Monday, March 26, 2012

Standing at the shore of despair and offering a Towel

     I think that my life is similar enough to anyone else’s that it has its good and bad parts.  I have seen a life-examining exercise where someone graphs out their past, marking the highs and lows.  I even did this once in 1996, right before I left for Hungary.  That was a tumultuous year, especially compared to 1995 that I blogged about being 80 seconds in the slow lane.  During training for Hungary I was sitting at the table with other teachers and asked to graph out the last several years of my life.  I could only describe the graph as a slow incline.  In other words, my life was just getting better.  Others at the table talked about highs and lows.  I was a little concerned that I had no real lows.  Then I went to Hungary and experienced turbulence like I never had before.  We got back from Hungary and tried to find the peace we had two years before.  We struggled financially.  Then Naomi was diagnosed with cancer.  The toughest decade of my life was starting.  If I were to graph it then, there were a few highs, but the low prevailed. 
     I am better now. What is nice is that I started getting better, and then the circumstances seemed to improve too.  I am still attending a recovery group and will start working on my testimony to deliver on a Friday night soon.  My testimony will include some very personal demons that I tried to fight alone.  The first step in recovery is stepping out of denial, which is where I lived.  It took time to finally learn I needed to rely on more than just my own understanding to heal.  But it took more than time.  It took several failures.  I lost two jobs trying to do things my way.  I had been at my new job only a year when I was suspended for my attitude.  I tried to get better.  I joined the recovery group.  I thought I was doing all I could.  But I saw the group as a sentence to be served.  I still wasn’t ready to surrender.  I wasn’t ready to admit that I needed other people. 
During Naomi’s illness I took care of things.  I held her down when the nurses needed to give her a shot.  I finagled my way though the hospital’s phone system and got ahold of the CT scan department and told them to stop making Naomi wait for her scan.  I believed that Naomi would live even when Prajna was so discouraged that she didn’t think so.  I thought I had been so strong and done so well.  And I thought I had done it alone.  And when she died I felt like a victim too.
So when I was so severely depressed that I couldn’t see the truth, I started recovery.  And I couldn’t get it.  I still couldn’t concentrate enough to convince my employer that I was getting better after the suspension.  Then my immediate supervisor called me and asked me to meet him at Starbucks.  He bought me an Americano and I sipped the scalding beverage outside on a cold December evening.  We discussed some unresolved issues at work.  He had lost a family member too and confronted me on my tendency to “Play the Naomi Card”.  He gave it to me straight.  I was not honoring her memory by using her as an excuse to be depressed and live my life with a bitter chip on my shoulder.  I don’t remember much else of what we talked about.  But one thing I have not forgotten:  He took the time to take me aside and try to talk some sense into me.  Be believed in me enough and he cared enough to do this for me.  His words didn’t matter as much as the effort he made.  And it was not in vain.  That night I realized that I wasn’t alone.  Other people cared.  That realization that I needed others didn’t scare me as much as before because there were people like him.  That was the night I started getting better.
I have written two blog entries before that I called messages in a bottle.  This was because I had a particular person in mind when I wrote.  This today is another one.  He has a birthday this week.  I won’t mention his name.  This isn’t just a message for him.  I hope anyone reading this can know that there are quiet people out there who make a big difference.  If I were to graph out my life, I would see there in December 2008 an unmistakable rise where it emerges from a despondent quagmire of self-absorption and mistrust.  And standing there at the start of that rise, there he is pointing the way.



