Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Archaeology of the Desk

My mother was by no means tall or large-boned; perhaps five feet four inches on a slender frame. As it happens with so many persons, things, and events held over from the past, the memory of her is of a large presence, a comfortable and comforting presence, a person to whom stranger and friend alike confided amazing secrets from within the heart’s remotest cache.

The desk she left me—a Queen Anne secretary, to be precise—is of a physical size and design infinitely more suited to her size and neatness than my six-foot-three-inch tendency to sprawl and to leave things unfiled. I keep the desk as part of an on-going souvenir of the turmoil and celebration of a mother-son relationship.

From time to time, my attempts to restore order to said Queen Anne secretary—a euphemism if ever there was one for trying in despair to find some misplaced thing—produce an avalanche. From one of the nooks or slots or drawers, there cascades a tumble of business cards—some mine from the many detours of my working life—and small envelopes such as the moisturized napkins given by barbecue and fast-food restaurants. 

There are artifacts from my passion for fountain pens, a pencil sharpener in the shape of a typewriter, given me as a birthday present by a group of students at least twenty years ago; reminders to call two doctors, one a client, the other a man who yanked me out of the seas of cancer some years back, several containers of saline solution with which to ease the passage of contact lenses in and out of my eyes, a pair of mini-speakers which, when the mood strikes them, enhance my laptop sound system, a photo of a dear old pal with long, floppy ears (a Blue-tick hound named Edward), and the now scrunched envelope containing the grade sheet for the past semester at the University, which has cleverly contrived to hide a post card with two remarkable photos of houses, taken by Gregory
Spaid, the originals now residing in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

With some regularity, the avalanche of envelopes contains a white packet about the size of a credit card, its label printed in Spanish, its contents advertised as having the miraculous properties of power. Power to what? You ask. Ah, there is the simple wonder of the packet. Power to do things. Power to ward off things such as sloth, procrastination, and stuff. Sight of the envelope always comes as a surprise; I have to think for a moment, wondering how I came by this miraculous envelope. Then I remember: fifteen years or so ago in the large downtown marketplace in Guadalajara, purchased for twenty pesos at a time when one dollar equaled fifteen hundred pesos. “How much power can there be in the envelope,” I asked the vendor, “when it is sold for so little?”

The vendor, a small, well-dressed man with a cynical bearing, shook his head. “Los Angeles,” he said. “West side. Fairfax or Hamilton High, maybe University High. Two years high school Spanish.”

Fairfax,” I confessed, “and actually, I started the Spanish in junior high.”

“What they didn’t teach you,” the vendor said, “was to look inside.” He shook his head. “They teach you mirar, to look at, but they don’t teach you buscar, to look for.”

In the years since I have purchased the envelope, the closest I have come to examining the powder inside the envelope is to poke at its sides, trying to guess by feel if the powder is sand, sugar, powdered milk. At various times I have suspected all three, concluding it is probably sand, the least expensive and, thus, at whatever price the envelope is sold, the greatest ROI, return on investment.

That, of course, is the mirar, to look at approach.
With the buscar, the look for approach, I don’t have to sift the envelope through my fingers. I know what’s inside. I know what the contents of the envelope of the great power are.

It is imagination.

Once again, I return the envelope to the archaeological dig site of my mother’s desk, where it becomes lost under the layers of other artifacts, waiting to be discovered once again as I look for instead of merely looking at.

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