Papa Joe

I was walking home in the early morning, still dark and cool with the night, when a familiar, but uncertain scent pilfered my nose. I had been smelling it for months, a spicy, pungent aroma like cinnamon bark and incense, but its source always evaded me. It doesn’t expand, like when I press my nose into a rose bush or wild plum blossom. It doesn’t strike, like gasoline or a skunk. It is more like the forest floor, a distinct aroma that fills the whole space, but without any clear origin.

 

I have long suspected the sweet clover, but every time I get close I smell something more like alfalfa. Today, I rubbed my hands along a patch of clover under the faint light of the crescent moon. It’s almost fall, and I could feel it in the stems and leaves. The scent lingered. It hovered around this plant, filling my nostrils and lungs. Still, it eluded my grasp.

 

It may be that I will never directly apprehend this particular scent, and I’m coming to accept that. Instead, I associate it. It always comes at night and, so it seems, with sweet clover. Those are its causes and conditions. And so, it is with a sort of passion that I say that the sweet clover came to me this morning. Passion, in the sense that I want to believe.

 

*

 

Seven months ago, I had a huge party. It was my thirty-seventh birthday and I wanted to celebrate in a big way. The year leading up to it had been so beautiful, so full of joy and basic well-being, and I wanted to acknowledge that. I had a simple life, a beautiful daughter, a loving community, and the time to appreciate it all. My talents were ripe. I felt in possession of them, and I owned my weaknesses too. I was strong. I was graceful. But most of all, I felt that my gut intuition had finally aligned with my mind and heart. I saw the future before me, I knew the risks I had to take, and I had my sights set on big things - love and compassion. It was time to stand up and say it.

 

Whether my peace of mind was due to cosmic alignment, physical health, or basic brain chemistry – it hardly mattered. Whatever it was, I felt fortunate. At the same time, it was evident that my good fortune was the result of many people and circumstances, not me alone. Consequently, I felt a strong desire to say thank you, and to give back in a very real and visceral way. If I drew attention to myself, it was precisely the kind of example I wished to give.

 

I invited everyone I knew and prepared a huge feast with lasagna and fresh bread, cakes, snacks, sparkling drinks and fruit juices. I spared no expense and tried to make it as abundant as possible. Much of the food I cooked myself, and I leaned on friends when I needed help. I even bought champagne.

 

Before the party, I gathered and purchased gifts of all kinds, useful things like motor oil and garbage bags, oranges, flowers and wool socks. I spent over a month’s salary, and made sure everyone, including the kids, went home with something in their hands. The stuff itself wasn’t vital - it was the message it conveyed - but I didn’t want my words to be hollow. I wanted them to be carried on the backs of real things, to be swallowed, to be held, and taken into a world beyond me.

 

It was uncomfortable. That was partly the point. I purposefully tested my limits, spending more than I was comfortable with, and not allowing myself to shy away from the truth of the expression. I worried that if I did - if I tricked myself into believing that I had created all this goodwill by myself, or if I simply kept it to myself - then I stood a good chance of corruption. In order to prevent that, I wanted to give my things away, my wealth, my time, my joy, partly to prevent greed, but partly to admit, in a large and public way, that none of it was really mine to begin with. Still, I worried the party would come across as a boast.

 

The party, thankfully, was a success. I even managed to touch a few people’s hearts. Folks went home warmed a bit by the expression, and with a new set of ratchet straps or some clay for the kids. The day after, I went to the river and, per my announcement on the invitation, dropped all the presents I was given into the water (in a prayerful way). Then I took a long walk and tried to forget about it.

 

I didn’t want to jinx it by feeling proud, or looking for obvious signs. The point was not what I got back, but that I had already been given so much. I simply wanted to observe myself over the next few months, or the next year. I had a sense that my dawning strength and vitality would soon be married to my real calling in life. But what? Friends and family who couldn’t attend asked me - What was it like? What had I learned? But I wasn’t ready to draw sweeping conclusions. It was an experiment, and like any good experiment I had to prevent myself from disturbing the results. Mostly, I went on as before, and within a few weeks most everyone, including me, forgot about it.

