The book bucket challenge

I admit I thought about silently turning down the Book Challenge due to a certain unwillingness to categorize and rank ‘some things’. I’m giving in though – because that’s what insomniacs do. They tidy up bookcases in the middle of the night and get all covered up in book-dust and memories.

So here it is, a very short and very random walk on Book-Memory Lane:

Camus: L’étranger: parce qu’il faut savoir s’ouvrir à la tendre indifférence du monde. Le mythe de Sisyphe: ‘L’expression commence où la pensée finit’…

Dostoyevsky: The Possessed: because of that haunting Stavroghin… ‘If Stavroghin believes, he does not think he believes. And if he does not believe, he does not think he doesn’t believe’…The Brothers Karamazov: I have an interestingly humiliating memory of this particular reading experience. I was sixteen and on a mini-bus with my dad and his friends as I finished the last chapter and started sobbing like a goddamn baby. Mortifying.

Page: On s’habitue aux fins du monde: Oublier d’être réels se contenant d’être vraisemblables est une catastrophe collective et quotidienne…. ‘De la pluie’  is my personal equivalent of a bucket of ice-cream when I’m feeling down. And it’s one of the books I especially love sharing. 😉

Fitzgerald: Tender is the night – Because it’s both beautiful and painful to read and because it makes you feel that F. Scott was masochistically merciless with himself when he wrote it.

Neruda: Poemas: “Y yo, mínimo ser,/ ebrio del gran vacío/constelado,/a semejanza, /a imagen del misterio,/me sentí parte pura del abismo,/rodé con las estrellas,/mi corazón se desató en el viento.’

Hermann Hesse: The Steppenwolf. It forged several (sometimes) unsuspecting generations’ manifesto(-oes) : ‘Like a true Nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild’…  “A wild longing for strong emotions and sensations seethes in me, a rage against this toneless, flat, normal and sterile life. I have a mad impulse to smash something, a warehouse perhaps, or a cathedral, or myself, to committ outrages…’ The The Glass Bead Game because – Joseph Knecht, Magister Ludi, jumped.

Dickinson: The selected poems of...: ‘Our share of night to bear/Our share of morning/Our blank is bliss to fill/Our blank is scorning’

Shakespeare: The sonnets: ‘To this I witness call the fools of Time, Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime’ (124)

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights. The chain reaction of the tragic disposition: because there are no tragedies like the tragedies we lucidly inflict upon ourselves: “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu: Reading her is one of the most soothing experiences I have had in my mother tongue.

Pariahs

It was the third time that week that I was spotting the two baby crows in the Parc Royal, where I go for my runs. They were on the same patch of grass where I last saw them, a few meters away from each other, striding around or standing suspiciously still even when approached by people or by dogs, as if sick, injured or simply suicidal. They looked shabbier than before, perhaps a bit thinner too, I couldn’t really tell. They were dirtier, that’s for sure, but it had rained earlier that day. I was glad to see them again. I quite enjoyed observing them whenever I passed by their strip of grass in my laps around the park. I took mental notes of their progress when catching them mid-air, fancying myself something of an ‘on-the-run’ ornithologist.

After dutifully and repeatedly speeding up the demise of a considerable number of winged creatures in a deluded attempt to rescue them, you eventually learn: the best approach when finding uninjured fledglings is to leave them alone and keep going. They are probably in the middle of a flying lesson so unless you can provide them with a private jet, there’s nothing you can do to help. Besides, crows are known to jump out of their own nests once they have their full set of feathers and just take it from there. With their parents usually nearby, they’ll just practice, gain altitude and endurance and after mastering the basics, begin to fine-tune: learn how to use the wind for lift, how to identify the rising thermal columns, how to control landings… All in all, a lengthy process involving at lot of falling and lots of ‘groundwork’.

I had just completed my sixth lap of the park when I noticed I wasn’t the only birdwatcher around there. My interest in the young crows, those absolute pariahs among urban birds, was shared by a tall elderly man, standing very still, at arm’s length from the fledglings, watching them intently. He looked familiar. I had seen him around before, in that very park and in the whereabouts of the central train station. He was one of the many to whom the streets o Brussels are not just roads, but tragically endless destinations. His long, frail form, his grey unkempt hair and shaggy beard made him the spitting image of Home Alone’s Old Man Marley. I realized that I had never seen him stand still before, he was always in motion, always going somewhere. He had a slow yet purposeful gait, much like a mountaineer’s. Though it was mid-July, he was wearing several layers of clothing and, as always, he had his two large plastic bags that probably contained most if not all of his earthly belongings. The homes of the homeless are permanent carry-ons of overlapping shreds of past, present and resigned future.

