The Lost Country

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I like to write about childhood, for different reasons. There were times when everything was perfect, like when I was 7-9 years old and my family lived in a serene (then) and beautiful neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. My best friend lived a few houses away, my piano teacher lived on the opposite corner, my babysitter was just down the street, and my first crush, a blonde, freckle-faced cutie named Linda Coss, lived at the bottom of the street in the only pink house in the whole neighborhood. Flowers perpetually smiled through the white picket fence surrounding her garden, and bluebirds and butterflies circled above her room constantly. (In my memory, anyway.)

We moved fifteen times before I was fifteen years old. Some kids are given the tools to be okay with that. I wasn’t one of them. Perpetually the new kid, and very small in stature (one of my older brother’s nicknames for me was “Pail and Frail”), I got bullied a lot. I resented my parents for disrupting my life every year or two because they were unhappy, and blamed them for everything that went wrong. I was like a sapling getting yanked out of the soil every time I started putting down roots. As a result, I grew more confused and angry as my teenage years came along, eventually developing severe shyness and low self-esteem. The bullies had accomplished what they wanted to do to me.

When I got out of high school and got my first car, I would often drive to that old neighborhood and walk around. Of all the neighborhoods we lived in, that was the one that felt like home to me. It was where my “wonder years” happened. But it wasn’t the same, of course. Everyone I knew as a child had moved. Other people lived in our house. I resented them, even though we moved out over ten years earlier. My brother had become a heroin addict, my father was cut down to skin and bone by cancer, my high school girlfriend had an abortion that killed me spiritually, and I had no college or career aspirations. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do or be. This all caused a desire as overwhelming as it was unrealistic – to go back to the time when everything was still ahead of me and my family, when no mistakes had been made yet. I was like a ghost haunting my own life too early.

As I got older and started writing, childhood was one of my favorite subjects. It still is. They say writing is living twice. Maybe that’s why. I’m still trying to find what I lost, fix what was broken, and relive the moments when everything was perfect. Moments of pure joy, like when I saw Santa Claus fly right over my house while laying on my front lawn. I even heard the reindeer bells. Or my best friend Dana and I sitting in trees and rooftops with walkie-talkie’s, pretending the neighbors walking below were enemy spies. Or making gelatinous bugs and snakes in our Mattel Thing-Maker oven, then scaring the girls on the street with them. Or watching Sci-Fi movies in chair-and-blanket forts while stuffing our faces with candy. Or my teenage babysitter Shirley arriving with a handful of toys and puzzles for my brother and I to play with. As the saying goes, “God was in His universe and all was right with the world.” 

While reading a book by Gail Carson Levine called Writing Magic – Creating Stories That Fly, I came across a perfect description of the desire to somehow access childhood again through writing. She wrote:

“I used to think, long ago, that when I grew up, I’d remember what it felt like to be a child and that I’d always be able to get back to my child self. But I can’t. When you become a teenager, you step onto a bridge. You may already be on it. The opposite shore is adulthood. Childhood lies behind. The bridge is made of wood. As you cross, it burns behind you. If you save what you write, you still won’t be able to cross back to childhood. But you’ll be able to see yourself in that lost country. You’ll be able to wave to yourself across that wide river. Whether or not you continue to write, you will be glad to have the souvenirs of your earlier self.”

I’m a father of two girls now, three and six years old. They are bringing the magic back to me. Before I became a dad, I used to be annoyed when parents would say “Really? Wow!” to their young children with false enthusiasm in response to something nonsensical they had just said. But I get it now. Today, my youngest daughter said to me, very excitedly, “Jelly Bean has a tail!” and I found myself saying, “Really? Wow!” Still not wanting to be one of “those” parents, however, I asked her to explain the comment. But her answer confused me even more.

I concluded that saying “Really? Wow!” is actually a very wise admission, a surrender to the fact that children live in a world grown-up’s are not allowed in. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet –

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Not wanting to give up so easily, I asked my daughter if I could go with her to her world, to visit Jelly Bean and see his tail. She said, “Yes, daddy!” very exuberantly. We walked across the room, sat down and played for a while, despite the spaces between us – between her innocence and my world-weariness, her perfectly unfettered joy and my comfortless logic. But still, all I could do is watch her in wonder and envy at the delicious irresponsibility and frivolity of her life, a frivolity I encourage and protect. The bubble of childhood will pop soon enough, and always too early.

