Reflections

I often fantasize about an easy time in the morning, a sit down breakfast with the family in a sunny kitchen, savoring some early morning conversation with loved ones over the most important meal of the day. It is my picture of idyll, a treasured fantasy, since I’ve never known a leisurely morning. Even as a kid, I was up at the crack of dawn as soon as my Mom yelled, “Minki, get up!” It was time to hit the showers, pull on the white uniform and tie and head for the bus stop before sunrise.

Now I have to do the same as an adult, wake up bleary-eyed, sleep walk through 45 minutes of dressing and sprucing and then off to the bus stop, through rain or snow. So it is probably time to give up on that idyllic image of a leisurely morning, chances are it wasn’t meant to be. I need to let go of that dream. And today, as I settled into my regular seat in the bus, right behind the driver, the first seat by the window, adjusted the seat to my level of comfort, turned on the overhead light and smoothed my clothes to minimize a wrinkly effect upon descent, I realized that this was my alternate bliss. I have come to love this snatched hour in the morning when I can be myself, by myself. I can read, snooze, dream, reminisce, think. It is the most uncluttered hour of my day. On certain days, when I am reading something that keeps sleep at bay, something so engrossing that it forces me to think and forms, or uncovers, new tracks in my mind, I feel no qualms about giving up on the cherished idyllic image of a glorious, sunny, breakfasting ideal.

It was one such day today. I settled in with the latest issue of The New Yorker. I remember staring at the cover for several minutes. I still don’t know if I understand it. It showed three mummies staring at ruins, except the ruins were depicted inside a museum and one of the mummies was taking a picture, like a tourist…it was sufficiently intriguing. I flipped the pages randomly at first, relishing each cartoon. One showed a couple, or first time daters perhaps, walking away from each other and the caption read that they had declined the goodnight kiss realizing that the slightest spark would ignite their poorly stored munitions of love. What a caption!

Many more such delightful meanderings later I stumbled upon a “Turkish Journal” by one of my favorite authors Orhan Pamuk. He talked about a trip to an island, with his daughter Ruya, on a hot summer day. It was an elegant reflection on the ephemeral nature of things, of how little we absorbed or remembered of the things we saw each day. The author and his daughter reach their destination, a beautiful place, a cliff, the sea, the overall scenic beauty they take it in and then he asks his daughter if she finds it beautiful and why. He has been pondering the answer to this question as well, asking himself if it’s beautiful because if they stepped off the edge they could die? And when he asks his daughter the question she asks him, as if on cue, if one could die if one stepped over the edge.

Is that why we feel the beauty in things, do the things we find beautiful have the power to render us powerless? And is the converse true as well, that is, if something failed to hold sway over our senses, would we not find it beautiful? What makes something beautiful? Reading Pamuk made me think along these lines.

In his story his daughter soon got bored with the visit and wanted to head back. They got back in their coach and saw a stray dog looking in. The dog had the author closing his eyes and taking a mental account of what it was he knew about dogs. Turned out he didn’t know or remember much, even though he had seen dogs and known of dogs all his life.

His reflections drove home how transient, how ephemeral our experiences really are and how little we retain. I remember thinking along these lines and posting something on this blog over a year ago. Perhaps, in reading, I am attracted to words that help me pull together or help me restore order to my unfettered fragments of scattered thoughts.

And speaking of words the short fiction in this issue was a work of Steven Millhauser entitled – History of a Disturbance It was one of those stories that kept sleep at bay for me this morning, as I sunk deeper into my seat and perched my nearsightedness eyeglasses on my head (it is getting harder to keep these glasses on when I am trying to read, I probably am on the cusp of the bifocal phase of my life) ready to hang on to every word that had been written, starting with word one.

These days I am attempting to read closely as Ms Francine Prose recommends in her book Reading Like a Writer – she cautions readers to slow down and to focus on each word, the raw material through which literature is crafted. Ironically, the Millhauser story that I read like a writer should, with close attention to every word, makes an elegantly crafted case against the use of words. The protagonist in this piece embraces silence, he sees silence as the only way to retain his sanity. Words induce in him an intensely claustrophobic feeling, an experience akin to the one he had when he was trapped in a closet in his parents’ bedroom, smelling the sharp pungence of his mother’s shoes as her hanging dresses brushed against him, all he could think of was bursting outside and he pulled at the door until light streamed in through one of the slats in the closet blinds.

