Oct/Nov 2021  •   Nonfiction

This Essay is About Everything

by Andrew Bertaina

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

My old professor, the writer Richard McCann, once said, "an essay can only be about one thing." This essay is about everything. Not because it's a provocation, but because life, goddamn life, isn't ever about one thing. It's about the music you're listening to while driving your kids to camp. It's about the small patches and low places in the road, the broken yellow lines of paint, the brake lights of a beige Toyota Yaris, whether you love your kids enough, whether you're on time to work, whether you've got a passport ready for your trip to Montreal; and that's just a moment in time eliding the line of oaks, slivers of sunlight on the road, the rows of Tudor Houses, and the large green bushes you know are azaleas because come spring, the street is alive with pinks, whites, purples, butterflies, and bees. And that moment blooms into one after another after another. That's life. An essay can only be about everything.

The blinds are up in my apartment as they usually are. One of those small decisions that become yours at the end of things. From the window, I can hear the rush of cars on 9th—tires on asphalt reminiscent of waves on shore. I am prone to saying aesthetics matter, and if they do, the moment is beautiful. But of course, like many people, what I say and what I feel or do are often at odds with one another. Unanimity has always eluded me, a fact that has annoyed partners through the years. I cannot tell you what I'll want on Wednesday when it's Tuesday. The Wednesday man eludes me.

I drank my coffee on the futon, quietly, with an air of contemplation. The children sat at the table between the two light-streaming windows, munching cereal. My living room and dining room are one here, the sort of change that only comes about at the end of a marriage, moving backward in architectural time, traipsing through IKEA, buying a toaster, a dish rack, a set of blue ceramic mugs, using folding chairs as opposed to something solid. And now I'm restructuring life, selling myself on the changes as a person must when the change is drastic. Parenting is easier now. It's good to be free!

As the light poured in I took photos of the children—my daughter, a peaceful silhouette, lifting spoon towards lips. In the background, a tree's dark limbs like elongated fingers and the sun—a spectrum of light—riding in waves behind her. She is never still in life: jumping from couch to couch, performing a play, arguing, putting her little brother in a leg lock. She's as stubborn as stone and willful as a colt. Our days turn into battles of wills reminiscent of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab. I spend swaths of time taking away privileges to maintain a semblance of order, before she rams herself into the raft of our day, smashing it to bits. Her will is so much stronger than mine. Perhaps she is the captain and the whale. Perhaps I am only the boat.

In the second picture, my son runs towards me—shirtless, pale-skinned, red-gold hair shrouded in a halo of the sun's rays that appear as elongated bars chasing him across the room: a gateway into another dimension, a playmate in the world's best game of tag. He's lighter than she is, more flexible emotionally, prone to look at me with blue eyes bursting with excitement, adoration, joy.

The children ignore me at breakfast as I harangue them to finish quickly, to sit while they eat, to stop dropping crumbs on the floor. But now, with two aesthetically pleasing pictures, the banal has been transformed into the beautiful. And I needn't say much more beyond that as we all know life on social media is false and corrosive, pushing a narrative of our lives that doesn't square with reality, and creating a negative feedback loop for everyone else watching it from the outside. We all know this, or should. The interesting part is that we persist in it.

People love these photos on Instagram. A random person describes my daughter in silhouette as cool. And I hope this random person on the Internet is right because I want to be a photographer and a writer. I want to be something other than what I am: a person disappointed with the structure of his life, buzzing from this place to that, from this article about aesthetic theory to one about new age philosophy to a retrospective on modern art, to anything to fill space or suggest an answer to the riddle of living. And it is a riddle, or it always has been, for me. What are we to do with the hours that fill our lives?

Art rarely mimics life. True mimesis is rare. Those light blooming pictures—aesthetic pleasures—are false. Raising children is not beautiful but banal and tiring. I love them. But I am undone by them: their questions, their inability to buckle seat belts, to sit while they eat, to sleep before 9:30, their insistent fingers pulling arm hair, their bodies—joyful and careless—thrown into my stomach, across my ankles.

