I only need to pretend a little bit to believe that the sound of traffic outside my window is the sound of the sea. But when I walk that street at night the lights from the hospital, the rivers of headlights, and the overhead wires illuminated by lamps, block out the stars and the sky looks like the sun is starting to rise but I know it’s just light pollution taking the night sky away from me, like the concrete under me stopping my feet from walking on the earth, and all I smell is gasoline. This used to be a forest but all I see are buildings, streets, and the expressions people make when they realize you’re looking in their car windows as they hurry, hurry, hurry home.
There are little grey birds that live high in the mountains of Iceland and they sing the sweetest little grey songs and I was surprised to hear them up so high where the snow still hasn’t retreated and where almost all one sees is rocks and mosses and minerals and ice, and all one hears is the wind and the thundering of glaciers so large that they bury whole ranges of mountains, but there are spiders there, too, and I imagine the little grey birds sweetly gobble them up as the spiders scurry, scurry, scurry home.
I went camping last week with my kids and two of my brothers and their kids and I couldn’t hear traffic and I couldn’t hear the sea, and the birds, the grackles and crows and jays and sparrows and other birds whose voices I didn’t recognize, sang and talked and called and squabbled, and I thought about what the soundscape used to be before the land where I live was urbanized like a reef bleached white and emptied by rising ocean temperatures, and I wondered if I was catching a glimpse of how things might have been, once upon a time, or if these birds and their songs were only present at the campground because of the people and the wake of garbage they leave behind.
Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason why some of us love our children so dearly is because they are the only solid point of connection to Life and the Living we have left. We go to jobs where we are paid to waste our lives, stay out of the way, accumulate credit and debt, never do anything significant, never disrupt anything, in cities removed from the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feel of the land, and then our children crash into our lives like an apocalypse fresh from the Spirit world, so bursting with life that their bones are literally stretching and we think, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, and cry tears of gratitude in cubicles haloed by neon lights.
I used to want to make something of myself. Teachers and bosses and mentors and peers had great expectations. Great expectations. The greatest. When I was younger, I internalized these expectations and they oppressed me. A few years ago, I shrugged them off. These days, I’m content to be just who I am. A father, a lover, a fighter, a friend. And a disappointment and a failure, too. But, also, I am stardust and earth and water and air, carbon and iron and helium and calcium and adenosine triphosphate. I am everything and forever and nobody and nothing and soon it will be as if I never was, although Life will continue living and I, too, endosymbiont and ecosystem that I am, am alive, alive, a Life.
When we were camping, we celebrated Ruby’s birthday with a unicorn cake my co-worker made and presents from a kids’ clothing brand called “Justice.” She’s seven now. She likes to say, “I love you just the way you are,” and she sleeps in a hammock I made for her above her bed. On lazy summer mornings, she likes to cuddle me after she awakens. I still rub her back at night and, in a world awhirl with wars and rumours of wars, she likes to do chalk art on the sidewalk. And what matters more than all these pretty words and the love letters I write her, are the times I play with her. Play, for Ruby, seems mostly to be an opportunity to rejoice in the company of others. She rejoices in them and in herself. She laughs a lot when she plays. “I love me just the way I am,” she says. “Oh my gosh, I do, too!” I say, and I tickle her neck with my moustache and she squeels and runs away from me. But she never runs very far.
Shortly before celebrating Ruby’s birthday, Jess and I went to Iceland to hike the Laugavegurinn. I was transfigured by our first visit to Iceland in 2016. I don’t know how else to call it. My insides shifted, my outsides became more porous. I blurred into the everything even though I also felt more solid than ever before, and I felt a sense of connectedness and interconnectedness that made me tiny and made me vast and made me real and made me belong. It was this sense of belonging — both in the tiny, brief “I” that I am and as a part of the everything that always has been and always will be — that I carried back with me.
I’ve been abused as a child and abused as a worker and abused by the people who most say they want to help. And while everyone in social services takes great offense when people try to “abuse the system,” nobody seems to heed the fact that it’s their very own bosses who are the worst abusers as frontline staffing levels are cut and wages are frozen and benefits are canceled and people with the most acute needs are boxed out of services and I ain’t never seen a boss miss a raise or take a pay cut in all of this, but if you don’t sacrifice yourself until you’re no longer brave enough to get out of bed, then you’re selfish and not a good team player. But the truth is that people can’t abuse the system. It’s the system that abuses people. It’s the system that doesn’t belong.
And I’ve been listening to AJJ a lot lately and singing along with my fist in the air and when he says, “there’s a bad man in everyone no matter who you are/ there’s a rapist and a nazi living in your tiny heart/ child pornographers and cannibals and politicians too/ there’s someone in your head waiting to fucking strangle you,” I nod along and I know what he means — not because I identify as a rapist or nazi or politician or any of these things, but because I know that those who have abused me have gotten themselves deep inside of me, and it takes a lifetime to root them out. Because the someone in my head, waiting to fucking strangle me, isn’t me. For a long time I thought it was. I thought that voice of guilt, of self-loathing, of negative self-talk, and of suicidal ideation was mine. For a long time, I thought I hated myself. But I never did. They were the ones who hated me. It’s their voice, not mine. I think I’m lovely.
