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Becoming a parent is a life changing experience. At least, in some sense it should be. Yes, a truism, a cliche. But the meat and marvel of it is how this life changing by new life appearing is different for everyone. Personality, past life experience, and age are just three basic elements which have a huge impact on the experience of becoming a parent. And there are many more.

Many Americans come from a shared cultural background and so as new parents they can come together and converse on the basis of this shared experience about the change in their lives. There is the diaper changing, feeding, lack of sleep, and all those new struggles. People share their shock at the life change.

As the second oldest in a very large family, I come to parenthood from a very different place. Before I ever had the name father, I have changed many a child’s diaper, fed, chased, and heard the night troubles. I suppose I have been present and a part of the whole messy experience for at least a half dozen younger siblings. There is no new introduction to those aspects of child rearing.

The coming of my own child has felt in many ways more like the return of the old familiar rather than something shocking and new. The house has felt empty, absent the sounds of small children. Yes, I remember all these things, the familiar rhythms, the cadence, the sounds. I haven’t had the “I didn’t expect things to be like this” experience than many people today share in common when they come together and talk about their new experience of parenthood. The familiarity has made the transition calmer for me, not as stressed nor filled with shock and uncertainty. That has been a blessing, though all the past experience doesn’t mean I have answers. All experience means is that I know a parent never has the answers, and that confounding problems and unanswerable questions are just part of being a parent. And I know nobody else has all the secret answers. You never get it all figured out, and experience teaches the listening to accept this truth a little more comfortably.

But being a parent is different than being an older sibling, and my deep familiarity with the basic rudiments of child care can almost obscure that important truth. As an older brother I was called upon to change diapers, feed hungry bellies, and make sure little hands and feet didn’t come to harm. And those little siblings looked up to me and found me fascinating and a person to be emulated–as they found all their older siblings. As special as that relationship is, it is not the same as being a father.

As an older brother I wasn’t particularly attentive to my siblings. That was a shortcoming on my part. I didn’t go out of my way to avoid my younger siblings, but neither did I go out of my way to bring them into my activities. They were welcome to be around or tag along, but I was busy with my own things. I helped with feeding and diaper changing as needed, but it was duty I did without complaint–or much thought.

It is a danger to think I can be a father as I was an older brother–able to do what is needed with those diapers and feeding–and admired by the little person–but not so much present in my own thoughts and intentions. The damage from such casual preoccupation can be so much greater when it is a father.

As an older brother it was not my responsibility to chart a course of discipline and instruction. It was not my job to teach–and by that I mean shining light on the reality of life and truth more importantly than math and language arts. Being a father has opened that world. I need to be fathering, not brothering. “What are we doing?” as a question on the deep existential level of teaching a child about life was not my responsibility in all my previous interaction with little people. That was not my job because I was not a father. But now I am.

This is what is different. Dirty diapers I know, and spit up, and all the confounding things of non-answers about sleepless nights, bad digestion, and teething. But spending my life toward a child as a father–this is new. For a few short years, I will be the world to my little son. I will mean the world to him. In those littlest of years I will seem the embodiment of power, wisdom, intelligence, and perhaps goodness. I will be all that he wants to be. With time he will come to know how I come so far short of those things, but in the beginning there is profound opportunity to be the vessel of incalculable impact on a little soul. And I do not want to be inattentive to this sober reality, or to the small one whom I could so easily overlook in a busy life full of doing.

Yes, I hope to do and be with my son in the big special things; the going on adventures and playing grand games, the building and making projects, the sharing which is special in big ways. I look forward to that because there is so much I want to share. But equally important–perhaps even more important–I want to see him every day, and remember him in the small things, hear him in the small conversations, to truly remember him and be present in the small and easily forgotten moments of every day.

So I hope I grow into being a father, into being awake in the every day, and being loving in the deep ways that truly matter.

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Have you ever thought about what it means to lose yourself? Or, the opposite, to find yourself? What do those things even mean?