I cannot shit alone. I am undone by their constant need for water, for shows, for candy, for me, for me, for me. How do you make such a chaotic relationship beautiful? How do you make the rote and routine, the tears and the requests to play cars when you don't give two fucks about cars, into something meaningful? Sometimes, I catch myself playing with them at wrestling, growling and tossing them across the floor. I want those moments to last forever, piled beneath blankets, their warm bodies near mine. But I have a nasty tendency to stare at my phone, see what's happening in the lives of people I vaguely know. I ignore them or find them mildly irritating, and this feeling lives alongside an incredibly deep well-spring of love. Perhaps, and I don't suppose I'm alone in this, I am routinely living my life wrong.

I slump into the couch after their bedtime, feeling worn-through around 9:30 or so. Then I can watch a show, read a book, grade a paper, do something not mediated by the necessity of work or parenting. I am impatient with any aspect of life that forces me to conform, to change, to swallow up the selfishness of being me. And I do it, time and time again: I conform, but I am not happy for it. I am, at root, one of the bitterest people I know because I try so hard to make everyone around me happy, bending and shaping myself to fit what I think they want. This is an absurd way to live, but insight doesn't always lead to change. Sometimes it's just an insight.

I'm willing to grant this questioning of existence is problematic. I act as though some other life exists in which the children wander through waist-high grass chasing butterflies and come in to drink lemonade and hug me before sitting down to discuss the ins and outs of Aristotle's poetics and single-barrel bourbons. I act as though some world exists that was made for my pleasure—long intense chats, slight winds, time stopping amid bluish evening air. That such a world doesn't exist, not for any child, nor any adult, makes it no less disappointing. I cannot manufacture the world I want. As such, I am often disappointed, but I am simultaneously dissatisfied with my dissatisfaction, which I realize is a failure to accept the world as it is, infinitely kinder and gentler than many other people's iterations of the same. The failure to enjoy life feels more profoundly silly and deepening by the year. I want to fall into a well like a character in a Murakami novel, find myself in the infinite-seeming dark.

When I think of the world as I see it when I'm taking pictures—light resting in golden hair, the round arch, tattered cloud sky and blooming jacaranda, the soft textures of futons, a spoon's silver sheen—I am reminded we are surrounded by beauty, by form. Perhaps each day is its own series of beauties—a wind chime near dusk, piles of pink-hued clouds, the lengthening of shadows in the golden hour, an arch, a Doric column, a pansy holding light, a hosta leaf trembling with water, children's pale arms cupping Cheerios, puddles reflecting buildings, clouds, sky. Either argument seems valid to me, beautiful or banal. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, between drinks, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I do not have a first-rate mind, but I do have contradictory ideas.

Even if I could trick myself into seeing the light falling sideways across the chaise as gorgeous each morning, my existence would still be problematic. The self is still frustrated, incomplete. I don't mean the constructed self, the version we put together each day. Rather, I mean the minute-to-minute self—the self that notices a wine bottle gathering dust, gets up to pee, walks across the house wondering what the bad smell is? Pees, rises and picks up a newspaper article, scans it, puts it down, starts to pour milk into a cereal bowl while thinking of an aunt's Facebook post briefly, before attending to the cracking of eggs, imperfectly. What is that person? Because it seems to me it is a self, not reflective, not deeply invested in the moment as a continuance of some grand narrative, but passing and passing. All I mean to say is life is not an illumination. It is a series of almost non-contiguous moments. These moments without meaning, in which we exist, in aggregate, compose a self, a life.

And yet, I believe narrative is a critical way of stitching things together that might otherwise fall apart: a marriage, a religion. However, those stories I told myself about religion and marriage were only half-truths, obscuring the fissures that had been forming for years, moment after moment, decision after decision, change after change. None of which were momentous enough to disrupt the narrative I'd willingly constructed by themselves, but, which in aggregate, were chasm-sized. I realize now, the only story I've ever believed about myself is the story that takes place in the moment, the now. Like every good essayist since Montaigne locked himself away in a French country house to prattle on, I went looking for answers.

