Month: November 2012

Shut the Hell Up!

When I was five years old, I was invited to a costume party down the street. The party was hosted by a boy named Jim (Jamie) O’Hara. He and I had much in common, as we were both the youngest of large, Irish Catholic families. Or at least I was the youngest of mine for the first four years of my life–and was just getting used to my status as older brother of twins. TWINS! No more attention for Michael. But I showed them–my family that is. I went out of my way to gain attention. Good or bad, I made damn sure you would notice me. Which leads me back to my costume party. The costume I chose for this occasion was (drum roll) Raggedy Ann. Yes folks, you heard me right. Raggedy-freakin’-Ann!  I am so embarrassed to admit it now.

Since this was NOT Halloween season, costumes were hard to come by–not sure why. My costume was prompted by the fact that my mom had a full spool of bright red yarn in her knitting bag, and my sister had a blue dress–no overalls to be found. I’m not sure who thought of the costume, I only know I was fine with it (at the time) cause I knew it would stir up trouble with my older brothers and my dad. I’ll show those manly men! I’ll dress up in drag! Talk about attention!!

I’ll never forget walking down the street with my mom, and all the odd looks that the neighbors gave me. But I had everyone’s attention. And it didn’t stop on the walk there. At the party, which was really just a handful of neighborhood kids I saw regularly, we played  in the basement and had some snacks. This was when kids’ parties were relegated to the basement for a few games, some soda and cake–No rented magician or travelling circus, no Bouncetown or Play Gym, no friggin’ goody bags to reward you for coming and having fun! It was basically a chance to play indoors, rather than outside for 12 hours. Anyway, the party was hitting a lull, and Mrs. O’Hara suggested we play charades. We all loved charades.

Maybe it was the dress, maybe it was because my attention-seeking radar was already in full gear, but when I got up there I did not play charades–I performed my debut stand-up routine. First, I gave a very authentic portrayal of my sister, age 8, having one of her tantrums. I screamed, I threw my red wig on the floor, and then I stomped on it, a lot. The crowd roared with laughter. Mrs. O’Hara said, “What else you got?” So I whipped out my impression of my dad getting mad, my mom calling everyone in for dinner a thousand times, my sister having another tantrum, the two little brats who usurped my role as youngest crying their lungs out, my parents yelling at my older brothers. I was in a manic frenzy of impersonations. I do not remember the party ending. I do not remember anything after my “performance”. I just know I went home exhausted.

The next day, my entire family attended the 10 o’clock mass (the mass to be seen at). It was boring, as usual. I couldn’t wait to get home and outside. Then it happened. In the parking lot, as we headed to our car, I heard Mrs. O’Hara’s voice. “Joanne, I just have to tell you…” “Tell me what, Pat?” “Your Michael was the hit of the party!” “Really?” said my mother, fixing her gaze on me. “Oh, yes! He had us in stitches.” “What about?” “Oh, you know, his brothers and sisters, all the craziness that goes on in these houses. He’s a character that one.” “He sure is,” I heard my mom say, although I had already skulked to the car and was hiding in the back seat amid the menagerie of arms and legs that belonged to my siblings, the very same people I abused in my comedy routine just a day prior.

When my mother finally came to the car, she got in very slowly. We drove home in relative silence, the entire three minute trip to our house from the church. When we pulled into the driveway, I made a run for the back door. “Michael!” “Yes, mom?” “Come here.” I came. “Yes?” “What exactly did you do at O’Hara’s?” “I was just messing around.” She looked at me suspiciously. I had to give her something. “I just acted out Erin throwing a tantrum.” She continued to stare at me in anger. I winced under her gaze–my mom never got mad at me–ever! In that exchange of looks, I felt like she could see in my eyes all of the other skits I performed. I knew she felt betrayed, outed by one of her own. “We don’t ever talk about our family like that to others. It’s our business. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Don’t ever do that again!” “I won’t.”

