On Becoming a Father and Husband, and Redefining “Adventure.”

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I was talking with a friend recently about how much I miss traveling. I did a lot of it in my twenties when I was single. Nothing excited me more than waking up with a Euro-Rail ticket burning a hole in my pocket, pulling out a map, picking which ancient city I would see next, watching the European countryside whip by from the train window, arriving in the bustling train station, the launching pad for another day of adventure, and just walking, open to anything that might come along. Pure serendipity.

In response to my reveries about my free-wheeling, globe-hopping days, my friend, probably concerned that I was unhappy in my new roles of husband and father, said, “Mark, you’ve done the world traveler thing already. It’s time to do the daddy thing.” 

I married much later in life than most, and recently became the father of two girls. One of the reasons I waited so long was that I had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of loveless marriages and poor examples of parenting when I was growing up. So few were the positive examples of both, they had become the equivalent of prison in my mind. But walking around in foreign cities became less romantic and more lonely as the years passed. It became increasingly clear to me that God did not intend for us to spend our lives in solitary confinement, or as foundation-less gypsies. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”

So I got married and became a dad, and I’m loving every minute of it, but that old version of me still makes an appearance now and then, like that gag they did in the TV show Get Smart where the face of Maxwell’s fellow agent kept popping up in unexpected and impossible places – glove compartments, mailboxes, etc. Likewise, my old self shows up now and then as if to say, “I’m still heeeere! Thought you got rid of me, didn’t ya?” And when he does, the wind that used to turn me into a gypsy for months at a time blows through me again. To scratch the itch, I sometimes watch travel videos on the Internet, which make me even more frustrated.

While watching a movie set in the Greek islands one night, my eldest daughter, then two and a half years-old, climbed onto my lap, touched my face with her tiny hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “I ruv you, daddy.” Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her close and inhaled her honey-scented hair, and suddenly all those “far-away places with strange-sounding names” stopped calling so loudly. Even the old version of me, the one who keeps wanting to run from responsibility and be a carefree wanderer (also known as a “bum”) took a few steps back and bowed his head in reverent silence. Little girls can do that. The greatest strength is no match for their softness. Taoism in action.

And in that moment, I realized that my memory of all those travels was making diamonds of coals a bit. I remembered the emptiness and lack of real direction that drove me to those far-flung corners of the earth. Even when I lived on a Greek island, I knew I was on an island in more ways than one. I was hiding from the emptiness I felt at home. I needed God, true purpose, and family. Faith, not just the scattered remnants of religion murdered by logic. A real direction fueled by vision. Blood, not just friendship. My own people, who would stick with me, and I with them, through thick and thin.

The road will always call, and I’ll eventually answer again, but this time I won’t be alone. Marriage and fatherhood is not the end of adventure, it’s the beginning of the greatest one. I’m going to do this right. And how much grander traveling will be when I can show my daughters, with their unbridled sense of wonder and amazement, all the things I saw in my own turbulent youth. How much more amazing they will be to me to see them all again through their eyes, without all that emptiness traveling with me. How terribly heavy it was to carry. Now I will carry them instead, my beautiful bundles of love and light, as a transformed man with a new reason for living – perhaps the highest – to make my heart as pure, happy and loving as theirs are.

A response to this post from a friend who did it all differently. (Had three sons right out of high school.) 

“The truest and greatest adventure of my life was, and still is, being the father to three amazing men. Fatherhood is the fruition of all that I am. Seeing you with your daughters warms my ever-present memory and ever-present reality of what it means to be a father. I smile inside for you my friend, because I know what’s before you and the true wealth of life that is yours as you hold on to it with both hands and all your heart. Your feet are walking the road of adventures that in your mind you never knew were there. Truly the most rewarding, meaningful, and personal fulfillment of one’s life is being a parent and father! As I travel the world, breathing in the diversity of life’s experiences, I go as a fulfilled man, not lost or wondering, but knowing exactly who I am. In the light of that fulfilled maturity will be the soul of three young men, traveling with me, who have given to me the honor of being their father. I feel blessed the opportunity is before me; blessed that its richness and diversity come to me as a complete, mature man; blessed to see it in my completeness. Yes, “I did my time” as they say, but it is time I would gladly do over and over again.

