About five years ago I stopped writing fiction and began writing only about my own life, writing which took the form of the memoir that this website supports as well as a daily column for Author magazine. I have had the pleasure of interviewing many memoirists, like Wild author Cheryl Strayed and Townie author Andre Dubus III. I have also begun teaching memoir writing. I have learned much from all this storytelling, but two things stand out to me now.
First, if I am going to tell a story about my own life, I must ask: Why would this be of use to someone else? Why would someone who isn’t me or has never heard of me care about what happened to me? To answer this question is to find the true gift the story wants to offer. Now my suffering—which every story I have ever told includes—is not just some crap I went through, but is the course by which I arrived at an understanding greater than my own victory and defeat. Now my life is in service to life.
Second, whenever I read someone else’s story, I become that person. I was Cheryl Strayed while reading Wild and I was also Andre Dubus while reading Townie. I always become the narrator, whether that narrator is a middle-aged man like myself, or twenty-something year-old woman like Strayed. The story is always about me. I am the hero of every story ever told.
This yin and yang of storyteller and audience, of self and selflessness, is identical to the balance necessary for parenting, particularly parenting children with special needs. To have a child, to hold a newborn in your arms, is to understand immediately, instinctively, and irrefutably that life is always calling us to serve life. My life, it turns out, is not just some meaningless game I needed to win, but is a portal through life both appears and is sustained. To hold an infant in your arms is to understand, if only for a moment, the absurdity of all victory and loss.
And yet every single experience I have ever had is for me. Every gift I have ever given, every meal I have ever shared, every story I have ever told was for my benefit. In helping Sawyer learn to communicate, I learned to communicate; in helping Sawyer learn to listen, I had to learn to listen. I cannot give any gift until I have first received it. All this parenting, all this helping, all this teaching, required me to summon life to me so that I might share it with someone I love.
Moreover, the value of helping Sawyer, of summoning all this life energy to me to help him, will be measured in how much I have grown, not in how much he has grown. He will grow as he summons life to himself. That is his job, not mine. I cannot do that for him, no matter how much I love him. Nor would I want to do that for him. To summon his life for him would be to deny him his greatest and really only pleasure, would be to forget that the flower loves to grow as much as the gardener loves to water it.
This blog and this website the book it supports exist in many ways because I heard a story one day. A woman who ran a school for children with special needs described learning that the reason her son was literally banging his head against walls was because he had “sensory issues.” When she explained this to him and how there were steps they could take to help him, he said, “So you mean I’m not broken?”
I loved this story so much I kept telling it to myself over and over like a song I couldn’t stop singing. Eventually I heard the words, “No one is broken.” I knew immediately this was true. I knew it was true because to merely think it was to be released of the impossible responsibility of fixing anyone, myself most definitely included. To merely think it was to see a world without enemies, these broken men and women bent on harming others for no reason other than their own broken wickedness. In thinking those four words I felt more like myself than when I didn’t think them, for to think them meant I was already and always had been correct.
Except I could not prove that no one was broken. This was no small intellectual hurdle for me to clear. Though I was a creative writer who toiled daily in the subjective realm of taste and feeling, I lived in a world that at times seemed dominated by science, law, academics, and journalism, a world where something was only true when it could be proven. Proof, I had learned, was a highly democratic and civilized means of deciding “the truth.” Gone were the days of some king naming truths from his throne; in the modern world, evidence is king, for it has no birthright, skin color, or religion.
Evidence may be king in the courtroom and laboratory, but in the human heart nothing is known without trust. I would never be able to prove that I loved anyone, and that no one was broken was merely another way of saying that love is unconditional. The more I trusted that no one was broken, the more evidence I saw that this was true. Seeing, it appeared, was not actually believing. It was just the other way around.
Nothing can be done until we first believe it is at least possible to do it. In this way, belief precedes not only accomplishment, but evidence itself. Before I receive evidence that something can be done, I must first believe I can. I stop doing something the moment I believe it is impossible to do it, and I resume doing that same thing the moment I believe in its possibility. In this way, I choose the reality in which I wish to live, because without belief nothing in life would ever begin. We would all stand around waiting for reality to tell us what we can and cannot do, while reality waited patiently for us to choose the world we wished to create.
We all seem to come from a tribe. Sometimes the tribe looks like an immediate family, sometimes a neighborhood, or a church, or a school. It always feels safer in the tribe than out of the tribe. Here you all more or less agree with each other; here your sins are largely forgiven for the tribe knows you’re a good person even though you sometimes screw up. To leave the tribe is to wander the savannah alone, just you and your bow against all the wolves and hyenas.