Fast forward three years. Jamie O’Hara has just announced that he is not coming back to St. John of the Cross. The harsh discipline of our third grade nun is too much for him. I know one of them did throw a desk down the stairwell at a kid–maybe that’s what sent Jamie over the edge. And as a “good Catholic” I was incensed that he would give up, that he would go over to the Dark Side of public school. It wasn’t as if we were best friends. Truth is, we grew apart after his costume party. I think it was the combination of me dressing as Raggedy Ann, behaving like Andy Kaufman‘s understudy, and airing all my family’s bad behavior. Whenever I saw Jamie, I thought of his party, and I always associated his party with my getting in trouble.  Hence, I felt awkward around him. But that didn’t stop me from opening my big fat mouth once again. This time, he was the recipient of my bitter tongue.

We were walking to school. The survivors. The one’s who didn’t succumb to public school, but offered up the crazy behavior of “the religious” to all of the suffering souls in purgatory. There were about fifteen kids who would make the trek from our neighborhood–up one hill, and down another. We were talking about the scandal that had fallen on the third grade–the departure of Jamie. I said it without even thinking: “You know he’s going to Hell, don’t ya.” “MICHAEL!” gasped a few of the girls. “Well, he is! There’s no way God won’t punish him for this. Public School!?! They’re all probably going to Hell!” I was proud of myself. Taking a stand for my beliefs. Speaking the good word of the Lord. The rest of the walk was fairly silent, as everyone considered how quickly one’s fate, one’s salvation, could turn–on a dime!

It was a beautiful September night. The sun was beaming into the kitchen as we just finished dinner. I was hoping to get out for another hour of play. There was a knock on the screen door. Someone answered it. My mother and I still lingered at the table. Stupid me for not scarfing down my food like the rest. “Hi, Mrs. O’Hara!” said a brother or sister. My mom shot up from the table. Pat O’Hara was not one to just drop by. I tried to escape. I tried…”Hi, Joanne. Is Michael home?” Oh, shit, I thought (sorry, Jesus).

Mrs. O’Hara sat me down at the kitchen table with my mother. She proceeded to tell me that her son was NOT going to Hell. That God loves all of his children regardless of where they go to school. That we’re all trying to get to the same place, we just have different ways of getting there. She made her case like the loving mother she was. I nodded and kept my mouth shut. In my head, I was thinking how this MAY be true, but catholic school certainly gave me an upper hand in the matter. Mrs. O’Hara took pity on me and my remorseful face. My mom let me be excused from the table where they chatted for a few more minutes–awkward, to be sure.

When I heard the screen door slam, I waited in my room for the call. “MICHAEL, get down here!” There was my mom at the bottom of the steps. I knew that look, but I had only ever seen it once before.

age 5 2

The author, circa his Raggedy Ann Phase.

Music, My Muse

Ever since I started writing this blog, my senses have awakened. I see things more clearly. I listen more. I watch. I wait. One area that has always been a touchstone for me is music. I have always loved songs–and lyrics have a way of transporting me or grounding me–whatever I need at that moment. Now, it seems that every song I love has a hidden meaning of validation for my writing process. When I listen to my I-pod or the radio in the car, I find myself nodding in agreement at the words from songs and artists I have listened to countless times. In the next few posts, I would like to share some of the more profound lyrics that have guided me to continue writing.

Roll Away Your Stone” by: Mumford and Sons

Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine

Together we can see what we will find

Don’t leave me alone at this time,

For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside

From the moment I began to type the first words of Dadicus Grinch, I felt like I was finally moving away the stone that had been blocking my cave, so to speak. Writing has allowed the light to get in, and now I see it illuminating everywhere. That which was once scary and dark, now holds less power over me. And I wasn’t so much “afraid of what I will discover inside”. I knew, I’ve always known, but I was afraid of what would happen if others knew. Guess what, putting things out there has made the weight lighter, and so many of the responses and reactions I have gotten have been, essentially, “Everyone has their stuff. Everyone!” Moreover, if we see that we are not alone in our thoughts and fears, it helps others find the courage to begin to roll their own stones away. Imagine if we all did that, instead of operating under fear, doubt, and insecurity?

