Fly Away With Me

I don’t often fly with my kids. When I travel, I’m most frequently boarding an airplane for work so that I can visit a client in another city.

But there’s something about being at the airport and watching those exhausted, stressed and strung-out parents with one or more freaking out children in tow that makes me—somehow—wish that I were experiencing my currently uneventful and comparatively stress-free travel with my own two sons.

Typically, any travel experiences with my kids culminates in the convincing decision that I will never, ever, travel with my boys again.

Then, when I’m back to again traveling solo, I find myself looking at these wrecked parent-child units and yearning for the chaotic, sometimes frustrating presence of my own offspring.

There’s probably a broader observation to make about parenting here. How before kids my mood could be altered by some (admittedly) trivial inconvenience whereas now the energy available for self-flagellation is no longer accessible because I’ve already spent that energy parenting.

Having children is a constant pull and push that singes the emotional receptors of your being every day until you collapse in bed at night exhausted, fulfilled and regretful. It’s the regret that is, for me, the most pervasive of parenting-hangover emotions. Regret that I didn’t get more time with them, regret that I didn’t appreciate their attention while I had it, regret that I didn’t do better.

Words of Loss

Kathryn Schulz has a beautiful and devastating piece in The New Yorker about loss; the misplacing of essential, everyday objects, and the displacing, disappearing, of the essential people in our lives.

Two weeks ago I traveled alongside an elderly couple who were flying home to Seattle because their forty-year-old son had died the day before. The couple had lost another son years ago: the boy was three when he drowned in their pool. Somehow the couple had survived this devastating loss, had had more children, had had another son who in their words was a ‘blessing and a comfort’ after the loss of the first. Now that second son was dead, too.

Last weekend, near our house, a two-year-old boy wandered outside at night. When the mother awoke at 6AM the next morning and found the toddler gone, she called 911. Like many neighbors, as well as the police, we searched for him. Police found the boy several hours later, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia, in a bramble of blackberries a block from his apartment.

Perhaps it’s the national mood, perhaps it’s my own, but this feels like a season of loss. A season of misplacing, a season of losing that which is closest to us. Life changes on us quickly.

Stuck in the Middle of the Middle

As I’ve hit the middle of my middle-age, I’ve been confronted more and more often with the evidence that the people in our lives don’t know who we are. Not really.

I was struck again by this realization when I attended the memorial/celebration-of-life for one of the principals at my former company. He was a generous, patient and exceptional leader, one of those rare personalities who put his soul into how he conducted both himself and how he conducted his business.

The celebration was hardly celebratory. Most of us were too wrecked with the loss and uncertainty caused by his passing. We all sat there with our separate, fragmented memories of him and what he meant to each of us, and we attempted to share those recollections as a kind of check on who we believed him to be.

The picture we collectively created was incomplete, and it always will be incomplete. The only person who knows my now passed former coworker is him. And even so….

When we ourselves pass, and our mourners are gathered, they will remember, and they will likely remember wrong. Or more generously, they will remember parts of us and not the cohesive whole.

My (forever) cursory study of Tibetan Buddhism tells me that our interior lives are often unknowable to us; we have thoughts and we have feelings but we are not the sum of those thoughts and feelings. Like anyone who has attempted to monitor and to even influence my less than stellar behavior, I’ve learned that with practice there is a self (whether it’s a large S or small s is up for debate) who sits behind our thoughts and feelings. A smarter, wiser self who drives the bus.

Most of my friends and family, however, know me only by the outward expressions of my thoughts and feelings. They see only what I project, express, convey.

This isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s not right, either.

A couple months back, I wanted to connect with my life-long friends over my disdain for the Hallmark holiday that is Father’s Day. Even as a father myself, I hate that day. I was feeling pressured to contact the man who inhabits the shell of my dad, and I blurted out via text message how I hoped that I was a better father, how I needed to believe that I am a better father, even if I’m not. The stupid, made-up day is fraught with doubts and guilt about my own performance as a parent, and it’s fraught with these pangs of loss about how I still don’t have my own father in my life and how I never will.

It was heavy. Too heavy for text message.

I realized after the fact that these friends have no context with which to help me. Hitting them with something so powerful as my perpetual disappointment in the man who originally left my life when I was six years old is too much. I can’t help but feel cheated, though, that other men couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the depth of betrayal that abandonment causes, how that betrayal hits you perpetually as both son and then again as father.

Maybe it’s just too much to ask that others know who we are. Not just what we’ve done but why we’ve done the things that we’ve done. I don’t necessarily know the inner truths of other people, either.

We all have our stories – the version we’ve lived and the version we tell. In our rush to be heard, we often forget that we have to listen, we have to listen more often than we talk, in order to allow people to tell of who they are, what they are, why they are. Perhaps if we’re lacking connection, listening to others is the only way we can eventually hear ourselves.

