Playing with Fire

The other day I went to fetch Rio from our friend Jeff who had been looking after him for a few hours. We met at a local biodiesel plant where Jeff has an office.

As Jeff and I caught up, I heard a loud noise coming from the corner of the grassy field where Rio and Jeff’s son were playing. My eyes landed on Rio throwing rocks at a building that housed one of the plant’s offices, complete with big windows and solar panels. Jeff had actually built it. Just the kind of structure you don’t throw rocks at.

“What are you doing?” I asked Rio as I approached.

“Throwing rocks,” he said.

I looked closer to see that a rock Rio had thrown had pierced the glass of one of the windows, creating a small hole with a web of fracture-lines emanating from it.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I asked.

I listened to his weak answer and then lectured him for a few minutes before calling Jeff over. “Yup, we’re going to have to replace this window,” Jeff said calmly. “It’ll probably be between $100 and $200.” I thought I heard Rio gulp.

Rio knew he was in deep. At one point he asked if there was such a thing as a “jail for kids.” I thought about my options. I knew I could punish Rio by taking away movies and playing with friends, or I could think of something that related more directly to his crime and that actually enhanced him in some way.  Because my wish is to have Rio learn from his mistakes instead of being haunted by them. This meant giving Rio some dynamic consequence he could work in his hands. In my politics I’ve long favored restorative justice over punitive justice; here was my chance to apply a grand idea to my own little court case.

First, I knew Rio had to acknowledge his mistake and apologize to the people it impacted. I had Rio apologize to Jeff, since he had built the house. I also told Rio we’d come back during the week to apologize to the women who work in the office. He’d have to look them in the eyes and say he was sorry. Finally, I told Rio that he would have to do community service to earn the money needed to pay for the window. I imagined asking friends to think of menial but skill-building jobs they’d be willing to pay Rio a little cash to do: Sorting recycling? Sweeping? Weeding? All the proceeds of course would go toward the window.

Rio seemed dismayed by the idea, which was a good sign. I think he intuited that this punishment would be much more taxing than losing a few privileges. “It will probably take you three months to pay back that money,” I told him.

Then his face lit up with an idea. “I know! I’m just going to go home, grab two hundreds from the Monopoly game and give them to Jeff! It’ll be over in about five minutes!”

Oh my, this was going to be a long three months.

As we drove home, I thought about my own childhood mishaps. One hot July day when I was thirteen my friend Rob and I were bored and starting wondering if inflammable paint was less dangerous than flammable paint. You know, like invalid is the opposite of valid? We decided to pour a little of both kinds of paint on piles of dried leaves to find out.

We quickly learned inflammable paint was very flammable! The two of us cheered as the flames crackled with technicolor. After 30 seconds or so, we beat out the fire with sticks and then moved on to the next pile.

On the fourth try, we laughed and frolicked a little too long, and when we tried to beat out the fire, it was too late.

“Get your mom!” I yelled.

Rob ran up to the house. “We started a fire!” he blurted.

“Oh Robbie!” his mom snapped, running into the house to call the fire department.

Rob and I raced back to the scene of the crime, only to find a greater inferno and a new witness: Mr. Pickering, Rob’s neighbor and my future high-school English teacher, who was trying to douse the fire from his side of the fence. He knew we were the culprits but would not deign us with a look.

As the fire inched closer to Pickering’s yard, the firemen finally arrived, hosing down the fire to black smoke in mere seconds.

As the fire trucks readied for departure, the chief pulled us aside: “You two are lucky — this whole block could’ve been up in flames!”

That evening Rob’s father, an Episcopalian minister, came home and calmly took in the news. In his car on the way back to my house, he offered to come in and explain to my mom what had happened. I accepted his offer immediately, knowing my mom’s reaction might be tempered by his mellow nature.

Reverend Rankin and my mom talked in private for a few minutes and then he bid a kind adieu. My mom sat down and looked at me. “Today is Friday,” she said. “By next Friday I want a ten-page report on the subject of fire, with a table of contents, a section defining words like “flammable” and “inflammable,” and a bibliography with at least six sources in it. I want the whole thing put in a three-ring report folder and in my hand by noon.”

I think I remember this event so clearly not because of the error I made but rather for the path my mother laid out for me in the wake of it. This is the beauty, and the labor, of restorative justice. It would have been easier for my mother to punish me through a grounding than to administer her rather complicated plan. And surely it would have been simpler for me to endure the loss of a privilege than to delve into encyclopedias and check out books from the library for the damn bibliography. But then there was that memory, guiding me as I stared down Rio.

Healing Wounds

Not long ago I saw a therapist who guided me through a hypnosis session that profoundly changed me.

I had talked with the therapist several times and had told him about a sense I had of a wound within me. It was a physical feeling I would sometimes get of something large, heavy, and overwhelming weighing down on me, a deathly kind of chill that would crop up unexpectedly. I didn’t know what was inside this wound, but I had the sense that something had happened to me that I’d repressed so deeply that I couldn’t name it. I have no memories of any deep trauma, so I was unable to talk or think my way toward resolution. I wanted to get into this dark hole and excavate what was there. I asked the therapist if he could help me.

