Fragile and Brave

I have a picture of you from daycare. You are sitting quietly, legs stretched out in front of you. You are holding a board book, eyes down inspecting it. Your cheeks are so beautiful I can feel them just by looking, smooth, soft and pink with warmth. Your narrow shoulders are somewhere under the hood of your sweatshirt, a book open but ignored between your legs as you investigate this other book that has captured your curiosity. You’re wearing jeans and there are books scattered around you. You’re probably an old 2 year old in this picture, or maybe a young 3 year old. You are fully engaged, busy doing and uninterested in the person standing in front of you, probably unaware of their presence, who took the shot. I love this picture and it can make me cry.

You are the youngest and I can’t stop seeing the vulnerable in you. Sitting here with the picture and without you I can’t for the life of me imagine you look any different than that picture. Cherubic and intrigued. Tiny and determined. But you have grown. A lot. I still see the baby in you and always will. 

You still tell me about ‘tomachakes’ (stomach aches) and love ‘Sharlie’ (Charlie) and I don’t really want you to learn you are mispronouncing these things. I don’t want you to grow up. 

There are selfish reasons that mostly live in my subconscious. For one, if you’re getting older than I’m getting older. You don’t need to really know this for a good long time now, but I’m not going to be here forever and when I see you lost in discovering I want to freeze the world and stay in it forever. I didn’t have heaven until I met you and Charlie. Mommy made me come to life in a way I hadn’t, but the concept of heaven was one I rejected for lack of imagination. To be fair, who could conceive of something so wonderful and extraordinary as you. My heaven is here and now. 

Another reason I prefer you stay in this moment forever is so that I can always be what I am to you right now and you can always be what you are to me. We have challenging moments for sure, but they are fleeting. They revolve around simple challenges. This simplicity is balanced by an extraordinary frequency. You can have 5-8 crises before breakfast and without fail, whether we do so well or poorly, we get through every one.

Thirdly, I fall asleep next to you. You don’t like to fall asleep. You love to sleep, but the falling part, you are a resister. You get this from me. Each night, when I see you are tired, when we’ve been lying in bed for a long time I’ll inevitably say, ‘just close your eyes, buddy.’ Without fail, at least to this point in time it’s always met with your response of, ‘But it hurts to close my eyes.’ I could stop asking, but I just love the answer so much. You’ll start to drift and most nights you’ll pop your head up and say one last, half conscious crazy non-sequitir just before rolling over and falling asleep. Something like ‘I can’t sleep in parking lot frogs’ or ‘I look just like Fawzy.’ In case you’re wondering years from now what those things mean, well, I have no idea on the frog thing, but the ‘Fawzy’ thing is how you pronounce ‘Quazi’. He’s a character from Octonauts and your mispronunciation is adorable. I prompt it like five times a day. 

What I really don’t want to change is the you in this picture. You are a perfectly fine with the contradictory nature of life that becomes something so scary as an adult. You are exquisitely fragile and profoundly brave at the same time all the time. It’s amazing to see. Your brother was the same way, but you learn, you will learn any day now, to be self-conscious. You will wonder how other people will react before pursuing an interest. You will stop crying when mad and sometimes even try not to laugh when something is funny. You’ll toughen up and as a result you’ll be more cautious. That’s the confounding conundrum you’re going to wrestle with in the years ahead. It’s okay, you’re supposed to. But what is going on right here and now is beautiful and not be dismissed hastily. 

Being simultaneously fragile and brave has served you extremely well to now. It’s made you explore nature intuitively and voraciously. Left to your own free will you’d spend hours a day trying to find and transport every imagineable living creature from the dirt back to the house to show us. You explore whatever sparks your curiosity and you do it with abandon. You are excited when you see things you love, so excited you barely keep in your skin and you show it with squeals. They are pure joy and they are infectious to all who hear them. When you are upset, regardless of any reason or the presence of any others you let that be known too. Your emotions come out when they are felt and it’s incredibly healthy. In a sense you taught me these things. Charlie did too, but he’s teaching us other things. He’s at the tip of the spear, bringing us to new experiences all the time. He’s a boundary breaker and we can’t really enjoy as much of that process as we can with you. He’s desensitized us and you are showing us how to live an experience, not just survive it. 

