Today I remember you laughing with blood in your mouth. When we were young and wild with our heads on fire. When we thought integrity and poetry were enough to fill our stomachs. You were only ever a boy in the blue city. You were never supposed to be 50 and you aren't, but happy birthday anyway.
“As truths are the fictions of the rational, so fictions are the truths of the imaginal.” —James Hillman
When my daughter, 9, recently unpacked her suitcase and discovered that she had left her oldest friend, a pink bunny named Bunny, 9, in a San Diego hotel room, she lost her mind. Here, I choose my words carefully. She lost her mind. Or a big part of it. The rich, important part.
I once caught her talking to her bike. “You are a very good bike, you know? Yeah. Uh-huh. Of course I will ride you. A good bike makes little girls happy and happy girls love to ride good bikes. I like your horn. Are you hungry? I will ask my daddy for a treat and then we’ll go for a ride. Okay? I will be right back but don’t you dare go riding without me because that would be silly. Okay? Good!”
And once, after gulping down a refreshing glass of red juice on a very hot day, she exhaled with a satisfied Ahhhh, held the purple cup to her face, and said with solemn sincerity, “Thank you, cup.”
I’m not relaying these stories as cute little anecdotes about the whimsical nature of childhood. Rather, I want to assert with the same solemn sincerity my daughter uses when talking to cups that the imagination is real. Without going into lengthy investigations into the history of ontology (the philosophy of what things are) and religion, allow me for the sake of brevity to point out that, at some catastrophic point in our pasts (both cultural and personal), the imagination, once an aspect of our experience as viable as any other, was demoted to being the opposite of what’s real as opposed to being a part of what’s real.
Everything speaks to us, yearning to be heard.
But it’s just our imagination, right? You see how we do that? We say it’s “just” our imagination. And when our children talk to bikes and cups and form intimate relationships with stuffed animals and invisible friends, we smile and chuckle because it’s “just” their imagination. But the imagination hasn’t always been thus degraded by being “just” so much nonsense in comparison to what’s reallier real. It was once collectively considered JUST as real as the scientifically measured stuff that monopolizes reality today.
And to what end? Well watch the news. Take a look outside. And ask yourself this: If we all believed, and acted as if, the myriad things that inhabit our lives were sentient; that our bikes and cups did talk to us, not through audible waves that vibrated our ear drums, but through our newly restored and esteemed imagination; that we genuinely do hear the whispers of our dead friends and relatives; that the whole world, all of it, was as alive as you and me; that, indeed, you and me were but lively voices in this enormous choir of liveliness; and we crowned it all off, this big teeming lively thing, with some fancy word like psyche or anima or soul or God—again, if we believed all this and acted as if it were true, how then would the world appear when we looked outside? Of what then would the news consist?
Put more simply, what if we were as kind to each other and the things of this world as my little girl is to her bicycle? Is racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental crisis, etc. and so on, even conceivable in a world where we feel sincere gratitude for the cup that provides our refreshing red juice?
Can you imagine?
These ideas would be certifiably insane (indeed, what is insanity but a way to label and marginalize an imagination that won’t cooperate?) if we didn’t have constant everyday proof of their reality parading right before our eyes in the children we’re raising. They are living examples of the way things really and truly are until those ways are stamped out of us by the tyranny of growing up.
And that’s precisely why my daughter lost her mind when she lost her bunny. I don’t want to minimize my daughter’s living relationship with Bunny by abstracting it into some deeper issue, so let me be clear. Her relationship with Bunny is real and it’s the primary thing. They’ve grown up together, shared all their nights together, and they’ve maintained a lively dialogue since the days my daughter first emerged into the evocative power of language. However, because she is 9 and approaching the appalling threshold where rationality begins to assume its imperial dominance (in our culture), the loss of Bunny amounted to nothing short of my daughter losing one of her last portals to a vital world where imagination retains its airy substance and becoming trapped in the rigid adult world of the way things are. And she lost her mind. She couldn’t sleep. She was inconsolable. Just like us, back when the reality of the imaginal vanished into being just our imagination.
On a happier note, Bunny has been discovered asleep beneath the hotel bed in San Diego. She is right now flying home, first class, where a raucous tea party will be had with a caterpillar, a guitar, and the ghost of my dead friend, Skip.
Originally published in Brain, Child Magazine
“Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad.” This is how my daughter gathers up my scattered attention into one focused lump. “Watch!” She runs toward the pool, jumps, transforms from a 9-year-old girl into a cannonball, and makes a hugeSPLASH! Wet old people grimace. The sun continues to hurl 100+ temps at the valley. The earth spins on its axis, devoted. Anxious traffic crawls and honks. My daughter emerges from beneath the water, smiles at me, and swims away, a happy little fish with yellow hair. My God how I love her.
