'I never smacked my kids, but if I did I smacked Eddie more.'
-------- George Blatt --------
(father of author)
Published in 'The Smoking Poet'
(scroll down a little)
I’m relaxing with my parents in an apartment they are renting on the 36th floor of one of the many high-rise towers in Surfers Paradise. My father and I sit quietly in the living-room on a couch overlooking the Pacific Ocean, while my mother sits nearby at the kitchen table drinking a coffee and reading a magazine. The roar of the waves crashing onto the beach is dampened by the constant noise of the traffic below and the clanging of cranes as new buildings are erected. Surfers Paradise is the physical manifestation of Mordor, the mythical realm of evil in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It has about as much soul as a kid’s running shoes. And as much heart as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor.
It is not yet evening but already the people walking back and forth in perpetual motion on the beach are being shaded by the buildings lining the coastal road. As I gaze at my father, I remember when as a child I looked to him as a God, omniscient and invincible. His clear blue eyes have now faded to a more grayish-blue colour, and his hairline has receded to something like the distant horizon we can see through the large windows of the apartment. He still has the thin legs which carried him swiftly across the soccer fields of Italy as a goalie after the war, but his stomach now extends well beyond the belt of his shorts. He is frail and has difficulty walking. He no longer seems like an almighty deity.
My father’s eyes don’t function so well either these days, but he has somehow convinced the traffic authorities to let him drive. It gives him something to do, on the two thousand kilometer journey he and my mother make from Melbourne each year, other than listening to the radio and calculating the car’s fuel efficiency at each petrol station. My mother only lets him drive on the long and straight sections of the highway, which, I figure, has contributed to the longevity of their lives. To other drivers’ lives as well.
“How was the drive up?” I ask him.
“OK,” he replies.
“Was it hot?”
“Was it tiring?”
“No, it was OK.”
My father rarely talks much; he prefers watching TV or listening to the radio through an earpiece while sunbaking. His unassuming disposition is most likely informed by his simple philosophical outlook on life. One lives, then dies, and that’s it. In-between these two points in time it pays to minimize the bad stuff and maximize the good stuff. It’s basic math, and because it’s followed by just about everyone else on this planet, he doesn’t question it. To him, and most of the other seven billion people, it’s called ‘normal.’ Regrettably, normality is something I have very little sense of. ‘Common’, I understand; even ‘conventional.’ But ‘normal’?
I have a peculiar relationship with both my parents. They think of me primarily as Eddie their son; their Eddie who gave up a respected career in science to live with a bunch of New-Age hippies in Byron Bay. The Eddie who, some years ago, lived in a community in Melbourne following the vagaries of an American guru. The same Eddie who now finds himself seemingly etching out a life in suburbia up north. I haven’t told them that I am none of the things they presume me to be. I have taken on a persona, like an actor playing a role on stage keeping the audience entertained. And just like actors who routinely perform, it can be tough going at times. Given my history of unconventional behavior and odd encounters, they probably wonder where they went wrong with me.
The thing is, I love my parents, and they don’t have many years left. So rather than risk disturbing them by revealing what really informs my life, I usually play it safe and acquiesce to their expectations. I leave the comfort of my home in northern New South Wales and venture north each year across the state border to spend uncomplicated holiday time with them.
On this occasion, as evening approaches, I feel like engaging my father in a conversation that interests me.
“Hey dad,” I say, “listen to this. I got a call from a school yesterday wanting me to teach for a whole week, so I started preparing some classes. Two hours later I get a call from a woman at the same school asking me if I am a Christian. Can you believe it? I said ‘no’ of course, so she said I can’t teach there.
“I tell her I’ve spent the afternoon rearranging my schedule and that the school was unprofessional. I then sent the Principal a letter saying that God won’t be pleased with their dogmatic approach to religion. I also say that, like me, Jesus was a Jew.”
Now I know where my dad stands on issues concerning religion and God, which is pretty much nowhere other than outright hostility, but this evening I want to have a real conversation. So I continue.
“I also wrote they are doing their students a disservice by hiding behind beliefs about God that have nothing to do with the truth.”
