Wrong End of a Telescope: Jigsaw Puzzle, Bonsai Tree, Walking Companion
(A note to readers: this was written fully a year before the pandemic that has changed the way all of us connect with each other, try to connect, or fail to connect.)
I have a feeling for chaos, and it is not an entirely bad one. In the very beginning, you start with what works, with what fits, and you cannot help but make progress. If you are rebuilding, just start anywhere and you are making an improvement by 100 percent.
This isn’t entirely different from how I felt when I opened the box to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a reproduction of an illustration by Michael Storrings called “Springtime on 5th Avenue in New York.” I guess you would call it impressionistic, since perspective and realistic proportion give way to the dominant scheme, which is color — bright yellow taxis, buildings pale blue and pink and slate, lush green trees in the park, flower beds of red and pink and blue — and the impression of busyness: traffic, buildings, storefronts, and smart looking people walking smart looking dogs.
I had been toying with the idea for a while. I had only recently moved into a new apartment and I had an idea in my head of what I wanted my new place to be like, and this idea included a table where there would always be a jigsaw puzzle in progress. It’s something I remember from childhood summer vacations with family when a puzzle would be started and serve as the nighttime project; I seem to recall it as well from visits to my grandparents’ house where there was always a puzzle in progress.
I moved from a small squat building with 12 units in it, moved across the river from Northern Virginia, where I had come three years ago after 16 years of living in Cleveland, into a building along a main corridor of the District of Columbia with more than 500 dwellings. My move over here, back into the city I had lived in as a younger man, happened quickly and although it was a good move, a happy one, the move itself was unsettling in a very specific way: here I was, 58 years old, moving from a one-bedroom apartment to another one-bedroom apartment, and I could pack all my belongings into a 10-foot U-Haul. (The same belongings I had carted from Cleveland two years before.) I had managed to put down, after all this time, no roots at all. I had helped to raise a child, now a beautiful, self-reliant and resilient young woman — and I can go my grave knowing I had done at least this one important thing reasonably well. But the move across the river, into this great cavernous building, seemed to impress upon me my solitariness, and more than that, a palpable lightness of my being in the world.
So, starting a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle also possessed a certain metaphorical aptness. There’s a process to it and the first step — finding the straight edges that form the border of your puzzle — forces itself on you because, well, what else is there to do? Where else can you start but the edges of this small-scale model of reality you are trying to conjure from chaos? It turns out to be a chore to do this, and right away what had seemed quaint and cozy now made itself known to me as a project, one that would likely occupy me for weeks or months. Just finding the straight edge pieces is work; they have to be segregated from the rest of the puzzle before you can even think about piecing them together.
But as I say, any progress at all is a kind of perfect progress when you are starting from a state of chaos. Before you know it, you have a corner piece, and the beginnings of one side of the border, the windows of the building in that upper right corner of Storrings’ imaginative rendering start to form themselves. It becomes a practical form of meditation on the way things, all things, are accomplished, always — a kind of yoga practice in patience, incrementalism, the long view, starting somewhere and building on a foundation, and the manifest truth that with every choice, you create a very particular shape to your future.
Call it an exercise in building from the edges, starting somewhere, when I formed the idea of soliciting some companions from the building to go walking with me in the morning. I printed up a couple of flyers which I tacked up in the laundry and mail rooms of our building, stating that I had formed the habit of heading out at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning to go walking in the neighborhood. (This was in fact more aspirational than true — the bit about waking so early — but I figured if someone would take me up on the challenge it would be motivation for both of us.) Would someone care to join me? We could meet in the lobby, walk for an hour on some predetermined path in the neighborhoods behind our building, then finish at the local bakery for coffee and bagels, and be on our way. Perhaps, I wrote on my hopeful flyer, we could start a little walking club.
I believe I am being reasonably honest when I say that I had no particular expectations regarding who might become my walking companion in this venture. There are a lot of older folks in the building and I think I envisioned a retired couple, of the 70-is-the-new-50 variety, still vigorous and open to an adventure.
In fact, for several weeks no one at all responded, and I was prepared to take my flyers down when someone finally texted me, late in the day on a Saturday, saying they would be pleased to go walking with me that afternoon. The communicant left a name at the end of the message that was entirely opaque to me: it was no American name I had ever heard, but it was unclear what nationality it might represent; neither could I be certain whether it was a male or a female.
