Time and Tide
This past Sunday I spent a good portion of the afternoon with my newest nephew in my arms. I and my own kids were at my sister-in-law’s house for a celebration, the little guy was understandably unwilling to have to entertain himself at his own party, and I was the only adult around who wasn’t occupied with cooking or some other preparation. I didn’t mind, of course—he’s a sweet kid who smiles easily and has adorably squishy cheeks. More than that, though, it’s been a while since any of my own children were that small, a fact I’m aware of all the time.
Of course, when my father-in-law arrived and told me “That looks good on you, maybe you should think about having another,” my response was to say “Bite. Your. Tongue!” I later told my mother-in-law, truthfully, that I had just been thinking that morning how thankful I was not to have a baby right now.
I’m going to be thirty-nine next month, which is to say that for about six months now I’ve been saying “I’m almost forty.” I love my children, sometimes so powerfully that my breath literally catches in my throat and I feel like I might die from it. But the idea of being almost forty and having a newborn, having all the same midnight feedings and burpings and changings and desperate entreaties to please, just this once, just go to sleep, just give me three hours, just two, having all of that and also my almost-forty knees and my almost-forty back, and three other kids on top of it all... Well, it’s more than either my wife or I want to deal with. We decided a long time ago that three would be it.
And yet, as thankful as I feel to see my youngest out of diapers and writing her and her siblings’ names (on every loose scrap of paper that she can get a hand on), to say, aloud “I am not having another baby” is not without a certain pang, a certain feeling of loss, of grief. Holding my little nephew, I feel the weight of that decision more than I feel the small weight of his body.
Not that this is a new sensation, though perhaps the direction is different now. Four years ago, when we told our son that he was going to have another baby sister, he cried because he knew he’d never get to have a little brother. He loves both of his sisters now; he’s a great brother. He still sighs from time to time about the brother he wished he could have known. Sometimes I sigh about that, too.
What I’ve realized, though, is that what I’m mourning now is not the loss of some hypothetical future child, nor even the passing of my own children’s infancy. What I’ve actually lost, what I’m in the process of losing, is myself—the self that has young children. The self that is young enough to have young children.
Ten years ago I was about to turn twenty-nine and already thinking of myself as “almost thirty,” and my eldest was a scant two months from being born. And I was excited, of course, and anxious about what kind of parent I’d be, whether I’d be up to the task. But I also felt the nearness of the end of that period of my life, the period in which people still called my wife and I “newlyweds” or “those kids,” the period in which, yes, I had responsibilities but no one and nothing truly depended on me for life. As much as I looked forward to what was to come, I couldn’t help but mourn the life I was leaving behind.
The obvious truth is that having more children wouldn’t keep me from getting older. I had children. I am older. What’s always been harder to see beforehand is that whatever I may have left behind in entering a new phase of life, I’ve gained at least as much more. Change happens whether you will or won’t; there's neither sense nor use in swimming against the tide. It's time. I'm ready.
Compassion and Justice
I’ve been thinking lately about abuse, and especially about how it is so often passed on from one person to the next like some sort of communicable disease. It’s something that I’ve had a lot of time to think about over the course of my life, though it’s only fairly recently that I started using the word “abuse” to describe my own experiences.
For about five years in my early adolescence, in middle school and into high school, I was bullied on a near-daily basis, verbally degraded, pushed and shoved, spit on, occasionally beaten hard enough to leave bruises or be given a bloody nose. I obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how this affected me, both at the time and since, but it wasn’t until much later that I started thinking about what these boys’ lives must have been like, that the only way they could find to make their own lives feel comprehensible and manageable was to hurt someone else. How it must have been that no one ever taught them how to deal with their own pain and fear, so that the only way they could find to deal with it was to pass that pain and fear on to someone else. How they were just kids, themselves.
Really, in one way or another, don’t we all end up using other people poorly when we’re working through our own problems? I don’t mean to say that we are all abusers, because that’s dismissive to a harmful degree. But we’ve all hurt other people in ways small or large, and it seems to me that we mostly do so because of how we’ve been hurt. Perhaps sometimes we feel justified, that in hurting one person in one small way, we might help make things better for many others. Maybe that’s right. Maybe it’s a rationalization. I have neither the wisdom nor the authority to make judgments for anyone else. I know for certain that I when have been small, or petty, or condescending, or mean, it’s usually because I’ve been unable to deal with my own pain. It’s not right. All I can do is try to see myself clearly, and be better.