He told me he might be able to help me heal the wound, but that it was likely I would never be able to understand it. “You may never discover why it is there,” he said. “But we can still try to treat it.”

To get inside the would, I’d have to get into a deeply relaxed, or hypnotic state; to get there, I’d have to open myself up and shut down my rational mind. In a few of our previous sessions, the therapist had noticed that I’d catch my emotions and compose myself right when I was beginning to cry, thereby shutting down the valve that was about to open.

“I can get you down to that spot,” the therapist told me, “but you are going to have to let yourself fall into it.”

I believed this therapist, whom a friend had once referred to as a “shaman in the woods.” I’m suspicious of hocus-pocus, but I also believe there is much to life we cannot see. I realized that I harbored a bias against hypnosis, cartoons from childhood the principal source of my crude understanding of it as a manipulative practice induced by a swaying pocket watch. The therapist was seasoned, smart, and kind. The foundation he provided was firm enough for me to trust leaping off the cliff with him.

To prepare me for the session, the therapist asked me to make a list of spiritual guides I wanted to accompany me on my trip inside. I listed specific family members and friends:  my deceased grandfather Joe and father-in-law Bill would be there. My Mom and Dad, and Annie and Rio would come. I even invited Rumi.

The day of the hypnosis, I was excited but not nervous. I had felt this wound for decades and was inspired by the idea of healing it. My therapist had me lie down, and he used soothing words and silence to bring me into a quiet, floating world where I seemed suspended outside of rational thought. He, as a person, and the room I was in, began to float away. His voice asked me to picture a place I wanted to be, and I ended up choosing the sandy beach right beside the Haw River near our house in Bynum. He invited all of my guides there, and before long I was standing foot-deep in the river surrounded by my friends and family. (That I was literally on my therapist’s couch had become an irrelevant fact.) Rio stepped forward from the circle and stood eye-to-eye with me. I was now a small boy, and not Rio’s father.

Rio said, “Come play with me.”

I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m scared,” I replied.

“Of what?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You are OK.”

Suddenly the scene was replaced by a blank screen with a strange small black circle slowly moving and circling in front of it. I told the therapist about it, and he encouraged me to look inside the circle. I did, and I only found more darkness. I had the sense that I would find what ailed me if I kept going.

Almost like an abrupt cut in a movie, suddenly I was in my grandfather’s garden on a bright summer day. I was a child. I was kneeling, and my grandfather was on his knees too, carefully showing me how to pick a green bean off the vine. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. This was a scene, but it was also something I had really experienced; my grandfather had always had a huge vegetable garden in his backyard in Connecticut, and my sister and I had spent hours in it helping him and my grandmother pick green beans. In my twenties, I had lived an entire summer in a nearby lake cottage and had visited my aging grandfather weekly. Every visit, we went out to tour his garden, and we picked fresh vegetables for me to take back to the cottage.

But in this moment I was a boy, the same age I’d been with Rio by the river, and I suddenly felt a surge of positive emotion so strong it is hard to describe. It felt like the warm sun was gushing through me, like photosynthesis, like my whole insides were being flooded with the brightest white light. I was awash with love. Tears came gushing down my face in a sudden torrent. “My grandfather loved me so much,” I said out loud with utter clarity.

Just as soon as I felt the sensation, it was gone, and the therapist slowly guided me back to the river, and he soon closed the loop on the ceremony and brought me back to waking life.

As time has passed, I have understood some of what occurred. My sense is that my wound was partially healed through physically experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather’s love. This is not at all what I expected. His love had been so constant and pure in my life that I had largely taken it for granted — I certainly never considered him when I thought about pain. I’d had tumultuous relationships with other men in my life, particularly my father, but my grandfather’s love and presence had never been in question. Perhaps that is why his love, and a scene that epitomized it, was at the center of that swirling black mass, which I believe was a visual symbol of my wound. The session took me not to an answer of what my trauma was, but rather to a source that could heal it.

Today I sat on that same beach in Bynum, looking out over the water as Rio built a sandcastle. At one point he came over to me, nudged my legs open, sat down, and leaned his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and felt the sweetness passing between us. Sometimes I wonder what all of these loving moments between him and me will add up to. Which minutes will become memories? I suspect that love given and received doesn’t just evaporate; I believe it lodges deep inside of us, light we may harvest when later darkness falls.

The Bright Side

I’d rather talk about the glory than the glitches. But sometimes it feels safer to coast in under the cover of gripe. 

Not to say digging into the trenches and making sense of the soil isn’t valid; in fact, in this age of airbrushing I’d say it’s critical work to be candid about the struggle.  But I’d rather not fall to the other extreme, baring all in an angst-ridden pity parade.

The fact is, I am an optimistic, joyful person. I think that what comes out of a stranger’s mouth is going to revelatory, or at least helpful. I relish the sound of the crickets piping in from the leaves. I think people are basically good and trustworthy. I believe most dogs won’t bite me.