Cause you told me that I would find a hole,

Within the fragile substance of my soul

And I have filled this void with things unreal,

And all the while my character it steals

For me, the “you” in this stanza is that little voice that constantly tries to creep in to my mind to negate all that I know to be good and true. The soul IS such a fragile part of who we are, and rather then tend to it carefully, we abuse it by ignoring it. We’re too busy to think about such stuff–My soul ain’t gonna pay the mortgage, right? But I would hazard a guess that your soul IS the voice that will comfort you on your deathbed someday. The more you take care of it (him or her sounds nicer, doesn’t it?) the more comfort you can find throughout your existence. “And I have filled the void with things unreal, and all the while my character it steals.” These words are haunting. We spend so much of our time and energy chasing away our demons, letting them have all the power and control. And in our failed attempts to keep the monsters at bay, we neglect the people we truly are and could be–the character of our true selves. Break the pattern. Like a misbehaving toddler, the best way to deal with these aspects of our nature is to ignore them–the less power you give them, the less power they have.

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?

And yet it dominates the things I see

Darkness is, indeed, a harsh term. But we all have darkness AND light. When we don’t address the darkness in ourselves, in our past, it will dominate all things in our lives. The minute you start to shed light on whatever it is that is consuming you, the darkness can no longer dominate.

 It seems that all my bridges have been burned,

But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works

It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,

But the welcome I receive with the restart

Before I heard this song, I never really understood what “grace” meant–or what i think it means. It’s a word I heard often growing up in a Catholic home, but it’s meaning always eluded me.  In this song, the word finally clicked with me. Grace is a state of being where one completely changes places and perspectives. It is through that change, which is often painful, that one learns to empathize. In order to find grace, we may need to begin anew. Funny, burning bridges always seemed like a bad thing, but what if we burn the bridges to places that always hurt us? What is we burn that bridge to self-doubt, or booze, or bad lovers? What if we refused to keep crossing the bridges that lead us to failure and pain? The last two lines of this resonate, because I feel like I am returning home. It’s just a much different walk this time in how I chose to see the past. The amazing thing about writing is that it allows us to see things more clearly. The most welcome I have felt is from myself–free to give voice to my thoughts and memory.

Stars hide your fires,

These here are my desires

And I will give them up to you this time around

And so, I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground

Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul

There is such a desire in me to continue on this journey. I feel that there is a fire that burns in each one of us, yet society tends to dampen this desire. It is up to us to stoke the flames. Writing has allowed me to discover “this newly impassioned soul”.

But you, you’ve gone too far this time

You have neither reason nor rhyme

With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine

And so I will continue to find my soul in the words that I write on the page (screen). I will turn off the voices that have tried to make me feel foolish or afraid. At this point, they are powerless–they have neither reason nor rhyme. For this new soul IS rightfully mine.

To Owen On His Eighth Birthday

Dear Owen,

Today is your eighth birthday, and I  just wanted to share some observations with you about your life.

It seems like just yesterday I held your little body in my hands—my two hands!  Time DOES fly. It travels by leaps and bounds. You are eight today, and soon enough you will be in high school, med school, law school, then NASA…maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The point is, life is fleeting. That’s why I make every effort to capture as much of this time that you and I have together. I am constantly saying to myself, “Remember this…remember this.” And I try.

