A couple weeks ago, as I was putting him to bed, I told Boy for the first time about my travel plans this weekend to Los Angeles. Boy has never been to L.A. He drinks this in and says, “Papa? I have a secret.” What, I ask, leaning in. “Los Angeles—” Yes? “—is inside my brain.” He taps his head with his finger to make the point. I try to clarify: Wait a minute. So when I go to L.A., I’m actually going inside your brain? He nods seriously. “Yes.”
How will I get there? He pulls back his blanket and points to his big toe in the dark. “You’ll start here, in your airplane.” He slowly traces the path I’ll take: up his leg, jumping from his hip to his hand, then up his arm, across his neck, and over his face to the top of his head. That’s far. “That’s the farthest place you can go.” Is that the farthest place in the world? “Japan is farther. But it’s too far. It’s outside my brain.”
I tell him that my brother will be meeting me there. So will Uncle B. be in your brain too? He looks at me like I’m stupid. “YES. He’ll be in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is inside my brain.” Again, the tap, so I get it.
Last night, after a couple chapters of Charlotte’s Web, we found our way back to this—the location of L.A., my route. He sits up and says, “Papa? I’m going to try to visit you.” In Los Angeles? Inside your brain? You can do that? How? He looks down at his covers for a long time. “I don’t know. I can’t do it yet.” He nods as if to assure himself. “But I’m going to figure it out.”
This morning I’m in Toronto, already waiting for my next flight. This airport is exactly like all airports; on any other day, I could imagine that I’m anywhere on earth. But today there is another layer, the pleasure of imagining that these hallways and overpriced restaurants might be the microscopic contours of the inside of my son’s foot. The scale changes, amplifies. I smile at the idea that inside my small boy there might be a place this spacious and quiet, that there might be so many people with different faces and stories. I like that he might be trying to find a way inside himself, that inside his mind is where we meet.
If I were to look up and see Boy here in this departure lounge sitting between the two Chinese girls across from me, I’d smile and give him a thumbs up. You did it! We’d get a snack. He’d play on the moving walkways; I’d tell him halfheartedly to stop.
We’d watch the planes take off and land against the wide blue sky, and I’d lean over and tell him, You’re so big. You’re bigger even than all of this.
You never forget the first time that someone just throws up all over you. Until a few years ago, I would have taken this statement as true. Not universal, of course; I know that some people experienced college, for example, in messy and hard-to-piece-together ways. Still, the gag reflex is a powerful way of marking time.
I know it was Boy, but I no longer know when. A few nights when he was 1 year old all run together for me—we would wake to a horrible sound from his room, something far beyond coughing, and find him sitting up in his crib in the dark, just vomiting all over himself, eyes asking us, What is going on? One of us would scoop him up, trying to calm him down and get him out of his pajamas, and the other would start the hurried and mechanical process of searching for towels, changing sheets, just trying to put things in order. On a good night it happened only once. On a rough one, it might go until morning. He made his way down the list of stomach bugs as if it was a matter of pride.
In each case, a doctor the next day was able to cheerfully point to a chart and show us that this was just another completely routine event in the life of a small person. But no matter how many times a 1-year-old throws up, it still doesn’t make any sense to him. His little body is suddenly and violently completely outside of his control. He’s being turned inside out, probably following minutes or hours of nausea and having no way of communicating it to the only people who might be able to help. Even for me, as an adult, there is no worse feeling. It’s debilitating—it reduces us to the most powerless versions of ourselves.
Boy is 5 now and this nighttime scene is a thing of the distant past; Girl never had these problems, even when she was sick. They’ve both passed that age of being constantly ill, and if they do feel sick, they understand what’s happening and can go hover over the open toilet like the rest of us do. It’s a strange ritual to see played out by someone not even three feet tall. I’m happy for them, and for us, when I see them do it. It’s so clean.
