By any measure I grew up in a traditional family—one fully aligned with the context of its time. My father was the sole provider until I entered the final year of college. When it became necessary to pay two college tuitions at the same time, my mother took a US government job not far from home. (We can laugh or cry now, because that was when college was still affordable). My parents were staunch members of the local religious community and I and my siblings were brought up in its cultural practices and traditions. We were educated in its precepts and marked our maturation by the requisite ceremonies.
My father was an academic, a scientist, in what then was a relatively obscure field-statistics. He lived by the rules of what could be seen and proven. He could also be volatile, prone to explode at his children or my mother. He was a disciplinarian, leveling strict rules of behavior and he had no uncertainties about his ethics or what constituted integrity. He served his family, his work and his community. He was a model citizen.
For all of my youth and well into my adulthood, my mother was a long-suffering passive voice, not totally intimidated by her husband, but not inclined to stand up for herself with any conviction—at least not in front of me. Before I went away to college and then as I disappeared to the far west, confused by slogans and reacting to my own infection of righteousness, driven by spiritual unrest and the emotional fallout and social impact of the Vietnam War, I never knew her to challenge him on principles or his style of interaction. I never saw her put her foot down or ‘win’ an argument. I never saw him back down. But at the time, I no longer cared.
I was intimidated, both silently seething, withdrawing and also identifying with the insults and crude judgments he dished out not only to me on a regular basis, but to my siblings as well. His derogatory characterizations of me echoed endlessly, foretelling my reticence, half-hearted ventures, risk-aversion, fragile self-confidence, confusion and doubt. I’m not sure even now whether I was careful not to venture into anything too challenging because I was certain I would never measure up to his standards or whether I was just determined to stay out of his way.
Fourteen I was,
back when time slowed down and I
began to clock the distance between
father and tomorrow.
Took my time to cover my tracks
wrote out the difference between
school and the random anarchies
fulminating under cover of darkness.
A walking cadaver I was
toe tied to family meals
and algebra into moonrise.
In the mornings
sliding out from my slab of sleep
the symbols melted all over again.
From a much longer view, our relationship could be understood as a karmic encounter. I, introverted, confused and emotionally blocked, landing in—or choosing–a family that seemed always to bring me face to face with my internal dilemmas, forcing me to choose. Was I to break the spell and become an autonomous being? It took a decade after college before I found my ground enough to pursue a professional objective with confidence. It was the fruit of a long and deliberate progression into somatic therapeutics, all of which was a gradual embodiment as a sensing and whole emotional being with a full array of feelings and innate creative responses to new and uncertain conditions.
In retrospect, my values were largely rooted in my family, my religious community and my father’s view of the world, a world in which justice might have been the single most important value. Identifying that principle as a core value could lead to numerous side conversations here about ethics, hypocrisy, righteousness and equality. After all, he voted for Shirley Chisholm for president. But, never mind. The more immediate point is that while I maintained my distance into my thirties, even as I disguised my antipathy, even to myself, I overruled it for the sake of appearances and conducted my life as if I was an independent being, the certainty of that independence was not as secure as I might have wished. I knew myself as responsible for my own choices, yet I could not make those choices without adhering to some inner voice of caution, confused allegiance to or dependency on the voice of the inner critic–his voice, recapitulating the impossible standards he typically applied to himself.
As I was entering the professional world, something else began to happen. My mother found herself. She shut down the emotional abuse. She spoke up, refusing to stand for his bluster. She entered her own space. Lo and behold, my father began to soften. How these two phenomena interacted exactly I cannot say. My subsequent visits with them as they sailed into retirement began to assume a character of authentic affection and care.
Their children long since launched, they filled their empty nest years with travel, grandchildren and community service. My father received the rewards of his extended professional life. Throughout this process, he continued to soften, as if he was shedding the toughened skin of professional ambition and family responsibilities, being the sole breadwinner and a patriarch to his family and community.
