In other words

It’s been almost a year, and I have not been myself since. The things I didn’t say to him. The things I’ll never get to say to him. Things I’ll never get to do with him, like spend a meal across from each other, somewhere in between where our lives are, sharing stories and photographs and everything that we’ve missed. It’s almost been a year and I still haven’t found a way to carry him with me. Everything is heavy and moving. So fast. Faster than I thought it might, and I am rendered lost inside every emotion for a little while before the next day comes.

I spent months searching photos for some clue of him telling me he loved me. Sorted through piles of old polaroids, stacks of memories of everyone else and not one where it was just he and I spending time. I searched for his signature on documents. I looked for letters and held everything up to the light. Wanted to see if we made our J’s with the same swoop, our S’s with the same curves, our R’s with the same top-heavy turns. There had to be something I could hold onto and feel understood. It’s important for you to know that I wish I would have told him about what I was going through. I wish I would have reached out to him, even amidst anger, to let him know how I was feeling. What I was thinking. There were a million reasons to call him and share joy or heartache with one another. I spent far too many moments sitting with my hurting heart and not giving him one single chance to change it. A part of me believes he might have done everything he could have to take that pain away from me. A part of me is still lost.

It’s also important to know that his memory is tender in me. I’ve forgiven him and myself for so many things. But I’m still working through wishing for a better past with him. I’m noting the moments I feel as if I’m losing myself in wondering about what life could have looked like if I had answered his phone calls. There are things I know I cannot change, and because of this fact, I have to move forward with forgiveness in every step. The world is still spinning, I am still here, and nothing is waiting for me.


I spend much of my time wishing I had spent more time in this and less time in that, more space for myself to come undone and think about the ways I’m still learning how to live this life on my own terms. In many ways, I won’t ever be done. I am appalled and finding myself inside of Kaveh Akbar’s words, “The boat I am building / will never be done.” Still looking for more time for building. Still needing more wood, more nails, more plaster for the inevitable holes that will surely find their way to the bottom, right in the crevices where all the water can get in, and I might need a bigger boat soon, too. I might need more space for all the people in my life who help me come alive.

The days will keep going. Time will not stop for anyone, not me or you, not God and their endless barrage of loving and hurting. Time is moving and so are we. And so are we. So are we.


I’m writing to my father a letter that helps me see clearly what a void does to me. I surely won’t be able to give them to him. He won’t be able to read my words or feel them. Won’t be able to respond. There is power in the words we give to others. Power in the words we give to ourselves. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to do: find power in the ways that my heart finds its way to my throat, speaking his name and the stories I wish I could share with him.

He came to me in a dream with a stack of letters bundled neatly, all addressed to him from me. He handed them back and told me they were a gift. He spotted the exit sign and found his way out, the only home he’s ever been able to find in his years alive. All of this building comes to a point of complete. In some inevitable moment, the sails have to be released; we have to trust the wind. On this boat, I am hoping to stack all the words I have for him, some surely falling out the sides. The water will drift them all to the edges of Earth and somehow, perhaps some way, he is standing there, arms open wide, waiting to be found again, waiting, waiting–

In review

“I’ll tell you this and I haven’t told many people,” I said to a good friend hours before the close of 2018. “I don’t know if I have any resolutions, but my word to live by for 2019 is bloom.”

“That’s beautiful,” they said. Then silence.

What followed was a beautiful space to live deeply this year.

I did not yet know all the ways that the months would pile on top of one another, or how many bruises I’d have collected by the end of it. There were so many things that unexpectedly took my breath away. Some good and some heartbreaking. I am, perhaps, most grateful for all the ways I kept going despite there being no rain. Despite there being no end to the rain in sight.

A birthday dinner showed me how to count all the ways friends can become soulmates. A plant or two barely surviving the year can show me how to tend to soft and beautiful things and how to talk to things that might not talk back. Cup after cup of coffee shared between old friends and new can show me how to believe in connection again. Zero poems written this year can show me all the ways that my words will still matter once all the days in the year have run their course. I, too, am still running my course, still writing these chapters and editing when I can, still believing that words will matter today and every tomorrow after.

So many things were close together; joy and grief showing up at the same time and in the same space. Perhaps this is what it means to be alive and feel it all. I spent the most perfect weekend in New York City with a soulmate, and the day after getting back, my father passed away. I’ve carried the shame of his passing with me every single day. It doesn’t get easier. There’s still so many unanswered questions, so many things I wish I would have said over the years of silence that preceded his death, and so much love that I didn’t get to give to him. I’ll carry that with me for a long while and write many letters to him that he will never read. Scribbling on postcards all the things I wish I’d said, all the things I wish he could see in me, even if he’ll never see them.

On that same trip, I got a tattoo of something that meant much to me. A man opening his chest to reveal flowers pouring out. It was the pinnacle of the year when it comes to joy. I am reminded every day that despite everything that was meant to keep me down, I kept growing, kept blooming in the ways that the flowers might be. There’s a poem in there somewhere that I haven’t yet written. Perhaps 2020 will bring me closer to words that make sense. There are languages I haven’t learned yet that will tell this story one day. Until then, I will marvel. And mourn.

I saw Dear Evan Hansen three times and each time, I left feeling the wind knocked out of me. I saw Ben Platt perform and Sara Bareilles sing to the whole world. I traveled to see people and they traveled to see me. I talked about hard things and, at times, avoided them. I experienced many heartbreaks when I sat with students and watched them grieve a hundred losses, knowing full well that there’s nothing I can do to make it better except hold space. I stopped meditating and began again. I stopped working out and began again. I changed my diet to be plant-based and haven’t looked back much. I stopped explaining myself to myself. Stopped justifying every move I make to the rest of the world and just let my head rest. I let “no” be the end of it and “yes” be the beginning of so many things. I got to work on opportunities that I didn’t think I was ready for and have been supported by some of the very best people. I received cards of encouragement and withness when I least expected them. I thought much about love, old and new, for people and places and things. Spent some time thinking about how much my life might change in the coming year.

Not everything is romance, nor is it void of love. There’s so much that the world offers when the darkness creeps in. I spent plenty of days sitting with myself until I could navigate it meaningfully. Spent some time regretting and dreaming out loud. It might be cool to be a father. Might be cool to

Not everything will be a poem. But everything could be, I suppose, and that’s a pretty revolutionary realization. How words might form. How something could mean so much. How breath plays a role in everything.

I stopped accepting everything that everyone else labeled me and decided, more often than not, that I have something to bring to the table. I have words that matter. I have people that matter. People who won’t fit me into a box because of my talents or passions. People who will let me just be.

I had the opportunity to be an educator and guide students through difficult, challenging, eye-opening conversations. I was a witness to change and learned so many names, so many stories. Perhaps that’s the best part of it all: stories. How beautiful that we all carry so many with us? How tragic that we only share a few, that we only open up when we feel strong enough, and that many of us never feel strong enough?

I hope that 2020 helps us all feel strong enough. To carry to weight of grief and joy at the same time. To come undone. To finally cry, despite all the years that the tears never came. To write the hard thing and give it to the person we used to love. To write the easy thing and give it to the people we love today. To write all of our dreams down and surprise ourselves. To love despite everything that tells us not to.

As for me? I’ll keep asking the same questions in reverse order. I’ll keep blooming, even if I don’t pick any resolutions. Will keep grieving everything I’ve lost with the same intensity, the same passion as I’m used to. Will keep finding joy on every day that I can. Will keep questioning God or Gods, will keep wondering out loud, will keep standing up for what I believe in and will let myself change my mind when the time calls for it. Will still drink my coffee black and will start projects that have no ending. Will keep finding songs that make me think about that one time when my heart was broken. Will keep thinking about my childhood home and every place I used to hide. Will keep finding reasons not to hide, and will, time and again, step into the sun one more time.


P.S. Here are some songs that got me through 2019. Enjoy, my friends. And, as always, love and light to you and yours.


Coffee black

I didn’t start drinking my coffee black until after my father died. Turns out that’s the way he liked his coffee each morning, rain or shine, to start his day. It happened almost unconsciously. I gathered the materials to grind my own beans, pouring them into the hopper of my manual grinder, turning the metal crank over and over and over again to get the beans to crack against the plastic grooves. The coarse grounds drop to the bottom. I pour them into the coffeemaker that I’ve had all these years, a common $20 drip coffeemaker that I’ve grown to love, helping me to center myself on the days I feel like my worst.

I skip the refrigerator altogether, deciding at some point that I no longer need cream to change my cup. No longer need milk. “It’s an acquired taste,” my parents would tell me when I was a young boy. “You won’t like it until you do.”

My father likely make the same cup of coffee each morning. Same beans, same pot, some sort of routine to create some sort of order in his life. Something to get him started, seeing where the day goes, maybe another cup or two into the late morning if he didn’t sleep well, and I can’t blame him. Coffee is my first leap of faith. I rely on it in such a way, like the sun coming up each morning, and I never said it was the best habit. Just that it was necessary sometimes for me to feel like myself.

He would turn on the TV and listen to yesterday’s news, today’s, and something coming next, perhaps over and over again that he was never really listening at all. Never really registering what he was hearing, just that it was something that brought some sort of comfort, no matter the content. Our first real arguments were political, his and mine. I am product of a mother who loves hard and carries compassion for everyone she comes in contact with. Growing up, I simply couldn’t believe that George W. Bush was his politician of choice. As a young teenager, I was willing to fight any fight without fully knowing the gravity of what I was fighting for, only that there lies a certain regard for human experiences that his candidates of choice were callous to. We would go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until one of us grew weary and we agreed to disagree.

My father was a quiet man. A hurting man. A man who was always grappling with something, a character trait he likely carried until he closed his eyes the very last time. I have wondered often these last few months if his last sleep was peaceful, if he woke like very few mornings before with a sense of calm, letting the sunlight pour over his face, warming his body into aliveness. I wonder if that’s something he got to experience before he passed. It’s in this wondering that I find myself drawing comparisons to him more and more, which is something I would have never done in the 10 years before this very moment. I very much wanted to break away from the idea that my father needed to be in my life for me to live well. Miles of running later, I’m exhausted from my own unwillingness to reconcile, to mend, to heal. Mom tells me I’ve always had a big heart. There are spaces there that were meant for him. In his absence, I wonder how this could be true, how I could get it wrong so for long, and how it might feel like it’s too late.

Remembering depends on what we saw from where we stood. These days, I’m closing my eyes tight so that every memory of him can paint itself in the most vibrant colors. I’m re-writing a long-held narrative that he was never going to love me well and that he didn’t know me at all. So many of the things I’ve been telling myself about him was born out of hurt. Even if he was sitting across from me right now, I wouldn’t have the right words, the right questions, the right level of compassion to tell him what he means to me.

I’m hanging onto everything black coffee stood for in my father’s life: some sort of aliveness, of routine, of reality. I wonder what he would say if he could read these words. I ask myself what healing might look like these days. I hold onto my cup, sip lightly, and set it down. I am not my father’s son.

And yet.


On grief and blooming

I.

I’ve spent so many years of my life wishing things were different: where I’m from, my body, being so damn shy, exploring my emotions as a man, and wishing I was a better brother/uncle/son. Much of that time trying to change to fit into other people’s vision for who I am meant I wasn’t being being present with myself. I was looking past everything that made me, me. At the end of the day, right before bed, I’d look in the mirror and not recognize the person I was trying to be. So I made a deal with myself for this year: bloom.

These last few years, I’ve been recognizing my commitment to people who have not served my heart well. People who are not showing up for my wisdom and joy in the ways that I might have hoped without really communicating. People who might not match my level of commitment to them. Sometimes, working to be a better friend for others is a lonely business. Lots of time spent on islands of thought, expectations, or understanding. I’ve thought about this extensively before; the idea that, even if I’m willing to go to the ends of the city to be with this specific person, they aren’t loving me well or showing up for me when I am expecting them to. Part of that is setting a really high expectation for them and part of it is also me not accepting their current capacities to love me in the ways that I need. That’s on me to re-examine and re-determine for what’s next. Some people will stick around when I least expect it and they always show me their cards. Some people will leave because they’ll need to. They’ll require it for their own hearts, and honestly, as much as that may hurt, I find it to be noble and brave. I, too, will have to leave.

