Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  — I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.

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.

Many Rooted Trees

My friend and I were talking about the musician Gillian Welch and how she, despite her California upbringing, has always felt she had bluegrass in her veins. Welch was adopted, so this inkling was not outlandish; in fact, it was borne out when she discovered she did have blood ties to the South. But it got me thinking about the sense of being rooted to another place or time.

I told my friend about Shumba, a young white American I knew in Sacramento who had lived in Zimbabwe for a few years. Shumba had felt so at home in Harare that he learned the local Shona language in weeks; at live music shows he found that his body moved in motions it already seemed to know. He was such a good dancer that he was invited up on stage one night by the renowned Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo; the crowd was so taken by this long-haired white man dancing and singing African-style that for a few months Mapfumo made him part of his show. In fact it was Mapfumo who took to calling him “Shumba,” which in Shona means “lion.” Shumba told me about one time when he entered a rural village, and the kids started pointing at him and yelling, “Umlungu! (White man!)” Shumba’s first instinct was to look around and think, Where?

I had another friend at this time who displayed more of a chronological displacement than a geographical one. “English Jason” was a Brit who worked as a newspaper archivist and was the good friend of my housemate. Jason looked and sounded like a character straight out of a Evelyn Waugh novel: long swoop of blond bangs hanging over a boyish face; baggy knee pants; a tweed jacket over a perfectly pressed shirt and tie (even in the heat of summer). Jason would come over and watch old movies and drink good Scotch with us. Jason was single but yearned for a woman who would appreciate his penchant for books and walking instead of driving. This was not an affectation: Jason spoke without references to modern commercial culture and eschewed current vernacular. He told me that his favorite year was 1934 and that he truly felt he was meant to live then.

I wonder if we all have, in varying degrees, these callings to other places and times. I know that when I lived in Tunisia with a host family as a high-school exchange student in the late eighties, I felt strangely at home in the bustling souks as the muezzin offered his prayers from the mosque’s loudspeaker. The first time I heard live Arabic music I felt something rattle deeply in my bones. As the summer wore on and my skin turned bronze, I was often mistaken as a Tunisian; by the end of my time there, my Tunisian father admitted that he’d been shocked by how familiar I looked when I first came off the plane. “We were expecting an American,” he joked, “and out popped someone looking like an Arab!”

Questions of appropriation live just beneath the surface here though. I may have resonated with Arab and Tunisian culture, but my identity and lifestyle were undoubtedly American; when a burly security guard tried to kick me and my Tunisian friends off the “tourists only” beach, I had no problem stepping up and claiming my Western status as I tried to convince him to let our group stay. The author Greg Tate has a book called Everything but the Burden that examines white Americans’ zeal for African American culture: they may wear baggy pants and sing along with hip-hop songs, he argues, but at the end of the day they never have to actually deal with the realities of being black.

Still, as I consider how the Lebanese singer Fairuz always brings bumps to my skin and the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti brings a swing to my hip and the Persian poet Hafiz brings a calm hand to my spinning head, I wonder if honoring the callings from different homes is in fact an effective antidote to alienation; perhaps the soil literally under our feet isn’t always the most grounding. Plato long ago hypothesized that we were once born into a tribe that over time was splintered across the globe. He suggested that one of our missions is to rediscover our own lost people. Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of the “karass” is similar to this. Perhaps the tickling of Fela’s saxophone is an invitation back into some primordial circle.

Folks in AA talk about the folly of “pulling a geographic”: thinking that moving from one place to another will make their demons somehow magically disappear. I get this, but I also think there are regions, cultures, and eras that speak to something in us, and that seeking these out over the course of our lifetimes may be integral to feeling whole. A few weeks ago I watched a band of twenty-somethings from New York City jam old-time Southern music so masterfully that the old timers in our little North Carolina town shook their heads in disbelief and then promptly got up and started stomping their feet. No wonder the band called itself Spirit Family Reunion.