Reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, has taught me once again that fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction. And even though the vast majority of fiction is to reading what junk food is to eating, there are novels that inspire even the pickiest of readers, with the highest (or most peculiar) standards for what is inspiring or illuminating.
What we know is a such a minuscule particle in a vast infinite universe of what could be known, that the skeptical inquirer is doomed to a rather poorly illuminated reflection of tiny bits of what is known. But skepticism is not the only option. Those willing to use all the tools at the disposal of an aware, enlightened human being, can embark on a voyage filled with light and a rich, ever-unfolding life.
In the living experience and fable woven together in Zeyn’s novel, the human spirit and the Infinite meet in an explosion of life and color and light and dark, moving us to a place where we can see and feel far beyond the narrow confines of overly rigorous, reductionistic thinking and experience. The deeper truths in the stories, sometimes stated very plainly, other times only seen in the wholistic experience of the story, are profound, demanding a stillness and quietness before they open to our view.
The overwhelming energy moving through the story, illuminating my response, was one of light and color and memory and feeling, reinforced by the synesthesia of Nour, the little girl through which we see the story. While a few might consider Nour’s synesthesia to be an unnecessary device, I found it completely natural, even essential. For me it was a door anyone can enter if they will but take the time to listen to the music and feel the color in the stillness and quietness, to see the light shining through the broken places, to experience the infinity between the ticks and tocs of a clock.
When I taught 7th and 8th grade science during graduate school, I used to take my students out into nature with notebooks in hand and ask them to see and feel and hear, and then write. Most had a very difficult time finding the stillness necessary to do this. I know they had a hard time connecting with my descriptions of what happened on my walkabouts, when I moved into that living path mode of seeing and hearing. It was also my first time trying to describe this mode and inspire others to try it for themselves. After those experiences I often simply shared the insights I found in that state, realizing that it is a very hard thing to actually move somebody into that mode of being.
Nevertheless, over the years, I remained as hopeful as I was when I tried guiding the students, that this mode of seeing and hearing and feeling is open to anyone willing to listen to stillness.
Lately, though, I had started losing hope in the power of words to actually enlighten or inspire or even prompt others to begin a journey. I could find lots of examples that supported my growing doubt. But when I finished this book I was struck by the strong sense that I was wrong. Some written words are still very powerful, inspiring and healing, opening readers to that infinity I began to experience so many years ago in my walkabouts in the desert and later in the forests. Immersing myself in this story, I find again, in yet another form, that stillness containing infinity.
I was also reminded that when you have passed through extreme crisis, you learn what is important and what is not, you learn to choose the simple life and connections with those that love you and those that can benefit from your simple help. You remember that so many things in our surroundings, considered so important, cannot compare with the song of an insect, or connection with a friend, or peace of encompassing sunshine. You realize there is nothing to prove, that simple things contain everything you need because they are doors to infinity. You see helping those who struggle, easing the path of those who have very little and seek simply to live in peace, is an integral part of finding and sharing the depth and beauty we are wired to seek, to explore. One cannot truly have depth and beauty without the healing and compassion.
What remains for me, as I write these words in the afterglow of the story, is a sense of living stillness and remembering and color, and the deep peace when we remember the intense richness of knowing what is important.