In any case I was wholly unprepared for the still-young-ish woman, perhaps early 40s, who met me at the elevator. She had large, luminous almond-shaped eyes set within an oval face of an immaculately clear, brown skin, framed by a hijab, a sky-blue silken headscarf that fit tightly over her head, forming a sharp line just above those eyes, and that fell in delicate waves upon her shoulders. I pretended to be unsurprised. We greeted each other with the getting-to-know-you introductory pleasantries of two people meeting on a blind date, then headed for the lobby doors. We agreed that we would walk down to the metro stop in the next neighborhood and back, a distance all together of a mile and a half.
All down the avenue my companion kept up a stream of amiable chatter. The native of a near middle eastern country, she worked at that country’s embassy and had three children ranging in age from 9 to 15 — a fact she imparted with the ironic weariness of over-taxed soccer moms everywhere: she needed to get out of the apartment and get some air. Her husband worked as a librarian at one of the local universities.
(Here I should stop to say that during our stroll down the avenue, and over the few brief but memorable times would we would meet again, my companion attained a brilliant singularity of personhood that deserves to be named. But for a variety of reasons, not least because she hasn’t given me license to write about our encounter, I feel bound to protect her anonymity. I will call her K.)
She was charming, humorous and politely inquisitive about my life, and we were not 25 yards from the building when I felt at once entirely at ease with her, yet also in a state of heightened self-consciousness — charmed, as it were, out of myself by what I regarded as the strangeness of this encounter: a married, Arab woman in a headscarf had opted to go for a walk with a man she did not know.
In relating the facts of my life, it seemed impossible not to mention what was to me most salient — in what now seems like a previous lifetime, I was married and although the marriage did not last long, we had a daughter, now in her third year of college. The trauma of our divorce had long since faded and here in America, where close to half of all marriages ends in divorce, I had long ago ceased to think of it as any kind of scarlet letter. But now this fact, as I shared it with my companion took on an unaccustomed weight. What would she think? In a similar way, she inquired about whether I had ever been to her country (I had not) and where I had travelled in the world. By the standards of cosmopolitan Washington, I have not travelled widely at all, but a place I have been that was most memorable is the State of Israel, and this fact, like my banal divorce, suddenly became alive with nuance.
That my companion was articulate and educated was obvious, and I take it as a matter of course that people will swallow all manner of prejudices and strong beliefs in the interest of getting along when you are taking a walk down the avenue on a summer afternoon. So I didn’t seriously think that my tame revelations would upset our casual encounter. What I am talking about are the prejudices and assumptions that Americans have learned in the last two fraught decades to project upon Arabs of the Islamic faith. For a fact that made itself palpable as I was walked with her is that I had never before spoken so much as two words of an intentional conversation with a religious Muslim, or of any kind of conversation with a Muslim female. And now I was strolling with a married woman in a headscarf, one who was lively and funny and ironic, and she was charming me out of my skin.
Well, I was lonely, she had answered my ad, and I wanted her to approve of me. I suppose it is noteworthy that when were about halfway to where we had agreed to turn around, her phone rang. She answered in her native language and I was not surprised when she turned to me and said, “My husband says hello.” I returned the greeting. Then in English, she said into the phone, “Mark says hello.” They reverted to their native language to close out the conversation.
As we headed back, I asked her if she had family in her native country and if she returned there ever. She told me the last time was several years ago, and it had cost her and her husband nearly $40,000 in total. “My husband and I have dozens of family members there, and it is expected that you bring every one of them a gift from America,” she told me. “They think because we are in America that we are extremely wealthy. They don’t know that we are living paycheck to paycheck like everyone else.”
If I had been feeling slightly out of my own body up to then, the feeling became amplified when K. surprised me by saying she would like to treat me to a native dish from her country, something simple she would bring up to my apartment sometime. This struck me as an offer so gracious and unexpected that I had no idea how to respond, and I mumbled something barely coherent in response.
We talked about the building we shared, and K. said there were holiday parties and get-togethers in the lobby from time to time. “We also have a laughing group that meets on Tuesday nights in the mail room,” she said. “It’s a small group, two or three women other than me and an old man who shows up on his own.”
I’d heard about this, I knew this had become a thing — laughing yoga it is sometimes called — and I relished the thought of this small group, including my head-scarfed friend, laughing together in the mail room. “You should join us,” she said. “We get together and do some easy stretches. Then we make laughing sounds.”
It was hot that afternoon and by the time we returned to our building I was perspiring. K seemed hardly to have broken a sweat. She was wearing loose fitting, immaculately white slacks and a blouse or tunic of some muted color with a pretty fringe around her neckline, both of which were of the same material as the silken headscarf. She seemed impervious to the steamy heat of the afternoon, and as we said our goodbyes at the elevator, I recall wishing that I could wear her hijab.