These past two years, I have been losing myself. That statement sounds terrifying to the modern sensibility. The culture of today is built upon the parlance of “finding oneself.” Perhaps that means traveling to some distant place in India, moving to another state in the country, or simply pursuing a different path in life. Wherever you go, finding yourself means coming to a place of finding self-fulfillment. Finding yourself is the goal, and those mired down in daily living unable to attain the place of self-actualization are less for it. So the narrative goes. In this place the pronouncement of “losing oneself” sounds like a death knell. It sounds like what middle aged people do before they whimper off into the sunset of old age.

Is it true?

I admit losing oneself is not all sunshine and picnics. The metaphysical reality comes with many earthy sensations, some more easily named than others. Altogether it is discomforting. But I hold it is a far better path than the vision of bliss championed in the quest of finding oneself.

This is not the first time I have lost myself. When I left home to care for my grandparents–that was another occasion which comes to mind. I lost myself then, and again when my grandpa died. And I suppose I lost myself when I had to leave childhood behind and figure out what it meant for me to be an adult. They were all painful times, each in different ways, each a different dying, a different birth. Perhaps there are others which don’t come so easily to mind.

Losing myself happens in those places and times where who I am comes unmoored. Who I was before can’t exist unchanged in the future I find myself. I no longer can be who I was, but who I am becoming (or ought to be) is not clear. I’ve lost my past self, and it feels a bit like dying, a bit like loneliness (for the old self was the closest friend), and much like being lost. The old home of body and mind is gone. I am cast out, and new realities don’t immediately become a new skin and familiar home.

When I left home and became caregiver for my grandparents it was a new role and a new place in life. It required different priorities from me, a different outlook on life, different expectations. Disorienting is a word which fits the experience, a word that almost feels too small. That life change left me staggered, but I met the occasion and grew into it until Caregiver was a name which fit me like a glove. Then that ended, and I lost myself again. Ironic how what I struggled to accept became a disaster to lose. Time to learn what it meant to be a once-but-no-longer-caregiver. So it goes, time and again.

I don’t like losing myself. I like comfortable familiarity, old houses with those worn paths of habitual use. But time pushes onward and brings its change. I feel like I have already done far more losing of myself in life than I would ever want. However, I am coming to understand that losing myself is one of the most important (if most uncomfortable) things to happen in life. It is in the dying of the old self, the losing of the past shell, that the living is found. When I have lost myself, there I have grown.

As a culture there is a lot of shiny talk about “finding oneself,” the activity with self at the center, and one’s own sense of fullness–whatever is required to reach that place. For certain finding oneself feels like a grand thing–at least, if it lives up to the hype. By contrast, losing oneself feels emptying, frightening, and exhausting. Losing oneself is not an enjoyable activity. No wonder the narrative of our age is about finding oneself.

But the better path is often the disguised one, hidden behind the thorns. I am convinced “finding oneself” is a mirage–a delight at first, perhaps, but ultimately a more empty and lonely place where you are the aim and desire of your own existence. What has true worth has great cost, and one must become lost to find. Every time I have lost myself it has been hard, but in the long journey through lostness I have come out wiser, more mature. A bit less, just a bit less, someone living just for himself. When I lose myself I come out not quite who I was before, and better for it.

Marriage, and becoming a father, have been the occasions of this most recent losing of myself. These life changing events have reoriented my life in ways easy to conceptualize in words, but far harder to discover in all the warp and woof of reality. I can’t live as a married man and father as I did as a single man. An observation so simple it seems almost trite, but the reality of losing who I was as a single person leaves me trying to find what it means to be a new man–in priorities, life rhythm, hopes, ambitions, and breath. Life simply isn’t the same in this new place–obvious in the declaration, and yet in the details wholly without a map. How we can talk and think about what it means to be married doesn’t account for how one must breathe differently.

I know what my role is and means from the outside, for I have seen my father and watched him as a husband. But we each must make it our own in the living of it, and I find the place full of contradictions–easy and hard, natural and alien. But most of all this is a way of living which is different from who or what I was. On an existential level it can feel hard and strange to orient myself.

