When I was a boy, I perceived the world of adults as divided into two groups: adults with grey hair, and adults whose hair wasn’t grey. There was something impenetrably unknowable to me about the lives of all the adults without gray hair. They were all busy, whether they were teachers, or bus drivers, or housewives. I did not truly understand what they were all so busy with, except that it was more important than anything else.
This was not the case with adults with grey hair. Many of them were not busy any more, which meant they were free to play with me. I do not mean to suggest that those other adults, including my parents, never played with me. They often did. It’s just that it was hard for them to completely set aside their busy-ness. It could summon them away as quickly as a thought. But those adults with gray hair seemed to have cleared enough space in their minds to commit as fully as a child to the business of having fun.
This was my job as a child, and I took it seriously. My job was to find the games that were most fun for me to play. No one told me this was my job. I knew it as soon as I had a consciousness that could know something. So did all the other kids, it seemed. However, having fun was sometimes a noisy operation, which could bring children into conflict with a small sub-group of adults with grey hair: those who had no space in their mind for fun whatsoever.
I feared these men and women more than the violent boys I avoided on playgrounds, though I sensed they were kindred spirits of sorts. Some disappointment had calcified in their minds, as if whatever they had been so busy with before they had grey hair had never been completed, and now it was too late. If you got too close to these people, you were sure to be blamed for something. Fortunately, they were easy to spot from a distance.
Eventually, I became one of those adults without grey hair. I have my own children, and I know now what we are all so busy with. I am not going to name it because it doesn’t actually exist, and I am all too aware of my willingness to believe in it. I had not really thought about this until my boys started going to school and returning with homework. My boys hated homework. Getting them to do it was like trying to take my cat for a walk. When I visited a high school a few years ago and asked the kids what they would change about school, they all agreed, “No homework.”
My youngest so hated school and homework that he retreated into his imagination, where he spent so much time that he eventually received the diagnosis of autism. We were advised to give him medication so that he could go to school. If my wife and I had truly believed that school and homework was the only way to prepare him for adulthood, we’d have given him medication. We decided to homeschool him instead. This wasn’t always the easiest choice, but it did seem like the most practical one if our goal for him was a happy adulthood.
He’s seventeen now, and has begun to occasionally worry about his future. I know that if he were getting ready to graduate from a traditional high school, he might be worrying slightly less about that future, but I do not regret our choice to homeschool him. One way or the other he’s going to have to answer the same question that everyone must answer: Why am I here? Can the games I found in childhood lead me through adulthood, or must they end until I earn my happiness? It’s a question I ask every day as my hair grows steadily greyer.
I have two sons. My oldest son, Max, decided around age eleven that school was a just a game he needed to play if he was going to get where he wanted to go. From that time forward it was relatively easy for him. He graduated high school near the top of his class, he was elected Junior Class President, he was a member of the debate team, he was offered a scholarship to American University, and was one of two seniors selected to speak at his commencement. He also had a girlfriend, for the record.
My younger son, Sawyer, decided around age twelve that he wanted nothing more to do with school, and he has been homeschooled ever since. He has never been a member of any team, he has never won an award, nor does he have a circle of friends. He was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was seven.
Do not be fooled by this list, however. Max and Sawyer are different in the way all brothers are different and are similar in the way all brothers are similar, just as two branches grow in different directions from the same tree. Lists of accolades and diagnoses form extremely misleading portraits. Missing are the thousands of tiny choices that make up a day, choices that ultimately determine the course of a life.
As their father, my concern is not that list of accolades and diagnoses, but those tiny choices that make up a day. And not their choices – but mine. No matter how different their choices and experiences, my job remains exactly the same: To ask myself, whenever my boys and I are relating, “What is the very best thing I can do or say at this moment?” That’s it. My job is not to fix them or plan their lives or even teach them right from wrong.
It is a very simple job that nonetheless requires my full attention because no two moments are ever the same. Sometimes the best thing to do is to tell a story, and sometimes the best thing to do is to listen to a story; sometimes the best thing to do is give a little advice, and sometimes the best thing to do is take a little advice. Of course, sometimes I do not give a moment my full attention, which is always when I find other people most annoying. When I don’t give a moment my full attention, instead of asking, “What’s the best thing I can do or say?” I usually ask myself, “What the hell is wrong with that person?”
