It’s Father’s Day today.
As I wrote in a previous piece, New Year’s Eve, Ten Years Later, I am not one for marking moments that are meaningless to me, so I have no place for New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, and though I love celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, I’ve struggled with accepting days that are prescribed by others for the rest of the world to mark, but today I make the exception for Father’s Day.
The conditions of the universe were such that I was born to loving, doting parents. I had a charmed childhood. Golden days in the sunlit newness of 1970’s Dubai. I know in my most fundamental essence what it feels like to be loved and cherished and so wholesomely looked after by parents for whom my brother and I were a manifestation of joy.
In moments of solitude, I feel profoundly whole.
But in this moment in time, I feel particularly fragile. I have always thought about the impact the choices of our species has on our own, on other species, and on our habitat, and I have mostly felt helpless. Yes, optimistic about the incremental impact I can make on the world around me, but realistically helpless in the face of the enormity of our collective impact since our species started domesticating plants and animals several millennia ago. And although the world has always unfolded around me into diverse iterations of our impact, this is the first in my lifetime that interconnectedness is painfully, comprehensively, utterly, evident for all to see. We are now some months into this upheaval and what I was hoping would be the siren of emergency seems to be another bump in the road — a big one, a damaging one, but just another bump in the road of our species’ heedless, ignorant march to what I can only see as oblivion. I would love to be wrong.
It is with this inner turmoil that I drove to the cemetery this morning to mark Father’s Day at my father’s grave. The first without my mother since my father’s passing in January 2010. My mother is now oceans away, in the land where its unrest ripples loudly through the fabric of everyone’s existence, in America.
The day was as hot as a summer day in June can get in Dubai. The humidity of over 60 percent making the 30-something degrees Celsius feel like 50-something. There was no respite in the form of cloud cover or trees. It was truly a cemetery in the desert, but instead of the serenity of sand dunes, the vastness of the desert, so perfect in its infinity and indifference, there was the industry of a medical and hazardous waste disposal plant.
It didn’t deter the birds from chirping or the geckos from skittering across the sand at the sound of my footsteps. I did what my mother and I have always done: wash off the marble surface with some water and wipe it. Futile, of course, but therapeutically ritualistic.
This time, instead of fresh flowers, I had a date palm branch. My mother had recounted how my father had brought it home one day when the dates were in season — a gift from one of the homeowners whose plumbing systems my father had installed and maintained. Once the dates were all eaten, she’d decorate the branch at Easter with festive baubles. It was one of the countless things she left behind when she immigrated to join my brother and his family in the US 15 months ago, and although I’d given away 42 years’ worth of belongings, this I just could not. It sprang from the desert and my father brought it home to us, so today, I dug the earth in front of his grave, put the palm branch in a little terracotta vase, and filled it and the hole around it with earth. Now it stands, defiant, a symbol of my father’s endearing stubbornness and resilience throughout his life and in the face of the cancer he confronted bravely.
I also sang a song; one of the songs he always sung under his breath, half saying the words, half humming, as he drove, absentmindedly, pausing for what seemed like forever, then picking the tune up again. “Ashkharoumes akh chim kashi…” a popular Armenian folk song by the 18th century Georgia-born Armenian bard, ashugh, Sayat-Nova. I say singing, I should say crying — for it was the first time after his funeral more than 10 years ago that I could actually bawl at his gravestone. I realized it’s because I always reigned in my emotions in the presence of my mother’s gut-wrenching, all-engulfing grief.
In the surrender to my unabashed expression of grief, I remembered the wise words of The School of Life — the outline of the consolations to the ills of modernity. The consoling virtues to heal us from the impossible modern ideals we’ve set for ourselves:
1. Brokenness for Perfectibility
2. Melancholia Universalis for Optimism
3. Dependence for Individualism
4. Ordinary Life for Exceptionalism
5. Tragedy for Meritocracy
6. Transcendence for Anthropocentrism
7. Good Enough for Romanticism
8. Recurrence for Novelty
The School of Life writes how melancholy “isn’t directly opposed to cheerfulness. If we accept that life is sad and difficult, we don’t always have to stay tethered to this fact. We can open ourselves to the possibility of what might be called ‘cheerful despair’. Despair can be the standard, tragic, expected background against which anything sweet, amusing and tender stands out and can be properly appreciated.
Ironically, gratitude becomes all the more powerful when we don’t take the good in any way for granted. Armed with a philosophy of melancholia universalis… we’re less obsessed by what is missing from our lives and more grateful for that which is present and good.”
When I stopped bawling I put my meditation learnings from Headspace into practice. I closed my eyes and meditated. I appreciated the “thisness” of that moment. Meditation is so simple, yet its practice can be the hardest thing I do on any given day and undoubtedly one of the most fulfilling every time, so when I opened my eyes, there was equilibrium, satedness, gratitude, and contentment.
At home, my husband greeted me with a long embrace and a couple of pairs of eclipse shades, and urged me to go find the sun. This was my first experience with a solar eclipse. I stood on the pavement across the road from our building, put on the shades and gawked at the celestial sight before my eyes. The sun but a thin crescent, a deep, vibrant, powerful orange, and the perfect, dark sphere silhouette of the moon.
I am not a newcomer to the majesty of the cosmos. My husband and I own and operate two telescopes (a Celestron CPC 1100 StarBright XLT GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain 2800mm and a Celestron NexStar 6SE). We have been mesmerized by the beauty of the moon in its quarter and waxing and waning phases and awestruck by Jupiter and Saturn, so many unfathomable kilometers away, their moons but pinpricks looking deceptively like stars. We have curated and created awe-inspiring experiences through viewings at the science festival we founded, SciFest Dubai, and at other events. But for every single variable that had brought me to the present, that moment was epiphany. The amorphous, gossamer, glow splashing ethereal radiance in the infinite, intense black was breath-taking. Heart-stopping. Numinous.
That moment was eternal.
I was again reminded of the consolations of modernity from The School of Life, particularly transcendence — “… the sources of transcendence… might involve the sight of the starts at night, spread out like diamonds on a mantle of velvety darkness: uncountable fiery suns, implausibly distant and themselves constituting only an infinitesimal fraction of the cosmos. We can begin to conceive how vanishingly minor our sun, our planet, and we ourselves are in this sublime vastness.”
I had returned from the cemetery much lighter than when I had gone there and now at mid-morning, I was soaring — in mystical communion with the universe. In the words of writer and speaker Alan Watts, ‘We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.’ And I am grateful that in this infinite universe I had the finite, but nevertheless, fortunate experience of having a loving and devoted father.