All of this is a long way of pointing to the memory of those sick nights, of the moment just after we’d find him retching in his crib. In every telling, I probably hesitate—there’s always that pause—as my eyes adjust to the dark and take in what is happening, verifying that it’s already too late to make any of it OK. I reach down into the crib to my tiny, vomit-covered boy who is trying to cry but can’t because his body is too busy doing something else, and he reaches back up to me, and I hold him close in the dark as he just barfs all over me, over and over, limp and convulsing and confused. Intimacy is such a beautiful word, and I use it often when I speak of beautiful Buddhist teachings, but the image in my head is of this encounter, of my hand against his heaving back and the hot, slow avalanche running down and into my shirt, the trust and the fear in his little grabbing hands. And later, after he falls back asleep in new pajamas and new sheets, me standing outside the house at 3am with a hose in one hand to wash everything off, waving with the other hand to make the motion-sensitive light stay on long enough to get the job done.
Strangely awake in the jarring, rare clarity of knowing there is really nothing more to be done than this.
Between Kumamoto and Halifax, we found ourselves in Hawaii, a place that, as unreal as it feels to me, is a world entirely without category for our kids. It’s a magical station between realities where everyone speaks English, but you’re almost as likely to hear Japanese — a world where our kids, for the first time, had no secret language.
But the encounter we’ll remember from those two days is not one that could be measured in words. Already, after a month of settling into our new lives, I’d be hard pressed to offer much detail about that time in Honolulu. But I will not forget when Boy met the ocean.
Neither, I’d like to think, will the ocean.
Boy stood on the beach, eyes wide, frozen like an animal discovered. There was a pause. Then he charged. He ran to the water as a wave came in and slapped him in the face, knocking him down. I ran after him, arriving in time to see him stand up, sputtering, arms extended in front of him, and shout, “Come on waves! I WILL FIGHT YOU!” And then, for good measure, “And I will WIN!”
We stood there in the surf, Boy challenging the water and getting knocked down by it, and me just trying to keep him alive. We did this for hours, until it was dark and we looked out across the horizon and saw that on all of Waikiki Beach, we were the only ones still there. Boy did not get tired. He did not give up. He was, without any doubt, the most intensely happy he has ever been. In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him back to the hotel, him sobbing at being torn away from this beloved adversary.
As much as a four-year-old can, I think that Boy, in those hours in the ocean, knew who he was. And who he was was someone who can stand before the full force and scale of the Pacific Ocean and not be humbled. He saw a worthy adversary. A fair fight.
It’s not that he didn’t know it was dangerous. He did, and for the most part, I didn’t need to tell him not to go in too deep. And he knew the ocean was beating him up; he knew it would continue. But in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, when faced with the immensity of the ocean, he chose to insist that he could match it. He was defiant.
This is the mind of vow. In all its glory and impotence and absurdity, this is what vowing looks like.
In the Zen world, we have four basic vows:
Beings are countless; I vow to free them all.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it.
The enlightened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.
Many of us say these every day, but what do we mean when we do? I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people—beginners and teachers alike—point out that well, yes, we do take on these vows, and yes, that’s very meaningful, but of course we understand that it’s impossible to fulfill them. We know we can’t free all beings. We’re not stupid.
But that’s a mistake. That kind of vow is not a vow—it’s a performance. It’s a lie. For it to be a vow, we have to promise with our whole body and mind to see it through. That’s all. Don’t tack on, “…though I know I really can’t.” And don’t do philosophical acrobatics to redefine “free” and “embody” and “inexhaustible” so that they are now achievable, measurable. We can waste our lives in that way, telling ourselves a story about what we’re doing instead of doing it.
We vow, when our children are born, to protect them from harm. And we fail. We fail so, so many times that we can feel crushed by our incompetence. But those failures are a separate conversation from vow, because in this moment, our children still need protecting. They need that vow. And they need it again in this moment, and in this one. We don’t have the luxury of stopping to evaluate whether it’s really possible or not, because we don’t have the luxury of deciding it can’t be done. There is no compromise to be made. There is no way out of this promise.
