In memoriam my stepson: A circle has been broken

Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post previously published on March 8, 2018.

This is the most difficult post I have had to write to this day. I’ll spare you most of the details. Some things can’t be fully communicated, can’t be communed with or put in common. So I’ll pare it down.

My partner Agnieszka’s 19-year-old son, Mathias, committed suicide in the night of February 17 to February 18. We’ve been hollowed out, devastated, stopped in our tracks, shattered, sent on a roller-coaster of sobbing and shaking and wailing, then of staring blankly into hour after empty hour. We’ve been “active” – going to the coroner’s to identify Mathias’ body, organizing and living through his funeral, attending commemorations, making and answering flurries of phone calls and e-mails, cancelling his insurance policies and his gym membership, gathering his letters and artwork and musical compositions, and whatnot. We’ve been “busy” even as our inner time has stopped and as the world outside has arrogantly, callously kept on turning.

The irreversible linearity of existential time is grating our every raw nerve. There is no “circularity” here, certainly no “regenerativity” – the only permanence is that of Mathias’ absence from now on, every day, forever. I’d call it “permalinearity” if I had the least bit of strength right now to pursue another neologism; maybe someday I will. For now, for us – his parents and stepparents, his sister, stepbrother and stepsister, his uncles, aunts and cousins, his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother – there is something that doesn’t ring quite true in the gospel title “The circle will be unbroken.” The song’s second stanza offers: “The family circle will have no end.” Well, we are a family circle with a gaping hole in it, a small clan huddling around a fire that’s struggling to warm us. “There’s a better home awaiting in the sky,” says the song. Go figure; we’d much rather our home right here on Earth hadn’t been touched by this.

Mathias.self-portrait

Self-portrait by Mathias, January 2018

Mathias was a firm believer in not looking away from reality. Our reality now – so many of us – is that we are shattered and he isn’t here to see it. Over the past two months we’ve gradually discovered (among many other things) the music and the authors he liked and – for whatever reasons – decided to never share with those of us who were physically closest to him. I guess all we’re left with is the emptiness of his chair and desk, and the knowledge – for me, the absolute certainty – that had he wished to open up and reach out, we would – I would – gladly have read and debated and shared so many things. As it was, every feeble attempt at engaging ended in an embittered ideological standoff in which Mathias sought to be right on every single issue and was out to destroy every opposing idea one would suggest to him. (It was his idea of an “argument”; it’s true that the word cuts both ways.) In so doing, he completely fell short of the advice of one of his main mentors, Jordan B. Peterson, who writes in his book 12 Rules for Life (Penguin, 2018): “Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” Mathias demanded this of us vis-à-vis himself, but he didn’t in return apply it to himself vis-à-vis us – his mom or me. We now know he probably felt angry and misunderstood, and partly sought (male) role models in areas of thought and politics we had, and still have, very little sympathy for. We pushed back because that was our way of exercising parental concern, as well as showing the utmost respect for his high and broad intelligence – but most often, Mathias simply interpreted our disagreements as a failure on our part to understand how much more he felt he knew than us.

It feels tragic. I’m determined, to honor his memory, to keep reading some (though not all) of the authors in whose works he appeared to have found some (wildly insufficient, as we now see) guidance and orientation. I think – and this pains me so very much – that after quite a bit of wrangling and debating, he and I could have agreed on many things about what is wrong with modernity, and maybe even on a few ways of re-infusing it with meaning and depth. Now, this future we would have needed has been irreversibly taken from us.

How do you recycle the irreversible? What is the circular metabolism of grief?

How dare the sun still rise and fall, and the seasons still come and go, and the planets still describe their gravitational ellipses, when a life cherished and nurtured has extinguished itself?

How do you find solace in the great cycles of nature when your small human circle has been broken? Maybe a very small beginning of an answer – not for right now but for later, much later – can be found in a short, imaginary dialogue with a departed man. In his younger years, the great American poet Gary Snyder had a friend – named Lew Welch – who was a himself a Beat poet and lived with Snyder at his house in the mountains of California for a while in 1971, before disappearing one day and never coming back. He carried a gun and left a farewell note. It is believed that Welch took his own life; his body was never found. Here is what Snyder wrote, many years later, as if to start reconciling the small, broken circle of the human home with the vast, unbroken cycles of the cosmos:

For/From Lew Welch
Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. “Damn, Lew” I said,
“you didn’t shoot yourself after all.”
“Yes I did” he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
“Yes you did, too” I said — “I can feel it now.”
“Yeah” he said,
“There’s a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don’t know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All other cycles.
That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.”