I have certainly enjoyed the milestones with you– from teeth, to walking, to monkey bars, to bike riding. But it’s the small things that I love the most. Like the time I was putting you to bed and you discovered your shadow. You ran back and forth from the night light to the closet for a half hour straight. Or how you became our little TV junky from the moment I plopped you in front of Baby Einstein at a few weeks old. Or how you make up all these crazy rap song rhymes and sing them over and over; or how we tease you for staring in the mirror of the hutch in the dining room when we have dinner; or how you still carry a wooby to bed and suck your fingers (I know, we’re working on it); or how,  sometimes, when I’m driving, I’ll reach back to hold your hand (I’ve done this since you were a toddler) and you still let me hold it; or how you create all these amazing abstract drawings out of your imagination. But what I love best about you is your sense of wonder. You have such a cool perspective on the world, and I am humbled and privileged to be able to see this world through your eyes. Through your lens, my world is brighter, more magnified.

Your fresh perspective prompted me to begin a journal a few years ago of quotes you and Hayden say.  Here are some examples to help you appreciate what I mean about your viewpoint:

“Daddy—even when I grow up and I become a daddy, you’ll still take care of me right?” “I sure will, Owen.” It was this question from you that prompted me to keep a quote journal. We were driving in the car. You were five. And out of the blue, you just asked me this. Tears instantly shot into my eyes. Hearing you ask this made me realize the magnitude of bringing another person into this world. And even though you will grow up and find your independence, I will always take care of you, and you of me. Family takes care of each other. Always.

“Daddy, watch this. I’m gonna run faster than the rain drops.” What I love about this quote is that your 6 year old self believed it could really outrun the rain. Nothing is impossible when you are young. It is because of this belief, that I have been able to steal a little magic from you. Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself. Thank you for reminding me of this.

“You have to eat your breakfast or you won’t be strong and brave.” Owen, you are a true first born—you have such a sense of duty and responsibility. You said this to Hayden, who was refusing to eat his breakfast. And you said it with such conviction. You do try to be so brave. You always have. I remember one of your first haircuts. We went to an unfamiliar barber shop (since bald daddy hadn’t needed a barber in years:) There was one old man and he was kindof scary, and the place reeked of his cigarette smoke. You were the only customer. He was pretty gruff, but was trying to be gentle. You kept looking at me for reassurance, and you held it together until the very end. When he whipped out the clippers and started buzzing your neck, you began to bawl. I was so impressed that you hung in there for as long as you did–don’t worry, we never went back there. My brave boy. Keep eating your breakfast, buddy.

Owen: And when I’m 900, I’ll go up to heaven so I can come back down as a puppy dog.

Mommy: And maybe I’ll come back as a kitty cat so you can chase me.

Owen: No! I don’t want to chase Mommy.

Mommy: Maybe I’ll be a dog, too, so we can snuggle.

Owen: Yeah, you’ll be one, too, and Daddy and Hayden and Rufus (our actual dog). Pause. What do we look like in heaven?

Mommy: Some people think we look like angels, you know, with wings.

Owen: Cool!

What I find so moving about this conversation is that kids are simply matter of fact about death. When you said this, I laughed at the thought that you would live to be 900 years old, and then I was sad that we won’t be together forever. That is a sad reality. But I promise you this. For all the time we have left, I will always love you, and I will always be here for you. Mommy and I are so lucky to have found each
other, and then to have had you and Hayden.

I hope someday you will read this. And you won’t hate me for embarrassing you, or roll your eyes at how corny I am. Remember, life is short. And we only get so much time to say the things we want to say. I am so excited to share this day with you, and the year ahead, and as much time as we will have. You will always be my little Owee. I love you, buddy. I hope you continue to find life to be very captivating, as you have captivated us for these past eight years.

Love always,

Daddy

Writing My Wrongs

Javier PachecoA few weekends ago, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for most of my life, was talking to me about my blog. He likes it. He thinks it’s been a good platform for me.  “I think you found your new therapist,” he said. I think he’s right. Writing is very therapeutic. It is a great outlet, a way for one to process  thoughts, ideas, fears and fantasies. Writing this blog has allowed me to do that.