I can honestly say that you’ve impacted my life more than I ever could yours. You’ve shown me the value of being unafraid. You’ve pushed me to challenge my fears to explore my world like you do yours. Thank you. 

I feel extraordinarily fragile these days. I also feel brave and curious. All these things were pushed so far down before I knew you that I often felt nothing, which was perfect for keeping invisible, but terrible for feeling alive. Living is pursuing your curiosity and finding your emotions and wrestling with all of it all the time. Living is not fearing feelings, but feeling them, saying it and processing them fully and with the help of those you love so you can put them down and not be ruled by them. Living is something you can only do if you are fragile and brave, just like you.  

The Lodge Part IV: Greatest Job Ever

As I walked away I could already taste the regret. I was making a mistake. I wasn’t sure how big a mistake. I didn’t really care either. It took all of a split second to determine that I was now going to go down on this ship, this manufacturing of a moment, perhaps a moment that would go down in lore as ‘Oh my god! Do you remember Joe? Remember when he was here, he stood right there. Oh my god.’ Really, what regret could I have that would ever make me feel like this was a mistake. So I had to change, put on some fresh clothes and act like it never happened.

As I walked around the corner I knew that everyone would be watching for me to emerge above the fence in the distance as I headed toward the dance/honeymoon suite building. My stride, for whatever reason, became easier. Less encumbered by the stress of the moment and even liberated by the squishing and dripping that oozed and fell from my clothing. I was getting comfortable with what I’d done.

Perhaps not as comfortable as my friend Evan.

Evan was a guest at the Lodge. Evan was about 50, fairly jovial and capable of being incredibly witty and acerbic. It wasn’t all an act, not by any stretch, but there was a peformative nature to Evan. He was in it for the attention, but he wasn’t over eager. He waited for his audience. He lived in my cabin the first year, when I was a counselor turned Lodge Leader. He was there in the second half of the summer when we were down to the skeleton crew/dream team of Me, Mike and Tony. A suburban white kid (me), streetwise city kid (I wouldn’t call Mike a kid back in those days, though in hindsight we all were) and a gangly Russian with an Italian-Americanized name (Tony. I’ve come to know home on Facebook years later by the name of Anton, a far more fitting name considering his surname. He taught me a thing or two about the world I didn’t know, a rapidly changing one in the 1990’s in Russia). I remember going to each of my cabin mates and seeing if they saw things I didn’t. I went to Mike to confirm that Evan was who he was after the following exchange. Before I tell you I should note that it was my first session in charge. It sounds cute, but it was running a cabin of 16 adult guests with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, including people with needs for physical supports, with 3 guys, all hovering around 20 years old, all with six weeks experience, who worked round the clock, 24 hours a day. No punch outs. No back up staff. It was stressful.

Anyway, about a week in to Evan’s stay I see him outside the cabin, at the other end of the fence we all hung out at outside (lodge) 12. I catch an eye, I look for his name on my ever present clipboard (I needed the prop to signify my authority) for head, no name counts…

Me: Evan, right?

Evan: Yeah, Joe.

Me: When was the last time you showered?

Evan (Shaking his head like Al DelVechio at Arnold’s saying ‘yup, yup, yup’): Five fucking years ago. Five long, happy, Jewish years.

Me: (5 seconds of silence) Bwahahahaha!

As you might imagine I grew quite fond of Evan. Not only for the effortless way he used cursing as a tool in his comedy, but for who I found him to be. Who we all did. When I checked with Mike after this he said, ‘yeah, he’s on my side, he’s pretty funny all the time. Unless he’s talking about Helen.’ Who’s Helen? I ticked through the staff, the support staff, the nurses, his fellow guests (who would be campers elsewhere, but we were all adults here, our guys had agency, they were not to be treated as children. Guests, please.) ‘It’s his mom. Mike said. I think he still lives with her. Actually, he can be funny with her too. But you can tell it’s different.’

