Old Enough to Know Better
Reflections on the confusion that one person feels about growing up
I SUSPECT THAT, like myself, many Americans of my generation were taught to believe that they could do anything with their lives. I was born in Pennsylvania, the son of two people that, from a distance, I see as young, and happy, and making their own way in the world. My mother was just out of nursing school and my father was finishing an associate degree in biology at Temple. Before I was a year old my parents took the first step in what would eventually lead them back to the town where they met, where their parents were from, where their parents parents were from.
There were pitstops along the way. We spent a year in Burkwick, where, against a dystopian backdrop of two nuclear sentinels billowing clouds out of their mouths, I floated on the back of my mom’s bicycle through the wide avenues of streets that I only remember as being empty. We fell occasionally. I remember lying sideways, suspended an inch off the pavement at the bottom of our driveway, calm and confused and staring at the bright orange lollipop that had fallen out of my mouth and was now out of my reach. Opening these windows in my mind, I can also hear my mom crying, hurt and afraid. I feel now, thinking of this, something similar to what I imagine she felt; the fear of someone you love hurt, the pain of their pain, the desperation to help relieve them of it. I wasn’t yet three years old, which means my mom was thirty. Five years younger than I am now.
We stayed in that house, my parent’s first, until I was five, which is when we completed the journey home, so to speak. It’s easy to imagine my father doing what seemed right, and best, all the while equating every mile closer to the place where he began with another brick in the wall between him and his dream of going somewhere else. Somewhere warmer. Somewhere new. Somewhere he could be the person that he felt he was meant to be. Not back to the place that expected him, or told him, to be the person that he was. We moved into the apartment above the dry cleaning business my mother’s parents had started, now run by my aunt, and stayed there for a very stressful year while our new home was being built in Cogan Station. A flood. An incredibly damaging fight between my parents and that same aunt. Followed by a patch of land that was part of a great quilt of forests and farms spread out across the Susquehanna Valley and it was to be ours. Recently, my father told me something that I still have trouble understanding, which was that he thought that was where we would stay, that it was where they would grow old.
We lived in that part of the world for five years. I climbed and chopped down trees. I watched herds of deer gather across the silence of our front yard and disappear into the forests. I waded through rivers and ice skated over frozen ponds. I learned to fish. Neither of my parents were hunters and mostly I just wanted to get close to the animals, to be near them, to take in the mystery of their being right in front of me. I was always drawn to the wild, often discouraged by other children, confused by their relentless violence toward me and other living things. My elementary school practiced corporal punishment. I can remember the sound of Brad Street screaming in the hallway while the principal forced him to grab his ankles without bending his knees while he repeatedly swung what looked like a cricket bat against his ass. For purposefully spilling someone else’s milk in the cafeteria, which we knew he’d not done, though we felt powerless to point at the one who did.
This isn’t to say that that where I grew up, or how I grew up, was only violent. My parents took me and my sister, five years younger, to Washington D.C. They took us to see art. They took us to see the ocean. My father and I stood with our foreheads against the windows at the top of the Sear’s Tower on a trip to visit my mom’s youngest sister and her family in Chicago, the same family with whom later I would live, after college, in Quito, Ecuador. My father and I would play catch in our front yard during the endless summer dusks. I was free to run about the world and encouraged to explore it. I was given responsibility and had a job helping a local boy landscape neighbor’s yards by the age of nine. I played baseball, and made the gymnastics team, and was in a bowling league. My parents, and my father’s parents, all taught me how to swim on their own. Still, today, I can feel my grandmother’s hands on my back as I lay rolling along the mild Pacific swell disappating in the cove where I swim in San Francisco, staring up at the sky, paralyzed by the weight of all the lives that it took to make my own.
My father lost his job. The men he was working for broke the law. I don’t know which law. Just that some of them went to prison. That was after they fired him, though. I get the sense that he wasn’t a “team player,” but that’s about all I know. That and he wouldn’t do coke with them. What my dad lacked in ability to assess the character of the people for whom he worked he made up for in spades for being a stand-up guy. Watching him get screwed repeatedly by these kinds of people and listening to Brad Street’s screams wash the tile gave me what I think was the foundation of my sense of social justice. They played by the rules and took the fall for, and sometimes with, the people who didn’t. As for my dad, it must have been difficult enough to find work in central Pennsylvania in the computer industry as a salesman in 1990 for him to finally have the excuse he needed to begin to untether himself, and his family, from the land where so many of his ancestors had been buried. Of course it broke his parent’s hearts, to watch us leave, to say goodbye to their only two grandchildren. But enough momentum will, almost always, defy gravity. We moved to Maryland. They would come to visit. We stayed for a year. And then we moved again.