In his song Too Many Angels, Jackson Browne wrote:

There are photographs of children
all in their silver frames
on the windowsills and tabletops
lit by candle flames.
And upon their angel faces,
life’s expectations climb
as the moment has preserved them
from the ravages of time.”

I did not begin to let go of my childhood until I had children of my own. How could I when only my life concerned me? Their effortless ability to save me from endless reminiscing was and still is my salvation. Their future is more important to me now than my own, or my past. I’ll still visit it in my writing, but with far less aching melancholy because now, anytime I need to see what joy is, I just have to find them and watch them play. I will not allow my restlessness to uproot my little saplings. I will not allow any unhappiness I feel to disrupt theirs.

Just Live (poem)

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I wrote this about twenty-five years ago. It’s about four stages in a man’s life. When I wrote it, I was in the second stage. I’ve completed the third now and hope to complete the fourth gracefully. 

Just Live

There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.

Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.

Like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.

***

A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.

His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.

No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”

***

A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,

when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.

Then he thought, “Oh, my God.  Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”

That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.

***

An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”

He says, “Don’t be sad.  I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .

“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.

I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.

Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.

So do one thing more for me.  Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”

~ Mark Rickerby

And I Love You So

 

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(My daughter and I six years ago.)
And I love you so,
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

And yes I know how lonely life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening get me down
Now that you’re around me

And you love me too
Your thoughts are just for me
You set my spirit free
I’m happy that you do

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read
All but love is dead
That is my belief

And yes I know how loveless life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening bring me down
Now that you’re around me

And I love you so
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”

(Don McLean)

Bows and Arrows

Now that I’m a dad (of 3 and 5 year old girls), this chapter from Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet is something I find myself re-reading quite often. I loved the elegance of his writing long before I was a father, but it connects with me much more deeply now.

Every moment with my children is imbued with two emotions – savoring them and lamenting them for their fleeting and temporary nature. (Another writer once labeled this “Nowstalgia.”) Every advancement is a step closer to total independence from me.

I took the training wheels off my eldest daughter’s bike yesterday. She didn’t want me to let go as I guided her along, and when she had tried it for a while, she asked me to put the training wheels back on a little while longer. I told her I would raise them higher so she could ride without them without the risk of falling.

Part of me wants to keep her training wheels on forever, but I know that keeping a child dependent is the highest crime a parent can commit. Stronger than my desire to keep her small and always seeing her daddy as her protector and hero is my desire to see her ride her bike full-speed with the wind in her hair and know the freedom I felt when I first discovered that magical mixture of momentum and balance. It’s the closest thing to a real flying carpet we have in childhood. And I want her to have the confidence that feeling creates. i.e., “Wow! If I can do this, what else can I do?”

Yes, she is my little arrow, and I must be a stable bow.

 

The Old Ball and Chain

 

 

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I was out walking with my daughters yesterday. An elderly couple nearby was walking in the same direction, but not side-by-side. The man was ten feet in front of her. A man standing in their path and holding a clipboard asked the husband if he would like to make a donation to some charity. The man abruptly said no. As they passed, the man said, “Okay. Well, have a great night. And by the way, there’s an angel walking behind you.” This was either a line he used all the time, or he intuitively knew a couple, especially an older couple, should walk together.

This was something my mother used to complain about when my dad was alive. He would always be blazing a trail, way up ahead of her. She would say, “Look at him. I could get mugged, abducted, or hit by a bus and he wouldn’t even know.”

Anyway, the old man’s response was, “What? Her? She’s no angel. That’s my warden.”

This could be perceived as a joke. There is often such playful banter between people who have been married a long time. Sometimes it’s just that – playful – but often, probably more often, it’s an indication of deep resentments. As Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”

If his wife would have laughed, I would have thought their relationship was healthy and this was just another part of the act old folks develop. I’ve known old couples like this and their comedic repartee was so amazing, I suggested they should “take their show on the road.” This was not such a case. She was not smiling, and obviously embarrassed and saddened by his comment. He looked at me and smiled, expecting support from another male. He didn’t receive it. I now am at risk of having my membership with the men’s club permanently revoked.

You see, I can’t stand men, of any age, who treat their wives like they were somehow forced to get married, and treat their children as if they were also forced upon them. They courted the woman, they asked her to marry him, they had children with her, and yet somehow she becomes “the old ball and chain” as time passes, and the children are even resented for preventing the man from doing whatever it is he thinks he would be doing if he were alone. It’s the worst kind of victim mentality.