But, as I wrote earlier, when you have a child with what we call special needs you are sometimes confronted with the challenge of seeing the world through the lens of unconditional love. For instance, for years Sawyer behaved in ways that I, and perhaps some of my tribe, had long determined was inappropriate. You didn’t get to be in our tribe when you acted like that. The conditions for being loved by our tribe were, among other things, to not act like a weirdo.
Fortunately, Sawyer was not about to accept help from someone who thought what he was doing was inappropriate. Thus began the shift in perception that led to my memoir and this website. This was not a smooth and easy shift, in no small part because the idea that no one is broken seemed like just the sort of belief that could get me booted out of not just my tribe, but every tribe.
In many ways, I’m a pretty traditional guy. I look and sound a bit like a television news anchor. I like sports and situation comedies. My favorite band is The Beatles; my favorite composer is Beethoven. Moreover, I want people to like me. If I find myself in a group, I want that group to accept me as one of their own. It seemed possible to me once upon a time that if I mastered being the Traditional Guy, everyone would accept me.
It didn’t work out that way. Some tribes hate the Traditional Guy as much as some other tribes love the Traditional Guy. So what’s a fellow to do who wants to be accepted everywhere? Sawyer had the answer in his own quirky way. It is easy to band together through love of a common enemy. As a New England Patriots fan I loathed the New York Jets and all their players. Until, of course, the great cornerback and one-time Jet Darrell Revis was traded to the Patriots. Now I love Darrell Revis!
It’s all a game. The only way to be accepted by all, to never be anyone’s enemy, was to cease to believe in enemies. That right there could get me killed, I thought to myself, but it’s worth the risk. I had lived my life in a tribe of one anyway. No one had ever agreed with every single thing I thought or said. If I could accept that I might find my way into the Tribe of Man, the only tribe to which I would ever want acceptance in the first place.
Last week, Sawyer – now age 15 – accompanied me while I did our shopping. Sawyer usually likes to wander the store by himself, ostensibly to look at the latest video game titles, but really to find people to talk to. Once upon a time, we could hardly get Sawyer to talk to anyone. Now it is virtually all he wants to do. He has, however, developed his own direct conversational style.
For instance, our cashier that day was a young man with brightly dyed blond hair. After the cashier asked Sawyer what kinds of movies he liked, Sawyer asked him if he was gay. I shot him a look: Too personal. None of your business. “I’m sorry!” said Sawyer. “I couldn’t help it.”
“That’s fine,” said the cashier. Sawyer went on to ask him if he had been bullied for being gay. The cashier hadn’t. Their conversation returned to movies.
Listening to Sawyer talk to strangers isn’t always easy for me. If he’s nervous, there is no telling how personal his questions might become. I worry that he will cross some line and that somehow I, as his father, must protect not him but the stranger from some embarrassment or awkwardness. Sawyer absolutely hates when I do this, and so I have had to let things roll, though I continue to worry for the strangers, for Sawyer, for myself – for the whole world, I guess.
The cashier, however, couldn’t have been nicer. He was kind and he was patient and he asked Sawyer questions about himself. We bid him goodbye and rolled our groceries into the parking lot. I was still recovering from the knowledge that Sawyer had walked up to a stranger and asked him if he was gay. The more I thought about him asking this question, and how I wished he had asked anything but that, the worse my mood became.
As we unloaded our groceries from the cart, I noticed an old woman with a cane standing beside the car adjacent to ours. She looked nervous. I was still in a bad mood, and I thought, Avoid eye contact. She’s a problem waiting to happen. Sawyer climbed into the passenger seat, and as I opened the driver’s door she said, “Excuse me, Sir. Could I get some advice?”
“Sure,” I said. She explained that her car was locked and she couldn’t find her keys. She was small, and she was frail, and she seemed so frightened and vulnerable, a baby bird tossed from the nest. I tried to help her remember where she might have left her keys. I asked if she would let me look through her purse. As I was digging through her purse, she said, “I think someone followed me.”
“No one followed you,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said.
It was as if I was lifting her back into her nest and could feel her fragile bones against my hands. Talking to her, I had to find a depth of patience and gentleness I do not always seek, not even for Sawyer, not even for myself. After a bit, I spotted her keys beneath the driver’s seat. She touched my arm in relief, and I very gently told her to go back into the store so they could call someone to help her unlock her car.
I climbed in behind the wheel and found I was in a wonderful mood. I glanced over at Sawyer and thought again of our cashier. For all I knew, his conversation with Sawyer was the highlight of his day, as he discovered within himself the patience to talk to a boy eager to find his way in the world. In this way, the kindness of the world reveals itself in humble subtlety, as strangers are brought together to find what they are looking for.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.