It’s a godless world. And it’s perfect.

After coming back from Tierra del Fuego and thinking about it a lot, I realised one thing. In our culture, there are many works that describe the sudden revelation that there is a God in the universe. It’s said to be a glorious thing, finding faith, pieces coming together all at once, sudden understanding, purpose and meaning found. Even lesser spiritual experiences are described as wonderful moments.

The opposite, realising that there is no God, or starting to doubt, is almost always portrayed as a grim experience: thinking there was someone with you and realising you are alone in a cold, empty universe that doesn’t care. I’ve yet to find a book or a film where the protagonist faces the certainty that God doesn’t exist and is not instantly distressed. Yet that is exactly what happened to me over there.

All right, not exactly. I’ve never believed in God. Unlike what our culture at large seems to believe, I’ve never imagined that there was a special spot for God or spirituality in my brain. It’s not that I’ve replaced God with materialism or a blind belief in science, or that somehow, my atheism has become some kind of faith to me: it’s just that everything I believe or value fits very snugly together in my head and leaves absolutely no space for any form of religion. Actually, I don’t even think of religion much, except on the (sadly more and more numerous) occasions when the media thrust fundamentalisms of all sorts in my face. But I did think about God on the Beagle Channel, although not in the way we’re taught to expect.

When we sailed between glaciers on the channel, everything was pure alien splendor. Everything existed quietly, outside the sphere of human activities, and we could have tried as hard as we wanted, there was nothing there that told us humans had any reason to be the centre of the world. It was a world for dolphins and albatrosses and tiny rayaditos fluttering on the shore, not people. And that was fine. A bit unsettling at the very first, but you get used to it, very quickly. And in that place so perfect by itself, how could one believe that there could be a God? How could one believe that one being could have orchestrated something so complete it didn’t need anything from humans? The idea of God seems trite when petrels whirl around you. A petrel doesn’t need a god. It doesn’t need an explanation, or an origin story. It is too perfect for anything that could be imagined by humans.

And that was fine. Being more certain than ever that we have no creator and we’re just going our merry way in a universe that doesn’t care felt comforting, not distressing. Who needs meaning when you can have perfection? I’ve been struggling to write although I would love to write pages upon pages about this place, simply because it’s a place that exists beyond words, a place where you don’t need words. The world is so much more precious when you’ve seen what perfection it could contain. The idea that it is a mere creation would taint it. I couldn’t doubt now that God doesn’t exist, and that is fine. It’s great.

It’s perfect.

From the Beagle Channel

As I mentioned, I recently visited my brother on his ship, in Tierra del Fuego. In nearly a year, I had talked to him very little, technology being much less helpful than we sometimes imagine. Inside Sonate, it smelled the same as on the day of their departure, a mixture of tar, iron and coffee, although it was considerably tidier than I remembered. According to everyone on board, leaving your dishes in the sink for the next day is a mistake you only make once on a ship. Finding food scraps and plates scattered everywhere after a rough night out at sea is the sort of thing that teaches you about cleanliness, and fast.

We met in Punta Arenas, on Magellan Straits, in the middle of the lanyrinthine pattern of channels and islands that makes up the south of the Chilean archipelago. My brother rode eleven hours on a bus just to welcome us, and then we rode back together, he and my mother and I, towards Ushuaia, or, Not The Southernmost City In The World as we found out. This honour belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny little town cobbled together from corrugated iron on Navarino Island, where horses and dogs roam the streets freely and the customs occasionally open late if there was a party the night before. Going through the customs when you arrived on a sailing ship takes ages, but that’s just one of a million things you don’t ever realise if you’ve never spent time on a ship.

Sailing on the Beagle Channel is the sort of experience that is hard to put into words. After a few hours, there are no traces of human passage at all, anywhere. Have you ever been to a place with not a single pigeon in sight? Not a dandelion? Absolutely nothing brought there by travellers? That’s what it looks like over there. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Extermination of the Fuegian people did not happen so long ago, and it’s a bit unnerving, in fact, to see so many pictures of them in Ushuaia, people clad in fur seals and staring at the camera with a blank expression, probably unaware of the fact that their genocide would be turned into a tourist attraction decades later, once all their land had been turned into pasture.

