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

 

 

 

Two Hands Clapping

The dogs are panting. My house is empty except for three overheated canines. It is their nature to breathe these chants. Some days I want to curse them and say, “Leave me be! My partner and son are gone; let me float totally free.” But then I find the walk with them brings clarity: above creek I hear the crickets and see the fireflies. Their joy, free of leash on country road, makes me feel beneficent. If I were worthless they would get no freedom: floor-bound chez moi. But here we are, a veritable clan of creatures, trotting and smiling, a sniff here and there to investigate what the path has to offer.

But then the dogs fade to the background. I stumble into the nougat of me, unfiltered through duty and company, the twisting crawling snail that I must celebrate: see; see through; see into. Inside is an emptiness that wants to fill up — some nascent piece of me that still wonders about those breaking moments from childhood and fantasizes about replaying them. But rerun can’t provide the inflate — I must find air in these very moments.

One day I found my voice. It was wavering at first, but I spoke up and ears turned because I had something to say. Part of me was afraid of this light; I’d developed an innate instinct to self-dim. But then I met Jack Hirschman. He had a peculiar habit: after he finished a poem at a public reading, he’d back away from the mic, raise his hands, and join them in resolute claps. A casual observer might have thought it tacky for him to celebrate his own poems. But if you looked closely, you saw that Jack wore a slightly surprised expression in these moments, as if shocked but delighted by what had come out of him, by what his words had done to the night. It was not egoic: he was honoring what was moving through him. Jack taught me that getting out of our own way is sometimes the most noble act.

After one reading in North Beach, I watched Jack slip out of the bar. The crowd and praise is just too much, I thought. I peeked out to the window to see where he was going. I found him on Kerouac alley, throwing a tennis ball against the mural  – his own little game of toss and catch. He seemed so enraptured and childlike then, as if inhabiting his truest self and thereby transcending constructed ones.

Rescues

Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.

How Punk Rock Saved My Life

I found punk rock right when I needed it. My parents had just gotten divorced, and my mother, sister, and I had moved from West LA to Pasadena in November of my fifth-grade year.

I was so nervous the first day of my new school that I sauntered down to the bus stop, promptly threw up in the bushes, walked back to the house, and begged my mom to let me stay home. She complied, but the next day I faced a bus full of strangers.

Fortunately my mother had found out that her real-estate agent’s son was a fifth-grader on the same bus. As eyes bore through me, I focused on the only kid sitting alone and said, hopefully, “Are you Matt?”

“No, I’m Rob,” the bespectacled stranger replied, but he seemed glad to have someone fill the seat. He appeared as confused as I was; he’d just moved from North Carolina to California and was also new to the school.

Rob and I became fast friends. Some days I’d get off the bus at his house; some days he’d disembark at mine. We both got used skateboards and started listening to K-ROQ, the local alternative music station. Rob and I craved acceptance but also knew we were too proud to pander to the “cool crowd.” So we naturally eschewed all that characterized them: Journey and Van Halen; long, feathery hair; hooded surf ponchos, Vans shoes. Instead we found punk rock.

What drew me to punk was not the fashion nor the speed of the music but rather its confident attitude that the alienated could collectively form a tribe. Even though I looked and spoke like a normal middle-class kid, I was angry inside: pissed that my parents had gotten divorced; pissed that I had to come home to an empty house while my mom worked; pissed that my mom and my older sister were arguing so often that the knobs on both their bedroom doors were loose from all the slamming; pissed that I’d had to say goodbye to all my friends and come to a new school where the coolest kid was a boy nicknamed “Chingi” who liked to start his morning by hitting me across the side of my head with an open palm as he walked down the bus’s aisle.

And so my radicalization against the man began. Rob and I listened to songs that derided conformity and celebrated the unique. We favored the “straight edge” bands who rejected drugs, alcohol, and racism. We’d hop our skateboards and cruise down to the record shop, where we’d scour the used bin for good vinyl. When I got home, I’d finish my homework (still the good boy; it’s my nature), close the door, and blare my punk. I sang along with Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye when he screamed, “I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I’m out of step with the world!” And I remember goosebumps rising as I sang along with 7 Seconds:

“Hey it’s 1984, With a glimpse of what’s in store,
It looks like things are up to us.
No talk, just action in the streets,
That’s what it’s gonna take,
No calm youth in the U.S.A.

It’s summertime, American riot!
I can’t complain, unless I try it!
The heat is here, a teenage warning!
To those who fear, here’s your warning!

