Not Scared, Just Different

the-dark-tunnelA few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.

Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.

For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.

A few weeks ago Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up  until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.

After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.

“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”

A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”

“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”

Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”

When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.

I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.

 

 

 

three generations

 

 

 

Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

On the Road

The trip so far has been grand. Filled the old moving truck up to 21 feet, me in the Carolina heat huffing and puffing and pushing those bulkhead doors closed, the neighbor kid Dalton’s big hand squeezing around a metal lock to seal it.

And then off, just us three and Stella in the car, suddenly divorced from our possessions save the few in the back. We motored through beautiful West Virginia and puttered into Columbus to visit Zeus and Lora and their playful cat who chased wadded-up paper that Rio threw joyfully. The next morning Rio got to ride on the back of Zeus’s motorcycle and wanted it so badly to extend to a loop around the city.

And then up and over to Chicago to see family: cousins and great aunts and we took the El and mingled with the Lollapolooza crowd who inkily strutted across Millennium Park while Rio and his cousin Nathan ran across water in the fountain.

Next more family: this time in Minneapolis, us taking the ridiculously nonlinear Northern route, past dairy farms and friendlies. We took in a play our young niece starred in and then bolted to South Dakota to some time without friends. We found a motel in Sioux Falls, and after Rio and Annie went to bed I drove to a “cool bar” Yelp found me and it was sad: loud televisions and huge tables and lonely drunk people. I was reading so I was fine with the gloomy environs, although I was disheartened by all the wasted space: big but empty. But the bartender was friendly and gave a good pour.

Then the Badlands: there were so many motorcyclists in Dakota because of a national rally in Sturgis that it was like the air was buzzing with flies. It’s funny, those tattooed big-necked guys on iron horses with jean-clad hair-teased women on the back: so rebellious and quintessentially American. I ended up digging their freedom on the roads. The Badlands was other planetary, those brown spires rising from naught, the grasslands where buffalo still roam, literally. We ended up finding a free campsite in the park and set up nice, us befriending our neighbor Chris and Rio finding the resident ten year old across the field. Chris had outfitted his car for him to sleep in by removing one of the back seats, and he’d been traveling for 111 days across America taking back roads only and spending just $7 once on accommodation, the rest of those nights in his car.

The evening ended gracefully but then the torrential storm started. The lighting and thunder spoke their rumble crackle and the rain soaked our 20-year-old tent until we were laughing at how wet we were at 3 in the morning. Annie took the hit for all of us, sopping up the moisture as Rio snoozed across her belly.

“Take the back roads!” Chris had enjoined us, and we woke early the next day, shook the cold off our bones and followed his finger across northern Wyoming, cruising over Rockies on a one-laner and resting our heads finally in an overpriced motel in Cody, Wyoming.

Such soaring prices and congestion around Yellowstone had me temporarily cursing Chris, but then that corner of the Northwest, heading out of Yellowstone and along the Grand Tetons; surely one of the most beautiful places in the world.

And then, finally, tonight; a word of mouth arrangement grants us a home in Salt Lake, the owner gone, her hospitality ours.

Last time I drove across the country was probably 20 years ago. It’s different this time, doing it with a family, but the vastness of America still surprises me, as does her rugged splendor and open hand. Even the highways sometimes extended themselves to me, the ribbon of the road like the next chapter unfurling.

Wondering about Tonight

I wonder sometimes if modern communication has alienated me. I have leftover goodness that doesn’t know where to go. But then I take stock: my son is beautiful and thriving, my love and I are solid, I sit all right on life’s saddle. And so I count my blessings. Last night my friend told me of “cuddle puddles” she found at some weekend festival and how liberating it felt to be affectionate and warm with like-minded people: safe-space freedom. I reckon it’s possible to build that all around and on a multitude of dimensions.

Humid as Hades here. The crickets and cicadas are singing, I’ve got two dogs in the house. Rio is talking downstairs about some character. Annie is out with girlfriends, and I’m finding a sweet spot in a rough patch.

