The following is a redacted version of My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things: True Stories author Joseph Skibell’s 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.
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.
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.