To my son,
Right now you’re in school and I’m at work. It’s about 1:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, which means you have already finished lunch — pizza day! — and had recess. Now you’re in math and I’m writing you a letter about love. I know, gross, right? But it’s also about life and also about math, which I know you like.
Remember last night when we were doing math homework, adding up how many pennies Karl and his friend Kate had in total if Kate had six and Karl had three? You wrote, correctly, the equation like this:
6 + 3 ______
What I want to talk about is that line. Above the line you have what is called the addends and below it you have the sum. If we were doing subtraction, it would be the minuend and the subtrahend and below the line would be the difference. If we were doing multiplication, it would be the product and the factor. But that’s not too important here. What I want to say about love has to do with the line, not the operation above it. It has to do with the very natural impulse to draw it at all and add (or subtract or multiply or divide) the numbers above it. I don’t think the line has a name but once you draw it, it’s like pressing the dial button on the phone or enter on the computer. It enacts the action. It’s why we’re now a two-house family. You and your brother live with Mommy at Treehouse, and I live around the block at Painting Mountain. Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why we couldn’t be a one-family house. None of those reasons have to do with you. But I can tell you, from my end, they have to do with that goddamn line. It’s a line I drew and redrew constantly, seeking to total up my relationship with your mom, turn a string of numbers into a problem.
Dad, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with love? Well, I’ll tell you. Love means never drawing that line. Love makes calculation impossible. It just keeps on going. In other words, there’s no total; there’s just the numbers, moments, values. Some are positive (addition) and some are negative (subtraction). Some operations within a relationship multiply and some divide. Those are its functions. But love lives as long as the equation isn’t totaled. Being in love, in particular, and being alive, in general, exists in holding open the opportunity for change.
As you’re aware, listen, the only reason I’m writing about your mom here is because, frankly, I’m uncertain about many things but I’m certain I loved her. (I know I’m not supposed to discuss our relationship with you, but you’ll be older, I assume, when you read this.) Yet even as what was supposed to be our love story unfolded, I constantly hit pause. That is, as you know from watching BeyBlade with your brother when he steals the remote, is really fucking annoying. But it’s more than annoying, since we’re talking love and not just manga.
Once I got a total, a sum, a product or whatever, I felt, at least, I needed to react to it. I don’t think I could even control the reaction. Was it positive? Was it negative? Was it a number as large as I liked or perhaps it was too small? In nearly every interaction over the years, I found myself crunching the numbers. (That’s a fun way of saying “doing math.”) I can tell you, or you me because it’s what we all lived through, that that is no way to love someone. That is a way to be miserable. I bounced around like a pinball from reaction to reaction, caroming away from the hurt and barreling into pleasure, steamrolling those around me.
The other thing I want to say to you about this is that it isn’t going to be easy. I’ve struggled and continue to struggle with my impulse to draw the line. It seems so comforting, so safe, so final, to wrap it all up. And it’s not something you decide once and then forget about. It’s a moment-to-moment challenge. As you can attest, I don’t always succeed. But whereas before I spent the lion’s share of my energy reacting to the number beneath the line, now I expend it trying to keep the line unwritten. I try to see everything as provisional, that all things exist in a state of play and the boundaries, the lines we draw under them or before them or around them, are simply useful tools to corral reality but are not reality themselves.
Look, I know this stuff sounds, as you like to call it, “Buddhisty,” and it is. And I know it also sounds weird and vague and woowoo, which it also is. It took 37 years of my life to realize the truth. Years after I knew the truth with my mind, it lay inert in my heart. And only when my heart was broken open did I fully understand. It’s like that sometimes. And I wish I could tell you that you’ll be able to avoid heartbreak and misery and pain too. But you won’t. That’s part of love. That’s part of life. But it’s not the sum total either. Just another number in the unending equation of love.
Joshua David Stein is Fatherly’s Editor-at-Large and the author of the children’s books Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture, Can I Eat That, and What’s Cooking? as well as the co-author of Notes From a Young Black Chef.