My Life in Stories

2015-01-06 07.36.22We have two boys. Two separate but intertwined stories. I’m lucky to be here at the start of their tales. Amongst the first things that became evident was that I was not going to see the end of their story. I can’t even hope to see these stories through to their natural end. Nope, these tales are meant to extend beyond me.

My life has been anchored around stories. They have been a tether to the world and to the people in my life for as long as I can remember. I have loved movies and television my whole life, but in my heart I’m a reader. These days, with two very active little boys I’m often only a ‘reader’ as a description of who I was. That said the nights are getting quieter and longer, slowly but surely I can now begin to think of building a bedside tower of books to read for sheer pleasure.

I’ve had my nose in books since I was a kid. I used to sit on the landing at the top of the basement stairs, atop loosely stapled carpet, door to the “living’ part of our home closed, sequestered in my private little compartment, feet on the steps, bare bulb overhead atop the dangling string used to turn it on and off. There amidst the stored 2 litre bottles of Adirondack sodas I’d read through the scripts of the plays I’d seen my older brothers perform in middle school and high school productions. I’d read all the lines and all the stage directions and recreate Oklahoma! in my head. I’d devour the scripts to Cheaper by the Dozen and Sweetest Little Girl in Town for the hours between getting home and being beckoned from the kitchen just on the other side of the door beside me, to the dinner table.

On occasion we would go up to the Seymour Library and I’d look for scripts by Rogers and Hammerstein. I’d investigate the section filled with scripts until we were leaving and I was forced to pick. It was what friends of mine would do at the record shop, what I still do at book shops if I can steal a half hour in the afternoon. This was all before I was 10. I’d get a stocking stuffer book about Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar of the quality you used to see at drugstore checkouts. Books with all the slapdash appeal and accuracy of neglected Wikipedia entries on singers of little note from bygone era’s. I’d read that biography time and again until it was incapable of maintaining its structural integrity. Then I’d read it ten more times, being sure to keep the many loose pages precisely where they should be. As a teen I would discover novels. I’d go through phases. A little Holden Caulfield here and some Phillip Pirrip (Pip) there. I’d take the Electric Cool Aid Acid Test in college, not a novel but so full of eclectic and eccentric characters that it read like one.  This would spark my curiosity about Kesey and his perfect representation of how we all got it wrong. I’ve come to think of that type of outlook as misguided and stereotypical of my young manhood. To be fair though, he wasn’t altogether wrong, but as I went on my tools became more refined and I gave more credit to my specific history and I fell in love with John Irving. The early striving and reaching and failing of Water Method Man or the so-close, pre-brilliance of Garp, the tease that made you know that something great was to come. It did with A Prayer for Owen Meaney. A fairytale of the neighborhood sort. The story was so great I didn’t care about the clumsy attempts to make a statement of the moment in the midst of an allegory that was timeless. I followed Mr. Irving to India and to the prep schools of the fifties and sixties and the Hotel New Hampshire and felt like I was getting a private tour of a brilliant mind trying to understand the complexities of the human heart. It was thrilling and I relish visiting their still. I’ll skip alternate chapters in Owen Meaney now to avoid the now dated commentary on the political realities of the time it was written. I’ll read only the first half of A Widow for One Year. These are my stories and I can consume them however I like.

I moved on to Russell Banks. He is still the pat answer for the question, who is your favorite author. I didn’t have the patience or inclination for the early stuff. It was designed to spit at convention and in so far as it buttresses me when i know its right to spit at convention, it was helpful, even not reading it. But everything from the blended cultures and New York upState teen life of Bone to the Hardscrabble New Hampshire of Wade’s life were and are things of brilliance. Being in these books are some of the most wonderful times of my life, reading these books and discovering a tender hand at the helm of such hard stories of hard lives. The pure intellectual self satisfaction with which I read the account of Owen, the youngest son John Brown, as he told his tale like it were a gospel, and for him it was as John Brown in fact made himself a bit of a god while pushing us to confront our sins. He was as much a True Believer when it came to god and to abolition as ever there was. The book was a tome. And it was and is something I’ll carry with me forever.

I have had a very real and vibrant life in stories. They have provided me with a language to understand, organize, proclaim and make sense of the story of the life I’m living. What none of them have prepared me for is being a bit player on the outskirts who dies half way through. But to some degree this is where I found myself after Charlie was born.

2014-10-25 12.47.40At the moment, a phrase that is pretty much the entirety of my life since having kids, I don’t often think of the end of my story. In fact I rarely think of my story at all. Not that it’s not important, and their are certainly things that bring it to the fore now and again, but

Before I was a parent, I was the author of MY story. I was the maker of worlds and the decider of fates. Granted, on a small scale, but still. To some degree, to be the author of my tale was the ultimate power I could wish for. Since having the kids I’ve lost all that authority. Now my life and its schedules are determined by the needs, and frankly, often, by the wildly swinging vicissitudes of two toddlers, who with all the authorial power, but none of the awareness or judiciousness of a good storyteller, throw chaos like beads from a Bourbon Street Balcony on that which pleases them and threaten with tears and tantrums if they are displeased by something so slight as having to endure a moment’s boredom. I am completely out of the moment to moment control and authorship game when it comes to my life. My story is now one of messiness and disorder and to be honest, I never knew that I’d so appreciate losing the long view of next week or next month in favor of trying to manage and please minute to minute while always attempting to ensure safety and security measured now in years and decades.

