In a shabby kitchen in Moscow in the winter of 2006, my closest friend, Thom, told me that I shut people out. That I was never willing to reach out and meet people halfway. If I wasn’t getting what I wanted from someone, I shut down, closed off. It was startling. Our friendship up until that point had rarely, if ever, involved candid, blunt criticism. I yelled, “but these people don’t understand me, Thom!” while continuing to angrily stir my abysmal dinner (I couldn’t afford anything beyond pasta and sad-looking Russian vegetables.
It was a ridiculous, Chekhovian moment — one of many that occurred throughout the petty disputes about the play we were currently producing with three others. We were working in Russia in the dead of winter on a half puppetry, half live-action adaptation of a play about the holocaust. All in all, a great choice.
The group couldn’t see eye to eye on anything. We didn’t possess a shared language with which to discuss aspects of the play, so the work was inefficient and muddled and I was beyond frustrated. Thom didn’t like the direction things were headed in either but adopted a significantly more upbeat attitude than I. We brought our issues and recommendations for a way forward to the rest of the group at a meeting. Our pleas fell on entirely deaf ears. The people in charge denied that our issues were really issues and thus didn’t see a need to make any changes. It felt as if I had gone to them with my arm on fire and said, “what are we going to do about this?” and they had responded, “about what? We don’t see a problem.”
So, I shut down. I turned into a morose, vicious collaborator, lashing out at what I saw as grave injustices with the only weapon I really possessed: sarcasm. Every little hiccup, every stumbling block we ran into merited a vicious comment from me. I became compulsively, relentlessly negative. I tore down everything I could find with derision until the head of the project pulled me aside during a rehearsal, tears in his eyes, and begged me to be positive for the sake of the rest of the cast. I told him that it was too late. The project was a failure as far as I was concerned, and I had been betrayed. So, while it was impossible for me to be positive, I could — at the very least — shut up. Which I (mostly) did.
Had it been a professional production, or at least one not run by friends of mine, I would have been fired. Decisively. My complaints were justified and, I still think, correct, but my response was inexcusable.
I don’t really know where this persecution complex, this me against the world mentality, this vengefulness, comes from. I’ve led a pretty easy life. Though, as a child I went to an elementary school for children of active military members (not because my parents were military but because they taught there) and my friends were constantly moving away, their families re-stationed every couple years. So, I’m used to being left and left and left. Used to having to put up defenses.
I don’t know.
I could exhaust myself with the amount of self-psychotherapy I conduct.
Alexis and I got pregnant before I was ready¹. So, I’m primed to see issues, bumps in the road of parenthood as evidence that we should have waited. “Aha! You see! I’m not prepared for this! I was right. We should have waited.”
In calmer, steadier moments (of which there have been many, despite what my writings might suggest) I am able to see that this idea of readiness is irrelevant. I have a daughter. I love her so much I can’t handle it all at once. I have to let the love in in little pieces, like sunlight between half-closed eyelids, or I’ll be blinded. I am a good father. These things are true. But in unsteady moments, when Poe wakes up 20 minutes after we’ve put her to bed or when I’m battling her for a nap, when the familiar darkness encroaches at the corners of my vision, I want to lash out with “we should have waited!” I want to rub Alexis’s face in it. I want to torture her with it.
There have been long stretches² when parenting has brought Alexis and me closer together, and then there are times when it detonates between us like a mortar, driving us apart. Like Poe’s behavior and sleep patterns, these times are temporary, stunningly transient when taken in context of the bigger picture. I know this. But Alexis fears this will hang over us forever. That I will bring it up in times of strife in a never ending cycle of emotional violence.
I don’t think so. But I don’t know. How do you let a thought go? It’s easy to think, “this is irrelevant; I should let this go,” but how do you do it? Concentrate really hard? Yell about it for a while? Write it on a tiny piece of parchment, tie it to the foot of a mourning dove and then release the mourning dove into the sky and then incinerate the mourning dove with a flame-thrower?
Two things are unimpeachably true:
1) We had a baby before I wanted to.
2) I have to let that idea go.
Ultimately, I said “yes, let’s do it; let’s have a baby.” It takes two to tango³. But I want…I don’t know. Not an apology. Recognition. Witness. What exactly this recognition consists of I do not entirely know, but once I’ve got it, I want to let all of this resentment fall through my fingers like sand.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would often venture out into the cold central California surf. I was nearly always terrified but didn’t want to be the sad boy left alone on the sand. Anyone who’s spent time in the ocean knows that when a big wave comes rolling in, you have to go out to meet it. If you flee, you’ll inevitably be crushed. The current surges out to fuel the wave and only the strongest of swimmers (of which I was and am absolutely not one) can overpower the current and get themselves far enough in towards shore to not get slammed. It’s smarter, and much easier, to pour your energy into heading straight at the wave. The current will be with you, and when you reach the behemoth, you can go over, under, or, if necessary, through it.
Intellectually, I knew this. Everyone — parents, friends, surfers, swimmers — had told me. And yet nearly every time, I couldn’t do it. I’d flee. I’d beat my flimsy, worthless limbs agains the water, trying desperately to reach the safety of shore. And more often than not, the wave would reach me and punish me for my fear, slamming me to the ocean floor. This happened time after salty, sputtery time, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to go out to meet the wave. What if I got over it and right behind it was another towering wave, and after that another and another and another?
Well, there is. There are. Wave after wave after wave. And if I continue to pull away, I will continue to get slammed with the full force of the raging ocean⁴. But if I can gather my courage up inside me like a fist, maybe I can swim straight at the waves, flow over them before they break, feel their power beneath me, and respect their might without getting pummeled. And after cresting wave after wave, maybe I’ll get far enough from the shore to reach some semblance of calmer waters⁵.
¹ What exactly the word ‘ready’ means and whether anyone can ever actually be it is a topic for another post.
² Long? Ha! Poe is 4 months old!
³ Have procreative sex.
⁴ Life. This is a metaphor for life. Have you gotten that yet? I bet you have. You’re very smart. And attractive. What are you doing later?
⁵ Still using a metaphor here, just to be clear.