The answer to that question is always, “Nothing.” Yes, sometimes that other person is upset, or scared, or angry, or tired, or confused – but nothing is ever wrong with them. They are never broken. If I ask honestly ask myself, “What’s the best thing I can do?” I always get an answer. If I ask, “What is wrong with that person?” any answer I hear is merely an invention of my own fear that life itself has somehow gone off-kilter and I must now correct it.
That is not a job I want. I’ve attempted it often, with very poor results. In fact, I could no more do that job than teach a tree to grow. Whether I am a parent or child, the best I can ever do is align myself with where I authentically want to go. This choice requires my full attention, but the benefits of giving that attention are always immediate. No sooner do I do so than I am back with myself, and my boys, and all those other people of which a life is made.
I tell my writing students and clients that if I could give only one piece of writing advice it would be to pay attention to how you feel.
Because every story every writer wants to tell is as different as the life each writer is leading, there is no way to know if you are telling your right story in the right way, other than how you feel as you are telling it. I always feel better when I tell a story in the way I most want to tell it, and I always feel worse when I try to make myself tell a story I don’t want to tell in a way I don’t want to tell it. It is as dependable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
I did not know where the sun rose or set for many years. Growing up I didn’t understand about north, south, east, and west as it related to my everyday life. I knew street names and how to get to my school and my friends’ houses, and I knew the sun appeared in my window every morning and retired every night. I never noticed how the shadows moved through the course of the day. I did not look to the sun for any guidance beyond the light it provided.
It was about the time I had children that I began paying attention to the sun’s dependable station in the sky. I suppose I was looking for guidance anywhere I could find it. Books and articles and websites with instructions on How to Be a Good Parent are useful, but I had two sons and each one needed something different of me. What’s more, what was asked of me changed as they changed. Each one would require his own instruction manual that would have to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten.
I wanted to be a good parent, and I wanted my boys to thrive, but in reality I still wanted the exact same thing at 42 that I did at 12: to be happy. It turns out this is something my boys and I had in common. I would frequently forget this as I went about the business of trying to teach them the many rules humans made up before they were born. By the time I was done explaining about red lights and green lights, and inside voices and outside voices, and north and south and east and west, I could believe that but for the light of my knowledge they would stumble about in darkness all their lives.
It was particularly challenging with my younger son whose attention was so often directed inward that I wasn’t sure if he even noticed the sun in the sky, let alone an oncoming car. He would eventually receive a diagnosis for this habit, which only compounded my belief that I was somehow responsible for every step that he took. This belief left me exhausted and ripe for failure. I could no more tell him how to be happy than I could tell one of my students which words went where in their stories.
I could, however, remind him that he possessed the exact same unerring guidance system that I did. To do so I had to first remind myself every single day that he has this guidance system, and that, just like me, when he ignores it he feels crappy, and when he obeys it he feels good. It never fails. It’s always a relief when I remember this. At that moment, fatherhood and writing and life itself become far simpler. Gone is the need for the perfect map or guidebook; now I need only look toward the light to tell me where I am.
Shortly after my second son, Sawyer, was born, my wife, Jen, began experiencing some discomfort in her abdomen. Several trips to the gynecologist yielded no improvement, so an ultrasound was scheduled. On the day, I sat in the waiting room with my infant son while she was examined. As a young father, this was a familiar experience. Between my wife's pregnancies and then my two sons checkups and bruises, there were many trips to doctors’ offices where I found myself waiting and waiting, until I learned that everyone was fine and everything was going to be okay.
Eventually Jen emerged from the examination room and sat beside me with a heavy sigh. “They found a growth on one of my ovaries.”
She nodded. A growth. In my imagination, I quickly diagnosed this growth. It was cancer. And she was going to die. And I was going to raise my sons alone. I began picturing my life as a single father. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I would adjust, and everything would be okay.
I had just finished this trip to the future when her doctor appeared and began explaining what an ovarian cyst was. Apparently an ovarian cyst isn’t cancer, but it can cause discomfort in the abdomen. I was still a little disoriented by it all, and once we’d thanked her doctor, I turned to Jen for clarification. “So you’re not going die?”