The songs were like anthems to our disaffected souls. By eighth grade, we were doing what we could to signal our membership to the tribe: Rob started sporting t-shirts with President Reagan’s face crossed out in red, and I was sporting a buzz cut and wearing flannel. I relished it when two six graders giggled in disbelief at how naked my scalp looked under my razor-shorn hair.

Somehow Rob and I convinced one of our parents to drop our skinny asses at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, a dirty downtown joint famous for its raucous punk shows. I remember feeling nauseous as we waited in line for tickets, hoping there was a “chicken exit” like I’d sometimes seen at amusement parks beside particularly scary rides. The aggression of the scene, so energizing in music and lyric, scared the shit out of me in person.

When I think about conquering fears, walking through those doors that night was a seminal one. Finding the mosh pit was a close second. I had never slam-danced before, let alone really danced at all, but there I was, all 98 pounds of me, twisting and turning my way around an emptied-out circle where daring young punks did rounds, bumping into each other forcefully until they’d had their fill. From afar, it may have looked like 100 angry kids who’d lost their minds, chaotically flinging themselves at each other, but inside there was a strange grace and a code of honor strictly followed: you didn’t intentionally try to hurt anybody, and if someone fell to the ground you immediately picked them up. I think I understood punk viscerally that night; we were all trying to release our frustration so that it didn’t implode in our guts or explode through our fists, and we needed the music and our brethren to help us do this.

Now that I am a father, I’m faced with helping Rio find his own methods of transmutation. He gets angry, often, because he’s a little firecracker, and he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with his strong feelings. At times, he’s lashed out physically, and this has landed him in trouble. Other times he has said hurtful words. I try to show him ways to release the frustration in non-destructive ways, because the last thing I want him to do with his emotions is to swallow them whole, letting them fester and ferment into the bitter juices of resentment.I’ve already started teaching him how to “rock out.” These days, I score it a success when he stomps into his room, turns in the doorway to face the house, and screams, “Sheeeessshhh!”

A few weekends ago, I myself was feeling hot, frustrated, and hemmed in. I got some good cold beer, took off my shirt, and started pulling out some of my favorite punk-rock music. I held an imaginary guitar across my chest and stood before an invisible microphone. I went on to perform my own hour-long show, to no one in particular (although Annie told me later that she peeked in and smiled once in a while.) Though the songs were almost thirty years old, I still knew every damn lyric, every damn guitar lick, almost like they were inside me. As the beer disappeared and my arm went up and down in strums and the sweat broke out in rivulets, I felt like a teenager again — now out in the open instead of behind closed doors; now in my own home instead of in my mother’s; now raising my own son who faces his own angst and the conundrum of finding ways to release it  — but I swear I felt a live wire between me and the long line of those who sing loud and thrash hard rather than swallow deep and steep in silence.

Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940′s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

Namesakes

When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.

“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.

“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.’”

“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”

“Relief?”

“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”

Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”

At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know.  (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.

My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.

I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world.  It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.

Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.

In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as  “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”

One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill.  I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”

The Sweet Stuff

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, an elderly woman across the street named Hattie Hewson made homemade cookies for all the neighborhood kids. Upon our knock Hattie would emerge in a flowery housedress bearing a warm pan of buttery, chewy oatmeal cookies.  It was as if she were doing it just for us, which she may have been — she lived alone and didn’t appear to have a family. Our consistent glee may have been what got her through her days.

In addition to the Hattie infusions, sweet stuff was standard fare in my childhood. I remember spending hours separating my Halloween candy into piles and trading particular pieces with my sister as the arsenal dwindled. After school, there was always a kid whose household was more lenient than mine, and we’d spend hours raiding his pantry until our stomachs would feel like they literally were about to burst. When I was thirteen, I spent a summer at a northern California camp run by hippies where the food was so healthy my friends and I would spend hours talking about all the candy we’d eat when we got back home. We ended up discovering a way to break into the camp’s kitchen, but the hardest stuff we could find was a cache of carob chips. We cursed for a second and then scarfed them down.

By my twenties, my relationship with sugar had become more complicated. When I was teaching high school in South Africa, I began suffering from debilitating mid-morning “hazes”: I’d be in class, and suddenly my brain would feel as if it were encompassed by fog, my students’ questions like vague flares.  Fortunately I saw a good nutritionist who suggested that I should avoid processed foods, especially sugar, because my high metabolism would churn through them so quickly I’d be left bereft. She said that my hazes were caused by low-blood sugar and warned that I was flirting with hypoglycemia. I eliminated refined sugar from my diet and within a month the hazes were gone. I’ve kept my distance from sugar ever since.