Now the channel is home to legions of birds, more than I had seen yet on any sea I’d visited, and cetaceans too. Dolphins followed us at times for brief moments, and we spied the blows of whales in the distance — or very close, on one occasion, when a humpback whale emerged right in front of the ship and sank under the hull, leaving everyone on board baffled and squealing.

We’re not the centre of the universe. Many places can thrive without us, and it’s a strange feeling to arrive in the middle of a land that is doing very well without humans and where everything, the cold, the gigantic ice fields, the forest growing in steep bogs where every step costs more than usual, tells you that you’re not quite welcome here. It’s even stranger to realise that the only reason that you cn be there at all is that you were part of the few people wealthy and lucky enough to make the trip in the first place, so I won’t pretend that this was some sort of humbling spiritual experience. I’ll just put it in coarse words because subtler ones have been failing me since: sailing in the Beagle Channel slapped me in the face with the fact that I didn’t deserve any of this beauty. Entire people were slaughtered there because other humans wanted more unnecessary meat to eat; whales were slaughtered all so that we could have whale oil to grease machinery and light our cities with, and now we seek contact with a lost natural wonderland as if it was a nurturing experience for our souls, when in fact our souls are the very last thing that matter there. We don’t matter. We should just thank the universe for being randomly born in it.

Time and Tim

I missed Tell A Fairy Tale Day this year, being away at the time, but there was a story I did want to include here. This is a tale my father used to tell us when we were children, and his birthday seemed like a good opportunity to publish it here (or at least, publish what I remember of it!). So, happy birthday, dad.

I have no idea where this story came from, if he made it up or drew the inspiration from somewhere. It’s a story about trees, about growing up, and learning to wait for what you want; but most of all, in a world where we pour concrete over fertile ground to park cars and then uproot century-old olive trees to decorate condominiums and skyscraper lobbies, I think it’s a story many grown-ups still need to hear.

 

Time and Tim

 

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom renowned for the fertility of its land and the depth of its forests. Beeches, willows and hazels sheltered myriads of birds and deer, birches swayed their branches between neatly-tilled fields, and the most prized possession a farmer could boast was a centuries-old oak tree. It was a country that never knew hunger, because even when wheat ran out, there would always be acorns and chestnuts to harvest. People there loved trees, and the king most of all.

The king was a kind man, whose only regret had been his inability to father a child. But even that blessing came in the end, and after half a century, he became the proud father of a baby boy. Prince Tim grew up as one of the most beloved boys in the kingdom. There were some who said that the king’s kind-hearted nature was doing him a disservice, and that he doted a little too much on his only child. Indeed, the boy soon became known for throwing tantrums if his every whim was not immediately obeyed, and the king never ceased to invent ways to satisfy him. It was a shame, some people said, that such a lovely prince should turn into a spoiled child.

One thing Tim loved most of all was to go on long rides with his father across the forests surrounding the castle. He loved hearing birds sing and watch the play of light through the leaves. One day, when he was six, Tim told his father:

‘I want a tree of my own! Right before my bedroom window! Will you give me a tree, Dad?’

His father was overjoyed that his son had inherited his love of trees. He rode through the forest until he found a tall, strong oak tree which bore many acorns. He picked a handful of the fullest, heaviest ones, and took his son to the park by the palace. There, he dug a hole in the ground, right under the bedroom window.

‘Here is your tree,’ he said, laying the acorns into the ground. ‘It will be the most beautiful in the kingdom, you’ll see.’

Tim squealed with happiness. He went to bed dancing, and all night, he dreamed that he was playing in the branches of a tall, majestic oak tree.

When morning came, he opened his window and looked down. There was no tree in sight. Tim ran to his father, crying and screaming.

‘You promised me a tree! You promised, you promised!’

‘Of course you will have a tree!’ his father replied, astonished. ‘But first you have to water the spot where we put the acorns yesterday, and then wait for the sapling to grow, and…’

‘When will that be? Tomorrow?’

The king shook his head and smiled.

‘Ah, it will take a little longer, my son.’

‘Next week?’

‘No, a little longer than that.’

‘Next month?’

‘Well, Tim, you see…’

Tim stamped his feet and shouted:

‘That’s too long! I want a tree now!’