Monday, March 19, 2012

Brokenness and making things Right

     I was sitting here at my writing desk less than a week ago.  I would like to say that I was writing but that wouldn’t be the truth.  It was mid-morning.  The family was awake.  Other than this blog I had not written anything in weeks.  I’m at a dull spot in the novel I started in November for National Novel Writing Month.  I have not been thrilled lately to go to work on it.  And the only time I really will write is early in the morning; early meaning before six.  Once the kids are up I imagine the mojo is gone.  This may be all in my head, but whatever is in my head controls my writing so it tends to make the rules.  And the simple reason I’ve not written is that I have been too lazy to get up early.  My internal clock will still get me up around 5 am.  There will be an argument in my head urging, reminding of how much better I will feel all day if I get up and write.  The laziness wins, I sleep another hour or so and I end up feeling cross all day.  I get more depressed the more days I fail to write.  As much as I enjoy my job and love my wife and family, writing is a little thing I do that I like to define myself as.  When I don’t write I feel like a failure.  When I do, I just feel better all day.
     So that morning I was sitting at my writing desk.  I like to call it my writing desk, but I could just as well call it my Yahoo!/Facebook desk for what I do most at it.  From the boy’s room came a dull thud, then the voice of Harrison telling his two youngest brothers to stop throwing things.  They will most of the time obey him, but I felt like I wanted to re-assure them that what he said was a good thing.  I went in and found them playing a game where they were throwing stuffed friends from the floor to the top bunk.  I told them to go outside if they wanted to throw things.  I did not notice what had made the noise I’d heard.
     Later in the morning I had finally showered and was dressed.  Prajna and Jamie were sitting in the living room and she told me Jamie had something to tell me.  Jamie quietly told me that when he had thrown his toy mountain lion (it was hard plastic) it had struck the window in their room and cracked it.  When I had a look I saw it was actually broken, just no pieces had fallen out.  I told Jamie I was very disappointed in him and went off to make some calls about fixing it.
     Nathaniel had been the one to discover the break.      He had emotionally apologized to Prajna right away.  Characteristic of Nathaniel, he felt terrible and repentant and apologized right away.  Jamie, however had not apologized, even though he had thrown the toy.  I was off the phone later when Sarah came inside and asked what was wrong with Jamie.  He was outside crying.  I called him in and tried to talk to him but he didn’t want to talk.  His face was red and puffy. 
Jamie is someone who does not hide his feelings.  He is also someone who, if he feels a particular way, will imagine that he has always felt like that and will continue to feel that way forever.  That morning, the guilt and shame of breaking a window was all he could feel.  He may not have even been thinking about the window, just the raw, painful feelings weighing on him then.  I told him to come in my room at we lay down on the bed together.  I pulled him close.  I realized that what I told him next would have to be significant.  Being a dad can mean times for gas jokes, books read in funny voices, angry words about disobedience and admiration at creations on paper or from Legos®.  All of those are words that don’t need considerable thought.  This was not one of those times.  And it didn’t matter that I liked to think I was a writer either.  When I write, no matter how fast I’m going, I try to write good sentences.  This was not a time for the perfect verb.  I needed to reach out to Jamie through this despair that was shrouding him from everything good that surrounded him. 
I said a little prayer in my head and started.  I realized that this whole window was an object lesson in God’s forgiveness.  We walk in darkness from our sins.  I didn’t go into all the ways most people try to deal with that though denial, self medication and other habits and hang-ups.  I just told him that asking for forgiveness means that you can feel better because you really are forgiven and the sin is erased.  Jamie understood all of this.  He seemed unimpressed.  And then I remembered some words from a video series I heard at church.  In the video a dad was talking about a similar talk with his son.  It didn’t matter if I had not composed the next thing I said to Jaime.  Even if I had not made up the words, I still meant them. 
“Jamie,” I told him.  “There is nothing you can do, nothing, that will ever make me stop loving you.”
We stayed there for a little while, but our talk was done.  I don’t know if the time had calmed Jamie down, or the words I spoke to him.  What I do hope is that he never forgets them.
The window got fixed the same day.  We had a little money set aside from some extra work I had done the previous weekend.  I had worked pretty hard and was kind of hoping to use that money to maybe fix some stuff on my truck so one day I can take it camping again.  At least fixing the window did not set us back.  And it allowed for a priceless object lesson.
I was sharing the story with my friend and realized that it would be a good blog topic.  This might be the only writing I do for another week.  But I am not a full time writer.  Writing just makes me feel good.  Even though I put 40 hours or so in a week at work, that isn’t full time compared to the real full time job of being a dad.  And that morning trying to reach Jamie through is despair didn’t take fancy words.  It just took truth and love.  That’s something everyone can do.


Monday, March 12, 2012

My oldest Defense

     My two youngest sons have shopped at yard sales a few times this past month.  They have both acquired new stuffed animals.  Not all of my children had favorite animals, some had a blanket.  Naomi was showered with stuffed friends for years but a blanket was her favorite thing. She stopped crying in the church nursery when she developed a fondness for a blanket. Benjamin had a blanket that Prajna crocheted.  We didn’t know how much he loved it until we left it back in out Budapest flat when we went on a Thanksgiving retreat.  Benjamin, just about 5 months old, exercised his powerful lungs and made it clear in no uncertain terms that he wanted his beloved blanket.  Who could blame him?  He was away from home in a strange crib.  Strangers were glad to hold him.  Everything was different.  Of course he wanted a little piece of something he knew. 
     Stuffed friends, blankets and other lovies are called transitional objects.  Not only do they help a child ride out an unfamiliar situation, they help in developmental stages where not only their world changes, but they change too.  A transitional object remains the same. 
     Yes, I had stuffed friends growing up.  Among other things, I had a stuffed penguin, sewn by my mom.  She made it from brown material so it had the coloring of a penguin chick.  I named it Paul, just for the alteration.  I had other stuffed friends as well including a frog, a dog and another penguin.  But it didn’t end there.  Not by a long shot.
     When I was 8 years old my dad was transferred from Clarkdale, Arizona to Lahaina, Hawaii.  I was told there wouldn’t be a whole lot of room in the moving van and needed to get rid of things.  I gave away a racetrack and got a stick of gum in thanks.  I threw away car brochures collected from dealers.  I kept most of my toy cars. 
     My new room in Lahaina was bigger than the old one.  There was more room for stuff.  The move had changed me forever.  I’ve touched on this in previous blog entries and don’t want to dwell on it today.  It’s enough to say that I had trouble transitioning.  I got the penguin my second Christmas there.  But I had also surrounded myself with the toys that I had brought from Arizona.  And I never threw anything away.  I had a desk stuffed with drawings.  The floor was always cluttered with toys, artwork, and miscellaneous junk from my old and new home.  My room became a shrine to my past and present.   The idea of getting rid of anything horrified me.  I couldn’t explain why.  It wasn’t always that I thought I might ever need it again, just sometimes it was just a hold on the past, a little bit of familiarity.  I have only recently considered this notion also:  I may have been trying to entrench myself so as to never have to move again.
     I moved some of the junk with me to college.  I kept a lot at home.  My parents moved a few times and graciously, astoundingly kept some of my stuff.  Today I still have an old green Volkswagen, some old notebooks and yes, the penguin.  Among other things, I also have old parts of cars (real cars) I’ve owned, a few shreds of my old laptop that died on me last November, and a disposable coffee cup from a convenience store Prajna and I visited in Clarkdale, Arizona that same month. 
     Prajna bought herself a small coffee after we visited the little town I had lived in.  I kept the disposable foam cup and it’s in the golf cart I drive to work every day now.  To me, it’s the linking together of several of my worlds.  This little scrap of litter is a transitional object to me.  I know it’s not a healthy thing to hoard objects.  I’m admitting it’s a character flaw.   
     One of the most encouraging things for me is to see my children, my younger ones at least, not becoming overly attached to their stuff.  Jamie gives away his magazines a month or two after receiving them in the mail.  This is something I never would have done.  Nathaniel never really had a transitional object.  I would like to think that these two boys don’t feel the need to hang onto things in fear of losing security.  That makes me feel good about my parenting.  And when they are careless with the toys I used to have and am now sharing with them I have to just let it go.  To them, stuff isn’t as valuable.  They are not like their dad in that way.  Maybe he can learn a thing or two from them.    


