I bear failure hard. Oh, I have failed. I was, in my youth, an indifferent student, charging at subjects without a plan, relying on passion and interest in lieu of anything like a well documented approach. I memorized the rules for genetics in a single bound, and then wrote rambling half-baked essays about stained glass. I did half well, bouncing between A’s and B’s, some C’s (and that fail in Astronomy—learning a new (to me) science takes a plan). I didn’t care, not a whit. I just kept at it—this is what students are supposed to do.
And the failures that struck me weren’t moral failings either. I stole chocolate bars at the local A&P as a child. I lurked near the registers, pilfered, and then hid beneath tables topped with produce to eat my plunder: Hershey Bars with Almonds. I broke speed limits with teenage abandon. There were indiscretions. Mistakes were made.
What haunted me, what haunts me, and what will always haunt me with stinging clarity, are failings of kindness: cruelties small and large. There was an occasion on the steps to a building at school when I jeered at a young man to hurry up, that he was holding all of us other bright young men up. Turns out he was handicapped and struggling up the stairs with crutches. I never forget that. I have shouted “I hate you” or “I fucking hate you” in a fight with someone I love. I can barely tolerate my myriad failures as a father. The failings for which I pillory myself most are moored entirely in the realm of personal relationships.
Only later in life, in my twenties, when my work became a significant aspect of my personal life, when I stopped trying on the clothes of being a writer and admitted to myself that no matter what I wore, the wild seed hadn’t drifted in from someplace else, but had grown within me as I grew, down in my mitochondria and through each of my stupid and recalcitrant cells, did failure take its most pernicious and debilitating effects on me. Suddenly failure—and by this I mean anything from red pencil marks in the margins to more general criticisms—became not simply a matter of getting the words right, or getting the tone right, or getting the story right, but of getting my bones right, getting my mind right, or worse, getting my relationship with the world right. I, misfit first born child, whose experiences indicated that I had what could only be a terminal relationship with the human race, now had irrevocable proof that the condition was as I had always suspected. Not only was I broken, I was bad. And so I retreated from the site of failure.
For years—nearly twenty—after the first formal flowering of my craft, and first awful awareness of my failure, I struggled to write. I began things in fits and starts. Nothing felt good enough or smart enough or resonant enough to continue. And because of this I struggled to feel good enough to continue at anything. Failure, genuine existential failure, was now something that lurked in the water with razor teeth and insatiable hunger. I was more often sad and isolated than ebullient. I felt guilty and impoverished. I threw myself into and out of jobs. I overburdened and under-burdened my personal relationships—both equal paths to doom. All the while I remembered that I was not doing what I should be doing: should be—the great unwritten scourge, the single invisible flail.
So I was wrong. You who are wiser than me know this already. As I thrashed about, I found other places to succeed. I am a fair teacher. I am an enthusiastic advocate for faith development in children and adults at my church. I Pied-Piper pretty well. I learned, and learn to be a better father. I have accepted the mantle of divorced dad, and do a decent job as a co-parent. I have accepted the hard lessons of knowing my limitations as a person and as a man, and have acknowledged (to myself at least, and now, begrudgingly, but perhaps not begrudgingly enough, to you) that I have needs to which I must attend, and that I ignore at my own peril.
I learned to fail, and in failing, to succeed. The lessons were always there, I just did not see them. I can blame my eyes, blame my genes, blame my upbringing, but what is the point of that? Do some therapy, figure it out, and get on with the work ahead, because there is always work ahead. I forgot and forgave—myself and others. I welcomed a bright presence into my life. And I remembered that I loved stories, true stories, made up stories. I told them—other people’s stories at first, then, slowly my stories. And I found my way.
And I write these short notes. I started them when I felt that I had a story to tell, when I went to China to bring a daughter home. And I continued—and continue—them as I pace my back to the work. I share them with a small and generous audience, shaking off the Cerberus of fear: ego (what right do I have to say these things?); failure (what if I get it all wrong?); and doubt (what difference will this make to anyone?). I write them for you and I write them for me. Finding my way back and setting out lights. This way. Now.