Having a posse

When I turned six, my family imploded. From the outside, we looked like a picture-perfect family: my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a university professor who was around most of the time. But, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. Underneath the Cleaver exterior, the 70s political and social hippy revolution was alive and kicking in our home.

By the time I was eight, my parents were engaged in full-blown open relationships, my dad was openly bi-sexual, we had an anarchist press operating out of our basement, and my parents were constantly trying to convince me that it would be best if my brother and I were home-schooled, an event that was to take place in the idealized school bus that we would purchase and convert to tour across the country. In all reality, I was probably the only child who begged and pleaded to be allowed to go to school. For me, it and all the friends that I had there represented a haven of sanity.

When we reminisce about this time, my cousin constantly reminds me that it’s amazing that we all turned out so normal, functional and successful. And I can’t help but agree.

When I reflect on why things turned out this way, the only answer that I can come up with is that, no matter what, we always knew that we had a posse. Regardless of what crisis or upheaval we were experiencing, we always knew that when push came to shove, our parents would drop whatever insanity they had embroiled themselves in and be behind us one hundred percent. And, in spite of the myriad changes to our family constellation, this fact has remained strong and true to this day: I know that no matter what is happening in my parents’ and brother’s lives, and no matter what was said or done in the past, if I need them, they will be there for me, rearranging their lives to give me the physical and emotional supports that I need to get through a particularly difficult situation. This fact has proven true time and time again.

For myself, knowing that I am part of a unit that will circle the wagons in closed and protective ranks has created a deep-seated sense of security lasting well into adulthood. Fundamentally, I know that I am never alone. And, the adage of there being strength in numbers seems to hold true.

As a parent, I find myself consciously trying to create this same sense of security for my son. Although formally, from the outside looking in, it is currently just he and I, I find that this is not quite an accurate depiction of reality. By extending my notion of family to include not just blood relatives and immediate family, but all the people who care for and love us, I find that my son already has a sense of security in his place in the world, confident that if he needs help or assistance someone will be there to provide it. And, by fostering the conditions that allow him to be showered in various forms of love while maintaining the illusion that the world is going to love him for as long as possible, I believe that his equilibrium and ability to cope won’t be fundamentally rocked when he realizes that the world isn’t only a joyous place to be but often requires fortitude, resilience, strength and a belief in oneself to succeed.

Love

When my son was nine months old, he would play on the double futon I had installed in his room. For hours on end, he would stand up, hold on to the window ledge and then let go, spiraling into a free-fall. In the small span of time between letting go and landing, bouncing softly and comfortably into the mattress, a smile enveloped his face depicting his delight in being out of control while knowing that a safety net was firmly in place.

Watching him, my heart would race, aching for the naiveté and absolute trust required to capture that heedless sensation of wild abandon. It would make me remember how, when I was first taking ballet at the age of six or seven and, having recently fallen in love with the nutcracker, I would pirouette and jettée across my living room floor, convinced that I was experiencing a novel sensation of free-floating headiness that no one had previously experienced but, given the minutest chance, would do anything to.

And then it occurred to me. Falling in love is similar, without the safety net. My first experience of love was like being struck by a bolt of lightening. It came at me, unexpected but strong and sure, changing my chemical and genetic composition forever. It made me happier, nicer, and more loving in general.

At that time, it never occurred to me that things wouldn’t work out and that there wouldn’t be a happily ever after. When the relationship ended, my complete faith in fairy tale endings was destroyed.

Watching my son execute his spirals of innocently sinful delight, it occurs to me that love is much like his actions. Until you come up hard and fast against the realization that there is no safety net in place, you can abandon yourself completely and give your heart away on a silver platter as if an offering of delectable delight that’s impossible for anyone to refuse.

Once you realize that no one can guarantee a happily forever after ending and that, by definition, love and relationships are risky, you also realize that therein lies the magic. And, in a heartbeat, I realize that this is something that I want my son to learn.

Falling in love is part something that happens to you and part a conscious choice. When two people meet, and there is that spark and recognition of the other, there is often a point at which you have to decide to take a step and let go. The step may be small, but, once aware that a safety net doesn’t exist, it’s the hardest step you’ll ever take. It requires you to take a leap of faith built on vulnerability and hopefulness while trusting in something entirely intangible and out of your control. But, if you willingly suspend disbelief and open yourself up, the rewards are usually unexpected and unquantifiable.

The body vs. intangibles

I recently dated a ‘beautiful’ man. At first, it was a pleasure. Looking at him and taking in the contours of his form while exploring the hard but defined hills and valleys of his physique filled me with delight. But, as I began to notice that this pleasure was uniquely one-sided, my own joy in the physical and visual quickly diminished.

When I looked at the dynamics of our relationship, I realized that his behavior was not personal. His mother repeatedly extolled his virtues, stating “my son, the hunk… he could have any woman he wants, you know.” And it was obvious that he had absorbed this message wholeheartedly, coming to believe his own press.

Thinking about this, a memory from when I was fourteen came to mind. At the time, I was friends with two sisters, both of whom were older than me. The eldest, at nineteen, was undeniably beautiful – tall, sleek, with long dark curly hair and blue eyes so large that you had to almost pull yourself away. The younger was her sister’s physical opposite – short, chubby, with a square face that lacked in delicacy. But, she had something more: a warmth and vitality that pulled you in, making you feel loved and safe while creating a haven from which it was hard to escape. And, when you did, you wanted to fight to get back inside the strength of her energy.

One night, sitting around her mother’s kitchen table, we were talking about the bikini commercial the older sister was going to be shooting in the coming week. As the discussion took place, I noticed that their mother was supportive but not ecstatic about her daughter’s endeavor.

