A Letter in Hand

I remember so clearly the feeling of opening my mailbox to find a handwritten letter inside: seeing my name scrawled across the front of the envelope, sliding my finger under the back flap to open it, rubbing the grain of the paper against my thumb.

And there was nothing like sending mail either: the time it took to compose a good letter (sometimes a day per paragraph, the half-composed missive traveling in my backpack from house to cafe to library until I finished it); the rush of affection I’d feel signing the closing valediction; the final quiet moment before I dropped the letter into the mailbox where it emitted a satisfying thud as it found its temporary home among all the other envelopes.

Upstairs I store almost all of letters I’ve ever received in a box labeled “memorabilia”: there are the sweet cards from my mother when my sister and I would stay with my grandparents for most of the summer when we were kids; the long letters exploring our mutual love of punk rock from my middle-school friend Rob Rankin after he moved from Southern California to the northern part of the state; the missives from friends and family when I moved to Johannesburg to teach high school after I graduated from college. Sometimes when I open this box I don’t come downstairs for hours; the past becomes a hall I walk through as I hold these artifacts in my hands.

When email arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties, I lamented the threat it posed to the traditional letter; now I’m as nostalgic about those cyber-missives as I am about real letters. I remember the rush of seeing a bolded “1″ next to “new mail” and the exquisite pleasure of deciding whether to read the letter quickly on screen or to delay the gratification by printing it out and reading it under a tree later in the day.

My love affair with Annie largely played out through email: because I was a graduate student in 1994 and she had an Internet savvy brother, we were both early adopters of the medium. Our first introduction, through a friend, happened through email, and when we consummated our relationship as romantic and I summarily moved across the globe to South Africa, we exchanged hundreds of long emails where we revealed our hearts’ hidden folds through the wires. I once printed out all of these letters; it was a 200-page manuscript. If someone asked me to tell them the story of our love, I could just hand them that sheaf of paper because it chronicles the tale so well.

These days my inbox is about as juicy as our house’s mailbox. Both are crammed with junk mail and bills, with the occasional informational item thrown in. It’s almost shocking when real letters arrive. Instead we now have texts, social media, and instant messages. There’s something to be said for the rush these can bring, too, but the more instant the communication, the more forgettable it seems to become. I’ve had “IM” conversations that seem to exist oddly out of time; I may be present during them, but once they’re over it’s almost as if the exchange is wiped from my mind, the memory of it vague like a dream come morning.  There’s also so much less room for rumination: modern communication may be fast, but you know you’re losing something when complex thoughts have to be whittled down to 140 characters.

Annie was recently downloading information from an old cellphone before she sent it back to the manufacturer. First came the contacts; then the photographs; next the video. And then she asked, “Should I also get all the texts?” They represented interesting moments of several relationships, but she wasn’t sure they merited a save. In the end, she opted to let them go; that doesn’t mean they lacked value, but I do wonder what will happen if we have no more records of our lives.

At least with email there’s some captured history; I occasionally click back to the very opening pages of my emails and read the long notes I exchanged with friends back in the old days of 1997. But even this is ephemeral; a few weeks ago I opened my inbox to find all of my old emails mysteriously erased. I engaged my provider’s customer-service machine, and the best I could get was a “real time” instant-message exchange during which the technician was unable to restore my emails. Fifteen years of correspondence gone in an instant.

In some ways I feel lighter without those thousands of notes following me around, but the truth is I have lost words that were given and exchanged in moments of passion, pain, and love. Part of the reason I dutifully keep all of my old letters and journals is to remember the paths I’ve taken in life, which anchors me when I’ve lost my way. As the folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips once said, “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it?” I know that box of memorabilia upstairs is my version of this rock; in a fire, it’s one of the first items I’d run in to save.

This Peculiar Stranger

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

A decade ago psychologist James Hillman theorized that children come into this world with much more agency than we tend to admit. Parents undoubtedly have influence, but Hillman argues that too many mothers and fathers embrace the “parental fallacy” that they can and should determine the life paths of their offspring. He encourages parents to abandon this false sense of control and to welcome instead “this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst.” Khalil Gibran spoke to this centuries earlier when he wrote that children “come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you.”