In order to avoid thinking, a lot of fathers immediately inhabit an outworn stereotype when someone mentions the prospect of boys eventually dating their daughters. They become caricatures of anger and make wisecracks about running boys off with guns or keeping their daughters locked up until some ridiculous age. But I’m curiously warm to the idea of my daughter going on dates someday. Mostly because I think she’s really cool and falling in love is a wonderful thing to do between broken hearts.
“Are you looking for Gate B-8, sir?”
“Indeed,” I reply.
“Nonstop flight to Chicago?”
“How did you know?”
“Because that’s exactly where I’m headed,” she beams, “Climb aboard!” She’s too small to climb aboard—I would crush her—so I latch my hands on her shoulders and follow her around the room. Her arms are outstretched. She’s a little airplane in a yellow dress. The clouds are fat and happy ghosts that haunt, lazily, as if from big celestial hammocks, the fearless blue sky. I listen to the drone of propellers and Bob Dylan. My daughter offers me honey roasted peanuts and a diet Coke. My eyes hone in on a suburb of 100s of tiny houses below and I dream about the various dramas occurring simultaneously and ignorant of one another. A man is yelling something about a wet dog and an open door. Another one hopelessly pays the bills. A woman paints her toenails blue and remembers what the boy said on the playground years ago. A door slams. Somewhere, two people have sex as if the fate of the world depended on that frantic brutal deed.
As she grows up, as the boys and men inevitably gaze at her more and more from that perspective of apprehending her only as an object with which to have sex, it will become increasingly important for her to not permit those gazes to construct the woman she sees in the mirror, to refuse becoming a prisoner of that perspective. In this regard, I consider it an essential responsibility of my fatherhood to provide my daughter with an endless supply of avenues to otherness, keys out of the jail of certainty and the stasis of identity. Which means taking her to modern art museums, constantly using the words or and maybe, and celebrating the myriad ways she girls in the world. There are as many ways to be as there are stars in the sky and more. Of course a sexual being will be one way for her to understand herself, indeed a wonderful way, but in the end only one facet of numberless ways to shine.
“Tick… tick… tick,” my daughter is hiding beneath my desk and tapping my ankle and ticking. I’m trying to write this essay. People are dying in the war. People are dying in the street. My neighbor is in jail for selling methamphetamine. There is more than just our story. We are more than who we are. “Tick… tick… tick… Guess what I am, daddy. Guess what I am.”
“A clock,” I guess, thinking about deadlines.
“Nope,” she grins, “I’m a bomb—KABOOOOOOOOM!”
One of my biggest hopes for my daughter is that she never sells herself short in terms of what a girl’s for. What’s a girl for? A girl’s not for anything. Nothing. Not a single thing. A girl is for holding the space between, for or. And only from this space between, from nothing, can she ever and continually participate in the groundless potential of anything. She’s everything. My daughter is a cannonball, a fish, an airplane, and more—may she never stop exploding.
Originally published in Brain, Child Magazine
Awake And Listening To Gwen Breathe Away The Distinction Between This And That Until Morning And Mountains Are Mountains Again
in the dark,
a vein, rain,
and again like
Until the sun
the fish away
appear, lit in
a literal room,
a real bed,
of sleepy hair
There’s only so much you can say after awhile about being a parent because what I want to say, what most wants to be said is sealed off by a brick wall of unsayable presence. See. I’m not so much interested in humorous little anecdotes about kid wackiness or the powerful life lessons they teach via their wise childishness. I’m obsessed with something prior to what a good parent is or the things kids do. It’s really hard to talk about. I guess I’m just perpetually shocked by the incomprehensible fact that there was a time when my kids—they were no one—and the way that contrasts with the original fact of their suddenly being these things we call people. Over and over. They just exist exist exist and I’m like what? Who are? How did? And these dumbstruck unformulated questions ultimately dissolve into what I can only assume is love.
Do this. Go in the bathroom and turn off the light. Count to 10 and flick it on. That. That’s what I’m talking about. The way nothing erupts into something. How in the?
Sometimes I see my daughter dancing or skipping rope or drawing a big dinosaur with chalk on the driveway and I become intensely aware that she’s made of bones. I mean, there’s lots of other parts too but beneath it all there’s a bunch of bones that will outlast all our activities and reveries. It occurs to me then that I will die, that she will die too, and everything we ever shared will exist forever as a story scribbled somewhere on the soul of the world. And then I think something like How can such a pretty girl dance upon the tooth of death? and I don’t know what that means, but I write it down and leave it on my desk until it one day finds a partner to dance with in some poem or story.
