The Purpose

The curtains were drawn in the small, two-story house: dark, patternless scabs on the pale, acned skin of a building too long deprived of a healthy diet. Like shuttered eyes, they avoided interrogation. The old man sighed as he shuffled slowly up the sidewalk to the shadows that hid the front door. Weeds sprouted like bristles of brown-green hair on the unshaven face of a tiny dirt yard. Water stains marred the rough, disintegrating cement of the three steps leading to a peeling laminate that managed to separate the interior of the house from the unkempt clothes it wore.

Maybe there was no one home, although everybody pretended absence. Suspicion was the only thing they couldn’t disguise. Suspicion and mistrust. He was after all, a stranger and a threat, despite his age and obvious infirmity. Anywhere else, and the door would have been thrown open, a curious smile would have greeted him, and probably an offer of entrance. At least a smattering of small talk -words to hide the embarrassment of first contact. Thoughtful gestures to acknowledge his limp and the wrinkled leather of his face. An acknowledgement of age and the respect it elicited, however involuntarily.

Sympathy, often disguised as empathy, greeted him at those doors. Curiosity as well, but they wouldn’t open if he were not so old. Age was his introduction, his calling card. Frayed and crumpled like his clothes, it gained him audience, communion.

Purpose was an excuse afforded to few in the Home -even though his was an escape predicated on lies –no, stories– that he was visiting friends around the city. Friends that had requested him, friends that needed him. Friends that were worried about him and his health. Friends, though, that understood his abhorrence of the innumerable sing-alongs and feeble exercise sessions, of the long, urine-scented corridors filled with slowly moving pyjamas, and especially of the interminable card games that seemed to accomplish nothing but occupying the time until they turned out the lights.

No, he needed a purpose, however defined. And this neighbourhood -this house in particular- would accomplish that. He could feel it. He paused for a moment along the sidewalk to analyze the thoughts that poked through his fatigue. It was a tiring walk from the bus stop to this street, and as usual he’d taken a long time choosing the house. It hadn’t been easy; it never was. So many factors went into the choice. So many unknowns. Maps were not people; they couldn’t answer his questions, they couldn’t help him decide – nothing and no one could. Even he didn’t know what answers he wanted. But that was because he didn’t know the questions. He hadn’t the faintest idea what to ask. He never did…

He could feel eyes studying him from behind the dirty walls and he smiled at them. This will be perfect; the thought crept up on him and grew like his exhaustion as he neared the door. It seemed different from the other places that only saw an old man on their porch, and extended a courtesy he didn’t want. Didn’t need… Not anymore.

He’d been fooling himself before, running away from the goal he’d so carefully chosen. And hidden. Any questions he’d asked at the doors were irrelevant, and so the answers he’d heard were meaningless. He no longer needed answers; the questions were merely keys to open strange doors. The means to an end.

He hobbled slowly up the concrete steps and tapped –or rather rattled- the door. There was no answer of course; he didn’t expect a response immediately. One had to be patient here -this district was intolerant of unknowns. He didn’t blame them. He had lived like that for years, ignorant, even, of his ignorance. That was usually the way, he realized: ignorance is a blanket, and maybe ignorance is also an ill-treated house in an ill-treated neighbourhood. A house so devoid of pride it peeled at the slightest glance and closed its eyes. A house not used to examination.

There was a muffled thump and a whimper he felt more than heard. A curse, not loud, but deep behind some wall; then, a non-sound, signifying –what- a presence? An acknowledgement? Finally, nothing –not even the souffle of stockinged feet on a threadbare carpet. Silence stretched to the point of revelation and then the door rattled back.

“What do you want?” It was half whisper, half breath –both hostile and suspicious, distorted by passage through the thin, damaged wood.

This was a time he could never rehearse. “I’m lost,” suddenly escaped from his mouth. A truck rumbled past on the pot-holed asphalt road close behind him and a shiver ran through the concrete steps almost making him lose his balance.

“Where do you want to go?” The gruffness seemed less severe, less angry.