I had grown out of the resistance and resentments, the judgments and recriminations of my younger years, but paradoxically, by transforming himself in the ways that he did, my father was not only coming to terms with his own issues (to the extent that he even regarded them as his issues), but was also helping me address my own issues with him. He was revealing my own work yet undone, giving me permission to re-enter the shuttered chambers of the past and to forgive at deeper and cleaner levels until we gradually settled into a greater peace. From that vantage point, it’s difficult to imagine how hard it is for so many others, growing up in significantly more abusive families, to find true forgiveness for themselves in the absence of any sign of real change by their parent(s).
The truth is, though I can regard myself as fortunate and have long since settled into a deepening field of gratitude for all of it, I can also look back and say we were both scarred by our relationship. He was pursuing his own flawed notions of parenting. As is true in so many families, children are not seen for who they are, but regarded as receptacles of ideas, values and behaviors he himself held close, holding me to the impossible standard to which he always held himself–most likely the standards and expectations of his own father. He was recapitulating his own childhood, exorcising his small-minded resentments against the world as he planted them in the heart-mind of his offspring. I was merely the next generational version of the same dynamic.
Some of this was surely the effect of growing up in the Great Depression. But as he healed his own scars, so I began to heal my own. Even now, just in recounting the tenacity of his buried pain, I could not swear those scars disappeared. And anyway, there’s no magic to be performed upon them. But neither do they remain visible forever. They did not diminish me any more than they diminished him or his fragile journey of turning them into objects of beauty for their own sake. The past can never be cosmetically hidden or fully excised. If we are fortunate, our wounds become portals, beautiful monsters. We may never appear to ourselves wholly unblemished, but we may well become whole, creating our own definition of purity by carrying the past more lightly.
Which brings me to consider the end of life. Yes, I am concerned with uncertainty and the unknown. I can also mollify that uncertainty by seeking the stabilizing effect of visionary perspectives. In this respect I include my father, who for those two decades before his death became a study in deepening humility, self-deprecating humor, compassion and generosity. The heavier his body became, the more lightly he carried it. He entered that slow softening process long before he died and I have no idea what consciousness he had of any of it. I don’t know if it was deliberate or if some inexorable conviction took hold of him and he simply released and rode its momentum all the way into shore. Regardless, even if the terms of that process were left largely unspoken, something important was imparted to me and to others around him.
His journey became a source of nourishment. It remains like a shadow next to me. My younger life with him was no soft ride. I don’t recall any softness in him then, but if I had a framework through which I might nourish myself or others, it would be to recognize that our innermost contemplations about how we lead our lives or the emerging frame of how we approach the end of life is not a property to keep to oneself, but instead a cultivation of what Stephen Jenkinson calls a “village-mindedness.” We have an opportunity to demonstrate to those close to us a fearless and curious, generous and open-hearted contemplation of the unknown with the intention to offer the same to others as we offer to our selves. If that was to be my intention, then my father’s model is a good place to start.
Love comes in many forms, which can include deliberately or subliminally planting seeds informing others who have yet to consider their own uncertain future. While I would miss something if I neglected such a process, what they would miss becomes part of the equation as well. Those seeds come in the form of carefully chosen actions. Now, more than merely resting in the flow of time, the dream body makes a subtle change to a transitional state of becoming, from discerning what requires focused attention, articulation and expression to bringing the fruits of that attention into the world.
I assume a posture of stillness, cultivating Being like a river trout nosing into the oncoming current with minimal exertion. The trout is not striving, not forcing himself into the world, just waiting as conditions change and become clear, for the instant when a response is required, making the smallest adjustments necessary to exercise one’s agency while remaining unperturbed, steady within the passage of time.
That whole process might ultimately be named, what some might call a good death, even a fortunate death, a conscious transition which can begin at any time, the earlier the better, with neither panic nor anxiety nor fear nor even hope. Yes, there are surely further signposts coming along the way, yet more versions of reality to encounter and digest. I reach into the neglected territories of awareness to make sure all is attended. Whether I anticipate ultimate freedom in this life or in some other time, a certain portion of my attention is devoted to exploring the parameters of completion. And also on what continues beyond.