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Valuable Time

I don’t know how much time I have. It’s been true for a long time now. A long time getting ever longer. The more time goes by, the more the reality sinks in. I don’t know that the trajectory, the one tying my ever accumulating time to my ponderance and curiosity about it’s end, will stay. What I know is I have the second just passed. What I can assume is I have the moment before me. I can presume the days ahead and I can blindly trust the years laying out before me, stretching ever more beautifully outward into a peaceful and wonderful, assured existence seeped in love and garatitude and understanding. It’s the future I strain to make out in the hazy distance with dusk approaching and I tend to make a lot of decisions to serve that ideal state. That one that is least accountable to ever finding me. The one I wonder these days whether I’m imagining,  a mirage, acting on its promises.

  So, yeah. It’s autumn. The days are getting shorter and the night is stealing daylight hours and I’m suddenly consumed by thoughts. Rather I’m submerged in feelings. I’m a foreigner in their world. I know a few of them. Joy, sorrow, excitement and anger. Curiosity is an engagement of sorts and has an emotional intelligence to it, I suppose. Creative. That may live here as well. I don’t know. It’s beautiful. Rich with textures that can trigger anything. Scary too. I don’t speak the language and things are impossible to understand. I used to break down to depression and mute the varietals that swirl for some assurance. It was treacherous, but navigable and earlier, before I had my bearings it was the only way through. Anger worked and could kick in at any time, but now I’m a bit more comfortable with taking it in and accepting it as something I don’t understand. Sorrow and anger are still there, but less dominant. I guess that’s the mellowing I’m told comes in autumn.

There comes a time when time’s limits are undeniable. Largely, though not entirely. I will live every moment knowing and watching the limits I can predict inching closer. My limits, the limits I can see others breaching. Ones that will arrive at my doorstep, first from others and finally my own findings. Thankfully, when I turn around, as I will if I have time when the night finally falls on me, I’ll see in the eyes of those looking at me an eternity. A limitless shimmer that will go out forever, beyond the limits of imagination or folly or foolhardy selfishness. I’ll see a thousand lifetimes coming toward me stretching as far as the eye, the mind, the soul can see and in that moment I’ll perhaps feel free. 

The time that dropped from the trees to me when it bounded and flutttered in such summertime abundance that I couldn’t see any value in it is dwindling slowly and revealing its nature to me. I could look back on my earlier days and bemoan the myriad wrong ways I blew through my inheritance. I could do that. Many do. But that’s not how it hits me. It doesn’t. Sure. I wish time was so abundant now. I sometimes wish I could live long enough to bury my sons who would pass, wizened and aged and having spent a lifetimes and another’s of minutes and moments and experienced all. I wish I could do it so they wouldn’t have to say good bye to me. But it’s selfish. My moments, what time I have left is of infinite more meaning than the fortunes I’ve lost. I know now that the minutes aren’t mine. I know now that they are merely a gift. A gift I am tending, one that was given without warning and one that can disappear the same way. A gift I now treasure the way that I should. A gift that provides no longer the abundance it once did or the thoughtlessness the abundance allowed. I now know the value of my time. 

I won’t hide now. From anything. I’ll still wish. hope is times companion. But when I find myself in places I don’t understand I won’t be fooled into giving up my time. I can’t be convinced to crawl in my shell. Time has taught me through dwindling supply the humility I needed to know her value. The value of this minute. And the next and the next after that. Each minute a thing to notice. 

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The Lodge, Part VI: Hello S–thead, How Are Ya?

‘Hello Sh*thead, how are ya?’ 

This was my morning greeting. Every morning. For two weeks each summer from 1995-2002. I can’t remember which session he came, but Devin was a legend. Well, maybe not originally. I think he was kind of a blender-inner prior to us boys of Lodge 12 meeting him and getting to know him in ’95. From that summer forward though, he was a legend. 

  I can tell you that he came session 3. There were five sessions and his was in my first as Lodge Leader. Yep, I was a camp counselor, the foundation of my 20 year camp career, for 4 weeks. Anyway, another story for another time. Just know that I was nervous. I was eager to do well, and as was and remains my custom, I really was very unprepared for what my position was. I work best when hiding panic and ignorance under a facade of confidence and competence. 

