Archives For A Family Man

I probably have until July before Wyatt, our oldest, stands taller than me. That looming event feels like the crossing of some kind of fatherly Rubicon. His shoes are already 2.5 sizes larger than mine, and last week when I needed to borrow a pair of running socks, he answered, “Sure, dad – but they’re too big for you.” Wyatt said this without jest or boast, simply matter of fact. As of last Sunday, I can still take him one-on-one in basketball, but only by sheer intimidation. Dads have a special knack for rattling their kid’s psyche, it’s a gift. For some ridiculous reason, Wyatt believes I can still beat him in a 40 yard dash. In a few weeks, Wyatt turns thirteen, so my days are numbered. In so many ways, my days are numbered.

When he was a tike, Wyatt endured acute sensory issues. At night, he didn’t want any blanket on his body, and many kinds of clothes were problems for him. He was a porcupine whenever we tried to hold him close. Affection was hard won, but we persisted. I want to be the dad who can always kiss his sons, even when my sons have sons or daughters of their own. So I regularly tousle the boys’ hair and kiss their forehead. I hug them and squeeze their shoulders and tell them, each morning before they leave for school and each night before they go to be bed, that I love them. Our youngest, Seth, soaks up the affection, and for years I’ve hoped we’d eventually win Wyatt over.

Last week, Wyatt, Seth and I walked into Whole Foods to buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I walked between the two, my left arm draped over Wyatt’s shoulder and my right arm draped over Seth’s. In turn, both boys spread an arm over me. We walked in step, like the Rockettes. I realized how I was no longer surprised with Wyatt being the first to come in close, the one to lean heaviest into me. As we entered the store, I believe I sensed Wyatt slow to pull away, as if he wanted our walk to linger a few moments longer. I know I did. I want so many of these moments to linger longer.

Our youngest son Seth has gone deep into the world of The Hobbit. Seth reads stories from the shire with feverish energy. He sketches scenes from Middle Earth and regales us with talk of his beloved Dwarves. At every opportunity, Seth ventures into our neighborhood woods (woods he refers to as Rivendell) with his sack of Hobbit wares. He feasts on the score from the movie soundtracks, ticks off every character’s name, reviews minute details from the narrative and explains intricate plot twists and Tolkien lore. Seth’s our Hobbit savant.

All this is more than a boy’s fascination with adventurous play, however. Seth has found a language for his soul. Or maybe this language has found him. A few days ago, Seth was in our backyard, earbuds delivering haunted Hobbit melodies. He paced across the yard, swinging his sword as the music and the crisp air carried him to his distant country. When Seth returned to the house, he told Miska, “You might think this is silly since I’m only a kid. But the music was so beautiful it almost made me cry.”

We all need an encounter with something so beautiful that it carries us to the verge of tears. A landscape or a story, a friendship or a blessing, a dream or a joy. We need beauty, however slight, if we are to truly live. The human spirit can survive without luxury. We can endure ravaging hardship. But wonder, beauty, ineffable joy – these are our necessities.

Miska and I sat in a booth at a mom and pop Italian diner when she told me she wanted to go to grad school for counseling. She had never so much as hinted at this before, but the moment I heard the words I knew it was exactly what she was to do – which meant it was exactly what we were to do since this would necessitate a move, a new job for me, a completely unknown future. A few months later, I was in the driver’s seat of a Penske truck pointed West. What an adventure those next few years turned out to be.

Part of the adventure was the joy of watching Miska’s artistic soul flourish. Miska learned how to tend to people’s stories, but it always seemed to me that Miska was becoming more a poet and an artisan than a counselor per se. It takes more than a little moxie to linger in the hidden places, to not know for sure what exactly you are walking toward. But Miska, bold as she is, has never flinched from such things.

It was no surprise to me, then, when Miska, motivated by her love for the earth and for the nourishing power of beauty, began to craft her own all-natural skin care products, soaps, candles and sundry other delights. This artisan work grew into Broken Elm Apothecary & Mercantile, her shop she opened a year ago today.

I want to tell my brave and beautiful Miska how much I admire her and how much I love all the goodness she offers this world.

And I want to tell all of you, dear readers, that in honor of Broken Elm’s anniversary, Miska is offering a 15% discount if you use the code ONEYEAR.

