My father is my Jacob Marley. He's the face I see in my doorknocker and the voice I hear in my head, wailing that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused!*.
For better or worse, we are like our parents. In the case of my mother, to say that I am like her is to me the highest of compliments. But if you tell me that I am like my father - and all my life, people have - I scuttle into a dark den of howling, keening self-deprecation.
Not because he was the worst father; not at all. Because he failed so perfectly at the things we have in common, which is to say everything I desperately needed leadership in developing as a child. It left me feeling like by failing at his life, he failed me on a very personal level.
I say failed at his life and that is a harsh thing. I don't mean it as a blanket statement about every moment, or even in the context of certain relationships, and I can even understand the reason why. But I assign the classification of "failure" because he's gone to the ground having little and nothing to show for the things that burned inside of him. Not in any way that was finished or fulfilling or even left for the marking of memory. Things like humor, music and writing. He was a creative. Every cell, every hair, every shaky thump of his too-big heart. At his core those were the things that he wanted to be valued for.
That was what he was designed to be. What is it that Einstein said about genius?
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
My dad spent his life as a fish who would try at being a bird, but not at being a fish. So is it any wonder that he was in a constant state of breakdown and disrepair? And here I am, a fish raised by fish who wouldn't be a fish. Now I don't know what it looks like to be a great fish or a great bird either, really. I'm still wanting and waiting for some example from him, only, now it's too late, and these lessons must come, if not from his successes, then through his failures.
As a kid, I did all kinds of creative things - not like a child prodigy or anything. That was undoubtedly my brother. Just like a run of the mill kid with a little seed of talent. Dad did everything he knew how to do, to make that seed thrive and God knows it wasn't his fault that his methods were a little like salting the field.
When I was little, I loved sitting with him at the piano - we would make up songs for fun and his praise was always effusive and abundant.
But as I grew, the gap between dad's idea of incredible talent and my idea of incredible talent got wider and wider, which left me feeling farther and farther from the notion that I could ever produce anything of quality. The few times I would try to reconcile or lessen this gap, I met with a brick wall of near superstitious refusal from dad, like trying to convince a pitcher to pitch the world series without his lucky underwear.
I remember once, he called me in to his office to listen to a song he'd just written. It was his usual rhythmic haaa-CHA-CHA, haaa-CHA-CHA waltz in a minor key, containing the words "flow", "glow", "love", "above" and some reference to "tomorrow's yesterday is today", which were his thematic constants. His main artistic device was his ability to rhyme every line.
Listening to his song, I hear little threads of potential, but it still seemed like a first draft; understandably patchy and banal. He says "Tell me what you think?" which was always a trap, because when I tried to talk about the parts I thought were good and a few ideas for putting the shine on it, though, he reacted as if I had murdered his dog. He told me with thunderous certainty that genius is what comes from the pen in a moment of feeling and inspiration. He also insisted that it came from God, which was his usual claim for any thought which seemed good and right in the moment. This was an impossible thing to respond to, because if I said that it didn't come from God, he'd ask how I knew what God did and didn't say to him? But if I just agreed with him, I couldn't very well criticize a thing that came directly from the mouth of God, now could I? It was an argument killer, and he knew it.
I wanted to explain that I wasn't trying to be critical, I was trying to be creative. But my father, who was at that time the main musical authority in my life, insisted that real creativity was being able to hit it out of the park on the first swing, and if you couldn't do that, it was best to just hang up your hat. You either had it or you didn't.
So, on the word of my father, I accepted that real creative ability was measured by the genius of your first attempt and with that understanding, I ended up knowing two things;
1. There was amazing creativity and art in the world and
2. Dad and I didn't have that kind of talent.
We had what I came to consider appreciator talent. That is; enough talent to recognize and genuinely appreciate something great when we experienced it, but not enough talent to actually produce at that level ourselves.
This thought was so frustrating that thinking about doing creative things, at least in any kind of shareable format caused what felt like a bad chemical reaction in my brain. Some volcanic thing happened when I looked into the possibility of being a creative among creatives, knowing that even though I belonged there, I was really only good enough to be some sort of bat-boy or equipment manager. On the team, but really...not. This idea frustrated me enough that for a long time I willfully and violently removed myself from pursuing anything creative.