It was Borges, as it is for many writers, who led me first. I read his essays a number of years ago. Though I was a different person then, still married, still somewhat content with the structures of life, sitting on a beige couch, poring over his essays and stories on evenings when the first child, then a baby, was asleep. She was pink and cream-colored. She gazed back at me when I made whistling sounds like a bird, vibrating my throat while she giggled and giggled.

I am no longer that man as I sit on a futon, two blocks from that house, in a single bedroom apartment, typing in the late evening on a warm summer's day. But I digress, as I often do. In his essay, "The Nothingness of Personality," Borges says, "There is no whole self... I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and few muscular sensations, and the sight of limpid branches that the trees place outside my window constitute my current I." The limpid branches, the fingers framing my daughter's silhouette. Indeed, say I, the self is an absence, and now it is I, the self of this moment, who tries to find the words to compel you.

The next morning, I tried to calm my thoughts while sitting in the backyard of my former house. The yard was encircled by a wooden fence I'd once priced out with various contractors—a task that fell to me as means of getting some autonomy in our marriage. She and I agreed I did not do enough, though we disagreed on the reason why. On the borders of the fence lay blackberries, red and unripe, small white-blossomed flowers, purple coneflowers, down-turned petals like the ears of a wet dog, black-eyed Susans pressing into patches of weed-stricken grass, clover, an old stump that turns up mushrooms each June.

As I sat on the gray porch steps, I narrowed my focus—a green-backed fly rubbed his feelers together on the bench in front of me, two gnats, ghosted in and out of sight depending on the slant of light, an ant crawled on a blade of grass. I took it all in—felt slightly more at peace with myself—no oneness of being, but a small shelter. But the pursuit of transcendence is in the intellectual air these days and as easy to take up as to put down. And the day, as it always does, held so many other things.

In his Paper, Against Narrativity, the British philosopher Galen Strawson argues that the popular conception of the self is narrative, which relies on a story we tell ourselves about our lives. This view is shared by the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the scientist Oliver Sacks. However, Strawson, a philosopher at the University of Reading, posits we don't all tell stories to construct our lives. He describes a second way of being a person in the world as episodic. Strawson describes the difference thusly: "one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future. If one is episodic, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future." In short, life is like a micro memoir told by different narrators.

We are all unreliable narrators of our lives, which means Strawson's theory has the ring of truth. Often, looking at my past self is the same as peering through a glass darkly. I recognize the actors, but I can't place them in relation to the self of now. As a result, I often find relationships, even long-term ones, very dependent on the moment, on a particular interaction, bad or good, and I extrapolate that interaction out over the whole course of that relationship, so tied to the moment, conceiving a near eternity from a fraction, easily in love, easily out of love.

As I wrote that first morning, a fly buzzed in dizzying circles over the smoky dark glass of a whiskey bottle, a gift from my former in-laws. The fly sailed past the small, brooding statues of Rodin's The Thinker. I once saw the full statue of The Thinker in Paris with my former in-laws. It was raining that day, a low gray sky, and as I stood in the garden, contemplating that massive statue, tears seemed to gather round his eyes, fell dramatically off his nose. And all that's left now are the moments, and it is up to me to revise them, to make meaning of things now passed.

Here is what I remember most about that day spent looking at Rodin's statues: not his statues, but those of his lover, Camille Claudel. In her sculptures, two bodies are rent from one another, a lover walks away while his counterpart cries on the floor. She begs to be seen by him, to be held. After the separation, my mother said, "To be fully known and not loved is the worst thing in the world." I don't know if a work of art has ever left me so viscerally sad as Claudel's sculptures.