It is a strange thing to see your mother in a wooden box, lying there so gently, as if you could simply lean over and whisper into her ear to wake. For her funeral, my mom wore the dress she had originally purchased for Miska’s and my wedding. My mom released her son into the world. And now we have released my mom into God’s care.

It is such a strange thing to lay a hand on your mother’s casket, to speak a blessing over her life. Emotions and memories rush forward at such a moment, but the sturdiest thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude for her tears and her tenacity, for her commitment to my dad, for the ways she sought out those who had been left out or wounded or silenced. One morning before her funeral, I ran my old jogging route, and I stopped in front of the house that was my childhood home. For several minutes, I walked back and forth in front of the old house, fearing the neighbors would think me a loon. I remembered all the years, all the tenderness. I remembered a few arguments, tense moments. I remembered laughter and meals around the table. I remembered love. Through tears, the words that spilled out over and again were only this: ‘thank you.’

A friend recently passed Kahil Gibran’s words to me: When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. And this is true. Sometimes you also weep because of regrets or things that will never be. But somehow it is true that if you trace those things back far enough they do somehow work their way to delight, to hopes, to joys you knew or joys that lingered as you searched for more. In the strange twist, grief and gratitude seem to walk together.

As I say goodbye, for now, the only words I have are this: Mom, I love you, and I thank you. 

mom's stone of blessing

We buried my mom today, and a craftsman chiseled this blessing into the stone that greets you as you enter the grounds. This blessing reminds us that this soil, like all God’s earth, is hallowed. I am so thankful for my mom’s life. We have now returned my mother to God’s care and her body to the earth, where God’s very ground will cover her and surround her with the fullness of love.

The Spirit of God is around you
In the air that you breathe
And his glory in the light
That you see
And in the fruitfulness
Of the earth and the joy
Of its creation
He has written for you day by day
His revelation
He has granted you day by day
Your daily bread

I have lost my wedding ring. Twice. The first occasion was in the first year of our marriage. The ring disappeared at some point in the middle of a volleyball game, probably during one of my monstrous strikes where sheer power and velocity ripped the metal from my fingers. Probably. A group of friends, on hands and knees, scoured the ground with me until, to my great relief, we found the ring. The second time was years later in South Carolina. I could not pinpoint the timing, but my best guess was that it slipped off my hand while mowing the lawn. After days of searching and the kindness of a friend with his metal detector (I have very interesting friends), I conceded that my wedding band was finally gone.

We had planned to save up and purchase a new ring, but two years later we had yet to swing it. For her 35th birthday, Miska wanted a second tattoo, and she requested that I get inked with her — a wedding band tattooed on my finger. Something permanent, forever unthreatened by my penchant for losing things. So long as I never tangled with the Chicago mafia, this ring should never, ever slip away from me.

At the time, tattoos were illegal in South Carolina, so we drove to Athens, Georgia to have the work done by an artist who hung his needle at the Midnight Iguana. The experience inflicted less pain than I anticipated, and the adventure provided a weekend of joy and romance with Miska. The symbol of my love and commitment forever seared into my body.

Over the years, the tattoo has launched many conversations. More than once, after a person clarifies that my tat is indeed a wedding band, they look at me with incredulity and ask, “But what if you get divorced? That’s really permanent” – as if my ink appeared in Vegas after a bender with no consideration for the inevitability that some day I’d regret the foolishness. I can’t tell you how much joy I receive from what follows. I look them in the eye and say, “Oh, that’s the point. Nobody’s getting this. I’m a goner, for life.” Typically, they respond to my effusive conviction with even more dubiousness. They raise their eyebrows. They take on a tone like a parent talking to a child about the Easter Bunny, affirming my very, very sweet sentiment. Once a hotel clerk visibly smirked, rolled his eyes and exhaled an under-the-breath chuckle laced with mockery.

I do not care. I’ve given my life away. This little patch of ink provides only one of the simple reminders.

 

Most nights, I go to each boy’s bedside and tell them goodnight. I make a slight sign of the cross on their forehead, bless them, say a short prayer for love and rest, tussle their hair and kiss them on the cheek. There are nights when I do this with fatherly joy. There are also nights when, because they are 10 and 11 and have mastered the children’s equivalent of digging their bony elbow into my rawest nerve, I do this in faith, trusting the love I know is there.