It was an existential question that caught him off guard, and an involuntary shrug grasped his shoulders and locked his eyes on the opening door. A woman’s face materialized through the crack of space. Her greying hair was sleep-wound and one of her eyes, though open, was squeezed behind a bruise that coloured half her cheek. It smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, of stale pizza and instant coffee. And yet there was warmth in that eye: an affirmation of a weary fellow traveller at the intersection of a different road.

The face was neutral, but the other eye smiled to spite it. “You look tired,” the lips managed to say and convinced their owner to open the door wide. She was dressed in a once-orange bathrobe fastened at the waist with a piece of brown string and her feet were bare and calloused. “Would you like to come in for a moment?”

It was his turn to smile and he nodded his assent. He leaned against the door frame for a moment, then slowly felt his way into a dim corridor. The hallway led to some wooden stairs whose steps looked chipped and badly cracked as they ascended into a thicker darkness. How far, he couldn’t tell –but farther than his legs could carry him. In the dim light filtering through the heavily clouded sky outside he could only make out a few details: shadowed and bare walls stained in spots and uncluttered by even a single picture, a brown, fraying patternless carpet that was desperately trying to cover parts of a buckling yellow linoleum floor… There was not much else except an unpainted narrow bench almost hidden in shadows near the bottom step.

The woman seemed embarrassed as she glanced first at him and then the stairs. A moment of indecision flitted across her face before she took his hand, gently as she would a child’s, and led him to the bench. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked. The question was offered tentatively- uncertain if he would accept. Uncertain if he would want to accept. And when he nodded, her face awoke, and her good eye twinkled with delight.

She pounded up the unsteady stairs with the assurance of someone finally granted a mission. A reprieve from the boredom of a grey, featureless Sunday morning -an otherwise pointless day, long ago stripped of any meaning.

He sat patiently in the semi-gloom, listening to the sounds coming from the top of the stairs. They were busy. Purposeful. Maybe even joyful, he decided, as he leaned his aching back against the rough, crumbling plasterboard wall. Time lost its cadence as he waited; it slowed, then stopped like the pause between movements in a symphony. It was a moment pregnant with expectation. Rich with hope.

A new, smiling woman slowly descended the creaking stairs carrying a plastic tray. She was wearing a flower-print dress now, and shoes. She had managed to pile her hair on the top of her head, but like a haystack that threatened to topple with each careful step. She handed him a cup half filled with steaming coffee and took the other –the one with a broken handle- for herself. There was a plate of cookies on the tray and as she sat on the second step she put it on the bench between them. “Hope you take milk and sugar in yours,” she said, afraid she’d made a mistake. And when he nodded, her cheeks exploded in a smile that almost cut her bruise in half.

She stared at her coffee for a moment. “I don’t get many guests nowadays,” she said, and then chose a cookie from the tray, careful to take one that was broken. “I’m sorry we have to sit in the hall…”

He looked at her –the changed her- and sighed contentedly. “It’s perfect,” he said and sipped the overly sweet coffee with obvious pleasure. “I’m happy I’m here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atheism for Seniors

I don’t know why, but sometimes I get into arguments with my friends –sorry, discussions– about the strangest things: things neither of us know anything about. At our ages, you would think we would know better… Or maybe more, I suppose. But there you have it: the ravages of Age writ loud.

Sometimes it’s politics –often it’s politics, actually- but the other day, surprisingly, it wasn’t. Now there’s not much that either of us know less about than politics, so I think we both figured we were pawing at new ground here –rutting over ideas without the benefit of antlers. But it’s like that when you get old, and hard-earned habits solidify into convictions that we toss to the young as wisdom. And Alistair figured that his beliefs about religion and its progeny should qualify.

“You can’t be an atheist, you know!” he said out of the blue one morning, with that air of certainty I knew so well from our political discourses. All the while, he was staring at me as if he’d been mulling the matter over for quite some time.

I returned the stare somewhat defensively, uncertain whether he was suggesting that the concept itself was inherently flawed, or that I was. Of course, given the omniscient way he was propounding it, I accepted neither. “And why is that, Alistair?” I said with what I hoped was a condescending tone of voice.

We were sitting on his porch having a Sunday morning coffee; neither of us were even considering going to church.

