When you were a kid, did you imagine that a slit in a fence could be the doorway into a magic place?
Did you ever disappear somewhere else,
somewhere far away?
When I was a boy I loved hanging out in the garage with my father while he tinkered with his car. I didn’t give a hoot about the car, or his tinkering. I just wanted to breathe in his darshan, those precious moments when it was just me, him, and….when it was just me & him there was nothing else.
Once I was stained glass hungry for light.
My father knighted me every time he looked at me, so I spent a lot of time hanging around the place I could find him: the garage. I’d stand on the edge and watch my father dive into the pond that was the car engine, waiting for him to come up for air. But when my father dove into something, he rarely came up until it was done. My father’s pride was the dark soil that stuck in the fingernails of his soiled hands. By the time I was 12, I was drowning in my waiting. I was so fixated on my father, I didn’t really notice the engine. When I look under the hood of a car, I can never tell the difference between a thingamajig and a whatchamacallit.
By the time I was in college, I was on a mission looking for mentors. I got really good at finding brilliant, powerful, loving older men. One thing all the great mentors have in common is this: when they look at you, you see a spark in their eye, and the spark is YOU. Their vision cuts through the dross of self-doubt and loves the radiant song that you are. These men nourished me with a substance that grows in the marrow of a man’s bones. All this priming turned me into a magnet for young people. I’ve mentored hundreds of them. Only one ever upped the ante and called me “father”, though. His name was Matthew, and he claimed me before I claimed him.
I plucked you like a dandelion and carried you in my pocket all the way home.
When he showed up, he was a tall 19-year-old, gangly cross between a hippie and a (white) Malcolm X knock off. He wore his long hair in a pony tail when it wasn’t tucked inside a Black Panther hat. He started coming up to my office to talk about diversity issues on campus. He had an unusually high level of intercultural intelligence. He was intellectually and spiritually curious. He was hungry. We all come to the table with our bellies empty, no?. I taught him everything I knew. I opened the hood to the universal engine and pointed out every part. I taught him how it worked, how to keep it lubricated, how to keep it running sound. It gave me life.
On those days
I lived like a star,
not hiding my fires
in a universe gone dark.
I introduced him to Rumi, Hafiz, and the world of the mystics. I taught him to meditate. I brought him to yoga and watched him become an advanced yogi. I introduced him to the concept of the Shadow. One summer he announced, “I’ve decided to dedicate this summer to exploring my shadow. No more good boy.” For a few months, he cursed, drank, and expressed everything he’d been repressing. He became the breath of fresh air that frightens mothers everywhere. I listened to him labor through his shyness with girls. I cheered him when he was falling in love, and consoled him when he suffered losses. I watched with pride as he started grass roots movements and became a community organizer, marching for social justice and anti-racism events. I watched him expand and move into the beat poetry world. I watched this shy, awkward adolescent command a stage and spit fire on the mike in front of large audiences. His voice was a volcano. We were the unsuspecting villagers frozen in his poems of ash.
I was proud of the man he was becoming and relished my part in that. I poured everything I had into him. Then I did something nobody had done for me: I let him see me fail. He saw me fall down and bloody myself in a million ways. I wanted to give him the benefit of a mentor he didn’t have to compete with. I wanted him to know the radiant beauty of a messy life.
One day I let him down. He challenged me, which was exactly what a good mentor hopes for. My chance to be a true mentor. But instead of throwing him a party and crowning him, I reacted. I lost focus and failed to acknowledge his courage in standing up to his mentor. The relationship crawled back into the womb. There was no drama. It was a quiet crumbling.
One morning, hung over from trying to drink you under the table,
I woke to find my pockets empty.
No dandelion, no grass.
Labor pains hurt like hell. For a few years, we barely spoke, until finally, the lights went out. It’s been 5 years.
What does a jellyfish pray to?
The sea floor, the sky, or the light shimmering in between?
I became a jellyfish drowning in my losses.
It’s strange, I don’t remember dropping so many pieces of myself like crumbs from the fingers of children.
But it happens. Hearts don’t get broken, they just get wider.
Read your scars like a novel.
Open the book of your life and make yourself cry.
One day, while washing my car, I started thinking about him. I ran thru the entire thing, how he betrayed me, how much I resented him for not treating me with the same reverence I regarded my own mentors. You know: What’s wrong with kids these days? I tried to wash these thoughts out of my mind, but the next week there they were again. Every time I went to wash my car, I’d end up ruminating on the loss of that relationship. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Every Saturday.
By the 3rd year, it occurred to me I’d formed a neurological connection: whenever my car-washing neurons fired, my Matt neurons fired. As they say, neurons that fire together wire together. I tried getting away from it, bringing my car to different car-washes each week. It made no difference. No matter where I am, it’s impossible to wash my car without going into the zone where I work out my relationship with Matt.
In the beginning, all I could think about was all the ways I could make him feel the pain I felt. But my thoughts were caterpillars, and the carwash a chrysalis. By the second year, my thoughts sprouted wings that sounded like, hmmm, I wonder how I contributed to this outcome?
Turn your face to the sun.
No more broken dreams and petty schemes,
Rise, and turn your face to the sun.
I wanted to cry, but the walls of my eyes were too fragile for that much force. Instead, I pressed that power spray, set it on full blast, and let my grief pour through the nozzle. Every week I scrubbed my dirty car and cried through the power-hose. To a passing observer, I just looked like a guy washing his car. Nobody knew I was sobbing like a baby. While I washed, I chewed on the issues: What had I done to create this? How did I invite this loss into my life? How was I different from (less than) my own mentors? I thought about all the ways I failed Matt; all the ways I didn’t role model well; all the ways I let him down. Then I’d turn on the power spray and sob thru the hose until my car was immaculate.
Be honest: who among us has not watched themselves
as if from a far off distance running head-long away from life?
This life is like a blaze in the night. Even the trees shudder when you look back at their roots.
Try as you might, you cannot hide from yourself.
Each sentence is a message in a bottle flung to the sun
searching for someone to reflect back our lives
in the mirror of the sky.
Years have passed.
Now I’ve come back to these deep woods, wandering in circles,
like some love-wrecked dervish winding rings around a lost God.
Today I want to spit a rainbow of gratitude for this young man’s presence in my life.
May it tap you on the shoulder and tell you:
This is for the light breaking through at last.
This is for the poems you composed up and down my spine.
This is for the joyous jig you put into my bones.
I pray it makes its way back home to you.
We are standing at a crossroads, you and I.
Who will I be when you find me again?
Maybe then I’ll see the beauty of letting go,
though my fingers still strain at the parting.
For you will find me again.
You, lovely lonely child.
You loved me once, I think.
How long will we play this game of hide & seek?
Come out, come out, wherever you are.
There is a call you must answer now.
Let me grow old gracefully.
Let no one see a man afraid of living life.
We Could Be Oceans, yo.
* All italicized words are originally published in Matthew Foley’s book of poetry, We Could be Oceans,by Matthew Foley, Copyright 2014. All excerpts reprinted with permission by the author. Reprinted with permission.
Enjoy more of Matthew’s beautiful poetry and more at http://matthewfoleypoetry.com
Photo courtesy of the author.