Dear Charlie and Ruby,
It is the end of 2015. Ruby, you are four and a half years old. Charlie, you are almost seven. I was looking back over a lot of old photos (and new ones, too) and I realized that, wow, we have really been building a life together. How ‘bout that, eh? The years are flying by and you are becoming ever more alive and wonderful, as your bodies and hearts and minds and personalities continue to grow. And me? In some ways I feel like I am becoming smaller – but not in a bad way. Perhaps I am becoming more concentrated. More concentrated and more content. It’s not something that bothers me. In fact, I feel grateful for it.
A lot has happened over this year. Most of it, I have forgotten already. Running errands, filling out forms at work, packing lunches, going to meetings, brushing teeth and changing bed sheets – all the thousands of things that fill up days that come and go and are forgotten almost as quickly as they happen. But some things I have not forgotten. Legal matters between your mother and I were settled. And I learned and now believe – with as much certainty as any of us can have about anything in lives that are so fragile – that no one was or is going to be able to separate us. Not now, at least. Not this way. We will continue to be together and barring any unforeseeable tragedy (and I have done the work I do for far too long to think anyone is exempt from unforeseeable tragedies), we will continue to be together for a long time yet.
Well, for you it may feel like a long time. For me, it seems to be passing faster than I can catch my breath. The babies who fit on my palm and wrist turned into toddlers, and the toddlers who slept on shelves and in baskets have turned into children. And me? I’m a middle-aged man who has gotten old and turned into a father. It all happened so quickly. I breathed in, breathed out, took a nap, woke up, and here we all are. Charlie, Ruby, and daddy.
My own father wasn’t a very kind father. I think his insides, like his heart and mind and that part inside of us that makes us tangibly care about other people as people who are breathtaking and sacred and fragile and valuable, well, I think those inside parts in my father got deformed. Or, perhaps better said, I think they were prevented from forming and maturing because of what he experienced as a child. The violence of his parents got into his insides and messed them up, but that violence also took root inside of him and grew up along with him. So, as an adult and a father, he was broken and self-absorbed and violent and, to me, he was terrifying.
Sometimes, thinking about my childhood makes me sad. In fact, the other day, I found myself saying, “I wish that I had a father who loved me as a child,” by which I really mean “a father who was kind to me.” Because, of course, my father will say that he loved me, and my brothers, and my mom, very much —but he is mistaking a feeling for an action and, really, what matters is love in action (and love in action is kind, even if kindness sometimes take surprising forms). I was surprised to hear myself saying this. Ever since I was kicked out by my parents eighteen years ago, I have always said that I didn’t need any mother or father or any substitute mother- or father-figure in my life. Friends, guides, mentors, companions, and lovers? Sure, absolutely I wanted and needed people like that in my life. But fathers or mothers? No, thanks.
So, I was surprised to find myself saying these things and feeling this way. I think being a father who knows lovingkindness (that’s an old word but it says so much so well!) and experiencing all the joy and wonder that comes with that has opened me to mourning some things in new ways. As I write this, I am not angry that my father’s love did not know kindness, but I am sad about it. Sad like the way I feel sad about friends who have died over the years.
You don’t yet know this kind of sadness but when people we love die, we continue to live – and we can continue to feel joy and peace and excitement – but there are parts inside of us that remain quiet and empty and sad and sometimes, even feel that way when all the other parts of us are laughing and feeling playful. And that’s okay. It’s okay to have quiet and empty and sad parts and it’s okay to cry, too – it’s good to mourn those we love who are parted from us and it’s okay to honour them with our tears – and I think I have sometimes suppressed my mourning rather than allow myself to feel it.
Sometimes we do this when the things that make us sad feel so big that we think maybe they are bigger than we are and maybe they will overwhelm us. I think the murder of my own childhood felt that way to me and, although I have often revisited it over the years, I sometimes still find little forgotten pieces buried deep inside my self. This thought, “I wish I had a father who loved me [who was kind to me] when I was a child” was one of those pieces. And so I’ve pulled it out and I mourn it now. Doing this is a good way to stop the violence of others – the violence they inflict upon us, although you don’t know too much about any of that yet – from taking root inside of us and from growing in us the way the violence of my grandparents grew inside my father. I think maybe when he was a child he never had anybody with whom he could share his sadness. I mourn this, too. And so, one of the things I have tried to be in life, is a person with whom others can share their sadness. It’s not always easy being a repository of sorrows but, if you can bear up under it, you will bring a lot of love and hope and comfort into the lives of others. When you think about what you want to be when you grow up, I would like to encourage you to consider being this sort of person as well.
