Dads

We never fully understand anyone. Who we are and what we think of those around us can change in unanticipated ways. But, although everything changes, some things are so deep they sway but do not shift. This is especially true with parents, who can play such a major role in our lives.

 

My Dad died seven months ago and this will be the first year in memory that I could not wish him a good father’s day in person, or on the phone. I miss him greatly. When I was a child, I knew my Dad loved me, but he was gone more often than he was home. He was off working, sometimes even on weekends. As a child of the depression, and a responsible father, financial security was one of his primary concerns. We never had too much but always what we needed.

 

When I was a teenager, we often butted heads. It was a struggle, as it often is with teenagers and their parents. He could be moody and critical, but also accepting, kind and generous. In our home, arguing was a common form of discourse, even at the kitchen table, and especially about politics. I was against the war in Vietnam. He was for it. But we did eat dinner and talk together; we could argue, and still love each other.

 

My Dad was staunchly moral. He always wanted me to do the right thing, even if that was not what I wanted to do. When I was in college, in Michigan, I attended many protests, including several against the war in Vietnam. Once, the editor of our college newspaper was arrested at a protest to secure for parents on welfare enough money to clothe their children. This led me, and about three hundred other students, to protest the arrest at the county municipal building. We, in turn, were arrested; police in riot gear dragged most of us out of the building. I watched my best friend on one side of me and a women with her daughter on the other being dragged out, but I was mysteriously left to walk out on my own. Snipers on the roofs of neighboring buildings shadowed the demonstration.

 

A picture of me leaving the building appeared in Life Magazine, and my Dad saw the photo before I could tell him about it. He got so angry he called and disinherited me. Two weeks later, he called again. He had researched the incident and decided I was right. He even said I had acted courageously.

 

That’s my Dad. He thought about the situation and changed his mind. He also changed his mind about the war in Vietnam and joined an organization of businessmen against it. He remained highly informed and thoughtful about politics for the rest of his life. During the disputes and discussions about healthcare over the last twenty years, my father presented the clearest analysis I ever heard of the waste in our health care system and the money that would be saved by a single payer system.

 

He lived a good life. He and my Mom, who he loved deeply, would often take trips to other countries. They would usually travel with friends or relatives. Several years after my Mom passed away, when he was 91 years old, he flew by himself to Athens, Greece, to meet his new girlfriend and take a cruise back to the US.

 

He had been a successful accountant and CFO of a large corporation, and up to the last year of his life, when he was closing in on 96 years of age, he continued to do his own tax returns. In fact, he felt a little sheepish about not doing them. The only reason he stopped, he said, was because he had moved to a new state. The laws were very different than those he knew, and he didn’t feel like extensively studying the tax codes. What stood out most from his work were the people he met and got to know. He was so touched that even 16 years after he finally retired, people he worked with still called and came to visit.

 

In June, 1969, I entered the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa. My parents didn’t really want me to be there. They were afraid of what might happen to me but recognized and supported my reasons for going. In late November, I was escorted from the country back to Washington, D. C. with a serious but not contagious illness. I was in no condition and didn’t have the time to inform anyone about what was happening.

 

After only a day or two, I insisted on returning to my parent’s home in Queens, New York, to surprise them. A friend drove me. It was late afternoon, so no one was there when I arrived. I didn’t have the key, but was able to get it from Selma, a neighbor. She insisted I call my mother right away, before she left work, so I wouldn’t shock her too deeply when she saw me. We weren’t able to find my Dad; no cell phones back then.

 

When my Dad came home, he parked the car in the driveway and went to the back door to enter the house. I got to the door first and opened it from the inside. When he saw me, he froze in obvious disbelief. “Is that you?” he said. “Yes,” I replied. My very rational Dad didn’t know what to do. He turned away and started to walk back to the car. Then he turned back. “Are you staying?’ “Yes.” “Good.” And he turned away again. It took him a few minutes to let me see his face and enter the house. I don’t think he wanted me to see him crying.

 

What remained throughout all these years was a love that I felt but didn’t always understand. My Dad loved absolutely. In our last real conversation, on the day before he went into the semi-coma that preceded his death, he was worried about how my brother and I would be when he was gone. He said to me, “You know, a father never stops worrying about his children.”

 

The world would be a much better place if more people could grow up with such absolute love and support. Who would I have been if I hadn’t had him as a Dad? He taught me that in the face of death, the only thing that helps is acting with love. He died at 96.5 years old.

Remembering Those Who Have Loved Us

Love is a mystery. Certainly, we can talk about what it feels like when we love or feel loved. Neuroscience can tell us about our brains in love, poets can expose some of the depths of the emotion, and psychology and mindfulness can awaken us to how it arises in ourselves. Yet, relationships touched by love have qualities that go beyond anything we can consciously explain.

My Mom died 12 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have an urge to do something for her….

To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project, who published it on Mother’s Day.

Teaching With Love: A Meditation

I was sitting in a chair in the living room watching a television program I had no initial interest in. My wife, who was sitting near to me, wanted to see it. It was a television program featuring songs and songwriters. At one point, I looked over to her. She was running her fingers through her hair, absorbed in the music. And then my whole sense of the program changed.

 

When we allow ourselves to feel that this other person is, right then, feeling, just like we do. When we do something as simple as that– no thoughts, just feeling. Just sitting there, looking at him or her, letting them in. I think we let in so little. We let in labels. We let in little pieces. Not the reality that this person is breathing with you.

 

Love is like that. To let someone or something in, you must be at least a little vulnerable. You must tremble a little, let go of your normal defenses and ways of filling time. You must let another person write who they are directly on your heart. Or it can be a pet. My cats write frequently on my heart. They also step on it, drop dirt and ticks on it. I am constantly floored by the way that “my” two cats, brother and sister, choose to sleep on top of each other. Who said that cats are just walking bellies? Walking pillows for each other, maybe.

 

With this openness and vulnerability you allow yourself to feel the terrible possibility of loss, yet you do it anyway. When you love, fear of loss is always there. Love and loss go together. To value someone means not only that you experience their beauty, inner or otherwise, but that you don’t want to lose them. The possibility of loss energizes the bond. To value in this way, you tremble with life and joy. You feel the breath of another as your breath. So breathe in.

 

All emotions incorporate contrasting emotions. Think of anger. Who do you get most angry at? Why get angry if you don’t care? Or joy. What is it that you overcome in joy? Isn’t there an overcoming or a letting go of fear involved, a relaxing of the impulse to hold too tightly?

 

It is so important for students to get a chance to discuss love in an honest way, yet it is a difficult subject.  There is so much hype, distortion and expectation that teens can easily get confused and even cynical about the possibility of a loving relationship. To introduce the discussion, try the following experiential exercise on the role attitude plays in perception. This is more easily done if you have already introduced mindfulness in the class. Start by walking through the room with a basket filled with simple objects like stones, leaves, and pinecones. Let students choose one from the basket and put it on the table in front of them.  Then say, with a calm voice:

 

Now, close your eyes partly or fully, or just soften your focus so you allow your eyes to relax and be at ease. Gently, allow your attention to go to your breath. Just breathe in, allowing yourself to feel the inhalation; and breathe out, letting yourself settle down. With each inhalation, bring your focus to the breath. Notice whatever arises for you. Maybe a thought will come up, maybe a sensation, maybe a sense of quiet. Then, with each exhalation, allow your body to settle down. Feel the natural tendency to settle into the exhalation and let go of any thoughts or feelings. Return your attention, gently, yet with clarity, to your breath.

 

Now, can you imagine maybe a pet, a kitten, a puppy? Something small. Something you could care for and want to protect. Just watch it—watch it play, run around, or sit in your lap. Just take in this image. Notice how your expression, your facial muscles soften, shoulders relax.

 

What do you feel when you see this young being? Just feel the image and notice your response.

 

The purpose here is to bring up a caring, open feeling or mental attitude. An emotion is not just in the heart but the eyes—and nose, ears, etc.. Once a person has this caring mental state, they will more likely perceive the world more gently.

 

Now open your eyes and simply look at the object that you chose earlier. If you can, look at the object as you looked at that kitten or other animal or baby. Instead of staring, just breathe it in with a gentle or soft focus. Then place the object in the palm of one hand. Move it closer and further away. With a soft focus, take in the colors, shape. Are there patterns to the object? 

 

Feel it. Feel the weight, the texture of the object–is it smooth or rough? Soft or hard? Feel whether its warm or cold. Now turn it around and look at it from different perspectives. 

 

Study a small detail of the object keeping that gentle focus. Study its texture, shades of color. How does the small detail fit in the whole? Study another detail.

 

Then close your eyes. Visualize the object in your mind. Visualize the shape, colors, size, texture. Look at it from different angles.

 

Open your eyes. And look again. Feel the life of the object. What did you not remember or not feel in your memory that you feel now?

 

Now put the object down. Close your eyes. How do you feel when you look at something with a gentle or soft focus? Just sit with that gentle, open feeling for a moment.

 

This isn’t quite teaching love. But it’s a step.

 

Now, breathe out.