My son has a sweet temperament, which means the world will carve him up, make mincemeat of his pinkish ears, serve his slightly meaty legs in a buttery sauce with rosemary, take his tender heart and bake it into a pie with a flaky crust. In kindergarten, I was always terrified. The other children called me four eyes, and I spent the year playing alone on the blacktop, counting the small pebbles tracked onto the asphalt as the hours crawled by, and I waited for my mother to take me home.
I don’t want my son to have a childhood like mine. Thus, I realized as the ancients did—Socrates, Seneca, Plutarch, Montaigne, Machiavelli—that I must give advice to my son on how to live. A lesser man might binge a television show or accept that not every occasion calls for an essay, for the idleness of thought and memory playing on the page as wind on water. But I am not that man, and my son, well, he’s off on a screen somewhere as I type, riot of starlings in the yellow gingko. Good riddance. Nothing spoils the good will I feel towards my children like their shock of presence.
Advice to my beloved son
- Once, I had a professor, who when asked for his three favorite writers, named James Baldwin, Andre Dubus, paused, then smiled rakishly and said, can I say myself? Son, if given the chance, do not nominate yourself. Even if it’s true, it reflects poorly on you. The meek shall inherit the earth or so the ministers were always telling me. The truth is, Son, it seems highly unlikely that the meek will inherit the earth. But what if they did? Pascal made a wager on it, and I remember watching the light fall through distant windows as the minister talked, the way it was sometimes sprayed as a rainbow across the wooden pews as though God was promising something.
- Son, do not get an MFA in creative writing. During my MFA in creative writing, a sojourn of accruing debt and becoming disillusioned with the prospect of making it as a writer, I briefly took up serious line editing. In the third year of the program, most bridges had been burned or abandoned, and most roads in the classroom, suggestions for plot changes or slightly less flat characters had been ignored enough times for you to realize the foolishness of speaking. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” — Wittgenstein. But still we were expected to comment on drafts. But the truth was, writers did as they pleased when it came to characters and plot, ignoring our advice. Or worse, they took every piece of advice seriously and turned in a draft designed to please fifteen different critics with disparate values—a scene here, a snippet of dialogue there.
Thus, by the end of the program, I realized I could only help other writers by trying to improve their lines. I could cross out certain words, amend certain lazy phrasing, write, “be specific,” in the margins. Don’t call it a tree, find out the name! I took a special interest in the lines of a writer who turned in the same story for all six classes I had with him. Most of us understood that we were supposed to try new stories, branch out and challenge ourselves by writing characters into new settings with less or more dialogue. Maybe that sad couple from New York could be moved to Paris? At least the streets would have more flower boxes. But this writer never deviated. He had a story to tell, which I could have lived with. It wasn’t a good story, but it was his. What irritated me to no end was that no matter how much time I spent removing flabby adjectives, tightening the gears of his sentences, he never changed a damn thing. Perhaps son, this is a moment to talk of Sisyphus or the futility of trying anything.
Or get an MFA in creative writing. I am of the opinion that no one should get an MFA or that all of us should get an MFA. Or perhaps, now that the mind whirs, only those with a wealthy patron eager to fund their MFA by writing hagiographic poems should get one. The world is full of advice, and you can come by it cheaply as a crow who discovers a bottle cap and hordes it as treasure. I do not know if the crow is in the wrong or if my advice to you is already failing.
- Son, perhaps all I’m saying, though I believe it may have been said elsewhere, is judge less not ye be judged. Plutarch, on learning of his child’s death while on the road, wrote a letter home to his wife, imploring her to remember the good times they’d shared with their daughter—laughter and smiles—as opposed to focusing on her sudden death. By the contemporary standard, I suppose Plutarch would be considered a moral monster, but Plutarch was a practicing Stoic, and his philosophical approach to life applied, even to this, the death of his daughter. For wasn’t it his daughter too? What letter would you write on the doorstep of grief that will still flower 2,000 years from now?
