Behind a blister is soft, new skin. I feel like that skin right now. Raw, smooth, ultra-sensitive. Trump has been president for eleven days and yesterday a White terrorist opened fire in a mosque in Quebec City. Nothing feels right. My body feel like the bones are shaking, but nothing else is moving. Like my marrow is trembling. My fingers refuse to write more about either of these events yet. Maybe because I dare not reify them any further, or maybe because my bones and skin just can’t take it.
I’m reading two books, The Great Image Has No Form, by Francois Jullien and The Physics of Now by Richard A Muller. (I’m lying. Are you like me? I’m never reading just two books. I’m reading like eleven books, poetry, fiction, books on facilitation, on trauma, on science, on politics, plus all the magazines and blogs. What can I say? It’s the best thing about the world for me. Words. Books. Yum. I like them piled up and scrawled in.) They both are tending towards my current obsession, which is an old favorite, one that wakes up every few years and asks me to reapply my knowledge of life and the universe to it. Time. I’m intensely curious about Time. I love to play with it, notice it, flirt with it, listen to it run through my body in the wet, sharp, soft, thumping, blinking, swishing, hissing, chattering forms of all her rhythms. The medium of growth. The medium of death. The medium of all that moves and all that can be seen and all that is said and all that is thought. What is without Time, except that perfect, smooth mirror of which Patanjali speaks?
When the unchanging consciousness appears to take on the shape of that finest aspect of mind-field, then the experience of one’s own cognition process is possible. (chitteh apratisamkramayah tad akara apattau sva buddhi samvedanam)
This month my father turns seventy. It’s amazing to see him, his receding hair and his loosening skin, the slope of his shoulders, the lag of his rise from a chair. How time has changed him, the part of him that is his body. And the personality, how it is both the same and different. The continuity of him. And the leaps, the discontinuous changes. The albatross of his life circling more intently now. That great ocean stretching out and him on the beach hanging with the rest of us, but slowly noticing, sometimes noticing that there it is, that big shadowy bird with its heavy, inevitable portent. Who goes there? What part of us goes into death? And is it out of Time and into Death? Or is Time also part of death?
My father was twenty five when he moved from Pune, India to Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are a lot of stories from that time. I also have a lot of stories from when I was twenty-five. I wonder if these things happen in spirals, and whether they are specific to families and relations or if twenty-five is just a hot time and we remember it, the first wild looping into adult hood. When he moved he stopped first in London to spend a few days with his brother, my Uncle Iqbal who lived there then. Though I have spent a lot of time in Pune over the last decade, I have not seen my Uncle. We are estranged. Strangely. Not completely, but almost. Estranged is also an aspect of time.
In London, 1971, Uncle Iqbal gave my dad a pair of driving gloves and a lined tweed sports coat. Those were his winter clothes. He landed in Minneapolis, in October, in 1971 and began his first winter. Winter is interesting in terms of time, because it seems to be where the year slows down, as if it were suddenly going uphill. Things change in winter, but only ever so slowly. The skies become white, the whiteness drifts down covers the ground, you walk slowly with shuffle steps, or sliding, or high knee lifting, the trees seem frozen, unless a sharp wind blows. Those winds in the winter chills are like sudden flashes of speed. But otherwise winter is muffled, slow, and thoughtful. Dad was cold that first winter. He had to walk to the university where he was studying dentistry. Without a coat. His mustache frozen. But then mom came to sort him out and warm him up about six months later. Dad was hosted by a family who became family to him, and then to us, too, when we appeared years later. The Phlegars. A family of Texans living in the Midwest. When he arrived they gave my Muslim father a very large baked ham. He kept it frozen on the roof, just outside his dorm room window, and he ate it for weeks. A kind of ritual inauguration. A way to become American. Leaving behind the old, the past, bite by chewy bite. It’s strange, I’m suddenly aware that I don’t know if my mom and dad were ever Americans, or when they became Canadian citizens. But mom came on dad’s student Visa. She was twenty one. She arrived in a bear skin cloak, and large sunglasses, and straightened, open hair, and my dad didn’t recognize her at the airport. He’d only ever seen her in a sari.