‘Oh, hi. You the leader.’ 

‘I am. Your Devin, right.’ I asked. 

We were outside the cabin after rest hour, before period 3 activity. I was all official, hiding behind my clipboard with my daily schedule and other forms I hoped no one would ask about. 

‘Did you take a shower, Devin? Like, just now?’

Devin was maybe 46. I was 21. Still, I was the Lodge Leader and he was the guest. 

‘Oh, no.’ He said, wistfully, voice drifting. ‘I haven’t showered in five f*cking years.’ 

I think I heard that right, but I better check. 

‘What was that.’

‘Five long, happy, Jewish years.’ Devin said.

I looked over at him and smiled. I then laughed. He reflected me. 

That was how I met Devin.

Devin lived with his mother, best as I could tell. He was the living and breathing definition of an ‘unreliable reporter’, so who’s to really say. He would often wake in the cabin, the one we all woke in, in sight of everyone all night, to tell his cabinmates and staff that he was hungover.

‘How are you hungover?’ we’d ask.

‘I was drunk last night. Oh, yeah. I had two Schaeffer’s beers.’ Everything he said was kind of sing-songy and benefited greatly from a delivery I can’t even begin to capture. He’d say these things, eyes getting big, face serious, holding your appraising eyes for a couple of seconds until his whole face would break out in a big jowly grin, eyes now softening and gleaming with mischief and humor. 

I came to seek out his familiar and always energetic salutation, ‘Hello sh*thead, how are you?’

  Devin, all our guys, they lived lives of limited independence. Limited, certainly, by their abilities. They required some level of assistance, some a good deal, some it took a while to find, but all of them were there for a reason. But they loved camp because we were new. New staff, kids and they were the old pros. Some might have seen all of us taking a guest ‘under our wing’ and developing real, lasting bonds and genuine connections. What you had to be there longer to see was them taking us under their wings, teaching us and grooming us. Befriending us and taking a shine to us. We got to know them and they got to know us and at some point we all had different roles to play and we loved playing them, but there really was just an ‘us’. ‘Them’ were left behind about half way through the first day the guests arrived.

Devin was funny. His sense of humor was a tool for him like it is for many of us. One that is hugely helpful and ocassionally misused and capable of getting any of us who use it into trouble. It helps us out of trouble more, though. It’s a powerful thing, the ability to make others laugh and I loved that he had it. Largely because it’s also a powerful thing to laugh and he made me laugh nearly every day. 

So when it came time to take him to the dentist I jumped at the chance when asked. I wasn’t in his Lodge anymore and I’m sure I had no idea what it was for. Whatever it was it wasn’t anything major. Still, I had to at least prep him for what was to come. I decided to do so in the van on our way down the mountain to the dentist. 

‘Now, Devin, I know you know this, but I feel like I have to say it.’ I said.

‘What?’ He said, in that overly expressive and delightful way of his. 

‘We’re going to be in the community. You have to mind your P’s and Q’s’ 

‘Yeah.’ He said, giggling.

‘Seriously. Gotta be careful with the language. At the lodge, we’re family, but these folks won’t know you.’

‘I know. Helen tells me not to swear at the dentist.’ Said Devin. 

‘Well, You have a very smart mother.’ I said. 

It was just that. He was more than capable of understanding and I was virtually sure that he did. The rest of the ride was just fun. If you haven’t worked at a summer camp you can’t know how fun it is to get in a vehicle that can in no way be classified as a bus, to go to that magical land known only as ‘off grounds’. To be doing so with a legend, well, that was just the cherry on the top of this already super awesome sunday of a ‘job’ I was asked to do on this day. 

I’ll skip the details of the appointment as they are not notable save this one factor; I can’t tell you the joy it brought me as ‘The Kaiser’, as he often referred to himself as, would just look at me sideways, smiling, ever on the verge of bursting, from across the room and in the chair. It was magical and sustained. He was giving me this look of not at all hidden conspiratorial mischievousness that was just great. And he did great. He was a model patient as I’m sure he always was. He was, after all, a simply lovely man. 

‘Sir. Can you sign this please.’ We heard as we approached the door to leave. 

