Mud people (excerpt from Gargoyle)

fullsizeoutput_b93 The shallow hole the boy had dug became deeper with time as he scooped out the red colored clay the ground was made of. He filtered it through his hands, taking out stones, sticks, decomposed leaves and roots. Punching and smoothing it he compacted the clay to one block, thus slowly building up a monolith from clay. He devoted great care to this process, making sure that he would have a structurally sound mass with which to work. Over the course of building hundreds of small people from mud he had gotten quite skilled at this craft. Only when he was content with the sound that a slap against the block produced, a deep, saturated thud, would he proceed to sculpt. With deliberate slowness he worked from the general form to the details. Many times a form had collapsed when he had tried to overemphasize a movement or had placed the limbs too far outside the center of gravity. In the beginning he had tried to use sticks to support an arm reaching out or a leg stepping forward and though technically that solution had worked he didn’t like that the figure now seemed to defy the laws of gravity that nature put on the material and form. It was thus almost impossible by the mere use of sticks and clay alone to sculpt an outreached limb that looked natural. So he had returned to work from the inner core of the material and to rather hint at a movement that – though invisible – the eye would project into the empty space. He was always intrigued by what he could see without seeing it. He liked the way his sculptures randomly related to one another, all he had to do was to quietly look at both sculptures and discover this relationship of forms. Something deep inside him stirred when he looked at his creations and their silent endurance. He could see the form of the space in between two physical forms, it was nothing and yet visible if one cared to look, it changed constantly, stretched and diminished, even disappeared. It was actually easier for him to comprehend the properties of this in between space than the form itself. You could get out of the trajectory of any moving object if you controlled that space. If you made that space in between adhere to your inner voice you did not need sticks to build a figure. Why, you barely needed your hands, all you had to do was to look long and hard, look at the clay monolith and make some slight adjustments. Soon his people were crouching, stretching, running, turning. He took great pleasure from this.

His father began to take notice too. One night when he had returned home from the workshop the little garden patch had first caught his attention. In the twilight the clay sculptures his son had build in the afternoon had a strange quality of perfection. There were seven fresh sculptures, six of them crouching on the ground, the seventh a small figure in flight, emerging out of a block of brick-colored earth, running.
From a distance it had seemed that all sculptures possessed distinct personalities and bore individual facial features. Something about these features seemed oddly familiar to the stonemason. Upon closer inspection he realized though that the impression of an actually sculpted face dissipated from a nearer perspective – but reinstated itself the moment he stepped back like a magical trick. The inability to confirm his initial finding, to come closer to the truth, was intriguing to him. He asked himself how a not yet six year old child could have created such a sophisticated illusion. He didn’t ever doubt that the impression was created deliberately. He studied the people his son had made for a long time. Inside the house the light from the boy’s bedroom shone dimly through the drawn curtains.

Literary avatars,Jawara´s story, excerpt

IMG_5726Where do you live when you live in a mattress under a dining table as a roommate to a legal intern? What is your legal address? Do you even have one? You are not freezing at night. You do not go hungry by day. You are alive to the world, breathing, thinking, feeling, and you have a history that walks by your side as you walk past the store fronts on Madison on your way to the subway on 96th Street after your boss has taken off with the food truck towards Queens. His day is not over yet. He still has to drive the truck out, clean and unload it in order to comply with food regulation rules, to keep the truck running that provides both of you with a livelihood but in your case just so.

From the window displays on Fifth and Madison distant galaxies of human existence are reflecting. The entry to these worlds is being jealously guarded by slim young men in well cut suits with cold stares. You don´t even desire the kinds of goods that are hiding behind those faraway windows though you are also not ignorant of them, there is simply no meaning in the acquisition of things that furbish and decorate for events that are not even on your far horizon.

You do desire books though and a place to sit and work quietly. At this moment all you need is a few minutes for yourself, to be a free man and a free agent of your fortune, maybe pretending there was indeed a place for you to go to, not here in the Upper East side, maybe somewhere in Queens like your boss, a place with friends and family waiting for you like back at home. You correct yourself: like it used to be at home.

