Since I last posted, this thing happened, which is that my book published! I’ve looked forward to that date for more than a year. As I wrote that, I wondered, well haven’t I looked forward to it even longer? Haven’t I been looking forward to it for years? Possibly—it’s hard to remember now. I tend to race to the next milepost, and then the next, and I don’t give myself a lot of time to enjoy whatever I’ve accomplished. Because there’s always so much more to do—and there are always so many ways to imagine that one hasn’t yet measured up. What I really aspired to all those years that I worked on The Beast Is an Animal was for it to be worthy—to be worthy of my agent feeling that it was worthy of publication and for a publisher to then find it similarly worthy. Worthy. I used that word multiple times on purpose. It’s a loaded word. It’s heavy. A lot to drag around. Now I hope my book is worthy in a different way—that enough people will buy it that my publisher will think the whole enterprise was worthwhile. And that therefore the next book is worthy of publication. And on and on. To the next milepost and the next.
Something else happened on February 28, 2017, the day my book published. My father died. My father, Jan Walter van Arsdale, Sr., was a bright, handsome, charismatic man. He wanted to be a poet, and I recalled today how often he went to “Writers Conferences” when I was a kid. I put that in quotation marks because the concept sounded fancy and mythical to me as a child. To him, being a published writer was probably also fancy and mythical. He wanted it, badly. But it remained out of his grasp as it does for many of us. He self-published a volume of poetry when I was about eleven. He also wrote many, many sermons, and was thought to be an excellent preacher. He was tall and prematurely gray, and had a beautiful voice. And he had a gift for drama. My favorite service he performed each year occurred on the evening of Good Friday, the most morbid day in the Christian calendar. I used to love how he’d have all the lights in the sanctuary go out after Christ says his last words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and then dies. After a minute or so in the pitch black, my father would smack two hymnals together with a loud crack and all the lights would blaze on again. It was spectacular.
My father was a difficult man; I tried and failed to feel worthy in his eyes. He suffered from bipolar disorder at a time when it was even less understood than it is now. Lithium destroyed his body over the decades. And what the lithium didn’t do to wreck him, he did himself. He could be mean, very mean. He could be frightening. His highs were high and bizarre and his lows were low and dark—and silent.
But always what I remember about my father is that he desperately wanted to be good. No, that’s not right. My father desperately wanted to be great. Correction: My father desperately wanted to be great, while wishing he were someone who simply wanted to be good.
I’ve realized even as I write this the extent to which the subject that I wrote so much about in my novel—the quest to be and believe that one is good (worthy)—was a part of my father’s life as well. More consciously, whenever I talk about my belief that we are not good or bad, but that good and bad exist in all of us—I’m certainly thinking at least in part of my father.
As often happens after someone we love has died, I’ve had flashes of memories of my father over the last few weeks. One was that my father admired Walt Whitman. And I thought of one of Whitman’s most famous poems, “O Captain! My Captain!,” which he wrote to eulogize his great hero, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was also a hero of my father’s. I believe that my father wanted to be a hero himself. I think for some people he accomplished that goal. He did many great and terrible things in his life—as we all do. My father wasn’t my hero, but he was a man I loved. And for him, I offer this beautiful poem, and my understanding, and my belief that he was someone worthy.
As always, thank you so much for reading.
Another of my father’s heroes was Martin Luther King, Jr. I tried to find the particular drawing of him that my father had framed on our wall, but I couldn’t. Instead, here’s a picture of King in his jail cell in Birmingham, after he was arrested on Good Friday—April 12, 1963. You can find a beautiful description of his letter and all that informed it on BrainPickings, one of my favorite sites.