My brother and I were each conceived in New York City, almost exactly two years apart. We happened during an annual diamond show my dad used to attend for the family business (well, more accurately after the show, not like in the middle of it, which, let's be real, would be impressive). Mom tagged along twice, got two boys out of it, then decided she wouldn’t go back.
My favorite story she tells of those trips took place in the elevator in the very secure and very unmarked building that hosted the show. One time they got in and, right as the doors closed, a massive and hairy arm shot between them, and an honest-to-God Hell’s Angel stepped in, big as life and twice as unconcerned. Mom, new to the big city, naturally assumed that this would be the moment of her death. But he quietly rode up to the diamond show with them and was waved through security without so much as an ID check.
Turned out they were using Hell’s Angels as couriers. Because, really, who would think a large, leathery beardo who might have punched up a 1969 Rolling Stones concert would have $100,000 worth of diamonds in his saddle bags? Who on earth would try to look?
I heard the story decades ago, and it never left me. It was one of those early glimpses into my parents' history that made me start to wonder what else they'd been through, what they'd seen that I hadn't. You grow up thinking that your parents are boring…well, parents. You learn by fits and starts that there've been things going on when your back was turned. Or, indeed, when you were a steak dinner and two glasses of scotch away from existing.
There was the time Jennifer came home from college, where she’d gotten an earful of students discussing their heritage. This one was German-Irish, that one Ashkenazi Jewish, another whatever bare fraction of Native American. She’d had no idea of her own heritage, so she asked her dad, what am I?
He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess you’re half hillbilly and half swamp.” That opened up overlooks of identity and history she hadn’t explored before. She carries that with her now, as I carry the story of the bejeweled biker, little pieces of our parents that they broke off and slipped into our pockets for safekeeping.
We have bucketfuls of these pieces. My own dad used to wake my brother and me up by pretending to be a superhero named Underwear Man, barging into our bedroom with tighty-whities yanked down over his head. Mom once heard us listening to Cyndi Lauper LPs, charged into our room wearing every bracelet she owned, her hair frit up into some insane and hasty architecture, and proceeded to dance. Jennifer’s mom once watched me politely choke down her banana pudding, learning the hard way how much I hate bananas but love Nilla wafers and the approval of potential in-laws, and from that day on made me my own tiny banana-free pudding at family gatherings.
More trinkets: I have never been in the military but can report with the confidence of an expert that you can safely burn plastic explosives and use them as a makeshift campstove. Just don’t try to stamp out the fire. Dad taught me that. I know, because of mom, how to make giftwrapping ribbon curl up by running scissor blades down one side of it. I know how to set up a sewing machine because my mom showed me, and then I forgot, and then Jennifer showed me, which she could do because her mom showed her. Her dad taught me every contour of the yard my children now play in, including where the surveyor's pins are buried and the details of the deal he struck with a neighbor to not have to mow the far side of the creek.
So many fragments of them, bits of colored glass etched and rounded by grit and time. I stumble across them everywhere, in coat pockets with wrinkled bills, at the bottoms of desk drawers, in neglected storage boxes and scattered among the roots of the dogwood out back. They make a satisfying clack when I put them in my pocket, next to Molly McGee's old watch.
My mom and dad have moved nearby. I haven't been this close to them in over a decade and a half. It used to take a four-hour drive to go have coffee. Now I walk Mugsy to their new home on Saturday mornings, after I've got the kids situated with donuts and cartoons, and mom pours me a cup. I bump into them at the grocery store. I may have to build a shed to hold this new cascade of pieces, souvenirs of what might prove to be their last big adventure together.
So too with Jennifer's dad, though for different reasons. Time and circumstance have whittled away at the life he knew until only the pure shape of him is left, the love and humor and concern he used to steer himself and his family through the last eight decades. He needs us to care for him now, in much the same way he cared for the woman I love. He's wheelchair-bound and sometimes understandably frustrated at what he perceives as his lack of usefulness. I want him to know that his use is not gone but distilled. He doesn't see what we're collecting in the wake of his wheels.