I have misunderstood this point many times. I have gotten stuck in my story of how I have failed to be the husband I want to be, the friend I want to be, the priest I want to be. I have searched around for excuses, wallowed in the complexity of it all, stepped away from vow and into despondency over my own apparent inability to meet my own ideals. But being a husband doesn’t pause for me to think about it. Neither does being a friend, or a priest, or a son, or a father. I can only dive in. That’s the best I can do.
All of this is what washes over me as I stand battered by waves, laughing and staring at this little boy with his wild eyes and round belly and Finding Nemo swimsuit, so alive, shouting in the dark for the full force of the natural world to bring it on. I watch him get knocked down over and over again—he’s knocked down every time. He can’t win. Anyone can see that. But he also can’t lose. He shouts without looking at me, “I’m winning Papa!” And I want to grab him and look in his eyes and say, Keep that. If you keep nothing else, keep that.
As a kid, I never really got into comic books. We just didn’t have them around. But now, as an adult, I have an unabashed enthusiasm for superheroes and superhero movies. As silly and over-the-top as they can be, they speak to me on a deep aspirational level. I feel as inspired at the thought of those stories as I do by the stories themselves. They’re like my emotional kryptonite.
I am moved by the tough, selfless, against-all-odds determination of Batman, and touched by the youthful courage of Spiderman, but I have a special weakness for Superman. I always have. It’s not about all the things he can do — it’s how perfectly he embodies his function.
I know that some people didn’t like 2006’s Superman Returns, but there is a moment there that defines the character in a way nothing else can. Superman flies up into the atmosphere and stops at that line between blue sky and dark space, and closes his eyes. And he just listens. In that moment, he is Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion (whose name in Japanese, Kannon or 観音, literally means “witnessing sound”). Avalokiteshvara hears all the cries of the world and responds with 1000 outstretched, skillful hands. Superman makes this choice to find this vantage point, hovering between the world he protects and the perfect, unrestrained freedom of space, and he listens, and then, in a flash, he turns and speeds toward the earth, toward one of the millions of cries he just heard, to respond. We cheer for him, and we know as we watch that this is not his first time to come to this place or to listen in this way. This is what he does. It’s all he does.
The beauty of superhero stories, for me, is that they invite us to identify with the superhero, to imagine ourselves with those burdens, but also with those capabilities. When I watch Superman, I allow myself to be Superman; when I watch Batman, I let myself become him. When the stories take us to their inevitable and unchanging conclusion — that “with great power comes great responsibility” — I hear that as a message to myself, as a reminder, even a scolding. We underestimate what we can do. We make excuses. I do. I know I do. But for two hours in a theater, I know how it feels not to. I try on the weight of that responsibility. I sense that awesome power.
So naturally, I’ve been excited about the upcoming Superman movie, Man of Steel (and frustrated, too — it won’t come out in Japan until after we’ve left here, by which time it will probably have left theaters everywhere else!). I watch new trailers online when they appear. And in some ways, I get that same feeling I’ve gotten my whole life, that same resonance. But this time, there’s something new in the mix, something almost unbearably powerful and sad. Most of the trailers for Man of Steel strongly emphasize the relationship between Superman and his fathers: Jor-El on Krypton, and Jonathan Kent on Earth. In a few cases, the ads are even set to the fathers’ voices. What I find — and what today, seeing the trailer below, left me a little shaken — is that as I watch, I am also identifying, for the first time, with the fathers. For 60 seconds, I am watching Superman as my own son. I am sending him into that fight, into that danger, hoping he is ready, wanting to say or do exactly what he needs, to offer the words that spur him to embrace who he most needs to be, who the world needs him to be. Instead of flying into the fight myself, I’m watching my son as he disappears into battle.
It can’t help, of course, that Boy has taken to dressing as Superman. He has a Superman t-shirt and Superman underpants (the combination is “full Superman”). When he wears them, he feels a little stronger, a little more grown up. I love this, and I take every opportunity to remind him that Superman’s job is not fighting bad guys: it’s protecting everyone else. “Protect” is a word we use a lot here. He likes to protect his little sister. He likes to protect his friends. Being Superman, he gets to play that it’s his job. And then, if he’s tired of it, he can take it all off and just be a crazy boy.
Girl doesn’t want to be a superhero. But she is at a magical age — she is starting to gain autonomy in the world. She can do new things every day, all by herself. She makes mistakes, and she gets frustrated, but more often than not, she completely overestimates herself. She thinks she can do anything. It looks as if she’s testing limits, but really, she’s bumping into them. Until she does, she has no idea that they’re there.
I want these things for them. And when they’re older and their temperaments no longer tend toward play-acting, I want for them to find, somehow, how not to let go of this, how to keep this sense — not only of responsibility and purpose, but of the power to make it all real. Whether they ever frame it in Buddhist language or not, I don’t care. If they feel it deeply enough, perhaps all that talk will just be extra. But it’s my language, and so I think in those terms — I think in phrases like “all beings.” So I want them to feel that call, that pull to offer themselves to all beings, everywhere.
At the end of the trailer below, Jor-El says to his son, “You can save them. You can save all of them.” And he means it. And his son knows, in that moment, that it’s true.
This is what I most want to tell my kids. This is what I want to tell everyone.
It’s what I want them to believe.
We’re driving home from an onsen, a benefit of living in a land filled with natural hot springs. Boy and Girl are in the back seat.
“Hey, Papa?” It’s Boy, and all conversations start with “Hey.” And given that only two people on earth speak English to him, there’s a disturbing chance that, unknown to me, my conversations also start with “Hey.” (I’m also to blame, it would seem, for “awesome.”)
“Yeah?” It’s raining hard outside. It’s the season. So we half-shout a lot when we drive.
“When you make a bath, you have to check if the water is too hot or too cold.”
“Mmm, I guess that’s right.” Boy always thinks the water is too hot. He thinks everything is too hot. I spend half of every meal time blowing his food to room temperature. I ask, “So how do you check the water? Do you check with your hand or with your foot?”
“You have to do it with your whole body.”
At this, my ears perk up. This sounds like something I might say. It also sounds a little crazy.
“Your whole body? Do you just jump in?”
“Yep. You just jump in! And Papa?”
“When you run, you have to run with your whole body, too.”
I’m smiling. I like this. I get this. I’ve given talks about this, about the physicality of Zen practice, about never holding back, about committing completely to each action.
He keeps going: “When you do yoga, you have to do it with your whole body. When you fight, you have to fight with your whole body. When you play, you have to play with your whole body.”
This is dead on. But I’m starting to wonder where he’ll take it. After all, these are already whole-body activities.
Then he makes the turn: “When you hold hands, you have to hold hands with your whole body. And when you say ‘thank you,’ you have to say it with your whole body.”
There it is. My 4-year-old son has just come close, in his little way, to summing up my total understanding of spiritual practice. And why should I be surprised? If I imagine myself trying to lift a car off of a baby, I know I still wouldn’t use as much of myself as he does just when he cries. Everything he does is total. Even sleep, for him, is an unrestrained act of plunging into something. It’s a complete investment of himself.
He will lose this understanding. He’s losing it moment by moment. It’s not something he’s arrived at, or something he can see from the outside. It’s just that right now, at a moment in his life when his body does not yet feel in any way separate from his own sense of self, he cannot imagine it any other way. He’ll lose that sense of singularity, and along the way, he’ll discover the dangerous idea of conserving energy. He’ll come to appreciate efficiency. He’ll see his body as a tool, something to use or not at his discretion.
And then, if he’s lucky, he’ll cross over. He’ll find, on one hand, that “his” body isn’t really his, and on the other, that it is inseparable from who he is. And he’ll realize, probably the hard way, that negotiating with himself about what to give and what to keep is what makes him tired in the first place, that a total commitment to this action and this life is what makes that commitment possible. Giving feeds giving. Saying “thank you” with the whole body is exactly what you’ve been saving up for.
Boy’s been quiet for a while, and I’ve been lost in my own musings about this unformed wisdom of his, hypnotized by the windshield wipers.
He pipes up again. “But Papa?”
“When you look at a picture, you don’t look with your whole body.”
“What? Why not? How do you look at a picture?”
He sighs, another mannerism that comes from me. “With your eyes. If you use your whole body, that would be weird.”
And we’re home.
Boy holds out his hand to show me a snail. He’s kind of grunting and squeezing it, and I tell him to stop — there might be a snail inside there. He looks me in the eyes. He heard me. And then there’s a cracking sound, and he opens his hands again to show me a broken shell, and inside, a crushed snail. Boy just looks confused. I tell him maybe the snail can still find a new home and be OK, and he finds a good place for the snail in the dirt. Then we agree that next time we find a snail, we should treat him like a friend and just let him go about his business.
That was last week. A couple days ago, it almost happened all over again, except that this time, I was able to talk him down from it. Barely.
I’m not going to write about how we should be kind to all creatures, though I think we should, and I hope I can guide our kids toward that same conclusion. The snail has me thinking of something else.
The night that he smashed the snail, Boy played the scene out over and over in our living room. He shuffled around under a blanket and told me in a high voice, “Papa, I’m a snail.” I asked him if he was OK. He said yes. I asked him what I should do. He said, “Don’t squish me.” Then I asked him if he’d found a new shell, and he said that he had. He said, “Now I’m fine.” I know he wanted it to be so.
I grew up in Montana. When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my grandfather introduced me to gopher hunting. He’d drive with me in the mountains to a big clearing where, if you watched for a even just a moment, you’d see little gopher heads popping in and out of sight. We would sit next to the road, or in the back of his truck, with a .22 rifle, and just kill them. As many as we could, as quickly as we could. It was target practice. And I was a really good shot.
I did this off and on for two or three summers. How many gophers did I kill? And why? I look back at how cute they were, and in that memory, I know that I thought so even then. When I killed one and another seemingly ran to its friend’s aid, I felt that was really sweet. Gophers are neat, I’d think. Then I’d shoot the friend.
In fifth grade, I shot a rabbit in the stomach with my last bullet. It was very alive, screaming, flipping around, and the only thing I could think to do was to go and stomp on it until it was dead. That moment gave me nightmares. After that, I didn’t want to shoot for target practice anymore. A year later, I shot my first and last deer — a doe, right through the heart. But a heart shot doesn’t kill right away, so I had time to cross the field, to make eye contact before shooting her again in the neck. I don’t think I’ve shot a gun since, except maybe at a tin can. And I don’t want to.
What if that rabbit had died right away? What if the deer had? Would I have just kept shooting things until suffering had sufficiently revealed itself to me? Or was I just at an age where I was seeing my actions differently? I don’t know.
What was fun about it?
When I read the news and learn that someone just shot some kids at their school, or held a human being prisoner, or set off a bomb, I think to myself, “How could they do such a thing?” In the follow-up, we hear this kind of question a lot. And maybe it’s OK, in that moment of shock, to allow ourselves that little bit of psychic distance. But the fact is, we know the answer. We don’t know why — we can never really know why. But we can know how. We can know the mechanism of dissociation that allows us to love the life all around us and, at the same time, to hold it clumsily. To treat it as something separate from ourselves. Something already dead.
We watch it in our children. And if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves.
My son loves the creatures of the world. This morning, he waxed poetic all the way to daycare about all the flowers and how he wants to make it rain so they can grow. Yesterday, for the first time, we watched him play with a dog, and it was a vision of pure love (on both sides). But he doesn’t know what death is. He can’t imagine someone else’s pain. Not yet. We have to remind him not to hit his sister. And we can’t save the snails, not all of them.
I want to cultivate the gentle impulses my boy feels all the time. But not just that: I want to help him to learn how to understand that other part of himself, to face his own capacity to act upon others. We tell children, “You can do anything,” but we mean it in a very limited way. You can be a doctor, or You can be an artist. But the truth of it is so much more than that. You are capable of anything. The deepest act of generosity — you can surpass it. The lowest act of depravity — you’re capable of that, too.
How to learn to own it all, to integrate and understand this fragile, combustible mix? How do we best help those for whom that gap has become too much to bear, those who have broken? I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t come from “How can someone do such a thing?” That’s a question we ask for ourselves, to feel separate and safe. If we want to be of service, we need to start with “Where in myself am I capable of the same?” My experience, as painful as it can sometimes be, is that if we’re honest, we can always find that place. Always.
We are snails. And we are a little boy holding a snail in our hands. This moment decides it.
“Help us! Help us! A storm is coming! A storm is coming!”
Boy is wearing a magician’s cape his grandma made. On his head, an adult-sized pair of white, fuzzy earmuffs. He’s shouting to no one in particular, as if to warn the village.
I know what’s next. He turns to me and whispers: You be the storm, OK?
With that, he stretches the earmuffs across his little round belly so that there are two white balls on each side of his torso. This is his “magic belt.” He touches each ball and shakes like a rocket about to take off, then makes a SSSSHOOOOOOO sound and runs to the far corner of the room, preparing for battle.
We didn’t teach him any of this.
I do a pretty decent storm. I spin and wave my arms around and blow and look menacing. I’m not sure where else to go with it.
Boy’s eyes flicker with the light of justice — or is it vengeance? — and there’s the flurry of his cape, and with a shout of “PUUUUNCH!!” I, the storm, am dealt one decisive blow. It’s over.
I read somewhere that the unconscious purpose behind fathers wrestling and roughhousing with little boys is not to teach boys to fight, but to teach them how to stop. I think about that every day.
When I was a little boy, my dad got two pairs of boxing gloves — a big brown pair for him and a little red pair for me. He would walk on his knees in the living room and do that delicate dance: one part trying to get me to really hit him, one part trying to teach me control. I loved this, but it was hard. If I got bopped on the nose, or if I just got frustrated, it flipped a switch, and suddenly I was pummeling my dad, trying to go for his face. Sometimes he could calm me down; sometimes we just had to stop for a while. And one day I was just too big for it, and my dad hung up the gloves for good.
This is not just a problem for 4-year-olds. In college and for years after, my life revolved around karate, and it was the same thing. In that atmosphere of hitting and getting hit, many men reveal (or discover) their tipping points — some lose control gradually, in a frustrated escalation you can measure, but most lose it in an instant. You learn to recognize that little flicker in your sparring partner’s eyes, the one that says this just got personal, and when you see it, you stop everything. You have to.
I remember once, before Boy turned two and was still not perfectly sure on his feet, he suddenly got angry — I don’t remember why — and charged me from across the room, roaring, hands scraping the ground, like a gorilla. He moved like a blur. I had never seen anything like that in a human being, something so primal. Even now, when he’s sad, or disappointed, or surprised, it’s punctuated by a little punch or a kick — if not at me, then at the refrigerator, or the floor, or the world. In the best-case scenario, he’ll spend the next 20 years trying to reconcile that part of him, the part that feels aggression as one face of desire, that experiences no intense emotion without an accompanying low hum of violence, that knows that his body has its own will, its own way of expressing itself — an expression that is hard, not soft. That’s if things go well; if they don’t, he’ll wrestle with this his whole life.
Great effort, great discipline, great concentration, great action — I feel, for myself, that they can come from the same place as that aggression, that they can vibrate with that same low hum. They can be the cultivated version of that thing inside that’s always one ember away from exploding.
Usually, our little superhero is convinced that just one punch will fell the storm, and usually he’s right. But if it doesn’t — if the storm is busy talking on the phone, for example, or hanging up laundry — then the punches can come rapid-fire, in a barrage, and the storm needs to say something, or shout something, or hug the superhero tight through 18 different emotions until all is calm again.
Sometimes the storm gets punched in the groin. Hard. And as the storm buckles to the ground, our superhero stands hurt and confused by his own uncontrolled power, unsure what to do next. Maybe he sees, in that moment, how Papa is suddenly struggling to not be a storm, how much effort goes into just dissipating clouds. Maybe it’s too much to take in; maybe he doesn’t know what it means.
But I know the forecast.
Suit up, I want to tell him. You are the storm.
Last year, for his birthday, we got Boy a balance bike. It’s probably the best thing we’ve ever gotten him; for pure cost-to-satisfaction ratio, it might be the best thing anyone’s ever gotten for anyone. He loves it. He pretends he’s a mailman, or a pizza man, or a “natto man,” or our friend Richard, who rides a yellow motorcycle. But he’s 4, so “I want to ride my bike” translates to “I want you to drop whatever you’re doing and stand outside and watch me ride my bike for a long time. I plan to risk my life a few times. And I will never, never agree to come inside again.” So I have some complicated feelings about that bike.
Also for his birthday last year, Boy received a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. By my math, with about 400 days having passed between then and now, and three stories a night, I’ve read that book one million times. Here’s how we start every night:
Me: OK, Green Eggs and Ham it is.
Boy: Papa? Ham is meat.
Boy: Meat is yucky.
Me: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat. Especially green meat.
Boy: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat either. Papa?
Boy: People are meat.
Me: Can we read this thing?
And we start. Boy thinks it’s hilarious when the guy who keeps saying no (Is he Mr. Knox? This drives us crazy) comes around at the end and decides he likes green eggs and ham. I don’t know why. But I, recognizing a teachable moment, always seize the opportunity to point out that the every-single-thing-on-the-plate-that-wasn’t-bread that we had for dinner that evening might have been really delicious if only he’d tried it. It might have turned out to be his favorite food. “Hummus,” I tell him, “might be your green eggs and ham.”
“But ham is meat.”
I also spin a pretty good story about what foods will and will not turn him into a superhero. Foods that give you powers are “genki foods.” Broccoli is a genki food — if you eat enough, you’ll get bigger when you sleep, and then you’ll be super, SUPER strong. There are lots of variations on this, but at its core, the narrative is pretty consistent: the thing that you think you will dislike may actually be something that you love; more than that, it will be the very thing that empowers you. It can sound a little silly, probably, when we’re telling him about the superhuman feats he’d be capable of if he would just eat some beans. He’s probably on to us by now — he certainly doesn’t find us very persuasive.
But the thing is, it’s all true. And I know this for two reasons. The first is that I married someone who patiently encouraged me from the start to try new things. Fifteen years into this relationship, I think all my favorite foods are things I learned about from Tracy. I wasn’t raised to be adventurous about food, or even to think about it much. I didn’t know that people ate broccoli without butter, or that an avocado could be a food all by itself. If someone had tricked me into eating an avocado straight when I was a kid, it would have blown my mind. Ginger? That’s a food. I just had no idea. So I can use these kinds of stories as part of my argument with Boy. And he likes that — he likes the idea that Papa was once a boy too.
The second reason I know I’m not lying, though, would be too difficult to explain. That balance bike — that’s my green eggs and ham. I fight it. My body slumps a little when he says he wants to ride it; I look around the room for some sort of assist. If I give in, it’s always with a sigh, and before we even get outside, I’m telling him how he’d better come inside nicely when it’s time. I just get tired at the thought of it, and I probably show him that in a hundred little ways, even though I don’t mean to.
And for what? Why? Do I want to stay inside so that I can mull around and obsessively check email for no reason? Would I really rather watch Sesame Street than be outdoors with my son? Do the dishes need to be washed this second? This is how karma works — we fall into a rut, and even when there’s no reason at all not to change our pattern, even when that pattern is harmful, we just stay there.
What I can’t explain to Boy is this: “The thing you think you won’t like is good for you, and the reason I know is that sometimes I think I’m not going to like playing with you. But I love playing with you. It’s my favorite thing.” When I let go and just embrace it — when I make a tunnel with my legs and Boy rides through it, when he delivers a strawberry-and-potato pizza and insists on paying me, when he risks his life riding down that hill with his legs stretched out to the sides just so that he can say ‘boing!’ when he gets to the bottom — these, I love. And just like broccoli, the whole thing makes me stronger. I spend so much energy resisting this kind of play, when actually playing costs me nothing.
