Monday, October 31, 2016

just happy

Shoot. Somebody important has just asked me why I'm not writing anymore. "Maybe you're too happy," she says, like it's a challenge, daring me to agree. I have just told her I am "doing great" three times in a row. How nice. 

I scoff at her suggestion like happiness is the devil. “Must be work,” I grumble, appropriately hateful. But I love my work.

You could just be happy, she says again, her face kinder this time. She wants that for me. Anyway she already knows I am in an embarrassingly fulfilling stage of my life. She knows because I have told her. Embarrassing because complete happiness is kind of a silly thing. Right?

You could just be happy.

I think about being just happy; letting all the goodness that surrounds me each day sink in through my skin and go straight to my heart, pumping out just happy blood throughout my entire just happy body, but that doesn’t seem fair. Because, there’s Syria and The Middle East, there’s “Donald Trump” and nuclear weaponry and the goddamned future of America. But also: There’s the sweet daughter of a car mechanic, her blue eyes staring wildly at me tonight in line at the grocery store. Nobody has brushed this child’s hair in years. Something tells me he is a single dad. Something about how his daughter looks at me.

Her seven-year-old face when dad’s credit card doesn’t go through. His rough hands fumbling through a beat-up wallet. Try this one, he says, as if the entire world depends on it, because it does. Hmm, not that one either, Sir. Those cards just don’t seem to be working. Do you have any cash? The daughter, now she’s crying.

I am going to have a heart attack in this Safeway.

So this is what happens when I try to write a happy story. You could just be happy, she says.

But that doesn’t seem fair.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

a story

It was overcast, and I was uncomfortable.

Let me tell you a story, he said.

“When I was fourteen years old, my parents sent me away to a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language at all. It was scary, but it was good for me, in the end,” he began.

“I haven’t told anyone else this story after all these years. A friend of my father’s was supposed to meet me at this hotel once I arrived to town. He was supposed to help welcome me and get me situated, show me where I was living and help look after me. I got to the hotel and waited for him all day by the big window which overlooked the streets below it. I didn’t know a single person in this city. A day passed. Two days passed. I began to worry. I was so alone. I had no phone number and I had no address for this man. And I didn’t want to upset my father with the news that nobody had come to get me. So I just waited there. I was a child, but I remember it very well, knowing no one, having no idea how to speak or who to speak to. I remember I didn’t have the right clothes; everyone else was wearing boots because it was winter. They made fun of my sandals and laughed at me because they knew I didn’t belong there. Three days, four days passed. Nobody came. I didn’t know what to do so I stayed in the hotel for as long as I could every day and then went outside for a chilly walk when I couldn’t take being inside anymore. Finally on the fifth day, my father’s friend showed up at the hotel. He was held up by a family emergency, he said, and he was sorry. I never told my father that I had waited for five days without anybody; without even a phone call or note. My father would have been furious. And I never told anybody else, until now, I guess. When you’re a child, feeling afraid can feel more like a secret you should never tell.”

Telling this story shook him to his core. It wasn’t your typical horror story – no bad guys, no malicious intentions, no violence – it was simply, significantly, an account of scarring loneliness. In those few minutes, looking at my own father, I saw him become the child in the hotel room. I could feel the trauma, the aloneness, and the kind of unforgettable fear that haunts a lost child in a big city. Spine-chilling, this story was, even though fifty years later, here we were in none other than Southern California suburbia, on what should have been a properly sunny day, driving around in a Toyota Camry.

Thank you for sharing that story with me, I said quietly. I can’t believe you were just fourteen, left alone like that for almost five days.

He tied it back to his original point, which was about resilience. It had transpired from harrowing and incredibly personal to a generic father-daughter lecture in no time at all. But I didn’t forget the story. I couldn’t forget how his face looked when he told it. I wondered about what else in this man’s life I didn’t know about. He was always shielding me from anything too painful.

Not long after that, we got out of the car and went to church. I found myself enjoying the uniqueness of the pastor’s voice. It had a musical quality to it. The church had aged, though. The carpet was worn, the choir was significantly more geriatric than I had remembered, and the pews had tape stuck on the back of them from years’ worth of Christmas decorations and perhaps mischievous, bored children. It was less majestic than my childhood memory recounted. More human, with bumps and bruises just like everybody else. It was odd to see the church looking this way – vulnerable.

“Please bow your heads,” the pastor’s voice rang out warmly “and take a few minutes of silent prayer to reflect on all of God’s blessings. If there is anything weighing on your shoulders this morning, offer it up now to the Lord, and feel that this weight you’ve been carrying has been lifted.”

I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and squeezed my dad’s hand, responding intuitively to a feeling that something important was happening around me. I opened my eyes quickly, in that sheepish, sideways way we do during prayer, just in time to catch my father wiping his eyes. Were those tears? What was going on here?

I spent the rest of the sermon tuned out to everything; the Pastor’s sing-songy voice long gone, no more than a distant memory. Instead, I thought a lot about the aging church, once a symbol of idyllic, idealistic perfection, once unwavering and strong. I thought about my father’s story, about these never-seen before layers of vulnerability, and was reminded of how different our perception of life is as a child versus as an adult. And just as the sermon was ending, as the slow, graying choir made their way back up onto the creaky risers, I thought about how harsh the reality can be when you are newly grown up, somewhere in California, face to face with those differences.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

nothing + everything

We walked uphill for a while. The tall yellow Aspen trees were striking against a backdrop of a confidently blue sky.  It was like all of the magical places I read about as a child – the Secret Garden, Narnia, Oz –  had unified together to create this extra-fantastical place. I felt quietly happy. This must be what true happiness is, I thought. Peacefulness.

Finally we stopped and looked at the trees around and above us, coming together like a roof over our heads, protecting us from nothing and everything all at once. It was a moment that I’ll try to remember forever. Two enchanted friends brought together in life by some extraordinary being – some higher power – or maybe just by coincidence.

The occasional rustling leaves were the only sound we heard for a while. We were unnaturally still in this natural setting, stunned by the silence and humbled by the beauty in everything. After a minute or two she turned and looked at me, her smiling face shining and exuberant in the golden light. “Should we put something out into the universe?” she asked. She had a way of challenging me, even when she wasn’t trying to.

Yes, I smiled, feeling overwhelmed. Looking at her carefully, as if to warn that I would pose an even more challenging question, I quietly asked:  

“What do we want?"

Thursday, May 12, 2016

twenty five

Dear little girl,

Hello again. You might remember me from awhile ago, when I introduced myself to you and your lovely shining face on the bus where I sat behind you. Hello again. I’m back.

I see that you have grown and so have I.

When we last met, I was fearful because I had no idea what I was supposed to do in this life. It’s really that simple, and when you transition into adulthood you’ll understand, but until then, know that it’s hard when the people who have made your whole life with their bare hands tell you congratulations, go use your own hands, go make your own life. If you’re anything like me, you will have no idea what to do with this request. They will tell you it’s a great opportunity. But that’s only because you don’t have any other choice.

You will be sad and confused for a few years, and that’s if you’re lucky. I am just now coming around to the idea that maybe it’s not all bad. That’s because lately I’ve been able to imagine what’s ahead as clearly as if I was peeking into one of my neighbors houses – the one with the sheer white curtains and the small but brave dog – and I can see my future self. I am watching my future self sleep in, be late, spill everything, go to work. I am watching my future self make dinner, make friends, and make my own damn life. 

So long story short, things get better at twenty five. You won’t even realize it's better until it has already happened, and suddenly you have your own life that you made with your own hands, your small hands, your strong hands, your capable hands, nobody else’s hands, and they’ll tell you that they told you so, and indeed they did, what a great opportunity and look at you, and honest to God you won’t even remember that when it came time for you to make your own life, you actually did make a choice. You had a choice all along -- to grow or not to grow. In closing, here is a quote you might like. "They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds." 

When we're young, it's easy to bury ourselves. Don't forget you are a seed.