Now that I am a father, sugar has returned. Rio likes candy, what do you know, and I sometimes think the sugar industry has conspired with the commercial-holiday lobby to create a constant stream of junk: Halloween is just the beginning; then there are holiday parades where people throw candy to bystanders from floats; then Christmas with its damn candy canes and stockings; then Valentine’s Day with its candied hearts; Easter isn’t far behind with its ridiculous chocolate eggs. I suppose summer provides some relief.  Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a shield over Rio to protect him from all the sugar falling from the sky. Not that he asks for my intervention; a recent short story he dictated to me for a school competition concluded with superheroes saving the planet and then showering the earth with streams of candy in celebration.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if candy didn’t tweak Rio’s behavior. But when he eats artificially colored, processed confections, it’s like he becomes a strange robot with ears that don’t hear and a body that moves in jagged, jerky motions. I don’t notice it when he eats what I consider sweet food: edibles that actually have some nutritional value in them. But give him some Skittles and clear the room.

It’s sad to me how corrupted sugar has become; as Michael Pollan has pointed out, sweetness is actually rare in nature, so humans have always associated its taste with comfort and abundance. I know Hattie’s cookies did that for me. But now confection appears in almost every bowl; I’m afraid we beat the sacred right out of sugar when we learned to “refine” it.

So here I am a sugar cynic, scoffing at the Sour Patch Kids but also trying to remember the wondrous road that used to open up when an adult offered me a sweet treat.  At my grandfather’s funeral in 2008, I met for the first time the son of my great Aunt Lorraine, who had passed away a few years prior and who had played an important role in my childhood. I told my cousin Bob about the icy bottles of Coke and plates full of Nilla wafers that Aunt Lorraine would offer my sister and me every time we visited. She so consistently gifted us with goodies that even now I warm at the thought of her. Bob nodded his head and choked back tears as he heard the story, no doubt recalling similar moments with his mother.

When Rio and I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, we learned that our neighbor Cubie across the street had died while we were gone. In the coming months, Cubie’s husband Ollie began mowing the lawn obsessively, seemingly to give himself something to do in her absence. Rio started walking over to visit with Ollie, and he’d inevitably return with tales of cookies and a few uneaten ones in his hand. I thought about discouraging the practice, but who was I to deny Ollie and Rio the pleasure of this sweet memory?

The Bold and the Beautiful

Portrait of Alberto Morales by Anna Blackshaw

Seven years ago when Annie was pregnant with Rio, she and I spent three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the most memorable adventures was visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, once the site of an ancient city that was a hub for the indigenous Zapotec people.

Atop the mountain we met a man named Alberto Morales who was selling handmade clay replicas of indigenous holy figures. Annie, in her indomitable style, became fast friends with this gentleman, and within minutes we had an invitation to visit him the next day in his tiny town at the foot of the mountain.

Alberto lived in Arrazola, a place well-known for its original art: small, intricately carved and painted wooden animals called alibrejes. We had seen these figures throughout Oaxaca and recognized them as well from the living rooms of people we knew back home. We took a taxi to Arrazola and exited on a dusty road at the town center with no one in sight. “Just ask people for me,” Alberto had said, and so we began walking around looking for someone to ask. We were soon approached by curious children, who beckoned us to follow them to their homes to see the art they had for sale. Once there we were greeted by their mother, who gave us a quick tour of the family’s alibreje operation: father and sons fetched wood and carved; mother and daughters painted; the young children solicited customers. Leaving that house, we were immediately approached by another team of children, and we continued our impromptu art tour until we finally met a woman who pointed us to Alberto’s adobe.

There we got a tour of the Morales’ home production line (a little bit of traditional iconography; a little bit of modern art). He then told us his version of the history of the alibrejes: for years the entire town had created handmade replicas of what the indigenous folks had used in their religious rituals back in the day. They all looked about the same (dark clay hand-pressed into figurines), and the men would hike up to Monte Alban and sell their wares to tourists. One morning a local man named Manuel Ramirez was home sick and had a dream of a different kind of art. He began creating elaborate and intricate wooden figures of the area’s animals: iguanas, armadillos, frogs, coyotes, snakes. He painted these bright, vibrant colors and hauled them up the mountain. At the top, he showed his goods to his fellow salesmen from the village and they had a good laugh over his ugly art.

Surprisingly, however, Ramirez began selling his new creations at an unprecedented pace, and before the day was half over he’d sold his backpack’s contents and was heading back down the mountain for lunch. Next day, same fortune.

Seeing the profits Ramirez was making, his neighbors asked him to teach them how to make alibrejes. He did so, encouraging each family to bring their own style and flavor to their creations. Before long, every man was hauling a pack of alibrejes up the mountain, and the town turned from backwater hamlet to a self-sustaining art village.

