Faith in each other

A view of the river in Nong Kiaw

A month in, the clearest part of parenthood is the reflection it provides. In the late nights, in the long days with sparse sleep, we see few things clearly save each other. Our ability to rest, to walk, to eat, to see friends, and exercise depends on our partner’s abilities, on their tolerance, and on our mutual trust. We have, in this small child, a way to finally see the compassion in our relationship, and our kindness for one another. It is humbling, to understand that our ability to hold the baby while she cries and our partner eats is perhaps the best gift we can give. It is clarifying to understand that our push for an extra smile when she will not sleep takes more energy and is therefore more appreciated than anything else we’ve done in weeks. And it is revealing to understand that our ability to do things, from lunch with friends to climbing workouts to dinners out depends entirely on our partner’s ability to be ok when things go wrong. We serve at the pleasure not of a higher authority, but of each other, a pleasure that must be re-iterated daily. Would you like to go out, would you like to go to the gym, would you like to meet friends? Each one requires explicit confirmation, and the understanding that it could take extraordinary effort, extraordinary patience.

Mostly they do not, and Clara is peaceful, is at peace with our decisions. She is ok with electronic music and ambient heat outside the pizza parlor on a Friday night, where we eat on a bench and share a beer with friends after a long week. She is ok with the bright lights and bouncing tunes of the climbing gym, with the many voices and odd sensations of an afternoon at the swimming pool. She tolerates a ferry ride, an MTR ride, and many taxi rides, without outburst. In some ways we adventure at the pleasure of the child, and I think in some tellings this would be true. But it is not, for while she has a voice, and uses it at will, she has no say in the initial agreement, in the planned outlay of patience and effort. That is instead an agreement built on all our years together, almost fifteen now since those early scooter rides in Shanghai. Almost four now here in Hong Kong, where the idea of family became more possible.

And so we continue to grow, our true selves revealed to each other in the things we are willing to smile together after. It has always been this way, of course. In many ways our four hours together in the back of a flatbed from Nong Kiaw to Luang Prabang remains the clearest mirror, held up to our relationship in pain, guilt, and the joy of adventure. It is good, then, to find new joy together in these late nights and the early mornings they blend into.

First days

Looking southwest from the Peak in Hong Kong, across Wong Chuk Hang, and Aberdeen to Repulse Bay, Stanley, and the ocean, where container ships pass.

Like anything new, the first days are a bit of a blur. We sit in a room overlooking all of Hong Kong and try to take in the view. We are looking at the face of a new human, someone never before met. We are looking out at an island, at hills of jungled green and reservoirs that mirror the trees nestled in the valleys. Expensive homes dot the hillside below us, and beyond that the flat areas of Aberdeen, Wong Chuk Hang, and Repulse Bay. Past all that container ships pull towards us and away. The main sea route in and out of Hong Kong feels busy enough. Only the skies are quiet, with no airplanes in sight for much of the day.

The view is shocking on a clear day, all the way north to land that is not in Hong Kong, that is part of the greater country that surrounds us, some twenty miles up the coast. It’s a view worth millions, a view utterly unavailable in most major metros, and the thing that sets Hong Kong apart among world cities.

Mostly we ignore it, focused instead on the new person who has joined us. Our spare moments are spent texting family and friends, sharing photos and chatting about the new responsibility we’ve taken on. It’s a weird one, learning how to care for a human who most definitely can’t care for themselves. Like every new parent, I’m sure, I’m shocked at how unready we humans are released into the world. Unable to walk or talk, and not particularly close to either. While friends with older children say that the time goes quickly, by any reckoning three, five, eight, or eighteen years is a long time. Thinking back to the start of our relationship, fifteen years prior, makes it clear just how long a commitment we’ve made. Life will not be boring.

We look forward to the learning, to sharing our lives with someone new. After all my years avoiding housemates, it’s a bit of a strange choice. I hope that the cat feels the same enthusiasm, at least eventually.

In the afternoon, we are lucky and nap together. The pleasure of three people tucked into a single bed is pure joy. After an hour, when the nurse comes to take the new member for a checkup, we realize how free we are, going to sleep without any responsibility, without worry or hesitation. In the first few days of parental leave, rather than adding to our stress we have ceded our normal tasks, our professional goals and targets. In the hospital for another twenty four hours yet, we have not yet assumed the full burden of our new role. I have no complaints.