‘Of course, I say.’, and we made our way back to the lobby window. It was a standard, midsummer, midday, midweek dentist office. Moms and kids mostly. Perhaps a few working people getting some work done on a workday. Nothing of note but the room was populated. 

‘Just sign here.’ I would have signed anything she gave me. I still have no idea how that appointment came to be and less of an idea of how it might have been paid for. I didn’t even look at or even for the number. But apparently, Devin did. 

‘Holy f*cking s*it, Helen’s gonna f*cking kill me.’ Devin sung. 

It. Just. Hung. There. 

Slowly I turned to look at him. I wasn’t angry or even bothered. I was just in awe.

‘What?’ He asked, eyes gleaming and smirk growing. 

 I know the moment now all too well. The moment when I am responsible for someone who is unaware of the proper way to handle a situation and I’m supposed to communicate something akin to, disappointment, I guess. The stern look of a dad to my child is what I do now but there are times where the overwhelming funniness of the thing they have done so outweighs the importance of the ‘teachable moment’ that we all just crack up in a ‘laughable moment’ of true and beautiful connectedness. Well, I can say for certain that the receptionist didn’t see the humor in this outburst. Her loss. It was instantly and remains one of the genuinely most joyous moments of my life walking out of there with him, both of us cracking up.

Teddy’s Cheeks

Perhaps its just my nature to be wistful. That very well could be it. I could easily make the argument that wistfulness is my strongest suit as a writer. But wistful for me these days is honest. Because while parenthood is very very good at making you spend a good deal of your day living in the moment, it is also a role that is forever slipping through your fingers. 

There’s a lot that surprises you that first second. I became a dad in an instant. One second I’m a husband and about to be dad and the next I’m a dad. Full blown, card carrying dad. The card in this case was a Visa card and not some license to be a dad, though were there one my merely being a dad would not entitle me to the card. Nope. That comes later. I’m certified now, but still a newb. Becoming a dad is merely the starters pistol in your sprint to learn to be a dad. 

What I learned first, after the new brand of love, the overarching, in your bones kind of love that you learn in that first instant, what I learned was that life is fragile and mine will end. Hopefully some day decades and decades down the road when the loss will be real for my kids, but when it will be manageable. Still, this little boy had a story and it was starting right there, smack in the middle of the story I’d been only just getting accustomed to sharing with his mom. If everything goes right, if it goes as right as it can go I’ll get a few decades to overlap, 30 or 40 or 50 years to be in his story. Then, inevitably, I’d be leaving. Wrapping up my tale with tentacles lingering on the fringes of the stories they will be living. It’s the best outcome one can hope for and it is unavoidably imbued with melancholy. Sad is the wrong word. Melancholic. A sustained low level presence of unavoidable sorrow, that recedes to the background when joy is present and it is so so present so much, along with exhaustion and frustration and confusion and exhaustion. Did I say exhaustion twice? I did? Well, clearly I’m not as tired as I was a few years back. Then the entire list would have consisted of exhaustion and the list would hav been 7-12 items long. All of them exhaustion. 

My first son made me a dad. He came into the world and boom, I’m a dad. He cried, I messed up, I learned my error and I became more of a dad. This is a seemingly infinite loop. I mess up, I recognize it by something going wrong with him, I see that I messed up and I try something new and it gets a little better  and we do that all day every day forever. Which is true, but not true. It’s not forever. Time is very viscous and slides faster than I can keep up. You do eventually give the swing to sisters and brothers who will need it. You throw out the car seat that is beyond beaten and smelly and you recycle the last bottle you’ll ever have. Things disappear into the far back memories and then they go from there. Some of them go invisibly and without regret or a second thought. I’ll never change my kids disaster diaper ever again. The kind where you resort to cutting the clothing off to save everyone the terror of it coming off any other way. That piece of history is happily behind me, though I actually think I appreciated it for what it was at the time. Your mind and memory play little tricks like that. I know better. Just happy that’s in the past. Other things, well, I can’t let go of so cavalierly. Like Teddy’s cheeks. 