They were an odd picture to behold the three of them, the old man and his crows. Standing perfectly still, gazing at each other, appraisingly. A staring contest between pariahs, improbable equals paying tribute to each other through an obliging immobility and gracious distance.

I had already finished my eight laps of the park so if I kept going it was out of pure curiosity. Running one and a half kilometers for ten seconds of inconspicuous observation… Until suddenly, I just stopped in my tracks. The old man had stepped onto the grass and gently yet firmly grabbed one of the crows which, to my surprise, allowed itself to be picked up rather unprotestingly. He then proceeded to open one of his bags and take out a bottle of water. Pressing the baby crow to his chest with one forearm, he painstakingly opened the bottle and poured some water into the cupped palm of his free hand. The bird wouldn’t  drink despite the man’s best attempts at forced hydration. He spilled the water more than once  in his struggle with the noncompliant crow but instead of giving up, he just started over. I was surprised at how relatively calm the bird remained throughout the visibly unpleasant maneuvers inflicted on it. Was the fledgling lacking all self-preservation instincts? Why didn’t it try to escape the old man’s hold? Why didn’t it protest more, was it really that weak? Out of exhaustion, hunger…thirst?

I just stood there. Completely still. Thinking about how acts of kindness are often misunderstood. By the benefactors themselves that is. Perhaps because we tend to do for others precisely what we secretly hope others will at some point do for us. How blatantly mistaken that is. How arrogant we are to bestow unsolicited favors upon unwilling recipients as if our own needs are bound to converge with those of everyone else. There’s a line to be drawn even when it comes to our most basic of needs: if one is not hungry, one will not eat. If one is not thirsty, one will not drink, end of story. Nature takes care of its own and interference is rarely helpful. It can on the other hand be perfectly ridiculous, unpleasant, painful even for both benefactor and beneficiary. There it was, a clear example of how more is less. Of how certain worlds are meant to touch but never to collide, of how we should all mind our own damned business. Pariahs or not, entitled or not. Just stay out unless explicitly invited in.

And then it happened. It was maybe the fourth time the man had refilled his cupped palm with water, with a still noticeable difficulty, careful not to spill the content of his palm or have the crow escape. All of a sudden, somehow hit by the realization of its own thirst the crow started drinking. Hastily, desperately, as if its survival instincts had unexpectedly kicked in. I looked at the man’s face, searching for some expression of relief or triumph but noticed nothing of the sort. No signs of satisfaction, no illumination of self-pride. He just poured more water into his palm and repeated the operation several times. His movements became more fluid though, as if he was acquiring some sense of purposeful precision. As if he had found the right series of movements, the necessary gestures, the right ‘words’ to get the crow to obey. To understand. As if the time he spent watching the crows had taught him some secret code, a hidden language, accessible only to some pan-species of the urban pariah. A language he needed to learn first by observation and by imitation, that he then needed to practice before finally acquiring the level of fluency that would get his message across.

When the first crow had finally quenched its thirst he put it down, observed it for a few minutes and proceeded to capture the other one, who wasn’t as willing to oblige. The old man walked with a limp, I hadn’t noticed that before, but perhaps he was just numb from standing still for so long.

Indeed, I too felt a certain discomfort in my back so I looked at my watch. I had been there for almost forty minutes. Watching the old man and his crows in self-forgetting stillness. Not caring, for some reason, about how conspicuous my immobility made me.

And, as I watched Old Man Marley force-hydrate the second crow I couldn’t help but wonder whether he too had hopped out of his nest ahead of time Whether he had ever learned to fly. Whether he was still learning. I had a weird feeling in my numbed limbs and this rather uncanny dryness in my mouth: a thirst that was not my own.

forme și culori

Prima lecție de desen ne vine sub forma unei cărți de colorat. Învățăm să colorăm înainte de a învăța să desenăm și, poate tocmai de aceea, cele mai autentice testamente ale primei noastre copilării sunt ferecate între coperțile unor cărți de colorat: îndoite, fircălite, mânjite de culori necomplementare și, mai ales, pline de contururi depășite. La mijloc nu e doar lipsa de îndemânare a fragedului artist. Linia neagră, frontieră pre-cartografiată a personajului, e o convenție adultă pe care copilul încă nu și-a asumat-o și nu o recunoaște. Treptat, dojenit când părăsește perimetrul sugerat, copilul învață să se oprească la timp, să-și țină culorile în frâu.