It would have been a good time for the king to realise that his little boy still had many things to learn. But he could not stand to see his lip trembling, his eyes welling up. So he took Tim in his lap, soothed him, and said:

‘I just forgot. This is a special tree that grows very fast. Who knows, it may even grow during the night!’

At last, Tim stopped crying. His father sighed and sent for his best gardeners. As soon as Tim was in bed, a team was dispatched to the beautiful oak tree he had taken the acorns from. They dug it from the ground and planted it under Tim’s window, as silently as they could, leaving a big black gap in the forest where the tree should have been.

When Tim woke up, he threw the shutters open and squealed in delight. All day, he played at being a forest elf, shooting arrows from the branches of his new oak tree. He did not thank his father, but the king did not mind: seeing his little boy’s happiness was thanks enough. The gardeners shook their heads and went on with their work.

Tim was happy playing with his tree for a while. Then one day, as he rode through the park with his father, he saw an orchard and delightedly picked an apple from an old, convoluted apple tree.

‘Father, I want a tree that gives fruit!’

His father took him in his arms and said:

‘Tim, you are seven now. There are some things about trees that I should explain…’

But Tim started sniffing.

‘I want an apple tree! I want a big apple tree just like this one!’

The king sighed, but there was no distracting Tim from this new obsession. So at night, he went back to the orchard with a team of gardeners, paid off the farmer and uprooted the apple tree to plant it under Tim’s window. It pained him to see the sad look on the farmer’s face when his tree was taken away, but his son’s happiness soon made him forget about it.

A few months later, Tim decided that he wanted a weeping willow by the brook that ran near the palace. Then he wanted two rows of elderly cypresses to bring shade to the alley he liked playing in. Then he asked his father for a grove of orange trees, then almond trees to blossom before winter was over, then cherry trees to blossom in the spring. Then he wanted rowans and elders because he liked to watch the birds feeding on the shiny berries. Then he wanted pine trees and cedars, to fill his lungs with their scent in summer.

The king did try to take him to the forest more often, to teach him to enjoy trees where they stood. But this was not enough for Tim. Soon enough, the forest itself was depleted of its finest trees, and even the king found it too depressing to go there and stare at the trenches and muddy gaps his gardeners had torn into the ground.

When Tim turned eighteen, the king’s advisors suggested that playing in the enchanted park the king had made for his son was all well and good, but the prince was grown up now, and it was time to send him out into the world. Tim jumped up and down at the idea.

‘Please, father, give me a horse! I want to see the kingdom! Everybody says it’s so beautiful, and we have all the prettiest trees in the world!’

Reluctant as the king was to admit that his little boy was turning into a man, he had to admit that for once, what he asked was reasonable enough. He gave him the best horse in the stables, a team of servants to ride with, and sent him on his way with a bag full of gold.

So Tim rode out of the park for the first time in years. He felt like the happiest man in the world, and could not understand why the servants around him looked so glum and said so little. He sang songs to cheer them up, but they only sang a few lines with him, unconvinced. Annoyed, he decided to ride ahead on his own.

Soon he came to a spot where a dirty hole gaped in the ground, full of rotting roots and gravel. He frowned. The park around the palace was so well-kept! He made a mental note to ask his father to send gardeners to that unsightly place. An hour later, his horse almost stumbled into another ugly trench. Really, was that how his father’s subject treated their land? And not a tree in sight, only brambles and sickly saplings!

As he rode on, he was first perplexed, then dismayed. The land looked the same everywhere. Where were the venerable trees the country was famous for? It was not a paradise, it was a wasteland! Had he been lied to all these years? The servants did not seem surprised, but they only muttered vague answers when he asked. How could they not be distressed? Was he the only one to see?

After a whole day of wandering, he glimpsed dark branches swaying in the setting sun behind a hilltop. He spurred his horse. Just as the night fell, he arrived at a small, secluded farm. There at last, over the thatched roof, hung the branches of a magnificent poplar tree.

Tim dismounted and called out. A woman opened the door and frowned at them, holding a lantern high.

‘Who are you?’ she said. ‘Do you come from the palace?’

‘We do,’ Tim said. ‘Would you be so kind as to lend us hospitality for the night? We can pay you well.’

‘Keep your money,’ the woman said. ‘You can sleep in the barn if you like, but I will not sell you anything. And tell the king I’m keeping my tree.’