Teddy’s cheeks aren’t going anywhere. I trust he’ll have them for the rest of my story. But they are changing. He has epic cheeks. Anyone and everyone who has known him will tell you. They are squat and round and adorable. They are a feast for the eyes and they are so connected to the little misspeakings of an adorable toddler with the childlike voice that I’ll never fully have anymore. He is our last and when those cheeks go, they’re gone. Forever. And this time forever means forever. 

My Teddy’s cheeks won’t come back. So I am wistful. Nostalgic. Sentimental in the extreme because my life, my consciousness has a timeline and the horizon, though distant, is firmly in view and when I lose Teddy’s cheeks that horizon will draw ever so slightly nearer.  

 

Wondering the Why

I may not believe in god

I believe that I am blessed 

The universe cannot listen

Though I pray nonetheless 

I hue not to a dogma

I live a life of trying

Ever to improve my station 

In the eye of no almighty

I feel the slings and arrows

From those that vow no pride

The ever present judgments 

From those who speak divine

I am forever seeking

Wondering the why

Searching through a forest

Lost in all that rise

I have come to find comfort

In the wisdom of always asking 

Never knowing is a needle’s eye

That curiosity finds and pierces

Whatever is your heaven

We all should consider

The vanity of knowing

What your god is bound to render

Heaven is a place on earth

And all of us are tenants

Gratitude so often falters

All of us owe penance

The flag you fly for your own god

It’s no brighter, only bigger

Wielded with a heavy stick

Perfecting damaged armor

The thing I fear is gross assurance

Belief lacking any pause

The kind that fits in ones own vision

Defending all that was

Doubt is not the enemy

It is beliefs most staunch defender

Rising every time to meet her

And never torn asunder

I can’t conceive a god I’d fathom

Nor one who’d care to wonder

If I believed in he or she

Then test me wielding thunder

I’d rather go on believing in me

And you and us and others

I’d rather tend to heaven right here

With all my sisters and brothers
  

Song of my waking

I sing the song of sympathy

I believe each word that speaks of me

Of humble, common, love of man

Seeing that which I want I am

I weave a web of desires love

And speak of angels from above

Descending on us graciously

With adornments shown thine to thee

Base and vile I crown with scorn

From high atop my throne of stones

Thrown forever, a shrinking chair

The height descends as death draws near

I know and don’t the things I do 

I breathe and center and return to view

The world beneath my faltering perch

That seeks to prove my waining worth

I try to hide my fear of death

Neath any plunder I have yet to heft

Searching seeking a curt desire

To waft above the muck that mires

A soul determined that life has meaning

If only I were worth entreating

The pattern I wish to never see 

Descends from heavens over me

While I was caught afraid and naked

High atop a hill not long my taking

Selling the gospels I once believed in

Aware at last I won’t be waking

The Letter, The List and My Greatest Fear

Mansfield, Pa. I was there for the week for basketball camp. I don’t know how it became a thing in our town, hundreds of miles away, but for anyone serious about basketball, at least any of us between 10 and 14, you went to Mansfield for a week of basketball camp. I was the most serious about it and I was there. I was about 12 and it was great.

It was a great time for a 12 year old who was obsessed. I was the kid who had a basketball in my hand every minute. I was the kid in Western New York, where it can snow in 8 or 9 different months a year, who would shovel the court to play in January. Or October, if need be. I was the kid who played a level up always. I was obsessed and good as far as anyone could tell. This was the first big year away at camp and the first time I shined outside my own town. I was good against the good kids my age from other towns. I could run with the good kids older then me. It was a buzz.

My dad picked me up and my memory is that he told me we had to get going fast. Mom wasn’t home and we had to get moving.

‘Where’s mom?’ I asked.

‘She had to go to see Grammy.’ He said.

‘When?’

‘She’s there now.’

A lot of things happened in our house without advanced warning. There were six or seven kids at that time, including a toddler, so it’s possible these plans were always in the works and I was just never informed. Still, weird for her to travel alone, but to be honest, she’d gone to Israel on her own while 8 months pregnant with the little one so who’s to say if it was weird that she went on short notice to see her parents.

‘Why?’ I asked.

Here’s where my memory fails me. I don’t know if I asked that. Maybe I didn’t, though I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have come up. Maybe we were driving a friend of mine home or something and he couldn’t tell me. Whatever was said I didn’t know ‘why’ she was gone until I read it in a letter. Might have been in the car right when I was packed up and we were ready to go. I have a memory of it being a letter I read when I got it on the kitchen table when we got all the way home. In hindsight I can imagine a dad wanting to keep it from a kid as long as possible.