My son climbs into bed and pinwheels round, a ball of kinetic sleep energy, raising hell—jabbing ribs, stealing covers, sweating profusely. I sleep like hell when he sneaks into bed. In the morning, I wrap my arms around him and squeeze his warm body. I already miss these days that have not passed.

My son asked me, as the fly careered around the room, just what flies want. He has a fuzzy mop of golden-red hair, is kind and taken to stories with no real point, movement, or discernible end, a born essayist. He interrupts himself mid-story when something else crosses his field of vision, and the stories often end in dismemberment, punching, and dragons.

"It looks for things to eat," I said of the fly.

"They like burgers," my son observed, surveying the small store of information he had on houseflies.

"Yes," I said. "They like burgers."

The fly circled the small orange vacuum cleaner and landed on a puzzle piece displaying a leopard's paw. We'd constructed the puzzle months ago, something I brought over in the early days of the separation when I was trying to create a new and happy life, setting new patterns, new ways to stitch our lives together, giving our life a narrative, a happy father.

Life has repetitions, morning routines, commutes, jobs, teeth brushing, vacuuming the floor... but most of life lacks meaning. My brain throbs. What is it all for? Socrates said man learns by being in discussion daily about excellence. I am daily in a discussion about the quality of baked goods and whether the milk tastes sour.

The fly doesn't seem to have any pattern. Sometimes it brushes the window, at others it hovers near the edge of the futon, given to me by my sister-in-law and her husband when they learned I was moving out.

I live alone now, at least part-time. The kids spend every Tuesday and Wednesday with me and every other weekend. We laugh and read books, but mostly we argue—over bath time, over broccoli eating, scooter usage, screen time. Sometimes I shout at them when they come out of their room at night and it's past nine o'clock. "Daddy has this paper to grade!" Or, "Daddy needs some time to do adult things. It's too late. Go to bed. You guys drive me crazy." I hope they forget so many nights.

My daughter is a hellion but so quiet in her sleep. Come morning, I like to wake her up softly, slowly, rubbing her shoulder in sleep. "Good morning, love," I say to her as she swims up from dreams. She knows how to be good, but she is only interested when it intersects with her desires. In this way, she and I are alike.

Am I unhappy? Aren't we all? Don't we paper over it with nice cars, French doors, new drapes, pictures of our trips to the lake, turning over the garden, researching breakfast sandwich places, prestige television shows, house plants, travels to Europe? Of course, my papering is that of middle-class privilege. I suspect other people house their unhappiness in different places. Perhaps I should be more resistant to confusing my life and unhappiness with everyone else's. I think I might be unhappy, but I can't be sure. In fact, I'm rarely sure of anything, especially myself.

I listen to music as I drive the children to school, trying to assuage the light feeling of dread, of having been there before, driven this same route, listened to these same songs, had these same tired thoughts about my life. The music drowns out the children, who are always grasping for my attention. Other days, I feel guilty. I turn the music down and ask them to tell me about their lives. The girl asks questions about birthday parties or describes, in rich detail, the trials and travails of characters in Everafter High. She reminds me of a promise to watch Sofia the First, of a particularly good dessert she once had with friends. The boy rambles about trucks that turn into dinosaurs, and then the story pivots into something about bones and a new friend. He's a post-modernist, my boy. He may be a genius. He understands everything has meaning.

I used to garden at the house we shared, planted seed after seed, made a row of peas that sent their tendrils off in search of sky. Before getting into the car, the children and I would pick snap peas from the vines, delighted to find so many. "Daddy, I see one." Now, that same space is full of weeds and a few stray poppies that waited a year to appear.

