Talking to Strangers

I was struck recently when a friend’s young daughter refused to speak to a gentleman we passed on a mountain trail.  He had asked her if she was having fun, and she replied, “Do I know you?”

The man looked at me and said, “Somebody is raising that kid right.” I thought he was being sarcastic, but he went on to explain that he believed it was good for children to be suspicious. My friend’s daughter told me later that she’d been instructed “never to talk to strangers.”

It reminds me of the time I quickly but softly caressed the cheek of a baby sitting in a grocery cart while his mom scanned the shelves for soup. My girlfriend at the time admonished me —  “You can’t touch other people’s  babies!” — as if this were some obvious fact of the universe. To think I could’ve missed a chance to feel that skin.

Why are we teaching our children to avoid most of the people they encounter? Statistics overwhelmingly show that most kidnappers and predators target children they know.

When I lived in Johannesburg, I loved how African kids referred to adults they knew well as uncle or auntie. It’s not that young people talked incessantly to everyone that walked by, but there was a sense that their circle was larger than their familial unit. I once asked one of my students to translate the Zulu word “ubuntu” for me: it was a difficult task, because the concept does not have a tidy English equivalent — I’d heard it loosely described as the “belief that your humanity is wrapped up in mine.” But here’s how my student put it: “When you’re in the township and see a woman coming off the taxi with too many shopping bags, you walk up and help her, even if you don’t know her.”

Look, over there, see that American kid with his head down?

Annie and I have always actively acted against this tendency, encouraging an open dialogue between Rio and the world. We’ve talked to him seriously about not following strangers or getting into their cars, but beyond that we’ve never intimated that he should be closed to anyone. When he was a newborn, we passed him to as many people as possible, believing that exposure to different smells and smiles would expand his view of the world. It’s not that we handed him over to strangers in stores and walked away, but we were eager to share the gift of him with the world and to have the world share back.

I am not naive: I know there are unsavory people out there, but Annie and I remain committed to nurturing Rio’s natural curiosity rather than manufacturing fear. To me, strangers represent not a threat but an opportunity to step outside of one’s own orbit and have it thus expanded. Who knows what that man on the trail might have had to say to my friend’s daughter.

The Pedestal

A good friend and I were talking recently about how easily we fall from serenity into the murky waters below. Although the mechanics of our descent are different, we both feel the same fundamental pain of having lost our golden spot.

So what to do? We agreed that once we slip off, a whole day can go by with us floundering in the backwaters. Often I try to cheat my way back to the pedestal — fill in quick fix here — swimming down channels that usually end up taking me farther from my goal. Don’t lifeguards say that when you get taken by a riptide not to try and swim your way out of it? But I’m not comfortable with my own drowning.

So I dream of a spiritual ammonia, something pure and simple, a quick dose under the nose and bam I’d be all right again.

There do exist some natural remedies I haven’t tried, or that I don’t use often enough. I liked yoga but am so naturally inflexible that it was like trying to bend steel. Thank God I decided that instead of trying to meditate I would instead sit in silence for a few minutes; a semantic distinction perhaps, but one that turned a failure into a regular practice. Sometimes I’ll simply rub my own heart in small circles and say, “Everything is OK, Tim” over and over.

I wish I used these simple strategies more frequently, but the truth is once I’ve fallen off the pedestal I usually thumb my nose at the sky and hope for a better day next sunrise.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to de-pedestalize the pedestal itself. If I perceive it as a precarious high spot then I struggle to return once I’ve fallen from its throne; if on the other hand I see it as a small rock that I’m always just a step away from standing on, then I need not panic when my feet lose their grip. Rather than spend twelve hours drowning, then, I may instead see a day as a constant two-step on and off the rock.

From the front yard of our house in the country I can see a radio tower in the distance. When I first spotted its blinking red light, I cursed it as evidence of the inevitable encroachment of civilization. But I’ve learned to see the tower’s flashing beacon not as an annoyance but as a reminder that the chances to get back on the pedestal tick by incessantly. Off. On. Off. On. Occasionally when I’m lost I walk outside and look at the red pulse and think of my own heartbeat and say out loud, “Just try again. Now.” Sometimes, it sticks.

