Thought

Big Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. About how we love and who we love. Which got me thinking about my childhood, which got me thinking about my brothers and sisters, which got me thinking about my parents, which got me thinking about my mother’s approach to love, which got me thinking about Big Love, the HBO show about polygamy starring Bill Paxton. Confused? Good. So am I.

I must be confused if I am equating familial love with polygamy. But in a weird way, it makes sense, like the Oedipus Complex does if you don’t think about it too much:) Most of us cannot comprehend having more than one spouse, but think nothing about people having more than one child.  Yet, with each new being brought into a marriage or family, the dynamic changes, hence, all the relationships change. In Big Love, Bill’s first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorne), is like the oldest child: a responsible caretaker; his second wife, Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny), behaves like the troubled middle child; and his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is like the youngest child, playful and carefree. Bill loves each wife for who they are, but each love is different, and their love for one another is different as well. It is reflective of their order in the relationship–of how long they’ve been in the marriage.

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Love is very confusing in that we are taught how to love by being loved–or not. When we move on to love others outside our family, we confront the shortcomings of how we love. When and if we have a family of our own, we approach the way we love in the hopes of loving unconditionally. See, that’s one of the problems for me–the concept of unconditional love. I have always been suspicious of unconditional love. Can people really love others without condition? Do I love without condition? I think for a while I did not love myself photo (46)unconditionally, and I do believe that you can’t love others fully if you don’t fully love yourself. Now that I have children, I am hopeful that I know what unconditional love is. But I remain cautious because so many relationships in our lives seem to be built around conditions, an approach that sounds like “I love you…until.” I love both my boys no matter what, but I think I also love them differently because both of them are different and have different personalities and needs.

I knew I wanted a small family. After our first son was born, my wife was pushing for a second, and I panicked. “I’m already having trouble adjusting to one,” I whined. She persisted, and I’m glad she did. I was against having a lot of kids because I thought that then I would have to divide my love. During this time, I came  across a great quote that addressed my concern. I think it was by Michelle Duggar actually, the woman who lived in a shoe, the one who has nineteen children, and counting! I have so much angst when it comes to large families that I would actually get annoyed if my wife was watching this show. I just can’t imagine that many kids living in a healthy household. Yet, Mother Duggar’s words were quite poignant: “When you have children, the love does not get divided, it gets multiplied.” I love this quote! However, I’m not sure I trust it. And I think if you ask her 19th child, she may be skeptical about the exponential love that surrounds her. Or how about the tenth child–who just happens to be the middle child? These children have a much different love than the Duggar’s firstborn. I think that’s my problem with love–the love we experience–the love we give and receive–is different. With every person we love it is different.

During my childhood, I had the luxury of being the baby the longest. I was the fifth child, and enjoyed my youngest status until I was four, when my mother had fraternal twins. Twins! Back when twins were still an anomaly of sorts. And those little bundles stole all of the attention I enjoyed at home. On walks, everyone would stop to see “the babies”, and say “hello” to me as an afterthought. There is a picture–which I cannot find–where my brother and sister are posed in their baby seats. They are featured from head to toe in adorable matching onesies. But if you look a little more closely, you will see two small hands on either side of their seats, and you will determine that there was another person in the photo. Me. Those are my hands, my arms hugging the babies, yet my head is cut off. Talk about a metaphor. In some ways I’ve been searching for my head ever since.

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Recently, I have finally determined what my mother’s problem is: She’s human. As a human, she has serious flaws, as do I and you and the Duggar woman. I came to this realization when trying to sort out all of the fractured elements in my family. There is no unifying sense of love and togetherness for us. Growing up, love seemed very conditional. There was a lot of withholding of love in our house, evidenced by such classically Irish pastimes as the silent treatment and ignoring the elephants that sat in our tiny living room. The Irish seem to be masters of silence, able to avoid any conversation while seething on the inside. My heritage is 100% Irish.

As a boy, I thought my mother was a living saint. She was the heartbeat in our house and we were all her confidants at one time or another. It was always a source of pride to be privy to my mother’s latest struggle or hurt. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was about 9, I accompanied my mom to the cemetery to place flowers on her mother’s grave. On the ride home, the brakes failed. She quickly regained control of the car, and there was no accident, but I knew the potential crash had the intoxicating scent of tragedy for my mother. “WE could have been killed!” she exclaimed to me, then to my family as she regaled them with our adventure over turkey a few hours later. I remember locking eyes with her as she told the table about our now near-death experience–on our way from the cemetery no less! There was a sense of pride in her gaze, a look that said, “Today, I chose you, Michael.” Whether I was the only one who was willing to go with her or not is irrelevant. I wanted that role because it made me feel special, chosen.

