Tee and I crossed paths at our university’s faculty and staff enrichment day this morning. We lit up when we caught sight of each other. Between sessions, we made a beeline for each other to chat. At lunch, we found a table. He invited a friend to join us and I pulled up a chair for another co-worker. Greetings all around. Tee still introduces me as his “ex-wife.” I always say, “Meet Tee, Bug’s dad.” It feels good to make this conscious shift in my language and to let him follow his own instincts.
We laughed and talked, our little lunchtime foursome, going on about kids and birthday cakes and university parking tickets. The only friction came at the end when we had all packed up to head to the next breakout session. Tee held me back to encourage me to take Bug to a high ropes course they had visited over the weekend. Tee nudging me to follow his lead with all his super-daddy activities does not have the intended effect. Instead, I feel myself getting panicked and irritated. I have explained as much in the past, letting him know that Bug and I have our own rhythm on the weekends. Tee can’t seem to help himself. He is like a little kid bursting at the seams to share his new discovery. I can appreciate that Tee is hungry to describe these adventures to someone who knows his son’s unique ways.
From time to time, I indulge a little of this. Tee returns the favor in kind, I’m sure, putting up with my over-sharing when I forget to reel it in. Still, I am starting to let myself pay attention and trust my gut. If I notice an interaction is rubbing me the wrong way, I ask for us to stop. I know this perplexes Tee. He seeks to know more about why or at least to explain what his “side” is, as if my feelings have a counterpoint in logic. Sure, I could go on a reflective, meandering journey to understand why. I have done exactly that since. . . well, since forever. Even as a kid, I thought I had to have a rational explanation for a feeling AND a defensible position for my reason before I was allowed to ask for it to be respected. It is a revelation to hear my own voice saying with gentle frankness, Stop.
I am still learning how to identify my limits. The next step is to hold them without fear and without apology.
A peacemaker is a bridge walked on by both sides. You can either make peace or get the credit for it. But you cannot do both.
– David Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures
I am learning all over again how to do the elegant dance of caring for my connections while also caring for myself. It is strange to leave a marriage and return to parents. Strange, but also illuminating. I can see more clearly than ever the fascinating give-and-take in which my folks engage. Being here now shines new light on the odd mix of lessons I learned growing up. They have been married, as my mother like to say, “Oh, on and off for about 40 years.” After the drama of the Off, they have certainly earned their On. They have settled in. Even as I type this, they are downstairs giggling on the couch, delighted that they have finally learned how to use the On Demand feature on the Fios. “We have a new toy!” I hear my mother cry, and they both cheer when they discover yet another episode of their favorite British crime show.
Living so closely with them, I see how they have become a kind of hybrid being, each compensating for the weaknesses of the other. She worries about every impending disaster. He barrels in, guns blazing, his confidence more than compensating for any missing facts. They find balance in the partnership. That partnership still changes in ways that surprise me. Years ago, for example, they came to a grumbly truce about tennis. He is a fiend who goes out to hit on the backboard every weekend. She doesn’t like playing with him and flatly refuses to go. He asks her every Sunday as he’s packing his racket. Every Sunday, she says no. For years they have been going through their little Sunday routine. Then, one day in early October, I came downstairs to find them gearing up and getting in the car.
“Where are you going?”
“To hit a few!” My dad grinned. My mom rolled her eyes and off they went.
I am curious about how this happens, how people concede a little here and advocate a bit there, adjusting to similar adaptations in the people around them. Doing this while also staying true to one’s own path is a mystery to me. I am aware, though, that I have to resolve this polarity in myself first. I have a little bit too much of both of my weird and wonderful parents battling it out in me. Most days, I want to resolve the confusion by wrestling those extremes into submission and then crowing to the world that I am victorious.
Seeing Tee today reminds me that such deep change requires strength, not force. I can make peace in my relationship with my son’s father, my parents, my son, and my demons, but I have to do it with a quiet fortitude. With a loving touch. With a few private promises and a handful of well-placed words. I suspect that I also have to do it without “doing” it. Instead, I can let go of the pieces of what I believe to be true or right. Shake off the habits, watch them scatter, and welcome a new arrangement of things.