Father of Disorder

One woman finds insight into her father’s rage in the scientific concept of entropy.

Jessica Wilbanks | Ruminate Magazine | Summer 2012 | 29 minutes (5,761 words)

 

I

My anger, when it comes, grows from my chest outward. It’s as if my heart turns into a cauldron, simmering my blood until it rages its way through my veins, blushing my neck, quivering my hands, and pulsing itself into my formerly peaceful thoughts.

This used to happen to me quite often when I was cooking dinner for a man I loved. I’d be washing carrots idly, chopping garlic, and then that heat would start pumping. I’d clench my lips closed and concentrate on the chopping, until this man—a very good man whose own blood ran lukewarm—would ask me for a spatula or something, and then all holds were off.

I can still see this man’s face, surprised at first, like a toddler walking blithely through the park, thinking he’s holding his father’s hand before looking up to see a stranger. Of course this man took my anger into himself, thinking maybe his desire for a spatula was wrong, that he was wrong, him instead of me, simply because I was fiercer and more furious. But this man was not a dormouse, so then his own blood finally charged him up with adrenaline and fury, and we would fight over the food we were cooking.

It seemed to me when one prepares a meal in a swirl of rage, some of that rage must disperse into the food, so that when we ate hours later, after our blood was running at a more reasonable temperature, our previous heat dissipated into the meal. This is very likely a misinterpretation of the law of entropy, which states that energy tends to flow from being highly concentrated into places where it has the freedom to move.

Later, when we lay beside each other in bed, our bodies were still hot to the touch. We edged away from one another, cocooning ourselves far into the separate corners of our king-sized bed until it felt like we were sleeping alone.

I am not the only one who struggles; my brothers also have a share in the family anger. One of them batters the ocean with it in his morning surf sessions. When he visits our parents in southern Maryland there’s no ocean available, so he’s always slipping out to meet a friend or pick up groceries. If there isn’t a car around to take him away, he straps on his sneakers and hits the trail to the beach, running until his heart is too tired to beat anger into him.

If his thundering reached a particular level, we’d run for the empty silo in the barn next door and curl up at the bottom, watching the swallows cut into the blue circle of sky above us.

Another of my brothers is too gentle to let his anger out. He gave himself over to addiction instead, but methadone brought him back. On his visits home for Christmas he drinks the vial of pink liquid in the morning and then nods off on the couch for much of the day, eyelids fluttering, holding my mother’s dark-colored cat in his lap. When he wakes up in the late afternoon he bakes chocolate chip cookies and smiles at us, but while he’s sleeping, I sometimes see a certain expression in his face, and I know then that in his sleep his anger goes to meet him.

Meanwhile, my father nibbles on something in the kitchen, hums softly, asks me if I want a cup of coffee. I sit on the porch with him for a while as he tells long stories about the dogs and asks me questions about my life. His eyes are clear and steady, his mind is quiet, but the caffeine revs me into impatience. I start thinking about all the things I have to do when I fly back home, and when my father tries to tell me a joke I’ve heard a thousand times, I thrum my fingers against the side of the porch and interrupt him with the punch line. He turns quiet, and I don’t look up to meet his eyes.

II

When my brothers and I were growing up, a whole series of rented farmhouses rocked on the axis of my father’s moods. It didn’t take very much to get him thundering like some Old Testament prophet—maybe my brother had refused to wear socks to church, the dog had gotten into a neighbor’s chicken coop, or we had slammed the door hard enough to wake the baby. Or sometimes his moods had nothing at all to do with us. The heat had just started rattling around in his head, and my father needed to get it out.

Whenever we saw his storms forming, my brothers and I sought small spaces, tucking ourselves into the fold of the long closet under the attic stairs, breathing in that mothball smell, and running our fingers along the mottled plaster. Or we’d slip out the front door and make for the weedy strip of gravel under the tall boxwoods that lined the front of the house. If his thundering reached a particular level, we’d run for the empty silo in the barn next door and curl up at the bottom, watching the swallows cut into the blue circle of sky above us.

