God Sits Drawing Whales

Christopher Martin


Leviathan leaves a shining path in its wake.

—Job 41:32

It’s a chilly April morning, 2016, and I’m putting the finishing touches on what will be my first book, a work of creative nonfiction called This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith. As I work to get the final draft ready for the press, my children—ages six and four—sit at a small table in the kitchen, drawing pictures of whales. Every so often they’ll argue about whose whale is better. My daughter, the younger of the two, goads my son by telling him he doesn’t even know how to draw a whale. She says she’s drawing a sperm whale, and gets up to show it to me as I sit here writing.

She’s used colored pencils and her page bursts with light, as though her sperm whale were swimming in a rainbow, with another rainbow fuming from its blowhole. She’s also dotted her page with little black blobs. When I ask what they are, she tells me they’re chocolate chips. I tell her that her picture is beautiful.

My son, using crayons, is drawing a blue whale and a narwhal, the former situated above the latter, on the same wide piece of white construction paper, like a plate one might see in a field guide to sea mammals—grays, browns, subtle blues. He’s written the creatures’ names alongside each one.

We are all in this moment following art that is inherently ecological. Ecology, as I understand it, is the study of home, which is to say the study of belonging. Though they’ve never seen a sperm whale, a blue whale, or a narwhal, something in their art helps my children connect to the world and their places in the universe, to the story that was and is and has always been. This connection, of course, can only ever happen on a creaturely level. There is no void, and thus no room for abstraction.

I have tried to approach writing my first book in a similar manner, as a little child drawing whales, which is to say as an amateur. My work has benefitted from the work of ecologists, certainly, though I am not an ecologist in any professional sense. But I am, like everyone, woven into an ecology, a study of home, of belonging, a story about abiding here.

Fatherhood and faith are not the only means by which I have accessed this story and tried to understand my place in it, but it is difficult to name any others as personally significant. Simply put, becoming a father woke me to parts of the story that had for so long been obscured by shallow interpretations of faith—a word I use here broadly, as a stand-in for spiritual and religious consciousness, not necessarily in relation to any particular faith system.

I do, however, hesitantly identify as a Christian—perhaps as a mystic Christian, in the sense of being a seeker—or an earthly Christian, a human Christian, a Christian of the humus, of the loam, of the compost, a Christian of story, of art, of connection. What I mean by all this will hopefully be made clear, or at least clearer, when my book is out in the world. But suffice it to say for now that I am of a time, a place, and a culture in which faith is a defining force, in some cases the defining force; it is something that has shaped me from infancy on. For the longest time, I took so much of it for granted.

After finding Thoreau, I began wrestling with it. Faith became my angel at Penuel—something I respected for what it was, something for which I’d sleep on a rock until it visited me, but something I could not let degrade my sense of empathy, creativity, or collective humanity. I was twenty-two, somewhere in Virginia on the Appalachian Trail, when I more or less realized this, though that is a story for another time.

When my children came along, I saw God. This was not the cartoon God I understood when I was a child as a bearded deity enthroned in heaven, or the fundamentalist’s God who I’d been told had destroyed the world and would do it again, or the abstract God I wrestled on a rock on the Appalachian Trail five years before my first child was born. Rather, the God I met in my children was shaking, blue, covered in blood and fluid, and looked like their mother and me—a God who could be human. This is the same God who now sits drawing whales. This is the God who “plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. This is the God I seek with all that I am.

I wrote most of the words that have churned into my book between 2009 and 2014. The two notable exceptions are the essays “Reckoning These Ruins” and “Of War and the Red-Tailed Hawk,” which I began drafting in the early summer of 2015. This book, then, will be a rumination on my life and thought roughly from the time I learned I was going to be a father up until my son was five and my daughter three, a time in which I worked primarily as a stay-at-home parent.

I suppose the best way to define this work is to say it is part essay collection, part memoir, part notebook. It might be less helpful but more meaningful to say it is a collection of chronicles, psalms, jeremiads, and visions. Whatever the case, the essays in the first and second sections, from “Phos Hilaron” to “Of War and the Red-Tailed Hawk,” are more or less chronological. The poems dispersed throughout the book are not, at least not in relation to the essays. And the third section is something else entirely.

The third section of this book, which gives it the “part notebook” distinction and causes me to stumble and murmur when asked what the book is about, is not really chronological at all, whether in relation to itself or the two preceding sections. This final section does represent a story of sorts, and it is set against a timeline, but it is more associative than narrative, more patchwork than linear, more roughly seamed than fused, something like a quilt.

This third section, this quilt, was more or less finished in 2012. It predates the second section of the book and even some of the first. I’ve spot-cleaned it a couple times and gone back and fixed a fray or two, but I haven’t added any entirely new patches or woven any new threads. The reason for this, I hope, will be clear enough by the end.

Even so, I should say that the quilt would be much larger if I were to try and make it today, but I suppose that is the nature of any published art, whether blanket or book. It would certainly include more scenes with my daughter, who was on her way but not yet born when I finished this section a little over four years ago. And I acknowledge that in the third section of this book there are events I have omitted in certain discussions on violence and injustice that would be present had I written the section four months ago rather than four years ago.

Over the past few years, since finishing what is the third section of this book, I have continued to work, learn, and listen, and in so doing have become much more aware—though still not aware enough—of the pervasive violence and injustice at the core of a white, patriarchal structure that too often passes as Christian but is in reality far from it. This is the structure behind the disregard for the lives of people of color. It is the structure behind misogyny. It is the structure behind the continued discrimination against and contempt for LGBTQ people. It is the structure dependent on the othering of people of other faiths and those who identify by no faith at all. It is the structure that only cares for those who uphold it.

As I get it ready to leave my hands, I wish this book to be, inasmuch as possible, a testament against that structure, part of the “single garment of destiny” and “inescapable network of mutuality” that Dr. King talked about. This, of course, is a life’s work, and I am grateful for those whose work has enriched and continues to enrich my own, and to my wife and children who have woken me to a deeper sense of empathy in pursuing this work.

When my children were drawing whales at their art table this morning, my daughter had her blanket with her. This blanket—a small afghan quilt made by my wife’s cousin—is practically an extension of my daughter’s body. Her elbow rested against it as she drew her sperm whale and the rainbows through which Leviathan danced. This book is perhaps a blanket like that—something to rest an elbow upon while continuing in the real work, a start of what this work might become.

We know very little about sperm whales, and often speak of their abode as an abyss, a void. Yet surely, as in my daughter’s picture, hidden well away from us, they swim in filtered light, shimmering, however far beneath the surface.

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This essay is an excerpt from Christopher Martin's new book,This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith, winner of the Will D. Campbell Award in Creative Nonfiction and published by Mercer Press (2017). Of this collection, Janisse Ray praised it as “honest, gritty, and transcendent.” Martin’s work has appeared in publications across the country, including American Public Media’s On Being, Forth River, McSweeney’s, Poecology, Shambhala Sun, Still: The Journal, and Thrush Poetry Journal. His poems have been anthologized in Hard Lines: Rought South Poetry, The World is Charged: Poetic Engagements with Gerrard Manley Hopkins, Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. V: Georgia. A contributing editor at new Southerner, the author of three poetry chapbooks, and a recipient of the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry, Martin teaches English at Kennesaw State University and creative nonfiction for the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop. He lives with his wife and their two young children in Northwest Georgia, between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain. www.christopher-martin.net. [Note: This essay, published for the first time here in drafthorse, is a modified version of the preface to This Gladdening Light, Martin’s creative nonfiction book debut and his full-length book debut in any genre. It will be out in June, and is available for pre-order now at Mercer University Press.]