Thursday, December 8, 2011

A hole in the universe

At the age of eight,
while seated at an outdoor dinner party,
I discovered a hole in the universe.

My mother,
busy talking to the other guests at our table,
had not noticed me
sorting the red bell peppers
out of my tabbouleh
and pushing them neatly to the edge of my plate, so she did not make me finish them.

Pleased with this small victory, I quietly ate around my abandoned pepper bits, then
settled in for the Long Wait for Dessert,
daydreaming and drowsy,
lulled by a full stomach and the grownups' chatter.

And then something happened.

One of my red bell pepper bits began to move.

In the blink of an eye,
it had slipped off my plate,
scuttled across the dinner table,
slid down the tablecloth,
and disappeared.

It would be understating things
to say I was astonished.

A great wind had blown through my life.
I remember feeling quite grave:
I was going to have to reconsider everything I know about the world.
Also, my mother and I were vegetarian, and
I wondered what we were going to eat from now on.

I felt a little excited. If bell pepper bits could walk,
then the world must be brimming with hidden talents.

I looked up to see if anyone else had noticed
this dramatic turn of events,
and noticed a family friend
fiddling with his laser pointer,
whose bell-pepper-red light was now dancing across the back of someone's chair.

My disappointment was leavened by the arrival of chocolate cake.

But I have always treasured that moment,
that tiny sliver of time in which
my world turned upside down.
I have never forgotten what powerful magic
is misunderstanding
and what marvelous and unlikely holes it can rip in our realities.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pictures in words, needles in haystacks, and the price of a suntan

If you have ever done archival research, you know
that it can be a bit like
searching for a needle in a haystack.
(which, by the way, the French do, too, though they prefer
to look for their needles in bales, not stacks, of hay:
chercher une aiguille dans une botte de foin)

I would even argue that haystacks (or bales)
are easier than archives:
although the pen is mightier than the sword,
it's hard to prick your finger on a word.

Most of the people who generated all that paper disappeared without
ever suspecting that the things
they were scratching out on those pages would be preserved in a heavy box
and trundled from dim shelf to dim research carrel
by people wearing cotton gloves.

And thank goodness they never suspected:
the most unsuspecting of their pen scratches
are the unexpected pinpricks that keep you awake as you work,
winking reminders that the past isn't always a blur,
that boredom has ever been the same
and that no matter how dusty and dry the task,
we all enjoy a bit of whimsy.

This doodle was drawn by a list-maker in Tunisia
at the turn of the last century.

And speaking of mysterious words (see my last post),
his list is full of them:
1 suntan, 1 khodfu, and 1 chasuch
will set you back 3,360 francs.

I'm sure such glittering treasures are worth the money,
but the legs on that officer are really priceless.