Flash forward three years. While I am at a final job interview in Chapel Hill, Annie, in her indomitable style, becomes fast friends with Sarah, the bartender at our hotel, and within minutes we have an invitation to visit her the next day in her tiny town on the banks of the Haw River. There we notice huge, colorful wooden animals gracing every front lawn. I think to myself, Those look like huge alibrejes. Sarah explains that the artist’s name is Clyde Jones and that he lives right there in Bynum. Would we like to meet him? We do, and Clyde explains how many years ago he was home sick when he had a vision of chain-sawing a cedar trunk into sections and creating colorful animals. Since then he has made thousands of critters and donated them to charities throughout North Carolina. Clyde says his work is all over the world, “from Russia to Zimbabwe.” People from around the globe regularly come visit Clyde’s zany art palace, and it is not unusual to see smiling child sitting atop saddled blue horses and pink giraffes in his front yard.

I like to believe I receive the messages the universe sends me, but sometimes I need to hear it twice. As I sit here these years later in our living room in Bynum, staring at Clyde’s red-reindeer critter under our oak tree, I think about the boldly colored iguana we bought in Arrazola that sits just a few rooms away on Rio’s bookshelf. Believe in the vision you have inside you, these animals seem to be saying. Bring forth your own mad art and share it as a gift to those around you. Otherwise, the world is a little less bright.

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.

Finding the Spot

The most memorable part of my family’s day trips to State Beach in Los Angeles was one man who was always there when we arrived. He was probably about 65 and tan and trim in that way that some older men are: no rippling muscles but sharp shoulder blades and thin arms that suggested a life of action. He wore only a Speedo, and he always occupied the same exact square of beach, right next to a faded blue lifeguard stand.

As thousands of people over the course of the day walked past him, he performed the same act over and over: he heaved a large white frisbee at an angle over the ocean and toward the sky and then waited as it reached its apex and hurtled back along the incoming breeze into his outstretched hand. He was so skilled at his task that he barely ever left his small box of sand.

As a child, I noticed how oblivious everyone seemed of  this man, passers-by strolling along, talking, maybe ducking their heads for a moment to avoid the incoming frisbee. He acted as if no one was there — just him, the wind, and that spinning chunk of plastic.

That man has stuck with me all these years; I sometimes think of him when I lose my feet in the world’s stampede. My friend Carmen once showed me an exercise: she asked me to put my hands together out in front of me. She immediately pushed them down with great force. She then told me to raise them again, and that this time I could resist but not actively push back. And so I separated my feet to shoulder’s width, bent my knees, inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, and lifted my arms up. She pushed but could not budge my arms.

“Life is like me trying to push down your arms,” she said. “The trick is to always been ready to hold your ground.” This is hard because one never knows when life’s wild winds will come. Sometimes I can predict it; the transition from work to home can be difficult, going from a desk I can control and a door I can close to a house where Rio wants to play the second I arrive, any plans I had for myself gone like a string on a helium balloon. Sometimes I have literally shaped my right hand into a “c” (for chaos) and knocked it against my forehead a couple of times before entering the house to remind myself to brace for life’s half nelson.

The truth is, I try to be attentive to those around me, particularly Annie and Rio. The trick is balancing this with my own inner life, which can be just as demanding. If I ditch it for them, I risk losing touch with the channel that sometimes opens inside me. If I ditch them for it, I might not be there when they need me, and vice versa, something I witnessed happen with too many fathers. Just tonight I tried to squeeze in a few moments with the page right as my domestic needs came calling. I chose the words, which felt right at the time, but it can carry a price.

I’m not sure the Frisbee guy had to grapple with this. After all, there weren’t a bunch of toddlers clamoring on a blanket beneath his feet. He could focus exclusively on that piece of plastic. Who knows, maybe every other day of the week he took care of his three grandchildren. But for me, for now, I’m constantly trying to juggle my inner and outer responsibilities, and it seems the weather of what’s right changes every hour.

Funny enough, in college I started playing Ultimate Frisbee and became well acquainted with the nuances of a flying disc. I even started practicing my throws into the ocean wind when my friends and I went to the beach. There really is an art to it: measuring the strength and direction of the wind; angling the frisbee just right; throwing that piece of plastic with just enough force that it returns to the spot you’re standing on. But the man on the beach’s true art was not simply mastering this skill but having the presence to stay committed to it while the world whirled around him. Today I set the alarm early, and Rio and Annie are, as of this moment, still sleeping.