These are welcome words to me. I feel immense pressure to father well, in part because my own father left our home when I was nine. This works fine when Rio is being himself in a way that is conducive to what we want. But when his exuberance runs counter to society’s norms or even my own plans for the day, I can become deeply demoralized, partially because I subconsciously translate this as a failure on my part. Hillman reminds me that my role as Rio’s father is critical but also limited, and that to expect that I can mold him into doing just what we (the family; the neighborhood; the school; society) want is tantamount to fighting an immense force of nature.

The challenge, then, is to guide Rio into well-roundedness without snipping off his characteristic edges, and to not lose my sanity in the process. On a bad day, I hover too close, micromanaging Rio in the name of steering him in good directions — it’s like I’m wearing a special pair of glasses that magnifies every little bit of Rio I want to change. On better days, I take a more sanguine view of the situation, giving Rio the room to be himself and intervening only if he commits a serious infraction. In these moments, I’m able to relieve myself of the self-imposed “master parent” role and see Rio the same way I might view a friend’s child — delighting in the big picture of him in spite of the messy details.

In Hillman’s mind at least, a laissez-faire approach is advisable, not only for parents’ serenity but also for practical reasons: he believes all the prostrations and interventions may actually end up doing little to change the route of the ship. It’s not that he’s encouraging people to give up conscious parenting, but he is inviting us to surrender the narcissistic notion that we can make our children what we want them to be through some perfect concoction of coercion, incentive, and sweet talk. “Instead of saying, ‘This is my child,’” Hillman writes, “parents must ask, ‘Who is this child who happens to be mine?’”

I saw this in action the other day when Annie, Rio, and I were in Jackson Square in New Orleans. Rio had been a bundle of contrariness all day, his active nature exploding in all the wrong directions. Then he started chasing pigeons. Normally this doesn’t bother me much, but there were so many pigeons that their fluttering made a street vendor look over with what I perceived as irritation. I told Rio to stop; he kept doing it. Just as I got ready to trot out the hard line, his focus suddenly shifted to the very vendor I had noticed before. He walked over to her and asked, “What are you doing?” She explained that she was a fortune teller. He was fascinated, asking her about her tarot cards and the rocks and crystals scattered across her table. She told him he could pick out one of the rocks to keep. Rio proceeded to examine each rock closely, holding it up to the sun and inspecting the light it refracted onto his palm. “I want to pick the one with just the right color,” he told me.

The psychic looked at me and asked, “What are you doing about his talents? Because I see a singer, or a performer of some kind. He will challenge you, but you’ve got to give him room for his gusto.”

As Rio carefully appraised each rock, I thought about what she said. Talent. Gusto. Challenge. Room. So much is out of my purview. Rio finally decided on a mauve stone, and we thanked the woman. Within minutes he was spinning and tossing it on the cobblestone street in some elaborate game he had concocted. Seconds later, he threw the rock a little too hard, and it broke. I didn’t say much, believing the vagaries of his particular zeal will be more his struggle than mine.

At the Funeral in the Woods

This Saturday Rio went to his fifth funeral in four years. It was a very sad but beautiful day: our good friends’ third child had been born still, and they had gathered us to honor their baby girl and bury her remains. The service’s most heartbreaking moment came when their three-year-old daughter broke into sobs as the death of her sister became indisputably final.

There is no part of me that wishes to shield Rio from death. Even before his first funeral, he’d encountered the death of countless living beings, from the flowers outside our window to the dead deer we once found in the shallows of the river. He naturally inquired about what happened, and Annie and I answered as best we could: that death was sad but also a part of life, and that its arrival does not necessarily mean the end of life but rather the evolution of it into something else. When Annie’s father Bill passed away, we comforted Rio with the notion that Bill lives on in the sky, in the flowers, inside of us. Rio thinks the same about his great-grandfather Joe, his beloved aunt Mary, and Cubie, our neighbor from across the street.

For Rio to understand the cycle of life, he needs to see death, not by peeking out from behind our backs as we tried to protect him from tragedy but by taking it in with a good, clear view. When we paid respects to Annie’s sister Mary, Rio and all the children sat on blankets in the very front row. Two of the funerals he has attended featured open caskets, and I felt no hesitation as I paid my respects to my grandfather and Annie’s dad with Rio at my side. He’s young, but he loved those men and deserved a final look just like the rest of us.

We have taught Rio to embrace the unknown; that he can’t know who will win a card game, or what a walk around the neighborhood will bring, or if a character in a book will save the kingdom or falter along the way. So why should we treat the Great Mystery any differently? If we sit around fearing death, aren’t we teaching Rio to fear the unknown, which of course is life too? After all, nothing is certain.