The children want me to play, to ride swings, to build tracks, to watch them on a slide, on a tractor. But I am tired, and I lie on the wooden bench at the park and read essays about the work of Joy Williams, of A.O. Scott, of David Foster Wallace. Finally, after putting them off for hours, I half-heartedly join the children at play, climbing onto rocks, onto playground equipment, lying in the grass with them, skin itching. I help build an imaginary cake and pretend to be Thunder, a pliant dog. I do all of this in a tired state, half-aware at best, as I often am with the children. And yet, I know my wild independent streak, not always immediately apparent because I am easy-going and a people pleaser, causes me to rebel in these moments, to operate in them with a kind of post-Thanksgiving torpor. I act as if my children were not living their lives, their joyous, ridiculous little lives, while I sat on a bench reading. Briefly, I watched two varieties of bumblebees pollinating the swaying bits of white clover, bee's bodies curling around the head of a flower as it were a lover being pulled in for a kiss. Then I'm asked to be back in the game, patrolling a spare bit of aluminum bench, bored shitless.

It's in these moments when I'm wishing time away, that I suspect other people's interior lives must be different than my own. I cannot imagine everyone experiences such profound boredom when they are tasked with watching the children. I experience much of my life as boring. I crave novelty as other people crave alcohol. Although I don't know if it's a feature of my interior life that causes this discomfort with daily life, or whether everyone else has encountered that same boredom and pushed beyond it into the realm of meaning. I'd spent the prior day with a lovely couple, parents of three. The wife kept them busy with the pool, with lunch, with chalk, and she talked and talked of the things she'd bought for the children, the way she'd kept them entertained, prattling for hours, happy to watch and talk of the children. In an idle moment, she talked of returning to work, then said, "Its been a good seven years but also mind-numbing."

The four-year-old proposed a fly swatter, but I tell him I haven't got one. He's tired of being buzzed by the fly, but I'm fine. Why carve away at the narrow hollow of life this housefly has? It'll be gone soon enough. Twenty-eight days, that's it. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests insects do have the rudiments of consciousness, a mid-brain, and subjective experience. It feels like something to be a fly, maybe. The study concludes that, like humans, flies are egocentric.

I read that by age 12 you'll have already spent half the time you will ever get in your child's life. Do I have the right to miss children I've freely chosen to leave for half the week? This is the double bind of being a parent: I miss them terribly, and when I'm with them, I find them difficult, needy. I often can't wait to be away from them. This ambivalence is at the core of what I'm feeling. I don't want to miss out on their childhood, but I often find myself missing out on it anyway.

The fly died this afternoon. My son noticed its body first, resting limply in the sill. The fly had buzzed about for its allotted time, and now I could let it sleep in peace. The project had been absurd, had resulted in the children asking me if flies liked cornbread, if flies stung, if flies belonged in our house or outside, and many more fly-related questions I've since forgotten. What purpose was served by letting that myopic and self-centered fly live out its days? I used to believe in God, His hand, ready to smash my body against the screen of the universe. But I don't believe in God. I believe in peace, so I let the fly live. Just tonight, my son grew upset when I squished a bug on the kitchen floor. "That could be a mommy or a daddy," he said.

All I want is this sort of peace I sometimes find in moments, extended out for a very long period of time. All I want is so many things.

My children are four and six. We've spent the last three weeks watching a fly bump against the window in the capital of the United States while the President is tweeting, scant miles away, about the appearance of a television host. My wife and I have been texting about whether the impending divorce will hurt our children's chances of being well-adjusted humans. I submit to her that no one is well-adjusted.

When I got home that evening, the house was swarming with flies. Five of them soared up from the chaise and made dizzying circles. Three were attached to one window, four to the other. That single fly had laid eggs in the trash and the larvae had come of age. An explosion. The house smelled like death. Everywhere I went, I saw flies, lifting from the wall, circling the stove, bumping into my leg, my arms. I swatted one on the bathroom mirror, then smashed wildly at my face as I tried to pee without being landed on.