Words in this story morph into tormentors of a sort when on a beautiful day on a beach, he is trying to enjoy the day in its infinite parts, absorbing everything he can, trying to let it all sink in, as if to disprove the transience, the ephemeral nature of all our experiences, and his significant other chooses some words to give it a name by saying, “It’s a wonderful day”. These four words serve to mar the wondrous nature of the experience for our protagonist.

I find myself thinking, they would for me too. Why do we need to label, categorize, summarize and give a name to everything, does it help us hang on to it, does it help it become a more permanently etched experience added to our collection of a lifetime of experiences? Or does it serve simply to add to the growing collection of shoes or clothes in a closet, or clutter and detritus of a life lived that covers up every inch of breathing space and leaves us with nothing but an intensely claustrophobic feeling?

The story illustrates very well the growing meaninglessness and dissatisfaction with words that our increasingly disturbed protagonist feels. It rears its head when in a romantic moment, the moment is shattered by a question that seeks a confirmation of love – “Do you love me?” A question like that makes one wonder about love with extreme annoyance. There isn’t a right way to answer it. It is the most inadequate word in the lexicon, I have always felt that. What depths does the asker of such a question hope to plumb with the answer, how many different levels of inquiry are couched in that one innocent inquiry.

On my way back from work yesterday I had a similar thought as I thought about all the writers I knew who liked writing love poems, romantic poems. Something I am never tempted to do and I was asking myself why that was the case. Did I not feel loved? And the answer came back to me that love is not something that can be enchained by words, restricted by words, one can’t call it this, that or the other. It defies words. And yet they try to limit the feeling, contain the feeling and give it a name, assign it to a genre.

The protagonist in this story is tempted to renounce words and he wants to communicate his desire to do so to his significant other – Elena – who watches, waits and wonders. He describes her attitude as an “aggressive patience”:

“You’re very patient, Elena. I can feel that patience of yours come rolling out at me from every ripple of your unforgiving hair, from your fierce wrists and tense blouse. It’s a harsh patience, an aggressive patience. It wants something, as all patience does.”

I have never come across a better description of “patience”, yes all patience wants something.

So I relish these words that eloquently lament the existence of words, as my thoughts take off on various different tangents, personal experiences that justify or ratify every word I read, nestled in the now cozy corner of my bus as my final destination approaches, threatening to plunge me encore in a world of banalities like, “Hey! How was your weekend? What’s up? How’s it going? Nice weather…” etc., all meaningless words that gush out of us, unbidden.

But for an hour and fifteen minutes every morning I am held captive to silences and quiet contemplation and this, my new ideal, is worth the price I had to pay in giving up the leisurely orange juice flavored morning.

2 Comments

  1. Your posts are always so thoughtful, so satisfying…Whenever I try to leave a comment, I can only manage to type "Wow." It seems I am not capable of constructing something that doesn't seem wanting when compared to your writing.I should apologize, at least, for being so incompetent.

  2. HiYour comment started the great debate about punctuation etc in poetry.The debate is one of those sharp and warm moments when we are closer to the untried for, natural purposefulness we all desire, even as we learn to make do with what we have. Did anyone thank you for people rising from slumber and the musty mattresses getting beaten and some clear voices trilling ?I hope they did, as i do.Thank you.I have just joined the network and was loitering around, through the archives and chanced on this debate.Another click and i found myself on your home page.I felt happy.I wrote something called a Blue Silence on the Forum and am pasting it here for whatever you would have to say about it.A Blue SilenceHerestless sailor knewas she turned her back to begin to goShe felt it was a separate placeShe felt she would be aloneHe knew that the earth was oneThe sky was oneone island amidst a million starstheir voices were like two sailing boatsin the silver midnight hourShe felt divided – open – splitshe alone knew she did not knowWhy he traveled on..could not be stillSo she turned her back to begin to goMaybehis fingers should pierce his eyes and rip out insightsMaybehe should drink the salt upon his lips and drown foreverMaybehe should dig his bones and eat them tooOr justMaybeonce upon a moonlit nighthe and she ride the ocean tideand feel the wind wear their hairandtake a diveandsip a dropandemergein a blue silence. CheersMukesh.


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