One might hope that one’s sons, over the many years enacting this ritual, would sense a little of the gravity and maybe even begin to cherish these moments. I’m not asking my two sons to pit themselves against one another, like Esau and Jacob, scheming or pleading for my better blessing. I’d simply like them to put down Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or my collector’s edition of Calvin and Hobbes which they took without asking and actually notice that their father loves them, blast it.

Several weeks ago, I was in the room of my youngest. Sign of the cross, prayer, kiss on the cheek. “Good night, bud,” I said, hand on his head. Seth looked up, as if my voiced pulled him out of a fascinating dream sequence. Seth began to chuckle. “What?” I asked.

“Uhmmm…” Seth’s smile broke wide, more laughter. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Of course, this is where I jerked my hand away, leveled my most shaming look and slowly backed out of his room in disgust. Such a disappointment, this distracted, childish son of mine.

Ridiculous. I actually chuckled too, gave Seth another pat on the head. I probably asked him what girl was tiptoeing through his mind. I told Seth I loved him and left him to his sweet fantasies until the next night when we’d cue the whole spiel again. Obviously there was nothing heroic here, just how most any dad would respond to his goofball son being a goofball son.

Yet some of us think God a worse father than this. Somehow, many of us have learned to live in shame (or terror) of the ways we believe we disappoint the One who loves us. We live on the razor edge, vigilant over our every action, every motive, every belief. We’re so fearful that we’ll forget to pay attention, and heaven knows we can’t let that happen.

I believe God would love to chuckle with us in these moments. Keeping a close watch, getting things correct – these are not the center. Love is the center. “But still,” says Hafiz, “God is delighted and amused you once tried to be a saint.”

The morning began with a crash. Miska left the house at 5:45 for Bikram Yoga, and I woke at 6:30 to get breakfast and the boys rolling. Groping for the bathroom light, I knocked over a large Mason jar sitting on the edge of our sink. The jar shattered across our tile floor, and I was suddenly wide awake. Surely you’ve picked up that I am not an efficient or organized man, but I will say that over the years my thirty-minute-school-lunches / breakfast-for-Miska-and-two-boys / herding-Wyatt-out-the-door-for-school routine has become a work of precision that would make any NASCAR pit crew envious.

Today, however, the twenty minutes it took to pick up jagged chunks, scour the floor for the tiniest of slivers, vacuum the carpet next to the bathroom and get mounds of glass into the trash can threw the morning into a frizzy. I dashed about the kitchen tossing lunches together, throwing something that I think resembles breakfast in front of the boys and then spending maddening minutes desperately searching for my keys. I did find them … hanging in the keyhole of our front door where they had been all night, an invitation to all comers. Miska loves it when I do that.

I did get Wyatt to school just before the bell, but when I walked back into our front door, Seth (who goes to school 45 minutes later) greeted me. “Dad, we have a serious problem.”

I understand that last week’s snow storm frustrated many of Cupid’s escapades, and this was certainly the case for Charlottesville’s elementary students. Since school was cancelled, there was no party with chocolate kisses and no exchange of valentines. This was disappointing because Seth bought a box of valentines that included, with each, a self-applied mustache tattoo. Seth is a 4th grade romantic hipster bad-boy.

At any rate, the powers that be determined valentines would be exchanged today, and over the weekend Seth assembled his to distribute. However, upon review this morning, Seth realized he had left out two of his classmates. “I’ve got to get two more valentines, Dad. I have to. And I have more in the box.”

“Great,” I answered. “Go get them.”

“Well…the box is in the trash”

This, mind you, is days-old trash flush with rancid remains, wet coffee grounds and old pizza. This is the trash that is now full of sharp bits of glass strewn throughout. This is a Level One Hazmat scenario.

I grabbed a couple white 3 x 5 cards and handed them to Seth. “Buddy, you’re going to have to use these and make two more valentines. I’m not digging into that trash.”

But of course, I did. Seth was distraught, and that does this ol’ dad in. This will almost certainly be the last year we have a boy handing out valentines to his classmates, and while that’s a small thing, I think most of the beauty in our lives is made up of the small things.

Besides, you can’t let a mustache tattoo go to waste.

 

 

Each year, I take the boys for an overnight trip for their birthday. Last year, Wyatt picked a train trek to DC. Two years in a row now, Seth has picked a weekend of Clemson football. Clemson (where the boys were born) and Baylor (where I grew up) are our two teams, but a visit to Grams, Pa and the Bears in Waco require a bit more time and financial commitment.

