Friday, January 31, 2014

Thoughts on Being a Parent

You may have heard about a recent study that purported to show that having children does not make people happier. Besides the usual reservations I might have about the validity of the "knowledge" that is supposedly delivered to us by studies of this sort, I have some especially strong reasons to be skeptical of this particular study's conclusions.

One reason is the subject: happiness. Philosophers have debated the nature of happiness for centuries, and there is no universally accepted definition of what it even is. The authors of this study, therefore, had to define "happiness" in some particular way. In other words, they had to start out with an assumption about what "happiness" is, and therefore their results are, from the very start, colored by their chosen definition. (Either that or they had no definition, which is a different sort of problem.)

Another reason for skepticism is the rather obvious fact that what makes one person happy does not necessarily make another person happy. This is why we have common expressions like "to each his own".

Even more importantly, however, there is an unexamined presupposition underlying the idea that "parenthood does not make people happy": namely, the assumption that "happiness" (however defined) is the reason that people choose to become parents. This is a gross oversimplification at best, a straw man at worst.

I will address that more later, but first I want to give the most important reason of all why I do not place any stock in such conclusions: my own personal experience of being a parent.

I did not become a parent until I was 40. For most of my life up until then, I had little if any desire to have children of my own. It was not until after I married, at the age of 34, that I even began to contemplate, with any seriousness, the idea of becoming a father.

It is hard to say why, exactly, I became open to the idea, or why I eventually chose to take that step. As a single man, I had always liked children, but did not particularly care if I ever had any of my own. However, even though parenthood had been a rather low priority for me for most of my adult life, something about the idea of having a child had, at the same time, always been appealing. I sometimes imagined, in particular, having a daughter, but it was more in the realm of a passing fancy than a wholehearted dream.

In any case, the reason I eventually chose to become a parent is not something I could reduce to "I wanted to be happy (or happier)". I had no doubt, based on what I knew of other parents' experience and feelings, that it would most likely create a great deal of happiness, as well as a great deal of heartache. But I was under no illusion that parenthood was a path to unalloyed happiness. And that was certainly not the reason, the deciding factor, that caused me to make my decision.

Ultimately, as with many important life choices, it is difficult to explain or understand our reasons for desiring or choosing what we do. We may have a rational explanation, but more often than not, however true that explanation may be, it is only partial, and perhaps not even the greater part of the truth. Our motives are often obscure even to ourselves, driven as we are by deep and mysterious forces of biology and psychology. (For this reason alone, I should point out, the notion that we choose parenthood--or anything else--in order to be "happy" is highly suspect.)

Whatever my motives or reasons, exactly two weeks after hitting forty, I greeted a new human being, a human being that had never before existed and would never come into being again, which I had somehow helped bring into existence. (Yes, of course I know how... but only from a physical point of view. From a metaphysical and experiential point of view, it remains, to all of us, utterly mysterious.)

I did indeed feel blissfully happy upon the arrival of my daughter. Even though she was so new and so small, she was very much a real, particular, unique human being to me. She was someone. Someone that I, as immediately and mysteriously as her sudden appearance from nothing, deeply and profoundly loved.

My daughter is now three and splits her time between two homes. As a single father who works full time and spends a great deal of his off time living with and taking care of a small child, I can assure you that it can be draining. It can be frustrating to the point of infuriating. It can be anything but conducive to an unfettered life of seeking one's own pleasure. And yes, sometimes it can feel like an act of (not entirely willed) self-sacrifice.

But I can also tell you this: I wouldn't trade it for anything. What makes any effort, any sacrifice, worth it is the thing for which one is exerting that effort or making that sacrifice. It is entirely a question of worth. And the worth in question, in the case of parenthood, is decidedly not one's own happiness.

