My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

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A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

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Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

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Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

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Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

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A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.

“I Don’t Know! Ask the Horse!”

In Savor, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung tell the Zen story of a horse and rider: “The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the rider is urgently heading somewhere important. A bystander along the road calls out, ‘Where are you going?’ and the rider replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’”

The horse represents our habit energy, “the relentless force of habit that pulls us along, that we are often unaware of and feel powerless to change. We are always running.” I’ve decided that my life depends on understanding my habit energy—the silly, mindless actions and words that litter each day. I eat too fast, drink too fast, drive too fast. I worry too much, talk too much, eat way too much.

Thich Nhat Hanh says I should talk to my habit energy: “Hello, my habit energy. I know you are there.” Plentiful daily siestas and over twenty year’s worth of contemplative prayer are putting me in touch with my silly horse. Writing about napping and other sane practices helps, too.

Last night, as wife Kathy and I walked our happy black dog Watson around the block, we calmed our habit energy long enough to check out little flowers on a neighbor’s fence.

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This morning I prayed in bed from 6:00 – 6:30 and intended to dress and dive into the day—much to do. But oncology-nurse-wife Kathy woke up with a knot in her back, so instead of getting right to work, I did my best to massage away what felt like a concrete ping pong ball beside her shoulder blade. (Masseuses have my respect. Subduing stubborn muscles takes strong hands and forearms.) The delay turned into a blessed twenty minutes. Once the knot was worked out, she leaned against me, and we breathed in, breathed out. The cats relaxed with us.

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Today’s work includes trying to find good words for someone who lost a loved one to cancer, visiting a woman with lung cancer, and asking prayers for a six-year-old girl who was in an ATV accident a couple days ago and is still unconscious. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says an old hymn. So it is.

When I pray, rest in the afternoon, and—even in this moment—breathe, I can’t help feeling we’re all in a great lap of grace and mercy. All of us. The world’s evidence is against me. Habit energy tells me to clench up, to struggle and strain. No. For too many years my harried horse has been galloping my body and mind where it pleased. Life project: pat the horse on its big nose and train it to carry me slowly through my lovely, crazy days.