One of the great Clemson traditions is that after the game, fans flood the field as the team stays around for half an hour to sign autographs and pose for pictures. My hunch is that after many futile efforts to hold back the tidal wave cresting over the stadium walls, the athletic department threw up their hands and decided instead to create a massive marketing coup – they welcomed the chaos. Saturday night, watching thousands of young kids with wide eyes walking the turf amid larger-than-life Tigers, it was obvious they were solidifying the fan base for decades to come. The throngs pressed around the national play-makers: quarterback (and Heisman contender) Tajh Boyd, Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell, Vic “The Beast” Beasley and Sammy Watkins, the streak of lightning who causes a collective short-breath in the stadium every time he touches the pigskin.

However, I watched several players (an offensive guard, maybe a defensive reserve or two) slowly make their way down the sideline, toward the tunnel to the locker room. No one shoved a mic in their face. If anyone asked them for an autograph, it was only the hyper kid running frantically player to player never even pausing to look the player in the eye or the disappointed kid who couldn’t break through the surging pack to the stars. I don’t imagine there were many people in the stadium wearing jerseys sporting their numbers. None of the left-alone players looked bothered or annoyed that they received none of the glamor. They’d done their work, and it was time for a shower. I wasn’t interested in autographs, but I did find myself thinking, Hey, man, you’re a fellow who digs into the trenches. We should sit down over coffee (or, I don’t know, a 4lb roast maybe). I’d like to hear your story.

When the athletic staff attempted to lead Tajh through the massive throng so the poor fellow could call it a day, Tajh kept stopping as hats and footballs were shoved in his chest. He looked exhausted. Tajh was doing his best to be the people’s man, but that was a whole lot of people. I wondered if he’d like to play the part of the second-string O-lineman, quietly strolling to the exit.

I don’t know what to make of all this, of our hero culture. I’ve no interest in making swipes. We’re desperate for women and men to respect, to believe in – and if sports participate in that, I won’t knock it. I do know we get carried away. One of our fellow Clemson fans, a middle-aged woman sitting near us, yelled at the offense in the third quarter, just before Tajh called out the snap: “Come on, part the Red Sea and let Moses through.”

It’s obviously gameday hyperbole, but I do wonder what it does to a soul to have this kind of weight placed on them. On the drive home Saturday night, we stopped for dinner. Seth, obviously overcome by the heat and exertion of the day, said, “Dad, you could totally have played professional football.” I chuckled, and I corrected him. Lack of talent aside, I could never have born that pressure. I hope we do not crush the good that is in the heroes we say we love.

photo.resize_edited-1

 

Toss the heavy tomes to the side. Some of the best advice I’ve received for raising kids arrived via Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. One might think I would be reticent to admit I snagged parenting cues from 30-minute bits aired on the National Geographic channel, but we all know this parenting gig scoffs at a man’s pride.

The most intriguing Dog Whisperer episodes are when there is an especially troublesome canine. Perhaps a small pooch who’s diminutive size has given him an inferiority complex, and now he bites every person other than the one human he considers his “mommy.” Or a large brute who repeatedly rips the sofa and shreds the rugs and chews the wooden chairs like they are a rawhide treat. I recall one episode where a couple, married maybe thirty years, had their life completed upended by a little 9 pound fur-ball with a very large attitude. The emasculated man surrendered his bed and his place and became the third wheel. It was pitiful to watch.

I am not a patient man. I would like to say that I am, but I am not. If I were living with any of these dogs, I do not know what would come of them, or of me. I do not know how that story would go, but not well. Cesar, on the other hand, exudes gentle authority. Cesar, with the benefit of edited tapes of course, rarely gets flustered. When a dog exhibits bad behavior, Cesar says, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”

Gentleness has been my word for awhile. I want to be a more gentle man. Mainly, I want to be a more gentle father. When one of our boys presses hard on that magic button they so easily locate, the one that triggers my blood pressure and my nervous twitch, I want to just lower the shoulders and drop the rigorous energy and say, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”

My high-pitched response to my boys’ foolishness (and it is often foolishness, let’s be honest) actually says more about me and the state of my soul than anything it says about the two rascals. Maybe my less-than-gentle reactions say something about my view of the world and the stock I put in keeping things in some semblance of order, maintaining the illusion that we are not swimming in chaos. But you just recognize these things and you move on. I imagine God getting a chuckle and saying, “Ah, now this is good. This is something to work with.”