Friday, April 29, 2011

Whose measure of a man: Acceptance

“Acceptance,” she said as she walked through the door of the coffee shop.

I was sitting at the front counter of the cafe, on the seat closest to the glass door that opens into the place, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.

“That’s the word I’m getting for you,” she added, closing the door behind her and putting her hand to rest gently on my shoulder. “Acceptance.”

I hesitated a moment, shifting my attention from the usual fare of global catastrophe, cataclysm and revolution, to focus on her word.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“It’s cleaner, cleaner than love. Love is too messy.”

I’d been going through another one of those “looking for love in all the wrong places” phases of my life, and this woman had sensed it, verbalized it and brought it out into the open, where I’d been trying to hide it.

“What’s going on with you?” she had asked me. I was shocked by the question because at the time she was a new acquaintance, a new possibility, and I hadn’t said anything too personal. We were still casual in our conversation and she was an attractive, dynamic older woman who seemed confident and happy with herself.

“What do you mean?” I’d said then as well.

“Ah,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder, which she did often, not in a suggestive but in a gently reassuring way, “we’ll talk about it when you’re ready.”

I was ready. “I’m going through a breakup,” I told her.

She explained that she was an “intuitive,” someone who can sense problems in people’s lives and give them something to work with, words like “acceptance.”

“Acceptance?” I responded, feeling somewhat skeptical, having believed that the answer to any problem would always be “love,” even love that might be breaking and falling apart.

“Yeah,” she said, “it starts with you. Think about it: There are no conditions, no judgments, just you and acceptance. It’s totally clean.”

I wanted not just acceptance but love too, which, after she pitched her new word began to feel heavy and weighted, just as she described. I felt a protest against letting go of love.

“What about love?” I said.

“What about love? Look at you. What is love doing for you right now?”

“Lots,” I said, shifting uneasily in my seat. She found the chair next to mine and faced me. “I’ve gone to the moon and back on love,” I said, remembering better days.

“You’re such a romantic. That’s what gets you into trouble. Love is making you miserable right now. Try acceptance.”

She got up from her chair and patted my shoulder as she left to get her coffee and go to work. “You take care,” she said.

Acceptance, I realized as she parted, would mean letting go. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I wanted to feel something. “Acceptance” left me feeling almost hollow, where love, even love that had gone sour, made me feel something.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to let go of love, the more free I felt, the less tied down to emotional outbursts and long days of sadness.

She was right and whenever love becomes a challenge I seem to find much comfort in acceptance: of the way things are, of how I am and how others are, and letting go of the demands of love, which can get ridiculously foolish and loud and confused.

Those who marry say that the institution is a bulwark against what doesn’t work, a citadel of promise to withstand the failures of relationship, even the failures of love, to the point where love becomes a duty, or a burden.

Acceptance is cleaner. I’ve always been suspicious of things that are “cleaner,” but it seems to work well in those moments when what we love does more harm than good.

Yet, I’ve also experienced freedoms in love that acceptance can’t seem to match. That’s the romantic in me speaking again, of course, but the world doesn’t become fecund and fertile merely through acceptance. Or maybe it does. I think it takes more than that.

And maybe it isn’t love, either, that fecundates the world. But the world dripping in the wet fertile stuff of life seems loaded with more color and possibility than simple acceptance. I don’t really know. I like both.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the two—acceptance and love—that give each their power to liberate. §

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Whose measure of a man Part III

When mom recently told me a friend had “died in his sleep” and asked if I was coming to the memorial, I didn’t think I could make it. My first reaction was to stall for time.

“I don’t know, mom….”

I worried about responsibilities at home: The blueberries need tending; they’re getting their first flush of ripening, the harvest is merely days away, and the plants need a lot of care right now. Besides, I don’t earn much as a grower and I can’t really afford to lose any working days right now.

“I’ll buy your tickets,” mom offered.

When she said that, I realized this was about more than finances and whether I could afford to attend a memorial. This was about family, even though I’d not kept close contact with my friend for years. His mother and mine are like sisters.

“Let me work out a few details, mom, and I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

As I made travel arrangements, I thought about him, and how we had met and changed over the years; he and his brother had played on my father’s Little League team more than 35 years ago and our families became fast, lifelong friends.

Growing up, he was cute and cuddly, the pudgy little guy with a winning smile, and the ladies cooed over him. He was a precocious boy who wasn’t afraid to rough things up with the older boys; he could be fearless and full of laughs, and we older kids worked him over pretty good.

His mother, like most Italian women and the women who knew him, doted on him.

