live in an emotionally torrid world. If you doubt it, follow
my five-year-old around Planet Earth for a day and watch the trajectory
of his passions. The same boy who head-butts me for making him apologize
to the manager at Bank of America for smashing a piece of their pavement
(he claimed he was doing an experiment), holds up a sign at a peace
vigil an hour later, reading "Dick Cheney's energy policy is
Please don't imagine he didn't understand the message he held out
to motorists. (The sign I'd suggested he hold instead -- as being
perhaps more age-appropriate -- said simply, "Peace in Our
Times". It had a pretty picture of a dove.)
John knows more about energy conservation, the global economy,
and reasoned social policy than anyone three times his size. That's
because he's a kid -- that is to say, a mystic, a realist, and a
natural saver. He saves rocks, dirt, pieces of torn paper, marbles,
rubber bands, nails, sheared off pieces of pavement, pencils, songs,
evidence of God's love and colored pieces of plastic. The child
knows that everything in this world has value, and most of all,
children: it's our attitudes that sometimes need discarding. John
can't begin to understand why someone would put a bomb where a child is.
Yet he can be brutal, truculent, impossible -- a completely exhausting,
enervating, child. Sometimes I want to shriek. Sometimes, I do.
If Walt Whitman had been a woman, and she'd had a child with Mussolini,
they'd have produced my son. Actually, that's an apt metaphor, because
I'm a poet, and last year I had to take out a long-term restraining
order against John's father, who was also well organized, but, one
way or another, nearly ended my life. I reproduced with someone
who tried to convince a judge that the only reason I minded his
assaulting me was that I had a bad case of nerves.
Well, it's true the assaults gave me a bad case of nerves, but
a lot of that passed after thousands of dollars in legal fees had
Recently, a social worker told me it was crucial I make John feel
remorse when he does something wrong. There was no use protesting
that my child, however demonic he can be, nevertheless has a conscience,
and the ability to feel remorse is emerging from that conscience
as surely as branches emerge from a seedling. You can't yank a tree
out of a seed; all you end up with is a crushed seed. I can try
like hell to make John behave, and I can pile on the consequences
when he doesn't, but I have my limits, because I am I, and he is he.
Remorse is not something you can make someone feel. Regret, yes.
Remorse, no. Remorse is about empathy, about a visceral sense of
connection with whomever you have wronged, such that you really
do feel their pain. In short, it's about conscience. John does feel
remorse sometimes, and deeply, but it isn't because I make him.
It's because, by the grace of God, his soul has opened to someone
The fact is, John has seen a lot of nasty, violent stuff, and it's
hurt him, and it's hurt me, and we're both learning how to live
beyond it. In a real sense he was taught to be violent, physically
and emotionally. It's going to take time, a lot of time, for both
of us to recover our real selves. And, because his father is still
in his life, and thus inexorably in mine, the memories can never
be fully buried. The painful truth is that there will always be
a lingering danger of his father's abuse manifesting itself again.
This is what our life is -- complicated and hard, yet sacred and
miraculous and wonderful -- and to fail to acknowledge this means
failing to perceive the depth and breadth of the child's world.
People jaw on about the resilience of children, but they don't
talk about children's memories, which are phenomenal, and which
record emotions deep in the parchment of their souls. Still, underneath
the memories of violence, which generate all kinds of emotions of
their own, endure our own selves, our own souls, our own true passions.
Our passions are our passions. We have a responsibility to do the
right thing, even when it's hard. We can and must be accountable.
But I cannot make my child experience a sense of right and wrong
in the same way I do.
What I can do is to share with him how gorgeous life feels when
you're part of the healing of the world, and not its torment. I
can take away his fire truck when he says something mean. I can
give him a time-out if he hits me. And I do. But the times he's
learning the most about being a decent human being are the times
he experiences the joy of it himself. When he feels the strength,
the satisfaction and the beauty of being of the world, and not against
Right now, too much of the world's passion is snarled in a knot
of misbegotten attempts at domination. I don't want to dominate
my son. Too often, I fall into that trap, mostly when my son rears
up and attacks me with words and violent acts he learned from his
father. But as soon as I do, the pain and anguish of it makes me
howl for both our sakes. My instinct when this happens is to open
before him the book of life and remind him he is a part of it; yet
everything I am being told to do is the opposite of that -- to punish,
I know in my heart that domination is not the answer. I want my
child to grow into a strong, compassionate, justice-loving being.
The most important thing I've done to encourage that so far is to
break free of being dominated myself. It wasn't easy, because leaving
an abuser is no different than breaking out of prison, except you're
in there for a crime someone else -- who happens to be the warden
-- committed, and that warden comes after you with a vengeance.
I want John to know what honorable behavior is, not what
it looks or sounds like, which is what he is apt to learn from his
father, who is a genius at presenting an impressive image. John's
father can charm anyone, anytime, into believing that his is the
very soul of tenderness. He softens and lowers his voice, makes
it tremble, and shares endless stories of his woes and of being
"misunderstood". That is his public self. His private
self is brutal, mercurial, addicted to violence as a means of bending
others to his will.
I want my son to do more than strike the pose of the righteous
man; I want him to grow up to be a righteous man. If he parrots
the notion of remorse, he will never find the truth of it. And if
I encourage him to choose image over reality, it will be on my conscience.
Somehow or other, I must honor John's passions, to help him be
of the world, instead of against it. To help him be so truly of
the world, in fact, that he cannot bear to harm it. It's hard work.
It's too hard, sometimes. I am riddled with flaws and imperfections
and impatience myself. But perhaps, if I can find the courage to
follow my own heart, and to sing with him the poetry and the glory
of life, we will find our way together.
mmo : november 2005