I am constantly pouring into others. I see this mostly in my work life and I’m actively working through the thought that my job is thankless. So many folks are quick to write millennials and generation Z off as lazy, unmotivated, or needing constant affirmation. I don’t buy it. Of course the folks that say these things “know better” because they’re older, wiser, and more experienced. Perhaps it’d be better to compare this generation with generations of the past at the same chapter. It does nobody any good if we constantly compare differing chapters. This becomes the wedge between us, the hill many die on, widening until we can’t speak to one another without constantly misunderstanding each other. It doesn’t have to be this way, I tell myself. If I can just break the cycle and change the narrative, maybe things would be different. As a result, we are all burning out and I’m left wondering how we can change systems to fit the needs of today, not yesterday. Institutions should change with the transforming landscape of human experience. We make up these systems and uphold their rules, spoken or not, until we decide to change them. It’s not easy, of course, and merely writing these words down doesn’t make things different. If anything, it adds to the urgency that we must be willing to dismantle deeply-rooted and generational understanding of how humans get to exist in the spaces we create. The pouring has to be daily. I don’t need thanks for doing my job. But I can tell you that if you encourage me, give me critical feedback, and commit to loving me well in the process, I will work harder. 

Still, this pouring comes at a cost. Spending so much of my time giving giving giving to people, I have to do what is necessary for me to show up as myself, not the person others want me to be. Investing in what makes me who I am is necessary. I have to observe that which works against me, the forces seen or unseen that strive to cut me down, fit me into a box, or make me someone I’m not.

The people I interact with on a daily basis will sometimes need me in a limited way, and then they’re gone. What’s true about this model is that, if you’re like me, seeing the fruits of your labor make it worth it. The catch is that I may never see it. Manifesting might be months from now, long after they’ve moved to bigger cities, brighter lights, better opportunities to love and be loved. Could be years. Because of this, I have to keep moving and have hope that the work I’m doing will prove to be worth it. In small, unspoken moments, I have to move on.

Nobody teaches you how though. It’s a skill that you have to do first in order to learn. How to pack up a life, taking down the messily adorned walls of all your favorite moments, standing in an empty room, finally turning the lights off and closing the door behind you with a deep sigh. It’s saying goodbye even when you don’t want to. We never really know when we’re going to see each other again, so I believe in wishing someone warmly ahead despite everything that is up in the air. Their path might surely bring forth something difficult. I hope they give themselves grace. I hope they see what I can see in them, all the growing that is yet to come and the path already traveled, all the worthiness inside their being. I hope I can see it in myself, too.

I am only just now grasping this idea that I am worthy and deserving of that which I continue to give to others. I am deserving of the capacity stretching that I’m working to help others do. I’m worthy, and that’s enough to shift my energy inwards sometimes. I want to find all that blooms inside of me and continue to share it with the world. To be tender towards all that is hurting and healing, and mining myself for ways that I can continue to love people well. To be fierce and accepting of every moment where I come up short with myself, with others. To find beautiful fragments on the floor every morning and find the courage every day to piece things back together. To heal—everything I do, I hope to find gratitude and joy inside of, wisdom and bravery, and amidst the darkness, an indelible, unwavering light that can guide me. And to do so surrounded by all the people that light a fire inside of me. My best friends: the New Yorkers and the North Carolinians, the Michiganders and the Ohioans, the Californians and everyone in between, the people who have traveled so far to find a life that brings them meaning and purpose. My family: those who have passed and those who, no matter the amount of time in between visits, I never get enough time with. My mother who gives and gives and gives. My big sister who is writing her own story of becoming; a mother and a sister and a friend. My little brother who is bigger and faster and stronger than me now but will always be the little guy who brought so much joy to our family. My beautiful niece and sweet nephew who I am in a constant state of awe of; two humans who are smart and funny, working to become people with so many stories to tell. My dad who teaches me things every day without even knowing it, and yes, my father, too, who I am finding myself a soft spot for, even after all this hurting.

Most of all, I want every day to feel like something new. I want to stack hope in ways I didn’t know I could. I want every day full of doubts to bring clarity, too. What I’ve learned these past three years is that if I don’t try, I may never know. If I resist my heart instead of traveling deeper into it, I may never realize a life that is authentic and true. I want to find all the transformation in my bones, to love people and hold them, even my best friends who I’ve learned are the loves of my life, each and every one of them. To give the soft places in their heart a soft place to land.

I want to bloom inside of everything tomorrow and today; to look back, years from now, and see every horizon in my heart as a sign that all of everything has been worth it. Every closed door that led to heartache. Every open door giving me wonder. Every eve, every rainstorm, every moment passed where I decided that today was going to be the day. The day that I was going to be the only Robbie I can be today. The day, after years of building, that I finally walk through the door of blooming, today and tomorrow and everything that comes next.



* * *

 

Written in fragments between January and May of 2019. Finally pieced together in June, just before Father’s Day.

 


II.

I want to establish myself as someone independent from the opinions of those that do not love me well. And right now, that’s just not a possibility. I’m working through it, whatever that means, and I’m hoping things will change at some point. Hoping I’ll have the foresight to notice the change and to observe it as anything that doesn’t resemble trauma. The heart stretches not without aching for rest. I am hoping there will be better days. That I can find what’s bright in the sky on the days when I should have brimming gratitude. But the honest-to-universe truth is that the lights don’t always stay on. And there is not always a switch. And the grief is a circle, running with no corners to sleep, spinning wobbly into tomorrow and the next without care for sensible direction. I cannot help but be tender with myself, allowing the grief to take hold when it decides it’s time, shaking me away from what’s in front of me. It is a ball inside of a limited box with a big pain button on every wall, bouncing around, smashing into the hurting parts. The ball might get smaller over time but it never really dissolves. Some days are hurricanes with no end. 

A co-worker once told me that grief is like a leaky faucet, dripping at its own expense with no resolve. I know that to be true for the way it shows up in my life. The world will always spin without noticing me. Perhaps grief is swimming upstream against a current; there was always a before and after. Before you were told upstream is the only option. Before you got so tired. Before there was ever a pain you had to sit with, a gravity holding you in place. After the first breakdown. After something uncontrollable existing on your chest. After the calls and texts and notes, sweet words of solace amidst a lack of light. Before meant something different not long ago. After did, too. How different life can be in just a few hours and a phone call.

