16 July 2022
On “After the Three-Moon Era” by Gary Fincke
Let’s try this again this morning, but this time, let me actually review my page notes before I begin writing. This essay can be found in Best American Essays 2020.
First, let me say this: I loved reading this story/essay/memoir. Perhaps it was such an enjoyable read because of its snapshot layout, its pandering to the ever-worsening phenomenon social media-fueled short attention span theater. Fincke’s numbered chapters are each brief yet powerful; some are as short as a three-part list, some a single paragraph, none are longer than two pages. The chapters follow a pattern of one piece of literary journalism to one piece of memoir/narrative about his father’s decline, back and forth, in a manner that engaged my attention so fully I could not put the essay down. The literary journalism details in here are super fascinating factual tidbits, too, all on-theme with his essay’s message of the Buddhist philosophy of the problem of constant change or impermanence.
Fincke’s theme of threes begins early, in his title, and is prevalent throughout. His adherence to threes is so blatant that I marked them all and at times found them distracting. Surely that was his intent. I cannot say why, precisely, Fincke chose threes, except that three is often considered the perfect number. Mathematically, its simple to see how this is the case. The triangle is the strongest geometric structure. The Pythagorean theorem. How our measurements of time are all divisible by three…and so on. But on a macro level, three philosophically symbolizes things coming full circle; we are born, we live, we die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The father, the son, the holy ghost. The significance of threes is undeniable, I just wish I understood what it truly meant to Fincke – why he chose this particular theme.
The overarching message of the piece is impermanence, one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism. Fincke explores the human desire for immortality – yet immortality’s unnaturalness – through his references to Frankenstein’s monster (49), sewing puppy heads onto full-grown dogs (61), plastic fruit (58), among others. But there sits this tension – a Taoist tension, I’d say – between his acceptance of impermanence and his acknowledgement that just because something is gone, that does not mean it did not leave its mark on the world (that is to say, it is not ever fully gone). We see this in his treatments of the moons, that leave “the night sky empty with places where some arrangement of reflected light might have aligned itself against the darkness” (44), implying that space is held after-the-fact for those missing moons. We see it again with the references to consumed embryonic twins, where the surviving sibling holds space for her sister to hear her family sing on their birthday (45). We see it throughout, even to the very last paragraph of the essay, when the neighbor claims the three birds are just one bird, but Fincke disagrees… “I see the colors of the vanished above the trees, shades necessary as water as I stand beneath them, my face upturned to spaces they have left in the sky” (66). Fincke knows, instinctively, that there were three birds because they have left an essence.
His sorrow about the unnaturalness of immortality flows through his words throughout – almost palpably. To me, it resides most poignantly in his father’s words when regarding a picture of himself and his siblings, “Everybody in here is dead” (65). In this sense, his father seems disappointed that he has not yet joined those he loves in the land of the dead; he feels an interloper in the land of the living in his old age. This makes me wonder about my own Grandma. All her siblings, her husband, etc., are dead as well. She has outlived them all. There must be a sense of solitude in this that makes the possibility of death comforting – welcoming. In these, in this, I find my own relief from my personal anxiety surrounding the certainty of death. That our presence was simultaneously critical and inconsequential to the universe, that we hold a space that does not disappear once we are gone, this matters to my head. So does this idea that in our old age, death can become a relief from the inevitable suffering and loneliness of life. My brain finds so much calm in all this.
Fincke carries even further this idea of holding space in the world after death in this recurring theme of cannibalism. With the worms eating one another and the twins consuming one another – our death makes space for others to fill. One thing is eaten by another with the purpose of survival. “There were people, subsequently, who dreamed of their children feeding on them, how their fear and love and knowledge would be passed on to their children, keeping them, in one sense, alive” (50-51). Fincke enacts this cannibalism metaphorically by going into his father’s home for photographs, by going into his father’s mind for stories: Fincke is consuming his father’s essence, his knowledge, his past, in order to carry it forward. Fincke implies that we can eat our predecessors to carry them with us. In doing so, we hold space for them. Does this give us a more natural and acceptable form of immortality?
As for the moon, I speculate the symbolism here is critical. Although there are two absent moons, this moon in phases (crescent, half, full (56)) that Fincke revisits over and over is notable in the fact that even when it is invisible, the moon still exists. A new moon is not the absence of the moon; it is the absence of the sun’s light on the moon. Its place in the universe is held, steady. Just because it is not seen does not imply is nonexistence. I sort of like that. In that sense, the same can be said for our ancestors. Their place is held in this world through their offspring; thus they could never truly cease to exist.
Fincke’s essay was macabre and melancholic, yet quiet, calm, and comforting. I read it at a moment when that suited my mood well. What a great read!