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.

The Adventure of Misadventures

Me and the kid. Photo by Anna.

Leave it to me to romanticize any undertaking, even if it’s a just a drive to Charlotte with Rio.

I had long wanted to watch a professional basketball game in North Carolina, and I noticed that my beloved (but terrible) Sacramento Kings were coming to Charlotte to play that city’s team, the Bobcats.  People I know are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m a sports fan, but I see no contradiction between reading poetry and reading box scores. I grew up in a sports-centric household. My father loved baseball and would tell me stories from that sport’s long history: how Ty Cobb used to slide with his metal spikes flying; how Nap Lajoie was a great hitter even though he batted with his hands in reverse position on the stick. My father was an ardent fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and one of my fondest memories of childhood was going to Los Angeles Dodgers/Pittsburgh Pirates games. My father taught me how to keep score in the game’s printed program, and he and I would always bet $5 on the game; if the Dodgers won I was elated; if the Pirates won I usually cried.

My father was a very busy man, often working late or traveling on business. But for many years he coached my Little League baseball team. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses to me of each hitter as I wondered where he would put me. My father was a great coach — thorough, committed, smart — and we were champions almost every year he served that role. When my parents got divorced and we moved across town from each other, I kept playing baseball but he could never make it to any of my games. Years later Papa told me that his boss had always rolled his eyes when my father would leave early to go to coach; in that corporate environment, choosing family commitments over work was frowned upon. To this day, I am grateful to my father for his sacrifice. I’m also thankful to baseball  — a remote man came whisker-close when a ball was in play.

All that said, I deplore that sports is such a big, commercial business: here in North Carolina, to find a new basketball coach for one of the local colleges, last year that institution conducted a nationwide search and created a review panel to hire a coach that ended up getting paid a six-figure salary — so many financial and mental resources are put into sports. But I am shamelessly a fan of the heart of it: athletes working for years on their game, physical prowess being honed and tested, the fact that anything came happen in the spontaneity of live action. Last-minute victories and unlikely heroes are not public-relations stunts.

And so I bought two tickets for the game, envisioning a night of father-son bonding and adventure. I even booked us a hotel for the night, since we’d be driving two hours to get there. Rio was excited, but early on, he began chipping at my fantasy. For one, he insisted on rooting for the Bobcats, even though he literally has no connection to Charlotte. I explained that I had lived in Sacramento for five years, that he might consider engaging in something I explained as “solidarity.”  When that failed, I tried to bribe him with promises of a Kings cap, but still he wouldn’t budge. At one point before we left, I told him I was disappointed he wouldn’t be cheering alongside me. Annie looked on with humored interest. Rio replied, “That’s not fair for you to be disappointed in me for that. It’s my heart, and I can do what I want with it.”

Attaboy, right?

The evening went exactly as I hadn’t planned. Rather than getting there two hours early to check in and eat at the mom-and-pop pizza parlor I’d picked out, we hit stop-and-go traffic. We arrived at the hotel with ten minutes to spare to find a drab high-rise with a mediocre room with a stunning view of the freeway.

Inside, the game was a yawn:  The arena was only half full. About halfway through, Rio, still cheering for the Bobcats, said, “Instead of watching this game and sleeping at the hotel, I want to drive home right now and be with my mama.”

Ah, the lure of the maternal breast.

But we stuck to our (my) plan, and we watched the lackluster game and headed back to the hotel where I watched bad cable TV after Rio fell asleep. I derived a strange satisfaction from watching no show for more than five minutes, the click of the remote like some twisted lever of pleasure.

The next morning, we talked up the big plate of pancakes we’d get at the cafe, but the one I’d chosen ended up being closed for renovation. We settled on bagels and drove out to a park where a tow truck blocked the entrance for 20 minutes. I sat there astounded by the lack of fortune. But we finally made it to a green field which is all we really need and Rio and I jumped around and found that wide open space when past and future fall away and just the smudge of wet grass on the knee is enough. When sweat well-earned marks a path well-chosen. Wasn’t it in Deliverance that Burt Reynolds’ character said, “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to find your way”?

Holy those moments when linear lines get erased and quandary steps up and says Bounce the ball and don’t worry about where.

Was Gone for Days

I just didn’t have it in me. The living of life with the eyes open to the details, the sublime in the ordinary. Nope, for the last week I’ve only wanted to run away. Since writing is a lens through which I develop my own consciousness, then I wanted to be nowhere near the act. Anything I started to tap out felt fake, anyway, because my heart wasn’t in it; I had, as Ginsberg has put it, no shoulder behind the wheel.

My heart in fact was into not being present. I was trying to embrace my own nihilism, to accept my unwillingness to see the bridges. My friend Dre says that “balance is available to you at any moment,” and I believe this, but yesterday I did not want to lift the heavy veil between me and the good spot. It’s not that I’ve been teetering on imbalance’s beam; it’s more a feeling of numbness, nullness, a mute cloud.

But then my boy, who was home sick kinda from school, told his Mama that he wanted to stop by my office so that he could give me a hug and a kiss, which he did on a gravel parking lot and I swear those lips on my cheeks bathed me in hued light; “love works” I told him later, because he unlatched his chest and walked through its swinging doors until he reached mine — which were locked — but his words and touch were the key, and now here I am feeling this diamond inside, cracking open as I feel that kiss again.

This Peculiar Stranger

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

A decade ago psychologist James Hillman theorized that children come into this world with much more agency than we tend to admit. Parents undoubtedly have influence, but Hillman argues that too many mothers and fathers embrace the “parental fallacy” that they can and should determine the life paths of their offspring. He encourages parents to abandon this false sense of control and to welcome instead “this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst.” Khalil Gibran spoke to this centuries earlier when he wrote that children “come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you.”

These are welcome words to me. I feel immense pressure to father well, in part because my own father left our home when I was nine. This works fine when Rio is being himself in a way that is conducive to what we want. But when his exuberance runs counter to society’s norms or even my own plans for the day, I can become deeply demoralized, partially because I subconsciously translate this as a failure on my part. Hillman reminds me that my role as Rio’s father is critical but also limited, and that to expect that I can mold him into doing just what we (the family; the neighborhood; the school; society) want is tantamount to fighting an immense force of nature.

The challenge, then, is to guide Rio into well-roundedness without snipping off his characteristic edges, and to not lose my sanity in the process. On a bad day, I hover too close, micromanaging Rio in the name of steering him in good directions — it’s like I’m wearing a special pair of glasses that magnifies every little bit of Rio I want to change. On better days, I take a more sanguine view of the situation, giving Rio the room to be himself and intervening only if he commits a serious infraction. In these moments, I’m able to relieve myself of the self-imposed “master parent” role and see Rio the same way I might view a friend’s child — delighting in the big picture of him in spite of the messy details.

In Hillman’s mind at least, a laissez-faire approach is advisable, not only for parents’ serenity but also for practical reasons: he believes all the prostrations and interventions may actually end up doing little to change the route of the ship. It’s not that he’s encouraging people to give up conscious parenting, but he is inviting us to surrender the narcissistic notion that we can make our children what we want them to be through some perfect concoction of coercion, incentive, and sweet talk. “Instead of saying, ‘This is my child,'” Hillman writes, “parents must ask, ‘Who is this child who happens to be mine?'”

I saw this in action the other day when Annie, Rio, and I were in Jackson Square in New Orleans. Rio had been a bundle of contrariness all day, his active nature exploding in all the wrong directions. Then he started chasing pigeons. Normally this doesn’t bother me much, but there were so many pigeons that their fluttering made a street vendor look over with what I perceived as irritation. I told Rio to stop; he kept doing it. Just as I got ready to trot out the hard line, his focus suddenly shifted to the very vendor I had noticed before. He walked over to her and asked, “What are you doing?” She explained that she was a fortune teller. He was fascinated, asking her about her tarot cards and the rocks and crystals scattered across her table. She told him he could pick out one of the rocks to keep. Rio proceeded to examine each rock closely, holding it up to the sun and inspecting the light it refracted onto his palm. “I want to pick the one with just the right color,” he told me.

The psychic looked at me and asked, “What are you doing about his talents? Because I see a singer, or a performer of some kind. He will challenge you, but you’ve got to give him room for his gusto.”

As Rio carefully appraised each rock, I thought about what she said. Talent. Gusto. Challenge. Room. So much is out of my purview. Rio finally decided on a mauve stone, and we thanked the woman. Within minutes he was spinning and tossing it on the cobblestone street in some elaborate game he had concocted. Seconds later, he threw the rock a little too hard, and it broke. I didn’t say much, believing the vagaries of his particular zeal will be more his struggle than mine.