You stop in front of the book store on Madison Avenue, Crawford & Doyle. You have never once been here during opening hours but you love the window display and the old-world storefront. Your time is ticking, and you are incredibly tired, but you take a few minutes to let your eyes rest on the new arrangement of books. You love book design. Your mother was born in in Saint-Louis, Senegal, where she grew up before moving to Dakar to finish her secondary schooling and becoming a book designer. You know book design because she loves it. You miss her, but you know she approves of you being here and giving it your best shot. And so you feel ashamed that your best shot does not go so very far as you are exhausting yourself working at the food truck so you don´t have to live in the street. Any other city you might be having your own place but here it is all but impossible, all you can afford here is the mattress under a dining room table of a legal intern who is too poor to afford that place on her own.

The studio apartment you share is really small like a doll´s house, which explains why the only place for your mattress is under the table. The intern herself owns next to nothing – but she does own this table that is like a small hut. A table like a boat, like the Arche Noah she once said. New York could drown and all she´d have to do is turn the table over and float out of there. The both of you share the upper part of that table and the kitchen and the bathroom. She has made her own bedroom in a walk-in-closet which accommodates her own mattress underneath the clothes hangers. The arrangement works remarkably well. You are rarely at home when she is, time´s maybe overlapping a few hours at night. She comes in late, often after midnight, you have to get up at 3.30 am to meet your boss set up the food truck in time for the morning crowd of office workers. Both of you try to be mindful of the other´s sleep. Neither one of you brings a lover home though you have once seen her with this tall guy on Bank Street, artist looking type. He would not have fit in that closet. Such a strange thing though to know there is a girl in the closet while you are brushing your teeth. Sometimes she´s talking in her sleep from deep within that closet. New York is a strange place.

All of this you think as you let your eyes travel unseeing over the books displayed in the windows at Crawford & Doyle. You should be writing a book and have it displayed in this book store´s window for people to see and buy, you are a good narrator and a good writer, and you have a story to tell. But even in real life no one here seems to care about your story, you are all but invisible. People ask you for a bottle of Peach Snapple or Newman´s Lemon Ice Tea, they ask for coffee to go, they ask you for a donut with cream cheese or a pretzel with salt which you carefully wrap in a napkin and hand out to your customer, but not before you have carefully counted the change. People don´t care for you touching the pretzel with your hands, they are afraid of touch and life and smell, though the city is full of touch and life and smell, but it is like a playground to them with their own set of rules, it is their playground but your jungle, and they know close to nothing about you and they don´t want to either. You are not their problem, you hand out snacks and food and sugared drinks and coffee in a sanitary, non-threatening, polite way so they can forget about you the moment they bite into their pretzel, you are like an extra to their own, legitimate story while you keep invisible, keep in your place. Your head is so full of life and stories that all you want to do is sit down and start writing, tell a story, only you can´t because you are so tired and lonely and tired again,  so tired you almost hear your thoughts and they are so loud that they are almost painful and the blood rushes to your face, and what you really have to do is to go home and wash the dust off and crawl on to your mattress under the table in order to be able to get up in a few hours to start working again, so you will still have that mattress under the table and water and enough food to survive, and so this will be another night when you don´t start your book. Maybe tomorrow night. Try again. You have not given up quite yet. And you slowly start walking toward the subway station on 96th and your life´s avatars drag behind a bit, still clinging to that beautiful window display.

Si a jure discedas vagus eris, et erunt omnia omnibus incerta

or: If you depart from the law, you will go astray …

Legal avatars were walking with me every night right up until dawn. Most of them were missing something, something that was living and breathing in the legal clients who had come to the law office and had told their story of need and desire to the attorney but that somehow had got lost when the client´s life subsequently had been translated to fit in a file. Every day for about 15 minutes after lunch time Mr. O´Leary gave me a short introduction to the new cases he had Ms. Cavendish put on my desk in the morning. He was a very good narrator, mentioning details about clients that a less practiced observer would have overlooked or found insignificant. He was incredibly generous with me, 15 minutes is a long time for a lawyer whether he gets paid by the hour or contingency fees, that I knew even back then. And yet, the gap between his narrative and the legal brief I was supposed to write was so wide. Not unbridgeable but wide enough to truly humble me.