This is not to say--not by a long shot--that my daughter does not bring me happiness. On the contrary, she is one of the greatest sources of joy, and one of the deepest sources of satisfaction and fulfillment, that I have ever had the fortune to be graced with. The happiness she brings me does include abundant amounts of fun and laughter and play and affection, but it is far more than just that. It is much deeper than that. It would be very difficult to explain just what that happiness is, but it is very real, and very deep.

And sometimes that happiness hurts. That may sound very strange, self-contradictory, but not if you take a deeper view of what happiness is. As I mentioned at the beginning, philosophers have speculated about the nature of happiness for centuries; and, although they have not come to any universal agreement about what constitutes it, or the best path by which to attain it, a philosophical view of happiness is not a superficial view. It goes well beyond feelings of pleasure or "happy" emotions. It is, if anything, a state of being. You might say it is a state of being right (not in the sense of argument, but in the sense of, "yes, this is right").

And yet... even if my daughter brought me none of these joys... even if she caused me great woe... I would not regret having brought her into the world. And that points to what is perhaps the most profound reason why studies purporting to show that "parenthood does not equal happiness" are entirely irrelevant. It is not so much because they provide spurious answers as because they ask the wrong questions.

As I said, our reasons for making life choices are ultimately shrouded in the mysteries of our unconscious. Anyone's reason for choosing to have children can surely be traced, at least to a very large degree, simply to Mother Nature and her imperative to her creatures to keep making more of themselves. We may think of ourselves as rationally acting individuals as much as we like, but the truth remains that we are also, and perhaps to a much more significant degree, determined by forces greater than ourselves.

This idea may sound threatening to our modern Western ears, to we who have been trained to embrace the idea of personal freedom above all else, but it need not. It is merely to assert that we are part of nature, part of the universe. We are not separate, completely self-determined atoms but intimately and intricately interconnected parts of a great, magnificent, and mysterious Whole. We did not determine our own being and our own existence, and can only exercise feeble and faltering control over our ultimate fate.

But despite these rather humbling circumstances, we also have the great honor of participating in the grand project of life. We can do this in many ways, of course, not limited to creating more life; we can, for instance, work to improve the lives of others by various means, from social work that alleviates material suffering to making art that enriches spiritual existence, as well as a host of other worthy activities.

And it is precisely this identification with, this commitment to, the larger whole--this expansion of one's interest outside of oneself--that (most philosophers and religions would agree in teaching us) constitute the good life... the life worth living... true happiness.

Because, when it comes down to it, our happiness does not consist in seeking our own happiness (which tends to be, ironically, a self-defeating pursuit), but in realizing that we are members of a larger world, and that we are fulfilled, not by self-seeking separation from, but by self-contributing connection to, the larger whole of which we are small but significant parts.

And that is why questions about any particular activity making one "happy" are completely beside the point, at least if we are considering happiness in anything other than a fleeting and superficial emotional context. If we are, on the other hand, considering happiness from a philosophical perspective, we must look at a whole life, well lived--what constitutes it, and how we might best attain it. Philosophers may disagree on the specific answer, but they tend to ask the same general question.

Ultimately, I do not know why I opened myself up to having a child. It is, on the surface of it, one of the scariest things a human being can possibly choose to do. It is one of the most tremendous risks a human heart can take on. It is, on one level, from the perspective of individual happiness, entirely irrational.

But billions of people have done it, and continue to do it, and will continue to do it (we can only hope; if they stop, then we stop too). And most of them appear to sail with sublime serenity into what is undoubtedly a tremendously fraught and terrifying project for anyone with a soul to undertake. Despite the extraordinary risks, challenges, and costs of being a parent, it cannot be said that there is anything particularly heroic about choosing to become one. As I have stated, it is largely the dictates of Mother Nature, directing us at our deepest biological levels (something that goes well beyond mere sex drive) to Keep Making More Like You.

But parenthood, at least for the vast majority of parents, does help to expand us beyond ourselves. This does not mean it makes us morally better than non-parents. It is more often than not a self-expansion that is forced ever so painfully upon us rather than something we magnanimously and cheerfully choose to endure. And it is certainly not the only way that human beings may experience self-expansion. But it is certainly, usually, one of them.

