I’m writing this post from a tiny little cot in a
minimum security prison hospital. If the county lockup hospital had known my wife and I were coming here to have our baby, they’d likely have set aside a room for us with at least a double-sized bed that we could share together. They didn’t know we were coming because we didn’t know we were coming.
Besides, if I write it down, even if he doesn’t remember all this stuff right now, he can always refer back to it later.
I don’t mean to imply we didn’t know my wife was about to give birth – we’ve been pretty aware of that for a while now – we had just planned to bring the little guy into the world in a wonderful birth center with wonderful midwives a few miles from here. We did go through the entire labor process there, but for the very end – the actual birth itself – key complications forced us to make a last-minute trip over here. Everything went fine (and I’ll almost certainly write in more detail about the experience in a future piece), but we’ve been here ever since, and here I am. On my cot.
Since I’ve had plenty of time to anticipate this moment in a broad sense, even if some of the specifics aren’t as I’d imagined them – and since I am, after all, the (self-appointed, self-trained) wizard of this region – I already have a few things I’d like to say to little Manny, my son, who’s just a foot or two to my left right now. I’d say it all out loud, but I’m not supposed to wake him up when he’s sleeping, and my wife most certainly deserves a few hours’ sleep before the
wardens nurses barge in here at 1 and them both up for a feeding.
Besides, if I write it down, even if he doesn’t remember all this stuff right now, he can always refer back to it later.
Hello, little creature.
You don’t know what that word means yet, but my job is to make you feel the word’s meaning, starting now.
I know, there’s a lot going on. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m old and some days I still find myself just as bewildered and bombarded as you do. It’s all extremely confusing. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, and I’ll try to answer a few of the bigger ones now, even if you probably won’t be able to make sense of what I’m saying for a while. I owe it to you, from now on, to give it to you straight.
You probably want to know where the hell we are, like, what the hell is this place? It’s a pretty basic question, but it’s still not super easy to answer. On the one hand, you’re in a room, which is typically a space surrounded by walls (see? these barrier-things that we can’t walk through) and this room is inside a hospital. A hospital is where you go when something in your body (this thing you’re made of) is not doing well. They’ll try to make you better if you can, but maybe they can’t. Either way, you end up leaving the hospital. Besides that, this is the place where most new people like you arrive, and that’s why we’re here now. It’s also a place for old people (old is what you’ll become if you live long enough, but I’ll get to that later) to get lots of tests done.
But telling you about this room in this hospital doesn’t really answer the question of where we are, because this hospital is not the world – it’s not even a tiny fraction of the world. But in order to tell you where – and what – “the world” is, I’ve got to tell you a little story.
Everything was possible, but that’s it – all that was going on was absolutely nothing. Then it changed.
First, there was nothing. It’s hard to describe what “nothing” is, but it’s something like what you were experiencing just a short while ago. Too bad you’ll never remember. Anyway, there was nothing…and at the same time, there was everything. Everything there is – all this of which you’re just now getting the smallest taste – everything that ever happens, it was all there already, doing nothing in the nothing. Everything was already invented and completed because everything was already possible, just sitting in this tiny one little thing, a little thing so little you can’t even really imagine it with your brain (that running narrative you’re experiencing? that’s where it comes from, and one of the things wholly responsible for making all this happen). Everything was possible, but that’s it – all that was going on was absolutely nothing.
Then it changed. That one little thing wasn’t one thing anymore. Instead of calmly splitting into two things, or some other more moderate choice, the one little thing in the middle of the nothing blew up in the biggest explosion that ever was. Suddenly, the whole universe – which is a bigger and better word for “world” – was there.
If anyone tries to tell you why this happened, or even specifically how, don’t believe anything they say. Nobody who can talk to you knows the answer to these questions. Not yet, anyway. This is something that might concern you in a decade or two, but don’t let it take too much out of you. It’s not that important for us to know – certainly not nearly as important as the things we do know. (In fact, sometimes it’s kind of fun to not know certain things.)
You know what light and heat are – you’ve actually been responding to light and heat for a few months now. After the explosion, there’s light and heat everywhere, all through everything. The universe out there, the place where there used to be nothing and now there was everything and all this light and heat, is what we call “space.” All this light and heat is blasting out and dancing around out in space and light and heat likes to join with itself into little groups. Balls of light and heat started agreeing to form themselves, and they popped up everywhere. They’re still here – you could actually see them yourself if we went out of the hospital right now and there were no clouds (clumps of water-air above us in the “sky”). We call them “stars.”