A few silent moments pass.
“If God exists,” my dad says in a raised voice, “I hate him. I love my children and if I had the power I would never let anything bad happen to them. What sort of father is a God who lets such atrocities happen to his children?”
My body tightens in reaction to the force of my father’s response, but I persist.
“Look dad,” I say, taking a deep breath, “the God created by religions is a fantasy. They are created by people who feel separate from everyone and everything else. They cannot accept the pain and suffering of that condition, and ultimately their own death, so they make up stories about a loving God who looks after everything He created.”
My father’s brow furrows and he looks at me with his customary incredulity. He seems elsewhere.
“Anyway,” I continue, ‘God’ is just a word, and it’s been used to mean all sorts of things. Who cares what its definition is. Let’s just say there is something more to life than living, dying, and that’s it. In order to discover what that something is, however, we need to become more aware of our feelings, of what really drives us.”
“Nobody knows whether God exists,” my father says, evading the direction the conversation needs to head in order to come up with something useful. “People say they do, but nobody really knows.”
Once again, I am standing on familiar grounds with my father. It appears as if we are having a conversation - I talk, then he talks, then I talk, and so forth - but we are not communicating. He doesn’t want to follow through what I am alluding to because it would require him to look deeply into himself, especially his feelings. That would be way too scary for him.
“Dad, it doesn’t matter what other people claim to know or don’t know about a God. What matters is how we respond to such ideas. For example, why are you so angry about the idea of God?”
“What’s my response got to do with whether God exists? Anyway, I’m not angry!”
I look at my father with consternation. His world is dominated by his thinking mind and the underlying philosophy of scientific materialism. Existence to him is simply a mass of moving nuts and bolts; a combination of physical exchanges and chemical reactions. Getting him to relate his own experience to the idea of God, therefore, is just not possible. It would be like trying to explain nuclear physics to a person who knows how to add and subtract numbers, maybe even multiply and divide, and thinks he can truly appreciate the subtleties of quantum mechanics. That person might present an opinion, but without the knowledge of higher mathematics he would be engaging in a pointless exercise. Trying to communicate the esoteric nature of God and spirituality with my father is similar. There really isn’t a common ground of understanding for us to traverse.
“You are angry, Dad,” I say.
“No I’m not, we’re just having a discussion!”
“Hey mum, don’t you reckon Dad is angry?”
My mother, who has kept out of the conversation, raises her clear blue eyes above her reading glasses, looks at the two of us and faintly smiles. She is a proud woman, with straight silky grey hair that just falls onto her strong shoulders. Although her height has diminished with age, in contrast to the girth of her waist, she remains remarkably robust. She doesn’t answer my question. She either has no opinion on the matter or she doesn’t want to come in-between two bulls locking horns. It’s probably the latter.
I continue without reinforcements.
“Ok Dad, you’re not angry,” I say sarcastically. “That’s hardly the point anyway. If you would just listen to what I’m saying….”
I stop talking mid-sentence, startled by the force of my endeavor. It’s a force that has marred my relationship with my father for years, especially when I was younger. I take a moment to weigh up the options. I could persist engaging him in a consideration that I know is doomed to frustration and ultimate failure, or I could let it all go and reclaim the warmth I felt for him only moments before.
“You know Dad,” I say, “I actually agree with you. I don’t believe in God either.”
What I say is true, I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything, but that’s not something I want to get into with him. The faintest of smiles appears on his face, and his impish eyes sparkle for a moment before returning to their usual grayness. He says nothing.
The evening is upon us now as the moon peeks above the horizon. I look at my father in the fading light and my heart breaks - the love I feel for him in this moment is overwhelming. I really don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone. For now, all I do know is to tell him how much I love him and that there isn’t a better dad in the world. Which is what I do. He tells me he is very proud of his two boys.
As the moon slowly disappears over the top of the building, I cannot imagine for the life of me why I would want to engage in any form of communication with my father other than from the heart.
Perhaps even with its lack of soul, Surfers Paradise does hold a special place in my life.