Only a Very Thin Sort of Joy
David Weiss, February 1, 2011
About six weeks ago I posted my final blog written during my hunger strike. The last line of that entry suggested that I would write my next piece, “filled not just with food, but with joy.” So this is that piece. It may be my final posting on my hunger strike and the custody matters behind it. I intend to write occasionally about father’s rights from now on, but those pieces will be less personal—and far less gut-wrenching for me—than the ones written back in December.
A new custody order is finally in place. It did not come about as a result of my hunger strike. A hearing in mid-January finalized a September ruling that arrived inexplicably late (and quite unexpectedly) right in the middle of my fast.
Entirely independent of my fast (she was never aware of it all), the judge—for reasons I do not ever expect to know—corrected most of the errors in the 2006 Order. While my placement time with my daughter will decrease slightly during the school year in order to accommodate her desire to play in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, I will at least have first say in determining when to schedule my school year time with her. This is perhaps the biggest victory because for the past four years (and it had seemed this would continue for the next four years) someone else—either the judge or the guardian ad litem—had picked every day I would see my daughter, as though I could not be trusted to do so myself. It was among the most humiliating, frustrating, and insulting pieces of this battle—to have my own fatherhood functionally “criminalized.” And it is finally gone. Also, for the first time ever, we’ll have a clear majority of the summer together. Not by much (summers will be split about 55/45), but it is better than I have ever had before.
Many of you heard bits of this through my final blog posting (12/16/10) and quickly congratulated me on my good news. But I knew I could not truly celebrate until after the January hearing when the Order would be finalized. Until then anything could happen.
But now, even though the mid-January hearing basically confirmed the September ruling, it feels like the floor has dropped out beneath me. Yes, overall this new Order is very good news. But I have felt very little of it. And what I have felt has been only a very thin sort of joy
Indeed, I’ve spent the past four weeks (leading up to and now since the hearing) just barely better than numb. I’ve slept poorly, been unable to focus, and have experienced a near total absence of any inspiration for my writing. Even in the aftermath of seeming victory, I’ve felt mostly depressed. I’ve even canceled out on some of my commitments and I’ve let several others just fall off my radar screen, too entangled in … is it grief? … to care. Right now I’m crawling from one day to the next. Why?
Here is what I can say.
1. The current system of family justice has the capacity to be brutal beyond measure.
Some of you know this firsthand yourselves. Others of you can only imagine. Or can’t. I’ve spent four years as a father getting metaphorically kicked in the gut every time I sought structural (legal) support for my relationship with my daughter. For that kicking to finally cease is surely cause for joy. But as the person who has been doubled over in agony for four years, maybe it’s asking too much to expect me suddenly to dance in celebration. Part of me is still crumpled on the ground wondering if I dare believe it’s over. Part of me is still trying to catch my breath from the last volley of feet in my gut. This has been brutal—for years. What I feel today is the thin sort of joy that is really not much more than the timid and still unsure relief felt at the cessation of longstanding violence.
2. The new Order and the recent hearing to finalize it are potent reminders of how precarious even this glimmer of justice is.
The judge continues to verbally abuse me, casting my persistence for justice as though it were an unwelcome intrusion into my daughter’s life. She speaks arrogantly and dismissively, yet I must remain mute or I risk angering her and losing what little I have gained. It is not unlike having shit rubbed across your face and being expected to look thankful. And that’s not even hyperbole; despite being an ugly visceral image it’s probably an understatement.
The new written Order makes at least one glaring error on the calendar. It will only cost me one day each year, and I should, of course, be glad that “only” one day remains stolen. But it stands as a memento of the judge’s caprice. She can—and will—do whatever the hell she wants. And she answers to no one. Moreover, throughout the Order the language and the phrasing are persistently anti-father. As someone who has chosen to be sensitive to sexist and heterosexist language, in this Order I am the person whose presence in my daughter’s life is consistently framed by subtle bias that presses me to the margin. Whatever gains I make are fragile and offered quite grudgingly. My sensitivity to the subtle ways that others are often excluded makes me keenly aware of the way this Order does that to me.
At the January hearing I got to listen to the guardian ad litem reduce my daughter’s blended family—the family that she’s been part of for over a decade!—to the phrase “the other people who reside in Minnesota near her father.” This is the man (himself the father of two) who is responsible for discerning my daughter’s best interests, and he can’t even bring himself to say that she has “FAMILY” in Minnesota? Granted, it’s the first time he’s even granted that they exist at all, but is this the best he can do? Can you even call this a euphemism or a ludicrously awkward circumlocution? Hardly. It’s blasphemy. But he is another person I do not dare challenge lest every little gain be lost.
So it will be some time before it feels like this “joy” lives beyond the threat of the family court system. It will likely feel fragile and precarious for months yet, so you’ll have to excuse me if my elation is subdued for a while.
3. The process of telling my story, while empowering, left my words almost toxic to myself.
Listen. This is hard to tell. I once heard Elie Wiesel speak about the incidence of suicide among Jewish writers who survived the Holocaust. He explained that no one should judge them for their despair. Writing was the way they lived, the way they breathed, the way they were human. But the attempt to be themselves—as writers—after the Holocaust, was simply too much. They could not write such terror and they could not be without writing.
Faintly, very faintly, I know this. For me to wrap words around this putrid muck has left me for more than a month now dreading my keyboard. Can you fathom that?! Me! Dreading words. It is a dangerous thing to go back to a place of powerlessness and injustice even in order to bear witness to it. All of my words have been fouled—like birds mucked up by an oil spill—and I have not yet managed to clean them.
I wrote once to a friend, speaking the mystery in which I live: “I am swallowed whole by the Word, and all I can do with my life is write little words in echo.” But today still, my stomach lurches, when I try to move words through me. I will. I must. But right now I just need to learn to trust that my words will not hurt me all over again.
4. I am just plain exhausted.
The fasting was a breeze compared to the inner feelings. And two-and-a-half weeks ago, after I attended the last court hearing and received its strange promise of precarious hope hemmed in by attendant humiliation on all sides, my body and my psyche just said, “Enough is enough.” And shut down. Oh, I’ve had momentary reprieves since then. Grandchildren will do that for you. And time with family. But underneath it all there’s a gaping hole right now. An exhaustion that consumes me emotionally and spiritually from the inside. I will get past it.
But, dammit, right now it’s only a very thin sort of joy that I feel.
* * *
Postscript. We received a great many gifts, and Margaret and I are grateful beyond measure for all of them. From letters, e-mails and blog comments, to prayers and fasting in solidarity with me for a day. All told now, as this last chapter played out over the past nine months, it has cost me over $6500 in legal fees simply to try not to lose more time with my daughter during her high school years. (And my ex-wife has probably spent just as much or more in her efforts to lessen my time. Even worse, I suspect she pays a good share of her legal bills, at least indirectly, with the child support money I send her.) I cannot understand a system that is so willing to impoverish a father for the spite of a mother (and the profit of lawyers). Even if I never go to court about these matters again, I will most likely carry their debt throughout my daughter’s high school years. Thankfully, we also received financial gifts that will offset some of these costs. These gifts have not only affirmed my efforts, they have undoubtedly pulled us back from the brink of ruin. My thanks to each of you is my promise to shower my daughter with love in the years ahead and also to echo the generosity you have shown me to others.
You can learn more about the fast at https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry.