Mostly stuff about my own family, but if you’re interested, feel free.
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.
from American Primitive
The big negativity shows up at times now, mostly when he’s tired or hungry and manifests as a kind of furious contrariness. A desperate need for mutual exclusives.
“Up Up Up “ till he’s up…then ”Down! Down! Down!”
He’s still his sweet self a lot of the time. But at times he seems like the biggest victim of his own mood (I guess that’s true for all of us really). Toddler moods look like a nightmare where you lack the skills to comfort yourself and cool down from any little thing. He looks like he is infused with more power then he knows how to handle and just rattles with the stress of it. He’s in a growth spurt and gobbling up knowledge like mad and it demands a lot of him. At times he is provoking but we do our best to keep cool and steady. There are advantages to being somewhat geezerly.
The physical caution I talked about before is still there but he’s having more fun scampering around. We go out in the back yard and I blow bubbles and goes after them and pops them. He runs and dances and talks about it. “Running!” “Dancing!”
He sings “shake your booty’. Only that line thankfully. No, I can’t imagine where he learned that.
He is SO verbal! He surprises us with something he says almost everyday.
We were in the backyard yesterday and he pointed to a patch of moss and said:
At daycare he started calling people by each others names then laughed and said: “Joke!”
Another day he turned a book upside down and pretended to read it, then he put it down and said “Isaac funny!”
I’ve had what I guess must be a sinus infection for the last two months – this is like being on day six of a cold for eight weeks. One of his phrases is “Daddy coughing”. Great. My Doctor said “The only people who get it worse than day care parents are teachers”.
Sorry it’s been so long.
Well, two years ago most of us were running around a hospital in Seattle and trying to get some traction under the idea that M was seriously sick and a baby was immanent. Of course we didn’t know anything about how well most of the next steps would go so it was like awaiting a crash and not knowing how bad a blow to expect. Would the baby be alright? Would M be OK? Would her Dad hunt me remorselessly over the surface of the earth while wearing a long black trench coat? It certainly wasn’t obvious at that moment.
Two years later we have all dodged the bullet – all three of us alive and well. Although for some reason everytime I see Isaac’s maternal Grandpa he finds a moment alone to say in a Clint Eastwood whisper: “You feel lucky punk?”
Little Isaac stories from recent days:
- The other night we looked at a book about babies with a baby on the cover. He pointed at the picture. He said: “Dat guy’s a baby!”
- We were shopping in the grocery store and an older lady working behind a counter smiled at him very sweetly. He smiled back and called out “Hey pal!”
- We saw the larval form of a ladybug and I explained to him it was a baby lady bug. He smiled broadly and said “Baby bug!”
- Doodle bugs (also known as potato bugs and roly poly bugs and pill bugs) instantly became “Noodle bugs”.
I made a huge stupid mistake today. I gave him a snack of grapes and cheese and crackers and when he left a bunch of grapes on the table I started tossing them high into the air and catching them in my mouth. He became hysterical with laughter which only encouraged me. I kept going and in a minute he was throwing grapes up in the air and then at my mouth. I calmed him down and he said “Daddy is silly!”.
He seems more present and involved with every day. He hears lines in songs on the stereo and repeats them. He sings a little. He saw a candle on a table and sang (tunefully) “Happy birthday to youoo”.
There are a thousand lessons of the last two or three years and I can’t claim to have processed or understood even half of them, there are many ways in which I am aware of my ongoing failure to come through with all that I ought to be and all that I ought to do. That aside though I am aware that I spent most of my life before Isaac only flirting with change afraid of what any real change would mean. Real change only happens when something is sufficiently important or undeniable that it pulls you on and on down a different road than caution or convenience would advise. It’s a burden which is gift to carry. Not to be a sugar coated Pollyanna – it’s not always fun and parts of my life feel like they are wilting on the vine but I can’t imagine my life without him.
I talked to my Dad today and he was a bit confused and spoke calmly about death and release – he is almost 80 and he and my step mom have had an awful lot of health problems. It freaks me out but I guess it’s a little relief to hear his lack of fear. Oddly, one thing that is completely clear to me since Isaac’s birth is my own mortality. Sometimes I feel it sitting on my shoulder, not in any big hurry but utterly real. There is a classic story of a man asking a monk what is happiness? The monk relied:
And what is clear is that any variation from this is the kind of story that haunts a family. We are lucky to have dodged so many falling anvils and slippery stairs and in the time we are allotted we should love loudly and bravely and drink deep of all good things.
Blessings on you all – thanks for listening,
A couple of years ago my Mom died and something in my life broke. Some of you know all too well what it’s like. Like driving with a flat tire or maybe with a strange metallic whine coming from the engine and a creeping sense that the outcome of the trip is in more doubt than you guessed. I think of her every day and the way I miss her rises and falls, now gentle, now fierce. It is a force of loss.