At 35 years old, I have what feels like a good sense of who I am, less of a sense of who I could be, and even less of a sense of who I will be. I have been to five continents. I’ve lived on three. I have debt. I have a 401K that offsets most of it. Most of my closest friends went to graduate school. I didn’t and I’ve let go of most of the embarrassment of that, and most of the embarrassment of that. I complain too much. I love my friends immensely. I take people I love for granted. I’m obsessed with the thought that some day I’ll be free. I am aware of how naive and arrogant and pretentious that sounds. But it’s true. I am as curious about death as I am afraid of it. I subscribe to the aspects of many religions I like and loathe the ones I don’t, usually to a fault. I have a deep suspicion of unexplained and unjustified authority. I see what’s happening in Ferguson through the lens of growing up in an environment where I was taught to believe that God is love unless you turn your back on his son, in which case, God is the purist form of unadulterated hate and rage and injustice imaginable. In many ways, I am still that little boy who would, for fear of burning alive for all eternity, lie awake in bed at night horrified by the idea that death was on its way and would come unannounced.
My parents divorced in 2006. I sat them down and, in what can best be described as a pep talk that rivaled the worst stereotype of a high school football coach, told them we needed a plan, and a deadline. I have no question whether or not my parents should have stayed together. They’re good people, loving people, who were no longer capable of making each other happy. I do question how I approached them about it, though. I’m fairly certain that I will regret it for the rest of my life.
Follow your heart. I heard that growing up. I don’t know where, but I heard it. Trying to find it is like staring at the sun. I have the vague notion that my parents had no expectation of what I would do with my life, only that I should seek out happiness and should have no difficulty finding it. That seems to stand out the most. That I should do well in school, work in the summers, go to college, and be happy. They didn’t need me to be an attorney or an endocrinologist. They wanted me to be happy. My mother’s version of contributing to this has been her playing the role of an artistic patron, putting one camera in my hand after another. The first came when I was about eight or nine. My father’s was more along the lines of what sounded like a catechism; he did what he wanted to do, or as close to it as possible, and so he had no qualms about my going out into the world and doing the same. “My life is here,” he would tell me. “Your life is out there.” Sixteen years later my dad would like to see me more than he does but doesn’t know how to ask for that and I feel the same. My mom would have been okay had I never left, and while the teenager in me resents that, the adult in me understands there are few greater gifts than having someone that always wants you to come home.
So what now?
I work for myself. I am making ends meet and need to work harder and more consistently to pay for the time that I haven’t. I am in a relationship that doesn’t get enough of my attention. I am on a payment plan with the IRS to cover the taxes that I owed but didn’t set aside because I haven’t learned how to run an effective business yet. I am developing new business and new ideas about what I’m capable of and what I need to do to become capable of it. I am terrified of never figuring it out, the it that has no definition, but is this indefinite way we have of describing life and everything that comes with it. I’ve spent years ashamed of how much I haven’t accomplished, afraid that I will have wasted this life and all of the love that it took to give me one that’s as abundant as mine has been.
I am proud of myself for pursuing what I believe I was put on this earth to do, as ridiculous as that phrase may sound. I feel an oppressive guilt for not being able to do more for my friends and my family given how much they have done for me. I am without breath, holding my heart shattered in my hands, in the face of not being able to say goodbye to my grandfather, Pete, and to thank him for how much he loved me. For not getting on a plane two days sooner, which would have been the difference between holding his hand and saying goodbye and realizing that the last time I would see him would be standing next to my grandmother, on their back porch, in the warm light of the southern edge of spring, waving to me as I drove away in a flood of tears. I have come to appreciate that the last time I would see him would be near the summer, which is when we left all those years ago, and will forever be the season with which I associate him.
I am trying to improve myself, and to make money, and to be responsible, and to remind myself that true success is having people on whom you can rely, and who can rely on you, and that you can’t eat money, and that I need to work hard, and pay my bills, and accept those responsibilities. I try to swim further, and bear the cold longer, and to look at death in the same way that I looked at the deer before me in the forest, as something real, and natural, and full of breath.
I don’t know what I am supposed to know. I know that there are things I need to learn in order to become the person I want to be. I am confused and overwhelmed and excited by my life. It’s a great comfort to me that there are others out there in the world that feel as I do and have been willing to share this, as writing, or as painting, or as image, knowing that they would be judged, sometimes fairly, as being trite or too sensitive or ignorant or unhappy people. I’m not an unhappy person, I don’t think. I’m frightened. This fear, in concert with an abiding curiosity for all there is to see and experience, has a tendency to immobilize me. It has also led me a great distance around this world. Emotionally, and spiritually, I’ve traveled a far shorter distance. It’s because of that knowledge that I feel compelled to go far away, and I think my father felt that, too. I think that I have to push myself to extremes in order to be able to handle the sound of the many voices inside of me, some telling me to stay, and others telling me to go. Sometimes, though, late at night, when I wake up and it’s dark, I cannot help but feel like I have drifted deep into outer space, and for a brief moment, I feel completely, and totally alone.
It’s for this reason that I write, and that I make photographs. It is a practice in observing being alone in the company of other people, some of whom I know, many of whom I don’t, all of whom I feel compelled to consider. It’s really my family, though, the ones that were there from the beginning, and before the beginning, that I miss the most as I grow older. Every day I equate my success a little more with time and my wisdom with how I spend that time. You never get it back. It’s the most valuable currency I have to spend, and I wonder, amidst all of these words, how much left have I got, and am I getting better, am I getting better?