 

The Spiritual Life Made Manifest - Larry Gordon, In Memoriam

Larry Gordon was a pivotal innovator in the southern California surf culture of the late-1950s and earl- 1960s. He was also my uncle. Along with Floyd Smith (also my uncle - San Diego was a small town back then, if you can believe that) Gordon and Smith developed some of the first foam and resin surfboards, which, to make a long story very short, transformed the sport.   

He was also a man of deep Christian faith. Although he and I never aligned on the specifics of our belief systems, we did have many interesting discussions--and arguments--about the nature of living as a spiritual person.  

Larry Gordon was diagnosed with Parkinson's over ten years before his death. How he conducted himself--with strength and with dignity--during an illness that mocked that strength and spit on that dignity is one of the most profound models of how to live one's belief's that I have seen. 

Below is a piece I wrote for my aunt and cousins when my Uncle Larry passed away a couple weeks ago. I find it interesting that despite the religious ideas that he and I used to talk about, it was his actions as a father that have left the deepest impression. 

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According to the writer Adam Gopnik, we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt.

Larry Gordon--my Uncle Larry--was that contrarian figure who was drawn to faith while practicing faith. He lived by his beliefs, and those beliefs lived in him, infusing everything from surfing to running a business. But it was Uncle Larry’s practice of faith as a father that has left the deepest impression on me.

I have the bad habit of realizing life-lessons long after they’re applicable. Sometimes I find myself mimicking my role models without realizing who those role models are. And although I’m a terrible surfer, a poor scientist, a distracted searcher of spiritual truths, Larry Gordon is a role model for the kind of dad I want to be.

My own father left when I was six. It seemed at that time as though the world of my childhood was divided between those children whose dads had stayed and those whose dads had left. There is in this an uncomfortable feeling of exposure, that you are somehow undeserving, that you are somehow to blame, that the absence you feel so acutely is a detectable flaw in you or on you.

During that tenuous time just after my dad left, perhaps sensing that I needed guidance, the Gordon family took me to their church and included me in their community. And what lingers more than anything else about that time was how being accepted by a family where the father was present and engaged, where the father wanted nothing more than to be right there with his wife and his children, was quietly powerful and beautiful and something that I desperately needed to experience.

I couldn’t have a father like Larry, but I can try to be a father like him. Or, to put it in a way that Uncle Larry might appreciate, I will be the dad I would have wanted whether my own children like it or not.

Make no mistake, I fail more often than I succeed. I’m frequently humbled. I spend much of my parenting time practicing doubt.

In my better moments, though, I try emulate Larry, and the example he established: let your beliefs guide you, seize each swell as a new possibility, be there in the moment, be present, whether you’re stoked or whether you fall, and always, always be ready to paddle out one more time no matter what the ocean throws at you. 

Although I certainly have doubts about my own performance as a parent, thanks to his example, I have absolute faith that the act of being a good father can be done and it can be done gloriously.

Crisis

It took drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, curled into the surf as if he were sleeping, to finally incite us.

This past week was the week that the European refugee crisis, driven by conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea, finally hit its disturbing critical mass.

Both CNN.com and the BBC have had growing and more extensive photo and journalistic coverage, but it was Kurdi’s body, washed ashore after a tragic nighttime crossing that claimed 11 other lives, including the boy’s mother Rehen and brother Galip, that appears to have (finally) engaged the European community. Even the Pope has involved himself.

Images of the boy first appeared last week in my Facebook feed (of all places) – a video from a Turkish news-site that showed rescue workers photographing and collecting the boy’s body. The video played immediately (fucking Facebook), and as I watched the surf lap closer and closer to Aylan’s face, my first irrational thought was that whomever was taping this needed to move the boy before he drowned.

Then it became clear he already had.

I’ve responded in various ways to the Syrian crisis, but the most visceral reaction I’ve had is as a father of two boys. A father who wants to see my children flourish and, ultimately, survive me. Like most parents, the nightmare that I won’t be able to provide for or protect my kids is an anxiety I live with daily. And I'm not living this fear in a war-torn country.

I put myself in the father’s position. How he gambled on the opportunity to take a boat across the Mediterranean because to stay was to condemn his wife and children to certain death. The ones who make it face no certainty that they will actually improve their quality of life. They have nowhere to go once they make the crossing, certainly nowhere that promises food or shelter or sanctity. But even an uncertain future is bliss compared to losing one’s family to the sea.

However we got here--whether we've been following the European refugee crisis for months or whether it was Aylan Kurdi's body that finally did it--many of us are now asking ourselves what we can do, how we can help. I've seen several extensive lists, but perhaps start with Neil Gaiman's excellent coverage here

I ache for these families. Now that they have our attention, let’s not turn away again.