I am seventeen years old, lying on the green couch in the TV room, reading a novel on a lazy Sunday morning. The house is blissfully quiet and cool; everyone has gone off to do whatever it is they have planned for the hot July day, leaving me to lounge undisturbed in my pajamas until the time comes to crawl back into bed.
The front door swings open, the brass knocker trailing behind as an afterthought, and my dad sticks his head into the room.
“Hey,” he says brightly, “come look at my amazing feat of engineering!”
“Ok,” I say, sitting up and laying my book facedown. “Will I need shoes?”
“Oh yes, definitely,” he says, and tromps back outside to wait for me on the porch.
I locate my sneakers and step outside into the sauna. We set off together into the forest, branches catching at my billowy linen pants, while behind us our chocolate lab Max brings up the rear with the sound of his dopey panting.
We walk three hundred yards down an overgrown tractor lane, and arrive at the excavation site.
As I take in the enormous boulder, four feet across and two feet thick, propped halfway out of the hole my father has dug in the earth around it, a frown starts to form on my face.
“Alright,” Dad says, picking up a metal crowbar, “grab that wooden block, and when I say so, you're going to wedge it right under here.”
"But, Dad," I say slowly, “you said to come look at your amazing feat of engineering. A feat implies that it’s already finished. This doesn’t look finished.”
He grins. “It’s our feat of engineering! Come on, grab the block.”
I groan, thinking of my book and the couch, the cool dark air of inside; but I know there is no resisting. The best I can do in the face of his trickery is grumble and tease, while succumbing to my new reality of helping my father move a boulder under the blazing midday sun.
Once we get the rock propped up on logs and jimmied onto a sloping grate attached to the lawn-mobile we call The Snapper, he instructs me to get in the driver’s seat and gun it. To this day I’m not sure how it worked, but somehow we succeed in moving this 1-ton rock a quarter mile through the woods to another site, where it is to serve as the centerpiece of his latest rock patio.
When we finish, my pajama pants are streaked and smudged with dirt; I will not be wearing them as planned for the rest of the day. But my dad’s face is full of joy; there is nothing else I could have done to make him so happy as it did to help him move that rock.
I feel like this story illustrates many things about my father. For one, he’s never had many qualms about misrepresenting a situation in order to get his kids to engage. For another, he’s never had any qualms about attempting to move a rock that any sane person would agree is probably meant to stay where it is. And of course (especially during “the Dark Ages,” which is how the family refers to my mid- to late-teenage years), he’s never had any qualms about rousting me from my comfort and solitude and forcing me to participate in some good old-fashioned character-building manual labor.
When I think back on this time, a time when I preferred to be tucked inside a temperature-controlled room rather than out there efforting in the bright hot world, I realize just how much I owe my Dad for the way he demanded, relentlessly, that I engage: that I talk to him, play with him, admire the thing he has built, go with him on car rides to the hardware store, help him plant things and weed things and move rocks. I never made it easy; I grumbled the whole way. I resented having my agenda interrupted, as every sulky teenager does.
But I see now that if my Dad hadn’t woken me up early to play tennis or shovel dirt; if he hadn’t yelled at the top of his voice and demanded to know my reasons for breaking the rules (again); if he had just dismissed me to my room to think about what I’d done; if he had let me sleep late and keep to myself because that's what I thought I wanted...
Like any teenager will if you let them, I would have used that extra space to tell myself the story that he didn’t care.
Instead, I always knew – despite the resistance, deep down in my bones, even when he was shouting and stomping his feet and trying to "wrap his head around" the “audacity” of my latest “mind-boggling” teenaged transgression – that he adored me.
To this day, it’s one of strongest convictions I have, a cornerstone of my foundation as a human being: I know what it feels like to be loved, and to be someone else's top priority.
This, like other truths I've arrived at by observing my Dad, will never leave me – will never not be the frame of reference for how I pick the people in my life. He is the epitome of integrity; of loyalty; of devotion to a fully examined life. He has showed me what it looks like to face your own demons; to make yourself as transparent as possible for the sake of shared growth; and to spend a lifetime making art – without ever feeling the need to call it that.
A client was recently telling me that certain indicators make it apparent whether someone who positions himself as a ”spiritual teacher” is actually spiritually developed enough to teach others. If the teacher claims to have everything figured out, for example; or if the teacher does not expect to learn from the student; or if the student must continually look to the teacher for approval; then, “that’s a problem.”
I could talk for days about all the things I’ve learned from my Dad, such as the fact that “it’s all just a game,” that there are “two sets of rules,” and that most people, when acting as antagonists, are unconsciously acting out their own pain.
And yet, he is the first to throw up his hands and affirm that "we’re all just guessing!" Which is something I wish more people could celebrate. And there are few things that light up his face faster than a discussion of what he’s learned lately from one of his three kids.
Even though he would never claim to be, even though it might embarrass him to see it in print, I’ll say it: I am grateful to my Dad for being a true spiritual teacher – one whose students don’t need to look back over our shoulders for approval, but who can stand firm on the foundation he helped us build; and who nevertheless still seek out his company, just to sit with a coffee and a muffin, and to talk about Life, and to find an answer to the eternal question: “What else?”