What is true is that I found out in a letter. My dad probably wrote it. Might have been mom, but I can’t imagine. It was one of them. My grandfather was dead and he’d killed himself. It was a suicide letter by proxy.

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have to start again. I’m nervous about losing writing. I fear it’s like basketball. I’m old and unable and all those years of pounding my knees on pavement have not left me very able with a hoop and a ball anymore. I can shoot, I’ll always be able to shoot, but the rest is rusty and the will and ability to fix that are gone.

I’ve been sharing the writing I’ve done in the past in different ways recently. It’s been good to reach some new people and find some new life in old stories about times gone by. It’s been interesting to mine my own work, produced largely without reflection. Or rather, to reflect on what I was compelled to write over time.

I recently shared a piece that was written as if it were a letter to my sons. It was a letter outlining the fact that what I want for them is to feel loved and to love. I want the person they love to love them and to inspire laughter and curiosity and energy and compassion and passion and all the things that love alone can fulfill, but I don’t care if the person they love is a man or a woman. I will very much care about who that person is, I just won’t care about that.

It’s in line with a lot of my work, really. Often I’m sending a message out through time and space hoping they will see it and know they were loved. Know that I’m aware of the things I got wrong. Sorry for the parts I’ll fail at. I want them to know that I was a failure. That I was a drunken mess for years. That I had false starts and self doubt and self loathing. That I was depressed. That I hated school. That I didn’t know what I was doing when they came along and all I wanted to do was do right by them. That love so amazing as the love they and their mom have brought to my life is worth slogging through painful times for. That even the hope of it is enough.

I remember having a conversation with my sister a number of years back where I told her that I have always kept a list in my head of who it is I think is most at risk of killing themselves. It’s not some list of sad celebrities or self destructive artists of one sort or another. It was a list of family and friends. Mostly family. A list I at times put myself on. A chronicle of my real time assessments of presumed depressive states that were potential life changing suicides. I did it subconsciously and without noticing I was doing it for years. It sounds like bullshit to me, but it was true. I was truly unaware of this constant drone in my psyche.

One of the recurring points I’ve made over the years was the startling and profound understanding of mortality that I had when I saw my kids the seconds after they were born. It’s more pronounced after the first, sure but that isn’t to say it wasn’t there with the second. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung, but it can certainly be rung again.

It was a rolling realization but the fact is that it was inevitable, being me, that sooner than later the fear of the worst thing I could ever imagine would occur to me. What if some day, too far out to imagine, but not so far out I can avoid ever thinking about, one of my kids, in a moment of pain and suffering and confusion and hopelessness and depression killed himself. It’s the worst thought I can imagine. It’s vomit inducing to say. It’s my biggest fear and I’ve never acknowledged it until now.

Because I got that letter. The one that I had no idea would ripple into the future not in weeks or months or even years, but in generations. In families that weren’t even imagined yet. In the darkest corners of my imagination and in the lists I’d construct mindlessly for hopes that somehow the preparation would perhaps soften a blow I couldn’t possibly see coming.

I’m not capable of having an objective view of my life. By definition it’s impossible, but at times my subjective experience of it can lead to insights that perhaps obvious to others are still profound for me. So saying that it would appear my grandfather killing himself may have effected me and my point of view may sound obvious to you, it wasn’t to me. It wasn’t at all.

I felt bad after reading the letter. I felt hurt even. There was no ‘good’ way to tell me and at a time when communication at a distance was not like it is today I understand why I’d learn about it this way. But it felt like I was left a few days behind. I came back to everyone being in the third or fourth day. I came back to a process that I was left out of. It wasn’t like it was anyone’s fault. I’m really only putting it together right here. At the time I just felt out of synch with the world. I didn’t know what else to do then keep doing what I did. I probably went and shot hoops. It’s literally how I spent an easy 50% of my waking hours at that time.