‘Of course you are, my good woman!’ Tim exclaimed, surprised. ‘We thank you for your hospitality. We will pay you nonetheless.’

At his words, the woman raised an eyebrow.

‘You are not here to buy my tree?’

‘Obviously not,’ Tim said. ‘What a strange idea! It’s a magnificent tree, by the way. Shame there is only one.’

The woman pursed her lips and nodded.

‘I must have taken you for someone else. Apologies, my lord. The barn is this way, and there is fresh straw in the stable. You’re welcome to it.’

As she showed them the way, Tim noticed a hole in the ground that had recently been filled with scraps of wood and straw.

‘Why do you have a hole in the ground?’ he said.

‘Ah, this,’ the woman replied, frowning again. ‘It’s that cursed prince Tim again, and no offence, my lord. We had a beautiful birch growing here, but his men took it away. Not forcibly, no!’ she hastily added, seeing the shock on Tim’s face. ‘They paid us well. My husband took their money, fool that he is. He’s not hearing the end of it, but what good will it do now? It will take decades to grow a tree like this one, we will be lucky if our grandchildren see it!’

What sort of tree takes decades to grow? Tim almost asked, but a little voice told him to keep quiet. A slow, horrible realisation started dawn on him.

‘Prince Tim can’t have done that,’ he said with trembling voice. ‘He loves trees. He would never damage one!’

‘If my husband loved me the way your prince Tim loves trees, I would be locked up in the attic and beaten up every time I tried to go out,’ the woman answered with stony calm. ‘Have a good rest, my lords.’

But Tim sat through the night, unable to close his eyes. Every time he blinked, the ghastly vision of the torn-up and desolate countryside flashed in his mind.

Of course the woman told the truth. How could he have imagined that a tree as big as a house could appear in a night? So that was how his father had tried to please him: by uprooting every beautiful tree in the kingdom to plant near the palace! And he had taken it all for granted, and played in the park without realising the hurt he had caused!

Tim could not bear it. Before the sun rose, he saddled his horse and took of on his own, leaving the whole bag of gold before the woman’s front door. He rode and rode, seeking the remotest, most overgrown paths, the ones where his father’s men had not yet gone to look for new trees to give him. Little by little, the path grew steeper and wilder. Now the forests were whole again, and they were dark, full of dead wood and treacherous roots. The horse stumbled several times, until Tim took pity of him and tied him to a hard gnarled trunk. He carried on on foot.

Hours later, he thought he was lost for good. Suddenly he stumbled upon a clearing, and he almost fell to his knees with wonder. There stood the tallest, widest, most magnificent oak tree he had ever seen. Its roots had to sink to the centre of the earth. The ground underneath was mossy and soft, cooler than the coolest shade in the park around the palace.

Next to the tree there was a cave, and as he gazed on in wonder, an old man with a long white beard came out and greeted him.

‘How old is that tree?’ Tim asked.

‘Oh, a thousand years old at least. My great-grand-father used to play in the hollow of the trunk when he was a child. Do you like it?’

A thousand years old. Tim felt tears sting his eyes and fought them down. Even if he wanted to, he would never be able to see a tree like this one in his park. Not unless he called a whole team of workers to uproot it and plant it under his window.

‘A thousand years,’ he repeated, his mind wavering between awe and distress.

‘Well yes, it takes time, Tim,’ the old man replied.

Tim started.

‘How do you know who I am?’

The old man smiled.

‘I’ve never seen anyone gaze at my tree with such wonder. You must truly love trees.’

Tim nodded. He understood the man’s words, but most of all he understood the words he didn’t speak.

‘Can I stay here for a little while? I won’t touch your tree. I just want to admire it.’

‘Stay all you want. It seems that you need some time by yourself.’

Time. Yes, Tim needed more time than he would ever have. So he sat down under the tree and stopped thinking, only gazed at the light playing in the branches for hours and hours and hours.

When he finally left, the old man stopped him.

‘I have something for you,’ he said.

He handed him a little bag full of acorns.

‘All you need is a little soil, and water. And time, Tim. It takes time.’

Tim thanked him and walked back to his horse, and rode all the way back to the castle. There, his father waited in anguish. The servants had told him they could not find his son anywhere. Seeing Tim’s disquiet, his face fell, as if he braced himself for another tantrum. Tim threw his arms around him and hugged him without a word, for a long, long time.