I slept poorly, thinking of flies landing on me in the dark. It's the day my soon to be ex and I are celebrating Father's Day. I celebrate by battling flies. There is no ritual bathing, no Agamemnon sacrificing his child, no building of horses or driving of bodies behind chariots. It is a slaughter. After a few tepid swipes with a newspaper, I realize my flip-flops are the best weapon. And though I feel my skin crawling, I start to smash flies as though I am born to it. I have quick hands and good coordination. I pirouette, swinging my arm like a scythe to wheat, bringing death from above. I am radiant with it. A fly lands above the stove, and I swing quickly. It moves at the last second, but I manage to twist around and catch it mid-flight, backhanding it across the room, where it squirms until I smash it. I move through the house like a panther, menacing flies, swinging my sandal like a mace, catching flies unaware, sitting on windows, on walls, unsuspecting. I try to drown a pair in the sink. I swat one in the bathroom, who falls straight into the trash can. I crush them, balletically.

On the way home from Father's Day breakfast, she and I talk about how having a new relationship might affect the children, talk of who is in charge, whether those new people would be allowed to be jealous. The thing is, and some person might tell you this is just a narrative trope and feature of postmodernism, but we are better apart. In fact, I'm best apart. I make a good friend and a damn near fantastic date. What follows, I make messes of.

I've been listening to therapy podcasts about marriage, couples who have consented to have their sessions recorded and aired. As a listener, it's easy to diagnose other people's issues. The therapist, a straight-talking Canadian, stops the husband from talking, noting he tends to make everything about himself. It's a habit my spouse and I were both guilty of during the long year when we lived together before the separation, but I couldn't see it then. The self, narcissistic as a fly, silly and emotional as a child, obscures the very world it seeks to comprehend.

I listened to a second podcast, On Being, when the interviewer talked to the pop philosopher, Alain De Botton, about the unrealistic expectations we put on our romantic relationships. De Botton points out our attitudes and expectations about marriage have shifted over time: at first, we expected babies, then property, then security. Now, we want all those things coupled with romantic love. As he notes, it's a bit much. I've lived the majority of my life, 14 or so on, waiting for external love or experience to fill my inner need for contentment. And though I recognize no experience or relationship can solve the problem of how to live, I cannot deny its allure. In fact, during the first two or three dates, weeks, months, and sometimes years, a relationship, dopamine-filled, can feel like it will never slow down, never recede. Even something as small as a good conversation can sometimes send my mind spinning into externalities, possible futures, walks on city streets at night, trampling leaves. I cannot see the end of those days, which is the only certainty.

I am sitting on the futon again while clouds pile up in the distance like bits of cream, barely moving on the blued horizon. Just as I've ended the essay, a fly lands on top of the computer screen. Thick, black, ugly.

Weeks later, I opened the trash can, and a Biblical pestilence of flies poured forth, black bodies filling my vision, their dull hum, forcing me to bend backward and retreat from that awful horde. And then, for a brief moment, they stopped flying, and I was able to make sense of the scene, a white trash bag, hundreds of flies nesting in the basin of the can. I tossed the trash in and slammed the top shut.

I walked up the steps and inside the empty house, just the outlines of where the children had slept the night before. Empty bunk beds, empty pillows.

Mornings now, I sit with my eyes closed and breathe. No monkey mind. No question of rent or meaning or ex-wives or future girlfriends. No hedonic adaptation to circumstances. No comparisons to the neighbor's house, the neighbor's happy marriage. I thank the morning light for giving me another day. I think of simple things, gratitude for the smile on my son's face, compassion for myself and my multitude of imperfections and compassion for this vast suffering world.

Later, on a distanced walk with masks, I marvel at the golden light shimmering on the leaves of oaks, at the easy way the children have folded into one another during this time of sorrow. These brief illuminations are all I have against the tidal wave of the day: the disappointments, joys, and pains of any human life. But I'm open to it now, for the first time I can remember. Open to whatever life may hold, open to this new self I'm incarnating in these quiet months of personal and corporate heartbreak by sitting silently, by donating time and energy to causes, and by calling my mother more and checking in on my slightly estranged father in his skilled nursing facility. I feel myself widening slightly as a river must do at some point, in preparation for its journey to the sea.