I can’t say with certainty who this writing is for. I just know that I have to write it to breathe again. I am usually okay with uncertainty—most of life is this way, isn’t it? I’ve been uncertain with myself for a long time, but I’ve taken steps before without seeing what’s next. This feels different. Like everything is moving forward and all I can do is watch. I know that, in time, all of this will make more sense. I will understand life in a new way. Time works that magic. That fact doesn’t answer my right-now questions, like what was his last thought? Did it hurt? Was there panic? Peace? Did he think of me? Was he mad at me for not responding to him quick enough? For not answering his calls or texts? For insisting on emails as the sole form of communication? Did he have regrets? Do I?

I don’t always know what it means to regret. But if I could go back, I might change a few things. I’d learn forgiveness much earlier. Buddy Wakefield says forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past. Mom says it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. She talked to my father almost every day for nine months after his brother passed away in September of 2018. I don’t always know if I believe in a God or a series of Gods or the universe, but I imagine he wanted to spend more time in the place up high with his brother. I’m sure he thought of him daily after his own grief manifested. I imagine he had regrets.

Mom also says that you don’t become a true adult until one of your parents dies. It is then that you become last-in-line, the guardian of the family, a role that she’s done masterfully, gracefully for years now. It is then that you learn what it means to be alone, kids or not. Siblings or not. Your own demons or not. There is nobody you looked up to for years that will help you sort the socks or cut the coupons, nobody to make the salad for dinner, nobody to take to appointments for an ailing body, nobody but yourself. It is then that you realize that love, while it is a spectrum, is remembered best when you give it all you’ve got and give it away.

After 28 years, I have finally claimed the title of adult. And perhaps I do not carry grief well. But I hope, even after all of this, that deep in his heart, he was proud to be my father. I hope he knows that I loved him even if I never told him. I hope he found all the seasons in his days. It is windy today. Like wind, I hope his pain was fleeting, now gone except in memory and heart. Especially in heart.

I love you, dad. Happy Father’s Day.



* * *



Written in June of 2019 almost a month after finding out my father passed away. I wrote him a letter in 2017 after years of hating him. It was right after a good friend of mine and my grandmother passed in a matter of four months and my mother told me to reach out to him. “Something could happen tomorrow and you don’t want to regret never talking to him again,” she said. I began communicating with him via email. It felt like it was all I could do. Texting and calling felt too close and I didn’t feel ready to let him in again. Dozens of emails later, we went back and forth about life—small updates and big, happy birthdays, Merry Christmas’s, plenty of ‘how are you?’s, and lots of questions. So many questions. We had plans of meeting halfway between Muncie and Wickliffe this summer to have a meal, catch up. To try to see each other. Even with all the anxiousness that brought me, I felt hope for the first time in a long time with him. He passed before that could happen and I’m left with so many questions that I may never get the answers to, hands full of things I wish I could change. I don’t have any pictures with him, just a few good memories that I will cherish. Stories I will tell my children one day. I can no longer wish for a better past or try to change it. Can no longer wish for a better tomorrow with him. All I know right now is that nobody will tell me how to grieve or when, and I deserve tenderness despite all the wreckage. My boat is always being built and I will never be done.

Blooming. Joy amidst a deep sadness. Answers that will surely come and peace for those that won’t. Mostly, just love in every corner, every turn.

To you, my friends

We’ve reached the end—again—and I still don’t fully know how to handle the first few weeks without students on campus. The buildings slowly empty and, one by one, then all at once, the lights turn off. The music stops. The hustle simmers and bustle slows. I stand in the lobby of the 500-person building wishing that everyone was back here for a photo, something to remember this time that we’ve spent stretching each other’s hearts. Each floor becomes the home of all the sweetest memories that we hold close, each room a set of walls observing us be who we are, and each person, a tiny miracle that we wished we’d gotten and now we did. I put my hands in my pockets and take a deep breath. Another year down. Gratitude fills me.

The truth is, no matter how many days we’d wished away, hoping it would be the end sooner than it did, we were never really ready for the finality. We weren’t ready to go on our last round or attend our last meeting. As much as we might have wished for it to come, we sat amongst each other in the last staff meeting wishing there was just one more. At some point along the way, we didn’t come to terms with the fact that we were doing some of our last things together in the last six weeks of the semester. The last sleeps and the last conversation with that one resident that you wish you’d gotten to know earlier. The last trip for coffee with each other. The last program you planned with a peer and the last time you called for backup. The last time you got to spend with one another and the final set of laughs shared way too late into the night. It’s a reminder that good things do, indeed, come to an end, even when we try to run from it. Still, we got to do so much together. That’s something that makes me smile today.

For many of this, this was a hard year. We can never really imagine in August how we’ll turn out in May, how heartbreak might come at a time we least expect it to, how we might find joy in spaces that we hadn’t thought would be full, and how we’ll be changed forever because of it. Every first day of school, I think about how, in just a few months, we’ll all leave again and I’m reminded of how critical it can be to take that moment in, to breath deeply and exhale, and to find resolve in the steps I’m (we’re) about to take. Time is non-renewable; we get to spend it with each other for such a short period, and so it becomes precious in an instant. Thinking back to that day this past fall, I’m reminded once again that no matter how much I try to plan and prepare, there will be twists and turns, life unexpectedly startling me into the next tomorrow. But every time, I got to do it with you.

I wish I could write each of you a poem. Something you can take with you to new buildings and teams, new cities and jobs, new supervisors and friends. I wish I could be the folded photograph in your wallet that comes tumbling out when you least expect it; a reminder of how things used to be, of all the ways we grew this past year. I’ll settle as a memory you carry instead, something vivid and encouraging. Hopefully something that evokes light. I wasn’t perfect but I certainly tried to be. I knew on day one just as I know now: you are worth the time. You are worth the space. You are worth the hours and the miles we traveled. You are worth it every single time. Here’s a letter to remind you:

This letter is for you, my friends.

For every time you didn’t believe in yourself but finally did, a whole world cracking open, something new and uncharted. For every moment you cussed in the lobby and quickly apologized, receiving the “Robbie face,” and resolving to be better. For the times we shared tears and the times we swapped stories, life lessons, or music preferences. For every walking one-on-one and every Starbucks trip (I’m convinced we are made of caffeine). For every time you thought you couldn’t, but you tried anyway. Every staff trip and moments you thought I was mad at you (I wasn’t (except for the back door)), every early morning or late night staff meeting, every message sent to see if you overslept for a gathering. For every program and every conversation that changed me. For every person you changed, too. For all the hours you spent crafting and rounding, every moment you wished would end and every moment you wished wouldn’t. Every mistake and triumph. I have a heart full of gratitude.

