Thursday, September 4, 2014

Gray Hairs are Alright with Me!

Despite some new aches and pains, some patches of gray in my beard, a little downturn in energy, I’ve found there is a real joy in growing up.  You get to venture into the world unleashed and find your place in it all.  You get to realize who you are—and if you do it right you get to realize that there is so much more to it all than who you are.  The world, the universe, is quite a place.

For me growing up has been a very gradual process… a process that didn’t really take hold until I was well into my thirties.  And I’m sure Pam would be happy to tell all of you that I’m still very early in the game.  But so far I like the game.  I’m excited to keep playing.

Becoming a parent was a huge turning point for me.  This isn’t to say that you must have kids to grow up.  Certainly not.  Some of the most grown-up people—that is to say some of the wisest, kindest, most mindful people—that I have been lucky enough to know were not parents.  But for me, coming to grips with the fact that I had children, that they called me Dad and looked at me the way I looked at my own parents, was life changing in the best kind of way.  It gave me a big slap upside the face and shouted, “It’s not all about you!”  It made me want to be a part of bigger things.

Of course it was a hard transition.  I slapped back.  It’s a shock to go from being a moneyless but free-wheeling ski bum, focused on how fun it was for me to strap on my skis and hit my secret powder stashes in my free time, to being a dad changing someone else’s diaper and wiping someone else’s butt at someone else’s whim.  Of course there was the whole marriage thing too… and don’t even get me started on the nine-to-five job with one week of annual vacation!  Let’s just say there have been plenty of times when I didn’t handle it well.  When I resisted.  When I fought hard to hang on to my juvenile tendencies.

Growing up means there’s a lot to juggle—the people you love and make commitments to, the bills you have to pay, the job you have to keep in order to pay those bills, the dreams you have to put on the back burner or maybe even let go of.  It’s tricky to navigate the rat race without becoming a rat.  It’s not easy to hang onto your soul when so many drivers of our modern economy are soulless.  It’s all too easy to let heartless forces creep in and run our very lives, to harden us.

Part of me hardened in my late twenties and early thirties, as I entered a point in my life when it felt like a daily struggle just to keep my financial head above water and avoid drowning.  Without consciously thinking about it, I even started to feel that one of my primary roles as a father was to harden my children in order to ready them for the world.  But I was wrong.  Of course helping our children toughen a bit is a good thing, so they learn to dust themselves off, hold their chins up and keep trucking after life knocks them down, skins their knees or bruises their egos.  But toughening is different than hardening.  And slowly the process of loving my children has taught me that growing up shouldn’t be a hardening at all.  It should be a softening.  An opening.

As grownups, shouldn’t making the world a good place for children be our primary responsibility?  In this very moment and in every moment that follows, we can stop being rats.  We can kindle those untended fires in our souls and take action to ensure that our communities are places where children learn how to be kind and patient and mindful… places where they can grow up right.

And that’s what makes growing up so cool!  If we open ourselves up to these bigger responsibilities and seize the opportunities they offer—to enhance our societies, to be conscientious parents, to be stewards of life on this planet—our existence takes on new meanings.  Our lives get repainted with a whole new pallet of colors.  It’s like finally getting the super-big box of crayons, only cooler!

I’m not always good at all this.  Sometimes the pictures I create with all those crayons turn out ugly, even scary.  Sometimes I still just grab the black and haul off with some quick, thoughtless scribbling.  I’ve even broken a few of my favorite colors and had to tape them back together.  I’ve failed miserably at times.  But I want to be a good grownup.  I’ll keep working at it.

My son Kai was born with a club foot.  It was awkwardly twisted, like a hook, and at the moment of his birth I was afraid he might never walk.  As a baby he had to wear a brace—stiff leather boots that angled his feet and bound them to a bar, like being strapped into uncomfortable snowboard bindings all day and all night and not being able to unbuckle.  At night he woke several times and struggled against it, so he slept with Pam and I until he was two, so we could comfort him when he woke.  There was a lot of waking up, and I was tired during those years, but there were magical moments when he woke me up in a much bigger sense.

One morning, shortly after he learned to speak his first words, I woke to the sound of Kai saying “Hi” and looking down right into my face.  It was 4:30 AM and the first hint of dawn was just teasing the horizon outside my window.  But he had the biggest smile on his face, the brightest look in his eyes, as if just being there awake together in that moment was the greatest thing that could possibly happen.  And it was.  I reached up and he put his tiny hand in mine and his smile spread into me and filled me up.

We got out of bed and woke Kai’s older brother Noah, and I took them both to a patch of old growth forest near our home at the time, Bellingham, Washington.  We spent a couple hours there, just exploring beneath the giant trees, climbing on fallen logs, watching a heron in the wetland… until the coffee shop opened and we went for treats.

It was a simple morning.  It was the best kind of morning.  It was the kind of experience that I think of as a reward for growing up, and it filled me with the best kind of feelings.

One thing about being a grownup is that you get to share things that give your life meaning with the next generation.  You get to help them understand the things you’ve found that make the world worth living in.  Of course it doesn’t just happen.  You have to seize that opportunity.  You have to muster the energy and make it so…  You have to turn off your damn cell phone and put it away for a while.

For me, nature has always been at the top of my list of important things to share with my boys.  I want so strongly to share with them the wilderness that has given my life meaning—that has fed my soul and given me purpose.  But I can’t really put it all into words, at least not in a way that any kid would want to listen to.  It reminds me of a great quote by David James Duncan.  “But from boyhood through manhood it has been my experience that trying to grasp an insight, a deep mystery, a transrational experience, or any act of love via reason alone is rather like trying to play a guitar with one’s butt.”

So I try to make time to get outside with my boys, to provide some gentle guidance and share experiences.  And I just hope that we do this often enough that they find something and it speaks to them, helps them find their place in the universe, helps them see the miracles of their own lives and of all the other living things they share this planet with, helps them realize the possibilities that their beating hearts afford them… helps them comprehend the fact that none of it last forever, and that it’s okay.

Making time just to be in nature with no other agenda was one of the most wonderful gifts that my parents shared with me.  One of the fun things about growing up is that I get to pay that gift forward.

We all grow older.  Eventually it just happens to you, no matter how many multivitamins you take.  But growing up is different.  We have to work at becoming good grownups, at being mindful elders and stewards.  There’s a lot to balance.  It can be a lot of work to stay curious, enthused and playful.  It takes effort and desire.  But I think it’s worth it.  Big time.

I’m pretty sure e.e. cummings understood—and each of us can probably learn from his approach. 

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

I’d love to hear some of the things all of you enjoy about growing up.  Please share your thoughts and experiences with a comment below.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.