My mother was an only child. Her father died when she was five. Her grandfather was a raging alcoholic in their small town. I’d imagine her love as a child was a lonely love–a frightened love. She went on to have seven children. Throughout my life, she has loved each of us, but not evenly. About a month ago, I had an epiphany by way of analogy. My mother is like a mama bird with seven baby birds. At any given time, mama bird has two, maybe three of her babies under her wing, but the other birds are held at a distance.  Each bird knows the feeling of warmth and love under that wing, and it becomes their mission to get under that wing once again. They’re not even aware of this desire–it is innate. But if they find themselves there, that means another bird is pushed out. One might argue that the bird’s wingspan is large enough for all the birds, but this has not been the case. Mama bird may not even realize this, for she was the only one under her own mother’s wing. And as a result, the birds care more about being under that wing than being together in the nest. They don’t even notice whose in the nest, they just want to be under that wing.

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As I get older, I am amazed at how many families have estrangements. Almost every family I know has people in it that are not on speaking terms. Even very “functional” families, even those with many successes, have people who are ostracized, members who are not welcome, or are perennially absent. What does this say about the nature of family? Of love? Is it naive to think everyone in a family could love each other? Are larger families more susceptible to estrangements? I don’t know (I’m confused, remember?). But for me, the real tragedy in all of this is the fact that it seems to take as much energy to not love those in our lives, energy that could be spent on loving. [Insert frustrating scream here]. Maybe that’s where the unconditional part comes in. When we put conditions on our love we exhaust the love’s potential. If we love no matter what, our love knows no boundaries. I am not capable of doing that with most people, and I’m not even sure it’s healthy. But I have started down this path of unconditional love as a father, and it has allowed me to look back as a son.

MY goal as a father is to love my boys without question, and to teach them how to love one another in kind. In order to do this, I am determined to talk through issues with them as they occur, and face things head-on, openly. Some people have even asked what I would do if they read my blog. Well, I imagine one day they will–and I’ll make damn sure they go back to the beginning. And we will talk about anything they want to talk about that I have written.

As a father, I vow to never exclude them from my life, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they have a relationship with each other for all of their days. Naturally there will be fighting, there will be resentments, but in the end they will always choose love. That is my hope for them. And for me. And for you, dear reader. And for you.photo (45)

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THE BEST THING I LEARNED IN 2013

This is my first ALL CAPS title. I’m that excited. It’s THAT important. I want to share with you the best piece of advice I received this past year. It’s actually part of a philosophy called Stoicism.

Still here? Good. Don’t be scared. Like many people, I want to be wise. I seek knowledge. I crave understanding and acceptance. Every year, I try new things to fulfill these goals. This year, I tried to meditate, but found that I would only fall asleep. It was like taking a ten minute nap sitting cross-legged on the floor. Even my butt fell asleep. Meditation was not going to get me there.

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I bought some books in September. I thought I’d begin everyday of the school year with an inspirational poem or thought-provoking essay–short, to the point. I bought A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, by Coleman Barks. My friend Michele over at The Everyday Strange and Sacred (check out her awesome blog here) peaked my interest in Rumi. Very cool poet. He died in 1273, but his words are of all time. As I was finding the right book of Rumi, Amazon led me to the People who bought Rumi also bought…which led me to A Guide to the Good Life {the ancient art of stoic joy}, by William B. Irvine. I was looking for the good life–I knew I needed a guide. Yet, I was intimidated by the word “stoic”. Stoic seemed cold, steely, detached. But once I checked out the inside jacket cover, I was hooked. It read:

One of the great fears that many of us face is that, despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life…William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most successful and popular schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives…Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a road map for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us.

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The two books arrived together, and I spent the first few months of the school year trying to begin each day with Rumi and the Stoics (sounds like a cool band name). Like most things, my morning routine faltered, and my reading was replaced with hitting snooze seven more times, or making lunches for the boys, or–you get the gist. But as I look back on 2013, and I take stock in the year that was, I keep returning to the greatest insight I have gained this year, in fact in the past few years. It’s that good.

One autumn morning, as the sun turned our kitchen a golden orange, I was reading about stoic joy–I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. I came across the following: “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people  that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability…One wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE.

WANT THE THINGS WE ALREADY HAVE. My mind was blown. It seemed as if all of the words on the page darkened save for those six. I felt the glow of those words shine of the page a la Indiana Jones when he found the Holy Grail (maybe that was the sun coming in, but I swear the pages were glowing). Want the things I already have. Could it be so simple? Yes. Yes, it could.

I immediately thought of the gas fireplace I had been pining away for these past few years. “It’d be so nice to just flick a switch and have a roaring fire,” I’d say. (Damn you, HGTV) But wait. I have a fireplace. So many people wish they had a fireplace in their home, and I already do. I am lucky. What if I simply enjoyed the fireplace I already have? What if I made a point of having more fires this year? I could enjoy the sounds of crackling flames, the sweet smell of smoky wood, the natural warmth and ambient glow. Want the things I already have.