Many of the apartment buildings that line the avenue where I live were built in the early 1950s — some in the late 40s — the post-war period that saw the enormous expansion of Washington as the seat of a new global presence. Some of these were constructed with a great sense of style, castle-like structures with elaborate brickwork and archways with detailed engravings and gargoyles, designed with the intention that America’s capital should match in style its newfound international influence, and shake off its dowdy, sleepy southern character. As the government grew and the city’s population swelled, these buildings would house the newcomers; it was during this period that the city attained its reputation for transience, a place where people came and went with successive political upheavals. (In fact, there has always been a stable, indigenous, largely African American and — to outside observers — largely invisible population that has outlasted these upheavals over many years.) Although some of the apartments up and down the avenue have been retrofitted in the modern way, quite a few retain their post-war character. Strolling past their lighted windows at night, you have a sense of the generations that have come and gone from these places, a street haunted by the ambitions, intrigues and aspirations, achievements and failures and sexual scandals of 12 presidential administrations.
I was drawn to the area by the lively and friendly bookstore in the nearby next neighborhood and its comfortable and inviting café downstairs. I mentioned this to K. as we strolled the avenue that afternoon and she was reminded that her middle-school age daughter was required to read a book that was being stocked in quantity at the store. I seized on an opportunity to do my new friend a favor and offered to pick it up that evening; she could pay me back. She agreed to this arrangement and that evening, after we had parted at the elevator, I bought the book for her. Walking back to the building, I wondered about the propriety of knocking on her apartment door (suppose the husband answered? Or her children?). But she texted me her apartment number and when I knocked on the door, K. answered. It was quiet and dark behind her, and she said almost nothing, but smiled and said thank you and handed me a $20 bill. The book had been $19 and some change, as I had informed her in my text on the way home, and when I asked her if she wanted the balance, she shook her head.
I would see her again in less than a week when, as she promised, she texted me ahead of time, then a few minutes later appeared at my door carrying a tray loaded up with two dishes. There was a dinner size plate of rice and ground meat, and a small bowl of what looked like yogurt.
What can I tell you? It was very simple, but the rice and meat affair was spicy and flavorful in a way I had never quite experienced — peppery and very slightly smoky. I believe the meat was lamb and it was ground quite fine and very tender. It was a modest meal, but I finished it feeling entirely and warmly nourished.
The summer progressed and I did not see K. again for some time. (When I had returned the washed tray and dishes on which she had brought me meal the few nights previous, I had left them outside her apartment door as she had instructed; the family was not home.)
Slow, laboriously slow, was the progression of my jigsaw puzzle, but it became in time a form of morning meditation, to spend 45 minutes hunched over the table with my coffee, the radio in the background, scanning the pieces and the reproduction of the painting on the box. A jigsaw puzzle of a piece of artwork is a very good way to learn to see — really, really see — the details in a work of art, and it strikes me as a very clever way for an artist to get people to spend far more time studying his or her art than people might normally do under any other conceivable circumstances: divide it up into small pieces, and make people put it back together.
Seeing this way is a lesson in how small details make up a whole, how they play into the larger picture, but not as your own mind might predict. For the longest time it seemed, many days, I searched in vain for a puzzle piece that contained the last small fleck of a man’s purple suit. The man occupies a space at the bottom of the illustration, walking the street with the other fashionable types in Storrings’ imagination. From my own vantage point, with the privilege of being able to see the whole illustration I was striving to (as it were) repair, I imagined that it should be easy to find: the purple color stands out, and I believed that I had used up all of the other pieces that had any trace of that color.
But this puzzle piece continued to elude me, and I learned after a while that this is because that single piece, in isolation, when I found it would not look like the piece that I envisioned fitting into the whole. The whole, and the small piece of the whole, relate to each other in a way that I, small piece that I am myself, cannot quite apprehend.
So I would go on searching, confident that the piece would in time reveal itself to me as a surprise. Such is the kind of prosaic discipline I wish I had cultivated more generally, earlier, more earnestly in my life, and I admire those who have — even, or perhaps especially, when their pursuits are eccentric or quixotic. There is a man in New York City who has made it his mission to walk every single street on every block of all five boroughs, a distance of something more than 8,000 miles. When the documentary movie, “The World at Your Feet” was made about this gentleman, he had crossed the 6,000-mile mark and he was still going strong. His dedication has not been without a price, for it seems he has forfeited at least one relationship with a woman who really loved him.
