ink to stone

Month: October, 2013

14 -13 = 99

Dear Grandma,

There was this one time when I was young and in love that you told me a story about when you were young and in love. You were in the kitchen simmering milk when grandpa got home from work and the two of you started dancing in the kitchen. Your arms bumped into the saucepan and spilled the milk all over the floor. But, instead of cleaning up the mess you and grandpa paid no attention and kept on dancing on top of it. You said that when you’re in love nothing else matters besides moments like those. I imagine now, since your passing yesterday, that you and grandpa are dancing together again, not caring about the spilled milk, or of time, or of anything. You can stay in that moment forever. Your waiting is finally over. 

Your Grandson,

Josef

INDIA JOURNAL—DEATH ON THE ROAD TO DELHI

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January 8th 2013

There was no more fire blanket in Agra. No more mixing of heat waves and smog. Garbage fires burned like tea lamps. Seven boys and a full-grown cow hovered over a dying flame smoking on the street beside a burned out garage to keep warm. We mixed with the cold fog that suffocated the dirt alleyways. The soot soaked precipitation: an amorphous breath storm of nothing, pasted us to the walls, and we roved within it like moving pictograms appear to float in air.

A tuk-tuk chariot dropped us to the bus stop an hour early—an hour 45 in Indian time. We killed the added minutes conversing with two Germans about a tourist wearing a hospital mask taking pictures of a cow eating garbage on the side of the road. Some travelers here keep their head behind a camera, their senses hidden, everything at a distance to remain unaffected and deaf to the present.

We boarded the bus and sat in the very front. Above our heads, a 23-inch television sat precariously inside a cube cutout, propped up by a bible to keep it from falling forward. The bus was over-booked, so there was predictable chaos. Loud words slowly settled into begrudged acceptance. The Germans got on late and had to sit with our 22 year-old driver and his friends. Sardines were running this tin can. Two hours later we fought our way out of Agra proper, and the clock started. This was not going to be a 4-hour bus ride to Delhi.

The highway was a devil’s promenade. Grain trucks, hatchbacks, and motorcycles followed the dragon’s tongue north. The lizard’s cheeks were caked with bulbous sores of poverty—shacks, and camps, and mud hovels inhabited by the damned by circumstances beyond their control. It’s their birthright.

4-hour in, we had progressed 60 kilometers out of the 170 to Delhi. Endless tongue and timeless flatness swallowed time and left us stranded. I was fighting to finish the last two sections of On the Road: Kerouac’s decent into Mexico. At that moment I didn’t share his fascination or his feelings of freedom. Maybe two weeks ago when I was caught up in the bright storm of Bangalore’s flower market, but not now, not on this grey dead road, not on this rusted bus. The breaks hit, we slowed.

I saw the truck veer, the van pull, I saw the motorcycle flip and tumble like a weed of clipped springs. I saw the body of a young man lay like a baby on its side. He had baby feet. Their naked soles, fresh and pink, lay one on top of the other, toes curled in rest.

Time stopped because traffic stopped. Horns blared like trumpets calling the dead to action. Young men leapt from their hatchbacks and motorcycles and surrounded the baby, and like boys, stood there apprehensive to pick up the gentle soul lying so vulnerable and fresh. So, he just lied there alone. Like kings with myrrh and frankincense, the men on the bus all wanted to look at the child, they wanted to see the first born introduced to the world on the tip of the lizard’s tongue, in this universe that had lost meaning. I wanted to see the baby too, but just his feet.

Why no shoes? I asked myself. Why on earth would you ride a motorbike with no shoes on?

Our driver had a schedule to keep and forced his way to the shoulder to pass. The feet were no more, just a pulverized head lying bent back, an ugly retched throwaway face, no longer a beautiful baby boy. The apprehensive boys took pictures with their phones. I saw shoes stranded up the road.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I prayed. I prayed so hard that I curled up like a baby boy in my stomach and wished for the dragon to blow a breath and end this all right now. But, the devil sleeps in Delhi, and we were yet not close enough for him to care.

INDIA JOURNAL — JODHPUR — THE BLUE CITY

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JANUARY 2, 2013

The sun is about to rise in Jodhpur. The amplified prayer coming from the mosque down the street woke me up. The incessant honking of tuk-tuks and motorbikes has already begun. Towering above our guesthouse posited on the side of a cliff is a colossal stone fort capping its crown. This blue city is possibly the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

I’m sitting on my hotel’s roof above everything. Before me stands so many mud brick buildings on top and beside each other that you could bounce an echo from an alleyway at the north end of the city to the south without it leaking east or west on account of how tightly they’re packed. If the hand of god shook this place it would shatter. I pray that it never does because it’s too holy and blue.

The moon is on my back still, and the re-born sun is in my eyes. I’ve been away from home long enough that it’s beginning to melt; and India—this strange world—has become what’s real. The mosques, the Hindu temples, the faces and languages I don’t know, I know. I know what the slumbering beggars are dreaming, and what the howling dogs are screaming, but to be honest I don’t any longer know what Americans are thinking, nor the challenges that face me upon my return to New Zealand. Yet, I’m excited about accomplishing what I can manage. But for now it’s just me and this city of blue.

THOUGHTS ON THE WHITE WHALE

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My uncle Jed has always referred to Melville’s Moby Dick as a cathedral. The allusion filled my mind with images of leaky high vaulted ceilings and sopping wet church pews strewn with seaweed. Like the sea, I imagined the novel to be an ocean. I figured it to be near impenetrable and too vast for me to fathom. Since my early twenties I’ve often considered taking up the challenge, but always hesitated, telling myself that I’m still too young to read Melville’s masterpiece.

