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     Volume 7 Issue 2 | January 11, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

Neeman Sobhan

"How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face….."
(Stanley Kunitz, 'The Layers')

Today is a wet, inward looking day. It's the 5th of January, and the death anniversary of my mother. And by the time this article is published it will be the day before the first death anniversary of a family friend, Nazre Dastgir. The 12th of January, like the 5th, along with a few other dates are now marked on my family's calendar of personal losses. Unlike birthdays that sometimes require an effort to remember, the death anniversaries present a different problem: they are hard to forget.

Memory itself is an indelible calendar of people and events that have passed from our present lives but keep reminding us of their existence. The only way to deal with memory is to give in to the act of remembrance. But I have promised myself not to do this by dwelling on the sad, rather to try and remember friends and family who have departed, with serenity and joy.

This morning, I found a wet leaf plastered on the windshield of my car. No matter how hard the rain was driving on it and the wipers furiously waving their arms to dislodge it, the leaf clung on. Finally, I left the sanctuary of my car, picked it with my fingers and flicked it off. It refused to peel from my skin. Shaking my head in defeat I brought it in and placed it on the dashboard like a damp butterfly.

I looked at it carefully, this sprig from a summer past. From green to russet, this faded detritus of a dead season had another beauty. Had I seen it lying by the wayside in a mulch-pile, this dead leaf would never have caught my eye. But now, over-riding the slapping breeze this damp January morning, it had sought me out, shown me its elegant afterlife, playfully bringing its world of transformations to my attention.

A continuing grace, I thought as I watched the rising wind in the trees showering the streets with the leftover bounty of a brown and gold-plated harvest. Even in the wet howl and pattering rain of winter I sensed no ebbing of beauty and vitality, only a transformed world; a hidden and secret one, less open to easy emotions. It was not the simple joy of spring, nor the sensuous abandon of summer heat. This was a densely woven, many layered covering, black, cold and gloomy to the untrained eye. But under it, life teemed and mulched. One needed the right sensory and spiritual organs to realise the integrated web of beauty starting from the roots of a tree, flourishing within its lush interlude of vernal foliage and then to the drifting leaves composting on the moist earth below the sturdy trunk, feeding its renewal.

I took my little brown leaf into the house, and placed it near a picture of my mother. I get it, I smiled. Celebrate life--in death as much as in birth, for we are part of an unending and perfect circle. One celebrates, not mourns, the feast of losses. I would celebrate my mother's death anniversary with meditative contentment; I would remember our recently lost friend, and other friends, scattered in the cold wind of changes, with joy.

Today, the rain shows no sign of letting up. I like its busily drumming fingers on the skylight, the roof, the window panes, the terrace, and other places in my outer and inner world. It keeps some basic rhythm of my heart. I get it, I get it, the rain says.

Today is a day for poetry, not prose. So, I leave my readers with a favourite poem, by Stanley Kunitz. This is for all of you, and especially for my mother and for Nishat, and for all my friends and family, that tribe of 'true affections' temporarily scattered yet intrinsically together.

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
Some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
is precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written,
and I am not done wit my changes."

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