Presence is differential, spit from and swallowed by absence. No future and past without contrast. The night sky is never the night sky until it’s salty with stars.
I’m coming at this two ways here and both ways are crooked because that’s how paths meander through the woods. I mean, first, there’s the day before my daughter was born and she wasn’t—you know—she just wasn’t. And let’s not get bogged down by the issue of when life begins; of course she was alive the day before she was born but I’m reasonably sure that she hadn’t encountered enough distinctions to erect a very sophisticated consciousness. Now transitioning from inside the womb out into the world? There’s a contrast upon which to begin building some pretty sound notions of this and that. However, if you insist that life begins at conception, that doesn’t negate the straight up weirdness I’m trying to convey. There was a day when my daughter was no one and then she was someone. I remember holding her in my arms in the hospital and viewing her from an oddly different perspective from all my relatives and their (spot on) assessments that she was beautiful. Stunned, I couldn’t even make it to the sophistication of assessing beauty. Someone, I kept thinking. How are you so suddenly someone? Where were you just yesterday? I bet you know secrets. I bet you understand everything more clearly than all the mystics. For you, so newly someone, have just made the longest voyage.
But the second path is harder to grasp because it moves from understanding being and not being in terms of a lifespan to the more subtle seamless and constant birth and death that flows like a river now now now. From this perspective, death is not something that comes at the end of your life. It’s the very stuff from which our lives constantly shine forth. Beneath her, above her, behind her, snaking in between all of my daughter’s little ribs, death is the just then and in a second, between which, against which, from which, my daughter appears, eating an ice cream cone. And that’s what I struggle to comprehend: the mere fact that my daughter is. Surrounded by, engulfed by, and nearly always snuffed out by darkness, she tenaciously illumines the moment with the light of appearance and being. So happy and blissfully unaware that she’s dancing on the tooth of death, she plays with a kitten, brushes her hair, laughs and eats candy. And I, dumbstruck by the way she comes and goes, dissolve into what I can only assume is love.
A bright pearl has entered my constellation of cherished images, joining the likes of the moon and ice cubes and bridges and water and thieves and fire (burn it!). I keep finding pearls in my dreams. I notice them strung around the petite necks of women, on the lobe of a Vermeer, and the moon—it’s lately yearning to be a pearl. I don’t know why. Asking why insults the pearl’s bright white confusion of myriad colors that perhaps want to shine because shining is enough.
The images that populate my thoughts and writing are never derived consciously with the aim to symbolize things in a one to one type of meaning equation. That’s the way writers work and, lately, I’ve been feeling more like my life itself is immersed in some mysterious and unarticulable art project (artist unknown) as opposed to feeling like I want to craft little yarns spun by my clever ego.
Certain images become of their own accord important to me and they both invite and resist interpretation. Rich, ambiguous, open to revision, but always, first and foremost, the image itself—the bright pearl, not what the bright pearl might stand for or what it means. Rather, what it might mean shoots off the image like sparks, losing me on paths of reverie and wonder but always leading back to its original source, the numinous image that calls and beckons, the bright pearl.
I have already alluded to the pearl’s strange communion with the moon. 13th c. Zen Master Dogen Zenji had much to say about the bright pearl. Alchemical texts refer to the Dragon’s Pearl of Great Price in relation to the Philosopher’s Stone. There is the strange notion of the pearl emerging as a result of sand or grit irritating the oyster. And this—because we’re wandering—leads to metaphorical resonance with my being sober for a year today and the great irritable price of that sobriety.
Again, and I can’t stress this enough, these are all just secondary sparks of potential meaning that lead us back to the bright pearl as the bright pearl. The image is always and ever the thing. We mustn’t forget to give our images the room and time to interpret, change, and go to work on us before we kill them with our premature interpretation of what they mean. Let the pearl pearl awhile. Let the bridges connect. Let the fire burn and burn and burn until the city smolders in black ruin.
My history of sobriety is cloudy and fragmented and so many people, myself included, have different versions of the story that I want to provide a quick outline of my relationship to alcohol and then swear on my mother’s life that I haven’t taken a drink in a year, a fact for which I’m grateful and humbled.