About two years ago, Rio and I were walking in Bynum and he said, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”

“I know, my love, but everybody dies,” I said.

“Even you?” he asked.

“Even me.”

“Well I won’t die!” he declared.

“Rio, you know lots of people who have died: Baba, Grandpa Joe, Cubie…”

“But they’re not gone!” he insisted. “They’re still here. Cubie’s still here!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Up there in the trees,” he said, pointing to a giant oak. “She’s up there! HELLO CUBIE!”

Today I asked Rio what he was thinking on Saturday when he watched our friend stand at the podium and give, through tears, a beautiful eulogy to her daughter. “I felt sad, but I kind of felt happy too,” he told me. “You’re always sad when you’ve lost something, but you’re also happy you had it.” To think how less nuanced his view of loving and losing would be had we shielded him from the dark side of life.

Nicknames

Of the nicknames that Annie and I have given each other over the years, two that have stuck are “Big Shit” and “Little Shit.”

Annie and I are both passionate people. We like to be right, and we’re scrappy in a fight. We don’t argue often, but when we do, it can be a serious bout; judges may score Round 2 to Annie and Round 3 to me, but ultimately, we almost always both end up on the mat. It’s not that we knock each other down but rather that we wear each other down; by the twelfth bell we’re exhausted shadows of our selves.

It’s almost as if I float out of the real Tim, who is generally easygoing and helpful, and come back as rigid Tim, who is uptight and ungenerous. And it’s as if Annie, who is generally sweet and flexible, becomes Annie the drama queen, who is demanding and obstinate. We seem to do our most damage when we slip into these roles.

At this point, we usually resort to opposite strategies. I want to finish the fight with some sort of reconciliation, even if it’s nowhere near forgiveness or redemption and closer to “you’re not that bad.” Annie may have the same goal, but she generally gets so worked up that she needs some distance; she’s not very good at pretending to “make nice,” and she’s told me several times she’s trying to save my ass from further damage when she slips through the ropes and heads to her office upstairs.

But however long our fights last, Annie and I share an understanding that the ugly sides we sometimes show each other are just one face of our multi-sided diamonds. We’re both shits, but it’s aberrant, not normative. We both know that our partnership engenders growth, despite these flashes of regression.

“Big Shit” and “Little Shit,” then, are actually olive branches. They diffuse the imperative we both feel to win the fight. They say “You are wrong” and “I am wrong,” or, just as plausibly, “You are right” and “I am right.”  They concede that we are both imperfect, fallible creatures in love.

When Annie finally comes downstairs and utters my nickname (I’m Big Shit), I know we’re on the way back up.

Shuffling the Deck

My friend Van and his wife Trish have been married for 27 years and have amassed over 240,000 gin-rummy points between them. Van knows this because he keeps score on special tally sheets he created on his computer.

At last count, Trish was ahead by 430 points, which seventy-four-year-old Van is quick to point out indicates a difference of only .002% of the total. “She’d been behind me for months,” Van told me with a slow shake of his head over our regular Tuesday dinner. “But this week, she surged ahead.”

There are only two rules Van and Trish follow: absolutely no cheating, which means that even if you accidentally see one card in your opponent’s hand, the game must start again. And secondly, you have to keep playing; there is no giving up, whether in the middle of a hand, a bad night, a particularly difficult week, or, generally, in life. They’ve committed to playing until they literally aren’t able to anymore.

This bore itself out when Van suffered a serious seizure last Christmas, which was linked to a brain aneurysm he experienced many years ago. Van spent eight months in a medical facility, and there was no question he was deeply affected: his speech was slurred, he had trouble walking, and he didn’t have his usual sharp wit. And yet the gin games continued; Van says Trish was particularly dismayed to lose several weeks in a row to a man who could barely walk on his own.

Listening to Van, I wondered what shared diversions Annie and I have to get us through our days. We have a lot of interests in common: we both lived in South Africa and have it deeply under our skin (Rio’s middle name ain’t Mandela for nothin’); we both are passionate about social and racial justice; we love good writing and photography; we like hosting dinner parties and house guests; we both find our church in the trees. But I’m not so sure we have an equivalent to Van and Trish’s gin-rummy game.

