14 years ago on April 27, 2006, my Father committed suicide. He had no light inside.
Living with suicide for all of these years, I am ever aware that I have never had to fight that darkness - that Depression that ultimately consumed him, killed him.
Largely thanks to my Mother’s tireless effort, indefatigable will, and a light that is implicit in her being, my Dad left me a light inside that he never had. My Mom’s light continues as a living gift to me and all who know her.
Light and shadow go hand-in-hand to create form and beauty.
Today, I am inside - every day. Looking for light. Like all of us, thanks to the pandemic, I am living in mostly physical isolation. But, I am also “inside” doing a lot of work mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to sustain my best self and try to remain a light of my own, to find the essence of this moment, to be present with it.
A light defined by shadow. Shadow defined by light.
I have captured these images of light and shadow throughout the inside of my house, the home where I was raised, where my wife and I are raising our children - the house still full of the light and shadow that so defined me.
I am sharing these thoughts and images because I can. I am sharing them because I must. I am sharing them because it has been 14 years since I learned what darkness means and in that time I’ve also come to understand light.
I hope you find your light in these dark times, and hold it dearly, grow it, share it, that it may be what guides you and those you love out of and beyond this shadow.
Last night, my kindergartner referred to the voiceover on some show she was watching as “gregarious.” I knew she’d been hanging out with my Mom. That is a Mom word. That was one of our “refrigerator words” back when I was her age.
So, I immediately thought that we should revamp that Word of the Day tradition of my Mom’s with my kids. Fun, right!? And clearly, three-and-a-half decades later, I still remember what gregarious means and even recall several others she posted during that time.
I didn’t have a plan yet. Just the idea. Even the simplest things have to percolate sometimes.
And then, this morning, that same kindergartner was spinning off some serious Covid-inspired funk and frustration. (She is fortunate Covid can be blamed for a period.) She clearly needed attention. She clearly wanted her parents not to be working. She clearly knows how to get under my skin. She’s a master.
So, on the spot, I came up with our first family Word of the Day: Turd.
I explained the meaning of the word, explained my association to her behavior, and used it in a sentence so that she could clearly understand. And, to her credit, she was fighting back a smile at my performance even as she was whining and forcing herself to cry - ultimately working herself up to a real foot-stomping, door-slamming turd-a-palooza.
It didn’t last long.
She was back in maybe 5 minutes and the rest of the day got better from there.
By the evening, we were laughing and dancing and singing Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (our go-to) and being silly - basically being our best selves together. I do treasure these times.
In the midst of this goofiness and goodness, she walked back over to where I had posted our first Word of the Day and replaced it with her own post-it note - wadding mine up and throwing it in the trash.
Hers simply stated: No Word of the Day!!
Atta girl. Good day.
Here are 7 more things I hope my kids are learning as a follow up to my blog a couple of weeks ago: “10 Things I Hope My Kids are Learning During a Pandemic (so far).” And, even though I still can’t fathom how my children are being taught their math, I’m pretty sure this makes 17 things to date.
It’s OK to cry.
I heard my daughter crying the other morning, and I could tell by the tone and how long it lasted that it was something different. This wasn’t about not getting dessert or her sister not sharing the screen when teleconferencing with friends. This was just sad. Just the night before, I had walked in on her telling her Oma how stressful it was not being in school (kindergarten). She took the play-by-play approach, but my summary is that she needs more structure and she needs the love and attention of her teacher. She loves her teacher. “I’m really frustrated” she said through her tears. I was so proud of her using her words and so thankful for the opportunity to say these critical words out loud to her, to myself, my wife, and my other daughter: “It’s OK to cry.”
Your parents don’t have any more experience with this than you do.
The “It’s OK to cry” line was quickly followed up with an opportunity for another critically important message and one I’ve always been committed to as a parent: I don’t have the answer and I can’t solve it. We are all just figuring this out together and doing our best. This my-parents-are-human perspective for a child likely makes a lot more sense in a pandemic than in the normal day-to-day. But, the message for really difficult personal and life situations is no different today than it was six months ago - or will be six years from now: I don’t have all the answers and I probably can’t solve it.
We are on the same team.
When we can’t control things - and we can actually admit it (something we can control) - it’s really important for us as a family to “be on the same team.” We have to work together. Of course, it’s natural for us to get frustrated or annoyed with each other. It’s natural for siblings to pick and prod and snipe at each other some. After all, they’ve been together in the last month probably more than they ever have before. But, it’s also important for them to see and hear and acknowledge what they are doing. That what they are doing is normal doesn’t necessarily make it OK. I asked my girls the other night what they would think if they heard me speak to their Mommy using the words and tone they had been speaking with to each other. They obviously didn’t like it and clearly were not comfortable with my thought experiment. The older later apologized, triggering something similar from the younger. The next day was markedly better.
Grief is a process.
We are all grieving to some degree in this odd, unknown, new experience. We are grieving a loss of freedom. My kids are grieving missing their friends and teachers and just a normal schedule. I am grieving for my children. We are grieving for our friends and family and elders whose lives are turned upside down, whose jobs are evaporating. We are grieving for over 30,000 people we don’t even know, grieving for their families, their children. We are grieving a quiet awareness that we’ve lost some degree of innocence. We will not be the same after this. Our grief will last awhile.
Laughter is healing.
I don’t even remember what happened the other night that got us all tickled. It’s likely I may have been making up some crazy song and singing in a terrible voice (my only option), possibly dancing. It’s equally likely that someone just farted. Either way, we all were laughing, cackling. And, it was clear we all needed that moment of joy. I felt that moment deeply as I looked at the sparkle in my kids’ eyes and their face-swallowing smiles. It felt like oxygen. It felt like a breath I haven’t taken in weeks.
You’ve gotta take care of yourself to take care of others.
We have to recognize when we aren’t taking care of ourselves and acknowledge that the impact is all around us. We each have to find ways, whether a quiet moment alone, a few minutes with a book, a few minutes walking the dog, exercising - whatever it is - to do something every day for ourselves, for a little bit of space and self care. As parents, this is not only about sustaining ourselves but modeling behaviors that our children can learn and internalize deeply in such a difficult time. My older daughter asked to read a kids yoga breathing book last night and commented on how different she felt after some deep, intentional breathing. I hope she always remembers this.
There is always beauty to be found.
I have never walked my dog in the middle of a work day. I have never taken a walk with my children in the middle of a work day. I have never walked with my dog and my children to get hot dogs and have a picnic during a workday. I have never had hot dogs customized with my children’s names on them during a workday, or ever. Lunch today was a gift.
I think we parents need to take a deep breath and step back from the struggle of attempting to school our children at home and help our children’s educations emerge from the real, lived experiences we are all working through.
We don’t need to try to be the school teachers we are not, but we can try to be learners and thinkers who reflect on our experiences and are resilient and empathetic and loving and kind, and we can model these lifelong tools and values for our children here and now. No worksheet necessary.
Our children will not remember the classroom lessons they learned - or didn’t - in the time of the pandemic, but they very well could carry lifelong lessons in how we all treated each other and managed our way through it - human-to-human - even at a distance.
So, to my children, here are some things I hope you are learning in these first several weeks of a new pandemic reality:
Your education is far, far bigger than school.
There’s a lot to learn during a post-tornado, pandemic-driven quarantine when you live with a senior citizen and have family member with chronic “underlying conditions”. And, while, yes, I want you to practice your reading and keep your math skills fresh, it is a very different kind of learning that will turn tragedy into possibility as your life unfolds. These are times that help illuminate who you are and architect who you will become. Your education is a lifelong process most deeply rooted in presence with whatever life throws your way.
Every day matters, and you can’t count on tomorrow.
Some days this means you throw caution to the wind, and some days it means you proceed with all due caution. Some days it means you get a puppy. It’s part of your life’s journey to gain the wisdom to know the difference.
Your teachers love you.
And, your teachers miss you when school is out. And, they are not only willing to do what it takes to deliver your lessons but will even call you on FaceTime and chat for half-an-hour like you are lifelong friends who just needed to reconnect. What you talked about was not the lesson to be learned. That they called is the lesson.
Your teachers are creative.
Joy and creativity and good teaching go hand-in-hand. Your teachers often work in settings that limit their creativity and steal their joy by focusing their labor on Education rather than enabling their work in helping students learn. Those livestreams and videos and conference calls for you and your classmates are your teachers doing their work in new ways because their work matters to them, to you, to all of us. Their creativity matters - your creativity matters - and school should never take that away.
Your parents work hard.
(But, that doesn’t make us great teachers.) We work hard because we love you. We work hard because we want to provide for you. We work hard because our work is part of our sense of who we are. Hard work matters, no matter what that work is. If you are going to do something, do it with all you’ve got.
Help in whatever way you can help.
When you see a difficult situation, ask yourself: how can I help? It doesn’t have to be complicated. But, your ability to help starts with understanding the gifts you bring to the world and figuring out where those gifts can meet the worlds’ needs. If nothing else, you can always be kind. You can always listen. You can always treat others with respect.
Even if you can’t do anything, you can always say something.
When you don’t feel like you can help or don’t know how, dropping a note or a text and just saying something like “I had you on my mind. Sending my love” is good for you and good for whoever you send it to. Difficult times can make us feel alone and powerless. Your words can help remind you and others that we aren’t.
There’s always someone worse off than you.
So, there’s really no time or use for complaining. When you think of the frustration of a pandemic and how bad that seems for you, you can also think of your friend and classmate who lost everything in a tornado just weeks before. If you will pause and open yourself to empathy, you will always find someone whose situation makes yours seem relatively manageable. Then, you can ask: how can I help?
Our friends tell us something about who we are and where we’ve come from, and when our basic way of life gets disrupted and our sense of who we are and why we are comes into question, connecting with friends can be critically grounding. It matters even if it is virtual.
Physical health and mental health are closely related.
Getting up every morning feeling isolated takes its toll on a spirit. No amount of food or drink or vice of any sort can rejuvenate the spirit. Such things can soothe temporarily, but they cannot re-spirit us from the inside out. A few minutes of yoga, a walk, a bike ride, a short run, whatever it is - physical health doesn’t have to be long or complicated. Every little bit helps, and it helps our minds as much or more than our bodies.