Then he searched the park for a spot with just enough sun and the right sort of soil. There, he buried a handful of acorns, poured a little water, and made a circle of stones to mark the place. His father walked up to him and asked him what he was doing.

‘I’ve met an old man who lived under the most incredible tree,’ he replied. ‘No, I don’t want you to get it for me,’ he added, seeing apprehension on his father’s face. ‘I just want to see if I can ever grow one.’

His father sighed with relief.

‘That’s a great idea. But it will take time, Tim.’

‘I know it will. I’ll wait.’

And the two of them went back to the palace arm in arm.

 

Today Tim is an old man with a white beard of his own. Whenever he finds the time, he takes long rides through the kingdom, planting seeds and talking with farmers about the best ways to graft a sapling, or prune an apple-tree without hurting it. He is a beloved king and a doting grandfather. But the thing he likes most of all is to sit in the shade of a tall oak tree that grows in a corner of the park around his palace. It is neither the biggest nor the oldest tree there, and Tim knows that although it may live to a thousand years, he will never see it. But it does not matter to him. Every day, he takes his grandchildren there with him, and they sit together in the shade of the tree, and he tells them stories of the birds that nest there and the squirrels that squabble in the branches.

And he is the happiest man in the world.

New story: The Long Wait

I visited my brother in Tierra del Fuego these past three weeks, and there is far too much to say about it to fit in a hastily-written post late at night, but first, something happened while I was away: my second-ever published story was released! I’m particularly happy about this, as I’ve only recently started writing and submitting again.

It is titled ‘The Long Wait’, and you can read it for free on the Daily Science Fiction website. I initially wrote during a contest held by Shock Totem, and for some reason it came out just right, almost at first try.

I hope that this will be a real start this time…

Going on strike in France

There has been a large social movement in French priority education in the past couple of weeks. It didn’t change much as far as my schedule was concerned: when I should have been in class, I was marching outside with the demonstrations that attempted to fight the future budget cuts in our schools (without success for now, unfortunately). Going to school in the morning was a different experience than usual…

After a couple of days, students joined the movement and decided to block the entrance to the school, by piling litter bins from the street in front of the main gate. On the first day, I arrived to find a student standing with his back to the wall, his head completely covered in a hat and scarf. He greeted me cheerfully. I had no idea who he was, but I said hello all the same. He asked if I had recognised him. I had to admit I hadn’t. He removed his scarf so I could see him; he had a huge grin on. The excitement and motivation of the first few days hadn’t worn off yet.

We spent most of the morning freezing our noses off in front of the school. The first half of January was quite cold, for once, and there is no sunny spot at all in the street, so it soon became uncomfortable to stand there without moving. A couple hundred people showed up for the demonstration. We marched through the street chanting, and received no answer at all. So we repeated the process, again and again, all through the month. We even took a train to Paris to join with other people from the local schools. We meant to arrive at the Ministry of Education, but were greeted on the way by the special police forces, all geared up to face a fully-fledged riot, with body armour, shields, helmets, pepper spray, everything. I don’t even know why. Did it look like we were going to start a riot? We only wanted to ask for the necessary funds to teach in decent conditions. Or half-decent. I mean, there are rats in the school gym, cockroaches in the teachers’ common room, we have to wash our dishes in the toilets because there is no other place to do it and the electricity is down for maybe ten days every year, so it’s not like we can’t adjust to the circumstances. Anyway, none of this seemed to matter to either the minister or the Robocop squad that blocked the street for half the afternoon to make sure we wouldn’t disturb anyone. So we travelled back South.

France is famous for having workers who go on strike every other week. Right-wing politicians and journalists who don’t know better love to make it sound like we’re too lazy to go to work. During the past few weeks, it was obvious to all of us that the problem was the exact opposite. We had to go on a prolonged strike because most teachers chose to go to class anyway: they cared too much about their students’ exams to let them miss a single class. How can you stage a general strike in those conditions? Eventually, the movement lost steam. But at least no one can say that we took advantage of the spring to have a party outside. It was freezing cold out there.

Social security: A big Thank You

As you know, health care in France is mostly free. While private insurance exists, it essentially takes care of important but non-vital parts like glasses and dental care (and even these parts can be covered for people who really struggle financially). The rest is taken care of by social security. This costs a lot, of course, but the costs are shared by everyone, and you pay more if you earn more, not if you need more care.