In Green Eggs and Ham, the guy has a kind of awakening. He actually says, “I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!” He’s so sure of this; I’m sure he really means it.
But I suspect he also forgets. Maybe it’s because I’ve read the book so many times, but I see it on a loop, with Sam endlessly having to push and push and guide the guy back to what, in some part of his brain, he already knows: that he loves this.
Boy, by the way, actually loves hummus. Sometimes he just doesn’t remember.
I’ve been reading Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s new book, Not for Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices (great book), and early on, he says this:
The aim of far too many teachings these days is to make people “feel good,” and even some Buddhist masters are beginning to sound like New Age apostles. Their talks are entirely devoted to validating the manifestation of ego and endorsing the “rightness” of our feelings, neither of which have anything to do with the teachings we find in the pith instructions. So, if you are only concerned about feeling good, you are far better off having a full body massage or listening to some uplifting or life-affirming music than receiving dharma teachings, which were definitely not designed to cheer you up. On the contrary, the dharma was devised specifically to expose your feelings and make you feel awful.
Just replace “dharma” and “teachings” with “having kids.” I think this quotation is right on — spiritual practice, if it’s worth anything, shakes up your world. It can feel really bad sometimes. I don’t know if that definition always works both ways, but it does often. Experiences that challenge us, that break us down, that make us question everything: these are the real thing.
I’m pretty sure that nothing has revealed more about me, or the stories I tell myself about who I am, than having kids. I thought I moved in the world with some degree of equanimity. Wrong. I thought I was a patient person. Not so true. If you’d asked me a couple years ago when I had last raised my voice at someone in anger and frustration, I would have said that I had no idea. Years, maybe. But if you ask me now, I remember. I’m still wearing the same shirt.
A central theme in Zen literature (and by extension, Zen practice) is “don’t know.” It’s a good thing, this not knowing. When you know exactly where you’re going, you don’t look at the road. Arrival is automatic, unaware. But when you’re lost — and you know it — you look at the world with open eyes. Nothing is obvious. Nothing is easy. From a Zen perspective, that feeling of being lost is a kind of honesty. It’s an honest response to the complexities of our lives. It forces us to really see, and to make decisions based not on some philosophy or policy, but on where we actually are.
But it’s not something we embrace. I have never known more about raising kids than I did four years ago, the day before our son was born. I’d read all the articles, combed through the books, thought through my own vision of what a good parent is. I’d seen the parents around me failing, and made lots of mental notes about how I would never, never sink so low. I was an expert. And I have never known less about parenting than I did the first time I held that little boy and he looked up at me. It was that dull moment of clarity that, if it were a movie, would be signaled by the camera zooming in on my face, eerie music rising. I had no idea what I was doing.
Four years and a little girl later, I still feel lost in that deep, endless way. I have never before been so receptive to other people’s ideas. When our boy started having full-on tantrums, I was willing to listen to even the craziest “solution.” I was, and am, out of my depth. I’m the younger brother; Tracy grew up as an only child. We came to this with no experience, not even much babysitting in junior high. Tracy and I are always mapping out little strategies, coming up with new policies, encouraging each other to stand firm on this, or to relax about that. But when I’m stuck in traffic, and the little guy has just undone his seat belt and is screaming in the back seat with an intensity that I know, for good or bad, I will never feel about anything, ever, for the rest of my life, the best plans and intentions just seem comical, and I’m left to my own devices, and my devices, it turns out, are not so handy in that particular situation.
So now I’m 40, and I have less confidence now than at any time I can remember. But I’m grateful for that. What Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse says about Dharma is true, but the whole point is that it’s worth it. I sometimes long to be more sure in the world, but I see that my sureness has always been, at least in some important ways, unearned. I’m a beginner, I see that now. And I laugh when I hear childless friends toss around their big ideas about how to properly raise children. What’s more ridiculous than being sure you know exactly how to do something you’ve never done? But that was me. To varying degrees, I think that’s everybody.