In my childhood room, slipped into my white wicker bookshelf, between Goodnight Moon and The Hungry Caterpillar, were storybooks that belonged to my parents. They crackled when I opened them. Inside, their pages were yellowed and crisp with age, but the colors remained lush. I had to be careful when I paged through these windows into another time. The paper tore so easily, as if to admonish me for my brusque, impatient curiosity. I was mired in 1970s cartoon-land, watching Scooby Doo eat over-sized sandwiches and run away from ghosts. But in these books, I discovered little girls, dressed in pinafores, who spoke with formal tones. Pets with names like “Kitty” and “Blackie” taught morality tales.
My favorite vintage book revealed the secrets of the fairy world. One page showed a picture of a forest at night. Overhead, a ring glowed around a full moon and this ghostly light revealed a mysterious ring of mushrooms on the forest floor. These were the two types of fairy rings.
There’s a scientific explanation for both of these natural instances, and, for scientific minds, this explanation may be enough. But I liked to imagine that while I was leading my normal, human life on in San Antonio, there coexisted a parallel, enchanted universe and that sometimes, these universes coincided. These uncommon rings were portents.
I never saw a mushroom ring in the suburbs of South Texas, but we did see rings around the moon, and when we did, I told myself that the fairies were dancing. In their impish ways, they did not limit themselves with nightly baths and bedtimes. They held all-nighters.
Jorge Luis Borges’ stories remind me of how I felt at night when I was a little girl, imagining the fairies dancing with abandon. Borges writes fairy tales for adults. His subjects are life’s interminable conundrums: time, space and eternity. His narratives tunnel into the inconceivable.
Borges maintains a poignant awareness of mortality–the miracle and privilege of existence that is afforded by the element of time. I lost my father to cancer this year, so I have been thinking a lot about time, and the wonder of life. Time is a dimension that exists like a pocket–we slip into it for a moment before we slip back out into the eternal. When we move into the dimension of time, we exist; out of time, we are nonexistent. It’s not like I expect some magical revelation to come from Borges, but he writes a world with an expansive landscape, where mortal time exists against the inscrutable backdrop of infinity. It’s a place I like to go to while contemplating my father’s death.
In the Library of Babel, the Book of Sand is an infinite book that constantly changes. Each time it is opened, it references different ideas and the page numbers change so that they may never be found again. Just as in life, once the moment is past, we may never go back. “Every instant is autonomous,” writes Borges.
Not vengeance nor pardon nor jails nor even oblivion can modify the invulnerable past. No less vain to my mind are hope and fear, for they always refer to future events, that is, to events which will not happen to us, who are in the diminutive present. They tell me that the present, the ‘specious present’ of the psychologists, lasts between several seconds and the smallest fraction of a second, which is also how long the history of the universe lasts. Or better, there is no such thing as ‘the life of a man,’ nor even ‘one night in his life.’ Each moment we live exists, not the imaginary combination of these moments.[i]
The craft of writing loosens the novelist from the bindings of time. Reflecting on the life of a character and what forms the person, Borges can jump forwards and backwards, everywhere around the “diminutive present.” The “diminutive present” is the only moment that is real, and yet, these moments are like sand, the flipping of pages. Personal experiences, philosophy, history, myth—Borges weaves all of these ideas into strange parables that evoke time’s cryptic code.
With my father gone, I find myself doing the same thing with my memories of him. I am a little girl, riding in his fishing boat, bouncing across the bay on a summer weekend, and then I am his older daughter, watching him hold my newborn daughter, his first grandchild. I can reshuffle the moments like a deck of cards, play out my hand and puzzle over the meaning of our relationship. Once my father left life and returned to eternity, his life became a stack of moments that I hold in my hand. I guard them, worry over them. I keep them close.