There are so many stories from that time. From all the times. The family stories are with me as I’m writing, but they are so familiar to me, they almost don’t have any energy left in them. They don’t propel me to write. They are simply in me, sitting in my memory, creating the shapes my eyes see, the tastes my tongues recognizes, the postures and gestures I learned from my parents. There are things from that time, our dining and kitchen tables, the cutlery, one wonderful brown mug that makes everything taste like childhood. Those things have moved through time.
In The Great Image Has No Form, Jullien is writing about traditional Chinese painting, explaining and interpreting some of the many philosophers who wrote about painting through dynasties from the tenth to the present. He sets the history of Chinese painting against the history of “Western” painting. To compare lines of time is a tricky business. He does it by threading two clever hypotheses along, without which he’d never be able to do it. Because, while time is the medium of everything that is knowable in a common sense, it is not predictable, stable, or easily measurable when you pull back to that kind of scale. Jullien talks about “rupturalism,” to describe how Western art constantly breaks from what is before it. How each generation of painters, from the discovery of perspective to the revelation of impressionism (and further, into modernity, and still further) breaks with the masters before them. He compares this to Chinese painting, where the evolution has been more emergent, more tenable, more relational. Where the breakthroughs are breaking into the subject of the painting, breathing into it, so that it comes alive. Instead of faithful reproductions moving towards the devolution of reproduction, he says Chinese painting goes to semblance and aliveness. To me, he suggests that time is sometimes linear and delineable, epistemological and blocked, as in the history of Western painting, but sometimes is also deep and whole, a returning to a fount, a connection to a whence, a process as in the unbroken and evolving traditions of Chinese painting.
My father is a painter now. He was a dentist when I was a child, until I was fourteen. My very first memory of him is an image on television, because he had done a root canal on a lion at the Saskatoon Zoo. Old George the lion, now long dead. That was the kind of dentist my dad was. Heroic. Flamboyant. He would save gold shavings and make jewelry for my mom. He would save these little plaster squirty bits and make creatures and animals for me and my brother. He would let us ride the chair. Once we moved to Ottawa, he started his own practice, and from the windows of his office there was a big red and white lighthouse to be seen, part of the Museum of Science and Technology. As if the office was a great ship, and we were sailing towards shore. He would show slides, sometimes, of work he had done in Saskatoon when he was teaching at the university. People without noses, without chins. People who had cancer, or birth abnormalities, or who had shot themselves in the face. The reconstructions he would do. He used to tell us how he would make a tooth a little crooked, a little yellow, a vein in the nose, a slight tilt to a jaw. To make it natural. He was well known for it. We didn’t yet know, but all the signs were there.
I’m only a little way into The Physics of Now (it’s a hardcover, so I only read it in bed) but the most compelling idea so far is a promise that Muller will defy the well-established notion from the British astronomer Arthur Eddington that time is asymmetrical, moves in only one direction, what he called the arrow of time. A broken glass can’t reassemble. Wood can’t unburn. A tree can’t ungrow. A dead body doesn’t suddenly tap you on the shoulder, ask you to dance. I can’t wait to find out how this mightn’t be true. Of course, at the tiniest, microscopic level this isn’t true. There are different rules there. Fascinating lawless quantum simultaneity and entanglement.
In 1994 dad was forty seven years old. It’s all a bit blurry to me still, but one day, not long before or after his birthday, he broke his neck. In bed. It turned out that the fibromyalgia that had been plaguing his body had worn out the most fragile and overused part, the part that remained bent and still while he stood for hours on end, performing delicate surgeries, re-creating noses, cheeks, and thousands and thousands of teeth. The pressure of his big, smart head slowly annihilating the integrity of the bones. All that time he spent turning back the arrow of time on these faces. A denture can make a face look thirty years younger. Magic.
