The fol­low­ing is a redact­ed ver­sion of My Father’s Gui­tar and Oth­er Imag­i­nary Things: True Sto­ries author Joseph Ski­bells orig­i­nal essay for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. He is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple. Read the full essay here.


In the wake of my father’s death, I became a lit­tle obsessed with gui­tars; and in the sum­mer of 2009 I took my daugh­ter Saman­tha, new­ly grad­u­at­ed from high school, on a road trip across North Amer­i­ca, vis­it­ing mas­ter gui­tar-mak­ers. It’s too long a sto­ry to tell here — and you can read about it in in the title sto­ry of my new book, My Father’s Gui­tar & Oth­er Imag­i­nary Things—but suf­fice it to say: I was search­ing for my father’s imag­i­nary gui­tar. I was 49 and, for the first time in my life, I’d begun to feel old.

Good luck being a gui­tar-hunt­ing Don Quixote!” a stu­dent of mine wrote me after I’d told him of our plans, and because of that, I brought along a copy of Don Quixote on the trip. It’s a book I’ve nev­er quite been able to fin­ish, although I’ve start­ed it maybe half a dozen times since I was a teenag­er. The nov­el, it turns out, proved more apt than I remem­bered: I’d for­got­ten that Alon­so Que­jana was also 49 when he goes mad and hits the road, assum­ing the iden­ti­ty of the knight errant Don Quixote. And like Señor Quejana’s friends and fam­i­ly, my friends and fam­i­ly were also con­cerned about me. Was it mad­ness to believe I might find my father’s imag­i­nary gui­tar some­where out there on the road? 

Just how porous is the mem­brane between the real and the imag­i­nary, I wondered?

I thought about my father — and this is anoth­er sto­ry you can read in my new book. (Sor­ry for the shame­less and/​or shame­ful self-pro­mo­tion!) Hal­lu­ci­nat­ing in his hos­pi­tal bed as Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na made its way towards the coast of Louisiana, Dad was wor­ried that if we couldn’t live on the land and we couldn’t live in the air and we couldn’t live in the sea, we’d all have to live in Hyper­space, space with more than three dimensions. 

Though, thanks to the dimen­sion of time, it occurred to me on the plane, we’re all liv­ing in Hyper­space already. And, it fur­ther occurred to me, while mate­r­i­al things exist in four dimen­sions (three of space and one of time), imag­i­nary things exist only in time. 

We often say that some­thing is only imag­i­nary, as though it weren’t quite real, but it’s fun­ny how real imag­i­nary things can be. The most impor­tant things in our lives are imag­i­nary: love, knowl­edge, wis­dom, health, kind­ness, beau­ty, desire, our wants, our fears. These things all exist with­out a phys­i­cal pres­ence, as do sto­ries, songs, mem­o­ries, our child­hoods, our futures, all our rela­tion­ships and our notions about our­selves and each oth­er. Our very iden­ti­ties — who we are, what we’ve done, what we hope for — are imag­i­nary. Tak­ing up no phys­i­cal space, these things exist only in the dimen­sion of time.

And of course, time itself is prob­a­bly the most imag­i­nary thing of all. I mean, when you think about it, there’s noth­ing more imag­i­nary than a day. The Earth spins in space, half of it, at any giv­en moment, fac­ing the sun, half of it fac­ing away. We call this alter­nat­ing pat­tern of light and dark­ness a day, but real­ly, there is no day. There’s only the sun, some­how poised in the mid­dle of noth­ing­ness, and the earth, spin­ning with­in the sphere of its illu­mi­nat­ed space, and yet this dai­ly spin, this dai­ly jour­ney­ing from dark­ness into light through the three dimen­sions of space some­how pro­duces the fourth dimen­sion of time. 

It makes no ratio­nal sense. It makes no sense at all. It’s as if, as a child, you could make your­self grow up faster by open­ing and clos­ing your eyes while spin­ning in a cir­cle. And yet, despite the utter imag­i­nar­i­ness of time, we age: we grow up, we grow old, and we die. 

My father died in the evening of Jan­u­ary 5, 2008, in Dal­las, Texas. My sis­ter and I went to vis­it him in the hos­pi­tal that morn­ing, but we got lost along the way. His eyes had lit up in greet­ing when Susan and I came in, but almost imme­di­ate­ly after­wards, he lost con­scious­ness and, except for a brief moment or two, nev­er real­ly woke up again. His heart stopped lat­er that night; the offi­cial cause of death was pneumonia. 

After the arrange­ments had been made and the rest of the fam­i­ly went home, I sat with his body. Twice, I pulled back the sheet cov­er­ing my father and looked at his face. That’s my father, I thought. On the third time, though, some­thing had changed and he was no longer there. He’d become imag­i­nary, exist­ing now only in time. 

Return­ing from my trip, I’ll board with a new gui­tar, name Fig (for Father’s Imag­i­nary Guitar),onto the air­plane and into the over­head com­part­ment with­out any trou­ble, and that night at home I’ll sit up late at my kitchen table, play­ing Fig soft­ly, so as not to awak­en my wife, Bar­bara, singing those old great songs from the 1920s and the 1930s, songs my father loved, while the Earth spins beneath me, spin­ning beneath the thresh­old of my sens­es, and though the dark­ness of the night press­es in against the win­dows, I’ll know there’s noth­ing out there, real­ly, but light.

Read the full ver­sion of this essay here.

Joseph Ski­bell is the author of three crit­i­cal­ly-acclaimed nov­els, A Bless­ing on the Moon, The Eng­lish Dis­ease, and A Cur­able Roman­tic; a col­lec­tion of true sto­ries, My Father’s Gui­tar & Oth­er Imag­i­nary Things; and a forth­com­ing study of the Tal­mu­dic tales, Six Mem­os from the Last Mil­len­ni­um: A Nov­el­ist Reads the Tal­mud.

Relat­ed Content:

Joseph Ski­bell is the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed author of A Bless­ing on the Moon and A Cur­able Roman­tic, choice award of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. As direc­tor of the Ell­mann Lec­tures at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, he played gui­tar and sang onstage with Mar­garet Atwood and Paul Simon. A pro­fes­sor at Emory, he is a Senior Fel­low at the Fox Cen­ter for Human­is­tic Inquiry.