How to Find (or Lose) a Zahir
“I asked the owner for a brandy and orange juice; among my change I was given the Zahir; I looked at it for an instant, then walked outside into the
street, perhaps with the beginnings of a fever. The thought struck me that
there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly
down throughout history and fable.”
Jorge Luis Borges — The Zahir
Check your pockets. Have you lost any change recently? Have you found any? I ask because I find money all the time — about 27 cents a day, according to my best estimate, which seems like a lot. Not the kind of great sums that would make one rich, at least in the conventional sense, but a collection of cheap discoveries that provide a wealth of insight; the coins I find are tokens; reminders that there is treasure to be discovered everywhere.
It is bemusing to think that some de minimis, but non-zero, portion of our nation’s wealth lay on the ground in plain sight; that nickel that falls to the pavement as you rush to fill a parking meter, or that dime that fails to make it back into your pocket as you hurry to pay for your lunch. Pennies carelessly discarded, nostalgic but obsolete, made worthless by inflation a long time ago (it now costs about 1.7 cents for every cent made).
The real value of these numismatic discoveries are the questions they quietly suggest; the secrets they reveal about how we learn to look and what is meaningful in what we see (or fail to see). They are clues that can teach us how to recognize the value that others miss. They can tune us to the signal through the noise.
So much creative development is bound up in the cultivation of acuity. This kind of acuity, which cannot be fully explained by talent or luck, can be learned and cultivated, I believe. We can sow the seeds of serendipity and synchroncity. We can nourish the roots of attention and mindfulness. We can reap the bounty of looking by seeing. But how ubiquitous are these tiny discoveries? How real is our ability to see the invisible?
I set up an informal experiment to test these questions. My methodology was simple. Each day over a week I recorded the amount of money I found, and the number of locations where I made my discoveries. These are the data from the experiment:
The first day I found a quarter, two dimes, and two pennies, at two locations. The next day, I expected a regression to the mean, but instead found a quarter and two pennies at two locations. The third day, a single quarter. On the fourth day I found a dime and three pennies, at four different locations. But on the fifth day, there was a great bounty when I found two quarters, one nickel, and seven pennies at seven different locations. On the sixth day, I found five pennies and a dime at six different locations (with snow on the ground). On the seventh day, I found nothing.
I walk most places I go, which presumably increases my chances of discovering lost coins. It’s hard to see a coin, much less pick it up, while hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour. Passing through the exquisite New England psychogeography of my environs on foot gives me time to think, to see, to pay attention, and let that attention meander into the soft focus of peripatetic daydreams. Collecting coins is but a side effect of collecting thoughts.
Cultivating the conditions for discovery is part of the art of seeing, and the slower pace of walking matters. This shoegazing must seem like some kind of brooding fugue state to an outside observer, but while immersed in the flow of fluent thought, I am also deeply attuned with my surroundings. The coins jump to my awareness, not because I am looking for them, but because, it seems, they are looking for me. Sometimes they announce themselves as glorious shiny things beckoning to be picked up, sometimes they are obscured by the abject grime that accumulates with the passing of time. But in all cases, they seem to announce themselves, and paradoxically, the less I look, the more I seem to find. It makes me wonder: perhaps the best strategy for finding a Zahir is not to develop an obsession for it, but to cultivate openness to the possibility of discovery in general.
I think Borges believed that no one should possess a Zahir. He believed that money is abstract. It is possible that over the course of my project, I did, perhaps inadvertently, optimize for discovery. Perhaps, like Borges I could not completely “rid myself of my idée fix”. Perhaps there was a little more attention paid near those parking meters, or a glance at the ground after I had received my change from a cashier. I’m sure I looked where I knew there were opportunities for discovery, and this produced coins on the concrete.
But, it is those moments of unexpected serendipity that are the most delicious. Each time I found a coin or coins in this manner it was like a great discovery had been made; a joy not unlike finding treasure, and that joy became an incentive to look further.
A penny is virtually worthless as currency, but as an auspicious sign, if not a harbinger of good fortune, an upright penny has significant value. It is a sign of good luck to many people, and even those who aren’t usually seduced by these kinds of magical charms might be inclined to pick it up. The joy of the discovery can outweigh the value of what is discovered, and this joy conditions us to look further, to be more aware of treasures abounding (as Diogenes once explained to me on the train from New Haven).
Because of this, because coins are worth more when they are shared than when they are possessed, it has become my custom to leave my tiny treasures in situ for others to find. More recently, I’ve amended this custom by repositioning these coins from the places where I find them to places where they will be found with ease (the top of a fire hydrant, for instance). This is to announce to those who come after me that there is something here to be seen. As if to say to someone I will never know, “Hey you! There is treasure everywhere! All you have to do to claim it is to look!” I believe those coins are transformed by these acts of intention; a modest gift that hopefully makes those who find it a little bit more aware of the great treasures that always already abound all around them.
And maybe one day, I will find a Zahir. Maybe one day, I will let it go.