Seven years of healing, relearning, struggle, and a world of pain took him to New York City finally, to manage a radiology clinic, part of a huge empire of dental and radiology clinics belonging to a friend of his from dental college in Pune. He lived in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center, and would walk to the clinic from there every morning. Seven years. 2001. 911. I won’t tell this story. This is his story. He hasn’t told it yet, this part. And, I wasn’t there, I was on the west coast. I got an early morning phone call from my mom, saying that I would hear something scary on the news, but that all was okay. But it wasn’t.
After the hell of that day, and the hell of the year to come in New York, he returned to Ottawa. But just before he moved back, I received a phone call from him, late at night. Nanji, he asked, where does your inspiration come from? It’s the kind of question a mature caterpillar might ask, isn’t it? I didn’t know what to say. Still wouldn’t. Where does it come from? Last week I wrote a little more about this “new idea” I had had while writing these essays. About how maybe when we die we don’t leave our bodies, but disappear deep, deep into them, into the dark matter within us. But, after I wrote it I realized it was not a new idea, but the combination of two ideas that I had been sitting with. One came from the introduction to David Bohm’s book, On Creativity, written by the Leroy Little Bear, about surfing the flux of time and energy, and the other came from Jullien, and the ideas he writes about transition and transfiguration, about the emergence of form and it’s breath-resonance and inexorable transformation from state to state. (He gets these ideas from Lao Tzu.) So, inspiration in this case isn’t coming from anywhere outside, but is emerging from inside relationship. Is that always the case? When we are struck by something, is it actually simply the eventual and inevitable meeting of the multiplicity of our emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual environments? Or are there moments of “true” inspiration? Are there sometimes truly new ideas?
Dad returned to Ottawa, after what he called (then) the most depressing year of his life. And he and my mom boarded up the swimming pool in the basement which had served as such an important status symbol for him. They built a floor and he bought a winch and some kind of dust-sucking thing, and he called his new sculpture studio Water Walks, which was appropriate for a man about to be resurrected, though, of course, he was really walking on air.
What came next was one of the great lessons of my lifetime. My dad emerged from the cocoon of Time, the years that had passed between his life as an accomplished surgeon to his life as a wild, uncreated, unusual, morose, frustrated, flying, hungry artist. It began in bronze and stone. It began with iconography. Ganesh, Black Madonna, Icarus, The Huntress Diana, mother and child, a big driftwood head he called Henry. Huge, heavy, beings awakened in our home, and took up their massive symbolic residence in our lives, always at the edges of our vision, looming in our dreams. And, I must also say, in our future. These objects will be around at least ten thousand years. What do you do with bronze? My little nephew may have to answer this to his great grandchildren.
He made these mighty objects for a decade. And then, during a stress test at the heart institute in Ottawa, he had a heart attack. A small one. A bypass surgery. Okay, we thought, he’ll be fine soon. But he wasn’t. Something happened during that surgery. It was as if he became a ghost of himself. He could no longer sculpt. He could barely breathe. He could barely walk. He could barely eat. A deep depression came over him. He wasn’t healing. He needed weekly transfusions of iron just to get out of bed. He was just sitting in his leather armchair. For months, a year, another year. I gave away everything I had in Vancouver and moved home. He was a wisp. He could barely speak. One morning as he was telling me on his labored, muted voice for the three hundredth time how he would never sculpt again I said, as if inspired, if you don’t start doing something, painting, I will not come back here. You are like a pit of quicksand. You are an event horizon. You are an oil slick in that chair. The birds of your mind are covered in tar. You need to do something. You need to paint.
A month later, I’m in Bangalore, and I get a Whatsapp message. It’s a purple painting, abstract shapes in orange, yellow, red and green, moving together on it. Utterly flat colours, like the smooth planes of his massive stones. And with perfect, impossibly perfect curves, like only a surgeon’s hands could make.
Now, three years later, he has made dozens of these pieces, sold at least twenty, had a prodigious exhibition. They are luminous yet obscure, moving yet fixed, silly yet profound, meaningless yet gripping. Did they call my dad forward toward them, this family of paintings? Or did his life push him, arrowlike, relentless, towards them?