My father passed away this week. He was sick. I’m really sad about it.
These essays began in December with a lofty description of how I feel about it. Dementia seemed like such a surreal condition. His world was impenetrable. His last, thankfully brief, slide into decline was unexpectedly abrupt. In the end, his disease, whatever variety of dementia-causing brain disorder it might have been, turned out to be a wasting disease.
His last days mirrored his father’s last days: Propped up with a pillow behind his head. A steady stream of morphine keeping him comfortable. His body, a hollow shell of soft, translucent skin covering only bones. Care-takers using a little sponge on a stick to moisten lips he could no longer direct to close around decades-old teeth.
David and I both took our children to see Dad in the days and even hours before he passed. I think the kiddos were very affected, though as bona fide members of the teen/tween class they were characteristically quiet as to if the experience was moving or not. Seeing Dad in that state sure affected me. Much more than I was expecting.
We got the call early on a Tuesday morning. Mom went to pick David up and I met them at the nursing home. I was twenty or so minutes ahead of them. So I sat alone with his body, so clearly bereft of the soul of the man he was. Off-white polyester hospice-provided sheets surrounded his slim form. Someone from the nursing home had placed his hands folded over his chest before I arrived. I don’t know what heaven looks like, but as I sat there, next to him, I imagined his own Elysian fields.
More specifically, I imagined Elysian summer lake days. I imagined perfectly smooth water, little white clouds floating in a sun-soaked sky. I can hear his loud and strong voice yell, “Hit it!” Then his confident lurch, step-starting on one ski out into blue beyond blue waters. His father at the wheel. Though her journey to these Elysian plains will be decades hence, in the boat he can see looking back at him the bikini-clad visage of my mom, youthful and smiling.
I can’t stop crying when I think of his beautiful soul water skiing into eternity. I can’t.
I am surprised by this. We all knew what was coming. We could see it happening. There wasn’t a mystery – plenty of preamble. Yet, the difference between him being in the world, and him not being in the world is profound and remarkably stark. The feeling part of me can’t register that he’s gone.
My earliest memory of my father is him sitting at the edge of my bed, playing guitar and singing to me. I think he did this for David, too. He sang Puff the Magic Dragon, and Little Boxes, and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. The last weeks before he moved to the nursing home, Mom couldn’t get him to bed, so I would come over and settle him in. We got his blankets sorted out, until he could finally relax his body. Then my mom would go to bed and by the dim yellow light of the bedside table I would read to him until he fell asleep. We read tall tales – Paul Bunyun, John Henry. We read poems by Emily Dickenson. Sometimes he didn’t want to be read to and we’d just be there together, circling through time together, the loop closed when I read and tell stories to my children at bedtime.
I would stay, after the light was turned out, until I was sure he was asleep, just as I did for each of my children once upon a time. In the dark I would try and divine his dreams – a convoluted miasma of images and portends: crouched over a yellow dappled green leaf of a grape vine. The smell of soil and moisture, everywhere. Paperwork, which dominated his life, threatening the peace of his slumber.
And silence. I would sit in the dark next to the fading light of my father and wish for him that the maze of dementia would just be silent for a few hours as he slept. Just a few hours of peace. Now, as much as I wish he could be in the world, I hope beyond hope that he’s there, on the water, tow-rope handle in one hand, floating as if flying – the confines of his frail body left behind. At peace, at last.
It’s rare to be given a book, these days. My world is populated by Library books that are sometimes so overdue that the Library sends me ominous missives from collections agencies and then I have to pay for replacing those books at the Library the next time I’m there. My personal expense spreadsheet has a stand-alone category for Library book fees. Some people feel compelled to get right with God. I routinely find myself compelled to do my very best to get right with the Library. I’m not proud.
But to be given a book is a precious thing, a true gift. Recently, my dear, dear cousin gave me a book. I don’t know what strand of connection between us compelled her to do this, but it is one of the most precious gifts I’ve received in a very long time.
Here’s a snippet from the first chapter:
“Because everyone loves someone, and anyone who loves someone has had those desperate nights where we lie awake trying to figure out how we can afford to carry on being human beings.”
It’s one of those books that reaches in and grabs you by the shirt-collar and says, ‘Hey! I see you. And I know you. And I know it’s fucking hard. And you’re OK, even if your shit sucks, even if you inhabit emotional fall-out shelters that protect you and hide you away at the same time. You’re a person and that’s a goddamn amazing thing to be.’
I have many things to be grateful for, I know I do. I wake up every morning free of pain, having slept more or less the whole night. I have strange, but not unpleasant dreams. I live in a place that, while it suffers from gross ideology sometimes, isn’t wracked by war or scarcity. I have good work, with good people. I have a wonderful cat, marvelous friends, a beautiful house, a lovely family, and most especially, I have incredible children. I am lucky. I know I am lucky.
But this book acknowledges the also true thing – that being a person is hard.
There’s no way around it, loving other people is hard. In this chapter of my life there are twin poles of lost love swirling and swirling and swirling. These two people cover most of my life. In fact, the last two years without them are the first time in my life that at least one of them isn’t present. They are my father, and the mother of my children.
My father is still with us, but has entered the last waiting of hospice. The mother of my children is so remarkably estranged from me that she will not sit two seats away from me at a school meeting for one of the kids.
I remember summer nights when it stayed light enough to play outside with my dad after dinner. He’d throw grounders or pop flies in the side yard. The sideways light played havoc with those grounders. I got hit in the nose and knocked out by one at shortstop in a game when I was very little – Pee-Wee minors. So I was always a little scared of the grounders. I remember the sweaty, leathery feel of the old glove that was handed down to me. I remember throwing the ball back to him as hard as I could, knowing it never phased him. He would have been about my current age. I wonder if the seeds of the disease he’s dying from now were present, even then.
I remember the yellow streetlight of languorous evenings, drunk from multiple pitchers of Michelob, riding bicycles side by side home from the bars. The air, softened by evening, but still heavy with mid-western humidity flowing around and through us like we were made of the same stuff as the wind and the night.
The loss is an ocean. It is dark and long and deathly quiet.
These two wounds circle in a tight orbit around my heart. One is piercing, white hot with blue and green aches woven throughout. It is a pain drenched in buckets of sadness, wrapped in the sweetness of nostalgia: pure, tellable, and re-tellable memories of A&W root beer and step-start waterskiing. The other is hard red and the deep black of empty space. It is an inexplicable loss that only invites one internal recapitulation after another without hope of resolution or even peace. Shame hangs like coal dust suspended around all the sides of it. One is spoken of often with loud voices of sympathy and condolences. The other is spoken of never.
I have so many regrets around both. I regret not spending more time getting to know the man my dad was. By the time I really got around to it, he was already struggling just to stay present. We’d ride together to the green boxes with both my trash and his and I would wonder why we couldn’t have deeper, more vulnerable conversation. We could talk about classic rock. We could talk about road repair or the vigorousness of windbreak hedges. Now I know he was just trying to stay in the present moment, just trying not to let the gaps overtake him.
I regret not being able to stop the long slow descent from joy to estrangement with my ex-wife. I regret the ways I am broken that hurt her. I regret not advocating for myself better when the ways she is broken hurt me.
Love and grief are mirrors of each other. A dear friend says, of his parents, that grief for their loss, present every day, though now many years passed, is a tribute to their memory and the importance of their role in his life. I find this immensely beautiful. I loved my dad. I loved my ex-wife, too. Those loves played important roles in my life. Losing them hurts. I know I should honor that somehow, but I’m a fucking person, and it’s hard to be a person.
And so, beginning with chapter one, the pages get all wrinkly. The thin, clay-heavy, paperback paper of the beautiful book my beautiful cousin gave me isn’t up to absorbing even one tear, and there are many, many tears. ‘It’s OK,’ the book says.
“It’s idiotically difficult, being a human. Our hearts are bars of soap that we keep losing hold of; the moment we relax, they drift off and fall in love and get broken, all in the wink of an eye.”
When I sat down to write this essay I tried very hard to describe what it feels like to have a ten-year-old Lodgepole pine covered with melted snow slap you in the face with one of its branches. It’s like, well, it’s hard to describe. It’s wet, for sure. And cold. And by the way, you’re standing in a snow pile up to your thigh and there’s a half inch of melt water that has been in each of your boots for long enough that it’s getting warm. The slaps are also a little spiky. It doesn’t hurt, but you notice the spikiness. Are there two ‘i’s’ in ‘spikiness’? I’m not getting a red spell-check line, so it must be right. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s a little spiky, and it only happens because you’re walking through a part of the forest that burned a decade ago, and the new Lodgepoles are just so dense that in order to get through the landscape, you have to push one branch after another aside as you post-hole hike over and around ankle-breaking downed trees that are, yes, hidden under the snow. There are so many branches to push aside that inevitably some of them flip back and slap you in the face.
It’s a good time for reflection.
See, the morning started easy. We set out from the car along an improbably long and well-maintained logging road. We were basically already at the top of the ridge. The road was clear, hiking was level and easy, feet and gloves and, well all of us, were dry. How did we end up in this demented Three Stooges of the Wilderness episode trading blows with trees?
Upon reflection we decided that we’d gotten there by virtue of a kind of path that happens sometimes in life. We made one decision after another based on good information with the best of intentions. Each decision was the right call. Yet each decision slid us farther and farther away from that easy, level, dry road. There was a little snow, then we were post-holing to our calves occasionally, then we were up to our crotches from time to time, then we were in slush-drenched Lodgepole pine-saturated bush-whacking hell. It just kind of happened.
We’re all familiar with this kind of slide into disaster, or fiasco. There’s a great episode of This American Life about it. What made this hike such a clear example was that at each decision point, our decision wasn’t a branch in the road. There weren’t forks. There was only one decision that we kept making – forward? Or back the way we came. There wasn’t the possibility of doing this or that or this other thing. It was: Do the possible benefits of going forward outweigh the certainty of going back the way we came? The farther we went, the longer it would be to back-track. The sunk costs built to a point of no return.
Many things are like this. Does the possibility of the movie getting better outweigh the possibility that whatever might be going on in life otherwise is better? On that note, Mom, if you take your five-year-old to the Muppet movie Labyrinth in the theater, you might expect to spend some time in the lobby with a scared toddler. (Ok, I just looked that up, Labyrinth came out in 1986, which means I was eight . . . a very tender and sensitive eight apparently . . .)
Books, movies, concerts, rides at the Fair, weddings, any event with small children or the very elderly, road trips, college courses, nineteenth century Arctic expeditions, political rallies, relationships, open-water swims, jobs, cooking adventures, and on and on – we face this decision routinely. I don’t know about the world at large, but I can say that more often than not, I choose to continue. Setting a movie or a book aside unfinished is, to me, like a superhero move. Forward!
The consequences are often, well, consequential. Last summer I took my beautiful, innocent, and it turns out, extremely resilient children on a road trip to the Puget Sound to visit some relatives for their annual clamming event. That was the week my oldest was finishing up a mission trip to Portland. Ah, I thought, I’ll make this work. I drove my other two kids down to the Columbia River Gorge where we spent the night in the grossest hotel in Oregon. It was last June. Remember the June where temperatures were in the triple digits all along the West Coast? That June.
No problem. We cross the desert of eastern Washington. We pick up Bayliss, then we cross the desert of eastern Washington again to visit relatives. My car doesn’t have air conditioning. When we get to Seattle, it’s clear that every human with a car is trying to escape the city. After hours in the desert, hours in traffic, we make it to Anacortes island where a very good time is had by all. Unfortunately I realize that I’ve left my very expensive, very hard to replace fancy anti-snoring retainer in the hotel along the Columbia River.
I call the hotel. Improbably, the cleaning staff has found it and they’ve got it. Send us a stamped, addressed envelope and we’ll mail it to you, they say. Sure thing. No problem. Monday morning, we’ll do that. We’re scheduled to spend that Monday in Seattle, but it’s 110° and everything is shut down. We decide to bolt for home. Making great time, the first open post office we come to is in Ellensburg. It’s 9 am and only 85 degrees out. The post office doesn’t have a great option, and it is in the Dollar store as I’m looking at bubble mailers that the idea comes to me. We could just detour there, and pick it up in person. A quick Google search says this will add only six hours to our trip.
I try to explain it to the kids. It’s six hours versus, like, a grand for the retainer. Even with the best of intentions, there’s no way the hotel will successfully mail it back to me. This is a now or never situation. Ellensburg happens to be right at the junction where we could head south and make the pick-up. I buy spray bottles. There will be soda at every stop, I say. We have the seventh Harry Potter book on tape to listen to.
I probably should have turned back and just gone home. I probably should have. But I didn’t. We drove back to The Dalles, and then back to Kalispell. It turned out to be waaay longer than six extra hours. Those electronic signs outside banks recorded that it was 115° from 10 AM until 8PM that night. We left Anacortes at 6 AM and got to the Flathead at 12:30 at night. I was pulled over for speeding around Paradise and the officer didn’t even look at my registration before he let me off with a pity warning. Needless to say, this is one of those road trips that will be emblazoned in my children’s memories for ever and ever.
And, selfishly, I’m kind of glad. I remember long, brutal car trips across the southwest where we hung T-shirts in the windows to try to stay cool, and I kind of feel like it’s a gift to my children to occasionally endure such things. (In case you’re wondering, the seventh Harry Potter book takes longer to finish listening to on tape than it takes to cross the desert of eastern Washington three times.)
Which is exactly how I felt when we finally got through the bushwhacking portion of our little morning outdoor adventure in the trees. The landscape on that side of the ridge was gorgeous. Our feet turn out to be waterproof. There was a danger of twisting or breaking an ankle, but none were. Optimism is so hard to muster in these times and pushing forward is a kind of optimism. It’s not always the right call (re: Labyrinth), but if the payoff is a beautiful memory, and as long as it’s not a 19th century mission to find the Northwest Passage, I’ll probably keep choosing to push on.
The thing I fear most, is, of course, losing my beautiful children. May they live long and beautiful lives. But I will lose them. My most profound hope is that my children grow up and away – that they grow adventurous and curious about the world around them, and then step out into it. It is a dark world they’ll venture into. It is also a world filled with kind hearts and warm light.
I am like Oliver. I hate change. My natural impulse is to seek the comfort of familiar things around me. Oliver has a coat that is so heinously disgustingly stained and frayed and holey that I don’t let him wear it to school. Anyone who knew me when I was a sophomore in high school would be able to report that I have absolutely no business telling any of my children what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear to school. But this coat. For real. It’s super gross. Filthy.
Still, he loves it. He loves it so much. It’s like a warm blanket of comfort that wraps him in a familiar hug when he puts it on. I would never throw that out, but still, I make him not wear it to school. I do this mostly for the same reason I would not let him go to school with snot running down his face. It’s just gross. But a part of me does it also because I want him to learn how to move away from comfort. I want him to learn how to change gears and pivot to something else. I don’t know if I can teach him the value of setting comfort aside, but I can require him to wear a different coat to school. It took a few days, but he gravitated to a different coat, one which is much cleaner, but also one that brings him comfort. Not the same comfort, but a kind of tolerable comfort.
When my parents lost me, I allowed the part of me that fights comfort to win over. It was a battle then, and in some ways, it has been since leaving home to become an exchange student when I was 17. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was it for my childhood. There wasn’t a home to go home to, life didn’t pick up where it left off as I had been expecting. My parents rented their house out and left for a year abroad a few weeks after I got back. A few months later I was in college. I had given up any extra time with the comfort zones of being a kid.
I have always done this. I have always battled my internal desire – the true character of the flame that is my heart – to grasp onto comfort. It’s not something I talk about very much, but it’s a very defining characteristic of what makes me, me. I’m not sure if everyone experiences this internal battle or not, but I think it’s a common enough human experience to set aside something safe for something that promises adventure, growth, greater reward. It’s why entrepreneurs take great financial leaps. It’s why writers publish writing. It’s why we travel and why we struggle to speak broken French in foreign places.
It’s why, when I was 17, on exchange in Indonesia, I found myself sitting alongside two fellow teenager exchange students from Germany and Belgium on the worlds smallest commercial flight over the jungle of Borneo. There were other passengers, I suppose, but the plane maxxed out at a dozen or so, tops. That plane ride was memorable. I distinctly remember leaving my stomach perched precariously in the sky behind us at various and sundry altitudes.
On the ground, we staggered into the little hanger, where we collected ourselves. There was a plan. Greg, the Belgian, was our de facto leader, as he was the oldest. Kjell, from Germany, was our junior teammate. I was somewhere in the middle. We found and reclaimed our equilibrium and were disembarking when an old man who had apparently been on the flight caught our attention and did the thing that is customary in Indonesia – he asked us where we were going. This translates the same as ‘how are you?’ in English. You can either answer truthfully, or just politely say, ‘we’re going places’ the way you might say, ‘I’m fine,’ in the US. I never once saw Greg do anything other than answer truthfully, and engage. This drove me crazy. His excessive friendliness with every Indonesian we met inflamed my anxieties about not knowing things like where we were going to sleep that night. But it was also endearing – even my 17 year old self could see that. He was a people person, and loved the innate friendliness of the vast majority of Indonsians.
Having just reconnected with my innards after the flight, I wasn’t in a place to protest. “Oh,” said the old man, “you’re going to Derawan islands.” Yes, we nod and smile. “Well,” he says, “I’m going there too. You should stay at my house.”
This might seem a little forward, but was also super common. Sure, we said, that sounds nice, knowing that this man was probably not going the same way as we were, that he, too, was just being polite. Eventually we made our way from the airport to the little river-side village. I don’t remember how we got there – probably a taxi. In any case, by the afternoon, I distinctly remember walking on the side of the road, my inner comfort-seeking meter going crazy because we still hadn’t figured out where to stay that night.
There was a plan. The plan was to get on a boat in the morning. This boat would take us a few hours down river to the coast of Borneo. East Kalimantan. From there, we would hire some local fishermen to take us out to the Derawan islands, at which point there would, no doubt, be some adventures. We had snorkeling gear.
But where to stay the night? Greg was upbeat, sure something would come along. I was sick with worry. Kjell was solid. I was a year or two younger than Greg, and Kjell was a year or two younger than me. Even so, that German didn’t seem perturbable. My desire for comfort and safety always lost, two to one.
Just then a jeep full of guys pull up. “Hey white dudes (my translation),” they say, “where are you going?” Remember, that just means hi. Unless you’re Greg. “We’re looking for a place to stay for the night,” he says, jovially. “No problem,” says the guy in English, then he switches back to Indonesian. “Come stay at my house.”
No, no, no. This is not right. Greg is accepting and Kjell is smiling. They’re loading into the jeep. I can either follow them or be left alone in a strange town in a strange village at the edge of the jungle in Borneo. I follow.
This is the same year a dozen international workers were taken hostage by separatists in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian side of Papua New Guinea. It was all over the news in Jakarta. The government didn’t miss a chance to point out how horrible the separatist rebels were. The hostages were held for months. Later, the Indonesian army would “rescue” them. Two were hacked to pieces by rebels, nine were rescued. The twelfth was the baby one of the Dutch women was seven months pregnant with. (Imagine spending your second trimester as a hostage in the jungles of Irian Jaya…) At the time of our trip, there was no resolution, they were still hostages. And while Borneo is definitely distinct from Irian Jaya, I was pretty sure we were about to become hostages. The guy took us to get some street food, then we went back to his cousin’s house. We sat around and made small talk.
Then the guy smiles and points to a wire running up the wall and outside. “Satellite,” he says. “I take it from my neighbor.” A little TV is flipped on and a little box is fussed over. On the TV a movie pops into focus. It’s Caddyshack. We’re in a stranger’s house, in a tiny village on the edge of the jungle in Borneo watching Bill Murray blow up a golf course on pirated satellite. This would not be the most surreal part of the journey.
Night falls. We’re shown to a room, that by US standards would be pretty rough, but by Indonesian standards isn’t that weird. There’s one big mattress on the floor, and it’s for all three of us. Again, this is perfectly normal. I once shared a mattress with five or six host cousins. You grab yourself a little piece of the mattress for your head and that’s about it. We did. We slept. When you sleep this way, you wake up stiff. There’s no way around it. But we woke up. We weren’t killed in the night. The guy welcomed us to the morning with a big smile, then drove us to the boat.
Marveling that we weren’t the latest CNN headline, I gratefully took a chair on the top deck of the boat that would take us down river. There weren’t many other travelers and my memory of this trip was that it was blissfully uneventful. Red water underneath. Jungle palms and greenery passed by lazily in the tropical sun.
Not long into our trip, a voice said, “hello. Where are you going?” It was the old man. Even though we had told him we were going to Derawan islands the day before, he asked again, and we told him again. “Ah, yes, yes,” he said. “Derawan,” he said. “I am going there too. You should stay at my house.”
As we were all on the boat headed to the coast, we were less able to dismiss the offer, but we still assumed this was politeness. “Yes, sure,” we said. “That’s nice. Thank you.” It was the kind of thing that happened. Indonesians were always making offers and saying yes when they really meant ‘no thank you.’ It was a part of the culture I never did fully get used to. But even I could tell it was a time for politeness, not making overnight arrangements.
The boat took us lazily to the coast. The weather changed. The ocean breeze felt amazing after the jungle heat. It was still hot, but the breeze lifted all our spirits. The old man helped us find a fisherman to take boats out to the main island of the Derawan group. We split the ride with him, two to a boat. He said, “I’m going there too, you should stay at my house.”
When we got to the island, the old man said again, “Here, follow me, you should stay at my house.” So we did. He didn’t really seem like a stranger at this point. He took us into the little fishing village on the island, and sure enough, he had a pretty nice house with an extra bedroom that we would end up spending the rest of our trip in. He was an incredible host, and was something of a head honcho in the village.
He was actually building an addition to his house that he planned to rent out to tourists. The other side of the island hosted a very high end resort, the kind of resort that you only get to find out about if you frequent restaurants that don’t have prices on the menus. The typical way tourists got to this island was to fly into a different coastal city and be transported on giant speed boats with multiple outboard engines.
As I said, the old man was an incredible host. He fed us and housed us with a warm and genuine smile. With giggles and laughter, his daughters and nieces woke us in the early morning to the sounds of karaoke – exclusively sad love ballads. He commandeered his son to take us around the islands in a little fishing boat. His son was a quiet and incredible tour guide. He didn’t speak a word of English, but seemed pleased and content with our meager Indonesian.
It was amazing. In every way possible. We swam with manta rays. We watched the sun go down over the unfamiliar ocean. We reeked of sunburn, salt and sand. Our lives were so very very far away. Nothing made sense for those couple of days. One night we slept under the stars on the hull of the boat parked at an island where the four inhabitants’ job was to collect turtle eggs.
When we pulled up to the island, we were surprised to see a cadre of guys walking around the beach past us carrying very large rifles. Most were shirtless and all were wearing camo fatigues. Our guide hopped off the boat and went ashore. He chatted with them for a minute or two before the lead guy in fatigues smiled and waved at us. We waved stupidly back.
Needless to say, the sight of this group passing by was alarming and when our guide got back to the boat we looked to him for answers. He looked out at the guys on the beach, who were headed around to the little hut where the turtle egg collectors lived. Then he looked back at us and said the only word of English we would hear him speak during our entire trip: “Pirates.”
He didn’t laugh about it. He wasn’t pulling our leg. He wasn’t being dramatic. He said it for informational purposes only. “What?!” was our united response. “Yes,” he said, “they are here to steal turtle eggs. They are in the army.” Okay, part-time army, part-time pirates. We watched them go up to the house. Then we watched them leave clutching large bags and continue around the island in the other direction.
I couldn’t take it. The part of me that screams for comfort, that begs for the familiar, the part of me that understands what Oliver feels when he sneaks his disgusting coat to school, that part of me took over. No more going with the flow. No more. No more. I got down off the boat and waded to the shore. My companions followed at first, but I stalked off around the beach the other direction. I wouldn’t be able to stay at this island if the pirates were camped out on the other side of the island. I had to figure out if they were leaving after they had gotten their booty. If they were staying, we were leaving. There would be no vote.
I didn’t think it through. I simply didn’t think. I just walked in the other direction. Walking leisurely, you could circumnavigate this island in five minutes. Two and half minutes later I found myself walking around a bend and right into the group of pirates. Nowhere to go. No sneaking around in the vegetation, just oops, right up to them. The lead pirate walks up to me, gun on shoulder. “Hi,” he says, “where are you from?” This is the same greeting I’ve met a thousand thousand times. It’s the second most common greeting in Indonesia. “Jakarta,” I say. “Oh,” he says, “you speak Indonesian?” “Yes,” I say, “a little.” His gun glints in the afternoon sunlight. It’s hard not to just stare at it. The fellow doesn’t seem to notice. He’s smiling expectantly. “I’m living in Jakarta,” I say, “but I’m from America.” These seem to be magic words. “Aaahh,” he says brightly and knowingly. He leans on the hard ‘K’ sound and rolls the ‘R’ like he’s never said the letter before, “Amerrrika.” I nod and smile. He tries on his best English. “New York,” he says. “Yes, I say, that’s right, New York.” All Americans come from either New York or Los Angeles. Behind me, one of his lieutenants shoots a sea bird. My conversation partner doesn’t seem to notice. “Where are you going?” I say. This is me being polite, but I really, really want to know. “Ooh,” he says with a polite dismissal, “just here and there.” “By boat?” I manage. Also well within the realm of politeness to ask about mode of transport. “Eiyah,” he says, “by boat.” An awkward silent moment passes between us. Then he smiles and says goodbye. Then he and his crew pile into a little boat that takes them out to a bigger boat. Then the bigger boat pulls away. I watch it until I can’t see it any longer. I am relieved in a way I can’t remember ever having been before or since.
I walk back around the island the way I came. Greg and Kjell run up to me when they see me and hug me and they are pale and look like they might throw up. When they heard the shot, they imagined me on the receiving end of it. They were in the throes of horrible imaginings when I walked up safe and sound. I told them about the bird, and about the men leaving. We could stay at the island after all.
In fact, it turned out that the reason we weren’t robbed or worse was that our guide was the son of the old man who was friends with the commanding officer of the pirates. They recognized him immediately, and we were never in any danger. That old man.
The rest of that night was all kinds of incredible. We built a large fire on the beach. We visited the super nice guys in the house who are apparently used to being robbed of their livelihood. We saw an actual wild komodo dragon visiting the trash pile behind the house. That night we quietly watched turtle mamas climb out of the sea and deposit their eggs in the sand. We looked to the stars and imagined the same stars above our homes and families a million miles away. We rolled up t-shirts for pillows and slept on the gently rocking boat.
I don’t hope my son has occasion to run into actual pirates. But I do hope he finds adventure, and a little bit of good trouble. I hope he has occasion to look at the stars and marvel how the same stars that rise above the places he calls home rise over strange and beautiful foreign lands. Most importantly, I hope he meets light filled people – there are so many more out there than we can know. I hope he becomes one of them.
I hope that when I lose him, finally, it’s because he’s out there finding himself.
I’m a lover of poetry and work hard to include it in my life. The algorithms over at Evil Corp know this about me. When my insta account makes suggestions for me, alongside clips of old Friends episodes and, randomly, snippets of Family Guy – which I’ve never watched before – I am inundated by many various and beautiful pages dedicated to poetry. It almost makes me dislike our evil techno-overlords just a little less. Most of these pages are variants of Mary Oliveresque poetry. My favorite, by far, which I have actually started actively following and interacting with is an account called, ‘Mary Oliver’s Drunk Cousin.’ Here’s a selection from that account:
Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
When I go to sleep at night I count all of the Nicholas Cage movies I can name by heart I count the ideal number of Chocolate chips in a cookie (9)
I count the times I said no; Prioritizing my boundaries over politeness And the times I said yes; Prioritizing hope over the unknown I count the number of freckles on your shoulder And all the days since I first started counting them I count every time I laughed And then, as a bonus, I add in the times I made my own self laugh
I tally up all of my wins So I can beat the Part of my brain that holds The sum of my losses At its own game
I love the combinations of beauty and irreverence in this person’s poems and selections. There’s something humanizing about that tonal mixture.
In this time, in this season, I think it’s incredibly important to find these moments of poetry. I’ve linked to www.themarginalian.org before, and I’ll do it again here, just as an aside. If you ever feel out of touch with what’s good in the world, Maria Popova will lead you back to the safe harbor of poetic history and the aesthetic mind.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about found poetry – little snippets of beauty written in the ways we write now. I have started thinking about my Wordle attempts as little haiku-like poems. The novelty of winning has given way to attempts to build the most interesting sets of five-letter words. I love the way my imagination, vocabulary, and the rules of the game come together to create these little poems. Here’s a recent one:
Shake Depot Power Opens Epoch Epoxy
By far, my most favorite found poetry comes from an old friend, who happens to be Japanese. I follow her on Instagram, and she writes her posts in Japanese script, which, even in the digital form, I find to be as beautiful as it is unfamiliar to me. Like the rest of us, she has a tendency to post about the same three things – kids, food, and her personal hobby, which is a kind of body-building that I’m not familiar with.
Sometimes I can tell that she’s posting about something beyond just what’s happening in a day. I use the “translate” feature and have Instagram remake her posts in English. It’s always remarkable. Her translated writing hovers just beyond the horizon of understanding, but lands squarely in the continent of meaning. This is the province of poetry. Here’s a recent selection (line spacing is by me):
… My son is in first grade and is using surface. His homework is drop to the cloud And make a power pole with the sound function. We, the Showa generation, Are thrown away by the rocks when we feel crisis.
I love how my friend’s heartfelt tone comes through in the translations. These are messages about the challenges and triumphs of mid-life: of being a mother, a wife, of wrestling with the gifts and restraints of growing up with a particular kind of heritage. They are humane and intimate. I sometimes wish I could participate in the original meaning. It’s kind of like looking at Plato’s shadows projected on the cave wall, or maybe it’s more like looking through a vaseline smeared camera lens. The true meaning of her words is softened, beautifully distorted. Here’s another:
Say no to can’t. As a parent, you never want to be raised that failure is not acceptable. Hoping but not expecting, That’s the way to raise them. I’ve been doing a lot of terrible things that I can’t even write on Instagram, Not just martial arts. I really just can’t say. I walk naked all over the city is the first word. Ever found out you’re trying to lie to a guy you like and make him fall. It also caused a massive damage to the company. (I can’t say this is about level 1 so I still have level 100 lol) But I’m alive. I regret nothing of it. That’s why everyone should do it more. Trying is challenging, So I believe it’s justice even if I don’t break my tongue. Aftermath ↓ Today I had a model interview for my son’s internal development. I was not a cute kid who was fine and dignified because of gymnastics, but my son is a man who doesn’t care about the world or anything. What do you want to be when you become a middle school student? “Are you shopping?” Do you want to study hard? I don’t think I’ll be able to do my best because I’m so tired of a son Who can say this is amazing lol I didn’t even think I said, “You’re amazing.” As expected, I was told that I’d do better with my duties, But I’m not feeling well in Shitomachi today,” And my mother was depressed. Everybody is different, Can’t even say it Lol
It’s time to talk about Station 11 – book or TV series. They are both lyrically beautiful epic poems dedicated to the part of us that reaches – grasping – for some kind of knowing what the heck it means to be alive. In these stories, the phrase, scrawled on a car, turned wagon, transporting a caravan of post-apocalyptic actors and musicians: ‘survival is insufficient.’
Things don’t have to be apocalyptic to need these moments. I am so grateful for these little quanta of meaning. They battle, like small slivers of light, kicking and slashing through the dense obfuscations of our drives to work, social media rabbit holes, in-law relationships, red-tape navigations, robocall deceptions, weekend working sessions, crowded Costco checkout lanes, hot water heater malfunctions, after school transportation schedules, popcorn in the couch excavations, identity thefts, construction season stops, and on and on. There has to be balance. We cannot exist merely to pay bills. Survival is insufficient.
My youngest is sitting at the table, weeping. He’s shaking with what I imagine is frustration, overwhelm, with a side of anguish. His body convulses slightly. Big silky tears are smudging a math worksheet dense with pencil lines, eraser scuffings, and mixed fractions.
To be fair, multiplying mixed fractions is a super pain in the ass. First, you have to convert the mixed fraction to an improper fraction, like this: 2 1/2 X 7 2/5 = 5/2 X 37/5. Then you have to multiply across both the numerator and denominator. 5/2 X 37/5 = 185/10. Then you have to convert it back into a mixed fraction 185/10 = 18 5/10, then you have to reduce, if possible – 18 5/10 = 18 ½. It’s a long, grueling process if you’re new to fractions. I might have given a class of fifth graders four or five problems for homework, but he’s looking at twelve. Hence the anguish and overwhelm.
And, of course, the day is compressed. I have promised we’d watch a particular movie this week and the only time we have available is this evening. My youngest almost never has homework. It is a problem of unlikely convergences. My oldest needed driving to play practice in Whitefish, and well, this is how these things happen. Now we’re crunched for time if we’re going to get homework, dinner, and a movie all packed into the evening before a reasonable bedtime.
I’m trying to reason with him. “Just start,” I say. He knows how. We’ve demonstrated that he knows how. He’s just not. In my mind I’m imagining every job I’ve ever had which features an endless line of unpleasant work that just has to be mustered through. The driveway which feels like it’s the size of a football field, but never-the-less has to be cleared of snow one shovelful at a time. The edge tiles that must each be cut and laid one at a time. The endless lines of drip-irrigation that must be unrolled one at a time, each dripper hole punched, each hole filled with a dripper. This is an important moment for him. Slogging through work that is doable, but seems insurmountably endless is one of the features of life.
“I caaaaan’t,” he wails. “You can,” I reply robustly. “You’ve got this.” “They’re so long, and there’s too many of them!” He replies. “OK,” I say, “I’ll send your teacher an email and say you just weren’t able to do the problems. But we’re not watching that movie tonight if you don’t do this work.” “Nooooo!” He cries, “I don’t want thaaat!”
What does he want? Aside from not having to do the work. It’s made clear to him that he must do the work. He has all the tools. He’s capable. “If you had started working diligently, you’d be done by now,” I point out, which has to be the least helpful thing to say ever. “Here, let me help you . . .” But he pushes me away. “Nooo! Dad! Go away!” he screams. He doesn’t want my help. But he wants my help. “But kiddo . . .” I try again. “GO AWAY!” he stamps his feet and bangs the table as he’s yelling at the top of his lungs.
Yelling at me like this provokes the kind of incredulous anger I always regret losing control of later. “Listen to me, young man,” I say with my seething teeth clenched. “You will not speak to your father this way.” Fuck me, I’m speaking in the third person. At least I have learned enough by now to walk away for a moment.
I look back and am defeated. My beautiful child is hunched at the table, sobbing. I sit down next to him. I take a deep breath. “Kiddo,” I say, summoning all the cruel times in my own life I’ve ever had to do something repetitive and awful for the sake of just getting it done. “Don’t look at how far away the mountain is. Just put your head down and take one step at a time.” This is my version of the Taoist chestnut, ‘The journey of ten thousand steps begins with the first one.’
Through tears, his voice choking and hiccuping, he says, “Dad – you’re the mountain.”
Oof. A vice clamps on my heart and now I’m ten. I’m at my grandparent’s house. I’m hiding from my grandfather because, well, he just seems scary. I don’t remember any specific incident, but I’ve polled my cousins, and they all concur that when we were young, he definitely radiated an ‘I’m in charge, better not cross me’ vibe. By the time I came to be a young adult, he was one of my most trusted confidants, a wealth of advice and wisdom, and also kindness and gentleness. I don’t know if he changed or if I changed. It’s a great mystery of my childhood.
Trapped in my memory are also night-before-due evenings when my own father would review my highschool English Lit essays. I remember struggling with wanting to be done, knowing that if I let my father in on the process, we’d be working and reworking it a mind-numbing, frustrating number of times. Also knowing that if my father edited my work, I’d get a much better grade. That man could spot a grammar error from twenty thousand leagues. So I know the feeling he’s experiencing – just wanting to be done, come what may. But now I also know the feeling that compelled my fastidious father – if I don’t teach this child how to work, he’ll struggle later.
The trade-off is always, at what cost? I can’t just let these things skate, what’s my job as a parent if not to teach my child how to take care of things that need doing? Watching my child puddle into his chair and onto the floor, I’m torn.
“Dad – you’re the mountain.”
I’m both deeply proud and deeply ashamed. I’m proud because here is a child who, with alarmingly brisk readiness, has expressed a pretty complex emotion. I try to raise children who are both willing and able to talk about how they feel. But there’s shame too. It’s complicated because I’m a human being, with human failings. And this is the child that tallies and remembers all the failings. He’s also the child with whom I’m the most likely to lose my shit. And I’m a big guy and can be scary when I’m mad. Though I can say with some degree of humility, it’s not often, but every time I’ve ever lost my temper with this beautiful child I’ve regretted it, and count those moments as my life’s biggest mistakes. And I’ve made some doozies.
I try to teach my kids by example what to do when a mistake is made, which isn’t as easy as our society would have us believe. If you ask someone what to do when they make a mistake, they’ll probably come up with one or two actions – say sorry, or try to fix it. But making a mistake is a much larger, richer, process that requires a great deal of thought and humility. Here’s what I teach my kids, and how I try to live, when a mistake is made:
1. Acknowledge a mistake has been made. 2. Own your part in making the mistake. 3. Acknowledge the damage done to the aggrieved party without minimization or rationalization. 4. Express genuine regret via an authentic and unconditional apology. 5. Do whatever can be done to make it right. 6. Explore all the lessons making that mistake has to offer. 7. Work to ensure that the mistake doesn’t happen again. 8. Work to forgive yourself for making the mistake and move on.
That’s a lot of stuff to do after fucking up.
I teach my kids that not every step on the list can be undertaken. Some mistakes can’t be made right. Sometimes an apology will make it worse. Some wounds we will always carry. I can confirm this through hard-won experience. Sometimes the best we can do is work towards healing. To greater or lesser degrees, we all come out of childhood scarred, and I am aware that in a small way, this essay is part of me acknowledging the failings I’ve accumulated – a tiny chunk of atonement.
What I can do is talk openly with my beautiful child about losing my cool. In quiet moments, usually at bedtime, he will ask me about it, and he tells me how afraid of me it makes him. I sink into owning my error, acknowledging the hurt and fear that are a result. I ask how he feels. I listen. I walk through the steps. I apologize with a sincerity that burns like magnesium in water. What I can do to make it right is only to ensure that the memory of dark moments see the light, to make sure there are bright moments for comparison and context. I get better, over time, at having a softer response to the mind-shaking disrespectfulness he is able to conjure. The tween years are legitimately trying.
Step eight – forgiving yourself – is the hardest.
I fear an imagined future where he withdraws from me entirely, a memory full of hard words spoken over tear-damp math worksheets – the long, loving bed-time make up sessions inadequate to the task of fending off the fear of future hardness. I shudder, imagining a cold, empty gulf growing between us, mirroring the vast emptiness between his mother and I. It happens all the time. You see it all the time. I crouch behind this fear. I name it in the darkness where it lives. I pull it to the sunlight. Unlike so many of my fears, this one doesn’t diminish easily. It lurks behind every decision I make that impacts my children, which is basically all of them.
I let him work on his own, and he buckles down to do some real work. I’m proud of him and tell him so. It kills me that he won’t get a perfect score on the worksheet and I know it, and I know he knows it too, but I refrain from hovering, or requiring endless corrections. His effort is significant. He eats his salad. Tears begin to dry on the now nearly indecipherable worksheet. I offer him an ice-cream bar for dessert. We turn on the movie. We snuggle. I hope it is enough.
Where to start? My instinct is to start this next thought with a Brene Brown quote or a Rumi quote, or even better, a Mary Oliver quote. This is where my brain goes. Somewhere on Themarginalian.org website is the perfect quote. We’ll get there in a minute, but I think, instead, I should start with Disney+.
[Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 or the Disney+ show Loki, and you might want to some day, you’ve been warned. And if you don’t know that Iron Man was recently killed, the rest of the essay won’t make a lick of sense, and you should probably stop here…]
Like many thinking, rational humans, I am somewhat ambivalent about the fact that this one, megalithic company has so much power to influence not just society at large, but my children specifically. And if I’m being honest, this company has enormous power over me and my emotions and how I experience the world, too. One of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen, or hope to see, is at the end of Toy Story 3 when the group of toys you’ve come to love and cherish are headed toward certain destruction. Woody is doing the thing he always does and is frantically trying to come up with a last minute plan to save everyone when he and the rest all realize that there isn’t a last ditch plan, that they’re going to be destroyed. They all reach for one another and hold hands to face their end the same way they’ve spent their lives: together. I’m crying right now while I write this. It gets me every time. It pulls and tugs my heart strings even knowing they’re saved in the end by a funny and apropos deus ex machina moment. Fucking Disney.
I’m going to start with Disney+ anyway – specifically the show Loki. (Side note: this essay is the direct result of a very, very interesting texting conversation I had about this with my eldest child. Proper props to him for effectively explaining what was going on. Turns out you have to be 14 to understand the vagaries of the Multiverse…) I wasn’t ready to really understand this show until very, very recently. Now, if you know me at all, you will know that I came out of the womb ready for time-traveling, interdimensional, kung-fu fighting hijinks. What I’m talking about here specifically is the romance in the show between Loki, and the alternate reality version of himself, Sylvie.
There’s a whole bunch that could be written about the potential weirdness of a situation where a person falls in love with another version of themselves from another dimension. I mean a lot. Because it’s weird. But for a moment, for the sake of this essay, I’m going to treat Loki and his variant, Sylvie, as consenting adults who are neither genetically nor phenotypically related. I mean, if you put up with Game of Thrones, this is an easy pill to swallow.
Another side note: How nice is it that there’s a love story between two main characters in which their apparent relative age on screen and in real life is approximately the same. The male character isn’t ninety three and the female character isn’t twenty one. (Hack, cough, cough Sean Connery, cough, cough Harrison Ford, hack, cough.) In real life Tom Hiddleston is 41 and Sophia De Martino is 38. This is one of the things that makes hating Disney hard. I digress.
What’s great about this series is that you can’t really watch it on a surface level. In a lot of Marvel movies, the psychological machinations of the main characters is either so cartoonish as to be uninteresting, or essentially irrelevant to the plot. And a lot of those plots are pretty basic. There are bad guys who are messed up and try to take over the world. The good guys kick enough ass and make your garden variety superhero sacrifices and the world is saved. I was way more moved by the plot device where Woody and Buzz and the gang were going to get destroyed than I was about losing Iron Man. Again, I digress.
In the show Loki, to understand what’s happening with the nature of the timeline, you have to know what’s going on in the hearts of the main characters. Owen Wilson plays Mobius (super obvious metaphor), who, in the name of helping him to understand the other Loki variant (it gets weird) essentially provides ongoing therapy for Loki throughout the entire series. The point of these sequences where Mobius is asking Loki why he does what he does – to uncover the roots, the genesis of his pain, the neglect and the desire for external validation is the same as the point of therapy: self-awareness. Loki is a character who has spent his whole life hiding from self-awareness. He doesn’t trust anyone and is so reliably untrustworthy that characters around him just assume he’s always lying to them. The consequences of avoiding self-awareness are dire and multifaceted. This is a reality that I have only recently begun to understand about my own life . . .
But back to Loki. It’s extra potent that Disney chooses to follow the story arc of these two specifically middle-aged characters. I don’t think it would work with young glamor stars. Someone over there is listening – really listening – to Brene Brown (yes it’s Brene Brown quote time), who says:
… we all grew up and experienced to varying degrees, trauma, disappointment – hard stuff. And we armored up. And at some point that armor no longer serves us. And so, how is not talking about this serving you? It’s not serving you anymore. And now the weight of the armor is too heavy and it’s not protecting you. It’s keeping you from being seen and loved by others. This is the developmental milestone of midlife. From late thirties until probably your sixties, this is the question. This is when the universe comes down and puts her hands on your shoulders and pulls you close and whispers in your ear – I’m not fucking around. You’re halfway to dead. The armor is keeping you from growing into the gifts I’ve given you and that’s not without penalty. Time is up. It’s not a crisis. It’s a slow, brutal unraveling.
I’m pretty familiar with this kind of unraveling . . .
But back to Loki. Loki’s untrustworthiness is a kind of self-loathing. He can’t care about anyone else because he doesn’t care about himself. It’s a shortened, carefully choreographed, tidily packaged, Marvel kind of revelation, but there it is. Loki can’t fall in love with Sylvie – or anyone for that matter – until he figures his own shit out. Not only that, he won’t even be able to have real friendships. There will be no late summer nights drinking wine, jumping in lakes for him.
And if, in season two, they are to have a real shot at a relationship, Sylvie’s going to have to jump on the self-awareness bandwagon, and Disney is going to need to create a character who can provide her with some therapy. Her childhood has some pretty heavy trauma, and her relationship with Loki is going to be a messed up attachment train wreck unless she faces and comes to terms with the trauma she grew up with. Which, like many kids of course, was having to hide in time from agents of the Time Variant Authority in the moments right before complete apocalypses, always on the run with no parenting or meaningful connections in her life, so . . . yeah. Her choice to free the multiverse and betray Loki at the end of season one only makes sense if she’s choking on emotional armor scrambling for any kind of foothold outside herself.
Questions I have for season two: Is the multiverse inherently chaotic? Can you have free will if your timeline is deterministic? If you do liberate the multiverse in favor of free will, can it behave harmoniously, or will it inevitably lead to war and chaos between alternate timelines? Can humanity be happy under the thumb of an unseen, yet oppressive force who never-the-less provides order? But most of all, I’m interested in whether Disney is going to do the emotional heavy lifting and let Sylvie come to terms with her own emotional armor? There isn’t a chance in hell for a healthy relationship with Loki otherwise. My guess is that Loki, the character we’ve invested several movies and much more time with, will get the benefits of surviving with his self-awareness intact, and Sylvie will end up sacrificing herself to rectify mistakes she’s made before achieving, albeit too late, the kind of self-awareness she’d need to be in a healthily attached relationship with Loki. Such are the dreams Disney+ is made of.
“Hey, let’s try something.” We’re standing in warm waist deep water a few feet from the shore of Flathead lake in mid-July. “Grab a rock and we’ll see how far we can carry it under water.” It’s a part of the lake I know well. The lake bottom tips away from shore at a pretty steep angle, and the bottom is all rock. Close to the shore the rocks are small and there are gravel beaches. As the lake bottom recedes from view, the rocks become boulders, and then a few hundred feet out, the lake bottom falls away in what becomes a steep drop off.
We search around for a while and find some rocks that seem large enough to hold a person to the lake bottom, but not so large that they’d be too heavy to carry. We take deep breaths and on a count of three, we go. Now, my dear friend is in good athletic condition. He’ll outlast anyone I’ve ever met skiing up the side of a mountain. But water is my superpower. I’ve always been a better than average swimmer, but I had no idea I’d be so good at this task.
It’s an utterly useless thing, carrying a heavy rock underwater for relatively long distances. Somewhere in my periphery, I sense that my friend has bailed for the surface. I have much farther to go. In this case, the bottom walk takes me out to the very edge of the drop-off. I have to clear my ears several times on the way. I’m not walking upright. I’m bent over, one arm cradling my rock like a football, the other brushing from rock to rock, balancing as I bound from one boulder to the other.
I reach the drop-off ahead, a green black engulfment. Lungs finally out of gas, I hurl the rock over the edge, blockading thoughts of lurking abyss terrors from my mind as I push for the surface. It’s dark. I realize that the darkness means depth, and that the surface must be very far away. Looking up, I can see the surface, a wrinkled mess, much farther above me than I would have guessed. I’m a hundred yards or more from the shore. I push and kick, the little orb of sun reflected and twisting in the bedraggled blue sky above the water’s surface. I push to that thin membrane. To light. To warmth. To air. To air.
I visited my dad today at the nursing home where he’s being taken care of. It’s a nice place. The staff is friendly. His room is lovely. Lots of natural light. At this point, there isn’t much that can be done for him other than to keep him as comfortable as possible. His speech has diminished to a whisper. His gait is halting, and we’re not far off from a wheelchair. His cheeks are gaunt and pale as the staff valiantly struggles to keep weight on him.
Visits are a little touch and go. It wasn’t but a few days ago that when I visited with my mom, Dad very firmly, in his quiet way, told us in no uncertain terms, “your work has been good, and we’re grateful, but now it’s time for you to go.” He wouldn’t talk to us or acknowledge us in any way. We just had to turn around and leave. It was very hard on my mother. But that’s just where he’s at. Some days he knows who we are. Sometimes he doesn’t. Some days we show up and he’s just asleep, and we turn around and come back another day.
We’ve learned that our visits are actually more about us and our desire to honor him than they are about what he might want or need. Our visits make very few ripples in the miasma of his days and nights. We try. We rub his shoulders until he tells us to stop. We talk with him about children and work and pruning fruit trees. He mutters about circles in the floor that are running out of money. We help him to the bathroom. He is in a different land, fighting a different battle. There are no familiar patterns now. There are no more PT exercises. There are no more doctors appointments. There isn’t anything the neurologist can do. There are no more stories to be told. There isn’t a shared frame of reference what-so-ever. Sometimes I believe that understanding my father’s perception of his universe is like trying to understand how an extraterrestrial might perceive the world.
We moved him to the home the first week of February. For many good and understandable reasons, he hasn’t been outside the facility since that time. But the home does have a pretty nice rear patio area and a couple hundred of feet of lovely sidewalk. It was sixty and sunny today. It’s been a week since the snow disappeared from shady spots. The air is clean and crisp. The halls of the nursing home are a dark and unintelligible line of closed doors. And I know it wasn’t something asked for. I know it wasn’t something that my father necessarily needed. I know his ability to walk has diminished to the point where a few hundred feet of shuffling will wear him out. But at the end of the hallway is a point of light, a portal to air. To air.
I couldn’t resist pushing toward that small square of light and air. I was in luck. Dad was feeling relatively good when I showed up and was game for getting out of bed. Once up, I carefully led him down the hall. Brighter and brighter came the door’s rectangle window leading to the patio. To air, dear father, to air. We stepped over the threshold and the weak Spring sun fell on our faces. It was warm and sweet – not too hot, not too cold. We shuffled until we found a pair of sturdy deck chairs. We sat and faced the sun.
My father closed his eyes and for a moment in the pale raking of light, I could believe we were sharing something – the warmth of nine-minute-old photons. We sat, silently. A moment passed and then another. Then my father squinted at me and said in his breathy, quiet voice, “I think it’s time to go inside.”
Inwardly, I smiled wryly at my overly poetic and ultimately misguided nobility, my desire, still, to find a way to bridge the gap into what I imagine is the swirling chaos of his consciousness. It’s hard to realize that there isn’t a way into the world he inhabits now. There will be no further connection. There is no universal translator. Nothing about it will make sense. If our presence is comforting, that is good. If our presence isn’t comforting, we should leave. There isn’t a shimmering membrane reflecting the sun past which we can breathe again.
I took his hand and we carefully stood and shuffled back inside.
Building things is an exquisite joy. There is something timeless about nails, but I prefer to bring two elements together with screws. It was a hot late summer afternoon in an unnaturally cool basement wood-shop on the University of Montana campus where the remarkable and dauntless Professor Bonjorni instructed a dozen green as hell painting students – of which I was one – in the art of creating a sturdy canvas. “Nails,” she said, “attach. Screws join.” I’ve never forgotten this lesson. Over the course of my life I will likely have spent several thousand dollars paying for screws where nails could have been sufficient. I will regret none of those dollars spent. But building things is a pleasure of the earth and soil, muscle and toil. Creating form by attaching two lengths of wood together is the province of the kingdom of humans.
Pruning fruit trees requires wading at the shores of heaven. Go outside. Build a fire. Look up into the sky at the thousand, thousand points of light. Name the shapes you see. Now you are ready to prune a fruit tree.
Symmetry demands that fruit trees be pruned after the worst of winter but before the sap runs. Now is that time. I have the extreme pleasure of pruning my own fruit trees, those at my parents home, and with extreme gratitude, I have been pruning fruit trees as part of my work. There’s almost no work I’d rather perform.
In my back yard I am blessed with two magnificent cherry trees. They rise majestically from the side of my short hill. I bought this house in June of 2020, and so there was nothing to be done other than watch their overgrown visages bear what fruit they could. I dutifully mulched their base. I watered them. We ate a few bowls of cherries. The ravens got most of the fruit.
A tree, like my cherries, that hasn’t been pruned in many years will sag under the weight of its own growth. The path forward will be long and have many turns. This is the first of the magical aspects of pruning fruit trees. You can’t always accomplish everything in one season. If you cut all the things that need to be cut, the tree will be stressed. Stressed trees are susceptible to disease and rot. To begin the long road to health, the first necessary step is to realize that the road will be long. Plan for a future after that first pruning which includes the warmth of summer, the cold of winter, a spring of another judicious pruning, another summer, another winter, and then, maybe in the third spring before the sap runs again, maybe the tree will be in a shape that can persist with only yearly general maintenance.
Begin with the shape. Trees want to grow up. They reach for the warmth of their patron, the sun. Bearing healthy, rich fruit means growing outward – horizontal to the ground they are rooted in. The second lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one is not taking away branches, one is guiding energy. The fruit tree has only so much energy to give over the course of a warm season, and so that energy must be shepherded carefully, and with intention. Take away branches that will shade nearby neighbors. Take away branches that grow with too much enthusiasm toward the stars. Take away branches that would cross and crowd their brothers and sisters. Take away branches that duplicate the effort of others. Remove broken branches – they are vectors for pathogens. Encourage strength – the strongest branches will support the most fruit. Don’t think about what branches are good and which are bad. Decide where the energy should go, and act accordingly.
The third lesson of pruning fruit trees is that one must not think of wood and bark how they are now. A projection must be made of each branch and bud – into the future, sure, but it’s better to project the path of growth. How will this bud grow? What branch will it turn into? Is its path one of harmony or burden? Will action or inaction be the most helpful? It is an exercise in having faith. Trusting oneself. Be willing to risk mistakes. Make mistakes. The tree will tell you when you’ve fucked up. It’s okay to fuck up.
This is lesson four. It’s okay to fuck up. There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree. There cannot be. Heaven’s landscape is crowded with imperfections. We are all subject to the whims of chaos. This isn’t hyperbole. Chaos is the natural result of natural systems. It’s why we cannot predict the weather more than a few days out. It’s why in one moment the cloud looks like a dinosaur. In the next, it looks like a lighthouse. Apologies to twentieth century Modernists, but you cannot, you simply cannot, capture or reflect anything permanent and true. There is only change and chaos. Fruit trees teach us this. The beauty is that there isn’t a right path. There are only paths. If you ask ten skilled arborists to prune the same tree it would look completely different in each iteration. And they would likely all be sufficient or even good. There is a deep and enormous well of grace lurking there. Choices are made with right intention. Outcomes are accepted and looked on over the course of time with discrimination and choices will be made again with right intention. Wash, rinse, repeat. The harmony is not in the outcome. There is no perfectly pruned fruit tree.
Harmony is found in the repeated iteration of discernment and action.
An angry platoon of masters theses could arise from this comment as it relates to contemporary Western culture, but I am too old and too tired to beat that drum. There are too many private battles to be fought and personal victories to be reached for. Go outside. Make a fire. Sharpen clippers. Find a pair of old leather gloves. Requisition a ladder. Ask the tree what it needs – where its energy should be directed. Look up. Stare into the heavens and name the shapes made by the thousand, thousand points of light.
My cat Baby Boy is the best cat in the whole wide world. He’s huge. He’s soft and fuzzy. His tummy, as is often noted, is the softest thing in the universe. He nuzzles and cuddles just how a person would want to be cuddled – with passion and deep affection. His purr could rock a baby to sleep. He is an evolutionary marvel and a stone cold killer.
He is exceptionally good at killing things. He has his own hashtag regarding this talent – #justfacesandspleens. Whether for love or for just the pure artistry of it, he routinely curates the bits and pieces of his prey into delicately displayed entrail arrangements. When it’s a vole, he’ll typically leave just the horribly buck-toothed upper jaw and spleen behind. Hence the hashtag.
But this cat is far more than a mouser. At dinner one evening several years ago, we watched in fascination as Baby Boy came in from the field dragging something as large as himself. The words, “what is that . . .” had just left my mouth when we realized that he was schlepping a large male pheasant. The next words that came to mind were, “what’s he going to do with that . . .?” The question no sooner left my tongue when the answer came: he would sit down and methodically devour it. It was truly a sight to behold.
Something I’m fascinated by is his blithe disregard for any moral matters of life and death. As an apex predator, I suppose he is preconditioned not to think about whether living or dying has any meaning. If you have sharp teeth and claws and an appetite for baby rabbits, well, then . . . I’m reminded of the line of a poem by DH Lawrence used to such great effect in the movie GI Jane: I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself…
But I can’t help thinking about those baby rabbits.
Recently, at dinner, the topic of death came up. It happened in the way that conversations with tweens often does. “If you had one hour to live, what would you do?” asks the youngest. Geez only an hour? “You can’t really knock anything off your bucket list in an hour,” I reply. “Watch Star Trek?” Try again. “Go swimming in the lake if it’s summer?”
“It’s winter, Dad.” The youngest has such a deadpan sometimes. We went around the table in a chaotic call and response. Other permutations arose. What if it was one day? One week? Invariably this kind of conversation ends in giant pre-teen eye-rolling when I pull out a quote by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Mary Oliver. This night it was Dylan: “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
Daaadddd…!!! [Eye roll, eye roll, eye roll]
I will never understand the resistance my children have to attempts to bring a little cultural knowledge to their otherwise Tower Defense saturated existences. The conversation eventually rolls around to the various genetic propensities of my children’s ancestors. On their mom’s side there are some pretty resilient male descendants. From me, however, their genetics spell different, shorter, life-spans. My paternal grandfather died in his mid-seventies from cancer, and, it was noted, my own father probably won’t make it to his mid-seventies.
This tripped me up in a throat-closing kind of way. I was fourteen when my maternal grandfather died – the same age as my oldest. I didn’t know him very well. I did know he was one tough bugger. He survived a major heart attack, half a lung removed from cancer, and the loss of one of his legs to gangrene.
When he lost his leg, he and my grandmother had to move to an apartment in town. It was just down the street from our house. I don’t have many memories of them from the time before they lived in that little apartment complex. Our family developed a ritual around my grandparents, and if I knew them at all, it’s because of this ritual.
Every Friday around five, whoever happened to be available would drop by for “happy hour.” Drinks would be served. High-balls for adults, cokes and icecream bars for kids. As a pre-driving aged kid, I didn’t have much choice about whether I would attend these gatherings, but I always liked them. Sometimes my uncle Larry and aunt Bernie would stop by with one of their kids – my much older cousins. Sometimes my cousin Randy or his father Denny would drop in. These were the people my grandfather spent the second half of the twentieth century farming with. There was a familiar yellow glow to the lamplight in the small apartment, and many very loud voices. My grandfather was also very hard of hearing.
Grandpa Chuck would get a drink, which he wasn’t supposed to have, and then he’d cajole one of the visitors to make him up another. There was a candy dish. It was lovely. By the time I was old enough to form coherent memories that included context, Grandpa Chuck was old in a way that made it impossible for me to understand him. My cousin Randy tells the story of when my grandfather bought a brand new truck (1979) and let him drive it to high school sometimes. He reports loving the feeling of being behind the wheel of that brand new vehicle, that he was pretty hot shit behind the wheel of that thing.
I knew that truck well. Like my brother before me, I learned to drive on it. The final driving test for my brother and I was not parallel parking, it was – can you get down the hill at the lake and back up it in the truck. Prefer parallel parking. It was definitively not hot shit. It was the kind of truck that if you hit something with it (like, hypothetically, the concrete posts that protect the corners of gas stations) and all the doors still close, you didn’t have it fixed. I’m relatively certain the title listed the color of the vehicle as ‘baby shit brown,’ and while my brother and I loved that truck, it was a beat up piece of crap when I got to it, and the man who’d bought it was many years gone.
Which has me wondering what my children will take away from knowing grandpa Steve? I looked at my oldest and say, “You’ll probably know Grandpa Steve about as well as I knew Grandpa Chuck.” This seems to catch him off guard a little because he doesn’t have a ready reply for such a statement. He can’t know what my experience was, but I catch a glimmer – just a glimmer – of knowing how much life could potentially be in front of him (may he live a long and glorious life!), and how relatively nascent his experiences have been so far.
It takes a great deal to impart even a little perspective to a fourteen-year-old, and while part of me would keep them innocent and unknowing about the world for as long as possible, the better part of me is glad to see the dots connect behind my son’s eyes. Ancestors. Family. Legacy. Youth. Time. The increasingly gaunt figure of a grandfather. Most importantly: A future yet unwritten.