Annie and I do have our rituals: we love to lie in bed on Sundays reading the New York Times, trading sections until I lock into the crossword and she takes apart Style. We have our spots on the couch where we watch documentaries together, discussing the finer points of storytelling afterward. On winter evenings we often sit in the living room and watch the fire.

But just as often Annie and I go our separate ways. I drink coffee; she likes tea. She’s a wake up and cuddle and chat kind of person; I like to get up and start my day on the go. I sometimes crave the kind of constant diversion that Van and Trish have found. Annie and I have discussed meditating in the morning together, but this has never really taken hold. My friend Bruce once encouraged us to integrate “talking rounds” into our week, passing a beautiful object back and forth and speaking our deep truths in turn.

It’s easy for me to romanticize what Annie and I aren’t doing, or what other people are doing, but when I asked Van about his game last night, he shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s a way to pass the time.”

For now I’m happy spending my minutes on “26 down” while Annie types away at her laptop across the couch.

Remembering

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

My mother-in-law, Jay, is an incredible woman. At 82, she can still tap dance in front of a room of family and friends, play old standards on the piano, and delight in a blooming lily.

For the last several years she has suffered from Alzheimer’s. She still remembers who her children are (and most of her fourteen grandchildren; in-laws are tricky), but she has lost her short-term memory. It’s as if a reset button is pushed in her mind the second a moment has passed. She is continually trying to get her bearings: “What’s this place called?” (“This is the assisted-living facility where you live.”) “How did I get to your house?” (“We just drove here together.”) Because she instantly forgets what she has just learned, she will ask the same question perhaps fifty times in an hour.

Of course she was not always like this. She raised seven children. She went from PTA mom to PTA chairwoman to assistant to the mayor of Pasadena. For years she was a “field rep” for the city, priding herself on knowing the who, what, and when of every civic detail. Now, it’s as if she’s convinced she should still be playing that role but is unaware that she no longer has the facilities to do it.

There are times when her face seems to register the utter wilderness she inhabits. I’ve seen it when the room is full of her relatives, and she finally retreats to a chair after rubbing a baby’s head or hugging an in-law. A look of fear darkens her face, as if she’s thinking, “Who the hell are all these people? And who the hell am I?” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen terror illustrated so clearly.

But there is also a strange grace to her Alzheimer’s. Jay’s husband Bill died three years ago. Their marriage had been a rocky one. When I first met Bill and Jay in the mid-nineties, they were living apart; while she held down the Pasadena home they had owned for several decades, he lived nearby in a small bachelor pad. They would come together for holidays and visits from relatives (and he’d still come over faithfully to try and fix things around her house), but there seemed to be a lot of built-up resentment between them. To me, Jay always seemed mad at Bill for something, and he always seemed perplexed about what he was supposed to atone for.

With the onset of Alzheimer’s, it’s almost as if Jay forgot her resentments. With his physical health failing and her mental health diminishing, he moved back into her house. She started calling him “my Billy” and would often retell the story of how they first met, even if the details got murky. When they’d visit us she’d sometimes lay her head on his shoulder almost like they were high-school sweethearts.

Bill died of heart complications in a hospital bed the family had set up in the assisted-living apartment Jay and Bill finally moved into. As he lay there dying, Jay stroked his face and mourned the loss of this man she did indeed truly love. Somehow the forgetting allowed her heart to open up to that deep river of affection that was always there between them, even during the years when they seemed to argue more than agree.

The last time Jay came to visit us, I tried to prepare myself for the challenges  her presence brings. It’s hard to answer the same questions over and over. But if you tire and show your frustration to Jay, she gets hurt and confused, because she doesn’t understand why you’d be irritated with her — she literally doesn’t remember that she’s asking you for the thirtieth time how often you have to mow the lawn. To her, she’s asking for the first time, so why would you be bothered by such a simple question? To Jay there really is no recent past or near future. What’s in front of her refreshes every second, and fortunately what she’s retained through all of her trials is a certain joy in the simple beauty of the world. What she repeats are not complaints or snarky questions, but rather tiny moments of astonishment at what she sees.

We have a storage shed outside our house which the previous owner painted with huge, vibrant sunflowers. During her last visit, every time Jay looked out the window and saw the shed, she’d marvel, “Oh my gosh, look at those flowers! Did you paint those?” I’d feel the heat of irritation prickle under my skin, but then I’d see her eyes so lit up and reply, “No, Jay. The people before us did. They are beautiful, aren’t they?”

Is it truly so exhausting to look at those flowers again and again?