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.

Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum

The Hearth

The wood stove

With the onset of winter, I’m focused on tending the fire. We have a big wood stove that heats up most of the house, and so I’ve been procuring loads of timber, keeping it neatly stacked, using a maul and hatchet to chop the logs into an array of sizes, and, most importantly, starting a fire and keeping it warm through the night.

There’s something about the heat from a wood stove that makes a forced-air system almost like plastic next to silk; the warmth from the fire crawls up from under you and licks your very skin.

I’m so obsessed with my self-appointed duty of heating the house manually that I sometimes forget to actually look at the fire — I tend to keep the stove’s doors closed to maximize efficiency. Thankfully Annie regularly opens them so she can gaze at the yellow and orange flames dancing across the oak. Something about watching a fire narrows my world, drawing attention inward and away from whatever wilderness my mind was racing through.

Rio is already prone to this effect; last night, I found the kid we secretly call “Flash” (as in blur) sitting perfectly still by himself in front of the fire, gaze intent.

This got me thinking about a backpacking trip to Yosemite that my high-school sophomore class went on for a week one winter. On the last night, after we’d traversed mountains and survived the snow and ice, the counselors lit a bonfire and asked each of us to grab a stick. They then told us to take turns throwing the piece into the fire and saying something about the trip. Most of us probably rolled our eyes, and the session began with fairly standard “I learned a lot” platitudes. But about a third of the way in, one of my classmates began talking about the hard time she’d been going through at home, and she began to cry. The next girl related a painful story from her life, and she too started to weep. Before long, we were all in tears, sharing our truest truths.

I’m not sure the teachers and counselors had ever witnessed anything like this. There was so much pain among us, and, amazingly, we were letting it burn.

Our class was always a little different after that. While the juniors above us and freshmen below us were plagued by persistent cliques and schisms, our class exhibited an unusual harmony that every teacher I knew commented on. We weren’t all friends or anything saccharine, but we had seen each other at our most exposed, and we never forgot the dirty beauty of that. We “let our scars fall in love,” as the poet Galway Kinnell puts it.

I am certain, after all these years, that each one of us remembers that night: the time we shared the secret of our frailty; the time we unveiled everything and felt free.