I’ve been blogging now for three months. Recently, I’ve been sitting on a piece that was hard for me to write. And it got me thinking about why I do this…Should I do this?? And the answer I keep coming back to is “Yes!” This blog has been a wonderful experience for me. It has reinvigorated some old friendships; it has brought me many new perspectives; it has connected me with people across the globe and right in my own backyard. If you have been reading it, I want to thank you. Thank you for letting me in, for letting me rant and reveal, pontificate and pester. Thank you for visiting with me—if only for a few moments in your week.

A lot of people claim to like the format of my blog. How I write about an incident that happened with the boys just moments ago, and then throw in a piece from my past. To some, it may seem random, but this blend is purposeful. My past makes up my present. When I see my sons, when I look at the man I am in front of them, I am a father, but I am also a husband, brother, son, friend, student, teacher, neighbor. All of who I am is represented when I parent.  I am the sum of my parts, as you are, too. And I am constantly seeking a better understanding of that. Bringing in the past allows me to do that more, and, hopefully, better.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been brutally honest about my upbringing and my experiences in my family—both current and past. In talking to another friend, she cautioned me to not forget the good stuff in the past. That is an important reminder, and I thank her for that. I did not start this blog with an axe to grind or out of anger. I am saddened by some of the topics I cover, but they are what resonate with me.  I am not trying to play the blame game or point fingers, I am merely trying to write about my experiences. These are the memories and the relationships I have struggled with.

One of those relationships is with my mother. When I was young, I thought my mother was a living saint. Married so young (21) and 7 kids by thirty. With little means, she made the most of it. She gave us each a spark of her personality. She taught us how to have a big heart and she loved us all the best she could. I was hesitant to show her my blog because I thought it may offend her. However, I did not want to do this behind her back. Around my birthday, she stopped by to drop off a cake for me. We visited for a while, and then I asked her to sit and read the blog. I was so nervous  I went for a run while she perused each entry. When I got back, I was relieved (and surprised) that she loved it. I asked her how she felt about the entries where she may have looked bad. She exclaimed, “Well, it’s all true. How could I be mad?” What a great moment for mother and son. Permission to tell the truth. I recently came across a quote that speaks to this very theme: “The truth hurts for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.” This blog is my truth.

My father also did his best. He lived during a difficult time for men to be alive— they were taught not to show their emotions. My dad was a boy during The Great Depression; he never went to college, yet he was very smart; he never made it passed middle management in the insurance business. He was a staunch Catholic with a strong moral code. He had some bad breaks in his life, like a heart-attack at age 44, and he never truly found peace on this Earth. My father has been deceased for more than a decade and a half. There is some guilt in me for writing about him when he no longer has a voice. I feel bad that he is not here to speak with me about these words I write, but sadly, I think if he was here, and he read what I wrote, he would not speak to me. Perhaps it would be different. Perhaps.

These are my parents, and they are flawed—as we all are. And it is through their flaws that my identity was formed, and that of my six brothers and sisters. And I cannot stop what I have started. I believe in the power of writing and its ability to bring us to a greater understanding. If I ever come across as whiny or petulant, please call me out on it. And please understand that the writing you find on these pages has been developing in my mind for years, decades even. I do not write about the past without having given it much consideration and deliberation.

Finally, some thoughts from the teacher in me. When I talk to my high school students about writing, I inform them that the word essay means an attempt; to try. These essays I write are my attempts. Like all attempts, some will be more successful than others.  Which brings me to my second teacher point. When I discuss the art of argument with students, I explain to them the old adage “Everything’s an argument.”  I tell them that what we are trying to do when arguing is “enter the conversation.” My blog is my attempt to enter the conversation. I have something to say, and I am glad I am finding a way to say it. I have started a conversation and I would love it if you would join me.

What do you have to say? Tell me your thoughts. Let me know what topics you would like me to cover more. If you blog, what scares you about writing? Please let me know what you are thinking. It matters.