And so, in the end, the value of parenthood cannot be reduced to the question: "Do I feel happy at this particular moment?" If that were the case, there would be quite a few moments when I would have to say: no, this is definitely not making me happy. But jobs and careers can do that too. Sexual relationships can do that. Sometimes, food can do that. But we do not forego those things just because they might cause us some pain or discomfort along the way.

Certainly, parenthood is not necessary to be a complete human being, or to be a good human being, or to be a human being who makes a valuable contribution to the world. One only need consider, for example, Mother Theresa to see that. But it is also far from the truth to say that parenthood makes people less happy.

For many, I would dare say most, of those who, for whatever inscrutable reasons, undertake this most daunting of human projects, it is--despite the pains; despite the frustrations; despite the uncertainties and worries and doubts; despite the fears and anxieties; despite the disappointments and heartaches; despite the exhaustion, the loss of free time, the million little and thousand large sacrifices--it is still, somehow, miraculously, one of the greatest sources of happiness it is possible to know.

It could only be such a source if it were something that expanded us beyond ourselves... beyond the narrow bubble of seeking one's own pleasure and comfort above all else. And parenthood, if practiced in anything resembling a healthy and proper way, is guaranteed to do just that (it will definitely take you outside the bubble of pleasure and comfort).

Don't get me wrong. Bad people become parents and remain bad people; good people choose not to have children. But parenthood has a way--a particularly annoying and painful way at very many times--of finding our hidden reserves of generosity, of patience, of forgiveness, of love--and wresting them out of us, often surprising and amazing (and yet, deeply humbling) ourselves.

No one is a perfect parent, and I certainly am not. Guilt and self-doubt are horribly familiar to any parent with even a shred of conscience. Few of us sit around admiring our fine moral standing. It is all too easy to feel that one has instead been revealed to be a depraved and cruel human being, not a noble and saintly one.

But through it all, through all the ashes of our own weaknesses and failures, the nobility that is inherent in us as human beings may sometimes shine through. We may learn that we were capable of loving another human being in ways we had not imagined ourselves to be (or even imagined at all, for that matter).

What it comes down to, ultimately, is this: the value of parenthood is not in what it does for the parent (although it does, incidentally, provide many goods for those who choose this vocation). The value of parenthood is in what it does for the child. Any good parent knows this. The question of whether it makes me happy, in this case, is entirely irrelevant.

And that is because, in the last analysis, parenthood is not pursued for one's own sake. It is pursued precisely for someone else's sake. This may sound paradoxical, considering that one cannot do something for the sake of someone who does not yet exist--and I am not claiming that aspiring parents do not choose it, at least in part, out of a belief that it will bring them a certain type of happiness and fulfillment--but it is, taken as a whole, a project that can only possibly pay off, and be worthwhile, for the sake of the child.

For a parent, the child's good, the child's fulfillment, the child's happiness--these are what matter. These are what define the worth of the parental endeavor. And, again paradoxically, in that very act of other-focused, self-sacrificing action (which is certainly not all of a parent's life, though it can sometimes feel that way), one may find a type of happiness that is far deeper and more profound than life's more ephemeral pleasures.

Yes, sometimes--at moments when I feel completely unraveled, exhausted, bewildered--it is easy to ask what I got myself into. Was it really worth all this blood? The continued, seemingly endless bleeding that somehow coexists with sweetness and light? The bleeding that you know, deep down, will never end... not for as long as you remain alive on this earth? Was it really worth it?