Kali sometimes she has her way. But she also prepared me by breaking me, opening up a new alleyway that wasn’t there before. A portal in the rubble. Some way out, or in, or both. So even though there’s been chaos amid the change, I enter there. Rather than curse the sky I bring my hand to my heart, take a step, and on the bridge with the river below and the fireflies flickering I see that my world, with its blessings and its cursings, its exquisiteness and wretchedness, is only met by the wider world’s version of the same. Our narcissism is laughable because the plight is so widely shared; the individual sob story is in truth a universal transformational one. I wish there was a better word for transformational but I haven’t found it yet.

I can wait for a rescue or instead see that my mustang is something I can ride even while feeling like I’m falling off. The mane of life is reachable, and when I sit with acceptance of wildness I find myself more agile with its intemperance. “Flow like the river,” we tell Rio when he gets caught on the rocks. This could be a cliche except that a river is ever changing, second by second, so any assumption about what a river  is is contradicted a moment later. Life like water moves through rapids and stagnation, at times a muddy sluggard and then suddenly a clear agent. It’s tempting to use cheap tricks to bring existence back to some neutral point, neither ecstatic nor despondent, but really what’s so hard about being joyful? I understand the difficult part but not why we make the easy part hard — fear sometimes shows up even among goodness and steals the beauty away. I don’t understand this and probably never will.

But I am also not entranced by it. At times I can fold that up into a tiny paper football that my finger boots out the door.

Anatomy of Change

The shift was long in happening. There were many nights along the bridge with my fist upheld to the sky. “Why are you making it so hard to find the next step?” I cursed.

“Relax, give us a little time,” the gods said.

I held on to the ficklest of faiths as one foot sought landing while the other lifted off the rock that was my life in Bynum and at The Sun.

For some reason I had to live in that reaching. And it hurt! Dark stories plummeted toward me: economic insecurity, depression, crises of self-worth. I convinced myself I was walking the right path, and yet the road was blocked.

I considered the purpose of suffering. The fear of ending one job and not knowing the next  made me taste a sliver of the financial fear so many live with every day. Instead of cursing my suffering could I see it as opening to a broader understanding of what suffering actually is?

And the depression: situational, not chronic. I am lucky like that. Still, the symptoms were there: Why get up? Numb my free time. Shudder at the shiver that crept up the back of my neck whispering, “This is it?” Around me, people struggling regularly with the darkness. They live in the pool while I normally dance around it, serving them snacks and cocktails but never stepping in. I’ve always known that when the wind finally blows the doors open, satisfaction sidles up.

Could the blues in my bones be welcomed because of the wider compassion I gain?

And then the doors did open: the job, back in Oakland. The road unwound before my eyes. As I drove down the hills, the bay in front of me, tears of gratitude dripped down a face that was smiling. And my dogged faith that the time it took had divine purpose was not in vain.

Following Orders

I was told to close my eyes and write. As family happenstance glides by, I resolve to let my fingerprints leave their mark on the page. Ears are working fine: our dog lies down heavy and Rio just asked Annie for some food. He’s been sick and we’ve been faithful. It’s been warm, and when we watched the Beasts of the Southern Wild last night, I understood that apocalyptic weather is now our canvas, and that we can either read stories on it or rewrite the script.

Yes, sigh. But then: a blue wildflower sprouting early looking beautiful in yesterday’s mid January bake. 77 degrees in winter here in North Carolina: the farmer’s almanac is shuddering.

For a moment here, fear took over, me not believing that I could see this through. It’s not performance anxiety so much as disbelieving my own intuition: the layers have gotten good at chiming in, their silly chorus so loud and ostentatious. Because really when I let myself feel the creative, the funny, the irreverent, the erotic, the joyful: I bounce. Why do mental stories outnumber the communal ones and then squawk so riotously? I’d rather be a vagabond on a bench.

I question the notion of heaven: that each of our choices is tallied somewhere in some thick record book. That’s too much pressure on the passing second. And who is really going to judge us when we die?

I’m not sure what lives under my skin; with gray days like today, I sometimes forget all the falling petals, bright origami with messages inside.

Divinity is actually no story at all.

The Wail

The other day my son and I and two of his friends were playing “three flies up” when I made a ruling Rio didn’t like. He expressed his dismay by kicking the ball away angrily, and, after I warned him to take it easy, talking back and then swinging a frustrated arm in my direction. Then Papa Bear laid it down: Rio inside; neighborhood kids home.

