Hereditary ghosts haunt families: Ghosts of helplessness and limitations, of loneliness and lack. Being blind to this haunted mansion is what gives it unchallenged power over us.

We can become the ghosts of our own lives if we stay trapped here long enough.
So I have a kid running around my ankles looking up to me asking me to tell him this is a nice world – “Tell me the spiders aren’t scary …that they are nice sometimes. Why do cats chase mice – why do dogs chase cats? There was a ghost in that video, what is a ghost? Why don’t the big kids want to play with me?”

My Dad is slowly dying. It’s a degenerative disease and there isn’t anything to be done except to take good care of him and make him comfortable. They say he has 6 months to a year. I know these estimates can be wrong and I also know he is eighty years old and not feeling well.

When I was little, my Dad actually scared me yet I remember adoring him. My love for Dad was always touched by fear. He was huge and powerful and angry a lot but I know there was a period where I was his little guy and he loved me too. I remember him lying in bed and me (as a tiny toddler) pounding on his back, just wailing away like a crazy thing and him laughing like it was charming. I often got a feeling like he loved whatever was indomitable and fierce in me, even when tasked with punishing me. Sometimes my Dad, my brother and I played soccer in Central Park in New York and I would fling myself after the ball like a madman because he laughed with such pleasure at my go for broke intensity.

Then I lost him to fear. He drifted off into a consuming fear of financial failure and for the rest of my childhood, he was the worried drinking man who never had any fun with us. To my detriment, I think I learned that the adult world was a terrible place from my Dad. As a kid, I remember once looking up at the building he was working in and shuddering thinking about what he was living out because he seemed so unhappy. What in the world was he communicating that created this shockingly negative belief in me?

I remember at times trying to stay out of his way because he was a minefield. I remember concocting ten thousand ways to make him laugh because he so badly needed to. I remember his wit flashing like a sword and me trying to stay close but just out of reach. My Mom was such a reasonable and peaceful presence but Dad was a force of nature that you could only warily try to predict. I told him later how intimidating he seemed when I was a kid and he said: “You’ve got to be kidding, I was a pussycat!”

As an adult I came to see his inner pussycat – he really has a very tender and gentle heart but it was masked by stress all those years – things hit him really hard and he gets shaken to his core by worry and it makes him growl and bark. He went through life as if he was always under attack. I love my Dad very much but always with a wistfulness that I couldn’t have had more of him.

I know in his heart he didn’t believe he deserved love and the truest, sweetest love in the world is treated as an enemy invasion by hearts like that. At best, they find love frightening and overwhelming. They feel that their worst failing, the one they’d rather die than own up to, the one they think reveals them as hideous, the one that hurts the most, is about to be uncovered by the person who looks the most like the one they’ve been dreaming of. Your dream come true and your worst nightmare overlap and the nightmare wins. At this moment, shame catalyzes into pride and pride bars the door against risk and intimacy.

My venue for spending time with him as a young teenager was watching tv together in the evening. In his cups, he would tell me little loving things that just sound hilariously awkward and weird: Often he’d repeat that I was a Planned Child, in other words, that they’d made me on purpose. The idea that I was sitting around worrying that I might have been an accident is SO STRANGE…it was an almost unimaginable worry to me, and a freakish thing to raise repeatedly. Unless you understand that the person saying it is trying desperately hard to say something deeply emotional in a way that contains nothing emotional, to scour it of risk. From my current vantage point, I know exactly what he was saying as he sat beside his gentle, goofy son: I love you very much, please never forget that. But he would speak those words to me for the first time, somewhat later, last year when I was 44 years old.

Further into the evening and his cups he would explain that when my brother and I were all grown up he would do himself in – as in “his work would be done and he could go”. I would then (every couple of nights, mind you) gently try to explain to him why he shouldn’t do that. I realized with a start one day in my twenties that his message equaled “If you grow up I’ll die.”  and that he had placed me on suicide watch for him at age 13. Alcoholics say incredibly stupid things, this idiocy was our relationship run through the alcoholic distortion filter of self-pity, drama, and hopelessness.

I don’t much blame him now. He was caught in a bad dream and he didn’t know how to climb out – he lived with us like a terrified cat scrambling for safety, he lived in fear. Fear doesn’t so much kill love as weaken and dilute it to the point where it isn’t very tasty or nutritious. Much to his credit, a couple of years later (after a truly dark, dark night of the soul) my father did exorcise his miserable old family ghosts. He turned his life entirely around. He had a rather stunning spiritual awakening and transformed into a better, happier person. I’m so grateful this happened, it was like a miracle, and it gave me a father worth having, which is far better late than never.

My version: Throughout most of my life, I struggled to make grown-up decisions. Meeting with no success at the traditional trials of adulthood, I tried to play an eccentric game nobody else was playing so that the rules and the outcome were up to me: Basically an extension of my childhood of fantasy play so deep that I lived part-time, in another dimension.  I tried to dive between the cracks in the world and not get sucked into terminal adulthood and it turns out there is a terrible price to pay for it. It was an attempt to slip past mortality and limitation when the deepest import of life in this strange world is informed by mortality and limitation. I embraced the illusion of freedom that comes with making no ultimate choice. It was like going to the best restaurant in the world and ordering nothing because any choice would limit my options.