And then I look into my daughter's bright and hopeful and innocent eyes, or hear her sweet and tender voice. And in those moments, I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the answer to the question cannot be anything other than a quiet, humbled, and broken, yet vast, deep, and resounding: yes. It is worth every last, glorious, painful drop.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On the (Yellow Brick) Road Again

Okay, so, after writing the first 10,000 words or so last summer, and then letting it lie fallow in the months since, I resumed the writing of my second novel, Rainbow, on Sunday, and managed to write over 2,000 words in two days. The manuscript now stands at just over 12,500 words, which is about 1/8 the length of Bluebird, and already 1/4 the standard minimum length of a novel. I do expect this novel, however, to be quite a bit longer than the minimum--possibly even longer than its 100,000-word predecessor--because at this point, it feels like the story is only just getting started. There is so much more to come.

One significant development to report is that I have decided to adopt Rainbow as the actual title of the book (hence the italics, whereas in previous posts it was always in quotation marks). This is partly because I had been thinking of it as "Rainbow" (initially only intended as a working title) for so long that it just came to seem what the book was called; partly because no better title has presented itself to me; but, most importantly, because I decided that the title, simple as it is, really works with this story. Something about the minimalism of the title lends itself to the mystery of the story, in my mind. I like the fact that it is one simple and common word that contains within itself a wide variety of connotations and possible interpretations. That is actually very fitting for this particular novel, centering as it does on the elusive and enigmatic figure of Martin Lane.

My inspiration for this story has certainly already taken a rather wild trajectory. This story has had a strange story of its own from the very beginning, when, last February, the very next day after I wrote on my blog lamenting my seeming lack of artistic inspiration, a stray line from the movie version of Hello, Dolly! proved to be the spark that set fire to a monumental new novel in my imagination... a source of inspiration which, in hindsight, seems not only perfectly ridiculous but also humorously appropriate.

Seriously, folks, I cannot write fiction half as strange as truth.

The winding history of the novel since then has been detailed in earlier posts (just look under Rainbow in the Index of this blog), but the main feature of its development has been the rollercoaster nature of my literary inspiration. Riding high on the initial inspiration in March... then, in April, sidetracked by a different inspiration that led to my novella Angels Are Lonely on the Earth... and, almost immediately after that was completed in early May, my inspiration for Rainbow, which I had barely thought about while engrossed in my other story, suddenly revived more powerfully than ever.

And all that was before I actually started writing it. After what I once described as my mid-May Martinmania (try saying it five times really fast), I took the fateful step of re-reading my (yet to be) debut(ed) novel, The Bluebird of Happiness, and promptly fell into a fit of depression. However, I recovered enough in early June to make a brilliant start, at last, on the new novel (about 5,000 words in one weekend, mostly that Sunday)... only to fall back into even deeper depression soon after. I managed to get back into the writing in fits and starts during the remainder of the summer, but, after writing 10,000 words by summer's end, the novel again lay dormant until January.

I have felt my inspiration for the story coming back in recent days, and it now feels even fuller and richer and deeper than it already did... and somewhat altered. I have realized that this story is being shaped and formed by unforeseen and unpredictable life experiences, both high and low, as much as it is by my own deliberate plans and intentions as an author.

This latest burst of inspiration, which has suddenly lit the story aflame once more, comes on the heels of an episode of nervous exhaustion, during which I felt quite physically and emotionally depleted. So it seems that Rainbow, as befits its name, is a story that is continually born out of storms... and it is strange to me now to recall that, from the very beginning, before I had named it, even before I knew it was to be a novel about Martin, the story had the feeling of a vast, powerful, dark storm brewing on the horizon... but one that I knew would carry me to a wondrous Oz, somewhere over the rainbow.

The story is fundamentally the same as it was last year, but I believe that the theme of longing for home, and the related emotion of Sehnsucht, have become much more central and significant. Martin Lane has become perhaps even more complex and ambiguous of a creature than he already seemed. I am sure I do not even know everything about who he is, but I know that he will reveal more of himself to me as I continue to tell his story. Even at the end, however, I know that he will remain ultimately mysterious, even to me, yet full of signification. He is perhaps, in a very real way, a poem.

