We were holding hands when we walked over the ridge of the dune and saw them. There were three of them. Bigger than newborns but still young enough to be with their mom (at first I wondered if they had been orphaned but a minute later I saw her – she was standing back amongst the trees and scrub and she had seen us long before we spotted her). There was nobody else on the beach and they were playing and jumping on each other. They were dashing towards the water and bouncing back, then dashing, then bouncing, then dashing, then bouncing – as though they had never seen water like this before and it thrilled them and filled them with wonder and joy and the kind of fear that is fun to feel – the kind that is exciting to face into, not the kind that seems bigger than we are.
We held hands and we watched. What did we witness? Three children playing and rejoicing in the world into which they had been thrown. My children were much the same when they went to the beach. Only these children were a little older and they were playing and rejoicing in their own bodies and the strength that was growing within them. And they were all playing together – playing with each other just as much as they were playing with the water and the sand.
Eventually they caught our scent and they turned and bounded over the sand to join their mother, white tails high in the air, wagging back and forth like flags. They made it look effortless.
I wanted to kiss you at that moment.
It has been a long time since I’ve had any interest in church or worshiping the god of the Christians. Even when I was still into that god, it had been years since I had identified that god with any male pronouns or titles like “Father”… but sometimes the words to songs I sang over and over as a child still come unbidden into my mind. This was one of those moments.
This is my Father’s world
and to my listening ear
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres
Later on, while walking along the pier, we saw dead fish floating in the water. You linked your arm in mine and told me that Lake Erie is the most polluted of all the Great Lakes. When the wind shifted we could smell the sewage treatment plant that was built next to the beach. I felt happy with you. The sky was beautiful and I felt at peace.
I often wonder if the peace we feel walking through “nature” is a modern phenomenon (much like nature itself is a modern phenomenon) – it is the peace of a graveyard, the peace of poisoned rivers, the peace of extinctions, the peace of ovens that have grown silent because there are no more bodies to burn, or the peace of a school that is quiet because all the children died when the drones passed over and fired a missile into the yard.
This is my Father’s world
I rest me in the thought
That tho the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet
That’s a pretty story – especially if you’re a man or prone to affirming hierarchies that divide the rulers from the ruled (God is the ultimate 1%er, rarer and richer and more powerful than all of the rest of us combined!) – but I don’t know what all it has to do with the world into which I have been thrown, where the muscles ripple on the backs of young deer who are living lives just as full of holiness and wonder and love as I am, and where the water washes over the bloated white bellies of fish whose deaths are just as tragic and purposeless and insignificant as my own.
Yet, once upon a time, I used to happily pray to “God the Father” – God the perfect Father, God who loved me so much more than my earthly father. It took a while for me to realize that this understanding of god was maybe not such a good thing. When things are structured in such a way as to benefit a person – the way patriarchy benefits men, the way settler colonialism benefits people of European descent, the way racism benefits white people, the way heteronormativity benefits cishet folks, the way that the law and everything else along with it, benefits people with money – it often takes some kind of trauma to bring people to disavow or question that which works to their (material) advantage. I suppose that having an abusive father helped me to reject patriarchy – including male conceptions of god that can be substituted in for abusive dads (or that can be another form of abusive dad) – and taught me to struggle against it. Should I be saying thanks for that?
After we got back to London, you said it felt surreal watching the deer playing together on the beach. The same word had come to my mind as well, but before I spoke it, I wondered: what makes some things feel “surreal”? What does this say about that which we experience as “real”? Is “reality” simply that which we experience so frequently that we take it for granted and hardly notice it? Then, when a new or unexpected or rare event takes place, we experience it as “surreal” (deer on a beach, my dad hitting child-me in the face when I thought he was going to comfort me)? If that’s the case, what exactly are we experiencing as we go through life? Not reality – because we simply take it for granted and hardly notice it – and not that which is surreal – because we don’t really experience it as real – so what? Perhaps we are all trapped within the hyperreal described by Baudrillard. We inhabit the world of simulacra, copies without originals, fakes that are based upon other fakes, that we come to experience as more real than anything else.
Perhaps we are all brands now… but I want to break free (I’m always singing with you, Freddy). After several years, I have started thinking, once again, that love may offer us a way out. I fell a little deeper into love with you and with the world the exists around you – because the entire world is different because you are in it – when I saw those children playing on the beach.
Being a “father,” and, even more than that, being a “good dad,” has become incorporated into my brand status now. This after I rejected “God the Father” (fuck that patriarchal bullshit) and this after notions of fatherhood and father figures meant nothing to me given my own experiences as somebody’s son. What is fatherhood but a tool that permits people to use the language of love and care to mask the abusive use of force by stronger people over weaker people? Fatherhood is a history written by victors – who often win because they were willing to be more cruel than everyone else(See also: charity.) And now here I am, a well-developed brand called “good dad” writing blog posts about how lucky I am to know Charlie and Ruby and posting pictures and funny but also touching anecdotes about them on Facebook. In the realm of the hyperreal, this has become a large part of my brand equity.
