Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Critical Step Forward

Years ago, I was hiking the Bearfence Mountain Trail in Shenandoah National Park. About halfway through the short 1.2 mile hike, the trail winds through a rock scramble where only white paint trail markers and the occasional cairn mark the way.

At one point, the trail seemed to disappear over the edge of a large outcropping. All markers indicated that the only way to continue was to go over the outcropping, but there was no way to see what was on the other side. It was either turn back to the trail head or lower myself over the edge, not knowing where or when my feet would touch solid ground. After dropping my pack on the top of the outcrop, I decided to take the chance. It was a well-traveled trail in a national park. It had to be relatively safe, right?

The fact that I'm writing this today is a good indication that I survived dropping myself over that outcrop. The drop ended up being about eight feet, the entire span of which I couldn't see my feet. When I finally felt solid ground under my soles, I breathed deeply and survey my surroundings. If I had known the narrownness of my landing spot and the height of the sheer drop to my left, I'm not sure I ever would have dangled myself over that edge.

The memory of Bearfence Mountain popped into my head today during my morning commute. It made me realize that sometimes we can't move forward along our life's trail without venturing into uncharted territory, not knowing when and where we will land or if we'll have solid footing when we do. Sometimes we rely on the knowledge that others have successfully walked the same path before us, and that their example can give us the strength to take that critical step forward.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reflecting Our Reaction

Today while playing baseball with a friend in our neighborhood park, the kid inadvertently got too close to a nest of ground bees and had one land on his face. He did everything he's been told to do: don't panic, don't swat. The bee still stung him, right in the corner of his eye.

Our initial inclination was to call the park district to have them remove the nest, but my soon-to-be-eight-year-old son told us he didn't want them to kill the bees, because bees are good for us. Despite the pain the unprovoked bee inflicted on him, he didn't want retribution. He wanted the bees to live because of everything we've taught him about how bees are responsible for pollinating the crops so that we can have food to eat.

How often are we stung by others or events, and our immediate reaction is to sting back and inflict as much damage as possible in return? Perhaps we should think before we react and realize the implications before we instinctively strike back.

Next time life bites me, I'm going to remember my son's eyes and understand that most of the time pain goes away and swelling subsides. The lasting effect is how our character reflects our reaction.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Reason I'm Crying

Before going the bed last night, I stepped out into our gazebo to make one final attempt to save a tiny life that serendipitously crossed into our family's path yesterday. Earlier in the day, my wife found a field mouse, perhaps less than a few days old inside the gazebo, with no evidence of a nest or mother to be seen. It was a day full of emotion, as her own grandmother lay in an emergency room an hour away, clinging to life.

She called me at work to update me on her grandmother, but also to tell me that she had decided to nurse this new life to the point where it might be able to survive on its own in our garden. But since she was leaving to be by her grandmother's side, the mouse's health would be up to me and my son. Using a medical syringe and a formula for infant mammals, my son and I tried to prevent the mouse from getting dehydrated. The mouse seemed to be swallowing the formula, so we were cautiously optimistic.

When I made my final check on the mouse a little after midnight, it seemed sluggish and didn't respond well to feeding. I fell asleep worried about the fate of both my wife's grandmother and this new life that snuggled between two towels in a shoebox on our gazebo table.

I awoke this morning with my son snuggled up against me. He had crawled into bed with me an hour earlier. Checking my email, I saw a message from my wife saying that her grandmother had passed away shortly after midnight, nearly the same time I gave the mouse the last drop of formula. 

While my son continued to sleep on my pillow, I quietly slipped into the bathroom as my emotions welled. My memories of my grandmother-in-law focused immediately on one of the lowest moments of my life when she had been there for me with a warm heart and caring ear. Tears began to stream down my face as I remembered the day at her lake cottage, more than 17 years earlier, a few days before my wedding. I had just gotten off the phone with my mother, who gave me the news that my father had fallen ill and couldn't travel to my wedding, and that my entire immediate family would miss my wedding as a result.

I hung up the old rotary phone that sat at the bottom of the cottage stairs, held my face in my hands and wept uncontrollably. But in my sadness and disappointment, my grandmother-in-law came over to me, without saying a word, and gently put her hand on my back to let me know that I wasn't alone. 

All the emotions of that day came back to me this morning, as I tried to collect myself so I could tell my son that his great-grandmother -- the only great-grandparent he has ever known -- had passed away. As I sat on the side of the bed, my hand on his back, I told him the sad news. He didn't cry. He didn't even bat an eye. He was just silent, as if he were processing the news slowly. As we continued on our morning together, he seemed to be pensive, but not sad.

When I checked on the mouse after leaving the bedroom, it lay motionless in the shoebox. I quietly placed its body in the garden, and decided not to tell my son of its fate until he asked. I didn't want to compound the emotion of the day any more. As the day went on, I kept expecting him to ask about the mouse, but it seemed to be out of his consciousness for the time being.

As my son nuzzled his head down for sleep tonight and I sat on the floor next to his bed, brushing his hair with my hand, he asked, "Dad, what did you do with the mouse today?"

I answered, "The mouse didn't live through the night. He was just too little to survive without his mother. We did everything we could do to help him, but it wasn't enough."

He buried his head, as small muffled sobs emerged from his sheets. I slowly rubbed his back and let him express himself at his own pace. After a few minutes, he raised his head. 

He looked at me through glassy eyes and said, "I didn't cry for great-grandma because she lived a long life. The reason I'm crying is because the mouse didn't even get to live a week. Maybe less."

All I could say was, "It doesn't seem fair, does it?"

I lay on his bed next to him, as his breathing became slower and more controlled. I don't know what he will feel when he wakes up in the morning, any more than I know how to explain the seeming unfairness inherent in life. 

All I know is that I hope he never loses that ability to be moved when life seems unfair. Carrying an expectation of fairness may often lead to disappointment, but he will also expect it of his own actions. And that can only serve him and those around him well.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Focusing on the Imperfections of a Life in Progress

A while back, I was photographing one of my son's scouting events and a scout leader stopped to make sure that I didn't miss my son's part. I assured him that I'd be there for my son, and motioning toward my camera lens, told him that "this is how I see life."

He smiled and said, "It looks better through there, doesn't it?"

I looked back in a moment of understanding and said, "Yes, it does."

Since that simple interchange, I've been wondering why I so enjoy trying to capture moments of life through my camera lens, even more than I do through my own eyes. I've been wondering why life looks better to me through a tunnel of glass and mirrors.

I hadn't been able to answer that question completely until last week when I took this photo of a half-spent dandelion puff in my garden. As I was flipping through the photos I took that evening, I stopped at this shot and smiled. It was one of those moments where you hold your breath just right as the breeze stops blowing, press the shutter, and capture not just 1/50 of a second of life, but the entire story leading up to that moment and a promised future to follow.

I had captured a single moment of this dandelion's life, perhaps a second before the breeze pried loose another seed whose wispy parachute would ride the wind across the neighborhood in search of fertile ground. The brown specks on the heart-shaped center told the stories of the similar, but unique journey of each seed already gone. Some seeds likely landed on the street or sidewalk, where they might take hold in the shallow soil of the pavement cracks. Others found their way into the neighbor's lawn where they will vigorously compete with the turf for sun and nutrients. Still more landed somewhere barren of soil or water, and withered with no chance of a future.

Since taking that photo, each day I've been attempted to capture a similar moment with other dandelions in our landscape. I've taken a plethora of shots of newly-sprouted dandelion seed heads, in their greeting card-ready perfection -- perfect orbs, the supermodels of weed fashion. While these shots certainly have some aesthetic value, they seem to lack meaning. I can't read the dandelion's story simply by looking at the photo.

The moments that show the imperfections of a life in progress are those that speak to me and read their story aloud. Standing right next to the perfect dandelion puff in our vegetable garden was another seed head, only five seeds still waiting for release. This flower, in the last throes of its predisposed genetic destiny, would soon wither and die by natural attrition or the blade of a garden hoe.

My mind wanders back to my previous agreement that life looks better through my camera lens, and I find myself wanting to renegotiate my assertion. It doesn't necessarily look better. Photography can capture moments of pain and ugliness just as well as it captures joy and beauty.

What a camera can do is freeze and focus an everlasting meaning of a moment in time in a way that our blurry eyes and memories can only approximate.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Watching Him Choose a Reflection

As my son has grown, I've been fascinated by what things hold his interest for extended periods of time. Kids of his age are notoriously attention-deficient, so it always catches my eye when he spends a lot of time investigating a new topic or working on a project.

He gets this wonderfully intense look in his eyes when he encounters something new that he finds interesting. He'll often sit and just watch something. Early in his life, I interpreted this as timidity, but I now recognize it as his way of investigation. He quietly consumes all the information he can, and then -- often weeks later -- express his interpretation of what he has learned.

Today, we visited the The Children's Museum of Indianapolis to celebrate the end of his three-week spring break from his balanced calendar school. As we walked through the main entrance, my wife and I told him that the afternoon was all his, that he would set the pace and direction of exploration through the museum's many renowned exhibits. Off he ran up the first ramp towards the paleontology area, and he didn't slow down until the museum's close three hours later.

While he experimented at the flow dynamics table in the ScienceWorks exhibit or followed the path of the billiard balls in the Rube Goldberg machine, I could see a young engineer emerging. As he stared marvelously at the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging in the middle of the winding four-story staircase, I could see a budding artist gathering inspiration. With his new handycam in his palm, filming and narrating his way through the exhibits, I had flashes of a future documentary filmmaker.

At one point, I leaned over to my wife and asked, "I wonder what he's going to end up doing?"

In what amounted to a rhetorical question, I had summed up one of the wonders of parenthood. I get to watch my son explore the world and in that exploration find himself. If I manage to let him find his own way, facilitating his journey without imposing my demands and desires too forcefully, I stand to reap a great reward.

My job as a parent is to help him see himself in a variety of different mirrors. In return, I'll get to watch him choose a reflection.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Looks on His Face

Yesterday was one of those magical days with the kid.

When he crawled into bed with me as the sun broke through our bedroom windows, my wife was already out the door for a field trip with her class, so it would be a Saturday of just me and my son. I thoroughly enjoy these days with him, when it's just the two of us -- two boys out to have fun and conquer the world -- and when we both are both of one mind about what needs to be conquered.

It doesn't always happen this way. If he's of the mood to just hang out at home and play video games, we tend to both hole up in our own electronic shells and let the day escape us. I don't like letting these opportunities pass uneventfully, but as most parents will attest, forcing a kid to have fun ends up being no fun for anyone involved.

As we lay in bed yesterday, I suggested that we go to the Decatur Zoo, a local zoo that's about a thirty minute drive from our house. It's not the most spectacular attraction in the world, but it would be a way to get out and do something out of our normal weekend routine. When my son said "no thanks..." I thought we were headed for just another Saturday, but he followed it with a better suggestion: "Let's go to the Indianapolis Zoo!"

So after breakfast and a few chores around the house, we hopped in my truck and headed off to Indianapolis. The two hour drive was spent switching back and forth between music on my iPhone and his iPod, with each of us getting a four-song block of our favorites to enjoy.

We arrived at the zoo a little after 1pm, leaving us four hours to see all the animals and -- most important of all -- ride the Kōmbo coaster! Exiting the Oceans and Deserts exhibits, we caught sight of the roller coaster reaching the top of its highest climb in the distance. We rushed over, bought tickets, and made it to the line in time to grab the last open seat.

My son seemed to be enjoying the zoo up until this point, but as soon as the coaster pulled away from the loading station, his face lit up with pure joy. On our second ride on the coaster, I decided to brace myself with my knees and try to capture his expressions as we went around the turns.

After the exhilaration of the coaster, we went from animal to animal, finding lemurs, baboons, lions, giraffes, and rhinos among to zoo's residents. As we made our way back through the zoo following a little elephant watching, my son spied an ice cream stand and immediately looked at me with an enthusiasm that couldn't be denied. I ordered a Butterfinger bar and he decided to try his first Drumstick.

The cool, breezy day wasn't the most perfect setting for frozen food, but my son soon forgot about the cold as he discovered the solid chocolate in the bottom of the drumstick cone. A sense of pure satisfaction came over his face as he enjoyed the scrumptious last bits of his afternoon treat.

On our way out of town, we stopped by Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see if the museum and gift shop was still open, but we missed it by eight minutes. Although we're certainly not the typical NASCAR family, we do enjoy the racing and I didn't want to end the day on a disappointing note. So I drove around the far reaches of the museum parking lot to find an place where we could see a stretch of the track. I threw my son up on the hood of my truck and started snapping away. Even after a long afternoon of walking around the zoo, he still had enough energy to give me his best funny faces with the track in the background.

One the way home and as we were getting ready for bed last night, we constantly talked about how wonderful a day it had been. But I didn't need any reassurance.

All I needed was to see the looks on his face.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Keeping the Wild Things at Bay

A couple of weeks ago, as I was out taking photographs in our garden, I heard my son tap on the glass of our living room window. I turned around to find him with his arms resting on the lower sash, face up against the glass, looking out into the world with a contemplative look. I don't know what was on his mind at that moment, but I instinctively raised my camera to capture the image.

The photograph of my son behind a pane of glass reminds me of how much our children rely on us to protect them. We help them to navigate the complexities of their burgeoning social relationships, guard them from dangers in the world of which they are blissfully unaware, and help them achieve the independence and resilience they will someday need to live on their own.

Last night, my wife and I watched Where the Wild Things Are, the movie based on the book by Maurice Sendak that was one of my childhood favorites. I have been wanting to see the movie since seeing the first trailer for it, but after reading some reviews and feedback from friends, my wife wanted to preview the movie before showing it to our son.

Without spoiling the film, the wild things represent many of the fears that our children face as they grow into adults. The de facto leader of the wild things, Carol, turns to Max, who is the actual child in the story, to make things be exactly how everyone wants them to be. Carol wants Max to provide the wild things with all the answers. In one scene, Carol and Max are walking along a giant sand dune on the island where the wild things live. Carol talks about how the rock turns into sand, and the sand turns into dust, and then he doesn't know what happens after dust.

I pictured my son reciting Carol's lines, not talking about some island but our own human lives, leaving the conversation with the open ended question of what happens after dust. As a parent, there's the temptation to say something that will calm my son's fears, even though I don't know the answer myself. In fact, despite the numerous allegories of life and death that have been passed through our religious and spiritual traditions, none of us truly knows the answer to Carol's wistful wondering.

My son and I have already had conversations about life and death, and in these I have admitted my ignorance about what happens after dust. We've discussed it from a scientific standpoint, about what happens as the atoms that make up our bodies are recycled into the world. But at the end of the conversation, I am always sure to emphasize that I don't know what happens to the essence of who we are. I don't know what happens after dust.

As I look back at the photo of my son looking out at me through the living room window, I would rather help him develop his own way of dealing with the unknowns and fears of life by shining light on them, rather than creating an imaginary pane of glass that shatters when he discovers his own truth on his life's adventure. By facing his fears with a light of honesty and discovery, he can create his own way of keeping the wild things at bay.
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