Evan became a guy. We loved all the guys, but he turned out to have a little Rock Star to him. He was hysterical.

He was also foul mouthed. Not in groups, and not with anyone that didn’t appreciate it. But for me and Mike and Tony, he’d be there, every morning one or the other of us would run up to the dining hall to grab coffees for the crew as we got to the incredibly challenging job of getting everybody up and out on time. Whenever we saw him he’d not do anything. But if we said hello or good morning it was always met with a huge smile and a ‘Hello shithead, how are ya?’ He always said it with a little bit of Squiggy in his voice. He emphasized the how are ya and the smile and it was just so damn funny. There’s no way to recreate it here, but anyone that was close enough to him would tell you the same, it was amongst the funniest and most adored greetings I’ve ever received in my life. Honestly, if I’d never had kids it would be the number one greeting of all time. Hello Shithead, how are ya? With a giant smile and a genuine twinkle in the eye.

What had been regret was turning. As I strode away, aloof and sopping wet, regret was changing. Not to it’s opposite, per se. Rather, I was just starting to own it. To feel no way about my decision. It was just something I’d done. I liked this feeling. I could hear the tittering masses left behind, still giggling, some even guffawing and I liked it. I liked the attention. I liked the silliness of it. I even liked the carpe diem of it all.

Later that summer I’d be charged with taking Evan to the dentist. It wasn’t something that we did at camp without an emergency, so he must have had one, but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. Perhaps they had to pull a tooth or something. Whatever it was it needed to be addressed immediately. It could not wait for him to go home and it wasn’t enough for us to insist he go home.

I took my job quite seriously and at 23 it meant having the conversations, gently, that I knew I had to have.

Me: Now, Evan, it’s not like camp. We’re going to be out in public and there will be others around.

Evan: Oh yeah. I know dat shit.

He burst a second of laughter and then looked sidelong at me to see that it landed. It did. Just saying ‘shit’ was enough to make it funny. I know. It’s immature. I also know that he was not immature, was in on the joke and actually understood why it was funny. Judge if you like, but we were and are good at this and it was merely a grown man getting a laugh with crude language. It was normalizing and accompanied by a very real sense of humor that lived along side his performance art of cussing for laughs.

Me: That. You can’t do that while we’re at the office. I know you know that, but I have to say it.

Evan: I know that. I tell Helen all the time, oh yeah, boy, I know that.

This was our Evan. I didn’t have to bring it up again. We just chatted for the half hour or so that it took to get down the mountain and to the dentist. I gave him one more respectful reminder and we went in.

It was clearly a family practice and they must have been well aware of where we were coming from, and by extension who Evan was, or at least they had an idea that he was different. I have to say, Evan charmed everyone. He is an excellent patient. Why shouldn’t he be. He’s an absolutely lovely person!

That said, he was teasing me a little. Giving me those sideways looks. Answering questions straight when asked by the Dr. then looking at me to let me know that he knew what would be the funniest way to answer. He’d even be smiling as the phrase would go through his head, and mine, but the smirk never turned into uttering a vulgarity. I shouldn’t have been so worried. He’s a good dude. A good friend to all and an excellent companion  for an adventure.

When his work was done and we left to go I gave him a wink of approval/thanks and he chuckled back. We were grown ups, out in the world, away from the camp. All that was left was to pay. I stood at the reception desk, Evan at my side and awaited the forms eagerly so we could sign them and head out for lunch.

Reception Staff: So we’ll just need you to sign this affirming that the work was done.

Me: So would you like me to sign or Evan?

Evan: You can do it.

Reception Staff: That’ll be fine. It was a pleasure meeting you, Evan.

Evan: You too.

He smiled bashfully. Even tilted his head. When he did he fell upon the number, the thousand or so dollars that the procedure was going to cost. That’s when the bubble burst.