But sometimes he’d spy an ankle as we ran by him, glimpse a curl of my hair from under the boxwoods, and then he’d rush after us, all the while yelling—we were bad, we would always do the wrong thing if presented with a choice, there was no way to right us, not even the rod would right us, though he would certainly try to right us, and we would sink lower and lower with every shout, as if his voice was a post-hole digger driving us into the ground.


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After a while my father would retire, spent, to occupy himself with something else that needed fixing. He’d get to banging wrenches around under the car, trimming his roses, building a pen for the ducks, and after a while he’d call us over to show us a praying mantis or teach us how to change the oil on my mother’s car. We’d approach gingerly until we were satisfied that his anger was finally sleeping at the bottom of his mind. We were too young to be anything but grateful his rage was gone—we were especially too young to wonder where it went.

During these episodes my mother would look on from the four-paned window in the parlor. She was slower to forget my father’s fits, so she’d simmer there for a long while as my brothers and I gathered around my father again, tipsy with joy, passing him tools and laughing uproariously when he attempted a joke. My mother was no longer young, and she had stopped trusting my father a long time ago. She had also made it through high school chemistry; she knew that when a hot pan cools, its heat doesn’t just disappear. The law of entropy prevails. That heat had to go somewhere, and even then my mother suspected the air hadn’t just taken it up and blown it away from us.

III

The word entropy was coined by Rudulf Clausius, the sixth child of eighteen, born in the German town of Köslin to a Lutheran pastor and his wife. In all known photographs Clausius is sharp-faced and unsmiling, a wintery beard masking his thin lips, but students and friends frequently referenced his kind and sympathetic nature. As a young man Clausius dabbled in history before moving on to focus on mathematics and physics. His doctoral dissertation was an unsuccessful but ambitious attempt to explain the blue of the daytime sky and the red of sunrise and sunset.

Prior to the publication of Clausius’ ninth scientific paper, “On Several Convenient Forms of the Fundamental Equations of the Mechanical Theory of Heat,” there was no such thing as energy. Heat was thought to be a discrete substance called caloric, a weightless, colorless gas that made things hotter when it seeped through them. Caloric was not thought to operate whimsically, though, heating substances according to some inner drive, but was rather governed by a series of laws.  One popular scientific book, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of All Things Familiar, written in 1840 by Rev. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, explained the substance this way:

Q. What is heat?

A. The sensation of warmth.

Q. How is this sensation produced?

A. When we touch a substance of higher temperature than ourselves, the warmer substance keeps parting with its heat, till both are of equal temperature.

Q. What is that “stream of heat” called, which flows thus, from one body, to another?

A. CALO’RIC. Caloric, therefore, is the matter of heat, which passes from body to body; but HEAT is the sensation, of warmth, produced by the influx of Calo’ric.

Caloric theory was serviceable for a time. It explained why the ground froze when an icy wind blew by it, as well as the slow melt of snow when warmed by the sun. The notion reigned unchallenged until Nicolas Carnot, a young upstart from France, published a paper pointing out that when one bores holes in cannons immersed in water, the water boils without cooling the cannon. Carnot’s findings baffled the scientific community until Clausius published a paper positing that the reigning notion of heat was incorrect, and should be replaced by a concept he called energy.