Isaac has come into my life as a corresponding force of connection. I am bound to this world as I have never been before. The force of a kind of river is at my back pushing me on through my stupidity and despair. My weakness is still very much in the game but it is not an “out”. I know a kind of love I never knew. My life is too simple & boring, even lonely. But somehow it has a knitting together force that is new in my experience. Becoming a parent locks you in a world of little necessities and circumscribes your choices and freedom all the while deepening the quality of your relationship to life itself.
Cows are not scary but they say “Boo” What does the cow say? Boo.
We played hide and seek yesterday and when he popped out from under the blanket he would say “Bo” I finally figured out this must be “Boo” learned at daycare as kids did halloween things. I like to picture him hearing this and thinking “Well that’s just silly. They must be saying Bo.”
He got another of those goddamn hard plastic toys that look like a cartoon animal and go off like a car alarm playing the same damn six little kid songs if you bump them.
“It’s supposed to be a caterpillar ”
“A caterpillar – a kind of bug”
I found a picture of a green caterpillar and showed him and pointed at the toy.
“It’s a caterpillar, a kind of bug.”
a few minutes later he looked at it and in a relaxed way said “Bug.” like you might say “Well alright then.”
He’s walking “hands free”. His cautious temperament finally felt ready to let go and he just started strolling across the living room. Now he often walks in odd patterns that are unmistakably about fine tuning the controls. He walks in little circles and stoops to picks things up and keeps on cruising. It’s a careful little waddle with his hands in the air but he’s making a break for it.
He is obsessively gathering data about the universe. His most common phrase is “Dat” meaning “what is that?” And we go through every book naming names and qualifying definitions. “That’s a baby bear” “That’s called a dinosaur, it’s like a lizard but very big” “That’s a truck it’s like a car but bigger”. For a long time we lived in a one word world meaning what we heard was kitty (Ki), doggie, birdie, etc. The most exciting thing verbally is that he is starting to hook up little things that go together. We have a tourist guide to Florida with herons on the cover and he looked at it and called out “birdie” which is obviously nothing new but I walked us over to it and picked it up to look at it and he said “bird book”. We count things on the pages of his books (one two three four) and when we ask him to count he goes like this: “One hoo dum hmmm buh” or “One One One One”.
He points at zero and says “None.” I can’t figure out what this means, he’s either parroting us talking about numbers or he is recapitulating the discovery of zero itself, one of the critical scientific revolutions leading to all the science and technology of our modern world. I think probably that’s what it is.
The other night at dinner he was talking in gibberish paragraphs that were like listening to a slightly familiar foreign language being spoken.
“Ribula norgo blahbiddy bodly pa dinku mor atoffa Birdie. Norbhd a bindu ohsa bladdiby Mommy and Daddy.”
To us this is pretty spectacular.
Things we call Isaac:
- Cutie Pattootie
- Sweetie Petitey
- Tiny Whiny
- Tiny McWhiny
- Zoomy Kabboomy
- & of course Boo Boo Head.
Toddlers are passionate and frequently negative. The books say this is the beginning of them carving out their individual identity. It makes sense to me that you have to be able to say No or your Yes is always going to be weak. So part of me that is fine with him uttering his offended little denials of this food or that book but it isn’t altogether easy to say goodbye to the relaxed kid who took what he was offered and enjoyed every book.
He is a sweet and really good kid but he feels more frustration and sadness and it’s strange knowing how much more lies inevitably, ahead. As a parent I sometimes have the heartbreaking feeling of having gotten him into such a terrible mess and yet I know that the being game is the only game in town. If you don’t exist you don’t cry but you don’t laugh or love either.
When he wants a book read to him (450 times in an average day) he makes a noise like the music during the shower scene in “Psycho”. How does one respond to this?
Daddy or Mommy: “Of course sweetie” or “For Gods sake, cut that out” or simply “AiYEEEEEE!”He is still wild for birdies. He goes to bed calling out to them and wakes up asking after them. When he recognizes one in a drawing or photo he has to shout it out with the satisfaction of seeing something very important. Buses and trucks also hit this sweet spot as well as dogs and cats but without the edge of sheer intensity that birdies bring.