Before kids I was having a great time steering the ship and living my story. But there was a terrible reality that started to creep in. The terrible reality that this is a story with an ending that is coming ever so slightly into focus. Looking 30, 40 or even 50 years out, there it was. The lines were blurry but I’d started to recognize the colors of that portrait. It was navigating, this knowledge that we all have at an early age, from my head to my heart and becoming more real for taking up residence in both.

Baby boy, Char
Baby boy, Char

Thankfully, I’ve come to understand better the larger view. I’ve sacrificed my central role in the story to be sure, but I’m so much happier now. In this story. In their stories. Still a featured character, one with impact and one with an important role to play in the stories of our protagonists, but more to the side of the main characters. For my graciousness in ceding the lead role I’ve been given a new perspective. A new perch. I’m still headed to where I’m headed, but now it happens in the middle of the greatest story I could imagine, one designed to be of more interest and import to me then nearly anyone else on earth, rather than at the end of a story that was mine, but which never grew to live beyond me. I’m a part of a larger, more inclusive and connected story now. I’m a part of something bigger, better and far more enjoyable.

The Dozing Therapist and the Online Dater

I had just layered my bandages over the perceived cuts. Once it bled through instead of changing the thing I’d just add another bandage. And another and another and another. Until I had so effectively hidden from what I feared, what was me, for so long that I needed to find that out first before I could understand what I wanted in the world.

I was in therapy for many years. I went initially at the behest of a friend. On the advice of the Chief of Mental Health at the organization I worked at I found a good one. She was in the room and a great guide on the path I took to being ready to take on life as an adult. She helped me find peace. Maybe not peace exactly, but enough peace of mind to be able to get to where I needed to go. Then, she fell asleep on me in session. After the third time I saw her drift off, I knew it was time to move on.

Its a tale I have told before and I repeat it with some regularity and giddy delight. It’s the perfect story to trigger sympathy. Perhaps that’s what I’m seeking when I tell it. Its also completely unfair to Heather was a very good therapist who perhaps had too many starches for lunch on occasion or took an inconveniently timed allergy pill or perhaps honestly fell asleep due to how boringly monotonous my issues had become. Who’s to say. Whats definitely true was that without her guidance and commitment to me and my well being I would likely still be unable to connect with someone so much that we could navigate the challenges of marriage and parenthood and with much difficulty and many setbacks arrive on the other side transformed individually and together.

Had I not gone to Heather I would not have been able to say the things I needed to say to my mother. It was a call that caught her off guard and taught me that my mother is the most supportive and intuitively gracious person I’ve ever known. This is not a momma’s boy statement either. I’d say the vast majority of people that have known her would tell you the same. And her generosity, both of spirit and of her more finite resources are her defining attribute. In the end the complaints I had were of an adolescent nature, and seeing as I was well into my 30’s I should add patience and commitment to her loved ones as defining attributes as well.

Prior to that conversation I had been on for at least a year. Could’ve been as much as two. It’s a challenge to remember exactly because prior to that call with my mom, where I told her of the things she’d said that had hurt, and said some undoubtedly hurtful things myself I wasn’t really looking to connect. I was more whittling away at who I was beneath all the layers of defenses I’d put on myself. Prior to having an honest discussion about what I thought was wrong with me with my mom I had just layered my bandages over the perceived cuts. Once it bled through instead of changing the thing I’d just add another bandage. And another and another and another. Until I had so effectively hidden from what I feared, what was me, for so long that I needed to find that out first before I could understand what I wanted in the world.

It turned out that during the dozens of first and maybe a few second dates I had over my time intentionally looking for someone else to share a life with, what I was really doing was getting comfortable being myself. What i discovered under all the wrapping was that my wounds were never as deep as I’d thought. That I was not only comfortable in my skin, but I was even capable of being quite fond of who I was. I discovered that what I was looking for did not yet reside in someone else. It couldn’t yet. I had to find it first on my own.

So for the many of you that have shown empathy for me and my sleeping therapist, rest assured that the very act, while unprofessional, did not mean that she was not helpful. She was. Very. And without the times I spent in that place, learning to officiate the constant sparring between my head and my heart, I would never have arrived here. In this place where the act of being myself is becoming less and less discipline and more and more a delight.

Learning to See

family.pictureAt first my family was everything. Then they were my everyday. Then they were my identity. Then they were that from which I needed to break free.