The twin axioms of caloric theory, updated by substituting heat with energy, mutated into what is now known as the second law of thermodynamics, unchallenged now since 1865. Energy can be transformed from one state into another, but can never be destroyed, and energy tends to flow where it is crowded to places where it has the freedom to move.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Clausius reached the pinnacle of his career prior to the death of his wife, who passed away during the birth of his sixth child. After her death, Clausius devoted himself almost entirely to fatherhood, collapsing into bed after long days of fathering his brood without a helpmeet. Years later, he published various papers and eventually returned to teaching—holding examinations from his sickbed right up until his death—but some historians are baffled that the promising scientist played only a minor role in the blizzard of scientific advances following his discovery of entropy. One historian called Clausius’ lack of further achievement “strange, even tragic.” His brother’s memoirs are mum as to whether or not Clausius regretted his choice to devote himself to fatherhood, whether the scientist lay awake at night with cannons and equations on the brain, closing his eyes to thoughts of how all of the energy that might have gone into his scientific projects had instead dispersed into the care and feeding of six lively youngsters. His brother simply wrote that the great scientist “was the best and most affectionate of fathers, fully entering into the joys of his children.”

IV

Time proved my mother was right to worry about us, at least based on the diagnoses my brothers and I fielded as we maneuvered adolescence: Alcohol Abuse (2), Anorexia Nervosa (1), Attention Deficit Disorder (3), Bipolar Disorder (1), Depression (2), and Substance Abuse (2). The sheer quantity of clinical language that has attached itself to my brothers and me is somewhat troubling, but I’d like to think we’re decent people. It’s true none of us have owned homes, produced masterpieces, birthed children, or found love—instead we live paycheck-to-paycheck in second-rate cities, waiting tables, teaching other people’s children, mowing lawns, and installing concrete countertops in other people’s kitchens.

My mother sees our father as the Great Undoer, the progenitor of all our trouble, a volcanic force that turned us from sweet, tow-headed children into sarcastic adults. Tears spring to her eyes when we tell stories about the time that the police hauled my father away after he punched my brother, the time my father broke a wooden spoon on my brother’s thigh, the time my father slept in a tent for two weeks before letting his anger drop and speaking to us again. It troubles her even more that my brothers and I frequently recount these stories while sitting around the kitchen table laughing ourselves into near-seizures, beers in one hand and cigarettes in the other, hooting with glee as we mimic the way my father’s eyes get to darting when he’s about to blow.

From our limited positions, it’s hard to trace these far-away stories to our various disorders, but my mother peers far above our heads and finds gossamer threads there. She traces them through a maze of twenty years, all the way back to my father, who’s still holding those four threads in his hands. In my mother’s eyes, my brothers and I are overgrown marionettes dangling at the end of those lines, all of our reactions linked to the jerks and shakes he gave them long ago. Our plaster heads are pivoted toward our father; our felted ears perked for whatever words might be coming out of his lips.

V

Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be a marionette, but I’ve always felt that when I lift my arms, I do so out of my own volition. Each of my parents would disagree, but while my mother believes my father’s anger sent his offspring skidding down the path toward destruction, my father submits to a different theory of predestination. He sees the world not as a blank canvas, but rather a Calvinist chessboard in which the moves are already proscribed by God. Whenever he feels it’s necessary, he trots out all sorts of evidence from the onionskin pages of his well-thumbed Bible—evidence supporting his claim that the various loves and hurts and sins which will move our lives are already written invisibly in the air. My father believes we have little choice in the matter of our own fate, and that conviction seems to be a great relief to him.

At fifteen, I resisted this doctrine. My God was clean-shaven and delighted to let me roam through my life on my own two feet.  Unfortunately for all of us, my fifteenth summer fell around the time when my father’s rages pivoted away from material triggers—leaving toys in the grass to catch on the blade of the lawnmower—and toward more ideological triggers—whether or not a young person may tell another young person to shut up, or, even more dangerously, whether or not one has free will.

My mother sees our father as the Great Undoer, the progenitor of all our trouble, a volcanic force that turned us from sweet, tow-headed children into sarcastic adults.