Monday, March 5, 2012

Time Topples the King of Cool

     A.J. put on my headphones and then turned to me and gave me a look like I was cannibalizing myself.  I stammered to explain to him why I was listening to that particular music. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the coolness I had expected. He gave my stereo headset back and didn’t talk to me for a while.  It was a few hours before the curtain went up on opening night of our fall semester college play when he saw me with my Walkman.  I was listening to the music that I thought best would psyche me up to get onstage.  I was acting my first lead role in a stage play. 
The last time I had been onstage was only about 5 months back in a dance concert at Maui Youth Theatre.  Five months back, a few hundred miles away, and a completely different world. It had been my last time onstage before going off to college.  I was cast as an actor rather than a dancer in the opening dance number and lip-synced to a song from the movie musical, Xanadu.  The number started off in a 40’s style with a USO canteen look.  Three girls did an Andrews Sisters imitation to the voice of Olivia Newton John.  I would stand in the wings while the first part of the song played.  It was a bubbly tame sound.  I would breathe and gear myself up.  Then the number transitioned into a more 80’s hard rock song.  I stamped out onstage, the lead singer flanked by two girls.  I lip-synced to the chauvinistic lyrics, not paying attention to anything but the high I would get from being a great big ham.  I felt like I was the coolest dude on the planet.  It was one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had onstage.  The dance concert closed in August and I was already getting ready to leave for college.
     I kept a cassette tape of that song.  I had it at college where everyone seemed smart, wealthy, or good looking.  I felt like I didn’t belong and sometimes listened to the tape whenever I was feeling rather uncool.  The song began sweetly with the female vocals.  Listening to that part would begin to build me up.  Then it went into the hard rock part.  I would close my eyes and remember the past and how cool I had felt.
     So on opening night, the cast of The Real Inspector Hound was sitting out in the risers before the house opened.  I sat listening to that song my Walkman.  I was trying to remember the high I would get listening in the wings.  A.J. was a little more of a theatre veteran but must have thought I was cool because he was interested to see what I was listening to.  I handed over the headphones with the music still playing.  He heard just a little bit of Olivia Newton John singing to “forget about the blues tonight, sweet babe”.  A.J. looked grossed out.  How could I explain: Wait!!! This music makes me feel cool.  I was cool to this music once, no, lots of shows over three weekends.  I was king of the world!  I was COOL!!!
     No that was the past.  The coolness was gone and grasping onto it that night had not made me feel cool, it had made me worse than not cool.  I was uncool. 
     That was 1986.  I would like to say that I learned my lesson after that and saw the wisdom it letting go of the past and focusing on the now.  But I have always had a tendency to dwell in the past.  Even though this seems to provide copious fodder for my blog, I think that it’s mostly a character flaw.  But I hope today’s entry can be an example of how I can deal with this in a healthy way.  Here was an incident (in my past) where my dwelling on the past had an opposite effect of what I wanted.  Today I think I am better.  I try to focus more on what is happening now.  Although I am a product of my past, I am also very much a husband and father today.  I cannot be distracted by the past because there is too much to live for right now.  It feels like a hard slough to wade out of sometimes, but the truth is I’m not there anymore. 
     It is fun to reminisce about 26 years ago and connect with the old friends I had good times with.  Thanks for those memoires, you know who you are.  I won’t forget the past, but I think I’ve finally started moving on.  A lot of that is thanks to the friends I’m surrounded by today.