I was compelled to leave and couldn’t. I was fifteen or sixteen and temperament and hormones conspired to convince me I wasn’t happy, that it was an awful place and that I MUST get out of there to become whom I was meant to be. Its a very harsh, but from what I can tell a fairly common sentiment at that age when you think you know everything. On this energy I catapulted out of the cradle of my life and found a big, amazing world and I’m so happy that I did. Had I not I would never have been able to see how wonderful a world I had been born to.

I grew up amidst the apple orchards, corn fields and rust belt industrial hubs of western New York. Brockport, New York, to be specific. It’s an area that is occasionally mistaken for belonging to the northeast, but as a matter of reality its the Midwest. Much more in common with Cleveland than with New York or Boston.

I love the place, I miss the place and I imagine I always will. It was a beautiful place to grow up, and a cold one. Not many people would think of North Jersey as more hospitable in winter, but EVERYONE from where I’m from would. In fact it gives me a palpable sense of superiority every winter when locals complain about anything more than a dusting of snow and how hard it is to drive. Please. I was born in November and took my drivers test in January in Brockport, NY amidst copious amounts of lake effect snow.

From time to time I would have the occasion to bring people back home to Brockport. Often it was folks that worked at the lodge with me while I was in college. They were usually in their early twenties like me, and often from other countries. From my perspective it was a chance to have worlds collide, friends from home hanging out with my new found friends from far and wide.

We would go to bars, drink in apartments and socialize like young people the world over do. During the days we’d look for things to do. Being me and being in my early 20’s and breaking free of my home at that time I had a generally negative view of my region of the world and a specifically negative outlook on the town I was from. Shamefully now, I was embarrassed most of my home and my family. Bringing strangers from strange lands to visit changed that for me. It gave me a fresh perspective on what was in fact the great good fortune of my charmed life.

The broad, vast, open sky and miles and miles of beautifully worked farmland was visual white noise for me by the time I left. I would warn folks of the sea-level, flat monotony of the region. It was something entirely different to them. Taking them to see Hamlin Beach on Lake Ontario, the only thing I’d ever considered a lake, and to have them point out the obvious to me, who was so used to this sight as to think it nothing, that it was in fact hardly distinguishable from an ocean and breathtaking not only in its scope but also in it’s unexpected beauty was paradigm changing.

To bring them to Niagara falls and see there mouths agape, speechless at its awesome grandeur made me reassess this thing I’d so long taken for granted. I’m from a place, not nowhere. That place is unique and vast and beautiful. It’s a thing I was certain it was not, it was gorgeous. It took looking through others gobsmacked eyes to realize what it was I’d been looking at all those years.

While my head was down lamenting the tediousness of flat topography the eyes of my friends, eyes from the world over looked up and marveled at a sky they never imagined could be so enormous and vast and filled with so many stars.

In high school all that I was embarrassed me. I was popular and a jock and not a kid that was picked on or mocked. I’ve come to find that many of the young men I grew up with who were similarly fortunate have never stopped longing for that time. I was not reveling in it and felt little more than relief that my older years turned out far better than my younger years suggested they might be.

I was uncomfortable in my role. I was certain that I needed to get away from all I was to be what I wanted to be. And this was indeed true.

Becoming an adult is an act of contrivance and one that only made sense after the job at hand was completed. An inkling snuck in at the edges of my youthful anger and self-righteousness that I was in fact from a truly special family. But I needed the fuel of thinking I had something to run from, something that would always forgive me and accept me after my return, in order to motivate me out of the local bars and past a comfortable but unchallenged existence. For me that was getting away from the ‘crazies’ that were incontrovertibly ‘my tribe’, and trying to find another tribe to call my own. And I did.

The Lodge. It was an experience that propelled me directly to where I sit in life now. It allowed space for me to be curious and envious and striving and lazy and ponderous and annoying and loved. Thank god I went.

A funny thing started to happen. As I met and learned of the private lives of eccentrics and strivers and stoners and journeyers I learned that I am just like everyone else. All the things I felt shamefulness embarrassment about were in fact precisely what made me able to relate to these free thinkers, adventurers and truly revolutionary spirits who both attended the lodge and provided stewardship to the place. I started to feel like there might be a day when I’d feel fully comfortable in my skin and harmonious with my people.

I started bringing the world to my family and was afforded the opportunity to see them through others eyes. I came to realize that I had perceived them so ungenerously.

My family is what was and remains the most amazing gift my life has provided for me. They are generous and kind and thoughtful. They are fierce and funny and incredibly smart. They keep you sharp and keep you warm and keep you laughing and with the right mix at the right time, they keep the party going, although a laid back party with smart jokes and warm smiles.

Now that I’ve seen a few things, not a ton, but some, I know their was no better place on the planet to have grown up. I’ve met some people and had some victories and some struggles and in the end I am certain my big, crazy, funny, talented and thoughtful family is the only reason I am any of the good things I may be.

There is no doubt in my mind that I was exactly where I was meant to be, exactly when I was meant to be there and I will look back for whatever time I have left with nothing but generosity and appreciation for the wonderful family I was born into.