Going Home

There were three years of my life when going home actually felt like something important. It was my first three years years of college, and going home often meant a holiday or a break. It felt special. The summer before my senior year my mom died of cancer, and going home felt impossible and like something I wanted to avoid. So I did. And then, a year after college, I got married and effectively created my own home. It wasn’t my only reason for marriage, but now, after thirteen years, three kids, and a divorce, I can see that it was part of my motivation. In the hierarchy of motivations it wasn’t the best or the worst one. But it played a part. At 23 I couldn’t see that, and even if someone had spoken that truth to me then, I can’t imagine I would have listened. 

I’m listening now, or at least trying to. To people – some I know and others I don’t – much wiser than me. Some of them have written books and others provide little encounters with truth while ringing up my groceries. If we’re lucky we get to experience more than one perspective as we pass through this life. It’s difficult to embrace the perspective of “parent without primary physical custody who lives two hours away” as a lucky one, but what other choice do I have? Thich Nhat Hanh, the brilliant Zen Buddhist, writes that “the first step in the art of transforming suffering is to come home to our suffering and recognize it.” Come home? To suffering? There aren’t a lot of people signing up for this trip.

There’s nothing worse than going home after I’ve dropped my kids off at their mom’s house. My youngest cries when I hug him goodbye, and I cry when I get in the car. And then I drive for two hours and walk into a quiet, empty house. A house where, just hours earlier, it was the center of activity, of trampoline jumping, homework finishing, guitar playing, and Lego building. And it feels like a punch in the gut. And I fucking hate it. And it’s necessary whether I want to admit it or not. Because what I’m learning is that I have to own this particularly painful perspective in order to either transform it or be transformed by it. Maybe both. 

Full Disclosure

Typically the hook isn’t so prominently displayed. The give away not so obvious. And that’s how advertisers get us. The message, the product, the pitch, it sounds so good. Too good, even. But we’re sucked in quickly because – at the end of the day – we’re all good consumers. Our disappointment isn’t fully realized until the thing we bought doesn’t work, look, taste, or feel like they said it would. It so often happens this way that I find myself surprised when an item is as good as advertised. I’m used to being ripped off. And this is so much a part of our culture that I think it’s become a part of who we are. More to the point, it’s become a part of who I am. 

I don’t know when it happens, or if a switch is flipped after so many infomercials, but somewhere in the in between we learn to market ourselves. We pitch our value to new people we’d like to be friends with. We market ourselves to prospective mates based on whatever criteria we think they have, then reel them in. We itemize our list of accomplishments for employers with hopes of nailing the interview and landing the dream job. And none of these things is intrinsically bad. The problem is that in every scenario exists the potential for some serious false advertising. 

It’s like this: if the thought of having kids causes you to have a panic attack, launching into your best Mr. Mom impersonation on the first date is – at a minimum – insincere. You’re the chamois towel that can absorb a five gallon bucket of water. If you’re running for elected office and you weren’t offered a full scholarship to West Point, claiming that you were is going to backfire. You’re the vacuum cleaner that can pick up a bowling ball. Or the knife that can cut through Coke cans and still peel tomatoes. It all seems wonderful at first, but it just doesn’t hold up. 

Full disclosure: I’ve done this. Not these specific examples, necessarily, but I have been the chamois towel, the vacuum, and the knife. I have purposefully tried to appear better than I am. I want to seem confident, competent, and in control. Often I am none of these things. Frequently I am none of these things simultaneously. And eventually this becomes evident to everyone involved. Whatever shine was there to begin with fades and what’s left is the me that I was afraid couldn’t cut it or didn’t believe was good enough. What I’ve been learning, however, is that there’s more to be gained by owning who I am right from the start – and really owning it, not with false modesty but with gut-wrenching honesty – than in building a persona or playing a dangerous game of fake it ’til you make it. Making it never happens like that. That’s the truly bad news. 

Here’s the sort-of bad news: not everyone is cool with this kind of full disclosure. It makes people uncomfortable. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable. But I’m discovering that in the awkwardness of owning my own brokeness there’s a peace that I’m not familiar with. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect. It’s actually better than advertised.