 

For a month or two, I remained much the same. Almost daily I felt quickened by the thrill of simple life. I went to the river. I felt the softness of driftwood. I played with Pema and explored cliffs. Running the palms of my hands through the sand, observing the setting sun, listening to two or three children playing nearby, I would sometimes feel waves of ecstasy wash over me and gently weep with how wonderful it was.

 

So, I was surprised when, come spring, I started to dry up. Most people probably didn’t notice, but a few did. I just lost my gusto, my daily reverie for the spoils of life. For over a year, it had been so simple. Take a walk. Crouch next to the river. Smell the thawing earth and hold a child’s hand. Suddenly, I would be dazzling with presence. Then it all dried up. I kept looking for it everywhere. The Russian olives, whose fragrant blossoms had enchanted me the year prior, never bloomed. I waited and waited, and they never came. Except, truth be told, they probably did and I just didn’t notice. I wasn’t retaining information, or moments, like I once had. Then the apple trees blossomed, then froze. There would be no apples, no climbing trees with Pema, no sacks slung over my shoulder or hefty boxes in my arms. There would be no shoveling snow off musty root cellars in deep winter, or the joy of sharing. I looked all over Taos. There were no apples anywhere. None for me, at least. Then in June, in keeping with a Father’s Day tradition, I picked wild rose petals in the mountains with Pema, and made rose water. Pema loves spritzing it out of the blue glass bottles I buy, and we make enough so that we can give it to friends and family, and smell its enchanting fragrance ourselves all year long. Except, something went wrong. A week later, all of it spoiled. Now it smelled like rotten vegetables.

 

Summer slogged by. There were good moments here and there, but I felt harried, and by now everyone could recognize it. My work got busy. I had no time for anyone. I rushed from one thing to the next, simply trying to get it all done. When I did stop to say hello, I pretended to be well. I smiled. I told jokes and tried to convince people, most of all myself, that I was fine and smart and happy. But I wasn’t.

 

My writing suffered. I used to spend a few hours each week recounting an episode with children, and the whole experience, the writing, the reminiscing, the discovery of new layers – it was all such a joy to me. Even if no one read it, the mere act of writing deepened my life and reflected the joy within me. I would have done it regardless of whether anyone read it, but people did read it and they liked it. At least a few of them did. People wrote back and said how meaningful it was to them. A father and his daughter. Love. Children. Wilderness. But then it all stopped. My writing became lackluster. I spent more and more time on each piece, and they became progressively worse and worse. Rarely did I get a word of encouragement. Instead of fingers pecking excitedly over the keyboard like chickadees, they hung limp, like vultures fattened off a rumpled carcass, unable to fly. I poked around, deleting sentences, then pages, rehashing phrases over and over. My hair became dull and my scalp itched.

 

So, when I say that I smelled the clover this morning, or whatever that sweet perfume, like honey and frankincense, was – you have to understand what I mean. I found the aroma of life. I shook hands with it on the dry leaves of autumn’s approach. The crescent moon was low in the sky, but it was not quite morning. I had been crying. Not in the robust boo-hoo-hoo way, but in the manly way where tears just begin to wet the eyes. The moon. The sun. The asphalt.

 

*

 

There is a place I have alluded to in previous stories, and it’s quite possible that I found myself there, the darkness of night swirling around my upturned hands. I like to walk in the very early morning, when it is still night and all else is asleep. It’s not uncommon for me to rise at 4AM, and it’s even better in the fall and winter, when not even a spark of dawn crawls over the mountains till after six o’clock.

 

I usually walk for a couple hours, thinking and praying, telling stories and listening to the emptiness. It takes about an hour to walk the dirt road from my house to the highway, where I usually turn around. I say highway, but it’s a two-lane rural route that connects Taos with Arroyo Hondo, where I live, and onto further, increasingly less dense clusters of humanity till, about thirty miles north, it enters a vast wilderness. Cars drive fast.

 

The dirt road that leads to the highway is dry and gravelly underfoot, and the sound of my footsteps is crunch, crunch, crunch. I live for this feeling, this sound, a powerful meditation day or night. But in the dark, with the silhouettes of junipers and pinons on my left and right, it is like being underwater or in a dark cave - it gives the body and mind a totally different universe to touch into. I have planted memories, like seeds, all along this path, and each bend in the road, or certain trees, or the angle of a neighbor’s roof – they speak to me like old friends. My brain is in my head, but my mind is in the landscape. I talk with myself, connecting thoughts and patterns, by walking through it.

