Father to the Man

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Yesterday, on a picture of my grade school, Washington Elementary, that I had posted to Facebook, my friend Julie commented that she had a picture of me that had been taken years ago on the playground of that school.  I’d love to see it, I told her and a few minutes later, she posted the picture, this picture, in the comment section.  I had not known exactly what to expect and yet, I was not completely prepared for what I saw.  A t-shirt that clung to my chubby stomach and love handles, oversized glasses, Sears “husky” jeans, shaggy haircut and an extremely effeminate pose.

What was I thinking, I wondered.  Did I think I was Kelly Garrett or Kris Monroe?

I looked at this little guy and thought, well, I can’t let Eric see this.  In fact, I can’t let anyone see this.

Julie told me that written on the back of the photo was, “Ray Louis Barnhart Jr, 6th, 1980.” I would have been 11.

And while I was afraid for people to see this picture, I couldn’t stop looking at it myself.  I found myself awash in memories of those years.  Like the time I told Julie and another friend Jennifer that I wanted to lose 10 pounds in a weekend and Julie gave me a list of the foods I was allowed to eat.  The only item from the list I remember was pickles and now, to this day, I think of Julie every time I eat a pickle. Also, I remembered attempting a fast and shamefully breaking that fast with a cold roast beef sandwich and a sleeve of Thin Mints.

In my mind, I remember those grade school years as a time when I was anxious or depressed about any number of things: my weight, being called names, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of friends, feeling different, being unskilled at sports.

And yet, this picture is proof that I must have had some good days, happy days, gleeful days.  I’ve tried to remember what was going through my head on this day when I posed, and I do mean POSED, for this picture, but I just don’t know.

Our memories, they are sometimes so complicated when we take them out of envelopes in our chest of drawers and scan them to our computers and then zoom in on the details of afternoons from decades ago.

If this was a picture of a boy from the eighties that I did not know, that maybe I’d stumbled on it in a bin of old photos that antique stores and flea markets sometimes have with a sign that says, “25 cents or 5/$1.00”, if I had just randomly come upon a perfect stranger, I could have loved this kid without reservation.  I could have looked in those eyes and seen enough of myself to root for him and wonder how things turned out, hoping “it got better.”

At 11, I did not have the skills to take a dishonest picture.  As I got older, I learned to butch it up in photos, to affect a manlier pose.  My high school and college years, I have so many memories of modulating my walk or my speech in a way to come across as straight and masculine.  (Perhaps you knew me then and are thinking, well, you weren’t as successful as you thought.  And if that’s the case, that’s okay, too.)

Perhaps I have never taken a picture that reveals the me that is most me than this.  This guy loves chocolate cake.  He loves his hometown (orange and black t-shirt).  He loves playing with girls at recess.  His favorite part of the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog is the Barbie section. He dances and sings to Shaun Cassidy’s “Hey Deanie” and Leif Garrett’s “Surfin’ USA” in his bedroom. He loves being silly.  He knows he is not like everyone else and he revels in his uniqueness.

It breaks my heart a little to think that my first thought when I saw this picture yesterday was shame, that I needed to hide this.  That I had to take a minute and step away to realize how great this young man is.

Over three hundred years ago, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called My Heart Leaps up about his love of rainbows and realizing he’s always loved rainbows even since he was a small child.  That who we are when we are young sets the stage for the person we will be our entire lives.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I could not escape this kid if I tried, and I did try, and sometimes, I still do try.  I mean, I went to Bible college in an attempt to make myself straight, that’s how desperately I wanted to be someone else.  It’s been a long road to self acceptance and it frustrates me that at almost 50, STILL, some days are better than others. But I have to be honest, this guy, this spirited young fellow, he is my hero.  When I really think about it, I realize he is everything I aspire to be.  So, despite some hesitation, I am sharing him with all of you.  I hope you love him as much as I do.