Evan: Holy fucking shit. Helen’s gonna fucking kill me!

It boomed. I held back my laughter and you could tell. It was an active denial that was seen by all. He laughed outright, big and jovially, big belly bouncing. The mom’s with kids in the waiting room bristled. One laughed, thank god. The dentist, the assistants, all the staff snickered and smiled, some nervously and some like me, holding back. It was the one instant when we were in the middle of everyone in the whole damn building.

I suppose you had to be there, but it was amongst the funniest moments of my entire life and a good part of that was due to my discomfort next to my man Evan’s seeming indifference. He could have said that in church and his heart rate wouldn’t have budged nor a bead of sweat been anywhere near him. The man just knew himself, had reacted sincerely and was damn funny for it. He knew it.

My regret was fully gone by the time I was rising above the fence line and I was happy, damn happy I’d done what I’d done. My job in this magical place hadn’t really fit me right yet. I was still struggling to wear the ‘uniform’ of big boss man now that I was in my second year and first year on the Admin Team, the four or five of us who were the big bosses. I would be invisible as I strode from activity to activity counting names and looking stern. I was a little overwhelmed by the job at hand and I was trying so hard to look the part that I missed the whole damn point. That being, if you can’t have fun at a job where you are changing the world, making others lives magical and being transformed by that same magic coming at you from all angles, than what the hell are you even doing there.

I think that was why I did what I did that day. Instead of quietly opening the gate to the pool, popping in and eying up the lifeguards and the staff, ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing and leaving as quietly and stoically as I’d arrived, I did something different. Of course I still made sure everyone was where they should be. Of course I ensured all was safe. Then, in what amounted to street clothes, I strode right to the middle of the pool and fully clothed proceeded to make a show of the whole damn affair. And it was great. All the guys started laughing, but I stayed in character, never even cracking a smile. Which only made the guys laugh more and even some of the staff, who had to be tiring of my ‘transitional’ phase to leadership. It was a moment. Forget all you normals, we’re the weirdos and we’re proud of it. It was a story they’d tell at lunch. It was something so simple but so special that it had to have turned at least someone who was there’s whole day around. In fact I can guarantee it did.

No matter how much they screamed, or hooted or called my name as I walked up that hill, I wasn’t going to turn around. But as I got to the top of the hill and rounded the corner of the dance building a giant smile broke across my face. From that moment forward until I left years later I had the greatest job on earth.

 

A Promise to Love is a Promise to Work

2014-08-16-14-29-29Ain’t love great?

It swells and swoons and sweeps you off your feet. When it comes it lifts you up over your problems, it sweeps away your issues and leaves your worries in the pile of life that now sits like a heap of laundry on the floor where you were standing, knee deep until this miracle made all of it fade so far into memory that it was like a dream.

Love is like that. It’s amazing. It is energizing and effortless at once.

Love isn’t static, however. It doesn’t stand still amidst storms. It doesn’t resist change and fly above all challenges. It bends and flexes. It is forced to learn and adapt. It’s formed in fire and the heat is increased until it learns to morph. Until it changes it’s molecular make up so it can be poured into the mold of your choosing. This fire can show your flaws in a way that will leave you carrying that first early version of love like an old and dirty T-Shirt you once thought you’d never take off, never have to mend or clean, back to the pile of discarded worries and concerns and issues you had thought you left behind. Other times it reveals strength and pliability that show you that it will never fail you so long as you never fail it.

You can fail at love by merely not trying. By not making an effort. It seems like an aspersion to say you didn’t try but it isn’t. Perhaps you didn’t understand. I didn’t. Not always. I thought it was a transformative thing. I thought once love found me I’d be swept up and out of my problems. That drinking myself to sleep would be a thing of the past. That bouts of self doubt and self-loathing would be replaced with a natural buzz that made me unconquerable and endlessly optimistic. I thought that because it did that. Well, it did most of that most of the time. And for a good long time. Why wouldn’t it stay like that?

