The instant my daughter Maya was born time stopped and the world split in half. Everything was recast by cosmic division of before and after.
The death of my father was slow. In his final hours he lay stiff as steel, his race-horse heart pounding, his face smiling with complicity as he listened to the mischievous words crisscrossing between my childhood friend and I.
His eyes were closed but I could feel them dance and decode the room.
An hour after I left, he stopped breathing. A baby comes into the world and a father leaves.
Have they been together?
Life is finite, but is death a silent forever?
She came from a place that he has now gone to. She was and he is where there is neither a swerve nor a measure for things.
When Lily, my mother-in-law died, Maya asked to sit alone with her grandmother. She was a child that was already years ahead of her age. They talked as if they were still trying to edge each other out of the comfy chair in front of the television.
Not being able to talk to the dead is a sign of immaturity. It means that you are not yet living.
Teodor Shanin, the renowned British Russian-Jewish sociologist, and founder of the Moscow School of Social Science, was born the same year as my father. Shasin was avid anti-Irgun (right-wing Israeli armed group) and finally he became disillusioned with Zionism as it developed and settled in Britain.
I lived in his house when he recruited me as a lecturer in the Sociology Department at the University of Manchester. Every time I entered and left the house, I had to punch 1930 into the alarm. Whenever my yoga teacher ends a class and reminds us to acknowledge the teachers that have come before us, I always see Teodor’s big bald head before me. I hear his words spoken through his growling Russian accent. I summon him as Theodoraki and respond in Greek.
When I am in anguish I go to my father’s grave and tap his tombstone. I seek his permission to commit revenge, lie and deface – things he would never even contemplate let alone condone, but the fact that he understands my need to lash out has helped me pause and refrain.
Talking to the dead brings us to the precarious balance, that slender hair that separates strength and weakness. How can such little things, a mere cold, cut down a giant? All the palaces return to dust.
Where was my daughter before she was born? Why did my sense of time change after my father’s death?
They share a secret. I glimpsed the delight in my father’s eyes whenever she appeared in the nursing home. In an instant he would smile, and a glow erupted from his eyes. It was always nothing short of a tiny resurrection. A second later his shoulders would lock, face freeze, and his body fold over the formaica table. For a moment I felt that I was the neutral bridge across which different worlds met.
My father has gone to where my daughter came from. Both places are as far from here as they are close to me right now. In this exchange the distinction between before and after evaporates. No matter how you measure them they are equidistant to me. Throughout history when philosophers and poets, mystics and singers contemplate what precedes life and follows death, there is only one path that recurs. It is the projection of ourselves into our own inner void, and the thrill of discovering a myriad of micro-cosms.
In the living of life, we have memory and fantasy.
We recall and imagine. These are splendid faculties. However, it is the soul that allows us to talk to the dead. The soul holds the unexpected anticipation of my daughter’s arrival and the absent presence of my father’s departure.
Love is Three Words
First, there is Eros.
An earth shuddering,
galaxy spinning event.
Only Sappho finds words when Eros strikes.
We normal mortals become stunned mutes.
We stand with knees quivering,
and stare across the crowded horizon with our mouth drooping.
It is an adrenaline drenched happiness.
Then, there is Agape.
Suddenly your beloved is your only care in the world.
No. It is more.
Caring for your beloved is the world.
You are the infinite in pi,
father, mother, brother, sister, friend, companion,
Finally, Philia imposes a sense of rule and order.
Your beloved appears as a person with needs.
You must hold and withdraw.
You struggle, but you wait for her to offer and approach.
There is an exquisite strain in the respect,
that Aristotle described as virtuous friendship –
neither the pull of physical attraction
nor the call for venal benefit
just the pleasure
of seeing yourself extended in her,
and feeling her opening the world –
all the world
and the worlds that were once
and all the worlds that are yet to come.
If you are among the blessed,
then you are in the eternal delta of these three words.
Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis is the Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, based at The University of Melbourne. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne.