About a week ago, my great Austin-based friend Sean Clayton – a Tibetan Buddhist and songwriter in his early 20’s who I studied Zen and Contemplative Practice with at Naropa University in Boulder – sent me a very moving letter with some serious questions about parenthood and what he assumed was the accompanying loss of self and possibilities. When I asked him if it was OK to share our correspondence here, he said it’d be an honor, so here goes.
February 8th, 2010
My dear friend. As I take time to think of the second word I was going to write, “dear.” What separates a dear friend from one that these messages are not written (and honest sometimes uncomfortable thoughts are expressed) I hope is not too a great foreshadowing of why I feel comfortable enough to ask of you:
— I think about the word fatherhood. and how it does seem like yesterday I was wondering with you, “if she likes me or doesn’t she.” And now that you are adult and can’t be bothered with such things, I wonder what changed inside of you. (not that it is apparent only assumed) Because surely something must have. It has been more of a shock than perhaps I’ve let on that you have a baby. There’s a sort of juxtaposition of this amazing little person that will grow up with loving parents, and the fear that must be there.
But to be clear before everything else I couldn’t be happier for you.
But I know that we are dear friends, and that eventually the greatest of all divides will come between any sort of common ground between our idealism and pragmatism: time. Time away from and changing into – I wonder with this new role, so huge and so often times printed on headstones, this role of father, how much got pushed away that might have been. So much of my overall fear is to run away from anything like fatherhood. That dull pain of monotony that creeps over you and causes you to be hollow…This is my fear. Fatherhood, husbandry, a full blown case of adulthood.
How much of this old Adam who plays the drums and says fuck off to fascists and conformity is lost in this new role?
I ask not to condemn or to quarrel, but to just fucking understand. And who better to ask these things than someone who will shoot me straight.
Continue to rock
but maybe along side a baby’s roll.
Our dear Texan friend, how are you? I want to hear all about what’s changed inside of you (and what music you’ve made) since you left Naropa and Boulder. You speak of several huge and in some cases unnerving juxtapositions but after reading your touching email several times the past three days I kept coming back to the most obvious juxtaposition: you have been, like I was, a young man overly concerned with finding a woman (*the* woman) who will complete your life, make you happy, and so on; yet, the changes and new realities that generally accompany genuine love, commitment and momentum (faithful partnership and fatherhood, which you called “the dull pain of monotony that causes you to be hollow”) scare the shit out of you. I love that you take such things seriously, but fear is the last thing you should feel.
Let’s just start with the event of Sidney’s birth. We were wandering the Plaza de Santa Fe one afternoon when we realized it was really happening. I had called Irene’s mother and she was on the way to pick us up and take us to Irene’s parents’ house, where we’d planned to have the birth in Irene’s childhood bedroom on the bed she was born on. Irene and I stopped into the Lensic Theatre to barge onstage during Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s rehearsal for that night’s performance of The Nutcracker, which Irene performed with them many times before joining another ballet company in Sweden, and tell them that we wouldn’t be able to see them perform until their next time through New Mexico because Irene was in labor. Something must have changed in Irene then, telling longtime friends and coworkers that she’d toured the country with as a teenager that she was about to become a mother. Ironically she’s taken more ballet classes since Sidney was born than she did in the past year and is on the path back to being a professional dancer, if that’s what she chooses.
But changes in me? To experience the birth of our daughter on the Joyce’s incredibly beautiful land in Santa Fe with them as mindful, excited, nurturing and generous hosts; to witness and support Irene’s 100% natural labor, which was partially in water and completely astonishing and inspiring; to watch (along with Irene’s parents and sister and our midwife) Sidney take her first breaths in the home Irene’s family built, in the room where Irene earnestly and relentlessly honed her ballet skills as a preteen; to meet and embrace (in so many ways) the person we had been nurturing and talking, singing and reading to for nine months; and to instantly realize we were and are a family….all that did not change me. Sidney Claya Perry-Joyce’s birth made me appreciate who I am, where I came from and where (and what) I’ve come through, and who I can become; it encouraged me appreciate the remarkable friends and stimulating land in Colorado that helped bring Irene and I together; and it made me want to celebrate and respect everything we were about to be responsible for.
Watching Sidney connect with family and friends and get nourishment solely from her mother’s breasts; reading to her every day from great books like His Dark Materials and the Bhagavad Gita; playing her hundreds of albums and discovering that so far Fool’s Gold, The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and Brian Eno’s Music For Airports are her favorites; getting time alone with her while her mother takes yoga and ballet a few times a week; and looking both into precious books like Parenting From the Inside Out and into the depths of my own humbling life experience to bring out the most honest and effective parent in me; hell, just listening to the sounds she makes….none of it changes me or makes me consider “how much got pushed away or what might have been.” All possibilities and interests are still available and in practice. Parenthood and partnership are at the crux of what’s happening in my life right now on a daily level, but if “Loving Father” is all that’s printed on my headstone it would mean that I had failed as a father by not fully living my autonomous potential and giving Sidney the best exposure to build from in her own life.
Sidney needs Irene and I to keep growing as individuals in order for her to do so in a healthy manner as well. She needs us to keep writing and performing poems and songs together as we did before we had a child. She needs us to keep seeking out new experiences – whether it’s discovering a new city, walking in the arroyo with her and treating it like it’s our first time there, getting turned on to new books that’ll change how we think about life, or constantly making new friends who can also touch her life. She needs us to above all remain curious about everything there is to be curious about, so that Irene and I continue to evolve as creative, engaged and inquisitive people who are not solely defined by our role as parents, because we need to have much more to give her than care, which we had for her en masse before she was even born. Sure, I think any good parent puts their child’s comfort, health and happiness above anything in their own life; still, I also firmly believe that any parent who devolves into a creature with no interests besides their children is doing themselves, and more importantly their children, a huge disservice that can eventually ground everyone involved into what Frank Zappa called “Po-Jama People.”
Anyway, to me that’s the exact same spirit the “old Adam who plays the drums and says ‘fuck off’ to fascists and conformity” learned from people like Joe Strummer and Kurt Vonnegut as a teenager when his family was insisting that creativity was a “phase” and just “fitting in,” getting a 9 to 5 job, a nice car and a nuclear family devoid of anything Gary Snyder would call “wild,” was the best – no, the only—thing to strive for in this short life, which itself is really a phase. A process of change.
It was all so romantic: arriving in Boulder from San Francisco, pushing myself over the cliff of Zen, meeting excellent, unforgettable friends like you and falling deeply and quickly in love with a gorgeous, talented and intellectually brilliant younger woman, spending many valuable months with her exploring each other big-time as “way, way tight” friends, engaging in excruciating self-growth at Naropa, and then meeting each other again as trusting, co-musing lovers and partners. So it goes: what I consciously chose not to continue chasing came to embrace me and now our relationship is an integral part of my life, not the lone purpose in it.
You know that before Sidney was born Irene and I played original songs together in Boulder cafes, on-campus events, and even a Cleveland bar; as lovers we’ve walked Ocean Beach in San Francisco, Peak’s Island in Maine and White Sands in New Mexico; she graced the cover of a book of my poems and shared a stone cottage with me in Boulder. Now she is a mother and I am a father; we have a daughter who will be, if we truly succeed as parents, her own person, someone who is comfortable and excited meeting new people and moving through new places and experiences, who questions everything and can trust her parents and her curiosity. Sidney – and the sometimes tough reality of leaving many dozens of close friends in Boulder for the simultaneously open and isolating newness of New Mexico—has already brought Irene and I closer together, and if that’s what you call “full-blown case of adulthood,” I’ll gladly drink it down bottle by bottle or year by year.
Basically, there’s nothing monotonous about parenthood unless you make it, and yourself, boring. I can see how easy it’d be to manifest that banal existence, too. Just slipping into a life where you work, do what’s necessary to take care of your children, and spend any free time being what Roger Waters called “amused to death”: I dunno, watching American Idol, reading People Magazine, watching maybe CNN or Fox News and eschewing both the world outside and your possible self. Sure, falling into things like owning a television and fitting that kind of generally numbing entertainment into a balanced life is possible for some people, but we’re not interested.
Maybe getting a degree and a daughter in the same weekend was conspicuous, as I went from having to read a few books a week that were chosen for me to having the exhilarated right to read a book or two a week that I choose, along with returning to having time to write extensively just for myself. Finishing a book lifts me up like nothing else, and writing is a kind of irreplaceable and necessary emancipation. Plus I’m living in an area where mind-blowing adventures in nature are a dime a dozen. So we’ll probably never own a television, let alone use it, and Sidney will have lots of other stimulation in and out of our home, whatever city that ends up being in.
But yes, you mentioned time. It’s a killer. I won’t let time come between any of the essential friendships I cherished before Sidney was born, but time is a large part of why none of my own family or friends outside Santa Fe got to see Sidney as a newborn. She’s already doubled her birth-weight and gone through many astonishing stages of physical and mental development that for everyone other than Irene’s family, numerous Santa Fe friends, and Ryan and Ariel, have been eternally lost, although we’ve got pictures.
Finally, to answer your question of what’s been lost of myself pre-Sidney as I lock into this new experience: absolutely nothing. In fact, I feel more (and more crisp and clear) emotions and desires; I feel more eager to read new books, write new stories and poems, discover new music, and travel widely with Sidney so that it doesn’t take her 21 years to cross the Mississippi or 27 to cross the Atlantic as it did for me. (Though I’ve had four great trips there now, I didn’t even travel to New York City–the capital of the world–for the first time until after I’d moved to the West Coast at 21, which is absolutely ridiculous considering I was a few hours away from NYC by car as a kid). Plus, I now feel more eager to connect with friends, wherever they are; and I’m playing the drums again. Come visit and we’ll jam together.