Chasing Windows

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

Sometimes I just want to see the world like I did that once.

“That once” wasn’t just one specific time. It’s all the times I’ve seen, really seen, the splendor of life right in front of me. I remember last winter: I had just lit a fire in the wood stove, and it was casting its amber glow. Rio was drawing, Annie was reading, and I was watching them. It occurred to me that I was witnessing clearly what I actually have in my life: a home, a family, health, love. There was no questing for more, no castigations of why not, no clouds of regret or self-doubt. No, I was watching a beautiful scene in a film unfold, and it was from my own life.

Ah, but how quickly it fades. Even though I have enjoyed almost 365 days since then with Annie and Rio in this very house, the number of times I’ve caught this same glimpse and really felt it in my bones seems paltry. I often think my own experiments with bending reality — I have a few tired tricks I use — are simply attempts to get me back to this blessed view.

Recently I was driving around a college town, worry on my mind. I was waiting for a light to change and saw two students smiling and laughing as they stood on the street corner. I recalled my own days in college towns, how much easier the world seemed to me then. I was more insecure, sure, but I had less weight on my back; there were days I could just fritter and float. As I drove off, I had the urge to return to those streets; to take the place of these young men and have a view of the world that was perhaps more naive but bright.

The most pristine vistas are the childhood ones, the ones I’m still trying to climb back into. The poet Coleman Barks describes “those two minutes at the end of the day when a golden light would fall across the floor. . . . I would lie down in it and hug myself. One time when I was doing that, I told my mother, ‘Mama, I’ve got that full feeling again.'” For me, such moments came when my grandfather and grandmother would drive my sister and me “down the lake” to the tiny fishing cottage they’d built there; as soon as we hit the gravel road I’d lean forward in my seat to get a glimpse of the water through the trees. When the lake finally appeared in slivers between birches I’d feel a joy I’m not sure I’ve ever relived, even though I still return to that lake every summer and relish it with as much gusto as I can muster.

One of the pleasures of having a child in one’s life is getting to re-experience some of this wonder. When we visit the same fishing cottage these days, I watch Rio’s face closely in the rear-view mirror to witness it register some of the same anticipation I felt as a boy. But it’s not his job to serve as a hope chest for my mislaid dreams. And I can’t be a kid again, just like I can’t return to that college town. But Rio gets me close; and there is some simple pleasure in nostalgia, that bittersweet proximity to experience that memory grants us.

Perhaps the best I can do is to be patient with the pace of beauty; to not fret that the spot at the window may only come to me now and again. And to not curse the ephemeral nature of joy but rather to say thank you for even experiencing it. Otherwise I’m relegated to a life hunting shadows.

The other night I took Stella for a walk down to the bridge after Rio and Annie went to sleep. The evening was unseasonably warm, and a faint orange marked the billowy clouds blanketing the sky overhead. The river was rushing high due to recent rain, and I could see the lights of our little town through the trees. Stella was off leash and smelling this and that, and suddenly I felt a swell of satisfaction, of just knowing that I love and am loved, that these wayward ingredients somehow make a feast. I called out to Stella and she came running, and I hugged that darn canine and inhaled her musky scent and felt a warm quiet rush of the unadorned goodness that life sometimes slips in my pocket.

Cosmology

I was raised fairly agnostic in Los Angeles, but I remember going with my grandparents to Catholic Mass every Sunday when my sister and I would spend the summer with them in Connecticut. I was perplexed by the “Lamb of God” imagery, and I tired from shifting from sitting to standing to kneeling so many times.  But I also remember the way my grandfather, normally taciturn and reserved, would gruffly sing along with all the hymns. I liked dropping coins in the basket as it was passed down the row but was jealous of the people who stood in line for Eucharist because I was usually hungry. My favorite part of the ceremony was when we turned to our neighbors, stuck out our hands and said, “May peace be with you.”

I started talking to God after this — nothing major, not with much faith or vigor, but once in a while I’d shout when I needed something. But then there came the day when I asked and he didn’t show up. I was nine, and my parents were getting divorced. My father had moved out, our house was on the market, and we were living in limbo. I was feeling lonely, dispirited, and I wanted my friend Greg to come over. I called him but got a busy signal. For some reason playing with Greg seemed like the most important thing in the universe. God, please let Greg’s phone ring and let him answer and please let his parents say yes! I called: busy. I repeated this three more times and then said to God: If you don’t make him get off the phone this time, I’ll never speak with you again!

The subsequent busy signal sealed the deal.

I spent the next two decades proudly godless, relying on my own will power and abilities to make things happen. I looked down on people who hadn’t figured out the folly of giving up so much power to some holy force. But then I started to notice phenomena like deja vu and coincidences and thinking about someone just seconds before they walked into a room. When my friend Vince and I backpacked through southern Africa, we began seeing conspiracies of confluences sprouting up everywhere, from the backs of Malawian buses to the sides of Zimbabwe highways to the porches of Tanzanian youth hostels. Vince and I started calling such moments of connectivity “HP,” for higher power. (Later I discovered this term was common shorthand for God in twelve-step meetings, but at the time Vince and I thought we’d invented it.)

As I got older, I saw that my own self-will was not as potent and steadfast as I had come to believe. When it would falter, or come up against forces greater than it, I realized I could either drown alone or throw my hand up for help. I began to understand that “higher power” wasn’t a stingy overlord nor a haphazard genie who sprinkled good fortune. Rather, it was an animate force I could engage, one that resided much closer to my own imperfect heart than I’d realized previously. I began asking for aid and assistance more readily, and thus stumbled into prayer — the act of saying “I cannot do it alone” invited the holy in.

So when Rio asked me last night, unannounced, over casserole, “What is God?” I knew I had quite a task cut out for me.

“God is . . . love,” I replied. “You know how you felt when you were sick last week and you kept nuzzling into that warm spot under Mama’s arms? I’d call that God. And remember how we told you that when your grandfathers died their spirit lived on in the flowers and the rivers and the trees? Well, that’s God too.”

“And what about Jesus Christ?”

Jesus.

“What about him?”

“Well I know what happened to him!” Rio responded, jumping off his chair to act out the scene. “These guys didn’t like him so they made this cross and they used a hammer and nails and they stuck those through his wrists and ankles and he bled and died.” He squinched his face a little. “Why did they do that to him?”

“He was brave and he fought for justice, and he believed in helping people, and not being greedy,” I explained. “Some people didn’t like that. He was a great and important person. And so were others like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Bob Marley and Harriet Tubman. Some people think Jesus sticks out over all the rest, but I don’t think so. They say he is the son of God. I don’t think he was the son of God — I think we all are. I think we all have God in us.”

“So God’s inside you?

“Yup.”

“And me? Is God inside me?”

“Yes, my love. Yes.”

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 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.