Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Hills Are Alive

With heavy clouds and a light rain, a melancholy has descended on my heart these last few days. Since returning from the airport to my Riverside apartment so quiet and still littered with the evidence of kids’ visits, each afternoon feels weary. The harder work is now apparent as the new life becomes regular life.

Living in the mess of construction means you get used to the upheaval and disarray. It is more difficult to sustain the extra hours of saws and nail guns now that I am accustomed to slicing tomatoes on a plywood countertop. The unsanded floors, now covered with carpets, furniture and still-packed boxes, remain dark and rough. I am no longer aware of stepping over and around the cans of paint and pile of wood. The tables and chairs are pushed around still auditioning for their places. All so temporary, it settles into home.

Words, too, so crisp and newly reunited with my pen and fingers, have lost their luster as day in and day out the vocabulary does not expand. How many ways can one speak with optimism of moving forward when the jobs are routine, the bank account does not grow, the friends are all busy in their own lives?

Each step forward seems so tiny, the view barely changes as if there is no movement at all. The site of unfinished shelves and doorways should snap me into bursts of activities on this dreary day outside. Instead, I sip my coffee and contemplate all from my chair, wondering how the movement of the last months could feel so stagnant today.

It is difficult to appreciate that all climbers of mountains must sit a moment on their ledges and gaze out across their valleys. The long and arduous path seen from this height is impressive, though the route still leads ever upward. For me, I dive randomly into a journal and connect with the guy of some time ago who scribbled this or that, and managed to move himself forward then.

Once again, from this ledge, I am reminded that the peak above me is just one more mountain, its own fleeting moment of achievement. The wind will slap euphoric congratulations on the face, but eventually all climbers must return to earth, descend to their homes and hearths to celebrate with loved ones, and consider their next ascent towards another peak.

And sometimes the view from the other side is a complete surprise.

(I feel better already)
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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Drive-by Shot

For two days now, a vignette witnessed will not leave my cluttered mind.

Driving through town, ahead of me on the sidewalk, I saw a young girl half on her bike—hers, I assume because of the pink streamers dangled from the handlebars. Her brother (I also assume) had both his hands there too, a scene innocent enough of child’s play.

But closer, I could see him shaking the bars, and she no less defending her right (perhaps she was the aggressor, I will never know). Clearly, this was an argument intensifying, a family squabble over a turn to ride.

A woman farther down the street turned round, hearing the ruckus. I passed by, unable to stop. And what business could it be of mine, anyway? Where were the parents on this morning early in the summer vacation?

My rearview mirror showed the shaking even more aggressive. When I looked back again, ever more distant from my ability to intercede, I could tell the little boy was now on the bike, fully in possession, and the little girl no where in sight.

Still it was none of my business, I thought, but remembered even then, the famous quote by Margaret Mead about an entire community raising a child. The thought just will not quit.

This was just about a boy and his sister, but would I pass so innocently if it were this boy and his wife? What if it were this boy with a gun? How can we continue to drive by without helping our children learn a better way of being in this world?

All I needed to do was pull alongside and ask through the open window if they wanted any help. The sheer surprise alone of a stranger’s voice might have interrupted them, changed the violence to partnership. Perhaps, I might have caused embarrassment, or even fear. Perhaps I might have seemed to them, now united, to be the evil stranger offering candy to lure them in.

But something could have been done.

So many times in our lives, we choose to look away, to not be bothered, to stay too busy to help out. Yet over and over, we are moved with wonder and amazement by the tiny random acts of a tired Rosa Parks or a committed Ghandi, moments that change the world.

On our way home, even with our hands loaded with groceries, we can do this!

Peace! Out!

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chips Off the Old Block

In so many posts, I have been clear about my son, but in honor of Father’s Day, I would like to speak to the rest of my family. I am blessed with two and a half daughters, the oldest being no less a part of my heart, but just lacking the physical blood (now we know it is DNA) that makes her so.
At the dawning age of 23, so confident that I knew what I was doing, I chose to become a husband to a mother of daughters aged 15 and 2, and pregnant with one of our own. Poised on the edge of a world of opportunity, raised with strong family values, I turned to fatherhood for definition and direction.

Too old from the start to be considered a daughter, I have witnessed the eldest’s growth into an amazing woman of strength, courage, advocation (she’s a lawyer!), and motherhood. If I had any part in her successes, I can only point with pride to the fact she married the man who came to our house to play music with me. Divided by distance, I have never met their children, nor seen their daily lives, but we are Family all the same.

My oldest daughter was 20 months old when I first saw her and we bonded as I had known no stranger’s child before or since. When her father suddenly died, she leaped into my lap, trusted me enough to fall asleep in my arms, and played in the sandbox I built. Such fine adventures we shared on long, long walks through the fairyland forests of Oregon, punctuated by endless exhilarating flights over the ocean cliff at our favorite swing.

Today, still in Oregon, she refurbishes gold jewelry, repairs her small home and yard, and heals herself from the loss of two fathers in her childhood. Again separated by distance, we use the phone to catch up on those lost years and share the pleasures of these new ones. And as any proud father should be allowed to drop a name, her partnership with a member of the Foo Fighters crew provides backstage adventures for us all.

Nothing is middle about my middle daughter. Few words are possible to describe the sweet combination of exuberance, unconditional love, determination, and golden heart that is the aura of her existence. Never a tentative stepper, even on her first legs at 9 months, I have affectionately called her “my little tank”. At 5, she boldly stepped onto stages to sing a sound check at our local performances, and her sweet voice rings through in videos of Cyndi Lauper imitations.

Who could not grin in delight and amazement at the 10 year old unaccompanied minor who stepped off the plane in a silver skirt, pink scarf, tiara, and high heeled pumps, even as I tearfully loaded her back on that plane a week later, helpless to know she was just out of reach, sobbing before take-off home to her real life?