 

 

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A Little Bit Lost

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A few days ago, while waiting to catch my plane back to Los Angeles at Kansas City International Airport, I noticed a young man in a bright red polo shirt as I walked to the restroom.  He must have been around twenty, thick glasses not unlike mine.  Skinny and walking around in his stocking feet and carrying brand new sneakers.  It took me a minute to realize he had just come through his security screening.  He looked lost and I wondered if maybe this was his first plane trip.

With some confusion, he looked out the windows to the part of the terminal where family waits for and bids farewell to their loved ones.  Finally his eyes landed on something or someone and he immediately smiled and waved.  His mother and father were outside waving back, his mom jumping up and down a bit. So lucky to be so loved, I thought.

When I came out of the bathroom, the kid with the red polo was nowhere to be seen.  I hoped he’d finally put his shoes back on. I walked back to the chairs where Eric and I had been sitting, waiting for our flight.

This had been Eric’s first trip to Kansas.  And Missouri. And Oklahoma.  I had been excited to show my partner the world that raised me.  The discussion of moving to the midwest has come up occasionally this year as my parents and I and Eric navigate the place where they are in their lives.  While they are able to live alone, it just seems they have hit a stretch where they need a bit more help.  I know they have family and friends who help them in many ways, and I’m grateful, but so many times, a situation arises and I think, I should be the person to do this for you.  And in the last few months, by taking time off work to be with them in Kansas, I have been able to do some of that.

A not completely unrelated sidenote: they loved Eric in Kansas.  And Eric had a great time, too. Enchanted by the Nelson-Atkins, admiring of the Christmas lights on the Country Club Plaza, awestruck by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower.  He met friends of mine from several points in my life and it seemed to me, they all really loved him. On Sunday morning, we walked around the periphery of my now boarded up grade school.  The classrooms were so tiny in contrast to the rooms of my 40 year memory. I gazed into Miss Boner’s third grade class and could not stop thinking about how the idea of growing up and falling in love and building a life with another guy would have seemed so foreign and impossible to the 9-year-old me.  But here I was, showing my hometown to my love.  Like any other couple.

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My parents call Eric their family.  In seven years, their relationships have developed.  They know foods and hobbies the other likes, the things they don’t.  What makes them laugh. Monday morning, as Eric and I said our goodbyes to my parents before we drove our rental car back to Kansas City, all four of us, we took turns hugging goodbye.  As long as I can remember, my ritual has been one hug to Mom, then one to Dad, and then a followup to Mom. But this time, I hugged both my parents at least twice.  When Eric released my Mom from their hug, there were tears in each of their eyes.  “No crying,” I joked.  I looked at my Dad and we kind of laughed. Everyone in the family knows how much I cry.

My Dad, he cries too.  A few weeks ago, his voice broke when he told me that a young mother that he’d been a youth group leader for when she was a teenager is naming her son after him. Solomon Ray.  Wise King.

At MCI, as my plane took off and steered its way west, I couldn’t stop thinking of the boy in the red polo shirt.  The kind of lost, kind of sad look on his face.  I remembered my first night in my college dorm, anxious for my parents to leave and go home, then heart-ached the second they’d left and I was alone in a dingy, institutional dorm room, knowing no one. Afraid that I would not be able to make friends in a new place.

Every time I’ve gone a little too far from home, I’ve felt that ache.  New York, Los Angeles, summer camp.

The good news about being a little bit lost, is that whether you realize it or not, you’re also a little bit found.  The young man, off on his adventure, had a family cheering and bolstering him just beyond the glass.  And when his plane was in the air and the parents were driving back to St. Joseph or Harrisonville, or Fort Scott, they were still cheering and waving and loving the kid.

Clearly, I was that skinny four-eyed kid once upon a time.  And my Mom would shed many tears when we said goodbye at airports.  And my Dad would hold my Mom and the two of them would wave until one of was out of sight.  Even now, I can still see them waving, “We love you, Son. Call us when your plane lands, even if it’s late.”

Still, a little lost, but also, found.

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