Or think of Joseph Grand, a minor character in Camus’ “The Plague.” A good-hearted volunteer in the nearly hopeless effort against the spreading epidemic in Algerian Oran, he has taken upon himself the humble but necessary task of compiling statistics on the dead and dying. In his spare time, Grand is writing a novel, the first sentence of which he insists must be perfect, capturing in cadence and imagery his vision of a woman on horseback, “riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.” His new friends Tarrou and Dr. Rieux, the protagonists of Camus’ allegory, join him in their down time between battling plague, helping him perfect the sentence — or trying to, for it seems to be an endeavor without an end, one that will outlive them all. The stoic and clear-eyed Dr. Rieux who narrates the tale, submits that it is Grand, minor figure though he is, who is the story’s real exemplar in the fight against plague, “this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.”
It is the absurdity of the ideal that registers a rebuke to the plague that is time, that invisible but ever busy agitator and fellow traveler who frays the threads of your trousers and socks, wearing holes everywhere in your life, fidgeting with your memories until they are dog-eared and yellowed and you wake up one morning in, say, November, look out the into the brittle cold and see your life as some kind of epic, ancient as a pharaoh.
It is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope; a lot gets crowded into a narrowing space, while seeming further and further away. Imagine a rainy afternoon on, say, a Wednesday, in June, in (let us propose) 1788, a day in a remote countryside of Japan. The sun came up and it went down, although it was hidden all day behind rain clouds. The people who lived there might have been propelled through the day by a sense of fierce urgency — the family needed money, one of the children was sick, the roof of the house needed repair. A thousand miles away, in Paris and other cities of France, a messy revolution was unfolding, and it would be remembered, and it would have an effect and would be written about in books.
Yet something survives from the remote Japanese countryside that could outlast the French Revolution and its consequence. The Yamamoto bonsai tree, first cultivated in the 16th century, survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima and was gifted by the Japanese government in 1976 for the American bicentennial to the United States, where it resides now in the National Botanical Garden, here in my city.
Wandering about the arboretum as I did with a couple of friends one day late in August can relieve you of the sense that you are living in a very insane place. I have seen older artifacts up close — the Western Wall in Jerusalem and other archeological remnants there from the Roman period, and earlier. But these were stone and the Yamamoto bonsai tree is alive. The tree bears witness to that rainy Wednesday and a thousand, thousand, thousand other vanished days. Bonsai encompass the Japanese knack for miniature (although the tree on display in the Arboretum is now on the scale of a sizeable garden tree) and for the quiet, patient, practice of a small, simple thing. How many generations devoted their days to the tending of roots and soil, branches and leaves for four hundred years, day after day after day?
For several years now I have fancied that I could feel the tipping of the earth from summer into fall, some subtle change in the air even in the midst of an August heat wave. Perhaps it is just the sublimated awareness of the routine signals of summer’s end — back-to-school sales and the like. In any case, it is a transition I have come to love: September through Christmas is my favorite time of year.
It was early in September when I took a long weekend get-a-way to the eastern shore. On the way back I stopped at one of the fruit stands that dot the rural landscape on route 404 and bought some blueberries and chocolate. At home, I texted K. — it would be our last communication — to tell her I wanted to bring her something in return for the fine dinner she had made me weeks before.
I had continued to marvel about my encounter with her and shared the story of my walk down the avenue and the modest dinner she brought me, with several friends. By text I ran it past my daughter to ask her what she made of it. She responded in the coded diction of her time: “IDK. Maybe she’s just being friendly. B friendly back. UR good at that.”
The night I returned home, back at our building, I knocked on her door. As before, the apartment behind her was dark when she opened the door, but now I had the distinct impression that I had interrupted something implicating the entire family behind her in silence. And K. was now dressed from head to foot in a burka so that only the narrow space of her eyes was unclothed. The burka was not black, however, as I had supposed one to be, but a vivid and penetrating midnight blue — think, perhaps, of the blue of Marc Chagall’s stain glass windows — and it was decorated with something like small stars.
Wordlessly, she accepted the blueberries and chocolate. Only her eyes and the merest upward curve of her lips telegraphed across what seemed an unbreachable no-man’s land of culture and belief and politics her gratitude. There was then a moment of silence between us, a moment of mingled awkwardness and attentiveness as I stood outside her door in the hushed and empty hallway. “Wow,” I finally managed to say, in my stunned American guy-ness, “your dress is really beautiful.”
With an almost imperceptible nod of her head, K. seemed to absorb this compliment and fold it back into the darkness behind her. And then, very gently, she closed the door.