Last night was one of those blessed evenings when I communed with joy and it gave me a big, wet kiss.  Annie was out of town, and I was getting the house ready both for her return but also for a visit from one of my oldest friends, Zeus, and his fiance Lora whom I had not yet met. Lora was driving down from Ohio and was arriving the night before her sweetheart, and I found myself in happy anticipation; even though we’d never met in person, I knew — because of the depth and breadth of my relationship with Zeus — that someone kindred was about to grace our home.

Lora arrived about two hours later than she’d planned, but I was able to transcend the clock. It was one of those perfect spring nights when the wind is blowing the first warm breeze of the year and the stars are almost shocking in their plenitude. I cooked up some dinner, wrote a little, put on some music and then stretched and danced and opened the unhinged joints in my body that had been feeling so tightly closed. In the last few years my body has stiffened and at times I feel like the tin man in need of some oil. I was able to conduct my own freestyle body workshop in the dining room with the windows wide open.

At one point I walked into Rio’s room and talked a bit to the soundly sleeping boy. I told him I would always love him and try to be there for him. I reminded him to never ignore the directives of his heart. I had the strong and slightly eerie feeling that he could hear me despite his deep slumber. Then things got a little mysterious. As I looked down on his face I saw him as a teenager, then as a man sleeping on another bed somewhere.  I got a flash of him alone and crying, that sad communion with the sheets, and I thought of all the times he would be broken and I started to weep, turned my face to my sleeve, looked away. I was about to leave the room when I remembered laughter, the tops of mountains, nights like the one I was having, and I let the delight of those small gifts sustain my vision of my growing son.

And then Lora arrived, 12:30 a.m. and the night still felt young, and she and I talked and talked, needing nothing but the worlds that were suddenly broader and more connected, and as the darkness was about to greet dawn a storm came in from nowhere, thunder booming and rain suddenly pouring across the tableau at 45 degrees. I ran inside and closed all the windows I had opened,  cursing for a moment all the papers that had scattered across the room. We hooted and hollered at mother nature’s unforgettable howl, and I finally went to bed, satisfaction in my bones.

Gray Skies

Annie found an apt term for what I was in this week: a “grump funk.” I can’t determine its cause but can describe its symptoms:

*General feeling of grayness, like the rainy sky above me. Normally the spring’s burst of blooms sprouting from the trees would get me smiling, but this week they’ve been like tiny worlds I don’t have the passport to. It’s not that I don’t see them (maybe I’d almost prefer that); it’s that I can only shrug at their beauty: nature’s twinkling offerings met only with an indifferent eye.

*Substantial time and energy spent in constructing myths about those around me.  I’ve been flitting between extremes, either romanticizing people so that I can envy them or judging them so I can feel better about myself. It’s a pretty lonely spot.

*Hypercriticism toward works of art, my own or otherwise.  I went to a movie the other night and hated it, despite the fact that it was me solo in an artsy theater taking in the heartbreak of a foreign film. The recipe didn’t work: I almost left halfway through, my inner art critic loudly condemning the film’s every move. Wisely I stayed away from my own writing during this period.

*Isolation. Yesterday I saw one of my favorite acquaintances at a restaurant and gave him only a cursory wave from the safety of my table.  I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer him, or him me. My world is gray and I like it that way, the voice inside me said.

In spite of my grump funk, I put on a good show. My high-school football coach used to admonish us to keep an “even keel” on the field no matter what was happening around us. I try to remain calm, knowing my short-lived malaise is hardly a tragedy. But I still can’t hide it from Annie, nor did I wish to. What good is a relationship if it’s not a safe place to shake out our dusty shadows? Let them fly free for a while. This weekend: nonstop rain both days. I told Annie that if I didn’t have a kid I’d just hole up with her in bed all day, rising only for food and coffee, watching movies and intermittently napping over the hours, unfazed by the changeover from light to dark. I wanted to disengage from life for a good long while, to have a good dose of “I give up” so that I could try again. (Sometimes I flip it and think the singer John Popper had it right when he said, “I think a need a prison in order to dream of being free.”) But then there was Rio wanting to play and explore together, unaware of my motives and offering a real way out of the blues if only I could see the portal he was holding up.

Then Annie stepped in and said, “Why don’t you just curl up for a few hours with the door closed and watch Friday Night Lights? Take the break you need.” And I did, Rio watching his own movie out in the living room for a bit and then he and Annie cooking together, or so best I could discern from my sweet sad nest.

And it was downright medicinal to float in that bubble of jack squat for a while; I smiled and laughed through the show and found myself in a small town in Texas. The respite gave me the wherewithal to stay on the saddle. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has written that pleasurable emotions come and go. No matter how we court it, we are at the mercy of joy’s vicissitudes. I know I can’t turn on happiness like it’s a switch, but it still sucks to be in a dark empty room. But I know I’m also lucky: for me the situation is temporary, and even then I see sunlight coming in through the slats.

In the meantime, according to Fredrickson, there is one positive emotion I can actively cultivate: gratitude. While I wait for joy to return from her sojourn down the road I can do more than just curse from the bus stop; I can run through the blessings in my life, say them aloud, even express them to those who bring them.

It may be strange to watch a cranky gringo suddenly telling the people around him what he’s grateful for, but it’s not an act; I’m trying to thank my way out of it. I hope I don’t take those blessings for granted when I find myself again on the coveted perch.