Numerology of Grief (The Sixth Year)

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”

-Albert Camus

Six is my favourite number. It is the number of years between my younger sister and me. It looks like the lovechild of zero and “C”. The only single digit that is divisible by two as well as three, it seems to encompass both even and odd with a swirling, round-bottomed equanimity.

This tadpole, half of a yin-yang symbol, is also the number for idealists. Six years ago today, I counted myself among them when our son was born. I was determined to be the ideal father to an ideal son. Three days, eight hours and forty minutes later, when the doctor pronounced him dead, that idealism shattered, not by twos and threes, but into innumerable pieces.
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2011 Roundup Year-in-Review

“How can I tell what I think ’till I see what I say?”

-E.M. Forster
Image: Wikipedia

Once again, I have taken a look over the past year, and selected one post from each month that stood out in some way.

January: The Fifth Year

Today, I said goodbye two our two-year-old Australian nephew, not sure when we will see him again. As we near the sixth anniversary of our son’s birth and death, I realise how far we have come, not only geographically, but psychologically as well. Passing the fifth year was a milestone for us.

February: Human Shade

In February, my debut short collection Human Shade was published by Lost Horse Press in America. It was extremely heartening to see so many orders arrive in such a short time. I brought a few copies with me to England.

March: London Calling

In March, we made the decision to move to London. Having lived my entire life in California, I had no idea just what a leap this would be for me.

April: Adieu, America

In April, I said goodbye to America, but not to being an American. In fact, living here, I have never felt so American as I do now. My father also bid me farewell in a very special way.

May: Through the Looking Glass

In May, we arrived with just our suitcases. We had one week to find a place to live before the start of my new job. After the whirlwind subsided, I began to feel like Alice, down the rabbit hole in a world that only superficially resembled the one I had known.

June: Notes on Contemporary British Poetry

In June, I began to take advantage of my circumstances by way of comparative Anglo-American poetics. So began an effort to overcome what I have deemed “poetic culture shock“ — and come to understand the subtle differences between British and American poetry.

July: Discovering an Artistic Ancestor

In July, I discovered a remarkable book by another poet named Peake, which had a profound effect on me.

August: The Nature of Peace

In August, the London riots exploded not far from our home while we were on holiday in Wales with my parents. The contrast prompted this meditation.

September: An American Werewolf in London

In September, I began to put my finger on the sense of otherness that had been haunting me, and let myself howl a bit at the moon.

October: “On Being Straight (A Thought Experiment)

I wrote this piece in October, and within a short span of time my “thought experiment” turning the tables on identity politics had received over 95,000 views on StumbleUpon, and been republished in The Good Men Project.

November: “The Invisible Father

A colleague’s casual remark set off this mini-essay for The Good Men Project about the being a father without a child.

December: “British Matches

In December, Aperçus Quarterly published this short poem, inspired by the warning label on a pack of matches. Along with comparative Anglo-American poetics, I seem to be studying semiotic estrangement — the effect of “everyday” signs and symbols on a cultural outsider.

It has been a remarkable year. Wishing peace to you and yours in 2012!


The Invisible Father

I am pleased to have the following piece appear in The Good Men Project online:

In response to the recent news that my wife’s health condition had worsened, a coworker kindly offered to babysit. “You must have mistaken me for someone else in the office,” I replied, “We don’t have kids.” Being a considerate person, I expected her to respond to my email as others had before — with apologies, saying she meant no offense. But the next part of her message took me by surprise. She said something to the effect that I seemed grounded and settled, and that this is a quality she often admires in dads.

As a child, I always thought invisibility was the best possible super power. To be able to see and know what is going on, without being seen yourself, was something I craved. So much so that I still am taken aback when others share insights about me that they have gained from observation. But the idea that I was behaving in a visibly father-like way struck me as both poignant and profound.

The death of our infant son, and our subsequent inability to have another child, cast me into not only grief, but a longing to understand what my life is about.

Continue reading the full article online at The Good Men Project


How to Lie with Facebook

“Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself, so the weary travelers may find repose.”

-Czeslaw Milosz

I have been previewing Facebook’s upcoming Timeline feature. It turns one’s profile into a scrapbook-style autobiography, arranging multimedia posts in a chronology from birth to present. It is part of a larger strategy to promote information sharing that has been intelligently criticized in general terms. But it was a specific moment in my exploration of Timeline that pulled me up short. Clicking on the small heart icon for “Relationships”, up popped a menu item for marking one’s timeline with “Lost a Loved One.”

Though we have memorialised our son in many ways, the thought of posting his photo on Facebook beneath the small flower icon to make it part of this music-video-all-about-me of a web application struck me as painfully absurd. He is deeply and irrevocably part of my life. But a biography is not a life, much less an online profile. We have become a society obsessed with crafting our image — so much so that we almost believe, and sometimes attempt to inhabit, these spun self-tales.

The antidote to the future we now inhabit, wherein everyone has their own Wikipedia page for fifteen minutes, is art. Mark Twain called biographies “the clothes and buttons of a man,” deciding, “the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” But something approaching what it feels like to be a man can come across in the literary arts, and especially poetry. Poetry is the anti-wiki, striving for truths that need no citation, encompassing contradictions rather than devolving into fact-slinging “flame wars.”

And so, when it is released next month, I will use Timeline. But for matters that transcend time, and excavate the inmost reality, I’m sticking with poems.


Why I Write

Unexpected things happen when you release a book of poems into the world. The opening poem of the collection, “Father-Son Conversation” ends with the line: “I will go on speaking to you as long as I live.” Many people have written to me to say that they paused after reading this final line, sometimes for several days, before continuing on to the other poems in this collection. To me, that was both an unexpected and understandable response.

I have my own relationship with each of these poems. The first poem in this collection tells a lot about the purpose I have found in writing poetry. That is why I put it first. The Scottish poet Andrew Philip, who also lost his first-born son, says near the end of his poem “Lullaby,” “this is the man you fathered.” Indeed, my experience with the birth and death of our son James was an initiation into fatherhood — that I was “fathered” by him, just as one might be “knighted” by a sovereign. I came away with a charge.

But how to fulfill the charge of fatherhood without a child of one’s own? Continue reading…


The Fifth Year

The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly. (Proverbs 20:27, KJV)

Two days ago, our next-door neighbors marked the birthday of the adult son they outlived. Yesterday, my wife’s childhood friend commemorated what would have been her son’s Bar Mitzvah. I feel for them deeply. And tomorrow, had he lived more than three days, our own son would have turned five.

It is a significant age in our culture — the beginning of more than a decade of compulsory education, and also therefore the end of the need for full-time care. It is when most parents place their child at the top of a long chute ending in adulthood, by taking them nervously in hand to their first day of kindergarten.

Late last year, in response to a wave of teenage suicides, the It Gets Better project reached out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-gender (LGBT) teens with its simple message of encouragement. After five years of complicated grief, I am here to say it can get better for bereaved parents, too. I say “can” because I credit not only time but a number of important activities for bringing me increased solace, including: community service, counseling, meditation, nutrition, exercise, supportive friends, and, of course, writing. While all of this has helped, both in the moment and over time, it has not been some steady upward progression. Far from it. Some days, just getting out of bed in the morning is still my greatest victory.
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