I still remember seeing the avatars slipping out of the files and silently pacing the room waiting for me to finish up. It started one night at about the time when I had been practicing my hand at writing briefs for about three months, practicing day after day with the many different cases that appeared in sets of three or four on my desk in the morning.
In the beginning it me had taken me a really, really long time to come up even with a just-so acceptable brief. By the time I brought the file back to Ms. Cavendish, Mr. O´Leary´s formidable secretary, I had read and reread the case close to a hundred times until I felt that I had either identified all the relevant information that I needed to actually write the brief, including the issue, the facts, the holding, and the relevant parts of the analysis, or, more often, that I had arrived at that kind of sinking, sick feeling that you have when it´s still not good enough but you just cannot do any better. Perversely, I had liked studying law for just that reason: it had made me small and humble and human insofar as it made me fail over and over again and that was perfectly in sync with my Puritan upbringing. I had been raised an atheist Puritan who had the severe character fault of having a creative streak. So if there ever was a law student who should have studied something instead it was me. And yet I continued in a distracted, untechnical, unstructured but seemingly still just-so good enough manner, because „not quitting“ had been ingrained into my personal code since my terrible-twos, and it continued to be my great weakness well into grown-up life. I was too stubborn to quit law school even as I was painting and dreaming and visiting museum after museum, I just couldn´t quit, it was as simple as that.
Generally speaking, before I had decided to go to law school I had been seriously suffering from delusions about what I could do in life, like: really anything. I had been convinced that I could do just about anything that I would set my mind to, you name it, math, sciences, language arts, and I´d be brilliant at it, and yet here I was, a few years later and not even being a quite good enough lawyer.

I simply had no clue what people were like and why they acted the way they did. I had no clue what other people actually wanted from life. No clue whatsoever. And you just can´t be a good lawyer if you don´t get people – on both sides of the law. You need to understand what drives a person and you need to understand what makes the law want to rule that very person in or entitle it to do as desired, you need , with other words, to have a good grasp of societal goals and values. Or, in the absence of such an abstract understanding, you at least need to believe that there is an order to things, a somewhat natural state of being that you will recognize when you see it.
If, on the other side, you are a multifaceted, spacey kid who lets the winds that blow through the city grid take a hold of you and push and pull you into any which direction it pleases, if you are but a drifter, if you live in books and if you cry while reading Sylvia Plath and if you are stricken by a certain Yellow in a Miró painting as if your life´s meaning depends on it, Miró, of all painters, if you are completely content with the universe for the view of the tar beach on the roof of your rental building on a freezing but fiercely clear morning, still barefoot and in your PJs and with a mug of coffee hot enough to burn the skin between your thumb and index finger (your stereotypical European intern kid), if you are happy with cheap Asian food from the corner store for weeks on end, if you are content with sharing your cramped studio apartment with a guy who works crazy hours at a food truck  and crashes on a mattress underneath your dining table, if you get a kick just out of running around Central Park in worn-out-no-brand sneakers trying to keep up with the Mexican runners for a few minutes before collapsing on to the Great Lawn, if you feel insanely alive for a split-second just because the light over Manhattan illuminates the Avenues looking south with toxic quick silver, and if on top of being this incarnation of a European nerd you think that your kicks are what makes all people around you stop dead in their tracks for excitement, then you might be on to something great for life, but as a lawyer you know next to nothing. If you don´t get what actually makes people fight for their very own piece of Lexington Avenue, small or majestic as it may be, you will be but a pathetic excuse for a lawyer.
So night after night, after I had closed the last book, feeling exhausted and ready to loose myself in the city, the avatars were quietly slipping out of the files and following me down the long hallway, past the pale light of Mr. Letterman´s office, into the creaky elevator and down, through the marble tiled lobby and out into the night. As we left the building, the avatars and I, and I was walking out into the night, they were following me and I was to them like the one eyed king amongst the blind. Si a jure discedas vagus eris, et erunt omnia omnibus incerta.