She has finished college on the nine year plan, a testament to perseverance through the distractions of living. She eloped with a Navy man who won our hearts quickly afterward by bravely crossing the Continent alone to knock on our door and introduce himself. She is heart and soul a gift to this lucky father.

Today, my youngest daughter graduated from High School, steps boldly out into the world with excitement and strength. Naturally uncomfortable with the upheaval between her parents, she is a rock of self-support, a young woman who pursues and achieves exactly what she wants, and is compassionate glue to a wealth of friends. I witness her life accelerating, proud of her accomplishments, her confidence to embrace her future at University.

On this day, with 3 of the 4 of them on a blanket laughing in the sunshine with me, I am so moved to be a father, so humbled by the gift of these beautiful souls in my life, so grateful to celebrate my children. For the first time, this day truly rings forth with my own appreciation: not to reward myself as a father, but to acknowledge the true Love in life that comes with being a father. I grew up with 4 sisters, and now my son says the same (even though he has never met the eldest!)--we are such lucky men!

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

First Night

My son spent his first night in our new place. Starting last week, he was building up to it, taking a running start at the hurdle. We made a special night of it, partaking of the Discover Jazz Festival going on in Burlington, absorbed into the crowd at the top of Church Street enjoying funky horns and bright lights. We celebrated over a nice dinner, just the 2 of us, with gypsy swing in the background, followed by more music and more strolling along the street.

Back at the house, we watched yet another movie on the laptop. He was wound up, very talkative and funny with his monologues. There was a lingering over actual bedtime. He suggested a swap of paintings to get a sailing one of my Dad’s into his room. We discussed and experimented with lights to leave on or off. Out of the stack of left-over flooring, he set up a little nightstand behind his bed for his Ipod alarm, and talked about things to get in the morning so he wouldn’t have to keep remembering a lot to take back and forth. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be spooked by his Steven King novel his first night in a strange room.

Finally, we talked about the first time he came here when there was literally no bathroom floor. He told me that night it all looked great, but confided now that inside he was thinking it really was a mess and had been wondering what I could be imagining

All of this is testament of how far we have come, the huge changes currently under construction. The floors still need to be sanded. The kitchen counter is just a slab of plywood, and there are cabinets to build. Then there is the outside…a work forever in progress.

But the bathroom is nearly complete, very workable.

In six months, life for him as he has known it has dissolved. His Dad lives across town. Strangers continuously peek into his room, looking to buy his Home. He has no idea where his room will be when he goes back to school in the Fall. The changes are huge, but this cheerful kid keeps his humor and makes the best of each moment, loving and supporting each of his parents, growing into a man.

Life deals these blows. As a parent, especially in this circumstance, we feel responsible. If there could be any way to save our children from the disruption, the uncertainty, the anguish, we have sought to find the key. At some point, it becomes better to ease the transition than suffer more uncertainty, being caught in the turmoil. For me, there is no consolation to say more marriages end than last. By the measure of 20 years, our children’s youthful years, many would say it has been successful. Even being time to move on, the children, no matter what age, suffer the loss profoundly.

The best that I can do today is make the cherished pancakes that have been a tradition in our family. I cut up some melon, and unwrap the new silverware. At the recycle store later, we look at TVs, a lamp for his improvised night table, a night table itself, and actually buy a couple of puzzles, some cutlery, 2 glasses and a book for a grand total of $3.89. At another store we get an IPod charger for this place. Today, I just try to make it normal and share a few laughs

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Times, they are a-changing

On her blog this morning, Debra Broughton, a writer and photographer currently returning to England after 7 years in Amsterdam has written a thought-provoking entry about Change. In my new apartment, on this Continent, contemplating the recycled hardwood growing across the floor in two foot increments, the enormity of my own changes—and how they affect those around me—hits home.

The details of my individual and very personal circumstances are less relevant here than is the more universal picture that strikes us all. In her popular book “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks clearly to the boundaries of relationship and the impossibility of and inappropriate attempt to describe the one-sided perspective on the dissolution of a marriage. I respectfully concur.

It is enough to say that what once was seems no longer to be found. While my door remains open to my children and friends, for now, I am largely alone.

So there is time now, upon awakening, to stare at the ornate tin ceiling overhead, to gaze deeply into the eyes of the man brushing his teeth before me, to contemplate over breakfast the flooring laid last evening, and to dream about how the kitchen will look when it is finished.

How will I look when I am finished?

Like the home I have just left, I will never be finished. Guilty of being the cobbler with no shoes, our home was in constant transformation. Trim that was never applied once we moved in will be finally installed for the new owners. Rooms that began as an office or bedroom changed functions and colors according to the seasons of our changes. Furniture, mirrors and artwork came and went with the inspiration and delight of newfound (or created) objects. Big and little shrines transformed the home in all corners.

Transformation is in the air every day and every night, breathing into our souls the taste—sometimes delicious, sometimes bitter—of self-discoveries. The linen slipcover wears out and needs to be replaced. My daughter readies herself for college, my son outgrows his bed. Is it any wonder that one or all of us might need to transform our lives, if not within the home, then without?

Life is about change. If we cannot adapt and ride comfortably with it, steer ourselves along the path together, we are bucked and jostled until inevitably we are thrown apart to land softly or with a bone-shattering crash alone. Usually the choice is ultimately ours, even if we don’t realize this at the time.

It feels that I have been kicking, clawing, fighting desperately to reach something elusive that has been slowly and clearly slipping away, despite the best efforts of all of us. Unable to hold on and manage the ride, for better or worse, my fingers have at last let go. Like the watery slow-motion images in movies of a drowning man in that sudden moment of peace between Life and Life Beyond, I am floating, floating…

all pictures by Melinda Johns

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