He grew up into a man of formidable size, the kind of guy you would like to have on your side whenever you need a hand moving things around or keeping peace at the bar. Fortunately, he didn’t hold any grudges against us for tormenting him when he was a kid.

We didn’t stay in contact much as adults, mostly we knew how well—or not—the other was doing through our mothers. Yet, whenever we crossed paths at occasional family gatherings, he always met me with his huge disarming smile, a handshake and an embrace.

I saw him last at my own father’s memorial less than three years ago. He greeted me warmly as always, and had his own two boys, who appeared to have more of the devil in them than he had at their age. I noticed that he’d put on weight; that he’d probably been drinking a lot; his face was white and puffy. Perhaps he’d been under a lot of pressure, I remember thinking.

Mom said things had gotten pretty bad for him at home until finally his wife of more than 20 years demanded that he get out of the house by the first of the month. Unfortunately, mom added without a hint of irony, the day he was supposed to move out is the day he died.

He checked out in his own special way, I thought. He was having troubles with his heart, mom said, when I questioned her. The doctors had been running tests on him, but hadn’t yet received the results.

“Are you sure he didn’t die of an overdose or something?” I asked. “That just seems awfully young, mom. Dying in your sleep? At 44?”

“I don’t think so!” she declared, sounding surprised, even perturbed. There wasn’t any talk of drugs or an overdose.

I reflected on my own discomforts at home and how many times I’ve experienced misery in relationships past and present, how I’ve failed as a man to act as my father had under pressure: with respect, humor and grace, seldom with anger and never with the sting of bitterness, though I know he felt that as well. I’d seen him lose his temper but never his composure or dignity.

I thought about how many times I’ve felt sick to my stomach, dread rolling through in huge heavy waves, and wished I could flush it all down deep into the earth, expel it with one giant emetic purge, wished that I could run swiftly away from the rancor and fear of relationships gone awry, but I stuck with them and suffered indignities because I didn’t think it was manly to run.

I didn’t want to be like my biological father, who it seemed to me, quit when the family he created put demands on him that he wasn’t ready to meet. He became a flyboy. He fled, spawning more families along the way, leaving more fatherless children in his path.

I swore that I would never do that to my child; that I would never flee from my responsibilities, that I would break the cycle, and try to be a meaningful manly presence in my daughter’s life. I stayed physically close but fled in many other ways.

I’ve always tried to be like my stepfather, who clearly chose to stay close to his adopted family. Luckily, he found a woman who loved him, whom he could also love, and children he embraced as his own.

I haven’t been quite as lucky. I’ve picked relationships that haven’t always been good.

I thought of the countless days I hated myself for choosing to be in relationships that rocked me the wrong way, that felt more like kicks in the groin than the bliss of union, relationships which made me feel more miserable than happy, made me think about death more than life, and the many sleepless nights of feeling unwanted, undervalued, or worst of all, not needed. I thought about how these things can turn a man upside down, so that everything he owns, or thinks he owns, comes spilling out of him and the only thing he has left is to turn him self upright, or to collapse into a heap onto the ground.

Sometimes, after long struggle, a man decides he’s had enough, he runs out of gas and gives up, he quits, counter to everything he was taught growing up, things like stepping up to the plate, as my dad used to say, or standing in the gap and “manning” up, or taking it in the gut now and then to stay honest. A man, a good man, can’t be a lone actor. My friend needed his family and they needed him but I think it was too much for him.

Only after quietly assessing my own countless failures, and adding to them heaps of stress from unmet family obligations and a bleak outlook such as my friend’s was I able to understand how he might have taken an early leave of his family, just when they seemed to need him the most, the boys especially.

How else can you explain the sudden death of an otherwise healthy man?

At the memorial, odd bits and pieces of his story leaked out through people’s comments—he was having a tough time and had recently come to the Lord—and I felt bad for my friend, for his mom and his two boys. I hadn’t any idea how things had really gotten for him over the years, but from the sounds of it, it must have been pretty rough.

My friend had been out of work for years, he had lost his house and wasn’t making it, and was borrowing money from his mother, according to mom.

His oldest boy, barely into his 20s, had just gotten out of jail for drug use, and an addiction to heroin. His younger boy had been showing signs of trouble, “acting out,” as they say, but seemed to have found a place among the evangelical youth at the church where the memorial was held.

His wife was apparently having trouble staying sober. She, of course, appeared deeply troubled, not only by death, but by a myriad of doubts and struggles that weren’t entirely clear but evident in the sadness of her face, a sadness that seemed unrelated to death, and more to do with they way she lived her life.

An old man with a walker raised his hand to speak at the memorial. He was having trouble breathing as he worked his way down the aisle to meet the pastor presiding at the front of the church, an industrial building converted into a worship space.