Alternative pathways to the primary visual cortex

He turned around and looked in my direction, his dark glasses reflecting the library lights like distant stars. Then he smiled. Automatically I smiled back at him, but then I remembered that he was blind, and my smile froze. I … Continue reading

One second of eternity at Lake Willoughby

IMGP1041Lake Willoughby, grated into plutonic rock by a deep glacier, is a 300 feet deep, water filled scar between two mountains with biblical names, Mount Hor to the West and the Eastern Mount Pisgah. If you stand on the North Shore of the lake, it actually has the appearance of a deep fjord, though there is no outlet to the sea. Instead there is said to be an underground aquifer connecting the basin of Lake Willoughby to that of another eerie body of water beyond Mount Hor, Crystal Lake. In my mind that acquifer had the form of a water filled cathedral, in my mind I saw swimmers gliding swiftly through a space abandoned by a people even older than they were. There was an incredible, inexplicable light the way I imaged this. You have to keep in mind that I imagined this within a dream without actually seeing it, two steps down and under. Even though my sober mind took offense with the inexplicability of the light.

While I was thinking and conjuring up images within the dream I stood at the waters edge of the lake as I had done many summers and the water exactly like the water of lake Willoughby as I remembered it acted like a mirror. The surface seemed to be like a sheet of glass of finest quality, separating the clearly visible underneath from the still world above, and the mirror image of this world like an incomprehensible fourth dimension in between both worlds. Again I saw the forms in the distance, gathering around precariously piled up, submerged boulders. Each winter these boulders avalanche down Mount Pisgah and roll into the lake to form the outline of an inaccessible stone city, creating an intricate mountainous terrain. I wondered how long it would take to fill the deep ravine of the lake with boulders and fleetingly thought of the old story about the small bird wearing away a mountain with his beak to mark the passing of the first second of eternity. In my dream I had this thought.

Po Tolo

“My grandfather, your great-grandfather, believed that there is life in the Sirius system. The Dogon, an African tribe with very acute astrological knowledge, have believed for centuries that there is life out there as have the ancient Egypts and the … Continue reading

„Rutkas Tagebuch“

„Rutkas Tagebuch“.

All jenen, die meinen, man habe nicht wissen können, dass die jüdischen Nachbarn, die abgeholt wurden, ganze Familien, die in der Nacht auf Ladeflächen von Lastwagen fortgebracht wurden, mit dem Ziel ihrer Ermordung fortgebracht wurden, denen sei die Lektüre dieses Tagebuches eines vierzehnjährigen polnischen Mädchens, Rutka Laskier, empfohlen, ermordet 1943 in Auschwitz. Rutka Laskier führte ein Tagebuch, das erst 60 Jahre später bekannt wurde, ein Zeugnis der Zeit, aus dem unmissverständlich hervorgeht, dass dieses Mädchen, 14 Jahre alt, sehr genau wusste, welches Leid und Elend ihr zugedacht waren. Ich reblogge diesen Artikel aus dem exzellenten blog “Wortspiele” in Anknüpfung an die Diskussion darüber, mit welchen Zeitdokumenten der Holocaust an den Schulen unterrichtet werden sollte. Die vorgestellte Ausgabe enthält ein Nachwort von Miriam Pressler.

thou shall not confuse night with darkness

Image 1

 

After all those years of quiet desperation spent in the library it finally occurred to them that the meaning of the phrases they had taken to be metaphorical actually was to be understood literally. One of them said it, said it twice as if a discovery this horrendous and yet simple and elegant, had to be given a reflecting twin to cast light into the darkness of their ignorance. One of them instantly began to tear at the fine web of cross references and foot notes he had been weaving patiently for years and without ever questioning the worthiness of this pursuit, but they were like angel hair or glass wool and cut his hands with fine sharp lines out of which blood emerged like red pearls on a string. “I shall not be told convinced” he blurted out, not holding back now, “All those weeks, months, even years, sitting in the dark like a toad, with my skin starting to resemble the parchment  of the oldest books we had delivered from unknown depths of the library, all that knowledge I have assembled in my humble brain that has me compete with the most elaborate encyclopedias of this library, all this weaving and threading of letters, words, meaning, phrases is to be ridiculed by a simple, single and singular shining truth. What of the darkness that we have illuminated with stray thoughts of meaning, what of the wondrous glimmer of an insight long desired and yet so small that it is like a single candle flicker in a great hall. What of its beauty and possibilities? Look at your single truth that already shines into every corner now that you have unlocked its secret, that leaves no shadow, no desire, no discovery, no randomness and outshines all my small beautiful candles. How am I supposed to live with something so simple and shining when I have dedicated my whole life to the complex, hidden, wondrous discovery of paradox answers, when I love the darkness in which a single light shines, when i am a creature of the night and dedicated to a pursuit without hope? How am I to rise out of my darkness into this shining, merciless light?” And he began crying miserably, holding his bloodied hands out as if he was asking for a charitable donation, and the others looked on in silence.