She laughed. “Not yet.”
Seven years later my son Sawyer would be diagnosed with autism. There were times during that period where I felt as if I spent half my waking life in waiting rooms. It was appropriate, I suppose, because the parent of a child with this diagnosis can live in a suspended state of unending waiting – not for news from this or that doctor, therapist, or teacher, but simply waiting for The Future, where autism’s true threat always lies.
Because even though school was difficult for my son, and even though getting his attention at home could be difficult, and even though he wasn’t making friends the way other kids were making friends – ultimately, in the present moment, everything was okay. He wasn’t unhappy, at least not any more than I was sometimes unhappy or his brother and his mother were sometimes unhappy. In fact, he was often quite happy; he just found most of that happiness in the realm of his constantly active imagination.
It was the very realm in which as a writer I’d found such pleasure, but as a father I often found much misery. Sometimes I would ask my imagination what The Future would look like for Sawyer, and because my imagination could not easily draw a line between what I was seeing in the present and what I wanted to see in the future, it showed me a dystopian world where for some reason Sawyer had learned absolutely nothing about how to get along with other adults. If I looked too long at that world, I would begin panicking in the world where I actually lived, as if that future had already arrived. I needed to do something immediately because everything wasn’t okay.
The best thing I can do at these moments is always nothing. Every time I try to predict the future I am wrong, and I am never more wrong than when I predict tragedy, a dismal future where everything is not and never will be okay. The fear I have felt for my son is always quite real, but the cause of that fear is always imagined. Not sometimes – always. Just as when I take the time to look around at when and where I’m actually living, I eventually notice that everything and everyone are always okay.
I coach, teach, and generally talk to a lot of writers. It is easy to view what we write the way we view our children: but for us these stories would never exist, and once we have raised them from a mere idea to a fully formed book, we send them out into the wide world to be read and have a life of their own. An author can no more control what a reader thinks and feels about the book he’s written than a father can control what his son’s friends think and feel about his son.
Authors worry as much if not more than your average parent. A common source of an author’s worry is the belief that it is possible, somehow, to perfect what he has written. Not merely improve, mind you, but actually perfect – choose the scenes, sentences, and words for which there is absolutely no alternative. There is no peace possible within this thought. Every book could be rewritten and rewritten until the end of time.
Children, on the other hand, are born perfect. To hold a newborn, who cannot walk or talk or conjugate a single verb, and view that little person as anything other than perfect requires an effort of the mind. In fact, the newborn’s perfection is beyond the mind’s understanding. The mind, ultimately, is responsible for life’s details, for distinguishing one thing from another so the heart can choose its preference. The newborn’s perfection is felt rather than understood in precisely the same way we feel our own perfection. To behold this perfection is to know peace, for there is nothing to be done or changed or corrected; everything is already as it should be.
It is easy to look in the mirror, as the mind counts the lines on our face or measures our nose and eyes against other noses and eyes, and forget that perfection, just as it is easy to look out our window and see a world of grossly imperfect people. We measure the violence and cruelty against what we have felt in our most peaceful moments, and the world comes up short. Children can be such a balm against that heartbreak. The parent can watch a child learn to walk where it wants to walk and say what it wants to say from within the perfection he first beheld before the child could make a single choice.
I have sat beside other young parents in the waiting rooms of neurologists and speech therapists and occupational therapists and felt the heartbreak for which we were unprepared. Though we may not have known it when we chose to have them, these children came in part to heal what we had seen in windows and mirrors as we made our way in the wide world. And now here we are, feeling robbed of the peace we’d barely had time to remember. In the place of this peace are all the choices we must make to somehow correct what appears to have arrived imperfect.
The best choice I have ever made for my son was to see him as perfect again. He did not always make this as easy as he did when I first held him, but the peace I have chosen since then has sustained me in ways that first perception could not. I know that words like peace can sound like empty platitudes against the hard, diagnostic reality of words like autism, but that is only because true perfection remains unbelievably constant. It will never be found within the words or careers or doctors we choose, but is rather the womb from which those choices are born.
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.