Sure, things can go a little sour. That’s life. But real men don’t whine, they adapt. They don’t verbally abuse, they stay or they leave. And if they stay, they don’t allow their character to become worse. They don’t blame the people they chose to be with, or the children they willingly created, for their own unhappiness. Of course, the truth is the flaw was there all along. It didn’t begin after the wedding.

This is especially pathetic with old people, like this man, who was grossly overweight, by the way. I mention his weight because my first thought after his comment about his wife was, “What would you be doing if you weren’t with her? Are women throwing themselves at you constantly, and you can’t act upon it because of your wife?”

Maybe I’m out of touch. Maybe mean, old, fat guys are the new hotties.

Men are something else. Always imagining that life would be better if they were single. I didn’t get married until late in life, partly because of all the negative programming from married men who would say things to me like “enjoy your freedom while you can.”

Freedom. And what’s the opposite of freedom? Slavery and prison. That’s what I began to associate marriage with. Men are wolves, but to be happy, to find peace, we must become sheep. Not wimps. Soft. Sensitive. Loving. The lone wolf out in the wilderness may be romantic at twenty, but it’s pathetic after forty. Our hearts must soften, and if we let them, a wife and children are the best ways for this to happen.

The old man’s comment, “That’s no angel, that’s my warden” was true. He just had the roles reversed.

My Toddler’s First Fib – And It Is a Doozy!

My 19 month-old daughter has not only started fibbing but fibbing in the biggest way possible – blaming Mickey Mouse for damage she intentionally caused. She has a little hobby when she can’t sleep of picking the leather veneer off the backboard of the bed. Below is the video of her interrogation before being taken downtown and booked for vandalism.

https://www.facebook.com/mark.rickerby/videos/10153629711931350/?pnref=story

UPDATE: Turns out she was telling the truth! Mickey Mouse confessed, has taken a few of the seven dwarves hostage, and barricaded himself inside the whale on the Pinocchio ride at Disneyland. Fortunately, he is unable to fire a weapon because of the giant, white gloves he wears, so his only defense against the SWAT team is to throw lollipops. One officer was struck in the neck by one of those giant ones they sell at the gift shop, causing a small welt. I will keep you posted as the situation develops. I feel terrible for not believing my toddler, but who would have guessed? Mickey Mouse, a common criminal!

Upon further research, I learned that Mickey Mouse actually has a rap sheet as long as the monorail. Here are a few of his past mugshots –

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Warning Signs of Predators for Parents

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I would love to do nothing but write about the cute things my children do and say, but the sad reality is we need to protect our kids from evil, perverted people in this world, so information like the articles below can’t be shared often enough. It seems to be all over the news these days. I was just reading this morning that Jared the Subway spokesman is up on child porn charges and plans to plead guilty. And most of us have watched To Catch a Predator and been horrified about how common it is for grown men to solicit sex from kids online.

Aside from news stories, we all know someone personally who was molested, right? I know I do. So whatever we can do to prevent it from happening to our children or the children of others is a worthwhile use of our time.

The question in the article below that connected most with me was “Does a family friend always insist on “hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child, even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention?” 

That’s a tough one. My parents had friends who were always hugging and kissing me, and none of them ever molested me. So how does a parent separate a warm, affectionate person from a perverted child molester? My wife and I err on the side of caution. Any friends who are excessively physical with our kids, even if they don’t show any signs of not wanting physical attention, never get anywhere near our kids again. And we never leave our children alone with anyone. Why take the chance? I may not cut these friends out of my life, just in case I’m wrong about them. I don’t want to accuse someone wrongly if they’re just nice, lonely people who love kids. They may see me again socially, but they’ll never see my kids again. 

I had a lifelong friend who came by one day and, within moments of being introduced to my new baby daughter, started whispering some kind of high-speed chant in her ear while she sat in his lap. It was like one of those soundtracks you hear in demonic horror movies when someone is about to get killed. I only saw this friend about once a year because we live in different countries so I had no idea what he was into. For all I knew, he could have become a Satanist or Voodoo witch doctor since last time I saw him and was putting some kind of ancient whammy on her. So I told him whatever he was doing looked creepy and weird and to knock it off. He said he was whispering to soothe the baby, but the baby was already happy and calm. Weird. He got ticked off and we haven’t spoken since. Whatever. Good riddance. I don’t think he was a molester, just weird, but again, I’m not taking any chances with my kids. I only have one chance to get this right. If any of my friends, especially friends who don’t have kids of their own, (like the excessive hugger and the curse chanter) don’t understand that, as Powers Boothe said in Tombstone, “Well . . . bye.” I’d rather have less friends I can trust than a bunch that are insensitive to my (or any parent’s) concerns. I don’t need company that badly.