My brothers and I usually avoided being corralled into vehicles with our father, but that summer, close proximity was unavoidable. I had a job baby-sitting for a pair of rambunctious boys in the same Virginia town where my father commuted daily, and so every weekday morning I joined my father in the cab of his ancient pick-up truck. The ride would start out well enough—the truck hiccupped down the long dirt-packed driveway while my father sipped his tea, commenting quietly on the weather—but around the time we hit the shiny asphalt of Route 4, he’d toss his teabag on the floor of the cab and begin to survey everyone in our family, charting his approval or disapproval of their choices. Somewhere around the long swoop down to North Beach, the road cut through a series of steep hills and the conversation turned into a bull ride.

One day his mind started whirring at an even higher speed, lurching and thumping like the laundry in our second-hand dryer, and my father began arguing that his temper was not his fault, he had no choice in acting the way he did, and couldn’t do better if he tried. I thought this was ridiculous and said so; I said we were all responsible for ourselves. My father began hollering, but instead of trying to follow his trail as I usually did, through faulty logic resting on stray bits of Scripture, I turned my head to the truck’s filmy window and began eyeing a nearby barn that had crumpled into a field. My father’s voice became distant and the red left on the barn took on a special sheen. I studied the scene with a vague, journalistic excitement until it was out of my eyeshot; it was surprising to me how easily my father’s voice faded.

I think it bothered him most of all that I had turned away from him, crossing my scrawny arms, preparing to wait out this tempest. My usual reaction when faced with the force of his temper was to take on his energy, either matching the cycling of his mind and arguing with him, or, more frequently, busting into tears. Either way there was a dispersal. This time, though, I refused it, which meant the heat was left in him, so of course he had to do something to release the pressure.

My father abruptly changed lanes, the better to reach the right-hand side of the road, where he stomped on the brakes and stretched across the bench seat until he reached the door handle. He pushed the door open, despite its creaks of protest, and then with the commuters roaring past us, he ordered me out of the truck.

The sound of the truck peeling away broke me out of my reverie, and I started crying, cars whizzing by me as if I was invisible. Nowadays concerned suburbanites would have snatched me up in minutes, offering sliced oranges and a cell phone, but back then it was not an unusual thing to see a teary teenager loping alongside Route 4. I cried for a while as I walked, but soon became bored and started imagining I was really alone and wouldn’t be able to call my mother when I reached the gas station another half mile south.

An hour or so later I was tucked back into the family bosom, but that night I imagined the ease of departure—how I might hitchhike the hour-and-a-half to D.C., buy a Greyhound bus ticket with my babysitting money, and make it to the Carolinas before morning. The possibility of distance had slipped into my blood like a unshakeable virus, even though I would be eighteen before I left, and when I did leave it was my father who drove me toward my New England college years in that same pick-up truck.

VI

I tell a revised version of that story every Christmas, to the endless amusement of my brothers. The licentious nature of memory leads me to erase the sneakers I had on and substitute high heels, sending my former self trooping through trailer parks and across algae-filled drainage ditches, looking for a phone so I could call my mother. Some Christmases a trucker offers that humiliated girl a ride to Philadelphia, a man hocking peaches by the roadside sells her a Ball jar of warmish water for fifty cents, and a mangy dog follows her for miles despite her comic attempts to shoo it away.

Even my sober mother chuckles at these retellings, while my father, nestled in the middle of his offspring, smiles and shakes his head as if reminded of the behavior of a long-forgotten uncle prone to half-baked stunts.  Time’s arrow has done its work on him, frosted his beard and thinned his hairline. A stroke last spring cut him down a little more, thickening his tongue and slowing his right leg. His rage hasn’t completely disappeared, but his body no longer supports it—the words that stung when they came from a black-bearded, sun-stained man fall flat when they slur out of this old man’s mouth. In the play of our lives he has become King Lear—still the titular character, but limited to serving as a catalyst for the activities of the next generation.

My father’s not the only stranger at the table. I hardly recognize my raucous, hairy brothers, whose speech is littered with words that would have blanched the children they once were.  Even stranger than their adult bodies and habits is the knowledge that at any moment, we are all free to walk away, to fly back to our individual sets of rooms in faraway cities, jingle our keys in the lock, nudge the door open, and enter a quiet space marked with only our own smell, delightfully free of other Wilbankses.