There's pain and fear in all of this, of course. That's the price of admission. For my part, every now and then I'm struck by the weight of time, by the bone-deep awareness of how temporary this flood of fragments is. So I hoard them like a crow. I don't organize or catalog them, but I keep them close by, tucked hither and yon with no easily perceivable strategy or plan. God's own filing system.
Sometimes I cast them on the ground like chicken bones or yarrow stalks to tell my fortune, and it always comes up the same way: Quit screwing around with nostalgia and look around you. Let what you see change you. Go do something. Rilke put it better:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
I nod and gather the shards back up, and I know I'll go looking for more. Maybe it's because I wonder if the lesson will change. More likely it's because I know I'll forget it. But it's also because I want to show these pieces to you, the scratched and stained facets of the love that built us, because I want you to hold them up to the light and watch how they cast their colors down on you.
And I got my hair did up festive
Honestly, I should have just posted this picture instead of the letter.
It’s that time again. Here’s my ramblings for another season. Delivered on time, for a change.
It was Josh who gave me my first Nalgene bottle. Part of a care package he gave me before leaving for upstate New York and the Night’s Watch about one point five decades ago. I covered it with stickers and drank water from it. Fifteen or so years went by. Then I went camping.
Jack's Webelos den leader had planned a cold weather camping trip up in the Boston Mountains in early December. Weather originally looked to dip slightly below freezing, which we'd done before with no trouble.
The trees had gone to the bone weeks before we made camp. The wind was a gossip. We were down in a hollow and out of the worst of the breeze, but the sun left us to heap on clothes and hug the fire. We watched the night scratch and rattle its way down toward 20°, well below what we’d camped in before.
The boy and I'd planned to string ourselves up in fancy hammock tents, but insulation is always a concern when you're dangling above ground. He asked if maybe he could go sleep in Alex's tent instead? Yes, of course, buddy. If you can't find me in the morning, go check the bench by the showers in the bathroom, okay?
Later that night I got him down and eventually debated myself away from the fire and over to my tent. I had a bunch of blankets, a sub-freezing sleeping bag, a fire-engine-red union suit and a whole lot of worry. Then some random neuron fired and I recalled Josh's Nalgene.
He'd extolled its many features and benefits in the attached note. "Once I was camping in cold weather," he wrote. "Before bed, I boiled some water, poured it in my bottle, wrapped a shirt around it and stuffed it in the bottom of my sleeping bag."
Friends, I am here to spread the good news. My toes warmed instantly. I lay there, cozy as could be, and recited a very long gratitude list as I listened to the coyotes summon the moon.
I am grateful for my mummy bag.
I am grateful for my blankets.
I am grateful for my hat.
I am grateful for the lee side of the mountain.
I am grateful for the woman I watched playing with wolves yesterday.
I am grateful for the pot of veggie chili I had for supper.
I am grateful that I am packed into this nylon tube and suspended amid nature's annual death rattle, Dutch-ovening myself because of the chili, with no cell service.
I am grateful for a plastic bottle. A plastic bottle that has warmed me three times: Once when it was given, once when I recalled the gift and its attached advice, once with my toes nestled up against it.
I woke not long after dawn to a well-frosted tent. I made coffee. I dried and packed my gear. I came home. I kissed my wife and daughter and dog. I showered and shaved my head and eased myself back into civilization clothing and civilization eating and civilization life.
Checking out like this is a sheer luxury, I know that. But it helped. It helped with my fear and worry and frustration. But it wasn’t checking out that did it. It was yet again being dragged into the world of others.
Watching the kids pointedly not swearing while rassling tent poles. Letting my boy show me every natural shelter outcropping he'd scouted out (three of them in total). Gathering with four other men and our children around a fire and sharing our stories. We communed in the death that is December, we passed candy and cocoa and opinions, and our species again seemed possible. Certainly worth fighting for.
I am grateful for this boy. For these friends. For this life. This life in which I got so damn lucky that I almost feel ashamed.
It's been too long since we’ve gathered around you. We need to get together. We need to remind each other. Maybe we'll cast our stories out into the cold, see what thaws.
My coat still smells of fire. I haven't washed it. I know I have to. But not yet.
We got a dog this year. Most of you know we got a dog this year, and half of you are expecting me to say "we got a dog", so guess what, I don't want to disappoint: We got a dog.
He is small, bearded, not-un-Morgan-Freemanish in appearance, if not demeanor. He does not have the bearing of a person who might narrate a jailbreak or try to keep Brad Pitt from opening a box. He prefers a bouncier insouciance and general love of eating poop, two things Morgan Freeman is not known for.
Mugsy has upended things in the best way possible. He forces me out for exercise at least once daily. He demands that we take time to play, that we remember to lay hands on each other as much as we can. And he's a walking object lesson in the fragility of our circumstances.
Let me explain. Yesterday, my son asked me if I thought he would make a difference in the world. "Sure", I said. "Any time you touch a life, you make a difference in the world." I knew what he meant, but I wanted to make him push toward his real question, which was this: Will I be important?
That's an echoing hallway of a question. So I pointed to Mugsy, and I told my son a story he already knew, the story of a bearded baby pup who wandered a graveyard looking for food. Covered in bug bites, gut full of parasites. Someone saw him there, a woman saw him. A woman who cared.
That woman took him home and cleaned him up and fed him and took pictures of him with a ball and a sombrero. She put those pictures on a rescue website. I found those pictures. I texted them to my wife with a photoshopped speech bubble that said "i love u jennifer" in tiny letters, knowing that this was the most reprehensible kind of manipulation. And only because all of those things happened, because that manipulation worked, we brought him home.
"That dog", I said to my son, "lives better than half the people in the world now. Because somebody cared." Then, because everyone loves dad lectures, I pushed on.
I reminded him of Mr. MIchael, his Cubmaster. Mr. Michael got into an argument with a friend on Facebook over Syrian refugees, an argument that led him to get on a plane and fly to Greece. There he met children who had seen their parents beheaded. He raised money to build them a school. Now he's trying to get their camp better sanitation.
People stand on the sidelines and lob lazy criticisms at him for doing this. They want him to stop, but he keeps at it. Because he cares.
That, I said to my son. That is what making a difference means. You pull a puppy out of a culvert. You feed a kid. You touch a life, and you change a life. You change a life, and you hope that that change will be fruitful and multiply. No one will erect a statue of you for this. But many will bear witness to you.
I've tried to tell my children that Important is a pretty coat and Useful is what we reach for when we need to be warm, but I know how well I would have listened to that at their age. Why should they listen to me? I barely do. So I touch their lives, and I hope. Sometimes we parents cling to that.
And then there's that dog. The bug bites are gone, the gut situation mostly rectified. He's gotten comfortable with leaving exuberant chaos in his wake like so many crayon-studded dog flops, as if his own usefulness is to remind us that the current moment is all we have in this world. That the only question worth worrying over is this: What can I do today?
We joke about how lucky that stupid dog is, how well he landed. I've called him Little Arfin' Annie. But I'll tell you a thing: that little dude pulled a third-act Grinch on our respective heart sizes, so he's earned his place. He's a living reminder that there are plenty of others out there, others on four legs and two who haven't had a kind lady happen across whatever cemetery they're foraging in. We can't give them all sombreros, but we can keep our eyes open for opportunities.
We can ask: What can I do today? When we find out, the answer transforms us.
There's a song I can't let my kids hear until they're a bit older. It's full of cussin', which I enjoy. I listen to it at least once a week, and it ends like this:
There is no chosen one
There's no such thing as magic
There is no light at the end of this tunnel
So it's a good thing we brought matches
We got a lot of matches around our place. More than we need. If you need a few, or even just a word, I'll repeat what I told you last year.
We are here.