On the beach with the children, a helicopter passes overhead and everyone oooohs and aaaahs. But I think of the young Palestinian man I knew who was a boy when he saw his uncle’s living body, his living uncle’s body, ripped to shreds by the high caliber ammunition of an Israeli helicopter machine gunner because, when the choppers came, they couldn’t flee into the water since the Israeli gunboats were already waiting there for him, and they had already missed him once with a missile into a parked car that killed someone else’s wife, and he couldn’t make it to shelter in the palm trees in time, and the bullets were so large and flying so fast that his body exploded and his nephew helped gather pieces of him out of the sand once it was safe to do so, because the Israeli military had missed him once before but he had blown up an Israeli tank that was driving through an occupied city in an occupied land over occupied people who would have been otherwise occupied if Europeans hadn’t become so preoccupied with solving the Jewish problem and fracturing Arab nations and Americans weren’t so addicted to oil and fracturing Arab nations, and so they weren’t going to miss him again. But my nephews and nieces dig holes and my son jumps waves and my daughter makes her cousin into a sand-mermaid and I sit close to my brothers and I feel okay.
Ruby is an amazing girl. I never feel the inadequacy of words so much as when I try to describe Jess or my children (who aren’t really mine — they are their own). How can I describe Ruby or the way she makes me feel? I can’t with words. But my actions, the ways I treat her, the attention I give her, the ways I am with her, describe her as I experience her and as I feel about her. One of Ruby’s names is Beloved and that is how I treat her. Because I treat her that way (and other do, too), that is how she knows herself. The someone in her head isn’t waiting to strangle her — the someone in her head adores her. And Ruby, what does she think? “I love me just the way I am.”
Last year, experiences with an abusive teacher at her school, challenged Ruby’s thinking about herself because the teacher’s actions communicated to Ruby that she wasn’t Beloved, that she deserved to be mistreated, that there was something wrong with her and, as the teacher said to Ruby, that nobody would believe her if she “tattle-taled.” It took me months of writing letters, going to meetings, negotiating various hierarchies, studying polices and procedures, talking with H.R., with the Principal and Superintendent, with the Trustee, with the Ontario College of Teachers, and persisting, persisting, persisting, to get the school to respond to this matter in anything close to an adequate way so that, on the very last day of the school year, someone finally apologized to Ruby, told her what happened wasn’t right, and told her that it should never happen again. I have been thinking about this event in light of the closing line from the AJJ song quoted above: “So here’s to you Mrs. Robinson/ you live in an unforgiving place” and I have been thinking about how institutions driven by a desire to protect profit margins and brand equity and avoid lawsuits at all costs, end up making things like forgiveness or reconciliation or grace impossible because their entire approach is premised upon formulating plausible deniability and the refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing.
There are some risks that one faces when hiking the Laugavegurinn. Even at the height of summer, there is the possibility of blizzards and white outs, or fogs that can disorient hikers and cause them to lose their way on snowfields at high elevation, or one hundred mile per hour winds that can blow you off narrow mountain passes, or snow bridges that suddenly collapse due to water flowing beneath them, or rivers that might flood and become impassable. There’s even the possibility that one of several active volcanoes nearby might erupt, at which point you better get to high ground and you better get there fast. There are cairns along the way marking where people have died. On average, someone dies on the trail every other year, and the week before Jess and I went, the wardens had to do search and rescue missions for six different hikers. Large sections of the trail were closed due to snow and wind and poor visibility. The week after we went, sections were closed due to flooding. You have to be careful when hiking in the wilderness. But accidents happen and, out there, small accidents can have large consequences. But I wouldn’t say that the Laugavegurinn is unforgiving. It took people to make places that way. And not just any people — it took specific people who loved money and power and accumulating things, things that they claimed to own, and who loved all those things — the money and power and things — more than they loved other people, to make places that way. It’s a terrible shame, although those who profit most from this might disagree with that conclusion. But there is a mountain that is blue and yellow and green in Landmannalaugar and the mountains there fold in ways I have seen nowhere else, and the wind we felt when summiting Hrafntinnusker feels like the wind that circles the top of the world, never coming down to the grasses or sands or water that cover its surface, and the view looking down to Álftavatn may very well be the most beautiful vista I experience in my life, and after spending a day traveling through the black sand of a lava desert, and after fording the Þjórsá and entering the Þórsmörk, the sudden lushness of the woods, with crippled birch trees and a forest floor entirely covered with yellow and purple flowers, I knew that although a part of my heart will always be mourning, another part of my heart will always be saying thank you, and I knew that these two parts are all part of one heart, and that this heart knows these things, sorrow and gratitude, because the everything knows them, too. But I also know this — the more intimate I become with the everything the more the sorrow recedes, the gratitude grows, and something akin to peace appears, takes root, and grows. Like a crippled birch tree, twisted by winter winds, with only the shortest growing season, small but strong, strong, strong. And if you want to know the thing I loved the most about the Laugavegurinn, it was all of it with Jess.
And Jess and I took Ruby and Charlie to a campout last weekend, and the kids stayed up late to watch the fireworks. Explosions of colour and light and sound in the night sky. Fog drifting across the lawn from the farmer’s field beside the house. Ruby sat in her folding camping chair and as the explosions lit up her face, I saw that she was smiling her biggest smile. I love you, darling. Happy birthday.