This seemed less futile or embarrassing than doing what my dad did, which was to offer up unsolicited demonstrations of his partially complete first (and only) draft to anyone who might listen.
Then wait with confident expectancy for the standing ovation.
And I mean that exactly.
Once, he delivered a comedy routine that he literally dreamed of the previous night. And...okay, that's not so bad. Except that, like with most dreams, he basically only remembered that 1. his dream was funny and 2. it involved a parakeet.
Thus, his performance consisted of him standing there and laughing hysterically while he said "Okay, so there was this parakeet. No...wait..." more laughing "What if GOD had a parakeet? No..it was...hang on, it was good, let me remember..."
Worse still, it wasn't like he delivered his comedic revelation in an appropriate setting, like at a comedy open mic.
It was at a local cinema in the space between the movie screen and the first row of seats, during the commercials before the preview of the Wednesday matinee we had gone to see.
Everyone in the audience was looking at me like I was some kind of negligent caregiver, on an outing from the funny farm, allowing this poor, troubled soul to humiliate himself.
But dad never noticed the crickets or the blank stares and if you asked him afterward, he'd tell you he got his standing ovation.
So maybe you can see why I might have developed a rigid avoidance of all things creative. In my mind you were either exceptional or you were like dad.
And I already knew.
I was like dad.
It wasn't until I got a little distance from my father, until I grew up and went out on my own that a little contrast threw my perspective quite literally into stark relief and I saw the ruinous flaw in my thesis. The premise upon which I had built my refusal to be a creative among creatives was that there were inherent haves & have-nots. But when I began to interact with other creatives I saw that, while there are different portions of organic, unrefined talent, that portion is never the single...maybe even the primary ingredient in greatness.
I met artists with more talent in their left knee than I had or ever would have, but who never did anything with it and so it was a pale and atrophied ghost compared to my efforts. And I came to know other artists with a smaller seed than mine, who had nourished their seed with so much love and devotion that it had grown into a fathomless, marvelous thing, with all the glisten and glory of the inherent geniuses and a great story besides.
And here, at this stunning, epiphanous marker in my road, I have justly and unjustly laid blame at my father's door, that I should grow into a whole adult person, completely uninformed of a thing so apparent to the world at large.
That it isn't talent or genius, luck or longing which sets apart the great creators from the wasted seeds.
It is talent and genius, luck and longing and to those you apply this;
The sum of the force of your soul plus all the power of your mind, times all of your time and effort, and you do that until you rip and tear every muscle, especially the heart that beats.
It is seeing the picture of yourself as if it were the last page of an engineering schematic, the one which shows a rendering of the final design and realigning your attention to achieving that, over and over....
It is the work colliding with the gift, like particles in a super collider, driven, accelerated and stirred up until they crash into one another and create the spark that gives life.
There is a relentlessness and a recklessness which turns us all into beings that are a little bit wild and reclusive and manic, but at the same time, warm and solid like a stone in the sun.
At the same time, breathing and moving, like a tree in the wind, alive and connected to everything, and you have to give yourself up to all of it, the madness and the beauty, the work and the waiting.
And I do it because my father taught me; it would be tragic to die so effortlessly.
In my head it's always this conversation between Scrooge and his Marley;
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!"
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"*
My father is my Jacob Marley. In life, his failure was a refusal to see the comprehensive ocean of his business, beyond his trade, and attend to that with the effort and ferocity that mortality demands.
But maybe that was what I needed. Maybe his struggle is why I am reminded to attend the business I was put here to attend, while I still can.
In a funny sort of way, in coming to terms with his failure, I've found the leadership from my father that I craved for so long. In understanding, there is relief, and with time comes the perspective and grace to see and appreciate the comprehensive ocean of everything my father was, beyond what I clung to in my grief.
My thanks and love, Marley. You crazy old ghost.
Quotes from *A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens