Dads are interesting creatures.
You spend your lifetime trying to figure out what they are and simultaneously how to be one.
From that moment of discovery, that realization that dawns when you crawl out from under your mother’s caring arms and into the world of men, you will never fully understand it, but it will consume you for the rest of your life.
At least it has consumed me these past fourty four years.
I’ve been privileged to travel with my father many times. These have been the greatest educational experiences of my life. Not just because of what my dad taught me. But because of the fact that he walked beside me while I experienced the full width and breadth of humanity.
It started in the airport in Portland, Oregon. I was in my early twenties and angry and frustrated at life. I wore a punk rock t-shirt with a skull and crossbones and a three-row studded belt.
It was not the uniform you wear to travel incognito through war zones and senstive cultures.
But I felt like I needed an identity, a shield to guard me from, well, myself, really.
My dad lit into me immediately, setting the tone for what would be a contentious and enlightening six weeks together.
We spent a week in Switzerland, and dad and I toured his old haunts and the places he and my mom lived after they were newly married.
I learned about photography from a childhood friend and walked along some mountain paths taking pictures while my dad spoke to the students about co-creating with God, a favorite topic of his for as long as I could remember. He often used Bob Dylan’s “Man Gave Names to All The Animals” as a cultural centerpiece to his talks.
That song, and his preaching on the subject would solidify my desire to work in a creative field, and even though I didn’t know it at the time, it created an interest in the relationship between humans and the natural world that would lead me to where I am today.
Budapest is an amazing city. I’ve been there many times, and everytime I go back, I’m astonished by how exotic and yet European it is. Aside from Kyiv, it is my favorite city on earth so far.
As a twenty-something traveling with your father, you’re afforded some space. Not much, but enough to get into trouble. After spending time with friends recording a rock album at a studio outside of the city, I decided to get a tattoo.
It seemed to fit with where I was at in terms of searching for an identity. And being a twenty-something, I was clearly only thinking of myself.
I got a tattoo of a koi in a pond with blossoms around it. My father was born in China, and I had a deep fascination with Asia and the places that had shaped my family’s overland journey from the Soviet Union to America.
The next day my father and I went to the Roman Baths, an amazing relic of time and one of the cultural centerpieces of Budapest. Of course this meant exposing my new tattoo to my dad, who didn’t take it well at all.
I had never experienced that level of disspointment before. No words, just silence for hours and then days.
I hadn’t realized I was capable of creating such disspointment until that moment. To this day, I don’t regret getting the tattoo, but I regret the way I went about it.
I’m sorry dad.
We flew from Budapest to Albania, where we would drive to the north-end of the country to work with refugee children fleeing war-torn Kosovo.
After a harrowing flight aboard my first-ever Russian Tubalov, parhaps the crappiest plane to ever attempt to fly, we were escorted through one of the poorest and bleakest countries I had ever seen so far in my life.
We were operating on very few words at this point.
But I was glad for his experience in places like this. He’s unflappable, always believing in the purpose of his being there. To this day, he manages to travel with complete resolve, and I remember being in awe of his appoach to nasty customs officials and military and police alike.
When you have a purpose in life, no person with a badge or a firm “no” can stand in your way.
That first night we stayed in a bomb shelter, and I fell asleep to the sound of American fighters roaring overhead to launch missile strikes at Serbian forces that were burning whole villages in Kosovo.
I could go into the history of that region here, but suffice it to say, one group of people did not like another group of people, and they wanted to wipe them off the face of the planet.
Children and families streamed into Albania, the ethnic home of the people of Kosovo.
We spent time with several American phsychologists who were working on a way to mitigate the damage of the atrocities they had experienced by quickly engaging the children in creative acts like drawing, coloring and painting.
The purpose was to get them to express themselves in healthy ways. To present their pain, their frustrations, their anger, their hatred in ways that could be talked through. First through rough images, and then through words and counseling. And eventually through creations that conveyed their healing.
I had never seen anything like it. Families ripped apart by war. Children who saw their mothers raped and their fathers and brothers shot, learned how to express themselves in ways that provided the healing they need to move on and re-establish themselves in the moral fabric of a world not at war.
My dad was as unflappable as ever. His view of the world is as unchanged today as it was in those first few moments when I left my mother’s arms and walked into the garage where he was building bookshelves and creating wonderful things made of wood.
One afternoon we enjoyed a beer and toasted bread together in a castle as old as time overlooking the hills, beyond which Kosovo burned. And he told about how he had once put scripture verses in the Albanian language into bottles and threw them into a river that flowed into the formerly most isolated and closed nation on earth.
It takes a lot of faith to believe that a scripture verse in a bottle could change a nation, but here we were some twenty years after he put that bottle in the river, and we were visiting an open and inviting nation.
My dad believes very strongly in promises, and though I have experinced too many disspointments to share that sentiment completely, I do honor the fact that he holds so fiercely to these.
Dad always let me make my own cultural mistakes and discoveries. He never forced them on me. This developed in me the notion that you must dive head-first into things. To experience them, and then to process what you experienced. You can’t go into everything guide-book ready.
To share an experience is to walk, at least a little ways, in someone else’s shoes.
Now I have a twenty-something son who is figuring out his way in this life.
We talk a lot about refugees and the poor and the abuse of power and justice in general. My son holds a lot of value in justice.
And I know, because of what my father taught me, that I can’t tell him how to navigate this world. I can only walk beside him through it for as long as I am able.
Everyone finds their own pathway in life, regardless of whether or not they have a father. Some of the strongest men I know didn’t have fathers.
Those that struggled with their relationship with their own fathers tend to appreciate the nuances of becoming a father. They don’t pretend its easy. I love those guys.
Those fathers that simply mimic their fathers perpetuate the damage that the patriarchy has already inflicted on society. Flattery may be the sincerest form of immitation, but it is not authentic. It’s the easiest way out of a heavy responsibility.
Of all the things I love about my dad, it’s his willingness to allow us to live our own lives and find our own pathways. Relationship and community will make up for everything else.
Our job is to walk alongside our kids as they experience the depth, breadth and width of their world. Parenthood doesn’t come with a guidebook, but an attentive father can be there while you learn the hard lessons and the subtle lessons of life.