Hitting ‘Refresh’: One Dark Night, This Ol’ Dad

I just didn’t get it. (I never seem to, as he often reminds me.)

We’d had a pretty good time at the basketball courts, my 13 year-old son and me and a half dozen temporary teammates. I thought so, anyway; I was gassed, toast, bagged (as we used to say in the Grand valley), as usual, but fairly content. I’d had a good run. Some shots and passes found their targets. No ankles were harmed in the making of that afternoon which had turned into an early Dalian evening. We had a 20-minute walk home, but somehow we couldn’t pull it off.

Ours was not a Norman Rockwell moment.

I can’t rebuild that wrecked conversation now, and there’s no instant replay available – all I know is that I must have said a steaming pile of Wrong Things, and before I could say “that was fun” my lad was snorting and huffing, you just don’t get-ting and stomping his way as far from the Dysfunctional Father Unit as he could get. He’s a fiery critter, and a stubborn, and maybe-just-maybe a little too much like his old man for our collective good. Here we go again, I muttered. How did we get here from there?  

It was dark, and I was alone, and except for the relationship shrapnel, that was fine by me. Breathing room. A little peace and quiet. Yes. But not only that: I also remembered to turn to an old favourite consolation. I could have recited what I remember of “Desiderata” – Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence… In spite of its ubiquitous presence on teen walls in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Max Ehrmann’s advice is excellent.1

That’s a good one, but though I often human-headedly resist it, what I really needed was to pray. I know: it’s an old-fashioned idea. (So are loyalty, humility, and doing unto others.) I quietly repeated, as I walked, the third prayer I learned to recite by heart; first, for this Baptist once-upon-a-kid, was Our Father. Later, I learned this sweet bit of asking, which comes from the lengthy menu of supplications in the Baha’i teachings. I memorized it decades ago, though I’ll neglect it and, when what I really need is quiet strength, homely wisdom, or the consolations of time out of mind, I have crappy old tunes from my youth on repeat, or I distract myself with newsweathersports, or just mutter profanely to nobody special.

I love poetry as prayer. Tennyson, anyone?

But not that night, and somehow those familiar old words seemed fresh and full of new meanings. When I was through, my heart felt lighter and the windows were open again. Small miracles are the real miracles: I called on higher powers than my own, and my circumstances, though seemingly unchanged, felt different. Who knows what the active ingredients are? Maybe I was speaking these friendly phrases to a new sky, or perhaps I was beseeching more urgently, more specifically than I often do. I wanted a peaceful heart. I wanted to be more ready to be a good Dad by the time I got home. Check.

In that dark night, I quietly called Out, and not in that acid-tinged, discouraged and derisive oh gawd that we so often utter in vain and in pain. It went something like this:

Good evening, Mystery. It’s me again.

“Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers.” Kind of a blunt request, but I’m learning that it’s not a bad idea. Not going to be finding it by myself anytime soon. As for the purity, well, good luck with that! It’s a big job. Rancour, frustration, blame, the usual suspects, all present and accounted for. So I’d best put some faith in both the higher and the powers. And who knows why, but tonight it seems easy. Necessary. Natural. Thou art the Mighty, the Compassionate, the All-Knowing, the great Et Cetera… So. Maybe. And maybe turn on the light, will you? I know I’ve left some patience and understanding down here somewhere.

“My Guide. My Refuge.” I do like the sounds of that – some direction, some existential safety, and my son needs them, too. Guide him. Protect him. Help me to do my part.

“I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life.” Time’s up for sadness. Whew. This feels good and better and right. Breathe, Dad, breathe. Glad days, jokes and button-busting pride are all just beyond this ridge. Yes. I do worry about the boy, but my anxiety doesn’t help him. Confidence does, though.  

“I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life.” I have promised You this — Great Spirit, Counsellor, Peacemaker, Coach — so many times! Tonight I’m listening. The small troubles I have in dealing with this bright and ornery lad, I’m here to remember, are noble hassles which I have freely, no, joyfully chosen. I share these harassments with parents everywhere – misery loves company! – but I have also entrusted them with a mysterious Father as awesome as a starry sky, a Friend as near as my life vein. Right. Thanks for the reminder, though I never stopped knowing it. Friend. Father. His, too. Someday it will be possible for me to be both to him, as well. Glad days are coming.

I proved it to myself again. Prayer works. We think about it the wrong way when we wonder, Did it change him? Do I believe in mumbo jumbo magic? Are my mutterings going to measurably affect personal histories, the swirling mix of circumstances and genetics? This reduces life to mechanics, brute cause and effect, and we’re learning – God, but it’s slow! – that things are more subtle and more interrelated than they appear to be. [See: Ecology.] Butterflies and hurricanes. Here’s what’s sure, though: my perturbed heart was calmed, my irritation had turned not into spinelessness but into a calmer acceptance. Hey, fatherhood is my job. It’s a tough one, but so what? It’s the greatest work, and I’m not alone in it. The quiet of the evening had seeped into my blood and bones and belief. It also diffused across a slightly more permeable membrane between son and self, and later on our g’night was actually good. It was a small crisis, and a tiny victory, but no less true for all that.


1  About “Desiderata”, I believed, as we all did, the romantic idea that this “anonymous” advice was found in an old church in Baltimore, and the suggestion that it came from a far distant time in colonial America. Max Ehrmann copyrighted it in 1927, it was ignored, and when it was revived in the 1960s, few cared to remember or find out where it came from. That old story 

Credit to Ehrmann, though no reason to believe this is a fragment of his original.

Comment (1)

  1. April

    When your boy grows up and if he can still remember those “unsuccessful” talks with you, he may feel regretful. At least I regret for what I have done to my parents at your boy’s age (just like him) even without reading anything like this written by my parents. A parent’s concerns are much more than a child’s regrets. So in the future, as retribution, when I feel concerned for my boy, I hope I can recall your solution and do some Chinese praying to get relief.

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