The Edge of the World

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Rio wears a helmet every time he rides a bike. Since all the kids these days seem to do the same, he doesn’t say a word about it.

This is a lot different from when I was growing up, when so few kids wore helmets that those who did were relegated to the teasing bin.

I’m glad Rio’s head is protected, but there’s something a little sad about it too. I think of what it feels like to ride around with your hair blowing in the wind: that locks flying, safety be damned kind of day when life seems a wide horizon to glide through.

We often eschewed safety as kids — I remember jumping off roofs, bouncing around in the back of a pick-up, even starting little fires in piles of leaves. But I also remember the dark side of these unsupervised adventures: I fell from my ten-speed bike on a busy boulevard and slammed my helmet-less head hard into the cement, probably just avoiding a concussion and being hit by a car (sorry Mom!) My friend and I once lit a small fire that became an inferno that almost devoured his entire backyard before the fire department came.

As a parent, I’m committed to Rio’s health and safety, but I also try not to become so obsessed with it that I squelch his freedom to soar. I think this is why I don’t mind Rio climbing trees: dense ones with many limbs that literally falling out of is hard to do. There are two such trees in our yard that Rio climbs regularly. I’ve always had one rule on the subject: I won’t help Rio down (unless he’s truly stuck). This means he has to grapple with his own fears and his own abilities as he makes his way up the tree, because he knows it’s hard to get back down. If he doesn’t heed the voice that says “enough,” he risks being stuck up there for a while. He has learned to, branch by branch, climb to the top of these trees. To date he hasn’t fallen and we haven’t had to save him; he’s careful, discerning, and fairly nonplussed about the whole affair. He doesn’t feel scared even though he’s aware of the real physical dangers.

As the writer Carl Honore said in an interview that Annie conducted with him last year, “The common instinct for parents is to wrap their kids in a cotton ball to make sure they never get hurt, but kids need the space to unleash their curiosity and let it roam in every direction rather than have it pulled in and directed at every turn.”

Last year, Rio and I went to the Appalachian Mountains. I wanted to take him on a hike that ended at a high spot with a beautiful view of a waterfall. Another parent I met along the way said he wouldn’t take his daughter down there with him because of the sheerness of the cliff. I respect that. I knew from experience that it was indeed a dangerous edge — if anyone fell off they would die — but I was also aware that the ground and trail near it were completely stable. I wanted Rio to see the view, but more importantly, I wished for him to understand the reality of ledges, to see danger for what it really is as opposed to never meeting it and thus having only a theoretical understanding of it: poor equipment to have on hand when he inevitably faced the real thing.

I was stern and serious at the ledge, staying many feet away and requiring Rio to hold my hand and listen to my every word. Rio followed my lead and stuck by me, huddling close as we sat on our secure rock pondering the grandness of the scene before us. The waterfall was stunning, but what I cherished most was the trust that had bloomed between us.

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.

Animal Soul

I recently had some torrid one-night stands with my lower self — that petulant punk who thinks he is the center of the universe and deserves all he wants. It’s not that I wish to behead desire’s fiery skull; I’d prefer to transmute base urges into soulful ones. (Good luck with that!)

The truth is that what my inner brat says I want is not necessarily what I really want. It is often misinterpreted desire. When my brat says “stimulate” I usually need rest. When he says “alter consciousness” I really crave a simple adventure. When he says “obliterate” I in truth aspire to feel more deeply. It reminds me a little of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza does the exact opposite of what his mind first tells him to do, and he marvels at the good fortune that unfolds in front of him.

The Sufis calls these desires “the nafs”: animal energies that naturally course through us. They don’t necessarily label these as bad, something the Western mind (and I) do quite readily. In fact, the poet Coleman Barks says, “Each stage of growth has its nafs which make one satisfied with his present state and inhibit further growth. Recognition of, and conflict with, those nafs leads to an opening, a new breathing, the next step.” In grappling with the nafs, then, we grow, which means they can be blessings, or at least catalysts.

But how to engage with the lower self in a present way? I can so easily lose myself in the rabbit hole that it’s hard to keep my feet on solid ground. Tangles with my animal soul tend to leave me spent, hungover, hanging by a fragile thread. The lows I experience afterward come not necessarily from the acts themselves, nor even guilt over them, but more from the morbid disappointment that I remain unfulfilled despite my gorging.

In contrast, when I meet my true desires, I find them quite easily fulfilled, a pleasure really: a kiss from Rio; an interesting conversation with a stranger; writing for a few minutes even if what I produce feels like the crudest sketchings.

Perhaps the best I can do is to increase the frequency of these serene moments and to embrace also the days I stray. I believe this is called being authentic. The only alternative is to split myself into two halves: the good me and the bad me. I’ve tried this and have been left holding only jagged shards.

No, I’d rather look for chunks of gold in the pits.

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.

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.

That Night

The man had sins to confess. We in the room told him we would listen. He had written what he wanted to say. He talked about what happened when he was young. How his glass got shattered.

He then said what he had done. All the lies, secrets, sins he’d thought he’d be buried with. That he was already buried under.

The paper was shaking in his hands. He had a hard time looking up. He wasn’t a criminal but felt like one. He had deceived many, hurt some. He had cut a hole into himself down which he had disappeared. Now he was crawling back out.

He finished. He looked up, trembling.

What he’d said sat in the middle of the room. We stared at it, marveled at the twisted trunk of truth.

“You just unloaded something awful heavy,” someone said. “When you leave tonight, you don’t need to take it with you.”

The man winced as though struck suddenly with a stick. Then his eyes softened and he wept. Not all the pain was gone but some, somehow shouldered by others who noticed less its weight. We each took a piece and put it on the shelf beside our own fractured bits and left the room.

Swimming with Snakes

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, there were swimming pools practically everywhere I turned. Summer wasn’t complete without the smell of chlorine in the air, and my blond friends’ hair took on a green tint from all those hours under water.

Swimming pools were entire worlds: heaters shuddering and pinging behind ivy-covered fences; cleaning machines that crawled the bottom like remote-controlled snakes. The “pool man” was standard fare, usually tan and muscular, his arrival signaling the end of our swim. My friends’ big sisters would usually stay put as the sunglassed romeo dragged his net across the water, cans of Tab half-drunk beside them as they applied another coat of coconut suntan lotion.

Once we dropped into the water, time slid away. My friends and I would spend hours in the pool, coming out to eat, our fingertips like prunes. We played familiar games like Marco Polo but also invented our own. Ever since the movie Jaws had come out, we never approached swimming quite the same way, convinced, against logic, that a shark might just be roaming down in the pool’s blue waters.

My friend Jason and I made up a game called “Jaws” in which one of us would float on an inflatable raft across the pool, eyes closed. The other played the role of Jaws, promising only to attack the innocent floater from the water below sometime before he got to the other side. As the victim, I’d be so scared my teeth would chatter and I’d cry out in anticipation of the terror. As the shark, I’d get so excited about my pending attack that I’d laugh underwater, bubbles streaming upward from my mouth.

These days I more often swim in rivers; the Haw is literally a five-minute walk from our house, and when it’s hot Rio and I go down there every day to take a dip. I no longer imagine that a shark lurks underneath, but I am still sometimes seized by the irrational fear that a wild creature might attack me, some razor-tooth catfish crossed with an Asian eel.

There are three credible threats down by the river. One is the northern water snake, a non-poisonous but large and potentially aggressive serpent. We’ve seen many of these critters, usually lounging atop rocks on a hot day but occasionally gliding gracefully along the water’s edge, head peeking up and seemingly oblivious to our presence. We respect the snakes, and they seem to leave us alone.

More menacing are the horseflies, which Rio and I hear and sometimes see circling our heads. We immediately yell “Horsefly!” and submerge ourselves in water, even though  neither one of us has experienced the particular pain of one of them biting skin. Last summer I got a huge bruise on my thigh from banging into a rock while diving underwater to escape one of these flying creatures.

The greatest threat to my equanimity in the Haw are tiny fish that occasionally poke my legs. I think they are trying to bite me (I reckon I’m standing on their nests), but they are so tiny that it feels more like a nudge from a floating feather than an act of piscine aggression. Still, I scream out loud when this happens, almost as if I’m truly being attacked. Rio always delights in seeing his grand papa brought down by a two-inch minnow.

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.