He sat forward in his recliner and put his coffee cup on the little glass table we shared. “Because ‘atheist’ –the word- comes from the Latin, a –or ‘without’ and theos, – ‘god’…”

“Greek,” I corrected.

“Huhh?”

Theos is the Greek word for god. Deus is the Latin one…”

He reached for his coffee again, sipped it –desperately, I thought- then glared at me for a moment, probably more upset at losing his train of thought, than his etymological one.

“You were going to crush the concept of atheism, Alistair,” I said to help him out.

He put the cup down again and smiled. “To deny the actuality of a god, you must first accept the concept of god… Or you wouldn’t even have a word for it,” he said, smirked, and picked up the cup again to give me time to digest the profound revelation he had granted me.

I tried not to roll my eyes. “So, does that mean that if there’s a word for something, then it exists?”

He shook his head, but carefully, as he tried to figure out whether I was trying to trap him. “No, but would you accept that unless it’s a deliberate nonsense-word, it does refer to something?”

My turn to be careful. I nodded cautiously. Alistair isn’t known for his logical prowess… But then again, neither am I.

He sat back in his chair and stared out at the trees, their arms waving slowly in the breeze. For a while the only sound was the souffle of wind tousling the leaves. “So, are you…?” he said, finally, after scouting my face with his eyes.

“Am I what?”

“An atheist.”

I hate it when I’m confronted. “You mean am I someone who denies a concept that by its very negation proves its a priori existence?”

He took a moment to work that through and then nodded. “I think so…” But he didn’t sound at all certain of his work.

I like to think of myself as more of a fence-sitter on the question of god –an ‘a gnosis’ kind of guy. If we can’t know, then how is it we can be certain? I thought maybe I’d sit on the fence with my answer as well, to be logically consistent. “Is anything in life either fully black, or fully white?”

A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on his face. “So you’re a greytheist?” he said and laughed.

I had to admit it was clever. “How about you, Alistair?”

He shrugged. “I’m a catholic.”

“Small ‘C’?”

“What do you mean?”

“The word means ‘universal’ –as in ‘all embracing’…”

He smiled. “Yeah, I think that would pretty well cover it. I embrace all religions…” But when he saw one of my eyebrows wrinkling my forehead, he amended his catholicism somewhat. “I mean, people can believe what they want, eh?”

“That go for atheists, too?”

His previous smile of agape was suddenly replaced by a wry one. “What do atheists believe –if not in no god?”

He had me there. “I don’t know –the word just refers to what they don’t believe in, doesn’t it? I guess that leaves a lot of room for other things, though…”

He nodded and was silent for a while, staring into space as the relentless wind still played with the leaves. “Pretty hard to prove or disprove a negative, though, don’t you think?”

“You mean the old saw, ‘Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence?’”

He nodded again, and I could see something hardening in his face. I had the impression I was being led. “How can you prove something isn’t? Even the Scientific Method –which relies heavily on inductive reasoning: deriving general principles from observations- contains uncertainty, doesn’t it? If I only see white swans, that doesn’t prove that all swans are necessarily white. One black swan disproves the conclusion. Disproves the principle…”

Alistair must have been reading up on this –I only vaguely remembered it from university. But I nodded anyway, deciding I’d adopt his catholic approach: when in doubt and sitting on someone else’s porch, agree with them.

“Deduction, on the other hand, works from the top down –from general principles to predicting what the observations should reveal. So… if your general principle is uncertain… and you can only prove that with observations…” He hesitated, obviously stumbling down a path he didn’t recognize. “Either way, in everyday life, we are forced to draw conclusions from limited experience, so we may get it wrong…” He stared at the trees again.

“Alistair what are you talking about, for heaven’s sake?”

He chuckled, but he looked embarrassed. “Uhmm, I thought I was going to disprove atheism…”

“Can we maybe go back to politics next Sunday, Alistair?”

He shrugged, nodded, and then stared at his coffee cup. “I was pretty sure I was on to something, though…”

 

 

Coloured Babel

I was listening to somebody talking at the next table in Starbucks the other day. Well, actually, it could have been any day, because I like to listen. I figure it’s sort of like window shopping. Anyway, the grey haired man sitting next to me was leaning over his table and whispering to another younger looking man, and nothing attracts my curiosity more than a whisper.