 

But the dirt road leads to the highway! And even in the middle of the night cars and trucks occasionally come by, people on their way to early shifts at work or perhaps just passing through. During the day, this traffic is so normal I don’t pay much attention, but at night, when everyone is asleep, and when I can hardly make out the trees in front of my face, a truck traveling sixty miles an hour is as fearsome as a dragon roaming the frayed ends of my consciousness. It is an absolute terror.

 

When I first walked here, I hid in the bushes. Under the glow of the moon, the double-yellow line and the speckled asphalt felt like, not a huge scar, but a gleaming line of vitality that hurried my pulse. Cars and trucks would come by, gushing with noise and trembling the earth, filling the space with blinding light, then disappear. Grateful to be hidden in the leeward darkness of the trees, I felt like a tiny, shaking mouse.

 

But in time I dropped my fear. I became bolder. I now linger near the shoulder, and if there are no cars in sight I will step onto the asphalt, shoulders tall and prominent. There is a hollow sound as my shoes strike the pavement. The trees recede, and in the middle of the road I have an immense view of the mountains in the distance and the whole valley in which I live. Everything is silhouettes and scattered porch lights. If the moon is thin, like today, or absent, as it soon will be, the sea of stars is mesmerizing.

 

There is a particular stain on the road here, some kind of oil or tar. It might be the blackened blood of a deer. There are also three crosses nearby, memorials to loved ones who have lost their lives here. The highway, at this point, is a dangerous and steep curve, which drops down into the valley quite suddenly after six miles of the kind of flat, straight road found only in the American West. Cars regularly lose their footing here, and the violence is conspicuous. One of the crosses has a solar light that fades from red to green to blue.

 

This is the asphalt altar, my home, one of them at least. My heart lives here, as much as it does in the crooks of trees or bends in the river. I come here to pray, in fact. To make good on the world. I might kneel down or squat, as I did this morning. That is, when it’s safe. I’m no fool. I don’t tempt dragons. But if the cars are distant - and I can hear them coming for miles - I sometimes sit quietly in the center of the road and bathe myself in the moonlight.

 

It’s so easy to begrudge a road. It’s dirty, both literally and figuratively. Pavement has become a symbol of both ease and pain, everything we love and hate about our modern lives, much like plastic bags. This is where I feel at home. I sometimes put my hand to the asphalt, softly, as if I’m cradling a baby or a crotchety old man. The earth hums underneath. Imagine, this was once just a hill with sage and grass. These rocks were once just rocks. They still are. The bitumen and tar were once thriving plants and animals. Deep inside, we are all just people. Everywhere.

 

And then, quick as a wink, I’m gone.

 

*

 

“I have a note for you Papa Joe.”

 

I looked up from the hot griddle to find Sebastian, his arm extended toward me with a ripped piece of paper. “I see. Thank you,” I said, taking it from him and placing the metal spoon, my makeshift spatula, on a container of masa. I was making tortillas under a broad juniper tree, the river tumbling through a waterfall nearby, filling my ears with a joyful sound. Silke was on the other side of the woods, close enough that I could hear her, but far enough that I couldn’t distinguish her words.

 

The paper crinkled as I unfolded its rumpled edges. Please keep making those yummy tortillas, it read. I smiled.

 

“Thanks Sebastian,” I said, sending him off. I began to lift one of the hot tortillas off the cast iron pan, then thought better of it. “Wait! Sebastian, wait!” I pleaded, listening to the clip clop clip of children’s feet coming to a standstill. He stopped and turned around. Dammit, if I don’t love that child. Unzipping a small pocket in my pack, I found a pen inside and placed it against the paper: Glad you like them. More coming soon.

 

“Here,” I said, giving the note to Sebastian, “Take this. It’s my response.”

 

“Thanks Papa Joe,” he said, eyeing the crispy, golden tortillas. Then he ran off.

 

Soon afterward, I was surrounded by several slips of paper, as well as three wooden gnomes and a token that said, “Thank You.” The camp stove under my pan was hissing slightly, and the heat from the flame spread through the next batch of tortillas and into my oily fingers.

 

“Can I roll one?” Guinevere asked. The other children had all run off. Silke had some kind of bridge project on the far side of the river. I couldn’t exactly tell what.

 

“Of course,” I answered. “Here, open your hands like this,” I said, sprinkling a bit of dry flour on her hands. “That will help it not stick.” She smiled. “Okay, now take a small handful from the bowl.” I indicated the plastic tub of masa I had prepared that morning. She reached in and grabbed a handful, looking up at me with wide eyes. Who doesn’t like the palpable texture of food? “Now smash it against your forehead.”

 

“No…” she answered, smiling thoughtfully.

 

“Okay, you’re right. Here, squish it back and forth in your palms, like this.” Picking up the flattened dough I had set down earlier, I began patting it between my palms.

 

Guinevere is not deeply bonded with the other children, not yet at least. A single child, she has a little trouble breaking into games with the others, particularly the girls, many of whom have long been friends outside of school. I see subtle (and not so subtle) signs of this all the time. We had four girls with us that day, three of whom held hands as we walked along the path through the woods. Guinevere was in the back, alone. It’s often this way, she and I, the caboose. I yearn to remedy these things, but that’s easier said than done. Children don’t become friends simply because you ask them to. You need to warm them up, like tortillas.

 

The fact is, Guinevere is a little bossy. Last year, she joined us once a week. Being outside for the duration of the day seemed unfamiliar to her and she spent most of the time just adjusting to the rudiments of walking, sitting on the ground and getting dirty. There wasn’t enough time for her to break into the social dynamics and play. She wasn’t confident. So, she spent much of the time alone, huddled around me or Silke.

 

This year, she is learning to include herself more, which is delightful, but she has yet to master the give and take required for lasting trust. She falls in with the girls, which she clearly wants, but then gets into a shouting match about who is the mom, or who is the baby. The other girls give her a chance, but then tire of it, and, without caring to say much of anything, run off. Guinevere, perplexed, chases after them with louder admonishments to follow the rules. Eventually, she gives up and idles around me, or Silke, till she works up the nerve to try again. All the children are like this, more or less (me too), but Guinevere has a particular challenge in this regard.

 

So, when she came to make tortillas, I wasn’t surprised. I knew she needed a little boosting, and I was in the perfect place to do it. This is the beauty of being outdoors with the children. There are the children’s games. There is Silke and the wooden bridge. There is me and the tortillas. There is the bubbling waterfall and the deep, wide pool. We have plenty of room to make mistakes, and the time to find forgiveness in our own hearts. I cannot whisk Guinevere into my arms like I can with Pema, whispering words of encouragement to her and then sending her off rejuvenated. I would if I could, but we are not bonded in that way. She has to do it for herself. But I can give her a handful of masa and listen to what happened at breakfast that morning.

 

“Okay, here,” I said, making room in the cast iron pan. “Drop your tortilla right there.” She held her hand cautiously over the hot pan, released the dough and quickly pulled her hand back. The sun shifted from behind a cloud, brightening everything in our peripheral vision. I brought out two more tortillas from the pan and set them on a plate to cool. Guinevere eyed them lustily. They were more like pancakes than tortillas, but the kids loved them anyway. Hot food in the woods. Powdery, oily dough. This is what kindergarten should be about.

 

“Okay,” I said, cutting them into pieces. “You’re the delivery girl. You take a piece and then offer one to all the other kids. And don’t forget Silke. There’s enough for everyone.” She smiled proudly, excited to be the bearer of good news. “And when you get back,” I said, indicating the one she had just dropped in the pan, “this one is for you.” She ran off with a bounce in her step, which might be why, a few seconds later, as I looked up from the hot pan, I saw her reaching to the ground, eyeing me apprehensively.

 

She had dropped a few pieces, no terrible loss, but I could see that she felt bad about it and was now anticipating some admonishment from me – be careful – to make her feel worse. And she was right – I was about to say something, but then I caught her eyes, looked at her briefly, and held my tongue. Sometimes, in order to raise capable children, we have to remain silent. Sometimes, in order to remain silent, we have to approach the road in the dark.