All the stars also liked to form groups with one another, and so they did, all throughout space. Star groups are called “galaxies” and they’re everywhere. We live inside of one.
It’s called “Earth” – that’s the name we’ve given to the floating star junk that we live on.
Seriously, inside the galaxies and in the area around some of the stars, there’s leftover junk that was originally going to group together as part of the stars but for some reason never did. The junk goes in circles around stars – but always the same star. That’s what we’re on right now, a piece of junk that didn’t get to be part of the star. It’s known as a “planet.” Ours is a ball of really hot shit on the inside, but on the outside it’s kind of nice (don’t you think?). It’s mostly covered in water, but there are also these movable slabs of junk that aren’t covered by water, and those are “continents” of what we call “land.” We live and walk and drive and build hospitals on top of the land, but if it wasn’t for the water, we wouldn’t even be here.
Weird, I know.
It’s called “Earth” – that’s the name we’ve given to the floating star junk that we live on. And even though Earth is a smaller portion of the universe than this hospital is of the Earth, it’s very likely that every single thing that you experience, encounter, fight, accept, and endure will be comfortably enclosed within the Earth. It’s the only place inside the universe where us people are, and that’s okay. It’s a good place; there’s plenty to do here.
So wait, you’re probably thinking, you’ve got this vague understanding of where we are and what this place is…but what are we?
Well, we’re a very specific type of living creature known as a “human being.” In all the universe, of all the things that are in the universe, almost none of those things are living. It might seem hard to believe now, hearing this for the first time, but one of the easiest things for you to forget as you get older is how weird it is to be a living creature – it’s one of the weirdest things in the entire universe, if not the weirdest.
Most of the things on this planet, in fact, are not living things, and living things are pretty new when we consider “time” in a linear before-during-after kind of way (which, as it turns out, you will for your entire life). Here on Earth, there once was a time when all of the things were not living, until that changed. Suddenly there was one living thing. The story of life isn’t like the story of the universe. Mainly, there’s no all-or-nothing explosion. Life proceeded very slowly, one thing, then two things, then three…and so on. Over a massive, massive amount of time, however, even if the majority of what makes up this junk-rock planet is not living, the living things came to run the show. (You’ll find that’s the way with a lot of things in life – very slow progress which, over time that’s sometimes so vast you can’t even imagine it, turns something small into something magnificent and monumental. Only sometimes will you experience something that comes into being as an explosion – but when those times come, you’d best pay attention!)
Making things even weirder, almost none of the living things on this planet are human beings. We walk upright and we have these big brains that let us think and use words, really complicated words that you’ll learn at a shockingly fast rate considering the circumstances of this place we’re in. We’re the strangest kind of life – the strangest type of the strangest type of thing in the whole universe (which is itself a pretty strange thing, don’t you think?).
What makes some living things, including human beings, particularly weird is that we “know” any of this.
So in a way I hate to do it, but I’m going to make a “clarification” here that’s really just going to confuse you. I keep saying things like “in the universe” and “on this planet” but those things are only sort of true. There’s not actually any “on” or “in”. We, like everything else, are the universe. We’re just pieces of it in a particular shape and form. Same with the planet. We’re not “on” it, we are it, every bit as much as the rocks and oceans and ice and air and melted metal you’ll see and feel and learn about soon enough. We’re just hunks of planet that look and act a certain way.
What makes some living things, including human beings, particularly weird is that we “know” any of this. Even though you don’t have the words to express it yet, you’re already knowing things because you see them and hear them and feel them. What makes human beings extra extra strange is that we know about knowing. That’s what allows us to talk about this. We’re the only pieces of the universe – that we know of – that know about knowing about the universe.
Carl Sagan was a human being who was a scientist (someone who spends his time watching and knowing and understanding extraordinarily complicated things and then expressing those things to others) said, “We are the universe being aware of itself.” There is also a poet (someone whose job it is to explain things better than everyone else – usually including me) named Robert Hunter who said, “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” He was talking to you just as much as he was talking to anyone. (His poem was turned into a music song – music is a collection of the best sounds that human beings can hear and one of the most important things in life – and we’ll listen to it while we drive home tomorrow. You’re going to like it – if not immediately, then someday.)