I can accept the idea that life is different easily enough. It is the whole point of marriage, that difference. Harder for me is accepting how long it takes to discover and grow into the new reality. I can be thoughtful of my other half on occasion, only to realize that doesn’t begin to grasp the nuance of wedded reality. It is a different breathing.

I am not surprised that life is different–who doesn’t assent to this truth in their thoughts–but I wanted to find the comfortable place of knowing my new self in six months. Instead, I’m still finding my way to feeling natural in the rhythm of not being my own person. And, I suppose, I will be finding my way for some time to come. The best things take the longest to grow into, and the more you lose yourself, the greater the thing you find.

There is comfort in having lost myself before, and learned what was on the other side of those painful journeys. In the uncertain sea of no longer having my old skin to wear–one worn some thirty and more years of my life–I remember in all the losing of myself I have known in my life, it has come with the discovery of something better, richer. It is a good thing to remember while on the journey. I can look with that same expectation as I go today.

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Photo by Firdaus Roslan on Unsplash

It was his turn at the front of the line. He was a fit man, by appearances in his late seventies or early eighties. With his baseball cap and neatly belted pants he embodied the country working man of a past generation, now faded and starting to fray in his twilight years. His face was different, but the way he carried himself reminded me of Grandpa, dead now these nearly nine years.

He set his copy of my book on the table, and spoke with a quiet simplicity. “Thank you for making it not scary,” he said, and looked at me as if he meant every last bit of those words with all of his heart.

◊ ◊ ◊

The path to many places is long and winding, and such it was to reach the Big Flats Community Center this crisp Saturday morning in late April. Not physically winding–it is nearly a straight shot up the highway, a little over an hour drive. But the metaphorical path to bringing this occasion into being was long.

This morning of April 21st started last year when a friend of mine who sells gutters for a living made a sale to a lady who–he learned in the course of conversation–was in the business of helping elderly people adapt their homes for aging in place. Sue was her name, and besides her consulting work she also held speaking events on this topic. Noting how her work and speaking overlapped with mine, my friend mentioned to her (and later to me) that the two of us ought to discuss possibly working together.

It was an odd connection, but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to follow-up, so I emailed Sue. After a few exchanges it was agreed that attending one of her events was a good way for me to figure out if I thought we could work together–and she would view the video of one of my events, and read my book. So it was I ended up traveling to Chemung County and listening to one of her presentations. In the process I met agency facilitators for the Chemung County Office for the Aging, introduced myself and let them know what I was doing. Afterward, I followed up by email.

Sue and I agreed that there was opportunity to work together, but neither of us had anything planned at that time and we left it that if either of us had something that seemed to fit, we would let the other know. So far that has been the end of it. But months later one of the ladies from the Chemung Office for the Aging who I had met at Sue’s event contacted me by email and said they were interested in having me speak for them. They said sometime in November, but later it was pushed into the new year.

I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen at all. Things come up, then disappear. But in the new year they did get back to me, and we had a date set for April. This all came to fruitition a year after I first came to the Chemung Office for the Aging. A winding path indeed, from gutter sale to community center speaking event.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Chemung Office for the Aging used grant money to purchase a copy of my book for every attendee of the event. The old man slid his copy across the table toward me.

I nodded in response to his thanks for my presentation. “I try,” I said. “I hope people can see it that way. I don’t think it has to be terrifying,” I said, then add, “who should I sign book this for?”

“You can sign it for Ed. That’s me,” he said.

“Who are you caring for?” I ask. Sometimes this helps me know what other words to add if I know a bit of their story.

“Actually, it’s me,” he looks at me. “I’m the one. I’m in the early stages, but it’s coming.”

My world hiccups, the conversation jumping to an entirely different frame of reference. Often caregivers thank me for helping them see the disease better–more clearly, more in context, more hope filled. But rarely does someone with the disease come to an event, and even less often will one of them speak with me. I had presumed another caregiver stood thanking me, and now the raw confession told me I had spent the last hour and a half telling this man what his future held.

And he had said thank you.

“I’m not scared anymore,” he said again. “Thank you for the things you said. I don’t think it has to be bad.”