Because when you think about what you want to be when you grow up, I hope you define yourself less by what job you want to do (or, more literally, how you trade your labour for money) and more by the kind of person you want to be in relation to others. Charlie, I know you want to be a chef when you grow up. That’s a lot of fun and Ruby and I have been enjoying cooking and baking with you, but when I think about what I hope for you and Ruby, what I hope is that you will want to be people who engage with others (and by others I don’t just mean other people, I also mean the trees, and the river, and the land) with lovingkindness. This is not the case of a member of an older generation (me) expecting or desiring that the younger generation (you two) to succeed where I have not – as so often happens with matters related to the environment, poverty, war, disease and justice. The older generations mess up the world for their own profit and then expect the younger ones to fix it which, itself, is an injustice and an expression of selfishness. This is not what I am expressing here. I am committed to showing you the way of lovingkindness. Whether or not you will be loving, and kind, and the sort of people with whom others share their sorrows and find at least a little comfort and companionship, will have a lot to do with whether or not I embody these things not only in my relationship with you two but also with everyone else (including the trees, and the river, and the land).
Recently, my father said that he wished that he had been less scary – because then his kids would have approached him more and learned that he loved them more than they knew. His voice cracked when he said this, but it was hard to know if he was feeling sorrow for his children or was only feeling sorry for himself. It was probably some combination of the two. But it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. Feelings cannot change the past and this is one of the parts that were broken inside of me as a child: the ability to feel intimacy with my parents. I try and I try, and I visit them, and try to be sensitive to their needs, and work on loving them (by which I am referring to the actions I take in relation to them) in a way that they experience as loving, but inside of me things don’t connect.
I’ve often said that our insides are like our outsides – when our skin is cut it can heal but sometimes it leaves a scar, when we break a leg or ankle the bones can heal but we can end up limping, and sometimes – if a finger gets frostbite or a toe gets gangrene – a part of our outsides is removed in order to make sure the rest of our body continues to live. And it does. Our bodies, the bodies that we are, continue to live but they have scars and limps and missing parts. I think our insides are the same. Our hearts can get cut, heal and scar, or break and heal but limp. And sometimes, too, parts of a heart get cut out to prevent the rest of the heart from dying. And this is what I’ve learned with my own parents – I am better able to love them in the ways in which they desire to be loved, as long as I don’t look for them to produce a feeling inside of me that feels like the feeling of “being loved.” I think they can no more produce that feeling in me than a paraplegic person can feel his or her legs.
This probably doesn’t make much sense to you now and I wish, I wish, I wish, it never will make sense to you but it is probably inevitable that one day when you are older you will know exactly what I’m talking about because you will feel it inside yourselves. Even the best of daddies cannot prevent his children from getting their hearts broken at some point. That is beyond what I can do. But I can be safe and loving place for you now and continue to be that kind of place for you so that when that times comes perhaps I can help you through it.
My own father terrified me but I have categorically refused any kind of fear-based methods to parenting (a lot of what people refer to as “disciplining” their kids is really just teaching their kids to fear them in order to make the kids do what they want them to do–and no matter how widely accepted this is, I maintain that it is fucked up), because I want you to know, in both your minds and your bodies, that you are safe with me. I can’t make the whole world safe – I wish I could but this, too, is beyond me – but I can make myself a safe person. You can rely on me for this.
Because this is another important thing to know – as much as it is nice to be the kind of person who loves and cares for others, you will also experience times when you need the love and care of others. In fact, we all experience that all the time. You are just unconscious of that need right now. When you become aware of it, don’t run from it. Accept it. There is no shame in allowing those who love you to carry you in times of need. One day when I am very old, if I get to be very old, you may carry me, too.
This is another of the things I have not forgotten from 2015: At night we often watch a short cartoon together before bedtime. We sit on the love seat in your room, Ruby on one side of me, Charlie on the other, and we cuddle up together. You are often sleepy, especially Ruby, and you relax into me. Ruby rests her head on my forearm and Charlie nuzzles up on my chest with his head under my chin I can feel both of you breathing. I can smell your hair. My arms are around both of you and I