Pretty much sums it up
Holiday recipes from the dead. Includes a recipe for my wife's grandmother's chocolate pie and a meditation on the tradition of learning through failure:
I wish I could say I learned how to make chocolate pie at my mom's side, but the truth is I learned the same way she did — by screwing it up the first time I tried to make it, calling her from my in-laws' house on my first married Thanksgiving so she could talk me through what I'd done wrong. (My problem: I always forget to add the butter and vanilla at the end. After hearing me dog-cuss myself at his parents' house for five straight Thanksgivings, my husband started leaving Post-Its on the piecrusts while I wasn't looking. "Add the $%#@ing vanilla," he'd stick on one crust, "And the $&#!ing butter, too" on the second. It's our own little holiday tradition now.)
The end of that story is as bittersweet as the pie.
My wife's pretty goddamn great.
From the same shop where I got my mug, I give you the anniversary ornament tree.
We run out of spots in two years. Then she gets to trade me in for something with better ground clearance and fuel efficiency.
Below is our annual Christmas/holiday letter. I notice that as the years pass these are getting to be less about me and mine and more about you. I guess I'm okay with that.
Friend of mine’s dad was a roofer. Roofers, like all contractors, got stories.
This was one of his: One job, he was doing a full rip-and-replace on a house. He was pulling up decking on the backside when he slipped, fell between the joists, and crashed through the ceiling below.
It was a bedroom he landed in, one covered in a good quarter inch of dust. Furnished, but undisturbed for months, maybe years.
He tried the door. It was walled in.
He pondered options as quick as he could, settled on the certainty that whoever would wall up a perfectly good furnished room probably didn’t want it found for reasons. So he built himself a Jacob’s Ladder to freedom out of the furniture, shimmied up through the hole, and put new decking on in a big damn hurry.
See, this is what gets me whirling. Things in treeholes. Hidden tunnels. I look at an unmown chigger farm at the bottom of a runoff ditch and I am certain there is a small city of something bustling in that brush. A place where the real stuff goes down.
I’ve chased those places most of my life. I percolated upon the notion that there would come the day when I’d find a key or accidentally switch identical bags with a stranger or crash through a ceiling, and down the rabbit hole I would go.
They were beautiful thoughts. Incomplete, but it’s what’s left out of those stories that matters most.
Someday, I’d think. Someday I’ll learn the secret. The world behind the world.
But there’s another thing. Look:
Years ago I introduced my boy to Star Wars. I sat him down and turned it on and watched him watch it. I watched him laugh and cry and grope for reassurance and jump up and down and clap and cheer.
I awoke in his world, one I hadn’t inhabited myself for some time. I was, just for a moment, unbound. It was 1981 and I had more time than I could conceive of spending. He took my hand and said look, come and see. Pull out the blue book with the strange writing on the top shelf and stand back.
Right now one of you is feeling alone. One of you is suffering a loss.
One of you is sitting in your favorite chair, farting contentedly. One of you is thinking about how you’re in love right now and hoo-boy, you’re going to bust. One of you is grappling with a bad decision you’re going to make, even though you don’t want to.
One of you is just done for today.
And later you will need to go out, and maybe you will close those doors to the public, maybe wall them up for good.
Those are the secret cities I was looking for. I tried to find them by shutting out what I regarded as noise and turning inward, and it took me most of four decades to figure out that that was the exact wrong thing to do.
One of you is not so sure about what you just ate. One of you is afraid to open your mouth and let the bag of crazy tumble out. One of you is really happy with your socks right now, and no one could possibly see how much you needed that.
All of you are, in some way, afraid.
I learned this in stumbles and skips, usually by falling through someone’s ceiling, or seeing them fumble and fall through their own walled-up door.
I needed only to see you, to hear you. You were the hidden city. And I nearly missed you, because I was looking in a goddamn shrub. Because I am slow sometimes.
Still, I found you, and here we are. I have seen what you see. I have wondered why, just like you. And I will do what I can to help you figure it out too. I and my family are here.
