25 Jan Morning Mourning
– a video for the sleepyhead song sick of heaven- which involves releasing my father’s ashes into the ocean
It’s 5 am on the 9th anniversary of my father’s death, and as I lay here thinking about writing about my father – and myself – I struggle with the balance between nakedness and exhibitionism; between honesty and rawness. Honesty can be a gift, but if it’s given too freely, it can be hard for some to hear; it can come off as a curse. Recently I have been grappling for a balance between these two poles as an artist, as a husband, as a parent, as a sibling, and as a son. With so many roles to play with others, it has not been easy for me to find space to wrestle these same demons within myself. I’m feeling these battles in my body with aches and pains, and I’m doing my best to keep these skirmishes from becoming a war.
My sister has often talked to me about her struggle to fully grieve for our father’s death. When he passed away, I immediately stepped into his role within our family and did what I could to make sure that his funeral went smoothly. I took on this role willingly, out of respect and love for him. In some way I also know that, like him, I took on this role because it facilitated my ability to ignore the painful emotions of the moment. Like the bills and the artwork that pile up in my office unorganized, out of sight and out of mind, these emotions still wait for me to reckon with them.
Like most artists, I struggle to make work that has meaning for both myself and for others. Work that is deeply personal can often be universal. However it can also be so personal that it alienates others. For the past 10 years, I have worked to find a way to weave my own struggle with pain into a broader narrative about this universal problem. It is very difficult to find that line between nakedly honest and exhibitionist. The story that we are working on is so universal that I fear that putting too much of myself in the film will cause it to lose its relevance. I also feel that if I am not honest enough, the film will not resonate in the same way.
My father was somewhat infamous for his probing questions, his quick wit, and his easy way with curses in polite company. He did not have much patience for protocol or for prudishness. A common phrase of his was, “That guy wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful of it”. So it might surprise some of his former students and colleagues to hear that part of his exhibitionism shielded an intense sense of privacy. He struggled with a host of psychosomatic issues throughout his life, and despite his major efforts to reconcile with deeper emotional issues, he was not fully successful in this goal. I believe that his inability to reckon with his own demons contributed to his failing health.
His inquisitiveness and irreverence were powerful tools as a therapist and a teacher. So often in life, as we struggle to maintain equilibrium, we keep ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable present. At times, a well-placed curse or probing question can knock us out of balance just enough to push us forward. My father was great at helping to knock others out of their comfort zone – while still holding onto his quite violently.
He was an amazing leader, except when his leadership was challenged in ways that made him uncomfortable. He was not quick to anger, but when it came, it came forcefully, fueled by a surprising rage. Whether it’s genetic or learned, I do not know, but I am familiar with that feeling. Like him, I can hold onto my balance for dear life without being conscious of my efforts. I push myself way beyond the place where I should have let go. When I topple off the tightrope, the fall is much farther than I’d like it to be. I can tear myself to bits from the inside out, eventually exploding in an unseen anger. The key for me is to learn to let go before the pot boils over. I am doing better at that all the time (but still not one hour ago I exploded at my eldest daughter when she repeatedly refused to put down her iPod…so it goes).
This week as we worked on the first section of All The Rage, our film about mind body medicine, we have been trying to begin the film with a voiceover about my father. As my story begins with my father’s story, it only seems fitting to start the film in this way. However, it is difficult for me to find that voice which is honest enough to connect with people, but not so strong that it makes them turn away. I am no different than anyone else on the most basic level in that I want people to like me. At the same time, I am often a bit too honest and direct for some people to bear. In saying that, I do not mean to place the responsibility on them for responding negatively, but simply acknowledge that I have trouble with that balance. Since my strongest conscious desire is to help people to see broader truths, it becomes my responsibility to figure out how to communicate these ideas without alienating those people that I want to reach.
In late 2004, about a year before my father passed away, I began to struggle with my first bout of major back problems. At the time I had started two separate documentaries about powerful older men who in some way reminded me of my father. It was not a conscious decision, I am only realizing the connection now. One of those men was Dr. Sarno and the other was Arthur Wood, a powerful artist who had turned an eight family building into a sculpture. My father’s health was declining then, and in some unconscious way focusing my lens on those that reminded me of him was a way for me to deal with my complex feelings. I happened to also continue a film I began about sperm donation and issues of nature vs nurture and parenting. Even further, I was distributing other films and shooting “Battle for Brooklyn”. All of these activities were unfunded, so things were a bit chaotic and difficult- which might explain the back pain. My relationship with my dad was strong, but we had some unresolved issues to deal with. When he passed away, I told myself that we were in a good place. This was true, but I was still under the strong sway of his expectations.
My body has been messing with me for the last week. It started in my low back last Saturday, then moved to my calf. On Thursday it started in my mid back and now it’s crazy in my foot. I know it’s real, but I also know it’s caused by my emotions; some that I am aware of and some that I am not.
This week I’ve been trying to pay attention, and not let my fear of the pain that is nipping at me overwhelm my awareness. Last Saturday, when I woke up with a very stiff lower back, I thought about how I had been pushing myself to strengthen my leg the previous few days, and how I had done a lot of planking the night before. I realized there was a physical connection, but I also knew that it must have to do with stress. Even though it hurt to stand I went for a 3 mile run. Over the course of the run my back loosened up considerably, but it still hurt. The next day we went on a trip to the zoo and I walked for several miles. It hurt a lot, but I kept trying to think psychologically rather than physically. That night, and the next morning, I spent 20 minutes on the elliptical machine at the hotel. The next several days I continued to run and my back slowly improved. I swam on Thursday and that night my middle back began to freeze up.
When my foot gets bad it’s usually because I am pushing myself too hard. On Saturday the 24th of January, my wife and I took our youngest daughter to a show of local artists. It was packed and I ran into a lot of people from my past. One of them, Marvin, had been chaperoned by my father on a beach trip 30 years earlier. I remember hearing about that trip back then and he remembered it as well. He mentioned something about how I’ve been successful. I shot back something about how I’m proud of what I’ve done, but that I’m hardly successful. He replied that he was sure that my dad would have been proud of me. It’s undoubtedly true, but I realized that I doubted it. I told him how every Sunday, after I graduated college, when I talked to him he would end every call with “write when you get work”. It was a not so subtle dig at me for the unsteady life I had chosen. It enraged me and I would let him know, but he couldn’t help himself. I know that he appreciated our films, and he was a big supporter of mine, but somehow I’m still left with the sense that I’ve failed; it’s hard to call what I do work because no one wants to pay for it. In some ways though, I know that this is why it has real value. Still, part of me is even now waiting around for his approval, and I have to realize that it’s not going to come, at least not in the way that I want it to. I have to let it go.
When I got home, I a saw that a friend posted on facebook about the anniversary of his own father’s death. I realized that maybe some of this pain I’m having has to do with the fact that the next day was the 9th anniversary of my father’s death. A few hours later, I was awakened by thoughts of my father, so I stayed awake and stayed with those thoughts; I began to compose this note. My father was a complex man who loved his family, his work, and his friends with great gusto. I miss him way more than I understand, so I’m gonna spend some time trying to figure that out.
Dr. Dave Clark, who wrote “They Can’t Find Anything Wrong” had some thoughts about the post that I thought were useful to share with others.
Your insightful essay has led me to reflect on the 4000+ interviews I have done with people whose illnesses were linked to their childhood experience. Some learning from those patients:
1. Most parents do the best they can but, despite that, many fall far short of any reasonable ideal.
2. Most parents who fall far short of ideal behavior had parents who also fell short.
3. Some of my patient’s best personal qualities developed as a result of their struggles in childhood. These include a drive to succeed, an ability to pay attention to detail, a capacity for hard work and compassion for people who are suffering.
4. When you recognize that these good qualities emerged from a bad place it magnifies the challenge of reconciling yourself to a parent.
5. One of the best techniques for coming to terms with a challenging relationship is to write a letter (almost never mailed) to that individual expressing one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.
6. I will always remember one man in his 40s who took the letter to his father’s grave and read it to him which required 4-5 hours. By the end he was shouting. After this catharsis his physical illness was, after years of suffering, relieved.