We only get one pass at the seasons of life. Making each season count is the challenge before us. We embraced life differently, at different times, yet with the same zest my friend… Not better or worse, just differently. No journey is wrong or bad. Every quest brings to the traveler what they need to be full and complete. You are, as am I, on the quest that was made specifically for ourselves. Life holds no guarantee of safe travels or of fulfilled relationships that end in perfect bliss. Risk is always a part of every quest. To not venture out with both feet and all heart on any quest regardless is to cheat oneself of all there is to be realized.

I have a favorite quote that comes from the movie 180′ South – ‘The word adventure has gotten overused. To me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’ If it’s being trapped in a third world airport and realizing the eventual escape, or being the man your daughter needs, holding her broken heart at the loss of her first love. Things go wrong, my friend, and when they do, you find the truth of who you are. That is when the quest has done its work in you. I believe that you will find you are a greater man that you ever knew yourself to be. “Honey-scented hair” is but the tip of the greatest iceberg.

And yet one more before I head out for a hike (lol) from 180′ South – ‘When I put myself out there, I always return with something new. A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’ You’re out there, my friend. Embrace!”

Marriage – The Road Less Traveled

I read recently that more and more people are choosing not to get married. I also read that in 2013, for the first time in American history, there were more divorces than marriages. So marriage really is becoming the road less traveled, but I’m not sure that’s a good development for individuals, particularly men, or for society.

The actual title of that Robert Frost poem is The Road Not Taken, and that’s almost what it was for me, until I spent nine years courting a very committed woman. We’ve been married now for almost ten years. She deserves a medal for everything she put up with. To say I had “issues” is like saying the devil is not a nice guy.

Albert Einstein said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”

Seems old Al was wise in more ways than one. 

It’s no secret that marriage is sometimes difficult. Of course, it is. But much, much harder is loneliness. I know. I stayed alone – well, unmarried, anyway – long past the average marriage age for men. In fact, for six months of my 27th year, I was backpacking through Europe, determined to be the Old Spice man with a girl in every port. I didn’t even think about getting married for another ten years. I think it’s safe to say I was a tad commitment-phobic. 

Right up until I walked down the aisle, I was terrified, mainly because I’d had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of passionless marriages, and listening to the men in those marriages say things to me like “hold on to your freedom” and “sow your oats, kid” and “ah, to be your age again.” They reeked of despair, so the message was absorbed deeply into my adolescent psyche – marriage is death.

When I was sixteen and becoming obsessed with girls, my father took me aside for “the talk.” I thought he might say, “Listen, son. Women are people, too, and you should respect them. Don’t lie to them. Don’t cheat on them. Someday you’ll regret every hurtful thing you say or do.” That’s what I needed to hear; what every boy needs to hear. But what I heard instead was, “They give you their vagina and they want your soul.” For good measure, he then added, “Keep ’em guessing” and “If I was your age, I’d be screwing myself stupid.”

My dad was always joking around so I never really knew if he was serious or not, but it had the same effect. So for that reason and the 1001 other factors that determine our character, I made a career out of chasing women around, often at the expense of more noble and worthwhile pursuits, and hurt a lot of decent women in the process. Partly because of all the men who were either obviously miserable, or revealed discontent through admiration of me and my youthful freedom, I equated marriage and fatherhood with pain. Positive role models apply to marriage, too.

I think I also resisted marriage because I was afraid of the choices I would lose by choosing. Who doesn’t want to hold on to the delicious irresponsibility of adolescence? That island between childhood and adulthood when nothing is really expected of you? When you have all the time in the world? I had the same problem with career that I did with women. Making a choice would mean forfeiting something else, mainly freedom. Doing one thing would remove the freedom, though merely theoretical, to do anything. 

When I finally did choose a field of endeavor, writing (the last vestige of scoundrels), not trying hard enough when I was single was easier, too, because nobody was watching me. Now, everything has changed. Nothing has ever challenged me to rise to my potential as a writer (and every other conceivable way) more than the sweet, trusting eyes of my two daughters looking up at me. Though they are probably only thinking about what we’re going to do or eat or which toy they’re going to play with next, I see a lot of questions in those eyes. Questions like, “What college are you going to be able to afford to send me to, daddy?” and “Are you going to give me anything to brag about at Show and Tell, daddy?” and “Are you going to do a better job than your dad did, and his dad, and his dad?”

