Dear Jonah & Simon,
My family was pulled apart by lust: years of lust, generations of lust. So I grew up in two homes. In one home I woke up in my bed on school mornings; the other I visited two Saturdays each month, and Uncle Chris and I used the extra blankets and pillows they kept for us. In both places we heard and saw so much very loud anger, and in both homes there was secret quiet lust, and soon everyone moved apart from everyone else. Uncle Chris and I went largely neglected.
So much very loud anger and secret quiet lust and moving apart from everyone else gave us good reasons not to trust our fathers, but we did not know how not to trust them, precisely because they were our fathers. So we learned, over years, how to keep secrets from others, and from each other, and from ourselves.
Which is to say, from a purely mathematical point of view, if you look at just the odds: your mother took a terrible risk to marry me. Because if you think I’ll be around to raise you, cooking you Sunday-morning French toast; if you think I will teach you soccer and baseball in the backyard and bring you Band-Aids when you need them; if you think I’ll pray with you when you’re afraid or tell you the lie that I am the strongest (so monsters could never get you); if you think I will see you more often than two weekends a month and every second Christmas, then I should say very plainly so you can understand: it’s probably not going to happen.
Because the odds are the odds. We hardly have a one-in-three shot of making it through together. This is the most uncomfortable truth I know.
Even so, Spirit moves within us and we move along its Way, even if we move slowly along.
For example, I have now lived with both of you longer than my own father lived with me. The first time I realized this—that, living with Jonah, I’d out-lasted my dad’s time living with me—I was alone in the house as I picked up after you, on the phone with your mom while you and she were out running errands. Your mom and I were talking about what our plans were for the day, and while we talked I found one of Jonah’s toy swords in the bathroom, stuck through the handles of a cabinet, as though you’d trapped a monster hiding in there. You’d left the sword there, I imagined, and went off to play one of a hundred other games you play.
I pulled the sword out of the cabinet’s handles, laughing at first. I told your mom what I’d found and I said to her, “There must have been a dragon in the bathroom this morning. Jonah was busy being a hero before breakfast.”
Then I thought how my own father did not know my daily games at this, your age, that he never saw daily evidence of my own Hero Movements throughout the house. So, on the phone with your mom, I began to sob, and I couldn’t talk anymore. She didn’t quite know what to make of it—because I’d just been laughing about how beautiful it was.
In stories I have written, my descriptions of fathers and sons take up so much of my energy and feeling. I have become any kind of writer because of wounds my fathers gave me, whether from neglect, or abandonment, or physical harm, or their drinking, or their very loud anger, or their secret quiet lust, or just having no one bring me lunch on my birthday.
A wise poet, though, taught me that from my wounds my compassion grows up. And I’ve seen that from my wounds, I write stories. I look deeply into my hurt: into the hurts I’ve felt, and hurts I’ve caused, and hurts I’m capable of causing still. These teach me how to write, but they also teach me to love and forgive my fathers generously, and to pray for them, and to hold them close to me when I see them and say, “It’s good to see you. I love you.”
More than my writing, though, more than the working and thinking I’ve done through graduate school or as a professor—more than any idea I get paid to do—you, my sons, demand of me more creativity, more intellect, more patience, a better memory, more willingness to think new thoughts and to change, more depth, more vulnerability, more courage. I have never worked so hard as when I am with you, as when each morning I remember you, as when I’m showing you and telling you and teaching you about the Way of the world.
Just last week, Simon asked a question that Jonah had also asked a few years ago: “Did God make our house?” How do I help this child, who can’t listen to me say more than ten words in a row, to understand both that God made everything but that humans made the house?
But I am Dad. I am All The World’s Answers. I am Security. I am Tallest. I am Strongest. I am Smartest. (But of us only I know today that I am Full Of Shit.) So I thought. I was quiet. I’ve read some about this, and I’ve heard smart people have discussions about this. So I tried. And I gave you two words.
I gave you the word Creation: Creation, I said, is the whole world God made. All living things. All trees and rocks and mountains and dirt and sun. All oceans and sky and wind and rain and cold and hot.
Then I gave you the word Culture: Culture, I said, is what we make of Creation.