But in the realm of the surreal (the prefix “sur” meaning “over, above, beyond, in addition to”), love is what is happening. This is a love that doesn’t have to be named, or labeled, or branded (although I know I am doing all of those things by writing about it now – the hyperreal will, of course, always brand everything, including the surreal, but the surreal needn’t give a damn about that).
Here in the domain of love, what does it mean that I am a father? It means that I love Ruby and I love Charlie. It means that they love me. We are a part of each other… and I almost feel as though I am getting smaller as they get larger. I felt that way especially strongly at Charlie’s kindergarten graduation last week. I watched him sing and dance and perform at the graduation ceremony – and he winked and waved and smiled and gave me a thumbs up and blew me kisses and had his eyes on me for nearly the whole performance – and I was overwhelmed by what a lovely boy this not-a-baby and no-longer-a-toddler has become. I had to stop myself from bursting into tears of joy and gratitude. Later on in the ceremony, his mom arrived and brought Ruby with her, and Ruby came and sat in my lap for a while – I turned and saw her smiling at me from the aisle and then she ran and jumped into my arms. As I held her and watched Charlie, I thought about how my life has grown smaller and smaller so that mostly what I do, I do because of and for my children and I thought, “I am fading as they are growing more and more solid.” And I was content with this. “They must increase, but I must decrease.”
Even loving is a form of dying. Or perhaps it is simply that one is transformed into love and everything else falls away. If that’s the case, then even dying is a form of living. If I continue on this trajectory and die, I reckon I will have been transformed into love like a tree that is struck by lightning and turns into fire.
(“Why not be utterly changed into fire?”)
A few months ago, the kids started calling me “Dan” a lot because I often play have playdates with other kids or because I volunteer a lot at the school or stay and play with the other children when I am picking the m up, and so all the other children have gotten to know me. So I explained to Charlie and Ruby that, “yes, you can call me ‘Dan’ if you like, but it makes me feel really special if you call me ‘Daddy.’” They started calling me ‘Daddy’ again. Then, a few days ago, I chaperoned Charlie’s year end class trip and the other kids started calling me “Dan.” Charlie stopped them and said: “Please, don’t call him ‘Dan’. It makes him feel special if you call him ‘Daddy’.” He was genuinely sad and concerned and wanted to make sure I felt special. On the bus ride home, he fell asleep in my lap and I held him close to me and didn’t move as my arms and legs slowly went numb.
When we got home, Ruby wanted me to push out my belly so that she could push it back in and then I would push it out again and she could push it back in again. She laughed her big happy laugh with her mouth wide open and her eyes sparkling and that night she crawled into bed with me and took my arm and put it around her.
We are all so tiny and our lives our so brief it is impossible for us to grasp just how insignificant we are. The universe (multiverse?) is incomprehensibly large and what is one life in comparison to the life of a planet, or a solar system, or a galaxy? I mean, shit, even a sea sponge can live nine thousand and nine hundred years longer than one of us. A sea sponge – those things we use to clean our showers and countertops – maybe be infinitely wiser than we are. We just might not be able to recognize its intelligence (given the brevity of our own lives and the limits of our perspectives). So, in the grand scope of time/space, what are we? We are nothing.
To those still grasping for significance within the realm of the hyperreal, this conclusion can seem terrifying and lead to the resigned conclusion that nothing matters. Those who are in love might come to a slightly different conclusion: nothing matters. And what is the ethics that corresponds to this? Perhaps it is best summarized in this statement: thanks for nothing.
(Please note that this is not an effort to restore significance within an insignificant existence. Rather, it is the full embrace of insignificance. It is not premised upon a need to still feel valuable. It is based upon the ability to laugh at our own desire to feel valuable. In love, questions of significance and value no longer make sense. They are irrelevant – love makes everything it touches priceless, which, is another way of saying that it makes everything it touches worthless. Love and significance belong to different worlds… so because language and writing belong to signification, it is hard to speak of such things and probably only those with ears to hear will be able to hear what is said.)
My children (who are not really “mine,” as if one person could own or possess another) bound like deer across the room. They laugh and tickle me and jump on the bed. They trash every room in the house. We have a picnic in the living room. Later on this evening, my father is coming over for a campfire because it is father’s day and I invited him over because I knew it would make him feel special. And here’s a secret I will tell you: I never learned how to not love my dad. No matter how close I came, no matter how angry I was, no matter how betrayed, even after everything he did to me and my brothers and my mom and others, there was still always a little piece inside of me that loved him and wanted to embrace him and take away his sickness and heal is wounds, and comfort him as he was never comforted as a child – my dad, too, is a Charlie. My dad, too, is a Ruby. So once I stopped having any expectations in terms of his behavior, or any desire for him to be anything other than he is, I learned how to be with him.
This is a portrait I drew of my father.
And this is a picture you took of Charlie and Ruby and I.
And these are children playing on the beach.