 

So, I dropped my eyes and began flipping the next batch of tortillas, which were getting golden and crisp along the edges.

 

*

 

Silke often calls me “Papa Joe,” a name I tend to roll my eyes at. I’ve been perfectly content being plain old Joe my whole life and I don’t need an epithet for the kids. But this morning, for whatever reason, as I walked away from the sweet clover, that name popped into my head and I instantly knew why. It’s the same reason I had been searching for the source of that enchanting fragrance. Finding its origin wouldn’t make the scent any sweeter – I already had that – but it would give it a name. It would help me return, and find it again.

 

During the time leading up to my birthday, and about a month or so afterward, I had the dawning sense that I was beginning to be in real possession of my strength and vitality as a human being. I had a humility about it, but also a courage, and I felt ready to share that in a big and public way. But then I spent the rest of the spring and summer, despite my best efforts, getting lost in a search for its origin. I wanted to give it a name, but in the mean time I lost the scent itself.

 

It is obvious to me that I love being a father, most of all to Pema, but also in important ways to other children in my life. I have been asked to be a Godfather to Ada, one of Pema’s dear friends, and I have a similar role with Francis, who lives with us at New Buffalo. Ruby has also been very close to my heart, as have all the Earth Children, both last year and now. Fact is, give me twenty minutes with any child and nothing much to do and I’ll bet we find something magic.

 

I recently quit my job as an administrator for Lama Foundation, a local non-profit. It was a great job and I loved it, but it was my last tie to my former life as an engineer and business manager. From now on, none of my income will be generated from behind a computer. It will be with children, primarily out of doors.

 

I have eschewed the name Papa Joe mostly out of bashfulness, but I think that day may be over. This is precisely the feeling I had at my birthday. I don’t want to boast, but I don’t want my shyness to get the best of me either. I believe that the work I am doing, and will do, both with children and adults, is vital for us as a culture, and, dare I say it, a species. Childhood is where we lay down the basic patterns of our thoughts, emotions and actions. We can spend years, and sometimes a fortune, trying to heal those patterns in our adult lives, but the simplest thing to do would be to raise our children with a little more compassion. So many of our problems in the modern world stem, I believe, from people with sad hearts. The pain we feel, whether it’s for the rainforest or the lack of money in our bank accounts, usually stems from childhood. Therefore, the biggest impact I can have, the greatest activism I can do, is to raise children with healthy hearts. I deeply believe this.

 

I am not ready to declare myself the father of the year, but I am ready to stand up as a dad. I have been given much. I am, by and large, happy and content. I have very little pain, whether physical or emotional, that hinders me. My body is strong, and my mind is keen. My senses are sharp. My heart is open, and it is opening further, and I am surrounded by the kind of people that will help me continue that work. I am strong, and I know how to admit my mistakes, and learn from them. My name is Papa Joe, and from here on out I dedicate myself not just to children, but to advancing the cause of fatherhood. I know too many young men and women who are fighting a black hole of pain because their fathers weren’t present for them in their lives, not in a way that was felt. I also know a great many fathers who love and treasure their kids. My wish is not to aggrandize myself over anyone else, but to be at least one man who stands up and says – MY LIFE’S WORK IS BEING A FATHER. I will no longer be bashful.

 

Look around at the myths, both ancient and new, we have of men. I wonder where the fathers are. Most of our heroes carry swords and guns, or wallets. I’m willing to help change that. I can carry the children. I know because I test my strength daily. I pay attention. I’m listening. And I’m full of stories. But I don’t yet know how to carry the fathers. This is something I wish to work on, and I need to find a way to do it humbly, without eliciting defensiveness, judgement or competition. I can raise my own daughter, and a handful of children around me. I can maybe even reach a few dozen kids in my hometown. But to make a real difference in the world, we need to band together as fathers – and mothers – and admit that this is a priority for us. I want children who are healthier than me. I want them stronger and more beautiful in every way.

 

I am just at the beginning. Giving myself a name, or a role, does not change who I am, nor does it make me any more capable - just like finding the source doesn’t make the scent any sweeter. But it does give a name to it. It will help me return, and find it again. My name is Papa Joe, and I call myself out.

 

*

 

“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Luke 12:48

 

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