Under Better Circumstances

They say you can never go home again.

I suppose that’s true; just as you can never step into the same river twice, because the water is constantly moving, home will be different every time you come back. The people may be the same, or at least appear to be, but they are moving too. They are thinking, growing, spreading their wings. They are separating, searching for their own identities, their own callings. They’re coping, looking for handholds along the way, just as you are. Just as we all are. The people look the same, but they aren’t. And neither are you.

*****

Trudy, Eitan and I flew to Chicago last weekend. The details are more complicated – they always are – but let’s just say that there was a death in the family and we felt like we needed to be there. I’ve been back to Chicago a handful of times since my family moved to New York when I was eleven. We went back for a couple of family vacations; I went back in my senior year of high school; and then Trudy and I staffed a youth group trip to Chicago when we were in college. The city has been different every time, especially the neighborhood where I used to live. It’s more modern, and yet, still just the same. So many of the stores have been updated, while the homes look very similar to the way they did back then. It was familiar but strange, all at once.

We saw my father and his girlfriend, which was our main reason for making the trip. We met extended relatives, new to us but not to each other. Eitan met his baby cousin and gave her the presents we had brought with us. We saw family friends from my childhood and a friend Trudy and I knew from college. I even saw some of my old elementary school teachers when they came to visit during shiva.1

Everyone I had known before looked the same to me. A little more grey here, another wrinkle or two there, but the faces and the smiles were all just as I had remembered them. They were thrilled to see me and to meet Trudy and Eitan, and I was just as excited to catch them up on what I had been up to over the past few years.

Still, something was off. The city felt so foreign to me. I remembered much of the geography and some landmarks here and there, but it wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t have the same connection to the streets or the stores or the houses. The people, some of whom I’ve known for literally my entire life, had grown up or grown older or changed in some other way and I’d had no idea.

I’d come home, but it wasn’t home anymore.

*****

If there is any silver lining to losing a family member, it’s that it brings people together; it brought us to Chicago, after all. But throughout the trip, I kept coming back to that one thought. We brought Eitan to a museum, showed off the sights I’d remembered from my childhood, reinforced his Chicago sports roots. We ate deep dish pizza, spent badly needed quality time with my father, bonded with new family members. And underneath all of it was the terrible loss my relatives had suffered. The new relationships we were forming were all because of the relationship that would never be formed with the stepbrother I had never met.

The stepbrother I would never meet.

It’s still difficult for me to process the circumstances that brought Trudy, Eitan and me to Chicago last weekend. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand. People who have experienced a death tend to want to ask why, even though they know there isn’t a real answer.

The family and friends who came to visit kept saying, “Hopefully, next time we’ll meet under better circumstances.” I almost laughed every time I heard it; next time would have to be better because how could there ever be any worse situation than losing a family member?

And yet, I I understood the sentiment. It was an acknowledgement of a difficult, horrible time, while still expressing some hope for more positive times in the future. This, too, shall pass, as awful as it seems right now. We will all continue on as best we can; coping, growing, moving forward, somehow finding the strength to put one foot it front of the other. We will surround ourselves with the special people in our lives who offer support and guidance and distraction. We will use them to help restore structure, while still leaving the windows to the past and the future wide open.

They say you can never go home again. But they should have added that home is more about who you’re with than where you are.

 


1. Sitting shiva is the Jewish tradition of accepting visitors when mourning a family member who has died. You can read more about it here.

Searching for Wisdom

My English teacher in my junior year of high school, Dr. Beller, looked like he had walked straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. He was short, overweight and wore light brown glasses with thin frames. His skin had the leathery look of too much sun and cigarettes, but his eyes were soft and kind and they had a mischievous quality to them when he smiled. His voice was also gentle, with a slight gravelly tone to it and the hair he had left was always a little bit out of place.

Dr. Beller had been a college professor for most of his career as an educator before he came to my school. My junior year was his first year as a high school teacher and he had a bit of a rocky start. For a man who had spent most of his professional life lecturing to college students, most of whom were in his classes by choice, the transition to keeping high school students interested, plus the worlds of lesson planning and smaller, more frequent homework assignments, was difficult. I tended to zone out from time to time in English, as it was easily my strongest subject, and Dr. Beller’s early lectures made it easy for me to do so.

About halfway through the year, Dr. Beller asked to meet with me one-on-one to talk about the way I felt the class was going. I gave him some thoughts about getting the class more involved in the discussion to keep us more engaged, rather than lecturing at us. Then he asked me what I thought of the books we had worked on. I responded by saying that I had liked Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter but was much less impressed by Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t remember the third book we read that year but I think I said I had liked that one the most. Dr. Beller paused for a few seconds before answering, his lips pursed together above his brown-but-graying goatee. Then he spoke, softly, but firmly.

“Aaron, who the fuck do you think you are?”

I blinked. I was surprised but, somehow, not insulted. Dr. Beller clearly wanted to get my attention and he had succeeded. He went on to explain that the works we were reading had been determined to be classics by generations of literary critics and thinkers, with vastly more experience and knowledge than I had, so who was I, some punk teenager, to make a judgment about whether or not I “liked” a book?

Needless to say, from that moment on, Dr. Beller was one of my favorites. The best teachers are the ones who challenge and inspire us to move beyond our comfort zones1 and cursing at me was definitely a challenge. I found myself making more of an effort to be open to Dr. Beller’s lessons; I decided that if Dr. Beller had the balls to curse openly at one of his students – not just around, but directly at – then I had probably underestimated him.

I’ve spent my life following people like Dr. Beller. There is a line in the rabbinic text, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which says, “Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person on the positive side.”2 I was assigned to learn from my teachers in school, but it was my choice to make sure that I learned as much from them as I could. I continued that practice with my philosophy professors in college and I’ve made it a point to engage with people who seemed like they had something to offer.

It actually wasn’t until a couple of months ago, during an online exchange with a fellow dad blogger,3 that I finally realized that the thing I am always searching for is wisdom. I majored in philosophy because I believe that there is knowledge to be gained about the right way to live and to treat others. I have interacted so well with certain teachers not only because they challenged me, but also because I knew they had experience that could help me learn. I connect so often with people older than me because they have been places and seen and done things that I have not.

The hardest part is making sure that I take notice when these people come into my life. I never know where new lessons are going to come from or how they will affect me but I try to keep my mind open so I don’t miss anything. After all, new sources of wisdom are not always going to curse at me to get my attention.

 


1. All three of my high school English teachers fit that description. I say three because my teacher from my freshman year, Mrs. Fisher, taught my senior class, as well.

2. Find the whole text here.

3. Bill Peebles has a lyrical, flowing writing style that makes me feel like I’ve known him for years.

Changing The Steps

Eitan and I have been arguing a lot lately.

It’s hard to really call them arguments. Real arguments involve the presentation of an opinion, evidence to support one’s point of view and an exchange of ideas and information designed to convince one’s audience. The arguments between Eitan and me are much less sophisticated. Our spats usually involve me asking Eitan to stop doing something and Eitan saying no and continuing his activity. I keep pushing, Eitan keeps resisting, one or both of us ends up yelling, Eitan starts crying and we both end up frustrated.

The arguments can be about anything. Eitan, it’s time to turn off the television. Eitan, please stop splashing water on me during your bath. No, Eitan, I can’t carry you right now. Eitan, please stop swinging your lightsaber around the living room. Eitan would you please finish your breakfast so we can leave? The subject matter doesn’t make a difference; the ending is always the same.

The hardest part for me is that I thought I had been approaching these situations in the right way. I work with children and families for a living; I have experience navigating family dynamics and child behavior. I know how I’m supposed to interact with a young child in order to get what I want. I kneel down to get on Eitan’s level. I speak in a soft tone of voice. I say please. I explain why I’m giving a certain direction or making a request. I avoid yelling whenever I can and I encourage Eitan to speak to me, rather than screaming and crying. But still, Eitan and I end up doing the same dance every time.

I’ve used the dance metaphor a few times with some of the families with whom I’ve worked who have found themselves constantly getting sucked into these battles.1 I illustrate how each person’s behavior represents some of the steps in the dance. The child moves here, the parent moves a different way in response, the child follows up with another move, and so on. They’re dancing together and the steps are always the same.

My advice, usually to the parents, is to find a way to change the steps. If one side disrupts the rhythm or makes a different move, the other side has to move differently to adapt. If the child starts yelling, I suggest that the parent try remaining silent, rather than yelling back, as they have been. If the knee-jerk reaction is to use the phrase, “Because I said so,” I help the parent find a way to give a more substantive explanation for their request. If the parent usually jumps to say no, we work to find a different response that is more open to compromise. The idea is to move toward a point of collaboration, rather than confrontation.