And we are. We are here. We are harried and awash in mess and sleep-deprived and eating WAY too much refined flour just like you, and we are here. For you, and with you.
Look. Look: We are here.
We hope this unnervingly warm holiday is as good to you as it has been to us. Because frankly, it’s been so good to us that we’re feeling a little guilty and we need to spread some of that joy around so that we may sleep the sleep of the just.
So tell us. Tell us everything. About your secret place, if you’re comfortable. About your socks if not, but remember: We’ve seen weirder. We’ve been to Texas.
Sometimes I think things'll be okay.
This year's letter has been a tough one to nail down.
We had a banner year. 2014 up and tattooed itself all over our lives. New jobs, new friends, new priorities. New possibilities revealing themselves. The year showed us what we could be, what we could do. Then it ended by reminding us of what we already had.
My maternal grandmother died early last month. The wake of her passing was enormous, even if the fact of her death was an overdue mercy. We gathered together in that wake, held each other and wept. And laughed. And ate. And then I wrote you a letter.
Just a few weeks later, my paternal grandfather died too. Just like my Nanaw, his death was a mercy, and just like my Nanaw, he left behind one hell of a wake. He left a hole in things. So again we gathered and held and wept and laughed and ate. And then I scrapped that letter and wrote you another one.
This morning I came to work to discover that a friend and coworker, a 33-year-old husband and father, was killed in a car wreck the night before. He left a hole in things too, one we weren't braced for. So I scrapped that second letter and am starting over again.
I'm unsure of what to say.
My temptation when I write these is to wrap a tidy little bow around things, to shoehorn the events of our lives into some kind of theme. But however comforting that may be to write or to read, those lives defy an effort that small and limiting. It feels dishonest even to try. Losing so many drove that point home.
But it's not just the barrage of loss and tragedy. It's everything, every mark on our lives, good and bad. Each one a single drop, some bigger than others, but none of which is easily contained.
I can't get my head around the sheer mass of all those drops, even just from this year: Loved ones lost, loved ones gained. Corners turned. Chance encounters that rearranged everything. They leave me with no neat little gift to give you. They leave me gobsmacked.
A single life is an inscrutable, baffling, insane thing. There is no order to it, no theme. There are only those drops, added one by one to a great, churning sea of longing and laughter and fear and all-too-brief satisfaction.
The chaos of all that churning is living, moving art. It seeks infinite rearrangement, and that means infinite possibility.
And therein lies our hope. Because as long as the chaos holds, as long as the sea churns, the possibilities don't run out. We can still do more. Be more. There is still time.
There is no map for this. All you can do is wade in, see where it takes you. Maybe keep an eye out for anyone who looks like their arms are getting tired. It can be terrifying as all hell, but it's also pretty damn thrilling, and I am discovering that even that terror is a gift. Even the heartbreak.
We hope your year has been a good one or, failing that, that it has laid the groundwork for good things to come. We couldn't stay afloat without you, and for that we thank you and love you and will be certain to sacrifice the small forest creature of your choosing to Zalgo, the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos. Or maybe we'll make pie.
2015 looks to be at least as terrifyingly full of possibility as 2014. I propose we hold hands.
Because the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Personal favorite. Hope your holidays are happy.
Figure I'd send this out through the blog, though the cards themselves are still finding their way through the United States Postal Service. This is our 2013 Christmas letter, because yes, we're white:
There's this kid that lives somewhere in the neighborhood. Down the hill from us, I think, though I probably think that because I only see him ever in the park down there.
Early teens, lanky. Body of a runner, or maybe a basketball player. All puppy arms and ears.
I only ever see him by himself at the swings. Third swing from the left, back to the street and facing the tennis court. White earbuds. The only sound he makes is the fwee...hee-hahhh call-and-response of the swing's squeaking as he pumps it as high as it will go without throwing him.
I've seen him there at different hours of the day. Weekend afternoons, Tuesday nights after everyone's gone home. Once I went out for a run in the rain, long after dark, and he was there, kicking away.