I don’t mean to say that my abusers’ pain and traumas are somehow more important than the pain and trauma they inflicted on me. But I guess I am saying that compassion and justice can coexist. That forgiveness and accountability needn’t be mutually exclusive. One of the boys who picked on me ended up committing suicide at the age of 36. I won’t ever forget the look on his face when he slammed me against a locker in seventh grade, how small and helpless he made me feel. But I can only feel sad to think about how his life turned out, and how maybe all of it could have been avoided if only we both had been taught earlier how to take care of ourselves.
I’m not here to defend those who hurt others, because abuse is indefensible. I’m not here to take away anyone else’s pain or anger. I’m not here to say that my traumas are the same as other people’s traumas, because they’re not. And I am deeply aware of how much more often the powerless are the ones being victimized, how compassion is something to which so often only the privileged are entitled, how calls for understanding are so often deployed to erase systemic injustice and silence victims. I just look around and see so much pain inflicted on so many people, and I can’t help but think that it doesn’t have to be this way. And I wonder what it would take to get us to a world with less suffering. It feels right to say that people must take responsibility when they harm other people. It also feels right, to me, that in a world where everyone felt able to be open and vulnerable, where everyone was given the tools to understand and process their own emotions, maybe people wouldn’t hurt other people as much. Or at least maybe the hurt would be smaller, more mundane.
Maybe this is naivete on my part. I don’t know, maybe.
- Art about happiness or joy—or any sort of positivity, really—is usually dismissed as corny or sappy or saccharine or sentimental. But, really, isn’t this just a form of anxiety about being vulnerable?
- I tend to understand art as the product of a set of decisions made by the artist, each decision having been made for a reason. I find myself captivated by the desire to understand those reasons, and even if it’s not possible to unambiguously arrive at that understanding, I feel like there’s something valuable in the attempt.
- Still, I can never help but think about Whitman. “Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much? / Have you practis'd so long to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
- So often when I talk to people above a certain age—and by that I suppose I mean people past middle school—they talk about what we’ve lost as a society. There’s this anxiety about what we are becoming, about whether humanity will eventually be something they don’t recognize. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t, but humanity is bigger than what any one person can do anything about.
- My grandmother used to talk often about how her father was a poet, how one of his poems was put on a monument along with a poem by Bashō. My great-grandfather’s pen name was Kanji, which is the word for the characters used in Japanese writing. I’ve never seen one of his poems, and if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to read them. I don’t know where that monument is, or if it’s even still there. My grandmother has trouble remembering my name now.
- I wonder a lot about what it means that the culture that is supposed to be mine, my heritage—as though culture is something inherited and not lived, but that’s another story—is one that I can only ever experience in translation.
- The other day as I was driving home I had an epiphany, which seems an embarrassingly grandiose word to use. I had an idea, let’s say, about how to finally finish a project that has been collecting dust on my work table for the past eighteen months. It’s funny how such a small detail can seem so earth-shattering. By the time I got home, my hands were shaking and I felt sick to my stomach.
- Every day when I am alone in my car, perhaps driving to or from work, or on my way to pick up one of my kids from some activity, I see some photograph I’d like to make, but either because of time or safety, I don’t. Every time this happens, it feels both tragic and utterly inconsequential.
- I finished two more books last night. I wonder if the reason I read so much is because I still think that, somewhere, there’s someone who can teach me how to be. I wonder if the reason I’m looking for a teacher is because my education was mostly in things that don’t matter to me anymore. Or, maybe, in things that never did matter to me, really. I wonder what it actually means to be self-taught.
- I realized this morning, again, that the things I correct my kids about are the things that I most struggle with myself, which is to say, failures of empathy. The thing is, they are, mostly, kind and compassionate, and they hurt or dismiss each other sometimes anyway. Parenthood so often reminds me of how impossible it is for me to teach them anything, how everything they learned about how to be is something they came to on their own.