2015-06-22 12.02.30You see my wife is fairly hard not to love. I remember early on the ‘falling fast’ aspect of our relationship. I made promises in those early days that I had no idea were so important. I did it because I had to. Love was making me. It was making me tell her I loved her. It was making me commit to things I’d soon waiver on, but ultimately follow through on. It made me a better person through no real effort on my part. Because that love was passive. I merely received it. I heard it loud, acted on it’s suggestions and never questioned its wisdom.

Until I did. Until love became hard. Until love started to get drowned out by the baggage I brought. Baggage is a loaded term but some of it was actually just the essentials. The stuff I needed to carry with me to retain the essential me. I need to be occasionally high and often low. It makes my world have color. I need to feel like I stick out, like I’m different. I carried my sense of uniqueness through years of outwardly trying to fit in because no matter how hard I wanted to leave behind being unique it turns out it was really important to me and all the testing of that I could withstand would never scrub me of it. I needed to feel bedraggled and bewildered at life from time to time in order to know what was right and what was wrong. And I had to carry some of this luggage and my wife needed to help with the load. As I need to help with hers.

These were the promises we made to each other. Promises we had no idea were so important until they were tested. By time at first. Then by kids. Then by life and all it’s joys and pains. Promises we had no idea were so prescient and wise considering the impulses that led us to make them. Promises that challenged us, melted us and made us anew, stronger and more able for all they exposed. Promises we needed to fulfill to make and keep the promises we are now making to our kids that have tentacles and reach in directions we never would have predicted when we made them so confidently. Promises that would have crushed the people we were before we promised our love to each other. Before we had to live up to our promises not only to one another but to ourselves. Promises to love actively, to work at showing our love, to build a home where it could flourish and be tested and where it could fail and be recovered.

Thank goodness I allowed myself to be swept away so I could make the promises that would make me what I needed to become. So I could soar above it all without losing sight of why I am aloft and how I can sustain what has become the life I know I was meant to live. Before I could promise and know that it was unbreakable.

……………

This post was written in response to this prompt

Becoming The One


There’s a good many reasons I write. Most of them have evolved since I started Developing Dad. Initially it was motivated by my desire to make this thing for my kids. A record of who their parents were along the way. A place where they could go back and hopefully see how much they were loved. So they could learn from me while some of what I had to teach was still fresh in my mind. This is one of those posts.

2013-09-08 16.33.09My father is not always prone to giving advice. He’s actively involved in helping us chew over a problem, but I think he takes a designers approach to most things having been a designer since far before he even had the degree to prove it. Or the career full of successes. He’s a designer by nature before he was one by training. As such, and as a man that will often speak of how fascinated he is with his children and their perceptions and approaches, he revels in seeing us solve problems. Designers know that there are potentially innumerable ways in which to approach and resolve a problem and he loves seeing how others do it.

‘I’m really very happy that you’ve chosen this life.’ He said to me on the back porch of my brothers house the afternoon before our big day. ‘It’s a good life.’

It’s a thought that’s resonated with me. It got my attention in the moment and has held that attention now for going on 8 years. ‘I’m really happy that you’ve chosen this life.’

It’s not passive, I chose it. I chose to give love. I chose to accept it. I chose to look past fear and doubt and aimed at something beyond the immediate. I chose to commit to it. A thing I’m not sure I understood at the time, but a thing he knew far better than I, was something I’d grow into.

I’d come close before this. A couple of times. In each of those earlier instances I walked away from the afair swimming in remorse over my shortcomings and failures. I wallowed in pity over the weight I didn’t afford the relationships until it was too late. Until I’d messed up. In resolving these emotions, past years of recriminations and loud and repeated listenings to Rick Danko bleating out the lyrics to ‘It Makes No Difference’ or Dave Matthews singing sincerely about something I was trying to feel though I wasn’t, I resolved and learned that I was going to have to accept that she wasn’t the one. It was an important realization for me. To know that in the end while the pain was real when it was real and it was honestly desired when it was feined the reality was that it was the fates and I had to learn everything I could from these painful experiences. In the end it wasn’t meant to be.