We made it.

Thanks for making this place a home for so many and for committing yourself to the folks living here. It wasn’t that long ago that we all sat in the first meetings, wide-eyed and hopeful, wishing for a year of building. My goodness, did you build.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Next year will be different for each you. My hope is that you put your best foot forward, especially on your worst days. There will be more days like that in your future—the kind where everything seems to be going wrong and you’re late, feeling heavy with disappointment in yourself. My hope is that you take a step anyways. And that you rest when you get the chance. I know many of you don’t know what that word means and that’s okay. You will soon enough.

I hope you take every chance to adventure and you forgive yourself when you mess up. We are built to make mistakes. We are a bunch of imperfect cells just trying to make it through. If we never messed up, life might be pretty boring and definitely bereft meaning. I hope you know that you never have to go through darkness alone and that you know I’m in your corner just as I’ve always been. Many of you will span the globe in the coming months—new states, territories unbound from routines and favorite places—and I hope you take advantage of all the clean slates in your future. My mother tells me that we don’t get many in this life and that we should make the most of it every time we find ourselves with something blank to shapeshift. I hope you make the most of it.

Do not forget each other. No matter how many trials and tribulations you faced, you mattered to each other in some small way this year. That’s important. Doing anything less than remembering every moment of laughter and sadness, of joy and frustration, would not be meaningful.

Feel what you feel. It will make you a better human to be able to walk through each emotion from beginning to end than to run from it. Some of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve done a lot of it this semester. There is no finality to any feeling; you will get tired of running and it will all catch up to you. Feel it. Lean into it. Sit with it and explore it if you can. And in every moment in between, be gentle with yourself.

The future cannot happen if you don’t find a way to love people deeply. So, at the end of each day, I hope you think about how you love people well, including yourself. You are worthy of every good thing coming to you.

Thanks for making this year beautiful and for giving other people hope. Without you, goodbyes would be easy. I’m grateful that you’ve made them difficult for me. I’ll miss you more than you know. You are always welcome back into any space of mine. I have so much love in my heart for you.

Your friend,
-RFW

Holdfast

“We should hold each other more
while we are still alive, even if it hurts.
People really die of loneliness, skin hunger
the doctors call it. In a study on love,
baby monkeys were given a choice
between a wire mother with milk
& a wool mother with none. Like them,
I would choose to starve & hold the soft body.”

-Robin Beth Schaer

When I think of the man I was two years ago, I think of fog. How it shades and contorts what may or may not be in front of you. How it can cloud around the shape of you, clarity hindered. I think of how traveling through it can sometimes only yield more fog. Something endless. That’s what grief is to me. I’ve been digging. Trying to make sense of something that I won’t soon understand. I knew, two years ago, my grandmother was hurting and hoping I’d come home to see her for what would have been the very last time. I knew it to be possible that she was doing everything she could to hang on for just a little while longer. I knew I prioritized work over the miles it’d take for me to see her again and still, I’m working through that, a certain kind of fog that makes me feel bad for leaving and feel bad for staying. Unshakeable in more than a few ways. Two years later, I’m sitting in this coffeeshop wondering how it could be that I’ve let two years pass without fully writing about it.

She was a woman of steel with a soft center. Truly the matriarch of this family. A wonder of the world. I am convinced today just as I was two years ago today: everything that matters most to me grows three times its size once I no longer have access to it.

I’ve gotten a tattoo in her honor; I look at it every day—in the shower as the water hits it, in meetings when I roll up my sleeves, in small moments where the black ink is a heavy contrast against my pale skin—and I am reminded of her words. “I love you.” Some of the strongest words ever said simply to me. Some of the only that I’ve both understood and felt completely in the fog about. Still traveling, still making my way towards some sort of muffled light, and I am starting to think that perhaps this is what life is like once you lose someone you love deeply.

I believe there is a story in all things. It’s why I’ve taught a class about storytelling for the past two semesters. It’s why I’ve worked with students to help them see the value in their own stories and the stories surrounding them every single day. There are no small moments that do not have the opportunity to be of golden value. Everything has the potential to matter. The ways things came to be, how they’re existing, and the hopes folks have for them continuing are all stories and they’re worth telling. I’m not yet convinced that everything happens for a reason, or if these two concepts are related, but even when (especially when) things don’t make sense to us, they grow bones in mattering. That’s that.

I have several stories swimming around of my grandmother: going to the park down the street from the house that she and my grandfather built; her having a stroke across from me at a restaurant, her eyes meeting mine, face pale-white; her tripping and falling over a protruding water pipe in the sidewalk, blood rushing down her face but her insisting that she was fine; her living next to my father in a trailer park; me and a friend getting in trouble at a local store and her having to come and pick us up; going into the woods that she told us not to go into and building forts; moving in with her for a year during high school while my family could get on their feet; her crying every time I would leave home and asking when I’m coming back; and so many more. So many more.

The last two years have been difficult and I still have so much unpacking to do. Every good, bad, and indifferent memory I have deserves a safe space to come undone inside of me. My grandmother was, is, and always will be a strong part of my identity. The love she exuded is not lost on me. It’s in the work that I do every day. It shows up in the relationships I’m constantly working to build, even when I fail. It’s a central part of who I am as a person. It’s on my skin; despite shedding, it’s always there.

Every morning, I wake up a see a message I wrote to myself that I got from a StoryPeople print: “There is no future without love.” Although I live alone, I say it quietly to myself every morning as if it is a prayer—something holy that gives me strength, something spiritual that is bigger than I am. When I sit up, feet reaching the ground, arms stretching, I’m hoping the universe is listening. I’m hoping that somehow, the moon and the trees are listening. I’m hoping there will be others can find this message in their everyday lives and believe it. That we can see each other and understand each other, all the soft parts in us are worthy of acceptance, of light.

There will come a time when everything around me is gone. People will pass. Time will pass. The music will stop. Work will cease and the world will be determined to keep spinning the same old, reliable way. I will be left with myself. Healing will not be linear and it will not come easy. I have to come to terms with that fact—sooner rather than later—and know in my bones that, no matter how much I try, I cannot outrun my hurt. I cannot trick all that haunts me into being my friend. I have to face it. And the love that grows through all the breaking will make it worth it. So worth it.

So it goes.

