Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

In England, Tyler constantly asked to hike Mt. Everest--and so we began training (with a tiny "mountain" I labeled Mt. Georges and which one could hike in a matter of minutes--possibly even seconds).  Once we moved back to New England, the request to hike Mt. Everest wore off some, and I thought it had been all but forgotten until one day he brought it up again.

"Daddy, why did we never hike Mt. Everest?"

"Well, we practiced on Mt. Georges for a while, but we need to practice loads more before we hike Everest."

"Okay, let's do it! Let's practice." Tyler then stood up, ready to hike a mountain maybe a little higher than Mt. Georges.

Jen and I talked and came up with the idea of hiking Mt. Monadnock, a short hour and a half drive from us. We told Tyler about it and he began counting down the days.

When we finally woke up on Saturday, packed up food and water, and Tyler had put on his Batman costume (goodbye, red underwear; hello, Batman), we loaded ourselves into the car and set off for Jaffrey, New Hampshire--a place both Thoreau and Emerson had gone to hike the same mountain we were about to hike (though we doubted either Thoreau or Emerson donned a Batman costume).

I'm not precisely sure what we were thinking when we finally pulled into Monadnock State Park and the ranger on duty gave us a map, explaining that the peak measured 3,165 feet in the air.

"Wow, I didn't realize it was that high," I said.

"Me neither," Jen said.

"Is that as high as Mt. Everest?" Tyler chimed in.

The ranger winked at us and then said, "Go get 'em, Batman."

Jen just hit her 32nd week of pregnancy, and Tyler was a little under a week away from his fifth birthday. It seemed like the perfect Fall day for a stroll in the beautiful New England foliage. And for the first twenty--even thirty--minutes, it was!

Nice slight incline!

Incredible leafy colors!

Kind people remarking that they felt much safer on the mountain now that Batman was here!

And then thirty minutes into the hike, a cliff emerged in front of us. Tyler immediately ran ahead and began scaling it. I looked back at Jen as if to say, I don't remember anything about a cliff on this hike. Jen looked back at me as if to say, No, nor do I.

But there we were. (Did I mention how beautiful it was--and that we really thought we'd make it to the peak? And that, of the three of us, none of us much likes to quit anything? And that Tyler did have loads upon loads of energy?)

So, we scaled the first cliff. I tried to gauge being ready to catch Tyler if he fell from in front of me, but also lean back and see if my lovely pregnant wife needed a hand as she and Baby Bump made their way precariously up the stone face. But as I looked back and forth between them, this is what was really going on in my head: This is so awesome.

And then that cliff led to more cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces. I tried to picture Emerson and Thoreau on their bellies against one of the flat long stones trying to shimmy upwards and slide their feet into cracks. It's kind of a funny image, you've got to admit--and (like me) I'm sure that both of them must have farted amidst their climb up Monadnock. Probably often. When one is stretching one's body that much, and the stone is pushing against one's belly, I think it's basically impossible not to.

As we reached each new jaunt upwards in the stone, we would stop and turn to Tyler and say, "Are you tired buddy? Do you want to turn back?" And he would roar back, "No way! Come on, we can do it! Let's keep going!" And I would turn to Jen and ask, "How are you feeling?" and she would say, "Great--really good actually."

At 3,165 feet, the wind blew strong and the view was miraculous. The three of us held hands and looked out and looked back and we couldn't believe we were there. After a solid three and a half minutes on the peak, Tyler piped up, "Okay! Let's hike back down! Come on everybody!"

It's funny how going down usually feels so much faster than going up. And it's really funny how--sometimes--going down feels way, way longer than going up. As it did in our case that day.

After sliding down the steep rock faces and properly thinning out the butt areas of our garments, it wasn't long before we started asking one another, "Do you think we're close?"

Do you?

Think we're close?

Ever turn in the trail held the possible dénouement of our little expedition, and a ceasing of what were becoming sharper and more stabbing pains in our calves, knees, and shoulders.

Do you?

Think we're close?

But of course, we never were. Not until it was getting dark, and the parking lot opened before us like manna in the desert. We all ran out to the water fountain and chugged like this was the last water fountain on this particular stony face of this particular patch of Earth.

We climbed into the car and headed home--wearing joy on our faces and in our hearts. After all: we had peaked! We had practically had a day hike with Thoreau and Emerson! A woman seven months pregnant and a boy not-yet-five had made it! I kept saying how proud and amazed I was that they had both done it. Truth is, that whole day was like magic for us as a family. A true peak.

Fast forward two days: Monday. We all wake up saying, "Ow, ow, ow" with stiff backs and bellies and bums. We don't have the energy to even pour bowls of cereal. We are sniffing and some of us are coughing and there is mucus. Yes.

The whole day passes and we all take turns complaining about everything that hurts and how we're coming down with certain colds or possibly even--ack!--the flu!

When we lived in York, I taught Public Speaking in the Adult Education program there, and one evening I did a lesson where everyone in the class had to chart their life--basically make a graph and just throw some plots on it for their highs and lows, maybe adding a key words to describe what each high or low was--maybe their wedding day, an award they'd received, the birth of a child, or alternately, the death of someone they loved, cruel words spoken about their worth or value, losing their job.

The point of the Chart Your Life activity isn't actually to talk about each--or any--of these events. It's to hold all the graphs one on top of the other and see something strange and beautiful and somehow also ordinary: the graphs are pretty much identical. In the classes, there were old people and young people and CEOs and janitors and teachers and managers and lawyers and stay-at-home-parents; they were people who were wealthy and people who were broke; they were people from England or immigrants from totally different countries--and yet every graph was pretty much the same.

