When I take my son in a tuk-tuk, he asks me to be his seat belt. So I put my arm around him; I hold him inside the lightly armed vehicle. And I think of myself and my father, the perennial exchange. They say ‘born alone, die alone’but that’s a lie. We’re born surrounded by people and, inshallah, we go out the same way.
In the Muslim tradition the symmetry is intentional. The family gets together to wash and shroud the body of the deceased, before is put back in the Earth, facing the honored Kaaba. It is like another birth, going the other way. It’s a beautiful ceremony, done far too often these days.
In any Asian tradition, the idea of ‘launching’ at some abstract age is absurd. Why would you launch your children? They’re not rockets.
Every culture holds its children, and in the older ones you never let them go. In Sri Lanka, children usually live with their parents until they’re married, and usually go right back when they have kids of their own. This is changing, but multi-generational families are still the norm. As they are in migrant communities across the globe.
This illusion of being alone, of being a consumer, a statistic, a bank account, it’s just that. An illusion. This idea of self allows us to fit into the idea of capitalism, into the maw of the state, but it’s not some natural condition. It is a creation, an illusion, and increasingly delusional.
It all looks real when you put it on paper (population is this, per capita that) like there’s no other way to be. But then look at the world. Look at yourself, closely. When are you truly alone? Humans go mad when placed in isolation. A society centered around this idea literally drives us insane.
Hence even mental health is framed as a personal problem, which you need to buy products and services for. A consumer affair. But how often do we ask the questions a grandmother would ask? Have you eaten? Do you need a place to stay for a while? Are you alone?
The Individual, Alone
I am not say that the idea of an individual has no utility. It’s very useful. I’m just saying it doesn’t have all utility. It’s just a tool. Like they say, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and this hyper-individualist shit is beating us down.
This is why I left Empire, honestly. I let my US Green Card lapse and I left Canada entirely. I was fucking depressed. I was lonely. That’s why I returned to sender, that’s why I came home. I look at my children today and I’m glad I did. I’m glad I returned to a feeling I didn’t have an explanation for but nonetheless know. I can feel it even on the road.
In the morning we were standing there, waiting for the tuk tuk to come. The kids’ great-grandparents came onto the balcony to say hello, the old lady scolding me for making some stupid joke. Then their grandparents came onto another balcony, in nightclothes, to say hello.
What wealth is this? What untold riches? Yet it would show up in no statistic, in no report. And yet this is life. This is soul.
Here we stand, at a three-way junction, between three families, waiting for the three-wheeler to come. This is not just where my children are, this is who they are. They are not just some confluence of DNA, filed under a name in a capitalist world. They are children, they are loved, they inhabit a much older and much wider web than anyone knows. We live in this illusion of self, but life is never alone.
The truth is that none of us are ever really alone, except broken in torture. In solitary confinement you can feel the thread of our existence being severed, and it cuts us to the bone. In moments of love you can feel it flowing, and it warms us to the core.
The Unbroken Thread
In life we are covered in connections as much as clothes. When you first swaddle a newborn child and hold them, you know. They’re fucking useless. You’refucking useless. And yet together you make it through.
For years you feed them and clean them everyday, doing the work of their digestive system, like an external organ. And then the kid becomes your external organ, more important than your heart. As Ellen Cantarow said:
“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
When are we alone in this process? How are we alone? What, because we have different bodies, because we occupy different locations in space? This is meaningless, like pixels on a page.
Ask COVID-19, which leaps across borders with wicked grace. Ask any virus, running the highway that goes from genital to genital, face to face. Ask any alien, looking at this pale blue dot from space.
Illusions exist insomuch as they’re useful, but we need to keep them in their place. But this illusion of self now governs everything. It’s your name, your bank account, your passport, your property, everything has to be filed in this way.
We’re all supposed to race against each other, apologizing for even having families and children. We call it a rat race, but even rats don’t live like this. Where are we even going? What are we racing for? A few people live like pharaohs for a while, then we all get entombed in a ruined Earth? What a fucking waste.
We have to understand, there are different ways of understanding. The self, the consumer, the individual, it’s just one way of looking at things. It’s definitely useful sometimes (like if your family sucks), but it’s not useful all the time. And yet we’ve extended this illusion to the point that it’s destroying families, communities, the entire human race. And it doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do. We have all these ideas of individual choice, individual freedom, and it just makes individuals miserable.
You have all the money in the world and so fucking what? You divorce the wife who knew you and end up surrounded by people you can’t trust. You reach the pinnacle of fame, then what? End up surrounded by drug dealers, numbing the pain. We’re not meant to live like this, we’re not meant to be pharaohs or billionaires, trying to live forever and not enjoying the day.
What do we want, really? The same things we wanted as a mewling and puking child. To be held, to be loved, to have our needs listened to and addressed. To be part of something bigger than ourselves, to be connected to someone. To be loved. To disappear and reappear into someone’s love. To be safe.
The Great Tuk-Tuk In The Sky
I think about this as I hold my son, against the rush of traffic outside. Tuk-tuks are open-sided and he really could tumble out. But he won’t, because I’m there. Then I think of my father holding me once, which I can’t remember, but can somehow replay. And I think about his father before him. All the endless rebirths that led us to this day.
We were all held once, in an unbroken thread going back to the dawn of life itself. From the amoebas to the fish to the mammals, every single one of us can trace back an unbroken line of mothers feeding, cells dividing, going back to the beginning of time. We were not let go, not once. How the fuck could we be alone, because some line on a piece of paper says so? We are an eternal line.
Whatever trinity or divinity you believe in, it all fits in a three-wheeler. Wherever the great tuk-tuk in the sky goes, we never know. All we can know is the seat belt of love, holding us briefly in place.
So then my son asks ‘are we there yet?’
I don’t fucking know. There’s no fuel, there’s no money, that road is blocked, there’s construction over there, look out for the bike. We saw a fucking crocodile on the way to school yesterday, so look out for that. All this stuff he’s not even worrying about, because I am. Just enjoy not being dead surrounded by death. That’s life. At least you’re not alone.