Some of what he was telling his friend was lost in the babel of louder words that seems to define coffee shops, and what I heard was initially trivial: he was losing the colour of his words. Nice metaphor, but commonplace, nonetheless, so I turned my attention back to my sausage and egg sandwich which I had separated into its component parts so the egg and the meat could both cool. I began to center them more appropriately on their respective bun-halves, when I heard the word colour again –this time reiterated more clearly by the younger man. I centred my ears on their table.

“You mean different words have different colours for you?” The young man sounded excited, so I focussed my ears.

“Not all words, Sydney, just names, mainly –but only some names.” the grey man whispered in response.

The young man appeared to think about that for a moment. “Nothing else –no other words?”

Grey closed his eyes and was silent for a second or two. “Well, maybe the months had colours once…”

“How about the days?”

Grey shook his head. “No, just months and certain names.” He appeared to sigh, although I couldn’t hear it in the din. “And now, even they seem to be fading…” He looked unhappy. “My wife’s name, for example. Flora was green…”

That seemed obvious, even banal to me, so I withdrew into the relevant details of my sandwich arrangement. The last remnant of my ear shopping trip was the fact that Grey was divorcing Flora so maybe that had something to do with it fading. Sydney’s name was still the colour black, he said, though –I didn’t feel like psychoanalyzing that any further.

And yet, that snippet of overhearing started me thinking about synaesthesia. It’s some sort of cross-synapsing, or maybe alternate routing of messages in the neurons, I think I recall reading. Colours get attributed to sounds, or numbers and the like. I remember reading Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’ where he mentioned some of his patients’ ability to see notes or chords –even key signatures- in colour. Numbers have colours for me as well when I think about them, but I only feel the colours –I don’t actually see them coloured on a page.

It’s interesting to me how some abstruse topics like that somehow materialize out of the gestalt, seem to grow like crystals for a while, and then dissolve once again into the void as if they’d never existed. Retirement fodder…

I decided to have breakfast in the local bakery a few days ago. I rarely go there in the morning and didn’t realize it would be so busy. All the tables were full, but I saw a red-sleeved arm waving from one of them; it was attached to a person I hadn’t seen for months -or maybe even years. I think she’d been away. I groaned inwardly, realizing I was trapped.  I remembered that she seemed always to have done or read something bizarre and then wrapped herself in it like a patriot in a flag. Basically harmless, and sometimes childlike, the last one, I think, was her fairy phase. She believed she’d been given the power to grant wishes to the select few who asked, but unfortunately, after she was medicated, she lost her powers, and had settled back into the shadows –at least until now.

“Shirley,” I said, walking over and sitting down in the seat she was pointing to. “I haven’t seen you for a while now. Were you on vacation?”

Her face lit up and although she barely nodded her head, I could see she was excited to tell somebody about it. “I was in Europe,” she answered, leaning across the table conspiratorially, but with a wink that commanded me to ask more about it.

“And…”

But I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “I was in Greece studying, actually…”

I took a bite of my bagel and smiled. I didn’t need to encourage her.

“Colours,” she continued. “I was studying colours.”

I nodded, to show her that I could both eat and listen at the same time, but she stopped talking and just stared at me. Clearly, I was required to ask her to explain, but before I could finish my mouthful, she decided to skip that step.

Word colours,” she added, scanning my face for interest. “I’ve always thought that language –words- should be assigned colours…” Although I was still chewing, I tried to smile. “This was a course for synaesthetes actually…” She tightened her eyes to see if she needed to define the term, but I nodded recognition and her whole face relaxed and welcomed me to her table.

“I’m not a practicing synaesthete, as you probably know…” Actually I didn’t know, and it’d never occurred to me to even ask. “But I thought I’d pretend I was writing an article on the subject, so they opened up to me.” She immediately sighed, grinned toothily at her cleverness, and then sent her eyes out to capture me again. “Most of them were grapheme-colour synaesthetes, you know -the ones who see words or numbers in colours,” she explained. “But most of those only felt the colours rather than actually saw them…” She obviously thought this deserved a shrug. “I suppose that’s still synaesthesia …” She seemed disappointed, though –as if the ones who couldn’t actually see coloured words were just the poor cousins: wannabes who had gone to the conference to improve their skills.