The order of things

On a cold Saturday in late March, I wake with words sprawling, tottering themselves into a poem off of my lips. I move quickly to write it all down. Hours later, I’ve scribbled on the backs of several old papers: a restaurant napkin, a movie pass, the comic section of the local newspaper, a notebook divider—anything with space for the things I cannot stop from leaving. There is a place where every writer feels a rope tighten when the words come faster than the hand can move. It is made up of half magic, and half images from a life lived, and I am a writer in the same way I am a lover: there are plenty of things that I say I can do without believing I can actually do them. Still, my feet find unsteady ledges in an effort to scale objects meant to be seen, not touched. What comes to me, I feel compelled to remember. I write a slew of poems that night. One about loving and light. One about the dark, what it contains or doesn’t, what it holds up or doesn’t, what it can be for people who will never intimately know how the light guides us across days to a greater tomorrow. Always becoming someone or something, perhaps several someones or somethings and I am here, purposefully and unknown. Still learning how to be okay inside of joy. Still working my way through a puzzle with missing pieces. Shay Alexi questioned, “Do you know what it is to love somebody when all their lights go out?” That line stuck with me in the same way my answer to it does. How did I get into this empty room? How do I know my eyes aren’t just closed tightly to savor the dark? I ask about the switch itself, how electricity can travel so fast, how I do not always know if I belong in this space or if I’ve carved into it as a way of saying, “this is mine now.” I have so many questions, so many unanswered thoughts. Alas, I must rest.

Instead, inception. A match strikes. Then, a dancing flicker. A gleam, a sliver of a familiar breath. Fouling off every pitch just to stay in the game, in the bottom of the 9th, down two with one on second, one second to decide if I’ll swing. Step. Go. As far as the light will take me. May I never forget what it means to hold onto things that I cannot fully grasp. Things I’m destined to let go of. And I will not go to where the darkness lives. But when it shows up on my doorstep, I’ll invite it inside. Make some tea, no sugar. I will sit across from it, fumbling around, move my hands across the ink on my pages, look it in the eyes, set down my armor, and begin with belief. I wait for it to make a sound. Make a move. Make a claim that today is over with and next week isn’t coming. I sit with my poems in front of me, hoping one of them can make sense of things right now. There is a line somewhere in these pages about natural disasters. I have referenced love in this way since I can remember. Earthquakes shifting the order of things: dirt split rigidly down Earth’s center, jagged vulnerable cliffs amidst our favorite flowerbeds. We are ripping away from each other; every bouquet from here until the end of everything will have stems we don’t yet know how to cut. We resolve to reach farther but throw the whole thing out. Hope the next dozen will be easier, brighter; have a better shot at surviving this thing, this holy and oft-questioned thing, this beautiful and bold circling-around-the-ridge thing. I move at a speed I do not know towards the place where split headaches begin. When darkness asks me what is most valuable to me, I tell it, “Right here,” pointing straight to the chest, the heart, “right here.” A quiet grin, a subtle laugh, everything and nothing between us, hushed now and I pull the sheets over my head one last time as I drift off to sleep—

Break, breaking

Since I moved to Indiana, life has been small musings between heartbreaks. And this is largely what growing up has been for me. The moving and the wishing people were here that cannot be and the election and the disasters that we become when we are hurt but trying to love people. The war with the self when it comes to deciding what is more important: tending to your own heart or giving that up for the sake of someone else’s.

The desire that only seems to compound with time and people and places. The hard semester of learning but not for learning’s sake, more as a practice of survival. The building of a community of people that feel like a home. Or perhaps the building of a community of a few good people who are home despite the miles between us. The understanding of that, finally. The heartbreak of a friend passing suddenly. And holding my best friend as he cries into the confusion, the keen hurt we were all feeling on that rainy day, and all rainy days thereafter.

The heartbreak of a new year spent among friends just trying to make things feel normal again. The early hours of screaming and yelling and hurting so deeply, everything coming to the surface and boiling over. The realization that this might be the beginning of the end of a relationship built over months of loving each other selfishly. The wishing things were different. The birthday in the snow. The semester spent in busy-ness and not taking the time to feel this current moment over and over again. The hurt of my grandmother passing, and the grief I would quickly carry for months. The resistance to what healing could do because I chose not to go home and see her before she left. How, my mother would tell me, she was holding on to see me one last time. How, I would tell her, I “didn’t have time” and how that was a story I was just telling myself so I did not have to face her not remembering me again. How this kind of small mourning comes with being the favorite; the higher up, the harder of a fall, and mine took the longest. How, if I could go back, I would take the hurt of not being remembered over not being able to say a quiet goodbye.

The summer of breaking—in and up—and the newness of hurting all over again. The loneliness that follows. The bitterness and the arguing. The breaking, the breaking.

The semester of finally feeling like I know what I’m doing and the days of trying to make sense of being alone, what it can serve me, and how I can be okay with the way it sits on my bones, reclined and relaxing into the next day. The feeling of not knowing or understanding myself again and trying to find my way back. The darkness sitting with me like an old friend, changed from their years away spent discovering themselves, too. The thought, “I am here again, what should I make of this?”

The new year spent with friends just trying to make sense of how important a community can be inside of us all. The lack of clarity of how I’m feeling about things. The year of “I suppose” or “I don’t know” or “Maybe” and finding the potential in every possibility, even if it means not making a decision. The January spent with quiet snow, a friend visiting and being broken, a birthday with a surprise cake from the people I spend the most time with. The smile I didn’t know would creep onto my face. How sudden, how fleeting.

The writing. Oh, the writing. How, even when I thought I couldn’t, I found possibilities, explored this current world and the next, thought about the ways a body can move to accommodate new weight. The words stacking on top of each other until I can figure out what to do with all of them. How to sort them. The familiar ache of missing a father who’s face I can barely remember. The breaking again.

The year of feeling bad for carrying so many emotions, often several that conflict. How I’ve been taught as a man to not feel them fully (perhaps at all?) and to just keep going. Keep moving, don’t stop to take your own temperature, you will be fine, suck it up, Robbie, be a man. How that’s never been me. Even if I’ve been silent through this life, my inner world is full of hurting and healing and trying to make sense of everything spinning and sprawling.