Yeah, it’s pressure, but it’s the kind of pressure that crystallizes thought, steels resolve, and laser focuses purpose. 

Then there’s the love. Dear God. The love.

Before I had a wife and children, I never knew how much I could feel. And I recalled (when I was willing to recall it) that among those husbands and fathers I met as a boy and young man, a few of them didn’t envy me at all. A few saw me as the little nitwit that I was. A few were . . . happy. One of these blessed few said to me, “Wait until you have kids of your own. You have no idea what happiness is yet.” I didn’t remember him until I actually did have kids of my own. The other, negative voices drowned him out. The last I heard, he was still happy. He and his wife were vacationing in Spain. Still dancing on verandas. It happens, even in this jaded world.

And I saw a movie once – I wish I could remember the title – where an old man was talking to a slightly younger man. The younger man was a movie star but the old man didn’t know it. The old man said, “You are successful where you come from?” The younger man answered yes. The old man asked, “You are rich? Famous?” Again, the younger man, obviously proud, answered, “Yes, I am.” The old man asked, “You have a wife? Children?” as if it was a given that he did. The younger man answered no. Surprised, the old man said, “Well, then you have nothing.” 

James Brown said it, too – “It’s a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.” 

A good woman makes a man better than he would otherwise be if left to his own devices. (I’m sorry, guys, but most of us are idiots. Probably not you, because you’ve read this far, but most of us.) 

My feet weren’t just cold as my wedding day approached, I had ice blocks on my feet. I was calling all my married friends and asking for advice. It was pretty pathetic. One of them said, “Listen, you’ve done the world traveling, skirt-chasing thing long enough. It’s time to do the husband and daddy thing.” 

Another said something similar – “It’s time to start a new chapter. What do you want to do – hit on girls at the gym for the rest of your life?” That sounded pretty bleak. I didn’t want to become the old guy at the nightclub who never grew up, the guy my 20-something buddies and I made fun of. 

Have the last nine years of marriage been easy? Hell, no. Have I became a much, much better human being than I was before, when I had nobody to answer to, or to prove myself to? Hell, yes.

I’ve learned how to laugh harder and cry deeper. And I’ve discovered perhaps the greatest lesson this life has to give – how much love my heart can hold. We had our first child for three years before introducing her to her sister, and we loved her so much, we wondered how we would have any love left to give a second child. But we learned that that’s not how the heart works. Love has no limit. It just keeps on expanding, like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes. 

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(What a grouch. Definitely childless.)

If a couple has one child and gives him or her 100% of their love, having a second child doesn’t mean each child will get only 50%. Another 100% is created. (Who says we need to stop at 100%? We created that number and we can break it. As the great, three first-named poet Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy (and Willy Wonka) put it, “We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”) So if I have ten more kids, my heart will grow ten times bigger to make room for them. If life has a point, I think that may be it – to keep our hearts growing. 

I’ll end tonight with a song I wrote/sang about the delivery of our first child. It was nine months of misery for my poor, wee wife and I (especially her) but we received the Grand Prize at the end of it, and her love made her forget the pain so thoroughly, she went and had another one. That’s life in a nutshell – pain and joy all mixed up together, all the time.

But pain isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. Nothing is. 

The song’s lyrics are below. If you’d like to sing along, you can hear the song at https://soundcloud.com/markrickerby/hallelujah 

Hallelujah

Well, I don’t mean to complain
but Lord what your mama went through.
I’ve never seen such pain
as I did when she was carrying you.
All I could do was look,
hold her sweet, little hand and pray.
I held tight to the holy book
begging the Lord not to take you away.

And now that it’s all been done
and you’re safe here with us today,
now that the battle’s been won,
there’s only one thing I can say –

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

When we’re opening a jelly jar,
I’m stronger than my wife
but it takes more strength by far
to carry and deliver a life.
I was filled with doubt and fear
but she had the faith of ten
and the first time she held you near,
she said she’d do it all over again.

And now that it’s all been done
and we’re watching you laugh and play,
now that the battle’s been won,
there’s something I just gotta say –

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

And how many worried tears fell
doesn’t matter anymore.
Yeah, we went through hell
but you were worth fighting for.

So hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.