“No,” I agreed. “After what I went through with my grandpa, I think it is less scary than it was before for me. I feel–for myself–there are a lot worse ways to die.” The conversation felt at odd angles. We were talking about this man’s impending losses and eventual death, and he was being grateful to me. My emotions stirred, my heart wishing I could give him something–something more than what now felt like the pitiful amount I’ve given.

I hand him back my book.

He picks it up. “I want to read this. I want to learn, to understand what is coming. This book will be good.”

“It’s good you want to learn. It’s great!” My words feel feeble. I’m thinking simultaneously about how it is going to slip out of his mind and yet maybe some bit–somewhere–will stay, I hope. I’m wondering if he will even be able to finish my book. And I marvel at his attitude.

“We’re all given a life,” he says. “Something. Our own burden.”

I notice now how there is a hesitation in his speech, a small halting that a listener might not notice if they weren’t attentive, but I catch it.

“I just think this is mine,” he looks away. “And I’m going to live it. And it will be okay.”

I nod, and try to find words, fumbling things to say.

“Anyhow, thank you,” he finishes. We wish each other well, and he moves away and I must sign the book for the next person. I feel like I’ve been swept along prematurely, and I want to follow after the old man and–and–do something. Say something. Help him, be there for him in the years that are coming. But that’s not the way it works. He must walk on, and so must I. But I do hope I’ve given him something for his road, something he will be able to carry with him.

◊ ◊ ◊

A few more people down the line I have two elderly ladies standing in front of me. I think they might be sisters. They both clutch a copy of my book, standing side by side with a hint of tension in their shoulders, a weariness in their faces. The first hands me her book and says with the quickness of someone trying to force emotions back, “Make it out to Barb and Ed. That’s me and my husband. He has the disease. We’re going through this with him.”

I smile to myself as I sign her book. “I met your husband a few minutes ago,” I say. “I signed his book. We talked about his disease.”

“Oh! What did he say?”

The sisters look a mixture of surprised and curious.

“He said he isn’t afraid anymore. That it’s okay.”

“He said that?” Tears come to Barb’s eyes, a hand to her mouth. “Oh, you don’t know what that means to me. I can’t believe–He never talks about it–and we don’t know what he thinks. To hear that he said that–that alone makes today worth it. Thank you so much.”

We talk a little more, and I try to find encouraging words, but giving them her husbands words is all they wanted. All they needed.

Afterward, the community center empties and I am alone with my wife and our baby boy. My wife tells me how everyone made a fuss about the baby, but one man in particular. This old man came up to her three our four times while she was holding our baby. She thought the man might have had Alzheimer’s, because each time he stopped he said the same exact thing–as if he didn’t realize he had come a previous time. He is a beautiful boy. Cherish the moments, he said. These are precious days, and they are gone so quickly.

It was Ed.

◊ ◊ ◊

Life is a winding road, and none of us knows what lies ahead. I don’t know if I will ever have another speaking event. Maybe that bright April morning will be the last time I speak to an audience, the last time I stand up and open my heart and my mouth about hardness and brokenness and love and worth and what life means. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I am glad to have heard those words: “Thank you for making it not scary.”

It is what I have wanted to give.

Photo by Lotte Meijer on Unsplash

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A curiosity of mine is this: “How long do chicken memories last?” Actually, I have a lot of curiosities about chickens, wondering how their small minds work and process reality. But memory is one of them.

When we first had chickens they were allowed to roam free. But Debbie got tired of them pooping on the porch (as chickens are wont to do) and their constant scratching in her flower gardens. So we built a chicken fence and locked them away. Before they would come down to the back of the house and star in through the windows of the French doors, led by our rooster Petunia who is the worst food grubber of them all. After the fence went up, the chickens had to develop other routines, and other places to lounge besides the back door.

That change was a year ago, but I’ve since wondered how much our rooster Petunia remember of his old haunts. Well, today it was a warm later winter day and though the snow was on the ground I left the door to the chicken yard open so that our young cat Munchkin could go exploring. Well, it wasn’t too long before the chickens were heading out the gate in the opposite direction. And Petunia hurried on down to the back door and peered in through the window. A year of time and his chicken brain still remembered where he used to go.