After leaving the D.C. area in 1997, I spent two years in Chicago, where my daughter was born, then 16 years in Cleveland being a father in a fractured family situation, and working from home, before moving back once again to the DC area, landing first in nearby Virginia. Shortly after our separation, when Tess was four, I had a vivid dream: she and I were walking hand-in-hand through the charred remains of what looked like 9/11 ground zero (this was in fact just a year-and-a-half after the event, and it was still fresh to everyone). What I remember most potently from the dream was this: If not exactly happy, I was hopeful. We would survive, it would be okay.
A knack for chaos. We made it work, and I took to fatherhood, imposing as it did a regimen of dutifulness and order on my otherwise disorderly life. When my daughter went off to college, I returned to the capital where my job was located: I would be a commuter again and sit at a desk. Driving a Uhaul with one apartment room’s worth of life, I stopped at a motel in Breezewood for the night with the idea that I would avoid driving into Washington traffic at rush hour, take my time in the morning and plan to arrive mid-day the next day. The motel housed a little bar and grill, and when I stopped in there were two boys in their 20s drinking at the bar; they were still at that place where they were endearingly drunk and not yet obnoxiously so. I took a seat and ordered something. The one fellow nodded my way, “How’s it going Pops?”
I said it was going fine. The barmaid gave him a look, though, like that wasn’t cool, calling the nice, polite fellow “Pops.” By way of explanation, the boy said, “He’s old school.” His buddy, wanting to be supportive, wanting to be a bro, chimed in, “His hair is white.”
It’s nothing to me, my hair having turned white, to be Pops from the old school, if that’s the way it is now. I had a lot of big ideas on that U-haul journey from Cleveland to the D.C. area, about the new chapter I would write in my life, a bright and shiny life in the city. But I find myself feeling since then as if I am living in the aftermath of an extended encounter with something larger than I knew, a gift more lavish than I had appreciated; as if I am peering down the wrong end of my own telescope at an epic story, now steadily receding, of days and days and days — inspired or insipid or thoroughly mundane, nothing special, the usual fare of parenthood: piano recitals, school talent shows, visits to the doctor, tennis lessons, long drives across Ohio and Michigan and Indiana for summer tennis tournaments, staying in hotels with teams of girls’ softball and volleyball teams traversing the Midwest; arguments; worrying about where she was at night once she had a driver’s license and access to a car (every teenager’s ticket to freedom from the clutches of their keepers); or the time when she was 13 and we took the train from D.C., where we were visiting my brother, to New York to see Billy Elliott on Broadway. We walked all over Manhattan and ate at Applebee’s in Times Square, an experience that must be akin to eating cardboard in a wind tunnel.
And the day of her baptism in a gothic northside Chicago Catholic church when Tess was not much more than two months old. It was an occasion I approached dutifully — let’s get this over with — but with no great feeling for the sacrament itself. Yet standing at the altar with the other parents and their babies beneath the fractured light of the church, with Tess cradled in my arm where she fit between the crook of my elbow and the palm of one hand, as the priests circulated, rubbing the fennel-scented chrism on the babies’ foreheads, a scent that mingled with the musk of incense — there at the altar as I gazed at the child on my arm, I began in spite of myself to weep without restraint.
I have seen K. only a handful of times in passing since the night I brought the blueberries to her door, and once in the lobby of our building she said something about going walking again. But I sensed she was being polite, and I have never heard from her. Well, she’s as busy as the rest of us, with kids and a job and a home to keep. Maybe she was just being friendly. Maybe her diplomatic mission was complete, having extended some middle eastern hospitality and disabused one American man of his preconceptions about an Arab woman in a hijab.
It was nearly October before I finished my puzzle only to find that three pieces had gone lost — missing from the box to begin with or, more likely, disappeared somewhere in my apartment or vanished in the vacuum cleaner.
Perhaps I’ll join the laughing group. I like to laugh, and my daughter has told me on more than one occasion I should smile more. She’s right, the world has been far too kind to me not to. Although the future she is inheriting terrifies me, the pensive mien I carry about is mainly a baked-in affectation, borne of a lifelong dread of seeming silly or frivolous, coupled with an authentic observational instinct. When I was a small boy and my parents would have guests to the house, I used to perch at the top of the steps overlooking our living room and just watch the grown-ups who might be there, watching and listening; a grandmother, then in her dotage, confided to my father that I “made her nervous,” the way I was always just watching, watching.
I am still on the lookout, although for what exactly I can’t say. Perhaps I’ll know when I see it. A bonsai tree bears witness to an epic. The puzzle piece you hold in your fingers, the present moment, that puzzle piece so troublesome and un-conforming to any visible larger purpose, must sooner or later find its place in a picture that you can only barely imagine.