My friend had apparently made acquaintances there and expressed interest in its programs only in the last few weeks before his death. Mostly, he came to bring his younger son to the church’s youth group.

The old man grabbed the microphone to talk about my friend: “Five weeks ago,” he said, whistling as he exhaled, “he came to the church here…bogged down…a defeated man…and I asked him to come up here…to pray the prayer of repentance with me…and to take Jesus into his heart.”

It had made a tremendous difference in my friend’s life, the gentleman said; he was a changed man. “Something’s different,” my friend reportedly told him, “I feel different now.”

It feels unnatural to me for a man of his youth, with two boys to watch out for, and possibilities still waiting, to suddenly die.

I’m still taking it in, still feeling the sad undercurrent of dark secrets that leaked into the memorial service, the terrible grief of an inconsolable mother, unattended, sobbing and convulsing, still wondering at the widow’s selection of music to open and end the service, which told of “new beginnings” and jilted love.

I’m still wondering if the oldest boy who just got out of jail will stay off drugs and do what he promised his father during the service, to make him proud and be the man his father wanted him to be, the kind of guy, as one person said, “Who would give you the shirt off his back but you’d better not ever try to take anything away from him.”

If a boy can learn that from his father, if he can learn to be both kind and tough, he’ll be off to a good start in life.

The young man sounded sincere, and there were men there, including myself, who witnessed his declaration that he would get it together and do right by his father. With his jailhouse-shorn head, he even looked up, as if peering into heaven, as if his father was right there looking down at him, and promised he’d be the man now and watch over his mother and little brother.

I was touched by his bravery.

But who will hold him to it? Who will hold him accountable? Which man present at the memorial will make sure he keeps his word? Some of the men themselves seemed utterly lost, or distracted and uncertain, medicated, numbed to dull grief. One or two men stood up to let the boys know they’d be watching out for them, men who were closest to their father.

It felt good to hear them say it; and I know that at least one of them meant what he said.

In some ways, however, the women who spoke at the service seemed to be the stronger sex: “If you need anything,” said one pointing to both boys, “you know that I’ll be there for you.” It’s the same sort of strong declaration I would have received (and often did receive) from my own mother’s friends.

The most certain to speak, however, those who were not plagued with doubt or grief, were our evangelical hosts. Between stories about my deceased friend from those who knew him best, our hosts let us know in no uncertain terms that because he had recently come to Jesus, he had found peace and was now with God.

“I know, that I know, that I KNOW!” the youth pastor howled, assuring the boys and their mother with a steady, pastoral gaze, his arm raised above his head, holding his bible, “I KNOW that he’s in a better place.”

It felt weakly reassuring. I didn’t want to hear about a “better place,” and wondered how anyone could know that my friend was better off now. And I wondered about his family and how much better off they were. §

Monday, April 11, 2011

Today's fruit

Our berries have begun their ripening.

The older fruit, as seen in the berry at the top this cluster, may have been bitten by an early spring frost and has already begun to turn mushy (you can see it in the crinkling of the berry's skin). The lower fruits, closer to the camera, seem to be OK, plump and juicy, ready for picking.

I've been worried, as usual, about the plants and their health. The berries, as they ripen, place a tremendous amount of demand on the plants for nutrients.

In the last couple of days I've noticed a turning of the color in the leaves from a vigorous green to depleted-looking purple as more fruit ripens. I'm afraid there's not a large enough reserve of minerals and nutrients to meet the demand.

The 5-gallon grow bags in which the plants live have become as much of a liability as they are a boon now that the plants have matured and gotten larger. We were told that the bags would hold up for at least three years, five if we were lucky.

The plants have been in the bags nearly three years and it's clear that the plants have outgrown them and must now find a new home. After this harvest, we'll need to either put the blueberry plants in the ground or transplant them into larger containers.

Our plants draw all of their nourishment from an infusion of nutrients through the irrigation system and I'm afraid that it may not now be enough.

I was advised to try adding potassium. I hope it's not too late. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Whose measure of a man? Part II

I had what was probably the best example of manhood from a guy who was—I thought as a kid growing up—not very manly.

My stepfather didn’t have the physique of a man who would easily intimidate; he wasn’t built like my “real” father, the pumped-up physical specimen who spawned me but little else. He looked like a New Jersey Italian teddy bear who loved to pass out cigars and pour a good drink when the occasion called for it.

He was the Mediterranean Buddha with a bulbous nose and big belly. He didn’t have a fighter’s body or disposition; but he had a lot of fight in him, and he was pretty good about knowing when to use it, without resorting to fisticuffs.

