Thankfulness: the Key to Understanding My Father
December 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
I filled up sandwich bags of glass at Glass Beach when I was a little girl.
A local shop owner told us the story of the spot the first time my family stayed in Mendocino.
“People used to throw their garbage off the surrounding cliffs,” she said. I watched her make a curve motion with her hand – as if garbage had been thrown off her right thumb, all those years ago.
“The surf pounded and it pounded and it softened all that glass and now there’s a beach full of it – just like if it were sand.”
My little brother wanted to know if that would still happen if he threw bottles off the sides of the inlet.
My mother looked at him hard.
We returned to Mendocino at least once a year, after that. Vacation, to me, meant cold gusts of wind coming in off the rising tide, and sea anemones curled up tight against my fingers.
“They want to eat me!” I’d yell. I remember my Dad grabbing me on my sides and opening his eyes wide – “EAT YOU!”
“No! No! No eating me!” I’d pull my fingers out and run away from the tide coming in on the pools.
I’d run back to touch them again when it washed back out. The ocean was a dance.
I grew up believing in my Dad – in soccer on Saturday mornings and in mandarins at Christmas and the smell of the Redwoods in the spring. He and California were both invincible – and they were mine.
I was a little girl with roots. They ran over those winding rivers and those white capped mountains – up, up, up to the places where I learned to love the hush of the Redwoods and the thrill of the ocean dance outside Fort Bragg. Home was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, with wild rivers and high jumps off the rocks that couch the winding American and the green Yuba I used to imagine as a great big slug. I used to pretend I was a tourist seeing those mountains for the first time – those big, white capped Sierra Nevadas on the edge of my world running up, up, up past the highest places I’d ever been.
I used to be mad at my Dad for making us leave California. I don’t know if my mom was too, except that she didn’t show it if she was. I can still picture her, listening to Alison Krauss and crying in a big blue SUV and winding through those redwoods where the air is better and the ferns get in your skin like a good, healing salve. We took one last visit up those winding roads before we moved to the East Coast when I was 14. We got out of that car and made a circle around the biggest tree we could find, and my mom cried because she was moving out of California for the first time in her life.
When we left, I had roots like a small sapling. But my mother was like one of those great big redwood trees, with family running back for generations and the Yuba and the Sierra Nevadas and the sea anemones running in her red, California blood. Her getting on board with leaving was the way she chose to say yes to his dreams. And, I learn a lot from her willingness in hindsight.
The move was a way for my Dad to change careers and change roles and to spend more time with our family. He was launching out as an entrepreneur and so I guess it was his gift to all of us: more time, more family, more contentment, more happiness for us as a unit. His dream was both professional and personal, and there wasn’t much separation in it that way. He had high hopes, and I bought into them with my whole heart.
We moved in the summer of 2004, and spent five years in what New Yorkers call the, “Backwoods.”
“Upstate is a whole different god damn ball game,” they’ll tell you.
Sometimes we lose our grip on people and sometimes we lose our grip on ideas, or places, or feelings. And no one but our own selves usually know exactly how the four of them have blended together to taste like grief. My feelings for the next five years were my own private mixture of all four.
Those were the hardest years of my life. Upstate New York shattered my beliefs, and it broke my heart.
Dad’s entrepreneurial journey had its ups and downs, but in the end it sent us back home and, at 19, I packed my bags again to move back to the Sierra Nevadas.
“That was such a fucking waste,” I told a friend in college. “Five years of bullshit- – of ridiculous, bullshit hard.”
One great big move and five years in Binghamton, and all I came out with was shattered belief, and pulled up roots.
I thought Dad’s choice to move my family back to California for good would make me feel whole again – like someone re-anchored me back to somewhere that felt like home. But when we went back to Mendocino that year, I couldn’t feel the dance in the ocean anymore. And, I spent a long, long time mad at Dad for that.
Anias Nin writes that, “the secret to joy is the mastery of pain,” and I believe that loss carves out caverns in our hearts where new understanding of other people washes in like the Yuba River – if we let it.
I didn’t get that new understanding of my father from traveling like he had, or from being an entrepreneur myself. I got it when I finally decided to risk everything, the way I watched him do, and let the cards fall like they would. It was though my own move out east – my own search for a new life and a new happy. It was personal and professional, without much of a separation between the two. And, once again, I bought into it with my whole heart.
Dad was my biggest cheerleader.
“I wish you’d stay and live with me forever,” he said. And, then he told me to go.
Healing isn’t always something we know how to do. It seems like it should just happen, without trying. But its both an adjective and a verb.
“Her foot is healing.”
“I have a healing salve.”
I found healing in “Thank you” – mostly to my father.
“Thank you,” for me is one verb. It’s an action verb. And, to me its different than “thankfulness.” That’s an over arching concept – a characteristic I’m not sure how to begin cultivating. But I can say “thank you” for the way my legs ache in a way that’s very much alive when I climb the subway steps and I can say “thank you” for my bagel in the morning and I can say “thank you” for the way my friend made me laugh over breakfast.
I can say “thank you” to my Dad for teaching me to risk for a dream.
And, my healing began there.
If I could dump my five sad, angry years out like I used to dump out my pieces of softened glass I’d rinse out the angry like I used to rinse out sand. I’d put “thank you” back in every time I wanted to fire off a complaint.
I’d start out with thanking my father for showing me that a dream is worth changing everything for – packing up your family, and moving to a place you’re never lived before. Without him, I never would have thought that the answers to my questions might lie in packed bags, instead of staying in one place.
I’d thank him for showing me that it’s okay to fail at a dream, and pack up for home when it doesn’t work like you thought. Without him, I never would have known that it was okay to hate six of the eight places I lived over the course of two years, or all five of the colleges I went to, including the one I graduated from. Without him I never would have let my restlessness send me out on my own, or pushed me to experience Uganda or Africa or six different cities across the US.
I’d thank him after that for showing me that the great big stamp of “failure” has a fading ink. It’s magical, in the way it goads you to begin again, if you let it.
I’d say “Thank you” to him for starting again, when I was turning twenty. Without him, I never would have known that all my failed launches and relationships, my moves to the wrong cities, the loss of my religion and my faith with it, would pound on me like the surf of a cold, gusty ocean tide and begin softening me for a spot in the life I wanted, a place in a city I loved.
I would thank him for showing me what it looks like to be someone strong enough to run back into the tide after it swells – that it’s that very pounding surf, that tenacity in the face of the waves that carries a person forward, and will send me back whole, this year, to those Sierra Nevada foothills for the Holidays – ready to climb in a car like we did all those years ago – ready to put my fingers in the sea anemones, run from the tide and gather up bags of softened glass to carry back to New York City.
After that – I’d thank him for the way that his uprooting of my baby sapling California roots helped me find my way home.