Well Dressed Older Men

I have a soft spot for well groomed older men.  There is one I often see creaking along on my walking trail, dapper in pressed khakis and a crisp button-down, white hair neatly cut and combed.  The sight of him always makes me smile, reminding me as he does of my Dad.  As long as I’ve been alive my Dad has gotten up early, showered, shaved, and dressed himself well.  This constancy gave me a sense of safety, of security.  I didn’t like the rare times I saw Dad sick, reminding me that he is mortal, that life isn’t as predictable as his behavior suggested.

My Dad would be the first to admit that he made mistakes in life.  He was from a generation of men who showed their love by working long hours away from their loved ones.  At that time Mom was the glue holding the family together, driving to piano practice, buying the birthday presents.  When I went off to college Mom made the weekly calls and put Dad on at the end for a few words.

Then they divorced.

On his own Dad figured out how to stay connected with his children. It turned out he was startling good at picking presents, the silver bracelet I eyed in a Nantucket jewelry store, the fuzzy blue sweater that went with my eyes.  Picking a good present is a way of noticing, and Dad showed me he noticed who I was and what I liked.  And then there are the Sunday night phone calls.  For over 30 years he has tracked me (and my brother and sister) down every Sunday night.  We talk about the weather and the grandchildren’s soccer scores.  Nothing profound, but a comfort in the knowledge of each other’s days.

At the end of visiting him several years ago Dad got up at 5:00 a.m. to see me off.  His hair was messy and his pajamas flapped around his skinny ankles as he insisted on wrestling my suitcase into the car.  I even caught a whiff of morning breath.  I drove away disturbed by this image of frailty, fearful he was getting old.  Turned out he was fine, I just was unused to seeing him in an ungroomed state.

As a parent myself, struggling with the many ways we can fail our children, I am comforted by the thought that an unwavering constancy of attention and a refusal to give up on trying your best can overcome a multitude of other parenting mistakes.  I may be three thousand miles away and over fifty years old, but I have never left my Dad’s radar screen.  My Dad is the template through which every other man is judged, his effects, both intentional and unintentional, felt in every day.  Not by chance did I marry a man who is passionate and hard working and has a constant presence like my dad.  I’m trying to give him a break on the morning breath, though.

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Hugging a Rattlesnake Will Not Turn it into a Teddy Bear

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I love reading the work of spiritual leaders and the consistent message, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Charlie Brown, is love and kindness. So I meditate every morning. I invite God’s lovingkindness into my life. I vow to be patient and kind and right up to the point my children wake up I am bursting with love and kindness. It gets a little sticky after that. They are my teachers, and I love them so much, my precious teddy bears, that I keep trying, over and over, to learn how to pass that lovingkindness along even when I have to ask, again, to please, please, please for the love of Buddha, stop leaving Otter Pop wrappers on the family room floor.

They are just younger versions of my imperfect self and we are all trying our best and there is a lot of love and goodness in each of them so I will keep imperfectly trying to teach them how to live in this civilization, or at least this family. They are still moldable, they still respond to love and the occasional phone confiscation. I demand stuff (hygiene, please!), they demand stuff (food, food, food), but the love flows in both directions. When they are not in a death match over the TV remote I really enjoy their company so it is worth the effort to help them become good people.

I’ll tell you what is not worth the effort. Most of us have probably run into someone who sucks up all our love and kindness and gives nothing back. We think we are getting something back because this person talks a slick line of love, s/he just doesn’t walk it. You can identify these people by the confusion you feel in their presence. He says he loves you and would never hurt you but your heart and gut (and maybe bank account) says the opposite. She says she respects and admires you but you always feel anxious in her presence. There actually is no love or kindness coming back at you, not by any real definition of love and kindness.

Many of us who are on this love and kindness path think if we just show this person enough love he will stop hurting us. And sometimes this is true. Sometime the love and kindness of even one person can guide a person back to the right path. But sometimes this is not true. Sometimes we pour all our love and kindness onto a person who cannot change her hurting ways. And this is where we need to realize that hugging a rattlesnake will not turn it into a teddy bear. In those situations our work is to face the fact that this is a rattlesnake for crying out loud, and put some boundaries between ourselves and that rattlesnake. Set him free into the wild or, if the person must stay in your life, put him in a cage.  From a distance, bless him on his snakey path of life, maybe give a respectful Namaste (remembering that God has a purpose for all his creatures), and then go find something truly soft and cuddly to love. Something that returns your love. Something that won’t strike and bite and leave toxin in your body when you pull it close, but instead will give you what any good teddy bear gives, warmth and love and safety. And you’ll know you have found the real deal when you wake up one day and realize there is so much love coming from your teddy bears that you don’t even mind stepping on sticky Otter Pop wrappers.