To teach the children about the life cycles, and all other cycles: that’s what it’s all about. Mathias was an incredibly bright young man, with a lucidity so sharp he could dissect modernity and its failings and absurdities with – for his tender age – surgical precision. Of course he was often partially wrong, and sometimes totally so. That’s what happens when you aim for the truth of things – nothing wrong with that. For so many reasons (some psychological, some sentimental, some intellectual and philosophical), he didn’t give himself the time to attain a balanced view on what to do to remedy things. It’s true that we are all, in this darkening hour, flailing around for a new culture and a new worldview; I wish I could have shared my own search with Mathias more. He was too busy looking in certain less-than-wholesome directions, which he would surely have grown out of but which, on such short notice, pulled him too strongly into momentary despair.

Mathias.forest.photo

Forest photo by Mathias, February 2018

Mathias wasn’t mostly darkness and despair, though – far from it. He was a consummate artist, his drawings earning him the respect and admiration of a small tribe of internet followers the planet over. He loved to walk in the woods, and his mom recalls that even a few days before his irremediable act they took a long stroll – a “forest bath” – which seemed to make him livelier and happier. He loved animals, wanted a humane culture for them to live in, and had become a full-on vegan two and a half years ago. Building a civilization of biophilia is one of the most urgent and wrenching homages we can pay to the likes of Mathias. If we’re going to make this world – its economy, its culture, the relationship of humans to nature – habitable again, especially for our younger generations who seek meaning and truth amidst the ruins of wastefulness, extractivism and exploitation, then yes: we must “teach the children about the cycles. The life cycles. All other cycles. That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.”

We can never forget you, Mathias. I am so sorry that I only got these last three years with you – not your best years. As I wrote to you in that letter I read out loud to you before tucking it under your cardigan at the funeral home, I will so dearly miss our future. No circle will ever bring it back; that circle is forever broken, severed brutally by your desperate act. No wonder, therefore, that Lew Welch’s ghost complains: “There’s a basic fear between your world and mine. I don’t know why.” O but you do know why – don’t you? The world of the dead, whatever its contours and location, lies outside of any circle or cycle we, the still ephemerally living, can understand or fathom. We fear it, therefore, to the roots of our being. And this fear might well be what, beneath the thin veneer of our “official” vitality and creativity, drives some of us to use our human gifts of intelligence and willpower towards pillaging and destroying the Earth. Extractive masculinity is one of the greatest scourges of our time – and for that, I do blame some of the trendy thinkers and pundits Mathias was enthralled by (pseudo-Nietzscheans worshiping strength and power, Manichean opponents of “post-modernism” with no solution except anti-feminism and anti-modernism, fame-seeking promoters of life’s alleged meaninglessness, and other assorted hypocrites along similar lines), who often extol “manly” values at the expense of self-compassion, cynically confusing tender care of oneself with weak-willed “whining.”

Mathias.drawing.woman

Painting by Mathias

The crushing isolation of those who wish themselves to be strong and masculine is, perhaps, the same isolation that leads business “leaders” and political “heads” to send workers and troops into missions of destruction. If anything, what will defeat our civilization’s nihilistic plunges into extractive masculinity is the cultural emergence of the Deep Feminine – the Wise Woman, the Earthly Mother – and the resurgence of a respect for Nature as a nurturing (though not immortality-bestowing) web of existential care and life-support.

Mathias would not, I’m pretty sure, have immediately yielded to such ideas. He was a stubborn and occasionally daunting young man, capable of fabulous feats of rhetorical aggression. But fundamentally he was kind and bright like his mom, and just as intrigued as she is by the question of the masculine/ feminine and its cultural and social echoes through time and space. In his memory, with all the wrenching pain that still awaits us daily as we live through the realization of his irreversible passing, I would wish for us all to heed Lew Welch’s words from the Beyond – and to embrace a permacircular hope for the future in the Here and Now:

What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All other cycles.
That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.”

*

This blog post is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This allows you to download the text and share it with others as long as you credit me, but you can’t change it in any way or use it commercially. For more information, go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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