It wasn’t always like that. Our family used to be an entirely closed system. For much of our childhood, we were home-schooled by our mother. Aside from our trip to church on Sunday mornings, my father was the only one who had any sort of communion with the outside world, and even then it was a tentative sort of communion, since he worked for himself as a bricklayer, doing small jobs for individual homeowners. My father liked to say that we had everything we needed under our own roof, but this meant that when his rage left him and ricocheted around the house, there was nowhere for it to go. If a door could have opened into our family, my father’s anger might have exploded outward, but as it was the house was shut up tightly for our own protection.

The pieces of our world desperately want to move, to flow, to exchange. Hot pots cool down immediately—the atoms in that hot pan are vibrating rapidly and want nothing more than to mix their energy with the cooler, slower atoms, dispersing the heat and creating less of an extreme.  It is simply the way of the world. There’s no way to stop this process—the more something is pressurized, the more likely it is there will be a violent explosion when it finally manages to make an escape.

VII

An endless stream of philosophers, poets, and psychologists have mistakenly equated entropy with disorder rather than dispersal, but fortunately for science, there is a certain physicist, now in his nineties, who is on a one-man crusade to set the matter straight. Dr. Frank Lambert has devoted his twilight years to a letter-writing campaign urging textbook publishers to move away from “the cracked crutch of disorder” when teaching entropy. He has been largely successful, pointing out that just as the dispersal of sugar into coffee is not a chaotic process, entropy is energy’s way of evening itself out. No one would argue that a suitcase, once unpacked and put away, makes a house less orderly than before. While some might find a degree of apocalyptic excitement in the idea that our universe is rapidly becoming more and more chaotic, Dr. Lambert points out that entropy in its truest form is a little less exciting. In the end, all hots and colds will fizzle out, sweet and bitter will combine, and everything will become somewhat lukewarm.

I appreciate Dr. Lambert’s efforts, but it’s hard to shake my original conception of entropy, which is closer to the Marvel Comics version. In that universe, Entropy was the son of Eternity and one of the Seven Friendless, a motley crew of near-deities who have been around since the beginning of creation, each of whom contain a force absolutely necessary for the world to move forward. Entropy was light blue with a tiny head, painted half black and half-white like a hybrid sort of mime, his head sitting atop the bulging upper-body of a typical superhero. Entropy’s purpose was merely to undo, and he did it all too well. There came a time in which he had destroyed everything around him, and then all was nothingness and there was nothing left to destroy. This must have been a strange moment for Entropy—the whirring in his head was finally over and all was quiet and peaceful. But instead of being content with the void and the destruction he caused, Entropy decided to try his hand at creation. Urged on by Captain Marvel and Rick Jones, Entropy took a cue from his father’s example and came up with the big bang, thus restarting the engine of time and turning into his father, Eternity. The destroyer of worlds became the creator of worlds.

He pushed the door open, despite its creaks of protest, and then with the commuters roaring past us, he ordered me out of the truck.

There are some Marvel fans who question this story, typing in all capitals during their late nights on the Marvel message boards, pointing out that if Entropy becomes Eternity and the world begins again, then Entropy doesn’t exist anymore, so how can the world exist without disorder? How can time start back on itself, again and again, forever, if Entropy is missing?

I see their point, though I like to think even Entropy itself can change his mind, that the future is not yet written and can still surprise us. And yet a world without entropy is impossible. Even Dr. Lambert would agree. Without entropy, he’d say, ice would never melt, sugar cubes would never fall apart in coffee, and spices would never soak into the rich broth of a pot of chicken soup.

VIII

Rev. Ebenzer Cobham Brewer, the author of A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of All Things Familiar, was known to be a chatterbox. One scribe put it more delicately, writing that the man “was never adverse to opening his stores of knowledge to anyone with whom he might converse.” Throughout his life Rev. Brewer developed the habit of writing down various questions he had about science, and when he eventually attempted to find the answers to his questions and published those pages, he found a vast audience throughout Europe.