This all sounds great, in theory. The difficulty is in remembering to alter one’s behavior when they’re in the middle of an argument that has happened hundreds of times. I’ll be the first to admit that I have forgotten my own advice plenty of times over the past few weeks by allowing Eitan to draw me into the same power struggles. He and I have been like oil and water, bickering about things as serious as him chucking his basketball across the living room and as insignificant as whether or not he should be allowed to put his shoes on without socks. I realize that it is ridiculous for me, a grown man, to be screaming back and forth with a three-year-old about whether he should be allowed to pour his own juice or play with certain toys. But I’m a creature of routine, as most humans are, and when I feel like Eitan is doing something he should not be, my impulse is to stop him.

That’s really where the solution lies for me. The first word out of my mouth has always been “No,” which immediately creates a standoff. “No” does not allow for other options or conversation; it simply ends. Rather than trying to stop what Eitan is doing, I should be finding ways to either redirect him or negotiate ways for him to continue his activity in a different way. (Maybe we can roll the ball back and forth instead of throwing it across the room. How about we set a timer and when it goes off, then we stop playing and go take a bath?) I also need to do a better job of realizing when certain battles are just not worth having. Nobody is really getting hurt if Eitan squeezes out too much lotion after his bath or if he plays on his Kindle for a few minutes in the morning or if he takes a pot to put on his pretend stove. Learning to say “Yes” once in a while for minor things can work wonders.

One of the hardest things about being a parent is having to face challenges every day. On the other hand, every new day gives me a new opportunity to learn from my mistakes, break the routine and change the steps.

 


1. I know, this is two posts in a row where I’ve written about dancing. Here was the first one, in case you missed it.

Dance Like No One’s Watching

I’m not a great dancer.

When we got married, Trudy and I took dance lessons in preparation for our first dance during the reception. It was a good thing we did, too; I knew nothing about the “proper” way to dance so I needed instruction on my posture, my hand placement and, of course, my footwork. Also, Trudy and I had agreed that we wanted the first dance to be special. It didn’t have to be some incredibly complicated routine, but neither of us were comfortable with just swaying from side to side like middle school kids at a bar mitzvah. So we took the lessons, learned the steps and, if I do say so myself, we looked pretty good doing it.

I remember having an image in my head of what I looked like while I was dancing. My steps were smooth and fluid. I was confident about where I was going. I didn’t trip once. Trudy and I moved together as one body throughout the song. Everything felt right (as it should have, considering it was our wedding). And then, when I saw the video a few months later, I was surprised that the video didn’t quite match the way I’d felt while I was dancing. I looked stiff and controlled. I was smiling – it was obvious that I was enjoying myself – but none of the moves seemed natural. I was calculating every step, planning every beat in advance, when I should have looked like I was losing myself in the music.

I was disappointed.

I had built up this image in my head of how I thought I looked and reality definitely did not measure up to my expectation. It also didn’t help when friends of ours got married a year or two later and, when we watched their first dance, I remember thinking to myself, “Now, that guy is graceful.” There was a moment when the groom danced his new wife across the dance floor, slowly, his steps matching the time and mood of the song perfectly, and I found myself wondering why I didn’t look like that when I danced.

We all do this, in one way or another. We measure our lives against those of the people around us to see who’s making the most progress, who’s the most successful, who’s farther ahead, as though we’re running some race. Social media, in particular, is terrible for this. We see our friends going on dates and vacations, getting promoted and married and having children and we think about how interesting and fun their lives are. Everyone else looks more content, more lively, more talented than we do. Everyone else is having a good time. Everyone else is happy.

It can be a dangerous thing to compare one’s self to others. Everything looks better on social media because nobody is going to purposely broadcast the negative aspects of their lives. We all want to put our best feet forward and present the best versions of ourselves to the world. For one thing, no one really wants to admit that they have flaws or that things are not always going well for them. For another, some people even believe that if they spend enough time and effort creating a more positive image, eventually it might become a reality.

The key is to remember that no one is perfect. Some people live more comfortably and may not have the same worries as others. Some people might smile a bit more; some people might have different body types; some people might look one way or another online. But everyone has their weaknesses, their vices, their guilt and their worries. Everyone has things that bother them.

I fall into these traps every once in a while, as I’m sure everyone does. And, whenever I do, I remind myself of all the things that I have going for me. I think of my family, my job and my home, of course, but I also remember that the things I see on social media are just projections. None of it is really real. Most importantly, though, I remember that looking outward is never going to make me feel as good as looking inward. I will always get more satisfaction out of focusing on my accomplishments, the people who have helped me get to where I am and planning for my family’s future than I will from thinking about what other people have going on in their lives.

It’s okay if I’m not the best dancer. The people I’m dancing with are more important than how I look.

(And they don’t care what I look like when I’m dancing anyway.)