And that is a good way for me to understand my own novel in progress, because, even though there are a few broad themes and meanings that I can identify, it is, like a poem, something that cannot ultimately be summarized. As I said of Bluebird, in the writing of this novel I am trying to express something that can only be expressed in the exact form of this novel. And that is perhaps true of all literature... the experience can only be had, the meaning only found, in the actual reading of it. Just because literature is composed of words does not mean that it can be adequately captured by (other) words any more than one can really experience a piece of music or a painting by hearing someone describe it to you.

Therefore, any details I might reveal about the story and its characters would not go very far in communicating what it is really about. And the poetic nature of novelistic storytelling can make the story's reason for being not fully clear even to the author. It may feel very powerful, very insistent, very real... but on the intellectual level, it can be quite difficult to explain, even to myself, exactly why I am writing the story that I am.

But it does make me feel things and think things that are strange and new and exciting, and my purpose as an artist is to attempt to communicate that vision to others, so that they too can see what it is I am seeing. In this way, this quite mysterious way, I believe that art expands our knowledge just as science does... not of the external world that is observable to our senses, but of the internal world of our minds, hearts, and souls... tracing our human response to the world, revealing its meaning for us as humans.

And so, like Bluebird before it, Rainbow is my latest attempt to explore, express, and reveal whatever truth it is that I am capable of perceiving as the particular artist that I am. I could tell you that it is the tale of a man much like myself--a Generation X artist who grew up in Florida--but those superficial details are almost beside the point. Beyond the specifics of time, place, and personality--indeed, despite the surpassing strangeness of many of its characters (perhaps, most of all, Martin himself)--my hope, and my belief, is that Rainbow, like the literature to which it aspires, will be a story that is universally human.

And ultimately, one of many things Rainbow will be about is the surpassing strangeness of being human.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Home: No Place Like It, or No Place?

As one who has relocated from one region of the U.S. to another, I often have the sensation of being an immigrant in my own country. Of course, since I remain in my native nation-state, my displacement is not nearly as significant as it would be if I had moved to China, for instance, or even to another English-speaking country like the UK.

But it is still a displacement, and, no matter how much I might love my adopted hometown of St. Louis, it can never be the place I am "from". This would be equally true--actually, it would be much more true--if I were to live in, say, Paris, one of my favorite cities on earth. No matter how much I might enjoy living in the City of Light, it would never be "home" in the sense that Florida is, and, unlike St. Louis, not even in the sense that the United States of America is.

As I stated in my earlier post about Generation X, I have come to realize over the last several years that one of the major themes of all my writing--perhaps the major theme--is that of longing for home, and seeking home--wherever, whatever, that may be. And it is not so easy a question to answer as to exactly what home is: is home, in fact, a where? Is it a when? A who? What is home, and what does it mean, and how do we know it when we find it? And, perhaps most intriguing and inscrutable of all, why do we long for it so? Why do we need it?

The last half-century has often been characterized as a "post-modern" age, which to my mind is just an extension, or a later stage of evolution, of the "modern" age... in itself a term suggesting a movement away from the past, away from tradition, away from history. But there is a crucial difference between the two.

Modernism (as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon) celebrated this rupture as forward movement, as progress, as boldly optimistic futurism; but post-modernism, while inheriting modernism's rejection of the past, rejects its faith in forward movement--that is to say, its faith in progress--and, rather than seeing this as a loss, celebrates the ensuing driftless, directionless sea of the contemporary globalized (yet highly fragmented and decentered) world.

So, instead of modernism's supposedly na├»ve utopian dreams, post-modernism chooses what it sees as unfettered, individualistic freedom from guiding "grand narratives", whether these be political, economic, scientific, religious, or otherwise. We are all become Democritus' atoms in the void. Therefore, let us party.