Brewer’s popularity might have come from his enthusiastic (though often misguided) treatments of scientific principles, as well as his willingness to tackle the theological implications of those discoveries. The enormous technological and scientific advances of the 1800s had shaken the church’s hold on society and led to a great deal of anxiety for a deeply religious public. But for Brewer, an ordained minister, scientific laws did not necessarily contradict theological precepts.

Brewer’s guide is thus littered with references to God, who in his wisdom gave fur to the beasts of the field and “robes of feathers” to the birds of the air (section XIII), made animals and vegetables dependent on one another (section XVIII) and ensured that grass and other vegetables are excellent radiators of heat (section XVI). Throughout the Guide Brewer is candid about the limits of scientific theory—when asking himself what one should do to keep safe from lightning, Brewer solemnly advises his imagined reader to “ . . . draw his bedstead into the middle of his room, commit himself to the care of God, and go to bed; remembering that our Lord has said, ‘The very hairs of your head are all numbered.’” While his contemporary Charles Darwin made no attempt to fuse evolutionary theory with theological precepts, Brewer’s reasoned and rational catechism frequently crescendoed into a burst of religious fervor.

Q. Shew the WISDOM of GOD in making polished METAL and woolen CLOTH BAD RADIATORS of heat.

A. If polished metal collected dew as easily as grass, it could never be kept dry, and free from rust. Again, if woolen garments collected dew as readily as the leaves of trees, we should be often soaking wet, and subject to constant colds.

Q. Shew how this affords a beautiful illustration of GIDEON’S MIRACLE, recorded in the book of Judges, vi. 37, 38.

A. The fleece of wool (which is a very bad radiator of heat) was soaking wet with dew: when the grass (which is a most excellent radiator) was quite dry.

Q. Was not this CONTRARY to the laws of NATURE?

A. Yes; and was, therefore, a plain demonstration of the power of God, who could change the very nature of things at his will.

I have left much of my childhood devotion behind me, but I still find myself appreciating Brewer’s breezy subversion of newly ironclad scientific laws. There are indeed laws governing the natural world, and I have seen evidence of them. And yet it seems beneficial to think that every once in a while, there is the possibility of interruption, the opportunity for things to shift.

IX

Every evening, when my father’s pick-up wound through the hills and around to whatever farmhouse we rented at the time, he’d use the last bit of daylight to try and eke out some more green from his garden. He liked nothing more than to walk around the yard inspecting his plants, turning up leaves to detect the presence or absence of fruit. Only when my family moved the last time did he stop planting a garden. Maybe he got tired of leaving his hard-earned fruits to the next tenants. Instead, he poured himself into the hundred or so potted plants dotting the rim of the wide southern porch. He planted jasmine and gardenias for their lingering, musky scent, brilliant blue puff-ball hydrangeas, gawky, overeager black-eyed Susans, savory herbs, and the delicate peonies my mother loved. His trees were all in five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom; they lived out their lives root-bound and doomed to a stunted height with delays in flowering.

During my time in college, two of my brothers were motoring through adolescence and squealing their tires up against my father’s rage. Often I dug through the falsely cheery tone of my mother’s weekly phone call to try to find out the real story of how everyone was doing. At some point during my sophomore year of college she didn’t try to hide the anxiety in her voice. Apparently my middle brother had developed the habit of throwing his cigarette butts lazily off the porch, and one morning, my father had found one in a prized gardenia pot. Smoke poured out of his ears, I would imagine, like a real-life Yosemite Sam, and he went on a rampage, knocking his beloved plants off the wide porch and onto the ground. My father didn’t stop until all of the plants were upended, and then he took off in the truck. While my mother shut herself up in her bedroom and prayed for deliverance, my youngest brother, Joshua, went out on the porch and stood there for a long time. He must have been eleven then, and I suppose he started with what was closest to him, righting the pots that were still whole, consolidating the plants whose pots had shattered, sweeping and raking spilled soil into manageable piles.

