It was the still the 60s, and our household challenged the norms: my mother commuted to work Monday through Friday, while my father stayed home. All through elementary school, my father would say goodbye to us at the door, always with the same admonition: Don’t believe everything they tell you.
He was serious. Very serious. My sister and I excelled in school and generally followed rules, so it was one of those warnings we didn’t quite know what to do with. But in the end, for better or worse, those words, and the man they came from, shaped who I am. Now when a friend tells me something surprising, I find myself asking, usually politely (though not always, I concede), how she knows it’s true.
My father wrote, mostly poetry. A ramshackle “cottage” lay at the end of our overgrown property, where he sat at an old wooden desk, typing page after page, most of which never went to a publisher, agent or magazine. He wrote, he said, because he had to write.
I didn’t understand what he meant for a very long time. But then I am reminded that my father also said understanding is vastly overrated, which at the time just made me laugh. He laughed too, but with a knowledge that saw beyond my then-rejection of what seemed to me an absurd observation. He was trying to tell me that understanding is good, but knowing is better.
Later, I realized that when he said he had to write, he meant he was filled with thoughts and feelings (especially the feelings), and only expressing them in poetry satisfied him. It didn’t matter to him whether his poems ever appeared in print. It didn’t matter if he were paid for his writing (we always seemed to have just enough money for the necessities, and no one seemed to care about anything beyond that).
Sometimes my father’s cryptic answers to my straightforward questions did frustrate me. He seemed to find pedantic explanations boring; instead, he preferred to respond to my questions with existential answers, which were often lost on my 7-year-old view of the world. I remember walking away from him, annoyed and shaking my head. But now, when I remember his answers, I get it. He just wanted me to think beyond what was obvious.
Years later, when I married, my father got to know my husband, spending time with him on several occasions. One day my father asked me about him:
He’s what they call “very successful,” isn’t he?
I just smiled at him and said yes. His question said so much. First, it called attention to the current, narrow use of the word “success,” to simply mean the accumulation of wealth within the confines of our capitalist culture. It also laid bare our society’s preoccupation with the corporate career path as the main factor in one’s “success.” My father always liked and respected my husband because of the kind of person he is. My father only realized years later, in passing, that my husband happened to fit the mold of society’s expectation of “success.” But that never figured into my father’s estimation of my husband.
One day in the 90s, well after I had moved to New York to work as a securities trader at a big bank, I picked up a copy of New York Magazine with a feature piece about Buddhism in America. A key category, “Beat Buddhists,” listed several of my father’s friends, all of whom I had known as a child. I remember feeling puzzled, wondering how New York Magazine knew Dad’s friends were Buddhists. I finally figured out (duh) that they were famous. And no one, not my father, not my mother, had ever told me. Fame was irrelevant to them.
I grew up in a house filled with old books. Books and books lined up on raw, unfinished 2x6s, held up with cinder blocks, each plank 8 feet long. These shelves were stacked 6 high, and the volumes filled every room of our home. Many of the books were missing a front or back cover, and some titles were missing, but when my dad was looking for a given text, he always knew exactly where it was.
One day recently I was in a Fifth Avenue apartment of an acquaintance. In her “library,” were custom-fit, rare-wood bookcases. The contents of these bookshelves perfectly matched the color of the elegant drapes in the room. But they were empty. Not just metaphorically empty. Literally empty. The “books” were fake: empty shells with spines spouting titles of editions that educated people were expected to have read.
My father had passed on, and I tried to imagine describing this room to him. He would have just looked at me blankly; what do you mean fake books? He, one of the smartest people I have ever known, would have been completely perplexed. Why, he might have asked me, would somebody have such a thing? Why indeed.
Things often happen to me now that lead me to see the world through his eyes. I am then reminded of what matters. This world was not always an easy place for him, but the world was lucky to have him in it, as was I.