- Son, if the internet still exists, only attend to it for shallow discourse. If you try to enter the depths of discourse you will find it as difficult to capture as coins of light on water, the song of a Dodo bird, the color of your grandmother’s eyes. In truth, if the word “discourse” still exists, it will mean something entirely new. Remember, the world was once called Pangea and giant lizards roamed the earth. It makes no sense, I know, but certain winter days, when the trees are full of nothing but grey, will never make sense.
Son, words and people shift and change over time. Visit Utah sometime and marvel that the great desert, the rocky spires, the miles of red rock were once a sea floor teeming with life. Wonder and wonder again.
- Son, if someone drops an apple from their grocery bag, do not hesitate, pick it up and call out to them. Say loudly, excuse me, you have dropped an apple. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, son, and I hope you are louder than I was, more confident. In truth, I see it already. When father criticized you, as he always did to me, you shrugged it off and fired a criticism right back at him. We are all trying to heal from our childhood. Forgive me.
- Son if time machines are invented, which seems unlikely, but still, this column must cover such exigencies, and you are transported through time and asked to charge uphill in a skirmish, it is best to desert. No one asks you to charge uphill to take a position if they have your best interest in mind. I suppose I could have found another analogy to make this point, but I prefer this one, son, strange though it may be. The meaning is as clear as snakeskin on a summer’s path.
- Son, fishing always confounded me, but it makes for good metaphors. I have never fished, but I have heard it said that much of the work is taken up in choosing the proper lure. Blue bottles do well, and the cast should come from the wrist. One summer, at the beginning of the long pandemic, I used to take walks with you and your sister. We took the same path for months, a screen of mostly beech and a few oaks overhead, making striated light on the ground where we walked, the occasional woodpecker hammering in the distance. On those walks, you and your sister would sometimes run ahead, sometimes fight one another, hauling down the trail in search of retribution, hair to pull, an arm to pinch. I walked behind you two that summer, full of sadness as I entered mid-life. But this is not a sad essay about mid-life. Although, in truth, all my essays are sad essays about mid-life. That spring, I swore I’d teach you both to skip rocks, but I can’t remember if I ever got you to skip rocks properly, to flip your wrist and send the rock skittering as if by magic, over the water, out onto the shores beyond.
Son, what I’m saying, is that it’s all in the wrist, and the way a smile spreads over your face as the milky blue stones take flight, parting the chilly spring air.
- Once I saw a man without a head, walking down fifth street. He was just a pin-striped suit strolling down the road, wooden flower boxes, daylight heavy. He stooped to brush a bit of mud from his shoe and then continued onto the bus. Life is strange and incomprehensible as is love, selves, and so many things I don’t have time to cover here.
- In searching for God, be sure to look in the linen closet in the basement. He often hides there between the off-white sheets we use for the guests.
- Son, age is not quite as attuned to wisdom as I thought. One can grow a long white beard, can speak in aphorisms, develop creaky knees and a predilection for long stories without ever approaching wisdom. With age, comes experience and how to interpret. Experience is the bedrock of wisdom.
When I was very much in love, I remember watching a murmuration of starlings making wild shapes in a piercing blue sky. I was certain the starlings and the shapes were a sign intended to tell me about love. But I haven’t heard from that lover in years. The starlings weren’t making shapes to signify love. The starlings were making shapes in the sky that weren’t meant for me. Perhaps this is the lesson I’d like you to remember most.
- Son, love is as confusing as the cacophony of birds. Once, as a child, a girl turned around in second grade and handed me a crude picture with the words, I Love You, scrawled across the top. When she handed it to me, I turned away, embarrassed. It took me another eleven years to work up the courage to kiss a girl. In life, as in The Little Mermaid, kiss the person, return their picture back with one just like it, the two of you smiling happily on a crudely drawn green hill with something that could be construed as daisies in the foreground, the sunlight a ball of spikes in the upper right-hand corner. Love is glints of light flickering on a bed of fall leaves half-drowned in a pond.
- Go to Rome when you are still young. In Rome, dance the night away in a city where people have been dancing the night away for millennia. Walk the city with the confidence and bravado of youth, marvel at the surprise of the Pantheon’s sunken appearance, and the majesty of Saint Peter’s ornate Basilica. When you are older and life has failed you as all lives do, return to Rome, and sit among the ruins of the day, the sky turning vermillion on Palatine Hill. Sit with the fading sky and reflect on all the things you haven’t been, all the lives you’ll never get to live, the cities you’ll never see, the people you’ll never love as the Roman centurions must have done, no matter how far they traveled.
Then stub out the cigarette and walk into town for some glorious pasta. Once, when I was almost middle aged, I fought gloriously with a woman in Rome. The cobblestone streets were a grand setting for our argument, which had been going on for longer than either one of us could remember. Son, when in Rome, they say, but I always tell them to fuck off. I’ll do as I please in Rome.
- “The time to make up your mind about someone is never.” — Katherine Hepburn
- I learned that the moon is slowly leaving the earth’s orbit, one inch at a time. I learned that the universe is 2/3 of the way through its life cycle. I learned that each octopus has eight arms teeming with neurons, which can operate independently of the main brain. I learned that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Later, I learned that Columbus was an evil colonizer. I learned the colors of the rainbow, the mating habits of otters, the origins of the legend of Dracula. Son, I hear you calling me from the next room, asking me to extend the time on the Nintendo Switch, which has kept you occupied these last two hours. I do not know the meaning of all I’ve learned, merely that our brains have as many neurons as the Milky Way has stars. We can marvel at that too, all the things we know, all the things we never will, like the meaning in the songs of Humpback whales or what the tree roots are saying to one another beneath the riot of worms, beetles, rot, and soil. If you will allow me hope, dearest Son, I sometimes fancy them giggling for hours.
- When searching for someone to love, look first in the smallest outposts, snowy Swiss villages, small houses cut between granite cliffs or positioned in the center of a mirrored lake. I might be mistaken though. I’ve been known to make many mistakes. This is a different way of saying that life is rife with regrets. It might be best to choose a name and winnow it down that way. If you search the small villages and wander the wide streets of glimmering cities and still find no one to love, turn yourself into a fish and swim towards the sea. It worked for Scuffy the Tugboat in the Little Golden Book I loved so much as a child. My mother read it to me time and again as she gently stroked my hair. When Scuffy sails beyond the bathtub, beyond the small streams, through the wide rivers and makes his way toward the vast and open sea, loving hands pull him back.
Perhaps this piece of advice, dear son, is too obscure. The truth is, your lover may be nowhere or on a distant planet orbiting a distant star. They may be writing a postcard to their husband while light sifts the sky, not thinking of you at all. Such is life.
“The garden of the world has no limits.” — Rumi. If I had to search for a lover, I’d look in the cracks of a sunlit square. There, you will find a sliver of grass, swaying in the breeze. Attend to it, wait for the light to change, the quiet patter of rain.
- Tonight, your small face crumpled in tears as we talked. You said you thought you were wasting your life playing video games, that you wanted to be better. You wanted to garden and play with your sister, but you were too busy playing games. You asked me what the point of anything was, video games or family laughter, if we were just going to die and nothing would be remembered. You are a freshly minted nine years old, and I walked you tenderly through the answers to those questions, which I have been asking my whole life. I want to tell you that the answer is the summer light heavy in the gingko, the way a sky is reflected on bodies of water. But I just stroked your hair as you cried, tried to provide what little comfort we get on this mad spin.
- When you dance, suffuse the body with joy, swing your arms wildly and laugh. You can dance as you please, pinwheeling through the room. People may be watching you dance, whispering behind their hands, standing quietly in the square or bar where you are alive with song. When they look at you strangely son, remember that they are strangers here too, floating in the vastness of space, confused, as we all are, with what to do with whatever we have been given here.
© Andrew Bertaina
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Andrew’s interview]