More times than not we read a particular novel because it’s recommended or given to us. Often our next read is laying on a table or a counter top when we’re between books and we figure that it’s worth a look. However, there are also times when a book finds you. The times when a novel so happens to fall on your lap and for no good reason you open it and it somehow seems to be tailored to your current life — it’s a remarkable occurrence that defies mere coincidence. It‘s as if you needed it and the novel gods tucked a special something under your pillow for you to find in the morning.

I found Moby Dick, or rather Moby Dick found me, after I had recommended it to a friend. I had no idea why I had recommended a book I’ve never read to a friend, but he seemed desperate to engage in some kind of material that mirrored his own feelings of being lost at sea. The more I thought about it, I realized that I was recommending Moby Dick to myself.

It was over two weeks ago that I was rummaging through my brother’s nightstand for a lighter when I found a 1961 paperback edition of the novel partially exposed under the corner of his bed. I would like to say that it was glowing, but in reality it looked incredibly worn out and ready to burst at the seams. As I’ve been coasting through it, pages have come loose from the spine and drifted to the floor; this particular copy will most likely never be read by another.

For four of the past five years I’ve been living outside of the United States. My hometown of Seattle—the beautiful emerald city in which I grew up in—by my mid-twenties began to feel like a prison. I felt landlocked, beaten down by the monotony of sameness that often plagues an adventurous spirit when he or she is in one place for too long. I moved to Ireland and licked Dublin’s cobblestone streets. I returned to Seattle to loose my marriage and then flew as far away as I could to New Zealand in search of whatever it was that was missing from my life.

Moby Dick is told from the perspective of Ishmael: a young man on a three-year whaling expedition captained by the mad one-legged Ahab. It’s not long after the Pequod pushes out enroute to the South Pacific that the crew comes to realize that they’re a means to execute Ahab’s obsession to find and kill the elusive white whale whom took his leg some years before. Ahab’s obsession becomes the crew’s ultimate goal as well; and as their ship sails deeper and deeper into the nothingness of the sea, the greater the myth of the white whale grows, until the sperm whale becomes an enigmatic monster of the deep. The leviathan transcends his massive bodily form and becomes a metaphor.

The white whale…

I had a dream as a teenager that I was sitting on a thick limb of a powerful tree looking out onto the Puget Sound when surfaced a giant white whale under the reflection of a full moon. The moonlight emanating from his slippery white skin filled me with a feeling that everything in my life will work out, and that success and happiness will accompany every endeavor I choose to explore. I’ve always remembered this dream as it was the most powerful dream I’ve ever had. I never knew that Moby Dick was a white whale until I begun the novel.

So, the deeper I crawled into the book the more vivid my recollections of this dream became. And beyond, the further into the book I sailed, the clearer the reflections of my time in Ireland, and the most current memories of New Zealand, returned to me. Faces, landscapes, moments of joy, or sorrow, of peace and war leaped from the pages in the strangest of ways.

The description of a sperm whale’s skeleton reflected the roads, alleyways, byways and trails I’ve traveled. The ship’s young lookouts becoming mesmerized by the expanse of the sea and overanalyzing its meaning while standing precariously on top of the Pequod’s main mast at the expense of their falling, awakened me to how I have overanalyzed the many components of my life that I have no control over. Likewise, Captain Ahab’s obsessiveness reminded me of my own slip into codependence that as of late I’ve found a terribly embarrassing feature I’ve acquired through the loneliness of travel. The sea itself, as depicted in the novel, became the vast openness of life. The white whale: the elusive corpus of meaning that I’ve been hunting for since I left home.

Ahab’s monomania subjugates him from everyone else and walled him inside his cabin. He speaks of nothing else, thinks of nothing else, but the white whale. All the interactions available to him, the sea of possibility that he drifts aimlessly on, the plethora of other whales caught by the crew and rendered for their precious oils, is ignored; and so the whole world it seems is passing him by. He is not living, but yet alive. Reading on, Moby Dick, the metaphor, became too huge to ignore. Without realizing it, my own story became enmeshed in Ishmael’s narrative. I was no longer reading a novel as much as I was reading into myself.

The white whale I chase is the unattainable measurement I have applied to what it means to be living life to the fullest; the whale is the impossible standard of intellectual potential I fail to match; the unrealistic parameters I’ve applied on loving and being loved; the unfair expectations I place on others. So what is the white whale really?

Ishmael joined the Pequod in search of adventure. However, his adventure became ensnared in the obsession of another. Conversely I’ve found, in the hunt of what it is to be a man, that I’ve been a man for a while now, but acting under the naive and impossible assumptions of manhood founded by the boy that dreamed of the white whale years before. The white whale is exactly enigmatic, mythical, and a monster because he is a complete waste of time. The whale symbolized everything that opposes living; he is the ghost we chase in the dark; the fractured echoes of the past that cannot be changed. He is the hurt and the pain that we hold onto instead of living. At some point the hunt has to stop. The present must prevail.

It’s funny how a book can hurt then heal you. It still amazes me how deep the form can dig into one’s life. The novel has the power to expose to each and every one of us the inner workings of the human condition. It has the ability to find you.

I suppose I had to come home to break a cycle. I’ve been leaving things for too long now. Chasing ghosts and taking for granted the many gifts I’ve been given by so many amazing people. I think it is time to start going places for a change. My adventures are not nearly over. New Zealand for example was a place I went to in order to run away from somewhere else, and because of that, I began to destroy myself like Ahab let the white whale destroy him. I was lonely even when surrounded by some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. All for the sake of chasing down an idea of a man that I already was.

For now I know that from now on home is wherever I am. There is no need to worry about anything else. No doors are closed. New Zealand is always there and so is everywhere else. A novel taught me this.

“Thus, I give up the spear!” -Ahab