What I didn’t do was cry. I felt terrible about that. I wanted to so badly, but it just didn’t happen at that time. I didn’t really shed a tear. Maybe I would have had I been there for the group horror, but I wasn’t and I was a twelve year old boy. Emotions are hard always, but they’re a more confounding sort of hard, a less tethered kind at that age. It was 30 years later, when a young man I only knew through others and only enough to say hello to killed himself that I finally wrote about him, and my grandfather and read it to my mother that I really bawled about it.

The tears were not just sad tears. The tears I’ve shed for this event are sorrow filled to be sure, but they are rage informed as well. Confusion and fear are in tears for a suicide as well. There’s empathy and judgement and all of it just comes out. It doesn’t get processed or fixed with a good cry. That’s the thing about suicide. It doesn’t, as far as I can tell it can’t get resolved.

I write because I write. I have only this single keyhole through which to see the world and from where I’m looking the threat of finding out the worst news imaginable is possible because I’ve found it out before. And I’ve watched others find out what it all means, over time, others more directly related and I can’t ever lose the fear of it. So I write. I write about as many of the feelings and failings I can muster the courage or the perspective to find in my story. I write to the worries I have that can keep me up, about what if they don’t know how much I love them. What if they are disconnected at a time when I can’t reach them and they think an awful thought and I can’t hug them and hold them and assure them they are loved. What if they are afraid of me or think I will judge them harshly and I add weight to the burdens I can’t know that they will someday carry. And I write.

I write because it brings me joy and relief and understanding and it can fill me with pride and drive me to dig deeper. In doing so I’ve come to understand that I don’t always see all the forces compelling creation. I don’t always understand why the topics come to the surface. When they do I can ignore them or indulge and some I’ve indulged should likely have been ignored and many I’ve ignored should probably have been explored. The process of creating over time though is starting to reveal reason’s to me and one of them is I don’t want to ever catch myself ever thinking I’ve ever failed to do everything in my power to keep these two names, these two magical and wonderful human beings as far away as possible from my tragic lists. Lists I can’t sop making.

Taken for Granted

More than anything in the world I’m grateful that we will have pizza this week. And vegetables. Fresh and frozen, canned. Whatever. I’m grateful that we know with near certainty that we won’t spend a minute thinking about whether or not we can eat.

I don’t always appreciate how safe I am. I lie in the dark and wonder if I left a lock unturned. I wonder if that was someone downstairs. I think about what is nearby that i could use to club a potential burglar or worse. Then I wait and wait and I forget about it and I go back to distracting myself with pictures of family and tales of struggle and memes that make me laugh. I watch highlights and listen to comedians interview each other on podcasts that I hear on my phone which can access, essentially, all human knowledge. I do all of it knowing I am not likely to have war greet me at the door. My children are not likely to learn the worst of life until they are ‘ready’ and then they will do so through books and movies and lessons and not life. I know the further out I project the less sure I can be of these things, but I’m confident.

I see pictures of children who are being greeted by a world that is roiling with chaos and violence the likes of which I can’t even truly imagine without a sheen of Hollywood staging and two dimensional falsehoods that are stored in my brain as images of war. Then a picture will turn up in the news of a child, a toddler, old enough to process but not enough to understand, if there is such an age, why the men are killing everyone, why these bombs are coming for them and I fall to pieces. I question everything. I wonder why I’m not doing more.

I didn’t know the gut punch of these pictures, these images until I had my boys. Until I had the identity of a parent. I could Identify tragedy, yes, but I feel it so very viscerally now. I see the confusion and fear and courage and bravery on the faces of children enduring war and I shutter at what they know. No 4 or 5 year old should know what these children know. I fall to pieces.

I don’t appreciate how good I have it and I never will. But at times it becomes starkly real when I see the world I’m protected from. The world I continue to place safely out of view. One I care about, want to change but am determined to not see. I don’t think this makes me a bad person, relatively speaking. Relatively speaking I’m fine. But I’m also selfishly and honestly and determinedly invested in keeping my boys out of those pictures. Out of harms way. Safe in this place where even the greatest tragedies, thus far are little more than inconveniences and mild disappointments when seen in the grand scheme of things.

I wish I was better than I am. I wish you were. I wish anyone who could would walk into hell and walk these children and their families out. I’d be so incredibly happy to help them, from here.