If there is a spiritual equivalent for shameful waste in this world I think it is the thing held in reserve, the gift not used, the ingredient we selfishly do not add, the words not said, the warmth not shown: As a person, this is the spiritual virgin who will not be touched by life…and therefore wastes that life. We are spiritual fires and we are here to burn up with loving each other and exploring the depths of the mysterious world till there’s nothing left of us.

I always talked a good game but I had no idea how much love scared me. I was absurdly confident in many ways and wildly naive. Like my Father, I was too scared to get out of my head and approach another with my heart vulnerably exposed. Like my father, I didn’t believe that I deserved love.

It took me forever to realize this. I always knew what an ordinary, flawed person I was inside and how likely to disappoint. Anyone who was losing sleep over me looked like someone who needed cool compresses and sympathy. I felt when they were in love with me that it was a sort of dream and dreams were far too unstable to invest in. I don’t know what I thought the alternative was: A cool-headed love affair? A rational decision to love another person? I could never have done that.  I was scared of the prison of the particular. What if this particular relationship isn’t really it? How do you know? How can you ever really know? I should keep my options open…Then when my detachment truly DID disappoint my person, my heart would break at what felt like an incalculable, unbearable loss and I would often explode into a co-dependent pursuit of the same person who I couldn’t be bothered to appreciate properly just days or even hours before. It was a futile merry-go-round of wasted chances. This pattern is useless and self-canceling but when you’re living it, it just seems like the only thing you can do. “How else am I supposed to do this?” There are ways but they are invisible from that perspective. It’s the perspective that must be abandoned.

I never even understood love until Isaac came into my life.

It’s not that loving a child is like romantic love but it is a state of being in love helplessly and truly… and until I felt it, I didn’t understand that loving isn’t at all about things making sense.

It’s about meeting a power greater than your infernal, internal, eternal wobbling and uncertainty. It’s about giving up the distance of uncertainty and surrendering to being a human animal living out the mortal and imperfect life we have received with all the intensity we can bring to it. It isn’t about making sure things are safe or real by scrutinizing and questioning them to uncover the real truth: it’s about accepting Love as truth. It’s about not withholding. There are plenty of times in life when what is offered ISN’T right for us, and love isn’t about accepting those wrong things. It’s about when the right thing is there, recognizing it by its scent (not its appearance or name) and tearing down all the barriers to it inside yourself. Accepting Love turns you into a bear. Not violent, or vicious, just certain the way a bear is certain and determined the way a bear is determined.

When reciprocity is suppressed, gamed or denied in the critical developmental moments of openness between people love’s circuit can’t complete. Joyful partners who thought the magic moment had come at last are stranded earthbound as one or both of them opt out of synthesizing at a higher level in favor of good old power, control or safety. This is choosing a lower good over a higher one. Every love makes these choices, to rise up or fall back whether in friendship, family or romance. Every true love is made of truth, courage, and constancy but every true love remains aloft through faith and joy.

If I could have learned this earlier I would have been a happier person than I mostly have been. I’m incredibly grateful simply to know it NOW and to have this opportunity to experience loving someone this much. From the first minutes with Isaac in the neonatal ward, two months earlier than he was supposed to arrive, I have lived in a new and far better world. This tiny person knocked down the walls of limitation and uncertainty about love that I couldn’t touch simply because he was mine unquestionably and I was his and it absolutely exploded any impulse whatsoever I might ordinarily have sought to maintain a little distance and hold any part of myself aloof. True joy is to occupy your life and choices completely and without reservation. That happened to me the day we met. In one second I clicked into a deeper relationship to life than I had ever known.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” – Mahatma Gandhi

As a teenager, Isaac will wake up from the dream of perfect Dad and realize what an ordinary person I am, he will realize with horror what a flawed ninny I can be and recoil from knowing that he’s made of the same stupid stuff. But it won’t matter so much because he’ll discover another view of me later on – I’ll just have to live with the exile for a time when it comes. Growing up means forced disenchantment from the beautiful magical exceptionalism of childhood thoughts. But that flat disenchantment is merely another kind of spell and another kind of blindness, mechanically serving the required stages of separating from the bubble of parental love. Someday he will look back and know as a grown-up person that he was loved as much as a child can be loved: That he brought me so much delight and satisfaction, that we exulted in exploring the world together…that simply allowing love to BE is automatic as gravity if you just let it happen. Until he has kids of his own he won’t have a clear idea of how much it meant to me, how wonderfully life-changing it was. He allowed me to own my life as I never had just by being a part of it.

When a profound deepening of your life occurs it will never come from sufficiently thinking it through. A huge boulder deep in your soul shifts and disappears and you feel the difference. This takes work, not time; time is the background music. Time is the subtext of our building story. Time is the illusion of change through worry.

When my Mom was alive, her love for me was like the sun shining on my life & I was so acclimated to it that I didn’t realize until she was gone the extra bit of warmth that had always been there. It clicked off like a light when she died and a cold wind I had never felt before began to blow. What Isaac gave me was the chance as a grown-up to experience that same loving sunshine again by giving it to another.


To live in this world
You must be able
do three things:

To love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your life depends on it;

And, when the time comes to
let it go,
to let go.

Mary Oliver
from American Primitive