His most manly asset, though, was his fierce devotion to mom, which counts for a lot in my book. That made him as big a man as any I’ve seen in my life. He took on the role of husband and father where most men might have fled in the other direction.

He assumed the full weight and responsibility of father for children who were not his own, including major expenses such as making sure our teeth were properly straightened.

“There’s my new pickup truck,” he teased when friends came over, and he’d point at me, asking me to smile so they could see my new braces. “Show them my new truck.”

He’d have to wait a few more years before he finally got the truck he’d always wanted but in the meantime he took care of pressing family matters, making sure we all had what we needed first.

My biological father, meanwhile, deserted us when I was four; he didn’t put any time or effort into getting to know me, or my brother. He paid us no attention. He was a ghost in my life, a non-person essentially whose only historical significance to me was that of sperm donor. As a young boy, I’d ask mom what happened to him.

“You’re better off without him,” she’d say. At first, I’d get mad at her for saying such things; I didn’t believe her. How could I be better off without the man who was supposed to be my father? A boy doesn’t understand these things. He assumes that by rights the man who made birth a possibility would also take an interest in his own children.

After a while, though, I figured she was right, that he probably didn’t care, and that indeed I was better off without him, so I forgot about him, except for the one random visit he made to our home when I was about 10 to discuss visitation arrangements with mom and my new dad.

That was the last time I ever saw him. I heard from him once more when I was in high school and he sent copies of the New World Translation of the Bible favored by Jehovah’s Witnesses to me and my brother.

I took my brother outside with our copies of the “bible,” and showed him how we would appreciate the gifts by placing them in the gutter and then I set them on fire. As we watched the thin pages of the bibles crinkle into twisted ash, my grandmother pulled up beside the curb to park her car. She sat staring over the steering wheel, horrified.

What are you doing?” she demanded as she got out of the car.

“Oh, hi grandma, don’t worry; it’s nothing, just burning those fake bibles Jim sent us.”

I’d gotten to calling him Jim because that’s what mom had always called him, never “your father,” whenever she talked about him, which was rare.

 The strange thing was I hadn’t thought twice about burning those books, and didn’t realize the real horror of it until I saw grandma’s face when she drove up. No one in the family valued books more than she did, coming from a family of educators; her mother and aunt both had schools named after them.

For me, it was a kind of purgation.

I wanted to be rid of those books, and the false religion, and the show of some kind of weak Christian love from a man who didn’t want to be a father to his children.

Not long after I was married, I thought of seeking him out, to ask him personally why he hadn’t taken an interest in his two sons, but it was too late. He died when I was 23. He was 45, and had started at least two more families besides the one he started with us.

At that point, it didn’t matter much whether we “hit” it off or got on well. I was more interested in finding out what sort of man he was, whether there were patterns and habits of mind that I might have inherited and whether there was anything about which I should be concerned.

But any such opportunity was crushed when mom spoke up casually one afternoon as she and my wife relaxed at the dining table drinking tea and coffee. I was cutting an apple by the sink. “Oh, by the way, Jim died.”

I didn’t expect it to trouble me the way it did. I didn’t shed any tears, but I was troubled and left feeling vacant by the news. My wife graciously walked over and put her arm around me. I must have felt like a sack of potatoes.

I might not have picked my stepfather as the “ideal” model of a man for a young kid looking for a strong father figure, which is what I wanted. I would have picked someone like my biological father, whose pictures mom kept showed a man with a powerful, muscular build. My one earliest memory of him, in fact, is of him putting his fist through the bathroom wall.

I learned quickly, however, that my stepfather cared with the kind of devotion that shows real backbone. He made a lot of sacrifices, and paid us a lot of attention.

He was our protector, even without the intimidating manly presence a young boy might want in a father.

I’d seen him fearlessly go after people who wronged him or who showed the slightest disrespect, people, for example, who parked their cars in the handicap zone he’d had the city paint on the curb nearest the front door so that grandma could get to her car without trouble.

He run out, no matter whom it was, and he’d confront the offenders, directing them away from the painted curb. Even the scary looking guys complied.

“Dad, you gotta be careful these days,” I said once during a visit to the old neighborhood, “there are a lot of gang bangers passing through the area now.”

“I don’t care,” he said, “they don’t belong there.”

I seldom heard whatever he said to people as they rummaged through his trash; but he’d shoosh! them away too and off they’d go.

“I don’t want people digging through my trash or my recycle,” he’d say, sitting back down into his chair to read the morning newspaper. “I pay money for the city to come pick those up. If they want to dig through the trash, let them go to the dump.” §