When I asked her why she didn’t seem more thrilled, she told me that although she thought that it was great that her daughter was able to make some money by making a commercial or two, she didn’t want her girls to think that the only thing important about them is the shell in which they are encased. And, to this day, her answer sticks with me. “My girls are so much more than their bodies. I want them to value themselves and others for their skills, talents, and intrinsic worth, not for what they were born into, have no control over, and will eventually decay.”

Looking at the man I dated, I realized that he was an extreme example of what my friends’ mom had feared her daughters were in danger of becoming: he had valued his outer shell so deeply and had this belief reinforced for so long that he had forgotten that he had other, more important attributes on offer. As a result, he had lost the ability to develop his talents and appreciate another for their intangible qualities.

As a parent, when people comment on my son’s good looks I quickly thank them for the compliment. But, for myself, my son, and those close to us, I find myself consciously trying to emphasize the value of his happy personality, generous nature, and multiple aptitudes. Although I believe that it is important for him to carry into the world a comfort and confidence in his body, ultimately I believe a stronger confidence in the value of the intangibles that make him him and his ability to develop these is what will allow him to develop a strong sense of sense, value himself and others, create deep relational ties, and keep him away from the danger of being immeasurable potential that remains unrealized.

Spontaneity

Like most other families, when I was a kid our family had its own particular rhythm. While our household wasn’t highly regimented, certain things like mealtimes, bedtimes, school, extra-curricular activities, and general guidelines for acceptable behavior and kid-endeavors remained constant.

While my brother and I often complained about our early seven pm bedtime and the fact that our parents were sticklers about us going to school and doing our homework earlier in the day rather than later before bed, we did it more out of habit than real dissatisfaction. We knew what each day would bring in terms of what to expect and what it would require of us. The boundaries that formed the perimeter of our world were firmly established, making us clear on the limits that we could push against. Ultimately, we knew that someone else was in control of the bigger picture, leaving us free to focus on having fun and discover the world and ourselves.

And so, on days when our father would declare that the regular rules didn’t apply, my brother and I were ecstatic. On these days, which would come without notice and for no discernible reason, he would take us on an adventure that lay outside of our preconceived notions of what was acceptable or possible.

Sometimes, it meant going to the biscuitariam. Unknown to residents outside of Montreal, these are stores that only sell cookies. From floor to ceiling, cookies line the walls in vats from which you can fill your bag in any mixture and quantity that your heart and appetite can image. Being given permission to go wild in these stores was like having an amplified Halloween dropped unexpectedly in our laps.

Other times, it meant going to a museum, out to lunch at an exotic restaurant whose food we didn’t even know existed, or going on a kid-friendly road trip down to the States for a shopping expedition or simply to taste some blueberry pie at a mom and pop roadside dinner that my dad had heard was out of this world.

As we grew up, the nature of these expeditions changed to incorporate our own dreams and secret desires. And, while they occurred less frequently with larger intervals between expeditions, their importance never diminished.

An adult, the memory of these childhood and young adult flights of fancy in which our father was both initiator and co-conspirator has taken on a larger significance. Not only did they allow us to explore our interests that lay outside of the prescribed educational curriculum and expose us to a variety of different and usual experiences, but they taught us the value of following our own curiosity and that, occasionally, breaking free of society’s established rules of conduct can be rewarding, allowing us to find hidden treasures in the ordinary.

As a parent, I find myself trying to find this same joy in exploring the known. And, as I discover the world with my son I find that with the gift of his vantage point, I too am learning to see things that I know so intimately that they are rote from a new angle. As my son grows and our escapades evolve to include things that I have never even thought of, it is my hope that he too will come to absorb the maxim that adventure is always just around the corner – it’s all a matter of perspective.

A work in progress

The part of me that I hate the most is my temper. Arising quickly, seemingly as if out of thin air, it resembles the summer storms of my hometown: the sky darkens, electricity gathers, lightening strikes, and the heavens open up to a torrential downpour. Within minutes, the storm passes through leaving a clearing or, sometimes, a hot uncomfortable residue of oppressive air in which it’s hard to take the next step or think clearly. Paradoxically, my display of temper is often followed by anger directed inward or shame for allowing myself to express the full force of my feelings in such an unproductive way.

Having recently had an interaction in which my temper made itself known, upon thinking about how the scenario unfolded, aside from wishing that I had kept a cooler head and having to think about how I’ll do some damage control, I’m suddenly reminded of my dad who likes to say that “every man has his Garibaldi” noting that my temper is certainly mine.  In the same moment, I remind myself that life is a practice and a journey in which we take each step with the ultimate hope of becoming a better version of ourselves.

As I reflect on this, I think about my son who has his own Garibaldis to climb. And I remember how, at an early age, I explained to him that we all have a black dog and a white dog that live inside of us and that at any moment of any given day, we have the singular choice to choose which dog to feed, knowing that the one that’s fed will ultimately grow stronger, potentially creating a situation where an untamed dark side can come to control us in ways that don’t serve our higher selves.

In the end, it’s my hope that as my son develops, he will practice feeding his white dog more regularly than his dark one, even when temptation exists, learning to make choices that serve him in the long run. And that when he invariably gives in to his darker impulses, he’ll  remember that, like all interesting journeys, life’s trajectory is not direct but involves twists and turns and ebbs and flows that sometimes make you feel as if you are making progress while at others as if backsliding into an uncomfortable but familiar abyss.  Throughout the process, however, I hope that he treats himself with compassion for his flaws, is kind to himself, and that he accepts his human frailty while learning from it to create a narrative in which he can momentarily fail and still see himself as lovable to himself and others.