Sunday, July 15, 2007

Children are not broken

I was born to fix things. It is a rewarding and enjoyable preoccupation with houses, boats and anything else I can dismantle and reassemble. My first instinct as a parent was to try to fix problems as they came along, but it proved to be a disastrous approach in many instances. The flaw in this approach is two-fold; first, it assumes a child is broken. It has been my observation that this simply is not true. Second, it presumes I know how to fix whatever is broken. My conscious history provides little support in these matters and it appears my generational background compounds the problem in more ways than I would like to admit. I have found the born-to-fix parenting method focusses on my needs more than those of the family and for this reason I have chosen to abandon it.

One summer evening I returned home from work and as I walked into the kitchen I instantly became aware of the pandemonium in the room. Two children below the age of four at the peak of their energy, full of curiosity and highly receptive to the slightest amusement adds up to high pitch, high volume and high action. One glance at the rouge of my wife’s frustrated cheeks and the Vesuvius-like expression in her eyes, told me the situation was desperate. It was clear from my children that they were not going to be receptive to my opinion on orderly behaviour so I turned around, I proceeded to the bedroom and I changed from my business attire to more comfortable clothes. This allowed me the time to pause. On my return the question that needed to be answered was not; how do I reverse this calamity? Without triggering my born-to-fix habit the critical question became; how can I love them in this moment? I had no preconceived plan, no expectation and no solution at hand.

What transpired next was as much of a surprise to me as it was to my family. I don’t know how or why the following action entered my body or my mind but I started to hop into the kitchen. The children stopped abruptly and their attention turned to their hopping father. A smile appeared on both of their faces and I saw the relief in my wife as her shoulders relaxed and her face cooled. The children ran up to me, formed a line behind me and began to hop laughing and giggling. I realized we had never hopped together.

On another occasion my son would not go to bed on a Christmas evening. Hysterical he rejected all proposals to go back to bed. He was 3+ years old. How can I love him in this moment? I held him in my arms and hugged him as I descended the stairs toward the Christmas tree and I didn’t speak a word. I didn’t try to convince him or console him or distract him. I simply held him close and sat him down beside me in the sofa in front of our lit tree. We sat for a half an hour. While the volume had diminished slightly he was still rather distraught.

My wife finally came down the stairs and gave me a disappointed look. She had expected a resolve of some kind and clearly I had done nothing and spoken nothing to alter my son’s state. She stopped in front of the two of us and asked sternly, “What are you doing?” My response? “I’m counting the green lights”. My son stopped crying and with a slight grin he said, “And I’m counting the red ones.” My wife paused and then asked, “Are you ready to go to bed now?” With tears still fresh on his cheeks my son agreed to be carried to bed.

In retrospect, the question did several things for me; it turned my attention away from my own feeling of frustration toward the needs of the people around me; it focused me on the needs of the moment without the excess baggage of past or future events; and most importantly, it became a matter of love.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A reality check

It is very simple, very self-indulgent and very revealing. It is a brief opportunity for a free association moment, as is, no need to fear and no take backs - an internal rant. Just begin every sentence with "I am suspicious of..." Here's mine:

I am suspicious of things I don’t understand. I am suspicious of people who don’t make an effort to help me understand. I am suspicious of people who form groups before the group is ‘formed’. I am suspicious of people who want me to belong to their group before I want to belong to it. I am suspicious of 'value' before I know it is truly there. I am suspicious of words that attach to all of these things. I am suspicious of the intentions behind them. I am suspicious of myself when I say ‘You should…anything’. I am suspicious of those who don’t know their power to deceive, manipulate and damage. I am suspicious of myself for this reason. I am suspicious of disease, headaches and tiredness. I am suspicious of objectivity - the arrogant, possibility of it. I am suspicious of the use of the word ‘authenticity’ out of the mouth of anyone else but me. I am suspicious of unhappiness. I am suspicious of how conveniently it can protect people from the truth. I am suspicious of the truth because I find it more elusive than a lie, which means I am a struggling honest person or an easy liar or both. And at the same time I am ambivalent to everything but this moment because at this moment I am alive typing on my computer, because I want to, because I can, because it feels good, because I am thinking of people around me, because it makes me think of my children who I am not suspicious of and I hope will never have reason to be suspicious of me.

Robin Uchida

Friday, July 13, 2007

No.6: The Healing

The taxi is a private space, outside it is a makeshift display of driven people, silent in the noise and disarray, blurred on all sides, inside it is an invitation for a meaningful conversation. It is the driver’s office I step into each time, he permits me his company and the temporary comfort of his space in return for some respect for the hours he invests waiting endlessly, the intermittent meal he does not have time for and the threat of financial ruin with every traffic violation. Other cab drivers have reconciled the hardships with the benefit of seasonal work or the freedom office workers do not have. The sullen look on the face of this driver is borne out of none of these hardships, life has delivered him much more to reconcile.

There is no small talk. There is only restrained pain and anger in his voice as we begin with pleasantries. Unexpectedly, my “how are you?” presented him the ideal opportunity to reveal the reason for his distress. “My kidneys, I have a problem with my kidneys.” He continued, “It happened three years ago. I was in my cab with a passenger at night and we were slowing to a stop at an intersection. Something smashed on my windshield. My door opened. My head. My body. Then my passenger was dragged from the car. He was cut in the head. He is not the same. I visited him once and he is not the same, forever.” This story is familiar to me and I cannot remember how or why.

“They were teenagers, drunk from a party. They were having fun. I have lost everything because I was in the hospital and in therapy for a long time. It took me a long time to come out of the house after that.” He refuses to drive the night shift anymore. As he recalls this event and everything that followed, it is clear his terror has lost its edge but his body will never forget as it exhumes the pommeling of bat against bone whenever his driver’s seat prods his internal scars.

How does someone overcome fear of this kind, imagined because the same thing can never happen again and not imagined because in truth there is something to fear? “They should bring back the death penalty. These kids get away with this. They know they will not be punished. I get nothing. I am still tired.” There is no distinction between the past, present and future anymore, there is only the reality of the crashing in, the pain and the senselessness.

He was unable to leave the house well after his body had repaired. “How did you do that? Leave the house," I ask. “One day I set up a place in my house to pray. I prayed every day. I thanked God for my life, everyday. My family and relatives helped me.” It was a decision to leave a victim behind. “You have a family?” I continued. “A son.” He answers without hesitation, with only love and appreciation. I inquire further, “Your son, what does he do?” He says it as if he had just been rescued. “He is a police officer. He is a good boy." He remains unresolved but he has built a place to pray.

Monday, July 9, 2007

No.5: To kill a goat

Mistakenly, I assumed this young man from Kandahar who had been in Canada for sixteen cold winters was someone who had decided to stay. “I want to go back. There is a lot to fix. If there is a hole in the road we will build a new road and go around the hole.” There is determination in his voice, he has reflected on his past long enough and he has been waiting for me to give his thoughts a rest.

“So you’ve seen death”, I say imagining the worst. “Yes, of course," he said. “So tell me. Tell me what happened," I prod, thinking what is it like to be this man? “When?” he asks, meaning there were many deaths to tell about and I had not been explicit enough with my request. “You people here don’t know," he criticizes knowing Canadian life well enough to be right. He began to describe many days and nights in Kandahar, “Everyone was in the house. The windows are closed up and covered in mud. The bullets don’t go through the mud. They stop. The army was coming. The Russian soldiers march along the trucks and tanks down my street.”

“Were you afraid? If there were soldiers and tanks coming down this street in Toronto right now I would be very afraid," I admit. “You people are afraid if I kill a goat. You don’t sleep for a week. I kill a goat once a week. There were six men on the roof. I could see through a little hole. I watch.” His observations were correct again, but his proposition was unsettling. “How old were you?” “Eleven”, he replied.

He continued, “The men on the roofs threw hand grenades onto the soldiers. The soldiers leave. The men were gone. I was first to come out on the street. There was blood. There was blood.” He is amused by my disbelief. He knows how foreign this experience is for me; nevertheless he continues his casual walk through the bloody aftermath. “I can’t believe you were not afraid. You must feel something. Where were the bodies?” I persisted.

“The men throwing grenades from the roof were gone. They sat down and drink tea with their brothers. They ask, where did the men go? They didn’t know. This is why the Americans do not know. They know technology but it is no good in Afghanistan," he laughs. He cannot conceal the pride in his premonition, “This is why the Americans will get tired just like the Russians.”

“What about the leader?” I ask, attempting to find order and reason on his bloodied street. “Nobody likes him”, he reacts quickly. “ How will you get rid of him? How will you get him out?” I questioned, knowing he would have an answer. “When the Americans go, then we will have a clear shot”, he laughs again. I was growing increasingly more disturbed by him, as I thought of him as that eleven year old who has carried indelible stains for many years, now a grown man who thinks and laughs as he light-heartedly describes death with chilling clarity, loss and more death with a sarcasm-filled vengeance.

“Didn’t you feel anything?” I ask again. “You are in communications. If you talk in front of people maybe you are not afraid. I would be afraid. This is easy for you. That is war. I am used to it,” and I continue to fail. Desperate to hold onto the difference between the insanity of one and the adaptive skill of the other, the fears are not the same for me.

“One time an old man, a neighbour was shot. I was sad for him. That is different. He was shot in front of my house. We moved his body to another place. If we didn’t move him, they would say we did something.” In this moment I finally hear a glimmer of attachment, a sense that the blood came from a body and the body was once living, a trace of injustice before the hate could turn into a more insidious thing.

“Another man was taken from his house. He was taken to justice and they bring him back to his house outside and tied him to the front. I see them cut his throat.” I realize there is finality in his stories, a focus on the moment of death with very little reflection on what it looked like, who he was and what these people meant to him, distance and endings. I needed to know for sure, “You must have been shocked to see a man’s throat cut.” “No. This is war. I am used to it,” he smiles. “He was a man who tortured other people. He was a traitor”

“Maybe it’s no good to get used to war. Maybe we should be afraid”, I venture to challenge this man who smiles and laughs as we talk about death.

Befitting the end of our brief conversation I detect a prophetic quality in his soft defiance, his fearlessness, his pride in Afghanistan and I am overcome by a disquieting sadness. “Americans are not afraid. They don’t see the bombs. They just push a button. I have seen the bombs. And sometimes the bomb doesn’t explode. If the bomb makes a hole the children swim in it like a swimming pool.” And then I realized, we are not so different.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Mutual knowing

A friend once asked me, “how do I tell her I love her?” I asked him, “Do you love her?” to which he instantly replied “Yes”. It was clear to me he spoke the truth nevertheless the words were impossible for him to speak in her presence. The words were fused to his vulnerability and to speak them threatened the thing that held his inner and his outer worlds in place. He could not risk saying them or else it would all collapse. His feelings were left unheard. “How do I tell her I love her?” We are all plagued with this truth-on-mute problem in one way or another. It prevents us from being in the world with friends, associates and family members. It prevents opportunity in many relationships and maintains dysfunctions in existing ones. We deny ourselves dynamic experiences in each instance, freedom and creativity, the joy in mutual knowing, an authentic life.

“How do I tell her I love her?” I am familiar with this tension, a generational mystery sabotages an intentional life, and it is known by every man at some point, if not in its chronic form. I offered an experiment from my arsenal of personal remedies. Try a sign of affection you can manage, your own way of saying I love you. I wanted to tell my daughter I love her and for reasons beyond my understanding this seemed an impossible thing to do. I noticed I could hold her hand and caress her finger with my thumb. I thought she may notice or she may not, but for the moment this would be my way of saying I love you - I began. In retrospect this is the most important step, to begin. In my mind the ease of this expression allowed me to say I love you without the encumbrances of generational baggage. I was finally free.

Months later, I was driving my two young children to meet their mother. My daughter was very tired and emotional and her anxiety seemed to be increasing the farther we drove. In time her emotional frustration seemed to be subsiding and I was curious as to why so I looked in my rear view mirror and I surveyed the back seat. I witnessed my 5 year-old-son calmly comforting her. He was silently facing forward in his car seat undisturbed by her behaviour. With confidence and the concern of a loving sibling, he had reached across from his car seat to hers and he was stroking her hand with his thumb. He gave both his sister and I a gift I will always be grateful for.

I graduated from one way of expressing love to another until some time later I was able to say what I needed to say, “I love you.” I developed many creative ways to challenge my barrier, never knowing precisely why it was there. I am still not as demonstrative or as effusive as others but I know my children have heard me, a message my father never made clear to me with words in all of his living years. I do have a memory of an occasion, as an independent nine-year-old, when I had to loosen his hugging arms so I could go and play with my cousins.