“I lost some,” Joshua told me the next day on the phone, as I smoked a cigarette on the stairs of my apartment in Western Massachusetts. “The jasmine is just not gonna make it.”

Who knows where my father slept that night—his truck, maybe—but when he came home sometime in the late morning, he sat in the cab for a while. The view from the driveway is such that he must have seen the porch just before he lumbered up the hill to the house, stopping to feel the leaves of a hearty tomato bush that had made it through the previous day’s drama without being worse for wear. When he finally opened the screen door, he looked at my mother, who shook her head, and then at my two oldest brothers, who refused to meet his eyes. I wasn’t there to see the look on Joshua’s face when my father came in, but my mother told me he was sitting on the couch, reading Architectural Digest. I guess my father reached for him, to hug him, maybe, or thank him for putting things in order. But Joshua looked up from his magazine and shrugged. “I didn’t do it for you,” he said. “I just like plants.”

My father nodded and headed into the kitchen, and Joshua went back to reading Architectural Digest.

X

The principle of emergence is better known colloquially as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” It dictates that in some living systems, astonishingly complex patterns develop out of simple interactions between its members. Emergence, one physicist admits, works “uncomfortably like magic.” An individual termite never intends to build a mound, and yet, year-by-year, the mindless motions of many individual termites accumulate into a thirty-foot tower of termite saliva and excrement, a tower that gives the termites the humidity their fragile bodies need to survive.

In the same vein, family systems theorists believe families are more than a collection of individual hands, laps and minds. Instead they are a mysterious assemblage capable of producing their own weather, just as wind, humidity, warm ocean waters, and the Coriolis effect combine to form a hurricane. Those therapists who subscribe to family systems theory believe a damaged part of a family—a parent or child—can only be healed in the context of the family itself. The individual cannot be parsed out and treated alone, but rather must be viewed as a mere strand in a web of emotional dependencies. As a result, their practice focuses on identifying the near-chemical reaction occurring when all of these discrete personalities combine in the home, a reaction similar, perhaps, to the slow simmer of individual vegetables, meat, and spices in a pot of boiling water.

The difference between the family and the individual is the difference between that murky, flavorful pot with its slow, roiling broth, and the still life on the countertop, where garlic and onion share space with celery, carrots, and tomatoes. There on the countertop, in the late afternoon light, the carrots are in a state of utter carrotness, unpolluted by the onion’s musk or the celery’s surprising richness—all the ingredients are still whole.

Beside the kitchen table where my brothers and I tell old stories on our rare visits home, a splotched photograph dangles from the refrigerator from some greasy old magnet. It’s a black-and-white family portrait, taken by my father on the self-timer. In it he is looming to the rear of the family, glaring into the camera. Meanwhile my mother looks doubtful. She holds us tightly, and now I know why: the heat was being turned up on the stove.

Central to the second law of thermodynamics is the concept that time’s arrow always moves in one direction. Entropy always increases, energy will always disperse into a place where it isn’t so crowded. There is no restorability; neither is there a rabbit-trail back to the time when my father’s rage was still stuffed inside his own head, when my mother believed holding us tightly could help, and all of us siblings till smiled with that pure, buck-toothed joy unique to children.

That old snapshot dangles above our heads as my brothers and I each take a side of that square kitchen table. We are entirely different people now, twenty some years later, long-limbed adults prone to stray fits of temper or laughter. We’ll never be that particular family again, but it’s no tragedy that soup subsumes its ingredients and simmers them into a new creation. At least that’s what I tell myself.

***

This is an adapted excerpt from When We Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss by Jessica Wilbanks. Copyright 2018. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press. It originally appeared in Ruminate Magazine and won a Pushcart Prize.