The January and February and every month until August spent loving and prepping for letting go again. How distance between me and all the people I love the most will always feel like a series of misunderstandings in my heart. How the miles will never make sense. How the missed phone calls and wishing things were different would dwell on my chest, mounting, piling. But how the vivid rememberings of love and friendship and adventures will stick to my insides for forever. How I am understanding love not simply as an act that one “gets” to participate in, but as a window of continuous light shedding its skin until it no longer curls into a question mark; a privilege I am not always realizing I have in this life until I finally do. Until I finally let it go. Perhaps especially now as I feel very much on the eve of something I cannot see, cannot reach into the dusk to feel, cannot fully remember, and tomorrow will be another day of this, won’t it?

Then leaving.

Then the teaching and the meeting and the learning to love the people I spend the most time with and the people that I’ve loved and then left/they left me/there was always going to be leaving, you know? There was always going to be hurting. I was always going to carry it. I was always going to hope to create a space for others that embraces that which they’ve been running from.

Here I am. Skin and bones, flesh and a heart full of remembering, of forgetting. Sitting here today to see if breaking over and over again can mean there will be something new tomorrow. Hope—a muscle I have not learned to work well—sits at my table now and I am in awe. How, despite a darkness that I’ve known and will never know, hope has a role. How I won’t always get it right and I won’t always make sense and I will always have more questions, even when I have answers, and how I am becoming again. Me again. The world spinning again. And how, when I spend every day in exhaust from learning to love the people around me better, I can turn to myself at the end and whisper “me, too.” and everything might make sense, finally.

On Friendship

“What is home but a book we write, then
read again & again, each time dog-earing 

different pages. In the morning I wake
in time to pencil the sun high. How
fragile it is, the world—”

-Maggie Smith, Poet


When you meet several loves of your life, you don’t always know it. You don’t always see it as it’s happening in realtime. I’m talking friendship expanding and contracting with the breath, over and over again, in every moment you never expected, showing up in spaces you’d never dream to be. It’s the man who has been through it all with you. The woman who wouldn’t take ‘no, thanks’ as an answer when she asked you to change the world with her. The person who, with a smile a wide as the light, offered to show up for you despite going through his own toughest heartbreak. It’s a boundless sense of becoming, of belonging, of playing the right song at the right time, no words following.

You don’t have the be in love with someone for them to be the love of your life. Have plenty, there’s more than enough to go around. More than enough of you to be seen and heard. I remember when, amidst a heartbreak of my own, I could count on a friend hundreds of miles away buying a plane ticket and flying to me—putting his life on hold so I could feel the comfort of his presence, a familiar and beautiful kind of withness. When my life felt off track and I felt so much uncertainty about moving to a new state alone for the first time, a friend reached out, told me that she loved me “yesterday, today, forever,” gave me the space and time to digest what a love lasting a hundred years could feel like, like hope on top of the breath and beautiful things growing in my heart. When I was wrestling with what to do with all these voids inside of me following the hardest string of days enveloped in darkness of my life, I remember a friend offering his presence. He slept on my couch so that I wasn’t alone that night. I remember how, despite all the bruising brimming past my rough edges, there existed within me a small beam of light to hold onto. Something only a true friendship could create in all the spaces you’d long overlooked and forgotten.

It’s these friends that keep me coming home. That keep me pushing forward, finding my way out of an unlit room. The holders of the light, of presence, of sincerity, of understanding. The friends that see how tired a life can be and still take a few more conscious breaths so that there are extras in case I lose my own.

Perhaps the greatest thing one can give to another is unwavering love. I agree—to be loved is truly a gift. But perhaps the greatest gift of all is to be known and understood by someone. To be given the space to come into yourself day after day without a question, only wild and unconditional support. This is what it means to be a friend.

Their knowing of me lived through everyday moments, helping me to see that we can become undone by each other so long as we know the other is present, listening, willing to sift through rubble to find what’s left. Not knowing what to say but not needing to know right now or next week or three months from now. They created a space that allowed me to take in a world where we all exist at the same time on own own terms. They’ve been knowing that this is what I need most and they allow me to write my own story, no matter how broken.

Friendship. How beautiful it can be to meet people who suffer through your darkest moments just to show you that you are worthy, that you are not the sum of every day you’ve made yourself believe that you are your weakest memories. These beauties—each one, a love song spoken in different languages—committing to knowing you, past and future and present, in every moment, every step. The ones who will be there when the emotion is too big to fit inside all of your creaky folds, your fields of uncharted adventures, your musical magical wonderful heart. Those who will help you with the climb from five hundred or three thousand miles away. Who will write you love letter after love letter explaining how you show up for them, how your belief in them changes their world every day, and how you simply existing has been their saving grace. Who will show up and sit with you when you question every good thing that you put into the world, wondering if people are actually listening, seeing, learning from you. Old friends and new who meet, exchange stories of you, helping one another understand who you are. What you’ve been. Who you want to be. 

I’d always imagined my life coming together like every best friend living on the same street and dinner rotating once a week in each other’s company, talking about big and bright and scary things, singing about how we’re going to heal the world. Now, with every best friend and every person I love deepest and most vibrantly living hundreds of mile markers away, time zones splitting us, I long for this dream. The cities we’re living in are enveloping us and I’m just in my slice of the world hoping that someone will see me and understand, without explanation, just how loved I’m hoping to be. Just how worthy I want to be of belonging but finding it hard sometimes to believe in something so peaceful for my own life. I know how unrealistic it is for me to want to see my best friends getting their mail, bringing groceries in during a thunderstorm, their kids growing up and having soccer practice and going on dates. I know how unfathomable it is to think this can happen right now, how we can hold each other up to the light when each is feeling lowest, through the highlight reels and every editing session. Still, I dream of it.

It’s beautiful to think about how hopeful and messy we are at the ends of each other, breathing life into every broken wing or rib, bruised ego and heart. How every porch light we pass on the way home is nothing but a reminder that everyone is holding out for someone to return. How I want to return, too, to someone or something bigger than myself every night. To believe the good in every person I meet, no matter how adorned, how balding, how worn. Easily-fractured, but always putting ourselves back together with the help of someone surrounding us. A whole slew of someones. An army of encouragers and bravers and the hopeful. A flock of people singing our praises. Old friends and new, some in-between. Becoming family amongst family. We sit down to eat, love overflowing. I am broken but hopeful. Breaking but full of hope.