In Feeling in Death, Borges describes being on a walk at dusk, in an area that is off the beaten track. He goes down obscure paths, yet is drawn to “a zone that is familiar and mythological at the same time.”[ii] Standing on a street, he observes how a “red pink wall seemed not to harbor moonglow but to shed a light of its own.” In that instance, Borges experiences a moment out of time: “I felt dead, I felt I was an abstract perceiver of the world, struck by an undefined fear imbued with science, or the supreme clarity of metaphysics….I suspected that I had possessed the reticent or absent meaning of the inconceivable word eternity.”[iii]
The natural world expresses these uncontainable concepts. For me, it is the mountains in Telluride. Their brutal beauty draws me near their forbidding precipices. At cocktail hour, the rosy alpenglow casts a misleading softness upon their aging, sharp and craggy, scree-filled slopes. They are a place where death and beauty exist simultaneously. They are the inscrutable, timeless backdrop to the daily dramas played out in this small town.
The seemingly infinite grains of sand on a beach are the same ingredient used to demark the passing of time in an hourglass. The infinite becomes finite as the last grain falls through the narrow passageway. Death is the end stop to the linear version of life that begins with birth and this finality opens up another version of time. In this version, my father’s life exists not in real time but in memories and dreams.
Time is an abstract concept imposed upon the world in the form of seconds, years, centuries and millennia. Yet it is also an internal experience, a succession of moments that I live in the world. A huge chunk of time falls away from my life when I look up and see the moon half full, realizing that the last time I noticed the moon, it was full.
Other ways of measuring time have more impact than the secondhand: the irregular pencil marks marking my daughter’s growth; the bands of color revealed by water rushing through a rocky canyon; the ivy growing up the wall of my house.
Wound up in memory like a spool, time is a line we cast out in our minds that can reach both near and far. I wake up thinking of my father, and his last few weeks alive. He didn’t want to see anyone as he wasted away in his bed, and his second wife respected this wish, keeping all of his friends and family at bay as he lingered on the brink of mortality. I felt horrified not to be able to see him. Every moment threatened to be never again. He was still alive in Austin, and yet at any minute he could be gone for all eternity.
During this time, I watched a sunset in Telluride. It was the last remaining light of the day, a vast glow of orange that deepened into the purple of night. I summoned his presence through my appreciation of it. I wanted to take a picture and send it to him, but decided against it. The sky’s sublime beauty only seemed to reinforce his imminent loss.
Sunsets mark the passing of time in an accelerated manner that seems faster than the even, measured ticking of a clock. The closer to the day’s end, the quicker the light slips away and the color with it, disappearing into the night, like the way he was dying, slipping ever faster away from life, his illness the quickening, engulfing darkness.
I wondered how being so sick with terminal cancer affected his feelings about sunsets. I felt the vast indifference of the natural world; how life continues on, the sun keeps rising. He helped to cultivate my love for the outdoors. I spent silent moments with him in the early morning, fishing on the flats. It was something we shared together. On a morning run, a magnificent sunrise stopped me in my tracks. As I stood watching it, I gave thanks to him for teaching me to run, which allowed me this sublime moment.
Borges admires the writing of Isaac Babel. I looked up Babel’s Salt, a story from Red Cavalry. In it, I read a poetic passage: “The glorious night pitched its tent. And in that tent hung star lanterns.” But the story isn’t about nature’s beauty; it’s about the brutality of war, suffering and desperation. In war’s context, violence becomes decadent; it occurs exponentially. Once the value of life becomes desecrated, there’s a need to desecrate it further, a repeated reinforcement of this action.
The star lanterns in night’s tent bear witness to the horror; they are its theater. Like infinity they were there for reference, indifferent to good or evil. They are life’s paradox, infinity reflecting back on mortality. Their indifference challenges me to pursue meaning, to chase after ideas to make them real in my mind. These concepts are as imaginary and evasive as the elaborate mandalas in Buddhist meditation, but I will always marvel at the light of the full moon. I will always look for more secrets in the book. In them I have found another dimension of time, a place I can visit when I need to see my father.
[i] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 2000, 321.
[ii] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 2000, 324.
[iii] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 2000, 324.