I went,” she continued, “because I have always felt that although some words maybe already have colours, many many more deserve them.” Her forehead ruffled pedagogically. “So I went to Greece to learn how to colour them for other people. I think that a coloured language would be far more descriptive, far more… poetic.” She deliberately italicized the word, maybe hoping that might somehow colour it. But although I think I saw the italics, there was still no colour that I could detect.

I had finished my bagel by this stage, and so I suppose she felt she now had permission to ask some questions. “What do you think?”

I sipped at my coffee to buy some time to think. “You mean, about whether or not words deserve colours…?”

Her eyes suddenly morphed into saucers and her face wrinkled from forehead to chin when I said that; I have to admit I recoiled slightly, fearing I may have triggered something in her again. “How did you do that?” she said, barely able to say the words.

I cocked my head, puzzled at her reaction. “Do what?”

Colour that word?” Her eyes circled around my face like a pair of bees near a flower, but then they flew away.

I was lost. “What word did I colour?”

She recalled her eyes, and hid them briefly in shadows. At first I thought maybe one of the overhead lights had burned out, but nobody else in the room seemed to notice. Her eyes peered out at me as if they were tethered to perches beside her nose. From a safe distance they were inspecting me more closely than before, as if they were looking for a special amulet, or ring that I might be wearing. And her face wore that mysterious smile I’d seen so long ago: the fairy smile. “Even the Syns couldn’t do that,” she said with reverence. Then she laughed with a delightful tinkling sound and touched my hand as if I’d finally been unveiled as an undercover member of her synaesthesia church. She winked conspiratorially -a gift she thought she owed me for the coloured word.

Suddenly she scraped her chair back from the table and stood up. She still seemed impressed. “You are one of us…” she whispered loudly, her eyes almost pleading with mine to confess. And then she was gone, slipping through the crowd like a fish swimming through some reeds.

I could only stare at her as she disappeared, and felt a little sad that the doctors had decided she needed medication.

Some of us are afraid of magic.

 

Besmirching the Multitudinous Seas

Now that I have some extra time to think about stuff, things that would ordinarily pass as mundane suddenly surface as curious, important… –as inexplicable anomalies in an otherwise knowable universe. And intricate webs of connection emerge unheralded from the gestalt making me wonder if anybody else can see them.

There is a question that has been bothering me ever since I retired. I don’t suppose it is of any existential significance, or anything, but it does seem to be fraught with imponderables and replete with horrific consequences if left unanswered. And yet for the longest time, I couldn’t convince anybody that this may be an important revelation, a significant contribution to the growing evidence about aging.

I refer, of course, to laundry, and why there is more of it after you retire. First, a definition, lest there be some confusion. The word comes from the Latin: lavare, meaning ‘to wash’ –although it’s not too specific about what that entails, exactly. The earliest description of the practice mentions nothing about how much detergent you have to add, or what kind of wash/rinse cycle to set; it doesn’t even hint at the need to separate the white towels from the red ones, but never mind.

Anyway, in modern times, laundry has come to mean what you have to do when you find too many clothes lying on the closet floor that are obviously so stained or otherwise besmirched you can’t get away with wearing them again –even if it’s just around the yard. As to whether doing laundry is actually the act of putting them into the washing machine, or, in fact, includes their transference to the dryer is never adequately spelled out in my usually reliable sources. It could be that they in turn are relying on older manuscripts and merely blindly transcribing them. For example, since laundry was undoubtedly different before the advent of electricity, they insist on describing how long to beat shirts against a rock. I don’t find this information very useful because all the rocks in my backyard are either too small to do that, or have evidence of dog.

But to get back to my original point. Why is it that I seem to be doing more laundry now than when I was working? Jon mentioned this one afternoon when he surfaced, mid-curse, in my laundry room. I don’t know how he gets into the house, but he always has some excuse or other. This time it was to borrow some plates –he’d apparently broken both of his with too vigorous use of his cutlery. Jon is a large man and I suspect he leans rather heavily on his forks.

“Why are you doing laundry on a sunny afternoon?” he said, after grabbing some plates and a couple of beers from my fridge.