As I got dressed for work, I looked at my wardrobe. “How many plaid shirts from the GAP does one man need?” I thought. Not as many as I own, I’ll tell you that. Yet, I’d find myself buying another shirt or pair of pants every other month or so because of a sale that was too good to pass up. “Why do I even need to go shopping as often as I do?” I thought. I don’t, if I just learn to want the things I already have.

I drove to work that day and thought of all the things I covet that didn’t matter. I live in a nice house. I drive a nice car. Yet, there’s always something more on the list that I thought I needed–and when one thing was acquired, more was added to the list. It never seemed to shorten, just grow.

All that week, I applied this philosophy to my thought process. Looking around at the gym, I’d see the bodies of people more fit than I. “Wish I had that guy’s muscles,” I’d lament. But then I’d catch myself–Hey, want what you already have. You have powerful legs that allow you to run, and healthy lungs that let you breath. You are lucky.

And I am, terribly lucky. I have all the ingredients for happiness, yet I allow myself to become distracted by all the insignificant desires that consume us. We are consumers. And that’s the tragedy of it all.

But I found as the weeks passed, I continued to think about this phrase, and it released me from some of the pressure we put on ourselves to be, to do, to buy, to desire. I looked around me at the people in my life, and I thought how happier we’d all be if we just learned to want what we already have.

To the writer who just started a blog–don’t worry about when you will get your next follower–want the ones you have today.

To the person who keeps checking Facebook for more likes on her photo–appreciate the Likes you’ve already received.

To the folks who dream of one day getting the corner office–want the job you have right now.

To the couple trying to conceive their second child–appreciate the miracle that is already in your life–want the child you already have.

To the friend who can’t wait to move to a bigger house–talk a walk through your house now and remind yourself what you loved about it when you first bought it. Want the house you already live in.

To the people who look at their significant other and think how they might be able to do better–how much better would your relationship be if you desired your present partner more? Want the person whose hand you hold today.

To those who are searching for THE ONE–want the life you have right now, the freedom, and enjoy this time to discover more about you.

To all of us who’ve lost people, be it this year, last, or long ago–what if we loved those still in our lives more deeply, rather than allow our energy to be consumed mourning those who are resting in peace?

Yes, I found that this phrase became a mantra for me. I applied it to things, to situations, to people.

This Christmas, I thought of these words when spending time with family and friends. Too often in the past, I would fixate on the people who were not there, on the loved ones from whom I am estranged. But this year, rather than think about the people I didn’t spend the holidays with, I looked around the room at those who did come to my house, or I to theirs, and I appreciated them more. I was thankful to have so many kind, caring people show up in my life. I refused to waste my time and energy worrying about those who do not. Yes, I wanted the people I already have in my life.

Such thoughts were with me as I heard the laughter of my boys and their cousins as they chased one another through the house. I did not care about the furniture, or the mess, only the people who were there to share this special time with us. These thoughts made me feel more alive.

Someone came up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Beautiful fire,” she said, admiring the dancing orange flames in the hearth. “Thanks!” I said.

Beautiful fire, indeed.

Happy New Year, Everyone. I hope 2014 is filled with many moments of joy and wonder. May you see the amazing things that surround you in the present. May you find more value in what you already have.

I leave you with a few of my favorite poems by Rumi, which complement this phrase that has become my guidepost.

Out Beyond

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense

Hoping to be More Alive

You are an ocean in a drop of dew,
all the universes in a thin sack of blood.

What are these pleasures then,
these joys, these worlds
that you keep reaching for,
hoping they will make you more alive?

The Road to Hell, Part Two

Owen and I stared out towards the road. There was no sign of Hayden. I was trying to determine where he had hidden–I did not feel like walking around the entire building. I was tired of playing Hayden’s game and losing.

We walked to the car and got in. My new car. Ha! It could have been a soap box for all I cared now. The cookie mess in the back didn’t matter now. When your world is about to crumble, nothing matters. NO thing.

My reactions felt surreal. Strange. I was not mad. I was not even scared. I was numb. My heart did not race. I did not sweat. I simply felt like I was hanging in the balance. A minute ticked away. Then another. Surely, if Hayden was hiding he would have come out by now. But what if I drove away and he was left here? What if he darted out to the road when he saw my car leaving? I did not want to be in charge anymore. I wanted someone else to take over.

“Dad, are we going to leave him here?” Owen asked.

“NO!”

“Dad, where is he?”

The anger was back. “I don’t know, Owen. I’m here with you. I don’t know where Hayden is.” I felt bad for saying this, but I was at a loss.

