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Morning Song (Fragment I)

Morning Song

By Ivan Popov

Preface, by Iliana Popov. For her brother August.

I have been working on this for a while—a little over a year, and I am not even the one who wrote it—and the whole time it has been with you in mind. Anyone could read it, but you are the only one that these prayers and confessions are shaped for, like they’re puzzle pieces cut from your reflection. I have watched you grow up, look at the world in wonder, become aware of your situation on Earth, slowly lose your innocence drop by drop, and then begin asking questions with a real sense of what the implications are. Now you can authentically reflect on the circumstances of your life, and so now you are ready to read about the circumstances of your father’s life.

I found our father’s—it’s strange to call him father, but it does not feel proper to write “Dad” here—journal eighteen months ago after he left without clearing out any of his things from his apartment. I was helping our mother clear it out by pulling some boxes out from under his bed, and I noticed a tawny-colored notebook wedged between his mattress and the springs. It had the inscription Morning Song inside the cover, and as I flipped through it, old train tickets, boarding passes, and Polaroid pictures fell out, all from the past twenty-seven years—I think he’s forty-four now.

He didn’t use the notebook in order of its pages; toward the back, there was a flight ticket from the late nineties with an explanation of his trip to Vancouver. He would start somewhere random in the journal and then write from there for a while before starting again somewhere else, so that there are groups of entries that read like fragments of the whole. I only copied down a small bit of the entries—it is a one thousand page journal, and there were some confessions that were too bleak to reproduce. The first one I put here is about a woman he was involved with before meeting our mother, one of the earlier entries. He was still a PhD student getting his degree in philosophy, in his first year I think. Between the pages of this confession there is a picture of the two of them standing in front of a motorcycle. She is beautiful, and they both look so happy and so sincere. But it seems like it was his choice to leave her. And it was his choice to leave us.

I remember when I was really young, maybe seven or eight, and you were four or five, he vowed to devote half of his income to helping those in need, and our mother protested that an academic in northwest Washington is not wealthy enough to make that commitment. But he stayed firm, and then became distant, and after the marriage grew more hostile than amiable, he moved into an apartment closer to the university he lectured at. Five years later, they divorced. A bit after my nineteenth birthday, he started talking vaguely about making some trip. He called it a pilgrimage sometimes, and just said that he was leaving to help people. He never told us where he went, but in his journal he says Russia and even mentions a monastery. But then elsewhere in the journal he talks about other places—There is a map in the middle of the journal with circles and “x” marks that mostly form a line from Saint Petersburg to Addis Ababa.

He said that he would be gone for a year, but it’s been a little over eighteen months. I sway back and forth between worry and resentment. Each day I want him to come back, but I dread seeing his face. I hope he is all right, but if he is, I hope that he regrets his decision. I wonder if his faith has been shaken, if he still thinks the way he did when he wrote the later prayers. I wish this journal made me forgive him completely, but it just complicates everything. Maybe if he was in a desperate spot when he left I could be more understanding, but he seemed like he was in the best place he’d ever been in.

I cannot help but think that his “love of God” is selfish. People like him do whatever God “wants” them to do, and somehow it always benefits them more than anyone else. When they face hardship, it is simply God testing them, and when things are going well, it is God’s reward for their piety. He is the exemplar of the religious “devotee” who can preach for days and feel holy but only acts for himself. I think that he is lost in his own mind, that he sees ideals instead of earthly reality, like he’s existing in the infinite and blind to the finite. He cannot see what modern life has really come to. The world is falling apart, no one exists anymore, all value is placed in the digital world and so rarely is an action genuine, it is almost always performed for the story. I wish I lived fifty years ago and could make a simpler life for myself, and Dad wishes he lived seventy years ago, with the Beats. He has always identified with them in a strange way.

I hope that my anger at him is misplaced. I hope that he is in the right and I am in the wrong, and that we are both in the wrong before God. It is a comforting thought, and I wish I bought it. But I must say, that after reading some of the prayers, I felt an intense vibration inside of me and wondered if it was love. Oh, I don’t know if I believe or not, and if I do believe, I don’t know what I believe in. I felt like he was writing my thoughts—God, I hope I am not like him. Because I do not believe, and I don’t want to believe, I cannot accept this world and so I cannot accept whatever created it. I just need to understand this world better and learn how to live in it.

Fragment I

A Thought that is Not My Own

And so may I not isolate myself, delude myself, doubt myself, but may I be the breath of Revelation, an expression of one Power that works in one movement. Let me not seek my own gain, or craft my own truths, but let the Spirit fill my lungs so that I speak the universal truth from my own soul, sculpted by my own will, in my own words. The word is not of me but in me; it is not made in me but works through me. A poet is nothing but eyes and lips and a soul that breathes in revelation and breathes out music. What am I to know but that I am good and you are great, and that nothing is accomplished without strength of spirit. What am I to do but gasp in awe at this world and sacrifice my peace so that others may see what I see. There can be no good if there can be no bad, no heavens without an abyss. And so the brightest light is birthed in the darkest darkness, and no soul can be saved without a spark of courage. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.


Sunday morning

What did I do? What did I give up? Beauty in the flesh, something I never believed I would touch. Even her name, Maria—I bowed to her in reverence as if the Holy Mother appeared before me. But why?—for freedom, maybe for freedom—is it worth it?

In all ways, yes, this is what I had to do if I was to become the man I want and need to become. This is the heroic choice, the painful and noble choice that gives my life a sense of rarity and gives me the opportunity to be something more. I wanted her to be mine, but who a person is is more important than what a person has. A saint can be made to love a rock—it makes no difference what the object is, the only element that matters is the spiritual quality of the one who loves.

Oh, that’s not even what any of it is about, though. It’s about who and what I am, the character that I was born with and cannot change. I cannot settle with anyone until I know I have something that is meant for me. I have to really become myself before I commit to anything or anyone. I am not so much seeking one thing to make me happy as I am trying to find something beyond ordinary life. I am getting closer, and I must keep striving. I am learning so much, and I am beginning to see it.

The feelings come first, and then they produce or affect the thoughts. If I could dissociate those two—or if I could at least distinguish them—that would be good. I believe that I’ll live for a long time, I believe that my mind makes things happen. I believe that the best thing for me to do is to live well, even though Time is the ultimate arbiter of my fate. And I believe that every problem in the world can be solved in the mind.


I’m constantly turning into a different person, even over the course of a few hours, and I don’t know how to change that—one moment I’m optimistic and full of faith, another I’m worrying about death and questioning the nature of the entire universe and what is behind it—nothing? Nothing good?

Some of my heroes have believed in what I strive to have faith in—Eliot, Weil, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Dögen, Spinoza, Eckhart, Rumi, and so on. Others of my heroes have not—Nagel, de Beauvoir, Russell, Darwin, Nietzsche, Byron, and Hume. Many, like Percy Shelley, have struggled in the same way that I struggle. I don’t know if Shelley’s “beliefs” could be more similar to my own. I have more personal direction in my studies now, and I’ll actually have more freedom with each year that passes. Could I ask for anything more? The opportunity to read and think all day with some of the smartest people I have ever met, and then to have time left over to go out and have the experiences that define me.



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