undeaddad

explorations of mindful fatherhood


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The Birds

hitchcock-birdsThere’s this image that plagues me most nights as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. I see birds swarming my body, concentrating around my head. It’s like a personal Hitchcokian-horror show. The perimeters of my being start to blur, as the birds begin swarming in and out of my cranium, like parakeets fighting for a roost.

At that point, some semi-conscious part of myself imagines putting a shotgun to my head and blasting the little demons right out of there. This imagined action is paired with a pining for release, freedom, and quiet.

I have this semi-dream most often when I’m overwhelmed, and have given it lots of thought.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the birds are my thoughts, my worries, constantly circling around my brain. None of them find a roost or discover a quiet place to land. Instead, they’re all fluttering around, restless. These embodied thoughts torture my mind and prevent me from sleep, and my fantasy about blasting them to smithereens is my desire to be rid of them; to have an empty, restful head that can pass into the oblivion of sleep. The longing to pull of that trigger is the longing for quiet, delivered in one glorious shotgun blast.

Ugh, that sounded morbid, but it’s not meant to. I think my life is too easily consumed by thoughts, worries, and preoccupations. These things flutter in and out of my cranium, preventing me from focusing on what’s right in front of me. These birds get in the way when I’m trying to unwind, when I’m trying to have fun, when I’m trying to listen.

It’s insights like this that spur on my need for three things: meditation, therapy, and writing. The Zen teacher inside of me wants to rely solely upon meditation and mindfulness practice, recognizing that the way to “put things down” is by cultivating a mind that can be present in the here-and-now, and allow thoughts to pass. That voice tells me to get back to my mediation, to get back to my chanting, to get back to my practice.

But then there’s the therapist voice in my head, which tells me that’s not the full story. Theses swarming thoughts are also signs that there are many things in my life I need to work through: issues with my parents, my desire to be a good husband and father, my conflicts about my relationships and my place in the world. There is a time to put these things down, but there’s also a time to pick them up and look them over. A time to make sense of them and to make peace with them. It’s in my therapy, my conversations with my wife, and my writing that I’m able to hold these issues in my hands, turn them over, and really examine them.

I have to listen to these birds. There’s a time to shoo them away (perhaps less violently), allowing them to fly away, leaving my cranium empty. But there are also times when I need to pick them up gently and to show them understanding and care, so that they can eventually learn to roost.

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Who’s That Freak in the Tree?

Dad, come on down.

Dad, come on down.

As I write this, there’s a public works guy about 50 feet behind me, thinking this exact thought, “Who’s that freak in the tree?”

Last summer, when we moved to the burbs, I had the ingenious idea to build a tree house with my son. In my mind, it was meant to be a time to bond, a time to create a memory for my son that he’d pass down to his own children.  It didn’t happen that way.   My post from last year explored the whole debacle, and how my son couldn’t have cared less about the tree house in plan, construction, or product.  It turned out I was just forcing “fun” down my son’s throat.

So here we are, a year later.  In fact, this is probably very close to the time of year last summer when we bolted that first brace into the towering evergreen at the edge of our yard.  And now the house sits dormant.  Except for those rare early mornings when some creepy middle aged man can be spotted up there, doing god knows what.

That guy is me.

That’s because when you have a tree house in your backyard, which you spent a collective 100 hours building, you need to do something with it.  The thought came to me when one of my friends visited us for brunch last Fall.  He climbed up into the tree house, and exclaimed, “This is amazing. You should come up here sometime to meditate.”

I laughed.  That was hilarious.  I’m a grown-ass man.  Like I’d actually climb up there in the morning to meditate.  And yet a few weeks later I found myself grabbing my cushion and headed up into the tree.  I was completely self-conscious.  The tree house has windows on all sides, built almost like a look-out, from which you can see around on every side.  So, even sitting on the floor, I could be seen from down below.  To make matters worse, the tree’s set on the edge of our property, some 10 feet from the side of the road.  Any passersby can look straight up into the tree from the road below.

But, I bit the bullet and I sat up in the tree that breezy Fall morning, and it was great.  The calm of the outdoors, the birds singing in the trees, the sun glinting through the leaves.

Then the cops showed up.

I couldn’t help but notice that just minutes before I was set to end my sitting, there were blue and red flashing lights bouncing off the bare wooden studs surrounding me.  I froze.  I turned my head ever so slowly toward the street and spotted an officer emerging from his car, heading toward the guy he’d just pulled over.  Whew!  They weren’t here for the freak in the tree.  But at that point I knew they probably hadn’t even seen me. So, how the hell was I going to get out of there?  I silenced my timer, which was set to go off with a bell, and literally crawled out of the tree house on my belly, slunk down the steps, and ran back into the house.

My first messy visit up into the tree wasn’t my last, and I spent many more mornings up there. But up until now, I’d only used it for meditation.  This morning, I knew that to get any writing done, I’d have to sneak out of the house before anyone woke up.  But, without a dollar in my pocket, I wanted to avoid the coffee shops.  So, I got the idea to grab my laptop and head into the tree.

I’m up here now, and I’m quite enjoying it.  In spite of the public works guy leering behind me.  Plus, I’m getting used to it.  I nonchalantly sauntered up here just like I was heading to my front patio.  I’m even perched up on a chair, so that the dozen cars and handful of joggers that have passed by have definitely spotted me.  But at this point I don’t mind.  The question is, how much longer can I do this?

For me, I don’t quite mind being the weird guy down the block, up in the tree.  I think it has something to do with how stodgy this suburb is.  There’s some deranged pride I take in being the guy up the tree.  But, I have a family to think about, and a son’s reputation to uphold.  For now, I’m sure it’s fine.  My son’s only in first grade.  But as the elementary years progress and he enters middle school, the last thing the poor kid needs is to be known as the boy whose creepy dad is up in the tree house every weekend.

For now, I’ll just go with it.  I guess if I built this tree house based on my fantasy of what a kid wants, there must be some part of me that really wanted a tree house for myself.  So, now I have it, and I might as well make use of it.  At least until the cops show up again.


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Weeding Out

2011-08-21-13.38.03I love weeding.  And yet I’ve met many people who despise it.  In fact, I meet very few people who weed their lawns or gardens by hand, presumably because they have gardeners or a fondness for Round-Up.  I found myself doing a lot of weeding and other yard work this past weekend.

But I discovered I was weeding a lot more than just the flowerbeds.

Personally, I’ve had a terrible couple of weeks.  There has been an ever-widening gap between me and my own parents, and a recent communication from my father drove one more nail into that coffin. It’s one of those things that I’m either not ready or not willing to blog about at this point.  Maybe because I don’t have the strength, or maybe because it feels too vulnerable.  Suffice it say that these events left me feeling completely untethered.  I wasn’t sure what grounded me anymore, and felt as though I was wasting my time in a multitude of endeavors.

One such endeavor was blogging.  This is the first post I’ve written in over a week, which is unlike me, as I’ve typically posted twice a week for the past half a year.  But this past week, I couldn’t find it in me to do it.  Blogging had become one of those things that I did for me; one of those things that I felt could be an expression of my struggles.  However, feeling as though I’d been kicked down by your own flesh-and-blood, I questioned whether I was worth anything; whether my blogging even mattered.  There was a lot of thinking and self-doubt and questioning.  Lots going on in my head: thinking, thinking, thinking.

I had to clear things out.  I had to get out and weed the garden.

I’ve been dying to get outside for quite a while, but these damn snow/sleet/rain storms in the Northeast have become increasingly maddening. Finally some halfway decent weather this past weekend gave me that rare opportunity to get outside.   At first it wasn’t weeding.  It was just yard work, hauling big-ass rocks from a pit in my backyard to the front of the house to line my driveway.  It became a sequence of throwing 20 pound rocks out of hole, running them up a steep incline in a backpack, and then putting them on a sled (I’m currently wheelbarrow-less) and sliding them over the lawn to their final destination.  Just throwing, hauling and dumping.  Throwing, hauling and dumping.  I did that for hours and hours.  I attempted reigning my son into it too, saying that I needed his “artistic eye” to line up the rocks just right.  He got very distracted and disappeared in spite of my flattery.  Even at 6-years-old, I got the “nice try old man” look as he walked to the backyard to play with sticks.

So I continued, as content as could be with my rocks.  Then Sunday came and I woke up much earlier than anyone else in the family. That’s the time of day when I’d usually write.  But I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to look at the computer.  I suited up and went out to the front yard for about two and a half hours.  I wanted to be outside in the bitter 30-something degree March cold, digging in the dirt.

Weeding is just about the most meditative action I can think of.  I get down on my knees, look for weeds, then twist, pull, toss.  Over and over again.  Twist, pull, toss.  Engaged in that action, I find that I don’t or can’t think of anything else.  I’ve even TRIED thinking about things as I weed, but I just can’t do it.  My mind always goes back to the weeding.  After all, that’s the heart of meditation, noticing a thought, releasing it, and returning to what’s right in front of you.  I weed time and again, and always feel calm and complete during my weeding practice.

I’m sure that I’m also attracted to the metaphor of weeding.  Post winter my lawn looks like a wreck.  Decorative grasses have shed their husks, which drift across the semi-green grass.  Weeds and grass intrude on the mulch.  Fallen sticks from hurricane winds and blizzard snow are cast like war zone obstacles on my grass.  Entangled masses of dead perennials choke the flowerbeds.  Spring weeding is a chance to get rid of it all.  It’s a chance to slog through all the death and decay and make room for new life awaiting in the fertile soil. There’s nothing quite like clearing dead leaves with your hands to uncover a crocus popping through the soil.  Or standing up from hours of crawling around on your hands and knees to admire order emerging from the chaos (or at least the illusion of order).

I finished this weekend with a little more clarity.  Of course, there is a time for thinking.  There are many issues that I need to make sense of, feelings that I need to work out.  But in the flurry of thoughts and feelings around issues with my own parents, I lost sight of some of the important things in my life, and lost hope that these things were worth anything at all.  This past weekend was one of those times when thinking wasn’t going to do me any good.  I just had to weed, weed, weed, uncovering some of the new growth under the decay.


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From My Hidey Hole

Hide-and-Seek-GameHide-and-seek has always been my favorite game.  And this weekend, hide-and-seek took on new meaning for me, when I found a place for myself, stuffed away in my hidey hole.

I loved hide-and-seek as a child.  There’s a thrill in hiding yourself away, attempting invisibility.  I remember the giddy pleasure I’d feel tucked away under some bed, behind some curtain, in some closet, waiting and listening.  Waiting to discover who would find me and how quickly.  A rush of adrenaline would wash over me when my seeker came near.  The ultimate excitement was when the seeker came so close to me that I could sense her presence, feel her brush along the coats that hid me or knock into the bed under which I lay, and yet she’d move away, searching somewhere else instead. I’d revel in the joy that even in the closest of contact, I could go unseen.  But even the act of getting found was a thrill; shocked, exuberant, and yet slightly disappointed all at once.  And then I got to do it all over again.

I remember when my son became old enough for more purposeful games.  Games with rules and sequences.  When he was a toddler, it was all about make-believe, and I had pretended to be a cat so many times that I thought I’d grown whiskers.  So when we started playing games like hide-and-seek, I was relieved.  Our first games were the simplest, with him often hiding in the same place he’d found me or retreating to his favorite spot behind the love-seat.  But as time went by, our games continued evolving, as he got better or I presented him more challenges.  And yet, games were not all giddy glee.  There would be times when I’d secretly bring a magazine or iPad with me and read while “counting” in the bathroom, or scan my screen from some darkened spot under the bed.  It felt necessary to do “something” while waiting to seek or be sought.