Seeing him there, under the orange haze of the streetlights and with the rain coming down, it looked like the beginning of a horror movie, Playgrounds of the Possessed or some damn thing. It didn't occur to me until I was back home and warm and dry that maybe the kid didn't have it so great at home, maybe that's why he was out there swinging in the rain. Or maybe he was the right kind of eccentric, indifferent to the storm or even wanting it to fall on him while he listened to his music and cut graceful knife-fight arcs through the air. I hope his iPod survived it.
There's a thing about rhythm and repetition that pulls you out of your own head, if you let it go on long enough. You drop your cares on the floor and disappear into that dark, quiet spot at the center of you. People find it in meditation, in dance, in the methodical plod of running, in that space on the edge of sleep where your mind gets just a touch unlaced and your inner censor shuts the hell up for a few minutes before you go dark.
You return to the ground. You remember what's real by turning the hypotheticals loose. There's only the next beat.
Last year I introduced Jack to Star Wars. I'd even found and downloaded a de-specialized edition of the movie, the way it was before George Lucas screwed it all up. Eat your crackers, boy. We are doing this.
I try like hell not to inflict my childhood on my kids. I know it's not about me. But Star Wars is basic cultural competency stuff, and I expected that he'd like it.
What I didn't expect was that I'd get to be five years old again. But then he cheered. Then he needed me to hold him and reassure him that nobody was getting smooshed by the garbage smasher near the cell block (because let's face it, you need properly smashed garbage before you shoot it into space, and also a prison is where you'd put that, but only if you populate it with aquatic monsters). And then, when he literally jumped up and down and clapped and yelled AWE! SOME! when the Death Star exploded...
Well. There I was, in my jammies. There was no job to hate or money to worry about or ear hair to trim. For right around an hour, it was 1979 and the worst thing in the world was that Chewbacca didn't get a medal at the end because, I dunno, racism.
His selfless enthusiasm dragged me to the center, and there I found a weird kid with a big head in Mork suspenders. I'm learning such things are possible.
The other night Georgia and I were engaged in pre-bed snuggle time, which is our euphemism for five minutes of tickling and poop jokes. This round was mostly focused on her shoving her rear in my face again and again and shouting "Watch out for my butt!" (Jack would fart on my head later that same evening.) She stopped mid-whumph as if shocked to silence, froze for two seconds, and latched onto me as tightly as if I were one of those dads in Lifetime movies who go out for cigarettes and never come back.
I didn't dare move, of course. I just closed my eyes and we slipped into that dark place between the beats. Later she would reassure me that she is indeed my Pea Pod and forbid me to eat her hair. But for that interminable moment it was just fwee...hee-hahhh.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is." But if you're in the moment, I don't know if you're capable of such a thought until it's gone and you're left with fresh nostalgia. Reflecting on the beat isn't dancing or running or pumping your legs higher and higher. It's getting tangled up in your stupid conscious brain, which I urge you to do as little of as possible.
Mine mostly grumbles about stuff, then dreams about other stuff and hopes there won't be too much work. Jennifer's tolerance of it is Herculean, as is her entirely metaphorical grace. For a woman who falls down and drops stuff as much as she does, Jennifer is a ballerina of a mother, every day enduring the pain of turning on her toes so that the show can continue.
She's the one who insisted on the custom superhero mask station and molding white chocolate stars for the birthday party. She invented the living room dance party. She videos the kids doing Tom Waits impressions. She toils. Gleefully, she toils. And she holds it all together. I wish she'd sleep more.
And that's pretty much where we are. Holding it together, trying to slough off the other crap and just listen for the next beat. It's hard to do, particularly this time of year when everything goes nutso until the new year, but still we look for it.
I hope you find yours. I hope you find the quiet, if only for a moment. That's where the deathless part of you abides.
Happy Holidays to all.
[Update: Two days ago I was running errands. It had been raining for hours. I drove by the park and there he was, soaked to the bone and kicking away. I was wrong, though. It's the second swing from the left.]