Which is a total and utter cop out.

In the end of relationships you divvy up. The reality was, to a greater or lesser degree, or just in different ways for each situation, I was at fault. And the fault that was mine to own was that I wasn’t the one. Not because I wasn’t ‘the one’ per se, but because I didn’t choose to become so. Not until the day after the day before my wedding when my father imparted wisdom he didn’t even know he posessed.

He had made the choice, the committment in his mid twenties. He was on the accelerated plan of becoming a good man and becoming the one for the girl he’d marry. I drifted a bit longer. At least when it came to relationships and my ability to be who I thought I was.

Wedding Day‘The one’ barely existed on my wedding day. It also existed absolutely as much as it could. We were getting married after all. She was absolutely the one for me and I look back on that day often with the greatest of memories as it was the day when we set in motion the series of events that would bring about our unending happiness at becoming ‘the one’ for someone who was taking the same leap for us. The truth is that the love that brought us to that place, through a remarkable set of ups and downs was a precursor to a life we are now well on the way to completing the foundations of now that you are both here with us. But I was no more a pre-determined perfect fit for your mother than she was for me. What I was and am is madly in love with her. Which, yes, means I’m enamored of her. But more importantly it means I’m committed to her and she to me. Through the past seven-plus years of our marriage, through several challenging and seriously imperfect times where we have both failed each other and failed ourselves, we always rebound to that committment and each time we do there is more trust, more love and more reason why we alone, specifically are the only partner that could ever be the one for the other. The ways multiply with each passing milestone of a life spent together figuring out what is meaningful to us and to each other. I’m infinitely more capable of being the one for your mother today as she is for me because of how imperfect life is and because we keep showing up for each other each day no matter how hard a day it might be. We’ll continue to do so through fights and disagreements, through joys and celebrations, through the workaday drudgery that life can sometimes be, through laughs that become the special language we’ll only be able to speak with each other that will give us endless capacity to carry one another when life strikes it’s most painful blows. I could never have been the one for her in the way I am now when we were just starting out.

11133746_10206086038933979_5520499095169659982_nThe concept of ‘the one’ is much maligned by the cynical and those lacking imagination. We all have times when we question it’s rightness and that’s a part of figuring it out, but don’t be fooled, ‘the one’ definitely exists. But like the rest of life it requres two things. First you have to be responsible for being the one and don’t expect life to present to you ‘the one.’ That’s not how it works. All you can control is you and if you want to find the one, go about being the one. That’s the only way to know if you can in fact become the one for another. Second, go about being the one by showing up, every day, for that person you love. Apologize for your wrongs, celebrate the one you love and show up especially when it’s hard to do so. If you don’t you have absolutely no right to expect them to do so for you.

My father is a designer by nature and as such he has gone about accounting for a structure’s integrity from inception. When he told me that he was happy that I chose this life, whether he knew it or not, that’s what he was happiest for. He saw that I loved my bride fully and was happy that I chose this structure which hewed to the design he favored, built and tested in the life that he’d lead and was still leading, both beautiful in conception and structurally sound.

I was never so fool hardy as to think that there was one and only one meant for me. But I did seem to think that there were many ones and I just had to find one of them. I imagined that having that someone who loved me for me would make life easier somehow. And that I would do the same for her. I imagined that this would happen smoothly and easily as I simply had to find a person where this was true and I’d know they were one of ‘the one’s’ for me. I wouldn’t commit until then.

It was a fundamental misunderstanding of what love is, what ‘the one’ means. The one is not the solution. They don’t arrive fit to your life. They don’t come through the door and morph to some ridiculous, uninformed and frankly selfish version of what you think would be perfect. Instead they come through and you fall for them. That’s it. The rest is up to you, up to you both, to make that moment mean something by committing and recommitting everyday. Do that and you’ll find you found the one. The one and only one for you, fitting ever more perfectly together as you grow.