Finding the Comfort in Discomfort

Angel Kyodo Williams's Profile Photo

There were several times while working on Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation that I had to get up from my chair and walk away from the book. The content was intense and provocative: a fierce call to question and change the systems of oppression permeating our society at large and our spiritual communities in particular. Written by three queer African American Buddhists, the book challenges the notion that we can continue to do “business as usual” and survive, whether the “we” is a country, a planet, an organization, a neighborhood, a sangha, or an individual.

But on a deeper level, the book pushed me because of the very force it became as a tangible being. The book’s content invited me to, as Rumi famously put it, “not go back to sleep,” but the collaboration with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah forced me to stay awake, to question the very norms I perpetuate, consciously or not, in my own life. In other words, working on the book itself became a crucible mirroring the radical inquiry detailed in its pages.

When Reverend angel and I first talked about the project, I proposed a timeline in keeping with publishing-industry standards: a year, maybe a little more. “Um, no, we need to get it out in seven or eight months,” Reverend angel replied firmly. “The world is asking for it now. But what about all the marketing meetings, and the sales-rep discussions, and all the time and labor and road-building it takes within the institutions to get a book out in the world? I thought. There is no way!

But there was. Through sheer hard work, unconventional meet-ups, gritty faith, grassroots word-of-mouth, and late-night phone calls, the book came together in record time and emerged into the world just as the realities of racial profiling, homophobia, deep sorrow, and spiritual emptiness roiled through the country in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. We could not abide business as usual. As Reverend angel says, “This is the ‘back of the bus’ moment of our time.”

Nor could I abide by my usual approach to editorial collaboration. I dipped my red pen into the manuscript with vigor, using the tools I’d learned to, in my mind, clear the trail for the reader. The authors appreciated many of the edits, but they also raised questions in places where my own learned behaviors as a cis, straight, white male caused my pen to overstep its bounds in the name of “clarity” and rob some sentences of their hard-earned identities as bold, black, queer roars.

This was uncomfortable, but it was what I needed to do. For the book’s sake, yes, but also for my sake, for, as the book shows so clearly, it is only when we engage compassionately in a bold interrogation of our usual practices that we are able to grow and evolve. The “safe space” that so many people of privilege want to maintain is so not safe for the majority of the world’s people. To not get uncomfortable would be to play my part in maintaining a hegemony that I purportedly work against.

Fortunately, for inspiration and hope I only had to look to Reverend angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine. As they chronicle so beautifully, their own paths toward freedom involved countless moments of deep discomfort, and yet there they stand, leading conversations about race, love, and liberation to packed rooms of multi-hued seekers, united in their willingness to get messy, to get radical, and to get liberated.

Radical Dharma is fiercely demanding, but it is also fiercely compassionate. Yes, the book exposes the ways people are othered and humiliated, and how all of us, unwittingly or wittingly, play a part in that. But the book also extends open arms to our ghosts and invites us to find new ways of intersecting and being. It’s a book for the soul. As Reverend angel puts it, “Every time I tried to stay within the lines, they ran over me, so I chose the borderlands and left divisions behind.” Radical Dharma offers a borderland that must become our new commons.

Touching Radical Dharma is a life-changing experience, not because of what it says, but because of what it invites, galvanizes, and metabolizes in those who are willing to sit with its complex truths. I’m forever grateful for its fire.

Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

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.

Spying

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.”

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.

Throwing Faith

The morning started off as I like it: alarm firm but not rattling; opening my eye to slumbering sweetie and son; sliding my feet off the side of the bed and taking a moment to sit; then up for fifteen minutes with my homespun latte and the paper fetched from the dewy grass before Annie and Rio get up to join me.

I cherish my routines, partially because I feel lost without them. When left to walking without tracks I often land upside down in the air. I need ritual’s ruler to set my hash marks for the day.

Then: busy, rushed-before-school madness, Annie and Rio leave, and I again enter a few moments of silent, untethered bliss. The long shower, almost too hot, then another moment on the couch before I leave, just a few seconds really where I notice my breath and feel a tiny splash of nothing before the thoughts rush in.

But then my faithful Honda Accord, two decades old — the one of 200,000 miles and minimal repairs, the one that still looks good after all these years — decides to throw her automatic transmission. I know it the instant I hear the grating sound when I put her in reverse. I manage to get to work without backing up, but I know this problem isn’t going away.

When I get to the office, the day starts as usual, but then my colleague Holly comes back from an errand toting a little black puppy she’s saved from the middle of a busy street. Everyone is oohing and aahing, and I think, This damn thing looks so familiar. I keep noticing how serene and self-possessed she seems for a five-month-old canine, those intelligent eyes and that curious scamper. And I recall how just three weeks before, Annie had asked me, as we discussed our extroverted and only child, “Should we get a dog?” This came on the heels of Rio telling us, as we took care of our friend’s dogs for a weekend, that he wished they were his.