I’ve always been shocked by how common child molestation is. Here’s some information from victimsofcrime.org

Child Sexual Abuse Statistics

The prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported; experts agree that the incidence is far greater than what is reported to authorities. CSA is also not uniformly defined, so statistics may vary. Statistics below represent some of the research done on child sexual abuse.

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
  • During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
  • Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.

According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows 1.6 % (sixteen out of one thousand) of children between the ages of 12-17 were victims of rape/sexual assault.

A study conducted in 1986 found that 63% of women who had suffered sexual abuse by a family member also reported a rape or attempted rape after the age of 14. Recent studies in 2000, 2002, and 2005 have all concluded similar results.

Children who had an experience of rape or attempted rape in their adolescent years were 13.7 times more likely to experience rape or attempted rape in their first year of college.

A child who is the victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. The child may become withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, and can become suicidal.

Children who do not live with both parents as well as children living in homes marked by parental discord, divorce, or domestic violence, have a higher risk of being sexually abused.

In the vast majority of cases where there is credible evidence that a child has been penetrated, only between 5 and 15% of those children will have genital injuries consistent with sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is not solely restricted to physical contact; such abuse could include non contact abuse, such as exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography.

Compared to those with no history of sexual abuse, young males who were sexually abused were five times more likely to cause teen pregnancy, three times more likely to have multiple sexual partners and two times more likely to have unprotected sex, according to the study published online and in the June print issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Below is the article referenced above by Jennifer O’Neill, a writer for Yahoo Parenting. 

How can you tell if someone has ulterior motives for wanting to get closer to your child? An expert identifies three red flags you want to watch out for.

News about sexual offenders is dominating the headlines — most recently about Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who is reportedly planning to plead guilty to child porn charges and crossing state lines to pay for sex with minors, and admitted teen molester Josh Duggar. 

But parents who assume their child could never be a victim should know that the reality is nine out of 10 children who are sexually abused are victimized by someone they know — including relatives, family friends, clergy, teachers, and babysitters, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center (NCAC). 

“The offender usually uses coercion and manipulation, not physical force, to engage the child,” reports the American Academy of Pediatrics in a sexual abuse prevention tip sheet for parents. Deborah Callins, prevention director at the NCAC, tells Yahoo Parenting, “They take advantage of a child’s natural curiosity.” So how can mothers and fathers identify the close people most likely to have ulterior motives, or who might want to take advantage of your child? Here are a few simple ways to see the red flags that are often right in front of you: 

Take cues from your kids.
“Parents can protect their children by being better listeners,” she says. “Are they hearing what their child is actually meaning? If a child states he or she doesn’t want to spend time with a particular person, the parents may assume their child thinks the person is boring. But the real message the child might be trying to send is that the person makes him or her feel uncomfortable.” So stop a moment and try to really get to the heart of the matter before you insist that little Madison drive to the park with Uncle Jim to play on the swings if she’s dragging her feet. “Your children could be sending you little hints,” explains Callins. “You need to dig a little for more information.” 

Consider whether someone seems to be ‘testing’ your child’s ability to protect himself. 
Does a family friend always insist on “hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child, even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention?” asks sexual abuse prevention organization Stop It Now! in its resource sheet, Behaviors to Watch Out for When Adults are With Children. Such seemingly innocuous behaviors indicate that the adult is ignoring a child’s social, emotional and physical boundaries — and that’s a big red flag. 

Take note if a person is sexually suggestive around your kid.

If someone always tends to point out sexual images, or tells dirty or suggestive jokes in the presence of kids, take heed, suggests Stop It Now! That goes for comments about a child’s “developing body” or a teen’s dating details, too. “It may be nothing, or it may be a warning signal that the person is grooming your child,” explains Callins. He or she may be trying to figure out how curious your child is about sex, how much they know about it, and whether they may be willing to participate in it. “Perhaps the parent doesn’t even realize that it’s an issue — ‘Oh, that’s just how my cousin is,’ or ‘That’s just how he talks,’” she says. “But it could also be a test.” 

Callins advises removing your child from such a situation if it makes you or your kid uncomfortable, and then talking about it separately afterward with both the person and your child. “That way, it’s out in the air,” she says. And that way there’s no question about your boundaries — and whether you’ll be aware if somebody tries to cross them.

Link to story – https://www.yahoo.com/parenting/warning-signs-of-predators-for-parents-127261332922.html

(Photo by Corbis Images)