I drank the first time when I was 12 and I loved it and did it as often as I could until my first introduction to AA at 19. I stayed sober 90 days and relapsed during finals week of my freshman year at Michigan State University. I got sober again when I was 20, February 16th, 1992, and stayed sober until the day after Thanksgiving in 1998, making me 26. I got sober again when I was 30 on July 31st, 2002 and stayed sober until November 10th, 2008, another 6 year run. My wife at the time was out of town in Seattle for work and that’s the night I began my extramarital affair with Kate via Facebook. Not engaged in a full blown relapse of frequent drinking, I drank with Kate in Chicago, July, 2009, and again with Kate in New York City, August, 2010. I left my wife later that month and my alcoholism flared out of control. I drank with Kate in Edmonton, October, 2010, and my drinking all but ruined a meeting with Kate in Portland in February, 2011. I made efforts to quit after that but couldn’t string together any time until Mother’s Day in 2011 that lasted until November of 2011. The hardest drinking of my life was between November of 2011 and August 20, 2012, because it was an absolute secret to everyone. It was semi-controlled (infrequent binges), insofar as no one knew about it—not even Kate—but it grew and grew in frequency and exploded when my relationship with Kate ended in August, 2012. I drank from morning till night for 8 days, mostly blacked out, until I woke up on August 20th, defeated, shaky, and finished. I read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and cried and cried and cried until I could finally stop shaking and consider alternatives to suicide. Pearls are created in an oyster’s reaction to sand and grit.
And here I am a year later, still alive, with a year of uninterrupted continuous sobriety for the 3rd time in my life. Good morning!
You may have noticed that my longer stretches of sobriety began when I was 20, 30, and this current year began when I was 40. I don’t know what that’s about but I honestly don’t believe I have room for another relapse and a recovery at age 50. I feel pretty done. Skeptics will wonder what’s different this time and I don’t know what to tell them. I can only say that, for the last year and especially today, for the first time ever, the 12 Step principles aren’t in conflict with the fundamental perspectives that shape my vision of what and who and where we are. In fact, the last year has created a forum for a very congenial conversation between the 12 Steps, Buddhism, the Post-Jungian psychology of James Hillman, and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger. And if certain areas of this conversation do initially appear to be irreconcilable, I merely utilize Keats’ concept of negative capability to allow for contradiction and the ability to endure the tension without the irritable need for immediate resolution.
I ask for help.
I conceive of a Higher Power that evokes paganism and animism and a spark of life undermining the eachness of each thing in the inseparable eachness of each moment, all connected and mirrored in pasts and futures that exist only in the imaginative song of presence.
Which lately coheres in the image of the bright pearl. The last 21 years is a pearl. Sobriety is a pearl. Today is a pearl. Everything is a bright, bright pearl that both contains and displays its differentiated resonance while declaring itself above all as a pearl—bright, brilliant, radiant, an image that sings with the voice of luminescence.
I wonder. What images capture your imagination? What are the actual tangible things that call to you, alter, inform, and change the way you see and live your life? What makes you wonder? What speaks to you about the many different ways your life can mean? What images need you to tell their story?
I'm on an airplane to Chicago next to a member of the Chicago roller derby team, which is ranked 2nd in the world. She is also from Grand Rapids, MI, 30 miles from where I grew up. Born so close together, I hope we don't die.
People on airplanes seem to either be afraid of taking off or landing. I'm the only one I know who is genuinely concerned about collisions in the air with other airplanes. I have no rational basis for this fear. The news is not filled with devastating instances of fiery crashes in the air. However, it only takes one hung over air traffic controller and, bam, air collision, screaming through the sky strapped to this row of 3 seats. I suppose I would shout at the Chicago roller derby woman and try to calm her down. I would tell her "There's so much more than this! It's going to be really good, I promise!" Worrying about air collisions makes for a much higher stress level than the other fears. Take offers or landers have only a small window of terror, whereas I prepare for impact the whole flight.
I suppose I'm that kind of guy.
Being plagued somewhat by calendar based superstition, I'm for the most part certain that I'm going to Chicago to get dumped. This is of course a completely faulty defense mechanism because there's really no readiness in the fear of getting dumped. It's still a shocking jolt to one's worldview, which seems like an overly nice way to put it but I'm writing on an iPhone and not big on editing at the moment.
I've just been remembering myself, with compassion for what's coming for that guy, last August 5th. I was in Nova Scotia, naive, unsuspecting, not even considering the possibility that I was merely days away from the end of the relationship that had ended both our marriages. Cruise control. La-di-da. August 11. Fiery collision. I would drink at the airport and stay drunk for 8 days until a car accident raised my bottom high enough to start working Steps. There's a good argument for me deserving everything I got and there's even the bright side of sobriety but, man, the big lesson is that you just never see it coming. How about these poor fuckers who get peeled on the highway? Think too hard about it and you might never leave the house unless the carbon monoxide drives you into the street where a bus mows you down.