Social security has been a part of the French system for over seventy years. Although we’ve come to take it for granted, there are constant debates concening its costs. Many right-wing politicians would love to transfer most of the burden to private insurances, regardless of how poorly such systems perform in other countries. Let that sink in for a second: I have never, ever heard of a French person who died or underwent a serious illness without treatment because they couldn’t afford it. We don’t even have to plan for that possibility. It simply doesn’t exist. That’s perhaps why some people in France can sometimes get flippant when referring to our social security system: yes, it costs a lot, and yes, if you’re generally in good health, you would probably pay less in the long run if you chose to get minimal coverage from private insurances. Right-wing politicians don’t have to care at all: most of them are so wealthy they could afford any kind of insurance. If social security disappeared, their lives wouldn’t change a bit.

Because of these debates, I think it’s great to pause evey now and then, and appreciate how much social security has changed our lives. A small event in our household has made me think about that a lot lately.

Our cat Natacha has been ill for a couple of months. She’s lost a third of her weight due to intestine and liver problems. Apparently it’s not life-threatening although she’s visibly exhausted, but since cats can’t talk, we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what was wrong. And money. She’s had blood samples taken, ultrasound exams, plenty of medication along with special food. And it’s not over, so we’re going to buy more medication, perhaps do some additional exams in case there’s something we missed. We’re worried, of course, but at least so far we can afford it. We may have to skip a couple of evenings out in months to come, but our finances can cover it. We won’t give up on her.

Now these are serious costs, but they’re quite exceptional for a cat. Cats are sturdier than humans, after all. For us… it’s another story. In the past couple of years, I’ve needed X-ray and MRI scans, countless physiotherapy sessions, half a dozen visits to the doctor’s office and two paid weeks of medical leave, just because of persistent knee pains. I’ve also been vaccinated against the flu and taken medication for minor illnesses, and I’ve had my blood iron checked. All this for, I think, a little under sixty euros. One-fifth of what we’ve had to pay so far for Natacha, because we’re lucky enough to live in a country where health care is covered by public funds.

Now that presidential elections are looming, I think it’s more important than ever to stop taking things for granted. It’s all well and good to talk about economic growth and public deficits, but how dearly are we willing to pay for a slight improvement in our economy? I can barely think about what it would be like to let go of a beloved pet just because we wouldn’t be able to afford the vet. Having to face the same dilemma for a family member? I don’t even know how there can be a public debate about this. We’re civilised people. Whatever views we hold on our economic and social system, we can’t let people die for a bunch of figures.

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope the year is off to a good start for everyone reading this. A few notes from here:

Winter is back. That’s a relief. It’s not so much that I enjoy the cold (although two winters in Québec give you a very different perspective on what qualifies as cold), but there was a time when lamenting the changes in your natural surroundings was a thing only elderly people did. Being thirty and already noticing the animals that are not here anymore, the lack of butterflies or bees, and feeling the change in the temperature is not a great feeling. I know the changes are not stopping, but I still welcome the cold.

I’ve finally registered as a member of the local Family Planning. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, exactly, but I’ll find out in time. So far I was given a very warm welcome and a cup of tea. I’ll find out more on Thursday when I go to the first meeting.

The moth infestation is mostly gone. Now the cupboards smell heavily of cedar oil (hopefully this will work out better than lavender) and our balcony is covered in yarn in plastic bags. My cat is not happy about this, but she’s a nice cat, so she hasn’t complained more loudly than usual.

Last time I went to refill the sunflower seed distributor on the window sill, I found myself half a metre away from a feeding goldfinch. I don’t remember goldfinches feeding here last year. I didn’t move until it was gone. It spent a little while bickering (not too agressively) with a crested tit before they both left. That makes it the fifth species to feed on our window sill: great, blue and crested tits, siskins and goldfinches. I’ve seen a couple of robins and possibly blackcaps (although they’re more difficult to identify, being extremely shy birds) feeding off the seeds that had fallen to the ground.

So far, the besting box is still up, which means I can probably count on my neighbours’ tolerance if I hang another one. No one has hung their dog’s house in the tree either. I knew we could all live in harmony…

Happy new year to you all!