“How fragile it is, the world—” Maggie wrote, lifting into our collective minds the thought that this fleeting world turns and turns, spinning webs of safe landings for every time we think we’ll crash. How we’ll get to do that for one another when we least expect it. How fragile that it. We are. I am. How, together, we can become infinite across beings. How we’re elevated by that. Together.

IMG_7600

 

Home

You ever had a perfect day?

A laugh-filled, legs-hurting, heart-expanding day full of walks and talks and sights kind of day. Memories in the making, best friend to your right, sky blue with clouds pillow fighting as they pass through one another. A sun tan in-the-making, the trees scattering across the horizon, the water slapping against rock, calm in places, returning again. A family on bikes passing on the left, concert soundcheck in the distance, people aching for shade, a bit of a reprieve from the 85 degree weather. No agenda. Just sky.

If someone were to ask me what makes the perfect day, I’d describe this one. How we ate Creole food and adventured in the city. Carried our laptops in satchels searching for coffeeshops we could write at. Talking about the love we give, who gives it back, how important those people in our life are and how we’ll need them tomorrow. Skin glistening with sweat, but not a care in the world. Today? It’s for best friends.

We found ice cream that was made in front of our own eyes. A blend of raspberry and strawberry and custard, sweet and full of whatever it was that we needed exactly in that moment. Adventured to a bookstore and found a few gems amidst its stacks. Stories already consumed, waiting to be discovered again, hoping for a new home. Picked three to come home with me, helping me build this life three or four pages at a time. Jokingly talked about getting tattoos. Gave it some minutes to scramble through our mind. “So let’s get tattoos.” Just like that, we’re getting home stitched into our skin—places that have undoubtedly shook us to our core, flipped us upside down and stole all our lunch money, hung us out to dry. Places that brought us joy, gave us peace, inspired hope with every stubborn step.

It wouldn’t be home without the parts that didn’t quite add up. Without the bruises we accumulated trying to be loved again and again by people who didn’t have the capacity to, couldn’t see us well. Wouldn’t be home without the mile markers we follow into it, the lights we count as night falls, the people that stayed, reminding us how we got here and where we’re going, to never forget where we’re from, to savor the moment before it passes. To let it go when it does finally does.

Michigan. Land of the Great Lakes. Home of the automobile. It’s where my mother was born and raised by her mother, the only place either of them ever settled long enough to take root. The place where I met my first girlfriend and my second (and third), where love was a lost and found bin I rummaged through at least once a year, hoping to find something worth keeping, coming up empty. The borders that I traveled—up north, Kalkaska, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island—and the people I traveled with, all tracing lines of friendship and deep life talks. The cities I’d find pieces of myself in—Flint, Detroit, Bay City, Saginaw, Rochester, Brighton, Frankenmuth—and the forgiving and open sky beckoning me back time and time again.

It’s where I learned what family means to me. How I had to leave imaginary lines to know just how much of who I am is wrapped up in the street signs, porch swings, corner stores, and high school hallways. How, every week, rain or shine or snow, I’d clean the garage and mow the lawn. It’s where I first got detention, first learned how to throw a spiral football, had my first double on the baseball diamond and made my first fielding error, and where I ran my first session of hills.

It’s where I first was given an opportunity to advocate for someone who’s voice isn’t often heard and where I learned what good mentorship looks like. It’s where I learned to write, where the first person outside of family told me “I believe in you” and meant it. The place where I first had faith that the sky could actually open up and a god could take my hand. The place where I first doubted that, too. Where I wrestled with belief in general and participated in my first spelling bee. Where I wrote my first of many letters to an ex-lover, marched to her doorstep in the snow, asked her mom if she was busy, hand delivered it to her, and made the trek back home with periodic glances back, hoping to see her coming after me to tell me she wanted to be with me. She didn’t. The place where I stopped believing in real love. The place I decided to love again and where I believed I was worthy of it. So many firsts. Probably some lasts, too.

I come back time and time again, get off the interstate, and am flooded with memories. Remembering how I’d spent years wishing to make it out so I could see the great big world. Now, wishing I’d spent more time at home with my grandmother, my mother, my sister and brother, my niece and nephew, my dad. Wishing I could have one more conversation in my childhood home. One more walk to the bus stop. One more mow of the lawn, one more tree climb, one more race from the bottom of the house to the top, turning off all the lights on my way, just quick enough to not be caught in a shadow. One more conversation with my Yia Yia to tell her that I love her, that I’m proud to call her my grandmother, that she is one of my heroes. One more time wrestling with my brother, who is graduating from high school soon and growing up. One more time. One last time.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t change the small parts. Like how, as a young boy, shy and curious, I made an insect graveyard in my back yard. I can still picture the small mound of dirt, moss covering its top, signaling the resting place of once-alive fliers and crawlers. How accomplished I felt in being gentle with some small dead thing, but how one day long after its creation, I mindlessly mowed over its contents, only remembering after I’d finished the whole yard. How, odd as it is, this would become a metaphor for the way we like to honor our dead, how Buddy Wakefield’s line looms over me every time I come across it: “Cemeteries are just Earth’s way of not letting go. Let go.” How that taught me about death well before death ever came. How it still does.

There are whole days when I miss the way the Michigan air enveloped me. Mixing quiet and loud never felt so comforting to me on the days when I didn’t feel like myself. Trips to the bread store with mom to use our food stamps before they were gone, driving down roads in Redford saying “Yia Yia, where are you?” Even when she knew exactly where Yia Yia was: sitting, waiting for us to reach her, open arms and heart in the direction we came from every summer. How I can remember the painting of ships at a distance against the horizon—water reflecting back, every wave a mirror—hanging in the house she had built for her family. How the painting now hangs in my apartment in Indiana. How I pass it every day, sneaking a glance when I can, remembering what I can remember, digging deep to see her show up long after she is gone. All things disappear if you think hard enough about them. Their edges fading, center soon to go, and so, too, our bodies.

Home.

It’s where the soul expands, bursts, and rebuilds itself with the rubble. That’s what Michigan means to me. Long after I’ve gone away, I will return. Though the air will feel differently, the people will change, the monuments will transform, and the whole state will feel foreign, there will be familiarity that settles into my bones. I will see things new and old and be reminded of the reason why this place means so much to me. It’s forever home. A part of my forever story. No matter how far away I go, the open sky will beckon me again, turning its porch light on one last time to see me drive the distance all the way home.