Once again, religious extremism has thrust its ugly head into the public consciousness. Pretty much all non-fucking-crazy humans have been properly revolted by the extreme Islamism on display with the decapitation murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of a British terrorist. This got me to thinking about religion generally, and the fine line that exists between your run-of-the-mill god worship and the insanity that exists on the extreme fringes of pretty much every deity-worshiping sect the planet has to offer. And what “god” actually is, if there can be One God that truly holds dominion over each and every single one of us, regardless of which particular “brand” a person decides he or she is most in allegiance with.
In about 2003, when I was 29, I felt a shift inside of me, where the weight had finally moved from the faith side of the reason/ faith scale to, for the first time ever, start to press more heavily on the side of reason. I can’t say exactly why this happened when it happened—there wasn’t an “incident”—no antithesis of a burning bush or personal loss for which there was no answer. I think it was one of the more famous holocaust survivors who once said something to the effect that if the holocaust exists then it goes without saying that there can be no god. Looking back now, I see my belief in a supreme being as more of an adherence to pre-scientific revolution superstition than anything remotely approaching “religious faith” in any strict sense of that phrase. I knocked on wood after inadvertently saying something I only too-late realized I hoped wouldn’t come to pass, just as much as I blessed food before eating it in the hopes that its abundance would continue unabated, that fear in the back of my mind that if I didn’t continue this tradition, that harkened back to the very earliest epochs of my memory’s existence, the food might wither away. It was the faith equivalent of having a pair of lucky socks on gameday, with this meal being gameday and prayers being the unwashed socks.
But then I made the connection between disgusting crusty socks arbitrarily assigned luck and “proper” meals requiring blessings (but not an impromptu snack, for some reason), and then the whole thing was crumbling down until I was left with only myself in the vast, mostly empty universe.
With that realization fresh (and terrifying), it logically followed that my wife and children were more important to me than ever—they were, after all, the only TRUE connections I had in the world. If there was no deity watching over me and those I cared about, then what the fuck was there but love? Love was all that there was and is and ever would be.
I saw Boyhood yesterday with my eighteen year old son and thirteen year old daughter. If you haven’t seen it, take my and every seriously considered movie reviewer’s advice and make a conscious effort to put this film on your to-do list. There’s not much plot to it, as plotlines go, but it speaks volumes. It sheds light on all of our lives. It reveals what my friend Leslie rightly pointed out is the One, True God—the God that every religious fundamentalist from Mormons to ISIS has missed on their way to self-righteous oneness with the infinite: TIME. Time is the only god that any of us can truly know for certain.
I have steadfastly written down the major occurrences of my life as they happened, since I was about fifteen years old. Learning how to describe things to myself via the written word was, in and of itself, a revelation and a MAJOR turning point in my life and my understanding of that life. Which doesn’t necessarily remove any of my terror at the prospect of one day having the lights turn off for good, or the contemplation of how this final major event will transpire (Will it be slow and painful? Will it be fast and painless? Will I wish it was the other way regardless? Would it be worse to know you’re dying and fight that inevitability every step of the way or to merely give in to the inevitability, the most stark reminder of the latter being pretty much any time I ever hear about someone committing suicide?). And although I have gone back and re-read stuff I have written over the years, never had I seen such a crystalline presentation of life as it actually happens—time in its unforgiving march forward—as is presented in Richard Linklater’s film. I looked over at my children during different parts of the film and could see that they, in their relatively short amount of time alive, conscious and self-aware, were connecting to it just as acutely, though perhaps not in the same way or on the same beats, as I was. It was magnificent. It gave us more conversation than taking the dinghy out on the lake would have, most assuredly. Though that’s on the agenda for next weekend, when it will hopefully not be either threatening rain or actually raining as it was all day here in Nashville. Making memories is important, and though I doubt they will remember the time we watched a nearly three hour meditation on time and how quickly it transpires while we are busy living our lives, they will definitely remember spending time with their somewhat broke and broken father out on a lake in a tiny rubber boat on a hot Tennessee summer day…
After they went home, our half-weekend exhausted once more, I sat down to write—something. I didn’t know what it would be but it had to be something because it had been a minute since I’d been so profoundly affected by anything. Any then I saw this picture thumbnailed on my desktop.