“What you decided wasn’t fair!” he kept insisting as I ushered him into his room. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my ruling on the field or my decision to end the game. I did my best not to talk back and get in a war of words with a seven-year-old. He slammed his door and fumed in his room, and then his shouts of frustration turned to cries of dismay. “Where are my friends?” he screamed. Annie and I went in and calmly told our extroverted son they had gone home. His crying turned into heavy sobs.

One of Rio’s assets, and challenges, is his intensity. On the soccer field, when he’s dribbling toward the goal, it’s a gift. When he’s staring at the world map beside his bed determined to figure out which way is faster from the U.S. to the Philippines, east or west, it’s an asset. But when he runs up against an obstacle that another kid might shrug off — “unfair” rule, say — his fire is an albatross.

Living a stone’s throw from a river, Rio and I do a lot of swimming and tubing, and Annie and I have used the Haw as a metaphor to help him when he’s only seeing red. “Don’t get caught on the rocks,” we sometimes tell him. “Flow like the river.” But words do little when he’s overcome with emotion. He can’t float when he’s flying down the rapids.

“Your ruling just wasn’t fair,” Rio kept repeating through tears and shoulder heaves. “And it’s not right that my friends went home!”

“Maybe, but it’s never OK for you to respond to something you don’t like by being a bad sport or by using your body in an aggressive way,” I responded. “We could have talked about it. But you just lost your mind.”

As Rio shed more tears, I saw that he was crying not because he was mad at me, but because he understood that his intensity had cost him time with friends. He was colliding with his own self and its jagged merging with the world. It hurts to be in these bodies and bang up against reality! I’ve always thought of Walt Whitman’s concept of the “barbaric yawp” as an empowered shout to the universe  — This is me, World! — but on this evening, as I watched my son sob, I understood that our yawp may also be a wail.

“Sometimes I don’t like how I am,” Rio managed to tell us. I understood. When I was young, I had plenty of moments when I felt in opposition to the world; in my case, it was often a feeling of being underappreciated and unseen. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when my sister walked me to my first-grade classroom and then moved on to her fourth-grade one (what more could she have done?); I remember too the time my mom left me with a babysitter and I cried for three hours straight because she didn’t say goodbye to me right. I was a shy kid most comfortable hiding behind my mother’s skirt. The world asked me to be bolder and I demurred. As an adult, I feel this less, and in fact relate more to Rio: there are times I’ve spoken up only to feel myself ostracized; times when I’ve stood up only to be told to sit back down. There are occasions when I can tell from the expression of the person I’m talking to that I’ve gone too far, that I’ve broken open a conventional unspeakable, and I’m left feeling exposed and alone. And so I’ve sat on both sides of this spectrum — sometimes too little for the world; other times too much.

It’s hard to know what parts of us are immutable and which can change. There is an inherent tension between stretching toward what we could be and accepting who we are. If we reach too far we might disregard our true nature and tear a proverbial muscle, or risk living in masquerade. If, on the other hand, we simply resign ourselves to our usual tendencies, then we stymie any chances of transformation. A friend recently told me that she was disappointed that she was struggling with so much jealousy in a relationship. “I want to be the person who can overcome it,” she said, “but if I’m really honest I have to admit I can only bend so far.” Meanwhile, her partner was frustrated by what he saw as her possessiveness, and he said he truly needed more freedom. Could she stretch to accommodate him? Could he stretch to accommodate her? In this case, no: she honored her cautionary voice and he honored his quest for a wider horizon. Perhaps their truest selves could not fully tango.

And so I ask: when is the voice of “this is me” limiting, and when is it a truth we need to hold? I suppose my own journey from timid (and all of its pros and cons) to bold (and all of its pros and cons) suggests that it is possible to change, that in fact there are layers to who we are that are ripe for the unpeeling. What a choreography, though, to navigate self-acceptance and self-growth, finding compassion both for the times we play it too safe and the times we stretch too far.

In Rio’s case, he clearly was feeling deep pain that he was a kid who reacted so strongly to his perceptions of fair play and things going his way that he lost the very thing he cherished: communion with friends. As he cried his hard wet tears, Annie whispered, “Rio, I know it’s hard, but look how much the world loves you. Can you feel it?” As she said this, I looked down to see that our dog Stella had jumped up onto the bed during the meltdown and that Rio literally had two hands and one paw touching him at the same time.