Before I begin this letter in earnest, I come with complicated news, but better get this out of the way before we get to the pulp of the message: Dani, it’s been eleven years since mama’s been gone forever, she gave herself to the Black Sea on the 1st of January in 2010. She loved words, and she loved the sea even more, as do you. So we can start with words for now and perhaps end with a dip in the warm waters of relief. What are the right words for you and her and me?
Love : Innocence preserved
To molest : To rob
Goneness : Soundlessness
Imagination : “A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself is at one moment a dog and at the next level a vessel of revelation.” —J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
Home : Joy
I don’t mean to upset you, but since I already know you will soon manage to flee mother-the-thief, a bit of honest news won’t do much harm. Your struggles left me unable to communicate with you and myself for much of my teens and twenties, a silence so deafening it imprisoned much of the stuff that stirs our soul today.
I am now ready to tell you how I love you, freely and even with some hard-earned pep in my step. Today I’m writing to you as a survivor who was once a child — you.
I come with gifts, a glimpse into the pleasures of things sometimes as small as sugar sprinkles melting away on your tongue come Christmas eve, and as insignificant as the clutching of a soft pillow between your thighs at night to give relief after a 12-hour work shift. In my account, a pillow for your head and a pillow to balance your shoddy spine will constitute a small luxury for a few years, when you will own nothing but a bagful of clothes to lug around between couches to sleep on.
Your palms will learn to hold your face at night before sleep, and you will kiss them goodnight, and they will caress your tired cheek just like mom-the-caretaker would have done on her good days. You will learn to be your own rock, and you will also learn to depend on the kindness of strangers somewhere in the heart of the city of your dreams. Stay with me. You’re in good hands.
Once in a while, you summoned me, and I heard you. I was there. I remember when you called out while I was taking a walk in the Tuileries Gardens outside the Jeu de Paume photography museum in Paris. There you were on a chilly October afternoon, welcoming me in the shape of a sculpted little bronze hand reaching out of a virgin grey rock surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes and more grey rocks. The reach felt safe, not accusatory, not squalling, not calling out the name of its maker, its mama’s name, Louise B., any and every Louise, the universal mother-the-artist.
However you toss the coin, you and I and everyone we know slide out into this world shaped by our mother’s womb.
The maker’s name is always there, chiseled by fellow human hands onto a little bronze plaque affixed on the same rock just a few inches below the little hand’s eternal darting love. United yet separate, Louise B. and her child hands, not unlike mom and you and I today. I held your spirit in the little hand, and remember you still, I held and warmed you warming me and recalled alongside you the crinkled, paper-thin face of momma-the-artist Louise floating from room to room in her Brooklyn art studio engaged, tools in hand, in a duel with the ghost of her father Louis, who had traded in the family’s trust for a good measure of fun with his mistress.
That duel lasted a lifetime and birthed the welcoming hand not as a tribute to father-the-thief, but rather as a shield against all that is not fair in the world, all that can and will harm, an expression of love for the survival of the planted seed, a gateway often called art. And so yes, you touched me through this little hand and exist as what we call art, shaped by the thousand quivering lights of joy and history spun down from above, anchored below ever so lightly with the threads of the discomfort of being simply born.
Dani, that little hand is you, a gentle hand that will call out to many. You are the universal hand of the child, no longer asking for comfort but offering it. You are love.
You also summoned me here:
“At night you would hear the belling of tens of thousands of little frogs rejoicing in the largesse of the heavens. […] all they want from life is a chance to gobble down mosquitoes and sing.”—J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
Here I am swept off my feet with delight at the sight of a few simple words stringed together with care. I noticed them (it could have been any other configuration on any other page) because of you and your unforgettable innocence. These words from J. M. Coetzee’s book remind me of your kindness on certain evenings before falling asleep.
While the flickering windows of the neighboring buildings slowly gave in to the dark and quiet cold, your mind wandered away from the bed and inside the pencil case on the table, the only table where you and your sister and your mom took turns to work on during the day, inquiring with each pen if their stay is cozy and if by any chance they are lonely and can something be done about that.
