fluttered almost continually while the muscles around my mouth twitched. The neurologist assured me that it was just part of the healing process, but after a year, the left side of my face was still out of sync. Ten years on, my eye is wonky and my smile uneven. When I press my lips together, to eat or kiss or smile, one eye pulls shut. The neurologist found this interesting but not uncommon. As the most delicate nerves surrounding the eye regrow, he explained, they may establish faulty connections. He said one of his patients now cried whenever she ate; another just had a pronounced limp. I was lucky, he said. I was alive. He told me he knew I wasn't ungrateful, but his statement carried the impact of a challenge.  I was pissed off, but unable to put my finger on why. Yes, I was glad to be alive, I told him, but why should I be glad to be disfigured? 

          As I continue to await my epiphany I remember the empty spacesuit, how it felt to be unseen and to apprehend the fact of my eternal insignificance. Behind the helmet I can sometimes make out a tiny, single-celled creature peering back at me, unseeing, pulling levers and throwing switches. About the size and shape of a thumb, it reminds me of the character Plankton from SpongeBob, a cartoon my children watched. Like that character it dabbles with naïve, absurd dreams of domination, but I sense that the creature itself is controlled remotely, from an incalculably distant location, by something unknowable. By merely looking at the mask, it's impossible to be able to locate the true presence.


        
The basement floodwaters have finally receded, leaving behind a silty layer of mud and human waste that exploded from the main sewer line because of overgrown tree roots or too much toilet paper clogging the pipe. Before scrubbing the floor with bleach, I start scooping shit off the floor with wads of paper towels, but after a few rolls the doorbell rings. It's the Sewer Authority, responding to my desperate email. 

          I follow a man with a badge to the curb where he kneels on the margin of grass between the sidewalk and the street. He uses a long poker to pry open the cover of the cleanout. He is a solemn man and works at it patiently for several minutes, without irritation. The metal cover is about the size of a dinner plate, but disproportionately heavy. Once it's removed, the man aims his flashlight down inside the hole and motions for me to take a look. I think of the shock of those women, the disciples of Christ, who had come to anoint his body only to find an empty tomb, so maybe that's why I hesitate. Like the believers, what I see is both shocking and anticlimactic. I turn to the solemn man for an answer.

          "That is human waste," he says. It looks like a smallish, water-logged turd centered on a salad plate. This is the evidence that has been painstakingly unearthed in order to explain everything. I think I recognize my own shit—this mild-mannered, passive-aggressive turd, it's clearly mine. 

          "It's exactly where it's supposed to be," the man says, as if this is an adequate explanation. "The problem must be on your end." Maybe, after paying $300 for a professional to run an electric snake to clear the pipes, with the prospect of scrubbing shit from the basement floor for the next two weeks, knowing that it will all happen again, when I least expect it, that's why I forget all about it.

          Meanwhile, barely noticed, Plankton and my turd begin to form a single entity.

To be continued...

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 breath, 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.