And back came all the anger, resentment and revenge scenarios I had been envisioning for literally years now, ever since my ex-wife stole my children from me seven years ago this summer, when my son was eleven and my daughter was six. Boyhood made it all the more clear how much I had missed—that it was due to another person’s selfishness made it all that much harder to swallow without severe bile welling up and choking me. Because unlike Ethan Hawke’s character in the movie, who at least seems to have voluntarily taken leave of his kids in order to follow his own bliss, I never left. I was forced out at first, and then intentionally left behind. Twice. And after joblessness and homelessness and the complete destruction of everything I held dear, I got back to my kids and more than five years had passed. A massive part of their childhoods, gone. She took them from me and with that decision I was doomed to miss out on so much of their lives. Not just birthdays and holidays spent together—those were merely the so-called “banner moments.” It was the little mundane details that I regret losing out on the most. It’s the hours spent barbecuing in the back yard, the conversations over dinner, the every day moments lost to eternity. The loss that comes from losing daily touch over space and time. She stole that from me, there was no arguing it, and there still isn’t. And then, when I was finally able to move to where she had taken my family more than five years earlier, she was sleeping with my daughter’s best friend’s married dad. This was the piece of shit I’d tied my wagon to. This was the goddam cunt I wanted to die over. This was the whore I suffered for. I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how I could have been so blind, to not see that this person that I fell in love with and started a family with and planned the rest of our lives with had a moral compass so magnetically opposed to my own. It is an understatement to say that my abject hatred of her is like an entity in and of itself. It overtakes me from time to time, and all I can see in those times is black hatred. Her selfishness practically ruined me, but worse even than that, it stole the rapidly changing, ever-expanding lives of my son and daughter from me, rendering the times I was able to spend with them over the most formative years of their lives as mere flashes of recognition rendered effectively in a three-hour retrospective movie that we watched together on a Saturday afternoon, the fictional lives rendered on-screen a reliable substitute for what our actual lives together have been. I cried in the movie theater. It wasn’t even a particularly tear-jerky scene. But I couldn’t hold in the anguish any longer.
And then (spoiler??) I saw Patricia Arquette, who plays the mother in the film, crying, alone, asking is that all there is? and while that hasn’t yet transpired in my ex’s life, I have high hopes for her destitution and isolation. And fuck you if you find that petty or vengeful or in some way taking the low road. Because the only god is time and my children’s time was stolen from me. And I’m trying…I swear to you, I am really trying—to figure out how to not allow the rest of my life to become a referendum on this woman. Because where does that get me, or my relationship with my son and daughter, who she will always be a mom to, regardless of how shitty she was to me? The answer: Nowhere. She’s just as fucked up and broken, if not moreso, as I am without me having fucked her over and taken the children from her…
So where does that leave me…where?
I don’t think so. At least not now. I’m just not there, and honestly cannot imagine ever being there. I click on any and every news story I come across that has as its major talking point a person forgiving someone for something fucking terrible. There are people imprisoned for years unjustly. There are parents of murdered children who forgive the murderer. And every time I read one of these stories I feel like a bastard for being so dead-set in my inability to just forgive this woman. Like she said when we first separated and I lost my mind, “people get divorced every day.” “But not us,” I said. “I built my life around you—around our family. And I won’t ever have another chance,” I said. The veracity of this last statement changed nothing. She was still gone. My children were still gone. When I was finally able to gather the financial means to physically move to where she had moved them it was already too late. Yes, they are still alive, and we are still able to see each other and make memories together, but I can’t be like Ethan Hawke. I can’t start a new family. And I missed out on so many of my son’s and daughter’s most formative years. I’m a stranger to them, a guy who buys them shit on the weekends. Maybe it would have been like this even if we had lived in the same house together all this time but I can’t know that. All I know is that another person’s selfishness and inability to truly give herself to a greater good robbed all of us of something more than the sum of its parts. And while that could never be as bad as them being murdered, there is the matter of the pact we made, wherein we pledged our lives to each other and the family we were immediately consummating with our exchange of vows. I was a single father of my then four-year-old son and she was eight months pregnant with our daughter when we tied that easily cut knot. We were an insta-family as soon as we walked out of the chapel. But then I cut myself to make it all the more official, this dedication to who we claimed to be, and then she was gone. They were gone. And I was still cut and floating untethered in the darkness, desperately grasping for a hand hold. Anything. And I could understand how a disenfranchised young man could find solace in the overwhelming empty that is life for so many on this planet, and latch on to religion, even in its most despicably radical form—because even a vengeful, ruthless, savage god can be trusted to fulfill his promises more than the majority of human beings. Because there is no way of knowing one way or another until you’re dead and he’s there rewarding you, not there punishing you, or the whole thing is just gone and there’s nothing left but the imprint you left for those that survived to talk about and pass down from one generation to the next. It’s all relative. Even the most despicable figures in history are still revered by someone for their power or vision decades-centuries-millennia later. The little betrayals between a man and a woman and the aftermath of those betrayals and its effect on their children pass through the annals of time as water in a vast ocean of nothing. And everything. And we all give our due diligence, our perhaps unwilling acquiescence to this god of us all, eventually, whether we pledge fealty to it or not.