But this is all excessively negative. Being aware of the inevitable demise of everything can also make you alert in ways that you might otherwise neglect. Last night I had ice cream with my kids and it was so sweet and delicious. Eat everything as if you're on death row. And I made sure to hold my gaze into my son's eyes for an extra uncomfortable second and really add an extra POP! to my daughter's kiss because this goddamn airplane comes with no guarantees.
And what choice do I really have but to get on this plane with the assumption that it will land safely and to go to Chicago with the assumption that I'll leave on August 11th with my heart still in my chest? I can fear the worst and feel anxious but, if the last year taught me anything, it taught me to act better than I feel. Seriously. Just act better than I feel and, strangely, wondrously, I slowly begin to feel the way I'm acting. Gwen made a blueberry pie. People plotting to abandon you don't tend to make you blueberry pies. Unless there's arsenic in it. But, today, I will act as if there's no arsenic in my blueberry pie, just as I will act as if this plane will soon land and the Chicago roller derby girl next to me will live another day to skate and bash other skating women into submission, to rip apart their dreams, and even they too, the defeated ones, will rise once more to skate again, and again, because that's what we do: rip ourselves open to each and every seamless moment of creation and destruction, saunter on to airplanes, love again with reckless abandon and wide open hearts, and we eat the damn pie as if we're on death row, hopefully, faithfully, smiling, quivering on the razor between life and death as blueberry filling drips down our happy nervous chins.
“So you’re 15. For some reason that sounds a lot older than 14.”
“I know. It’s weird.”
“It’s absolutely insane. You’re approaching a time in your life when many young men mistakenly believe they pose a physical threat to their fathers. Have you considered swinging on me?”
“Do you want to take it to the mat for some Greco-Roman style wrestling?”
“You’ve got, like, bushels of hair in your armpits, dude. It’s freaking me out.”
“I just. I can’t. Piaget. The. You understand, right, that I used to wipe your baby ass?”
“I gotta believe that’s true, yes.”
“Like 1000s of times—I wiped your ass.”
“And now you’re, like, I don’t know, this guy.”
“Who’s going to drive your car in 6 months.”
“It’s like this surreal, um, totally not a pipe type of situation.”
“What’s the big deal? So I’m 15.”
“Man, you’re gonna go to college in like 3 frickin years goddamn!”
“And then when you’re done, I’m done. You understand that, right? That’s what your grandpa did to me. He wrote me a check for $1500, told me good luck, and never gave me another thing—not a single penny.”
“Grandpa says you owe him $600.”
“That’s between me and your grandpa. See? That’s exactly what I was talking about. You wanna wrestle?”
“I said I don’t want to wrestle.”
“Wait. No. I think wrestling’s maybe just a metaphor for, like, I don’t know, wrestling to communicate or something but, see, it’s bigger than the standard generation gap. It’s more like this goofy postmodern goop where I want to tell you something but the words don’t mean anything.”
“Circle purple monkey drum.”
“Exactly! Now you’re talking! Listen, boy, it’s like this. When I look at your face and I see this this—this man, I feel like I’m choking on something, like I can’t breathe.”
“Do you detect, in my becoming a man, your own inevitable decline into old age and death?”
“And the absurdity of death creates this crisis of meaning that you’re metaphorically representing with the desire to wrestle me?”
“I think maybe yeah.”
“But why me? Why wrestle me?”
“Because I love you! Listen, man, we gotta get this done before you go waltzing off into the world and I fade away into the dying of the light. I love you. I mean, damn, it’s so goddamn strange. We’re all just these weird ass sentient goofballs in this bizarre world of crazy shit like hammers and bananas and vacuum cleaners and switchblades and we stumble all over the place and, I don’t know, walk through doors and get haircuts and watch fireworks and give people money for eggs and toothpaste. And for what?!? Who the hell knows? Nobody fucking knows. But here’s the thing and I think this might be the thing that makes me choke. Honestly, I don’t even care about for what. And the reason I don’t care about for what is because of the simple fact that I get to do it with you. I get to do this whole charade of ridiculous nonsense with you. So what I mean when I say I love you is that the bushels of hair in your armpits are existential facts that overshadow the threat of meaninglessness. Absurdity itself is buried in all that armpit hair. See? I love you. Do you understand?”
“Only as far as understanding is possible in a world with no grounding foundation. But I love you too, Dad.”
“Fair enough. Happy birthday. Let's go raise some hell.”