No matter who we are or what we have, our lives, charted, always have peaks and valleys. None of us is immune to pain and fear and none of us is blocked completely from joy. None of us remains on top a constant peak, and none of us remains in a constant valley. We are all more similar than we think. Those who seem like they live on peaks do not; and those who seem like they will never be lifted up out of the valley one day will.

And our little family expedition this past week places two more plot points on that graph: a great peak, and a painful valley. Neither lasts forever. Neither is a final resting place or a definitive this is it! But both have something to say of what matters in life: namely, that we seek to live it, in all its glory and pain. Or, as Thoreau said better than I could: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Red Underwear

Jennifer and I sometimes look at one another longingly whenever Tyler now roars out, "I am Superman--to the rescue!" Because it was a brief six months ago that Tyler's favorite show was the quirky, tender, violence-free Charlie and Lola.


Goodbye, Charlie and Lola.

Hello, red underwear.

At Target last week, the three of us giddily shopped the clearance rack in pursuit of a few necessary items: ties and a couple of pants to wear to work, some maternity clothes for Jen, and long pants and shirts for Tyler. As we approached one of the clearance racks in the boys sections, Tyler's whole face lit up.

Red Underwear!

With a Superman logo right in the front!

"Daddy! Mommy! LOOK WHAT I FOUND!" Tyler's who body began to do a dance, and he held the sacred red underwear in his hands as though it were something for which his little soul had been searching all his life. Finally! 

I looked at the price tag, exploring the first measure of a viable reason for saying No. But the price tag afforded me no such easy departure into the land of No-Superman-Status. It read: $1.96.

In my mind (yes, for real) flashed Jackson Katz's incredible documentary Tough Guise, which explores the very dangerous and deplorable ways we teach boys how to be men: through violence, bravado, and toughness. I though of the incredible and momentous readings in Critical Race Theory, which challenge us to explode the myths of equality-already-reached and instead see the severe structural inequalities, dominance, and racism built into our society.

And, yes, I thought of Charlie and Lola.

And I looked down into the bright eyes of my soon-to-be-five-year-old son holding red underwear with a Superman emblem right in the front.

"Please, Daddy? I can rescue people with these!"

And, okay, I caved. It wasn't so much that I chose the macho male route (at least I hope not) but rather that I wanted to allow Tyler to explore everything he wants to explore, rather than trying to hold him at a stage or a place that that brings Jen and I delight and glee.

Immediately upon returning home with the $1.96 red underwear with the Superman logo in the front, Tyler ran to his room, put on his blue pants, and then pulled the red underwear on top of them.

He then ran back out to the living room, "Let's go to the park because I AM SUPERMAN!"

At the playground, we saw two children we've played with before, Inian and Chandrini. They are delightful, kind, thoughtful children, and immediately they asked Tyler if he wanted to play with them. And he did.

I sat alongside their mother, explaining about the red underwear. She laughed and smiled, then said., "My kids don't even notice it, see?"

And it was true. They didn't. The three kids walked balance beams, played tag, played Octopus (a game they made up whereby an "octopus" tries to reach up onto the play structure and gran the swimmers' feet! Ah!), and then created an obstacle course.

I watched my son in the red underwear--watched how he giggled, held hands with Chandrini, giggled some more--when it was finally time to go--gave both kids massive hugs. And something in me calmed down. Just because he's in a Superman stage doesn't mean he's going to start acting tough and cool (and we especially hope not, because, hey, lets' face it: he's got a Dad for whom traditional notions of toughness are about as familiar as rubbing Crisco all over oneself and subsequently taking a trip to the Moon).

At lunch today, Jen was explaining to Tyler that on this very day nine years ago, "Daddy asked me to marry him, so today is our anniversary.

"What did you say when Daddy asked you about that?" Tyler wondered with anticipation and excitement written on his face.

"I said Yes." Jen looked at me and I looked at this beautiful, strong, loving, kind woman. Then Tyler interrupted our little reverie and said, "HAPPY UNIVERSITY!"

The thing about red underwear is that maybe it doesn't have to be what society says it is. Maybe it doesn't have to be about bravado and fighting and a one-size-fits-all definition of masculinity. Maybe it's possible to remake Superman into something other than a fighting machine. Because at some point we come to the conclusion that everything is flawed--all of it. There's no film, television show, book, interpersonal connection, article, essay, political stance that is flawless. There is bias and cruelty and ignorance in everything we create, because there is bias and cruelty and ignorance inside each of us.

But there's also love.

There is incredible love. And what is love if it's not the power to remake something, to rename and recreate and redeem? It happens in the small moments when we take one of the world's symbols and we transform it to mean something different--to allow love to so overwhelm that thing that it ceases to signify whatever it once did.

It happens when Superman becomes a stand-in for gentleness and thoughtfulness, and when the rescuing he's doing doesn't involve intense violence but instead involves intense connection. Maybe it happens when red underwear streams across a playground with giddy giggle and lots of hand-holding.

Transforming and renaming and redefining seems to be what Jesus was all about. You thought religion was about rules and standards and judgment? You're wrong. It's not. It's about grace and surprising forgiveness and love. You thought love was being nice to people who look and act and talk just like you? It's not. Love is hard, love is work, love is bravely caring for someone so hard that your caring breaks open the concrete doors of their own pride, fear, self-righteousness, guilt. Seems like Jesus had a never-ending list of You thought it was like that, but it's really like this. 

Like all of us, I am (of course) still learning how to navigate the cultural messages my son receives--and those that I receive. What to allow, what not to allow? How to explain certain things, how to teach certain things, how to transform certain things--in my own heart and in the world's? And while Jen and I both explore how to do this at each new stage Tyler approaches, we're holding on to one firm hope: that love trumps everything, and that nothing--not even Superman's red underwear--can long resist transformation in the face of love.