moonflower

Canis Major as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a ...

Canis Major as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Next to it are Lepus and Columba (partly cut off). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Your fist like this”, she said, “covers about 10 degrees of the night sky.”  She moved my hand slowly over the dark water and spoke in her methodical way, no use to interrupt her. “20 degrees south-east of the belt of Orion, you see, there is the brightest star in the night sky, right in the constellation of Canis Major.” She waited for a moment for me to catch up with her. Our entwined hands travelled over the night sky and stopped. And there it was, deep underneath us, the brightest star of the night sky, as far as I could see. “Do you see this star?” she asked. “It is called Sirius. It is 23 times more luminous than our sun, twice the mass and the diameter of the sun. It is only 8.5 light years away.” The way she said “only 8.5 light years”, it sounded as if she was talking about a Sunday picnic destination. It sounded like: We could take the bike. It’s only 8.5 light years away. Before I had a chance to point that out to her, however, she had started talking again, and almost without warning, though in answer of my question, switched from her facts, from degrees between two points of light in the celestial sphere, luminosity and brightness, and mass of celestial objects, to a startling revelation.

 

time, oscillating

Station Clock

Station Clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the meantime I discovered the places “where the seams come undone”, as my mother called it. Every classroom in my school had a clock on the wall right over the door, and all the clocks had identical clock faces, and every one of them showed a slightly different time.

I don’t know whether clocks in classrooms today are all connected to one central, totalitarian time piece as I suspect might be the case, though I hope it is not so. I always loved the way time oscillated between classes, obstinately refusing to be tamed. Officially, students had three minutes to walk to the next classroom after a period ended. But for the way from science to math, for example, you’d better made do with 1 minute and 29 seconds – the clock in Ms. Kirsch’s class was as fast as our teacher’s ability to conjure numbers out of the back entrance to Hilbert’s Hotel and as inexorable as her refusal to admit to time measured outside her class room.

On the other hand, you could afford to leisurely stroll to French after that, using not only the 1 minute and 31 leftover seconds from math but also the 40 seconds the French clock was late, giving you an ample 5 minutes and 11 seconds (not counted the additional minute or two Mme. Petite rustled with her papers, ignoring her students’ ongoing conversation). The clock in language arts had the peculiar and infamous habit of stopping at exactly 12.01 pm every couple of weeks and could only be persuaded back into service by Superintendent Segrob who, for that very reason, was particularly fond of it, and year after year insisted on repairing rather than replacing it.

Every day for a few moments just before noon instruction in language arts paused and everyone’s eyes followed the unhurried second hand making its way from 11.59.59 am to just after 12.01.02 pm. It was almost like a pagan ritual, these approximately sixty-three seconds of silence, as if we were paying our respects to the spirit of the clock, Time. Time, sputtering, fleeing, stopping, resuming its course, divided itself up over the 79 clocks in our school according to its own preference. With other words, it seemed to be on our side and refused to be institutionalized.

I know that the language art clock did not stop on that day. I don’t think it would have been possible for it to stop while I was willing it on. Apart from Time herself though nobody noticed that I counted every second of the school day, 24,000 seconds in all, stops, gains and losses, until, at last, the 2.47 pm bell wrapped it all up hurriedly and dropped the leftovers for the time dogs.