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Daylight ebbs dark
windowed outside fading
mirror reflective

Voices murmur awaiting satiation
deep bass drones, propounds
lullabying my weariness,

The meeting is busy
behind me, with social advancement
plans for their dog park

Money and risk
concerns of the night
land leased for a dollar must be policed

Use at your own risk, make the list
security cameras for safety
examined membership cards

The lacking will be asked to leave
important community service; make laws, find dues, escape risk
above all: keep unwanted dogs from the dog park

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Tis the season
of crinkle leaf
windy branch dark
against slate sky.

Here clouds roll
air bites cold
breathing woody smoke
and frosty damp.

Life huddles
squinty-eyed
and misty breath
waiting for spring.

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I needed a better coat, something with a little more class than the country-coarse I wear around the yard. So I reached into the back of the closet and pulled out something respectable, stored and unused for years, waiting for just this time.

Later, I discovered the pockets weren’t empty.

The coat was pale grey, so pale it was almost white. I don’t know if the coat was ever used much, but I wasn’t its first owner. It was an inheritance from Grandpa.

There is an odd little thrill wrapped up in finding things in the pockets of second hand clothing. I remember the sensation from a few lucky finds in second hand clothes brought into the house. It feels a bit like finding treasure, and a bit like finding the remnants of a past civilization. Much like finding scribbled notes in a book, the pocket discoveries are memorials to those who came before. They are fun when you can imagine the things found belong to someone living, someone still carrying on their adventures somewhere else in the world. The finding is more melancholy when you know the person who left the tokens is dead.

Both front pockets were full. In the right I pulled out a small ziplock bag with a few packets of sugar substitute and two match packets from a grocery story no longer in business. There was also one crumpled paper towel. The other pocket held another booklet of matches, more paper towels neatly folded, yellow with age, and a few tissues. In the bottom of the pocket was one piece of peppermint candy.

The matchbooks and folded paper towels brought the surprise and ache of memory. This was grandpa’s treasure, carefully stored away over a decade ago. Back when he still smoked the matches were a regularly necessity. When I was little he would let me blow the match out after he had lit the cigarette. The sugar was in case it was needed for coffee, the candy because a man needed that for in a pinch. And the paper towels folded for use as tissues was the perennial mark of Grandpa.

Memories that I go looking for don’t catch me by surprise, and the act of deliberately digging up the past provides its own form of preparation, which is a bit of a defense. But unexpected memories stumbled upon, the past preserved as if it had only happened yesterday and so bridging nearly two decades as if it were only hours ago can give a strange hurt made poignant with its unexpected freshness.

Ah, hello Grandpa. No, I hadn’t forgotten you. Life moves so quick, but strange how you are still so freshly here.

 

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I mostly avoid putting stuff on Facebook. Maybe because it feels like too many social sphere’s overlap and things I want to share with one sphere I’m not interested in sharing with another and I’m too lazy to edit who sees what so I just don’t share.

Also, my amusing updates would mostly only be appreciated by myself and a select few.

Case in point. I almost just posted the following to my FB wall: “My butt is tired.”

This statement actually says a lot but most people on FB would not understand.

My butt is tired, but after some therapy I might go out and do some more lawn mowing.

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Juliet is one of the new chickens we were given. The flock was depleted by the ravages of a wild animal, with only three survivors. Five added hens have brought the company back to a better number.

Additions to a flock can sometimes be rough, but this time everyone has adapted well. Juliet made the transition best. She has the combination of smarts, and boldness. She also likes to sit on laps.

Today is warm so all the chickens are out and enjoying the approach of spring. They do find comfort and security in numbers.

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Only the most hardest of plants have begun to grow outside. Spring has started to stir, but its full glory is still weeks away. Inside, the vibrant splash of yellow is a cheerful reminder of what is coming.

I have an itch to work the earth, but not yet.

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