I took him to Green Lake yesterday and we walked into a wild wind. Whitecaps were leaping and leaves flying but strangely it wasn’t very cold. I wanted to walk him to where the birds are but didn’t find them at the usual spots we walked on and on around the lake and finally found a collection of ducks. They looked us over and watched expectantly. I threw them some cheerios and they came closer. Now lately when showing Isaac pictures of ducks we say:” Quack quack quack” as duckily as we can. His rendering of this is “Gaga”: He calls them gaga birdies. Now meanwhile, seagulls and grebes and geese and crows had all gathered with that sixth sense for handouts. Isaac became incredibly excited, laughing and after telling every single one that it was in fact, a birdie, he began to yell at them in what I guess he figures is their language.Ga Ga GAGAGAGAGAGA! GAGAGGA! GAGGAGA! Ga Ga GAGAGAGAGAGA! GAGAGGA! GAGGAGA! GAGAGAGAGAGA! GAGAGGA! GAGGAGA!
Conversation in the car on the way home:
Hugh: (oops) Hello.
Things I can’t believe I said this week:
- “Please, no. I hate Timmy Tiptoes”
- “No, it’s a boat not a dog. It looks like a dog, and it has a dog face but it’s a boat.”
Well it’s been too long since a crib sheet went to press (or to “press send” at any rate).
Most of you getting this already have a pretty good idea how our marathon trip went but if you don’t…it went fine, thanks. We all got along well. Isaac was a trooper generally and it was fantastic to see the grand parental units in Florida and Colorado.
Isaac is grumbling his was through the arrival of molars but especially with a little ibuprofen on board still dazzles us with sweetness on a regular basis. He is very, very close to walking without help and I suppose we should savor this golden brief moment before we have to run our butts off for the next several years. What happens is that after acting very cautious about walking or standing alone he suddenly just seems to forget to hold onto anything at times. Just the absence of any support makes him look at those moments, more grown up.
He knows many many more words that he can say. He absorbs books like there was something in them that might explain everything and so we keep delving into the mysteries of books like “Go, Dog. Go!” and especially any picture and word books that touch upon his favorite subjects. He grabs a book out of the pile (they didn’t start in a pile but they end up there every single day – life with a baby is like making those Tibetan sand paintings) and waves it at us insistently saying something like “Yagadi!” Which apparently means “Your king commands you. Read!”
The Isaac Hot and Not list:
Hot: Buses, birdies, kitties, cars. planes, doggies, playing.
Not: Molars, vegetables, denial of any whim no matter how small, falling.
Well…I’m all at sea. I don’t know where I left off but I know it was a while ago.
Isaac is Six feet tall and taking pre-med at UW.OK not quite, he’s fat and small and still a baby though a big strong smart one.
As my earlier email to most of you this week mentioned, the word “birdie” is filling in for well, all the other words. It could be summed up by this phrase: “If you don’t have something birdie to say, don’t say anything at all.” (Except bye bye and cat).He is still using his parental slave units to hold his hands while walking across open rooms but he is round pink lightning along walls, off couches and beds and after rolling toys and cats.Some of the cool stuff I could tell you doesn’t fit well into anecdotes because it’s about the little things he notices by listening and looking and the ways he tries to communicate. No example really rates a story to you (I have some self respect left) but he is more observant and involved and relating in deeper ways.
When he was really an infant and he put his head down on my shoulder it was sweet but it meant he was going to sleep. When he does it now it means “you’re my person” and it is to die for. He’s very grumpy when he’s grumpy and he’s very sweet when he’s sweet. We play “I’m Gonna Get You” and he laughs and squeals with a purity of joy that makes me feel less cynical about life, the universe and everything.Here’s to you all
That’s what he has turned into. A little shiny pink and golden monkey.
Life is a series of wild workout sessions involving getting up and walking (along things or with adult hands) and sitting down and crawling at speeds approaching 30 mph.
Isaac’s list of things to do today (and everyday)
- Mommy’s papers must be rifled: They are strangely flat, smooth and complete.
- Cat dishes must be checked for interesting surprises
- Everything on the floor must be tasted
- Attempts to reach the cat box must continue (What is so special that Mommy keeps it all for herself?)
- Touching electric outlets makes parents run and scream. What else can they do? Possible flight or dancing?
He is very bright and sweet. He isn’t that sweet while teething but who would be? Interesting vocalizing; he calls me (and other things) “Danya” adding this odd “ya” to various sounds. We think he may be Russian.
He impressed the heck out of us by learning something very interesting. He had a tendency to try to plunge head first over the side of anything he was on and wanted off of. This scared me and I would stop him and rotate him around and slide him down feet first till his feet caught under him and took his weight.
Yesterday he did this all by himself. We applauded and told him how smart he is and he applauded too and looked thrilled!
Projects: I am trying to teach him to howl like a wolf. My dream scenario is this: He is at daycare and another parent who doesn’t know him well comes to pick up their kid. Following some internal gut sense of timing Isaac tilts back his head and comes out with a long haunting blood chilling howl.
Yours for good mental health,