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.


My father read a lot — usually World War II history or biographies — and he used to retreat to the leather couch in the living room after dinner with his tome in hand. I would pretend to disappear upstairs only to sneak back down the stairs silently. I learned early on how to inhabit the geometry of invisibility. Papa was gone so often at work or traveling that reading books on the couch, preferably in front of a fire, was clearly something that made him feel at home. I only wished the activity had involved me.

Not to say my father ignored me. He faithfully coached every Little League baseball team I was on when we lived together, and even the first one I joined after my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, and I moved across town. He led almost every one of those teams to the championship. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter to me as I wondered where he would put me. Years later Papa told me that his corporate boss never liked the hours my father spent away from the office coaching.

My father also loved cards and taught my sister and me the best strategies in blackjack and a slew of poker games I can still remember, ranging from “Night Baseball” to “Stud.” We’d stay up past bedtime anteing up pennies and fighting for the kitty. When I think of those moments on the den carpet, I recall the rough stubble on my father’s face and how potent the veins in his hands looked as he shuffled the deck for the twentieth time.

Still, my father was often remote to me. I remember once I looked at his face and asked him about the fleck of amber that appeared in one of his hazel eyes; he backed away and told me to leave him alone. I see now how desperately I wanted intimacy with him, reaching for it as he literally took steps away.

So it was a delight for me to sneak undetected into the living room to watch my father read. I felt so close to him then, in a strange and sad way. He was like a deity I could near but never touch.

I got so good at spying that I tried it all over the house; it was the best way to discover what was really going on. Eavesdropping on my mother’s phone calls to her friends, I learned how badly her relationship with my father was going. Once I found hundreds of dollars wadded up and squirreled away in my mother’s leather boot.

My sneakiness continued until one day when I stumbled upon something I didn’t want to see. It was a Saturday morning, and my mom and sister were out of the house. I snuck into my father’s den to see what he was doing. I thought maybe I’d find him reading, or writing on the yellow legal pads he used for work. Instead, in the dappled light coming in through the window, I found him bent over on the floor, sobbing with a might I had never seen.

I still don’t know what made my father cry like that, but whatever it was was the very thing that kept him from me.

River Repartee

A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.

“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.

Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”

“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”

Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”

“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”

He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”


I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be Big

Annie’s older sister Mary just died a few weeks ago. She was 55 and a key part of the family. She was the one who remembered birthdays, dawned on holiday earrings, raised an amazing son, and who had a unique relationship with all of her nieces and nephews. Rio really loved his Aunt Mary. Accepting her death, even though Annie’s family provided a beautiful container for so doing, has been a gradual and teary experience.

Annie was gone for a month caring for her sister in the hospital, and it was a trying but beautiful few weeks for me and Rio at home. Our friend Dre was staying with us, and she stepped up admirably as I wrangled work, preschool, and child care. A local friend stepped up at a critical moment and facilitated me taking a solo weekend retreat in a NC mountain cabin. Sy my boss was cool as I flexed my schedule out, but there was no doubt we were all worse off without our Annie. But she was care-giving elsewhere.

My life feels thin right now; I can count up the various positive realms and do exercises in gratitude, which I do most days. But there’s no doubt this is one of those crucible moments where hope seems thinly linked to a strand that is fraying.

But then Rio says, “When I grow up, I want to be big but also have a kid inside like you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you like to tell stories and play around and go out for adventures. A lot of times you’re a big kid.”

And I recall then in a flash to the heart my own goodness — I am less “teaching” Rio than being an example for him — but again I fall so quickly off that pedestal. I seem drawn to the edges, where I equate small gashes with bold living. Other times I am fatter with the moment, content to stay on the saddle no matter where the bucking horse leads me.

Holding a high standard is important, but it can get me into trouble. I forgive myself easily in some realms — I apologize quickly when I hurt someone usually; I do a stellar, essential job at work — but in other arenas I drop down the ladder quickly when things go awry. With parenthood, especially, I can focus too much on not “traumatizing” Rio, in part for valid reasons, for I can readily recall those wounding moments in my own life.

But really won’t he remember that afternoon not long ago when we lolled about the river as the cicadas hummed and humid North Carolina hot air threatened but did not strike as we ducked into the water? Even today, I swam with him in the lake, but only until he found a friend who he wordlessly played with in aquatic circles. The kid’s father and I just smiled, aware suddenly that we were no longer needed.

I experience joy through Rio’s experience; as his father I see readily through his eyes. He buoys me with his “is-ness,” barely inconvenienced and at this age sometimes pissed off at adult pseudo-business. The kid forces me back to reality with a command or question that demands a present reply. He goes into his mind, sure, but more for fantastic reverie of the imagination than for cyclical analysis, that place where I get caught in and hide.

A friend of mine talks about the spiral, how we never escape our primary wounds, but that, if we work, we continue to hit it at higher evolutionary points. At first, when I strike against it, I’m like, “Damn, I thought I got rid of you,” and there can be a period of disbelief and powerlessness. ‘I’m here again?!” But she says that if we continue to confront that wound and try to heal it every cycle, even if it’s with a myriad of different medicines and treatments, that when we return to that painful spot it will be with more awareness. We may find that the spot itself has shifted. I believe in that idea, because I can only believe pain is evolutionary.

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.