If you can, try to keep that in mind. You’re the eyes of the world. For most of your life, most days, most minutes, it’s going to seem like being the eyes of the world doesn’t matter. Well, I said I’d tell you the truth, and the truth is that, typically, it’s the only thing that matters. It will never be easy – it’s not easy for me, anyway – but I promise that you will have a much better time if you keep this idea close. You’re the eyes of the world – the strangest thing in the entire universe.
Even if that’s all that all of this is about – and it very well might be – that’s good enough. Trust me on that one.
The thing that’s always going to be the hardest for you to accept and be okay with is actually the easiest to explain. The thing with all of life is that it begins and ends. You’ll never remember it, but you just had your beginning. Your end will come many years from now, but it will come. Mine will, too, sooner than yours. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s part of being the strangest thing in the universe. You come and you go – and you’re only “here” doing “this” for a few minutes. In fact, on the scale of the whole universe, like in the story I was telling you earlier, you’re basically here for less than a second, a blink of an eye. Whether your life tallies up to 20 years or 97, it doesn’t really matter, as part of the universe, because it’s all just a blink of an eye.
That’s what makes it so special.
We’re all here together for only just this one moment in all of time and space. There’s probably no “reason why” – and as I suggested earlier, be very careful with anyone who tries to tell you that there is and that they know what it is. The truth is that there doesn’t need to be a reason or a why. Without such things, it becomes quite clear and easy to see how unbelievably lottery-winningly lucky we are to be here together for just this one blink of an eye. Everything you see and hear and touch, feel and think while you’re here and doing this…all this was so unlikely, so unbelievably improbable, with all of the odds stacked against it, and yet we’re here together and doing this anyway. It happened anyway.
It happens this way, and nothing in all the universe could make me more joyful. I hope someday you feel the same.
By now, you’ve long since gotten bored and I’ve neither the time nor energy to start explaining all of the things that human beings do, some of which are good and some of which are very bad. That’s not to say this isn’t important – it’s probably more important to your life than anything besides those things I’ve already told you – but we’ll have other letters to start covering that stuff. You have enough to chew on for a while, especially given the fact that you don’t even have teeth yet.
I’ll just add one more little thing. Remember I said earlier that the pieces of light and heat like to come together and form little groups called stars, and that the stars also like to come together into big groups called galaxies? The humans are like that, too. We like to come together into little groups, and the little groups like to come together into larger groups.
(That’s another thing you’re going to notice throughout your life – humans might be the strangest things in the universe, but in other ways we act just like all of the other things in the universe. That’s because, like I said, we aren’t really in it at all, but we are it. The more you notice that, the more you draw that close to you, the better time you will have.)
Your mother and I – and your two older brothers – will be a lot of things to you as the days and years go on. We’re responsible for you for the first chunk of your life, but as long as all of us are here together in this moment, what you need to remember is that all four of us have your back.
There are lots of different kinds of small groups and big groups of humans. I’ll talk more about them in those future letters, but for now just know that none of these kinds are inherently good or bad or better. You might like some kinds and dislike other kinds. that’s the nature of being a human. But the kind that you’re quite involuntarily joining is known as a “family.” Your mother and I decided to form a lifelong alliance with one another based in love, companionship, and helping each other. We joined forces. We joined our light and our heat – and one of the results of that is you.
Your mother and I – and your two older brothers – will be a lot of things to you as the days and years go on. We’re responsible for you for the first chunk of your life, but as long as all of us are here together in this moment, what you need to remember is that all four of us have your back. We can’t prevent things you don’t like from happening, but we can always stand with you and sit with you and talk with you and commune with you. We will live with you, first inside the same walls (we call that “our home”) but after that, we’ll still live with you all the days of our lives.
In fact, we’ll still live with you after we die and you keep living. That’s because there’s not really a “with” any more than there is an “in” or an “on.” You’re not with us, you are us, just as we all are the earth and we all are the universe.
It all seems like many things, but there’s really just one thing, the same one thing that once sat there all small and unmade within the nothing. That’s what’s so great about it all. Even if you never really make sense of that – few among us do – remember that I told you.
I know, like I said, I know there’s a lot going on. Confusion is not fun. If you’re anything like your old man (me), and I suspect that you are, you’re never going to really appreciate confusion or have a very good time with it. What’s important, though, despite all that, is that you never really lose it. If you ever find yourself completely sure and lacking entirely in confusion, bewilderment, or befuddlement, check yourself – you’re probably doing something wrong.
Until that day comes, I’m here to help.
With great love (something I can show better than I can ever explain),
Your confused, happy, ultra-strange, proud-as-hell father.