You couldn’t endure the thought of a lonely pen, so sometimes you got up and tiptoed to the pencil case, opening it softly and shuffling its contents around until all the pens snuggled and smiled back at you peacefully.
At eight years old, everything is alive, and everything deserves love and companionship, which, come to think of it, even at 37 years of age, still makes sense.
A pen is a pen for itself and no less, something to care for, a sort of pet, a smooth speechless companion with which to practice humanity. A pen is an example.
An example of what you may ask? Perhaps an example of what it means to just be with the world, an efficient repellent for the most famous of all existential questions, why am I here? Trust me, existentialism is a bottomless pit of despair best be avoided, since no heart is ready to withstand a final break from the mystery of life. So let’s, for now, sidestep disaster by asking, since curiosity drives us, “what is it like to be a bat?”
According to Coetzee, “to be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. To be full of being is to live body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is ‘joy.’”
Joy, my dear Dani, is what you summoned each waking moment during the difficult years. You took the fountain pen to paper in that bulky black and brown leather and denim journal, quickly strategizing three wishes, over and over:
- To feel joy
- To help everybody
- To marry X
More precisely, unaware of life’s bounty by virtue of having lived so little, yet aware of the absence of joy, you had unknowingly found purpose in a pencil case where you could lovingly nudge pencils together into formations of friendship and trust. And abracadabra! All of your wishes were delivered by a trick of the wrist in the otherwise dead of the night.
And speaking of bats, you must know I crafted this letter on the first day following a surreal year. Even though I can’t share with you exact details of what you were up to in 2020, just know that a human and a bat (an actual bat! not just gleeful words on a page) will be responsible, single-handedly, for an event so large and powerful, the entire world will come to a full stop to perchance realize and deliver to itself the seeds that you and other little caring ones like you have been sowing all along. Togetherness and care.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking, what with this letter buttressed by Christmas and New Year’s Eve, that this so large and so powerful event sounds like the coming of Santa on Earth, but it isn’t, alas. Even though Santa CAN fly and will do so every year each year on the cusp of the 24th and 25th of December, to deliver the most wonderful gifts to millions of children all over the world, Santa is not a bat, nor do they have wings. What Santa does have, and this I can easily vouch for, is a huge appetite for both cookies and the pursuit of magical thinking. If there was ever an example to emulate, not Jesus, but Santa wins the day.
You see, when I mentioned sprinkles at the beginning of this letter, that small insignificant edible geometric delight swimming in a pool of glossy ganache draped over a homemade malted chocolate biscuit sandwich filled with your favorite confectionery (fluffy marshmallow!) I meant to reference Christmas and your traditional Santa offering for the year, along with a less obvious truth.
I want to let you in on a secret, our secret.
Cooking is what will whisk you away from mom’s troubles, and therefore cooking is life, and you will not take lightly ever again the taste and feel of freshly baked bread. I’d rather you wait and see what plump loaves will spring out of your hands, but I can assure you they will please and conquer the most demanding palates.
The rules of the land dictate that art matters when measured against a made-up scale checking off degrees of suffering, with joy ranking the lowest. So silly, I know. Just our luck then, to stumble upon the art of cooking, a need so primordial no one in their right mind can deny its particular scope and beauty. All of us creatures, human and animal alike, at the end of the day, we seek the home that keeps us safe and well-fed. Once you trade the dense forest of knowledge for the warm light of the meadow of imagination, you will no longer ask why we’re here but where is home and how do we get there.
Take comfort in the fact that there is no specific answer for your inquiries here. Only madmen voice out absolute truths and other such dangerous excrescences, and I’m no madman, at most a buffoon in the service of innocent humor.
You summoned me, and I delivered myself to you in the shape of a pool of words. A sunny pool, a placenta, the holy water in which we all assume body and soul and which carries the great and only responsibility of finding a home as clearly as when the first cell wiggled triumphant on the banks of the river of life.