But I push this all to the back of my mind, certain that I don’t really want the kind of change that having a dog would demand; besides, this dog is so damn cute and well taken care of that someone will surely answer the many “found dog” messages Holly has put out around town. Just for kicks, though, when Holly sends out an email later to the whole staff with some pictures of the little lab/border collie pooch, I forward them to Annie. In minutes she writes back and says she’s “ready for a dog.” Oh my.

I tell Holly of our (mild) interest and head home, making sure to avoid any situations where I’ll have to back up. I stop by my mechanic and ask him to take a listen. He winces. He checks the transmission fluid and declares, “You’re pretty screwed.” Seems a fix here is going to run me the cost of the car. For a moment I entertain a daydream: I have driven secondhand family cars for so long that when I sit as a passenger in anyone’s new car I feel like I’m beholding the dashboard of some kind of spaceship. Isn’t it about time I bumped it up and got a little fancy? I deserve it! But then I remember annoying facts like cost and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get to work this week. But then my mechanic says, “Well, as luck would have it, one of my customers whose ’94 Civic she just spent a good chunk of change on wants me to sell her car. She suddenly decided to walk onto a new car lot and drive away in one. So this car has got to move.”

I take a look: nice black colt, small and solid. Price she’s asking is below blue book.

So let me get this straight: a few weeks after my son and wife explicitly state their wishes for a dog, one appears near the tire of my colleague who just happens to be driving down that certain street on that certain Thursday morning. Said dog woos the entire office but no one is able to possibly take her except us. On the same day my car decides to die but another car that looks in a strange way like said dog appears beside my mechanic’s waving hand.

Is this what Rob Brezny had in mind in last week’s horoscope when he told us Aries to “be alert for a new most beautiful thing”?

I wish my acceptance of the unexpected came more easily, but my brain is adept at boiling questions down to tidy lists of pros and cons. With the car, I couldn’t find a good rational argument to say no. But the reasons to not take the dog were legion: 1) Who wants another being to tend to when we already have a six-year-old? 2) Who would take care of the dog when we went out of town? 3) Did we really want to be weighed down with another, possibly 15-year-long, responsibility? 4) All those damn books and videos and training classes!

The reasons to take the dog? There was really only one: love. My mind’s list chortled at my heart’s measly offering.

But then a funny thing happened. First, we found a way to experiment with the warring sides of brain and heart: we agreed to take the dog just for the weekend, no obligation. A test drive. We told Rio we were merely looking after Holly’s new puppy, which, um, didn’t yet have a name. (Poor guy didn’t have a clue.)

At first, Rio was intrigued but dispassionate. He probably figured it wasn’t worth it getting attached to an animal we’d only have for two days. And what I found for myself was a wild weekend of swinging moods. When I played and cuddled with the tender fur ball I swooned with the idea of her being “ours.” But when her little razor teeth pierced my skin and Annie and I started looking at our backyard and talking about fences and leashes and doggie doors and our neighbor’s ten outdoor cats, my neck muscles began to stiffen and I felt my blood run hot beneath my skin. I’m already a below-average multitasker with my hands full raising Rio, loving Annie, tending to my creative and spiritual life, working, and helping take care of the house. Who had room for a dog?

Annie seemed to fair no better, so by the end of the weekend we opted to let Rio in on our quandary. We explained what we were facing, and we truthfully weren’t sure what he’d say about this puppy whose boundless energy had intimidated him and whom he’d had no part in choosing. But his face lit up as the possible reality dawned on him: “Oh my gosh! If we could keep this dog I’d be the happiest kid in the world!” When we asked him why, he confided almost in a whisper, “She might make me feel better when I’m feeling sad or lonely.”

That was it. For all the logic of my rational mind’s lists, it paled when standing next to what my heart was increasingly certain was a more durable truth: that this animal would be a benefit to our family, another live body in our already rich experiment in love.

What is the anatomy of a decision? Sometimes it is merely determining quantifiable variables, almost like a mathematical equation, and seeing what they equal. But on other occasions, there is an incalculable x factor whose value appears almost like a dancing figure in the mist. When I choose to surrender to this mysterious invitation — when I throw my faith toward the vague notion that there is a method to the universe’s madness — then I often get to hold its juiciest parts.

As the weekend drew to a close, I remembered that in one of my journals from a year ago, I had drawn with Rio a series of domestic scenes: him and me, Annie and him, the three of us together. And in one, I had sketched a caricature of me in a field with the word “Rio” playfully scrawled in the sky above. Looking up at me from a spot next to my boot was a dog that looked just like Stella.

Rescues

Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.

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.