This weekend, while his mom was out kicking butt at Crossfit, he and I spent the morning playing hide-and-seek. This time, however, I abandoned my Entertainment Weekly and simply hid.  I found a few awesome spots (under the dirty laundry in the bathtub, standing twisted behind the coat rack). They were so good that he couldn’t find me for the longest time.  I experienced an amazing arc of thought and emotion during it all.  Hid away, I progressively becoming more excited as he walked past me several times, and then giddy to the point of almost bursting with laughter.  Then, I settled into my hiding spot, assuming that if he hadn’t found me by then, I’d be tucked away for the long haul.

Hidden away, I amazingly settled into my body and my mind.  Without anything to “do” my mind drifted to writing, imagining clever posts or wild story lines.   This is something I imagine regularly, but always with the competing distraction of driving, or work, or pending sleep.  But I was stuck.  Stuck without being able to move, without being able to divert myself.  And then a warm calm rushed over me.  I realized that I never have a chance to just stay put and think.  Even with solitary meditation, there’s that fidgety desire to give up, to get up, to “do” something else.   But not in hide-and-seek.  I had to stay there, or I’d ruin the game.  And that was when I was able to surrender.  Surrender to myself and just sit, tucked away, with only me.

It was the best game of hide-and-seek ever. It was just further proof of why “just doing it” is so important.  Just being in the moment, and experiencing it for what it is.  In parenting, I find that I try multitasking too frequently.  This weekend hide-and-seek taught me a valuable lesson about settling into the moment, and simply being there.


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Daddy’s Writing Guilt

Damn, I'd look cooler if I smoked while I wrote.

Damn, I’d look cooler if I smoked while I wrote.

For me, writing feels like a selfish endeavor.  Sure, sometimes the process can lead to insights that ultimately bring the writer closer to others (see my previous post), but for the most part the act of writing is a solitary–and sometimes isolating–one.

When I began getting serious about writing a few years ago, I didn’t want it to impinge upon my time with my family.  I didn’t want to be locked up in a room of the house writing while my wife and son went about their day.  I didn’t want to disrupt my wife’s and my routine of settling into the couch after a long day.  And, I didn’t want to steal time from our weekends or vacations when my family desperately needed to (re)connect. So instead, I found time in the wee hours of the morning.  As someone who needs to be at work around 7am, that meant goddamn early in the morning, settling down in my kitchen or heading out to the coffee house while it was still dark outside.  It felt like the best solution.  My family would be asleep until later anyways, so writing early technically wouldn’t rob me of a second of my time with them.  However, the toll was insidious.

For a few years, I became obsessed.  I used to work out.  I used to meditate.  Those things went out the window because I wanted to make time for writing.  No, I needed to make time for writing.  Writing became my major drive in the morning.  Only after I’d written did I feel as though I could go about my rather mundane work life.

The consequences crept up on me.  As an early riser, the early morning wake-ups were not a big deal at first, but as time went by, I found myself waking up earlier (4am?), and doing it almost every day.  Eventually, I started to dull in the afternoons, or get sleepy really early in the evening.  It got to the point where I couldn’t keep my eyes open much past 8pm.  It didn’t matter if Lost was on.  It didn’t matter if it was the Super Bowl.  I would lose it at the end of the night.

I had to re-calibrate and figure out what was most important.  I started slowing down and eventually lost the steam for writing and put it all down for about 6 months.  Then, I decided to get back in the swing of things and started this blog.  The blog has been an endeavor of self-discovery and has recharged my motivation for writing again.  But when do I find myself doing it?  Today I awoke at 5:30am (on a Sunday!), just to sit here in my kitchen and write.  Again I feel the urge to write, but can’t consider “stealing” any time away from my family.  Granted, I do this less frequently now.  I’ve regained some balance to my mornings.  I no longer consider waking up at 4am, and I actually work out once in a while.  But how do I maintain the balance?

Throughout all this, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite.  How does someone write a blog about mindful parenting, when the blog itself has the potential to pull him away from his family or turn him into a drooling zombie at night?  I’m finding my way, but with much trepidation, knowing that the urge to write can be so strong as to overwhelm my sense of purpose and my center.

I’m curious about other parents. When do you find the time to write, and how do you balance it with family?