WE got out of the car, and walked towards the road. It was useless. The place was hidden with large pine trees.

“HAYDEN!” I screamed. “HAYYYYYYYDENNNNN!”

Owen and I walked around the building. With every turn we made, part of me expected to find him. To see his devilish grin. To hear his high-pitched laugh.

An elderly couple was strolling the grounds, looking at us oddly. I was in no mood to explain what we were doing. They tried to make small talk. I pretended to not hear them.

We circled the building, and still no sign of Hayden. I contemplated calling 9-1-1. The panic started to rise in me. How did things get out of my control so quickly? I waited to hear the screeching of brakes on the road, or the whir of an ambulance siren, or the scream of a driver who had just hit a little boy. My boy.

And the moments stretched out infinitely. The whole thing transpired over ten minutes, but it felt like hours. And within each minute, my mind toyed with me. My thoughts became desperate:

Well, here it is. The tragedy that will define the rest of your existence.

Why do people have kids? Why did I think I could do this job? I’m not good at it. I’m not the right man for it.

We bring these creatures into the world and we fool ourselves into thinking we are in charge, yet we have no control. They are their own keepers, we just bear witness. Yet, from the moment they enter this world, our primary goal is to keep them alive. We hover and they push us away. Hover/Push…

I thought about human nature, and our inclination to judge others. I thought about how I used to read stories and judge. How could someone forget their child in a car? Well, if you’ve ever been a sleep-deprived parent, then you know. How could a child just disappear? It happens. IT HAPPENS. It happened to me moments ago. When you become a parent, you stop asking how something could happen.

“Get back in the car, Owen. We have to go home.”

“He didn’t walk home, did he, Dad?”

My answer was silent.

I sped home, conscious of the hazards that lined the road. The uneven shoulder. The horrible intersection. The speeding MACK Trucks. I expected to see a crumpled mass of orange. We passed the cemetery, and I felt the tombstones looking at me–“We know,” they said. “We know what it feels like to leave that world.”

It took little time to get home, but when I pulled in the driveway, I did not want to get out of the car. If he’s not here, my life is over. If he’s not here, I am a terrible parent. If he’s not here, I will lose my shit and just run away and hide. I can’t do this job. I can’t.

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There is a scene in the movie House of Sand and Fog where Ben Kingsley‘s character charges up the steps of a building, knowing that his son is dead, but hoping beyond hope he’s not. As he races to find out, he repeats “I want only for my son. I want only for my son.” I saw that film before I had children, yet the scene haunted me for days. It haunts me still. I fear, like every parent fears, that one day I will lose my child. I think of those I know who have faced this unbearable pain, and I wonder if I could do so. I shudder to think.

I turn the door knob and am met by quiet. Owen is on my heels. “Hayden?” My heart pauses.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Did you walk home?”

“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.

There are tears. Many from Owen and not nearly enough from Hayden, as far as I’m concerned. I want to hug him, but I am afraid I will throttle him. I send him to his room and add on to his punishment from earlier. I yell at him, A LOT. And the one thing I keep repeating is “Why would you do that?” I did not give him room to answer.

I know why. Now, at least. He did it because he’s seven! He has little concept of danger and consequences and death. But that answer has been small consolation for me since.

Did you ever date someone you cared about–loved even–and then they do something so out of the ordinary and bizarre that you become completely freaked out by them and end the relationship soon after? I have. And that’s how I’ve felt these past few days: Freaked out. But you can’t break up with your child. This union is for better or worse, for richer or poorer…

Each day, though, I feel a little more normal. The amount of times I replay his walk home in my mind gets fewer. I have finally stopped hearing the screech of brakes and a thud in my mind. Last night, at dinner, when we were talking about how many more days he has “without screen” I finally got up the nerve to ask him where he crossed the street–it took me five days to get up the courage to ask that question.

But I am changed. This event changed me. And my sadness feels profound, because I think it marks the beginning of many more betrayals that are inherent in the parent/child relationship. This daring walk home marks the first of many possible betrayals: There will be other dangerous jaunts: on foot, bike, skateboard, and eventually, car. There will be parties where he’ll have to confront drinking and drugs. There will be lies about curfew and who he was with. There will be many times I’ll want him to go in one direction, and he’ll defy me and go another.

But for now, I am trying to appreciate the fact that my life did not turn upside down that day. I looked down the road to Hell, but thankfully turned off before I arrived there. I realize other obstacles await, and someday tragedy may strike. I hope I’ll be better prepared, but I doubt it. That’s the constant reminder a parent must face. There is very little in my control. Too damn little.

EPILOGUE

The day after Hayden’s long walk home, I had to take our puppy, Rosie, to the vet. She threw up all over my front seat when we were seconds from arriving home. I had had the new car exactly one week.

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.