Our house is Culture, I told you, because we took Creation and made something of it. You seemed to understand pretty soon and I felt like a pretty good dad, a good teacher, a smart someone you loved and trusted. You pointed at the dogs and you said, “Creation!” You pointed at the couch and kitchen table and you said, “Culture!”
Of course, I was ripping off Andy Crouch, someone whose book I hope you read someday. But that’s exactly the point: How do I take my knowledge, my wonder, my questions, my doubt, my hurt, my love, my compassion, and then get them into my child when he asks, “Did God make this house?” How do I give you Plato’s tripartite soul when you don’t want to take a bath but have to; or measure the Teacher of Ecclesiastes against Aristotle, then unify their ethics for you; or do I let you fall down or do I keep you from falling down, or both, and when; or when do I have to keep up playing Hard-faced Dad, or when do I give in and just give you another damn scoop of ice cream; or when do I apologize, or change my mind, or explain myself, or say, “Because I said so”; or when do I just hold you as you cry?
These questions will go unanswered here. The point is not to answer them, but to show them to you, and again to remind you that, in truth, the odds of me staying in this family to discover the answers together—they’re low odds. It’s a sad truth. It’s a truth that shows us the horrors this world can contain.
Still, it’s a truth I remind myself of almost every day, in order to begin from there—begin from hurt I’ve felt and caused and am capable of causing still—and to move forward.
If I’m going to be any kind of a Dad Who Stays, then I have to make it my life’s work, my best work—better and beautifuler than anything I’ve ever thought up as a writer or professor, better than any explanation I might offer you, my sons—to stay.
And to be welcomed to stay.
And to become exactly the kind of person my fathers were not.
And it will take all my energy. And it will take all my love. And it will take all the compassion that comes up from my wounds.
So now I look at you, Jonah and Simon, and it occurs to me to ask: Are you Creation, or are you Culture? And I find that, to me, you are both: God made you, and your mother and I make you. You are God’s work, God’s Creation, given to us to make something of. And today, I’m doing my part, as far as I know how, to make Culture of you, to help form you, with you, even as you are precious without me.
So this is one last word: Every day when I remind myself of our terrible odds of staying together, and when I begin by first seeing the fact that I am broken in just the same ways my fathers were broken—I understand that I have an option to choose Resentment. If I want to, I can remember and abide in what my fathers did not give me. I could, if I wanted to, hold it against them for hurting me. And I could sustain those feelings. Some days I have chosen to abide in anger. I have thought about my father’s decision to leave us, about his choosing the pleasures a woman gave him over the thick rich deep roots we, his family, should have grown about him, his choosing to raise her kids rather than his own sons.
And sometimes I’m tempted to stay in the angry feelings, and to agree with them, and to escape from them—which, if I did, would, after years, only replicate and multiply those angry feelings in you.
So instead, on most days, given our terrible odds of staying together, and given that I have no good business being among you outside of Spirit’s movement among us, I remind myself that I am broken in just the same ways my fathers were. Then I choose to see what I can be grateful for. Because I am broken—so hurt and so hurtful—I can grow compassion and forgiveness for them, and I can be grateful. And while I could expose you to the same story I used to live within, a story I grew up in, a story I don’t want you to live within or grow up in, I can choose instead to be grateful for the willingness to move against that story.
And so, today, Gratitude is what I want show you, is the fire I’ll huddle around.
I have been taught to seek out Spirit, to open myself to Spirit, and to find and name and move within my gratitude. Today, rather than remain angry that my father did not know me as I know you, I am instead grateful to know you, grateful to hear the sounds of your laughs, grateful to remind you that, No, communion juice after the service is not punch; grateful to run my fingers over your hair and face; grateful to watch you wrestle, and jump, and be shy, and sleep. I am grateful to be with you when you cry and scream and throw tantrums. I am grateful for your disobedience. I am grateful for your need. I am grateful for your vulnerability. I am grateful to comfort you when you’re afraid.
I have learned to be grateful, in the space of just one breath, for your whole lives, your birth and your old age, all the good, all the bad, all the easy, all the uncomfortable, because you are Creation and you are gifts to me to make something of. So if there is anything I can teach you today, anything I can show you, anything I can build into you—it is this deep abiding gratitude just to be with you, just to be your dad.