Identitatea e și ea o carte de colorat. Un șablon pe care adultul i-l dăruiește progeniturii în speranța de a-i ordona și simplifica viața. Funcționează. Întrebări existențiale de tipul „cine?”, „ce?” devin ecuații cu o singură necunoscută în matematica gramaticală. Învățăm să decupăm, să aruncăm sau să reatribuim plămada care depășește forma matriței. Învățăm să ne concentrăm pasiunile și energiile în direcția unor scopuri bine definite și, în general, perfect tangibile, iar acesta e cel mai bun GPS spre orice destinație deja înscrisă pe hartă.

Astfel, originalitatea însăși pare a fi o problemă a veșnicelor recombinări și redenumiri ale aceleiași palete de culori, în interiorul mereu acelorași contururi. „Te crezi original?”, întreabă cu profunzimea caracteristică înțelepciunea din beton armat a geniilor de marketing: „inventează o nouă culoare”. Și poate tocmai aici e problema. Într-un univers al foii veline, în care vârful creionului poate trasa orice contur dorește, noi ne încăpățânăm să învățăm formele pe de rost și dăm pe dinafară de elanul de a dibui noi culori.

Ajungi cel mai departe când nu știi unde mergi, zice-se că ar fi meditat Columb. Ce e drept, nici n-a aflat vreodată unde a ajuns. (Dar, până la urmă, asta n-a schimbat nimic – mai puțin un toponim sau două…)

Boxes and Borges

‘Rereading not reading is what counts’ whispered Borges into my deaf ear this morning, while I was peeling a pomegranate. I re-read that quite recently so I won’t pretend to have a good memory. But what I do remember rather clearly is a numb choice that I once made, the choice to forget all about Borges for a while. I stuck him in a box, alongside old schoolbooks and some dried up pens that for some reason I decided to keep rather than throw away. The problem though, is that when you move, old boxes suddenly re-emerge. And there, at the bottom of old, moldy cartons you always find rereading. For instance that crumpled piece of paper on which someone excitedly scribbled that the fourth dimension of space might indeed be time (exclamation mark). Surely, they must have known they were quoting from somewhere… And yet, Memory rarely labels its sources and this allows foolish pen-swingers to briefly wallow in some amnesic sense of ownership. Maybe that’s why it’s so important to reread. Putting things into perspective once again. I’ll admit that I was once certain that rereading has its own time and place and that somehow these were always magically distant. Rereading, I used to imagine, must have a moist, cellar-like smell or, at best, a dark attic dryness. But those old boxes annoyingly suggest that rereading was here all along… that it indeed never left, choosing to watch, ‘comfortably numb’ from that armchair in the living room that no one ever sits on anymore (you know, the one whose shape can’t have been meant for a human…). Yes. I suppose it’s time to open a box or two. And that’s a scary thought indeed. No one really knows what part of us we shoved in storage. Our fingers must be ready for all sorts of lost, sharp shards.

“Context” is the one thing that we are never meant to accurately retrieve. Our past selves are the strangers we keep in boxes.

 

“Is this a quotation?” he asked.

It must be. It all is. 

 

Once, around Easter, her dad took her to the animal fair.„To take a look”. They were about to leave when, just outside the pavilion, they saw a man with a box of puppies. She darted to the box and started playing with its tiny occupants. Unexpectedly, her dad said she could go ahead and choose one. Getting a dog had always been out of the question so this was more than out of character. After careful consideration, she picked the smallest, sickliest pup of the lot, the one who would get trampled on while his brothers climbed the rims of the box to lick the hands of passersby. Her dad tried to persuade her to pick another, healthier looking dog – she wouldn’t – ‘the other puppies are happy in the box too’, she said. The pup was sick and died merely a few days later. She buried him in the front yard, in a cardboard box. Twenty-something years later, this particular detail finally strikes as ironic.

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