I shrugged and stared at him as if he were the Sybaritical grasshopper in that Aesop fable with the busy ant. “It piles up,” I muttered, trying to be polite to a friend who was offering me unsolicited borrowed beer.

Evidently puzzled, he raised the bottle to his lips while he thought about it. “Couldn’t the pile wait?” he asked, and put the now-empty bottle on top of the drier.

“Wait for what?” I have to admit I said it rather more harshly than I intended, but it’s hard to be neighbourly when deciding if grey underpants qualify for the white or the coloured load. I decided it didn’t really matter in the end, and dumped them in with the white towels as a sort of experiment.

“Towels are going to turn grey,” he said when he noticed my decision, and then immediately raised the other bottle to his lips as if to toast the obvious point that he was the more experienced laundry man.

“Only if it’s their first-time wash,” I said in what I hoped was the disparaging and crushing tone of voice my mother often used.

“Not what my mother taught me…” His rejoinder was, in turn, both smug and uncharitable. Jon was retired like me, so any teaching at his mother’s ringer washing machine, must have been back in the days when they were still using vegetable dyes and cotton that shrank just walking along a warm beach.

“Well, I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I don’t think it matters…” Sometimes you have to lead with experience.

His eyes twinkled and his lips parted enough to show a rack of false teeth. “And what colour did that underwear used to be?”

I know he was teasing me, but that kind of remark is why I’ve always felt that laundry should be done in a room with a lockable door. “Maybe all underwear turns grey after a certain number of washes.” It seemed reasonable when I said it, anyway.

“No wonder then, eh? You’re always at the washing machine when I come over.” Actually I’m not –Jon seems to drop over without warning, so I’m just as likely to be in the shower as in the laundry room. “I’m worried that you’re doing too much laundry, in fact.” He stared at the pile of clothes on the floor that I hadn’t yet sorted. He looked concerned.

“Jon,” I said, rolling my eyes for effect, “When things are dirty you have to wash them…” I fixed him with what I hoped was a stern, yet instructive pedagogic stare.

He walked over to the laundry basket and picked up a towel. “This is dirty?” Sarcasm dripped from his lips like beer from his bottle.

I shrugged in response. It was all crumpled; how can you tell if a crumpled towel is clean or not?

“When you come out of a shower, you’re supposed to be clean, right?” It was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t respond. He continued to interrogate me with his eyes. “So how does drying an already cleaned body suddenly make the towel dirty?”

I stared at it again for a few seconds. “Well, maybe I could have used it one more time…”

He nodded his head and pointed to the basket again. “And how about those jeans?”

For some reason I’d actually folded them neatly when I’d put them in there to wash. I’d have messed them up a bit if I’d known Jon would see them, I think. In fact, they’d just been hanging over the railing where I’d put them yesterday after wearing them to the store. When I noticed them, I figured I might as well wash them too. Thank god he hadn’t noticed the sweatshirt I’d just thrown in on the same whim.

“You’re going to wear everything out prematurely and have to spend all your pension just on replacing clothes,” he said, but with a hint of concern in his voice this time, as the possibility that it might mean less beer in my fridge suddenly occurred to him.

He eyed the detergent sitting by the clothes basket. “And just think what all that soap does to the environment, he said as he watched me dumping an unmeasured heaping cup of it into the machine.

I blinked and turned my head to glare at him. He never used to be an ecophile; in fact, he never used to be anything as far as I could remember. “If you want really clean clothes, you need lots of detergent, Jon.” I was beginning to become annoyed.

“My point exactly,” he replied, sighing loudly.

I glanced at the laundry, and picked up some more clothes, although the washing machine was already full. But the thought occurred to me that Jon might think I was begging the machine to do me a favour and accept just one more thing. So I dropped them on the floor again.

“You’ve got too much time on your hands, you know,” he said, shaking his head at my embarrassing retreat. I suppose it was obvious.

And suddenly I realized he’d just offered me an epiphany: maybe it wasn’t dirty clothes I had in excess, but Time… Dirty or otherwise.

“Let me get you another beer, Jon,” I said and led him out of the room without even turning on the machine.