And yet, perhaps not so surprisingly, there has also been much complaint of the vapidity of post-modernism: intellectual, cultural, aesthetic, moral, emotional, spiritual. How can such a superficially carefree yet ultimately deeply empty worldview possibly be sustainable as long as we remain so stubbornly human, with the same intrinsic and ineradicable wants and needs we have always had, and always will have?

As I suggested in my meditation on Gen X, the only answer--the only workable and meaningful answer, as opposed to merely clinging to an imaginary idealized past that ignores the reality of recent history and the present--would seem to be some sort of "post-post-modernism" (which hopefully, once it is recognized as an unmistakable and definable cultural phenomenon, will acquire a much happier name).

I believe that post-modernity (as a cultural condition) can be summarized as a pervasive, profound, sometimes conscious sense of cultural homelessness. If post-modernism (as a cultural movement) likes to celebrate this condition as being one of unfettered freedom, then whatever comes after and displaces post-modernism will not celebrate the condition, but call it by its true name: cultural homelessness.

I see this movement already extant and growing, in myriad shapes and forms, across lines of the political spectrum: in everything from locally sourced organic farming to the genealogical quest for family roots and identity; from revivals of paganism to knitting. The common thread among these seemingly disparate cultural phenomena is the desire--the sincere and profoundly felt desire, as opposed to the superficial and ironic playing with surfaces--to return to, or to rediscover, something essential that has been lost in the mad rush of technological, economic, and social change (hitherto called by the name of "progress").

What has been lost? Well, as I touched upon in my Gen X essay, I believe much of it boils down to a sense of having been displaced, and the resulting, often unconscious yet very real, desire to return to wherever it is we came from. And wherever we came from is, more or less, what we call home.

"Home" does not necessarily mean a geographic location, though it may include one, or be in some way related to a particular place. In its essence, however, home is not something that can be located on any map.

It has often occurred to me that the places I remember living as a child actually no longer exist. Even if the houses, yards, and neighborhoods are still there, they are no longer the same places they were when my family and I lived there. Different people occupy those spaces now and have altered them irrevocably--not simply physically, but also spiritually. The trailer I lived in for many years while growing up may still stand in the same spot, but it is not the same home I lived in. The yard I played in is still there, but it is not the same yard I played in.

Home, then, is not just a spatial concept, but a temporal one as well--we are literally homesick for the past when we feel nostalgia. Space and time are part of the same continuum, and places do not remain the same over time.

But, even more significantly, home is not so much a physical concept--whether in terms of time or of space--as much as it is a spiritual concept. In other words, as the old saying has it, home is where the heart is--and home is, in fact, a place in the heart more than a place on a map.

This is why, as I once noted, the structures and spaces I see on Google Maps do not, cannot possibly, correspond to the places I remember dwelling in as a child. All Google (or science, for that matter) can show us is what falls within the narrow confines of the "objective", observable world. It can tell us nothing of the deep, vast, rich interior world of our minds, hearts, and souls, where our lives and our stories actually take place. That realm is for poetry, music, and art to explore and illuminate.

As a writer, it seems I am obsessed with the search for home that we all, to some degree and in some way, experience as human beings in the modern world. My characters invariably discover themselves to be homeless, in a spiritual sense, and their stories are largely about each one's personal and idiosyncratic (yet, I think, also universal) quest for his or her heart's true home.

Ultimately, it is not easy to explain or define what "home" is, or what it means, or why we so need it. Any definition we can come up with--it is where we are from; it is where we belong; it is where we are happy and fulfilled; it is what we were made for--might tell us very true things about home, but they do not really explain what it is. Like life, and like love, home is a mystery.

And, like all such mysteries, home cannot be explained by a scientific theory, addressed by a technological "solution", or remedied by government or business expenditures, but only approached by way of the heart and its language--perhaps especially through literature, as that is the primary vehicle by which we tell stories and explore and reveal our inner subjective worlds. And that is because home, whatever else it may be, is something that is enmeshed in story, and that exists, wherever else it may be, in the heart.