Looking north I can barely see the buildings of North Point over the hill, the tops of the AXA tower and One Island East poking above the mountain. I can see Red Incense summit, where we watch the sunset and fireworks. I’m excited to take Clara up there, to show her the world we live in. To show her the place she was born.

Shaped by people

My grandfather, Keith Seegmiller, reading to me when I was small

Often the people who shape us are a surprise. The freshman year roommate from the other coast that turns our expectations upside down. The weird studious kid in our college circle with whom we share a variety of countries with, and a trail of physical correspondence that spans twenty years. Even these examples are somewhat predictable, people in our near orbits, people at the same schools. Sometimes the shaping folk come from stranger orbits than these. They come from small towns outside of Tokyo, or outside of Shanghai. They are colleagues who grew up in clothing factories, whose voices and smiles we can still see, fifteen years on. They are colleagues in San Francisco, who sat with us on a median in Dongguan and gave us life advice, often recalled on this site, to always do whatever’s next”.

Often the people who shape us are entirely predictable. They are our family, they are those in all the globe most similar. They are those whose eyebrows we share, those our facial expressions have called to mind since we were young. They are those who shaped us, our young intellects, with book recommendations, with conversations, with visits to Fallingwater and art museums. They are those who shaped us with their joy in rivers, their love of fields, and their curiosity about the world. We are lucky, to be shaped by those with curiosity. We are lucky to be shaped by people now gone.

Not all endings are the ones we chose. If life provides any lesson repeatedly it is that people are rarely ready to be done. People are rarely ready to be finished with their studies, their career, their relationships, their lives. Sometimes they shape us with their lives, rather than with their actions. As I say often, we are creatures guided not by opportunity but by example, and there are few stronger than those we grow up around. If their kitchen tables are stacked with magazines, we will flip through them when bored. If their walls are covered with maps, we will become engrossed on the way to the bathroom in the afternoon and forget our purpose. If they like long walks through fields as the light changes in the early evenings, we will too, and these hours will become important without our really stopping to think why. Our examples shape us not through conscious imitation but through the pull of the familiar. When given choices we drift towards things we understand, towards things we have seen before and find familiar. We drift towards what we think we know.

It is on those teaching us then to be broadening the familiar, to be constantly increasing what will seem comfortable when encountered again. From architecture to art, from global history to local water politics, we are luckiest to learn from those interested in the world and engaged with their surroundings. These are the lessons we’ll need to learn, the kinds of traits we’ll seek so hard to pass on ourselves.

Sad, then, to have to do it without those that so shaped us.

Make time

Light in London one afternoon in October 2006

Stephen King’s commencement speech to my Vassar class was a good one. His message, that you can’t take it with you,” never left me. Every year since I try to do more with, and waste less of, what I’ve got. The efforts aren’t always successful. I’ve spent a lot of time playing games and goofing off, and a lot of time on skills I don’t always need. Mostly, here half way through my forty second year, I’ve spent a lot of time.

My grandfather, on the phone a few weeks back, just eighty seven, said I never expected to be this old.” The line echoed in my head all week. Who does? And yet underneath the statement is the simple math, that he is more than twice as old as I am now. We have time, or we could have time, if we’re lucky and healthy and work hard at making more of both.

You said you needed time, and you had time,” Ani sings on a song Tara’s been learning to play. We do, I think, though never as much as we’d like, not with the people we most want it with. I think of the methods, of the sums. Half hour phone calls, hour long video chats, and text strings that cover years, that drop for days and re-emerge with new questions, new thoughts for that friend from years ago. Mostly I think about the good days, about the long weekend in Amsterdam with a friend I’d met in Tokyo. It was after the World Cup in 2006, and we spent the weekend relaxing and wandering the canals. I think about how there are no pictures of that weekend, how without both of us to remember, I’d have forgotten it entirely by now.

From October of that same year there are photos, somewhere, of our time in London together, of our brief wanderings as I jammed more travel into a busy year. In those photos we are young, and happy, and as unfinished as anyone in their late twenties can look. We are still en route to so much, still before so much.

Life, it seems, is like that. There’s never a sense of how far we have to go, only of how far we’ve been. Sitting on the floor of our office in Hong Kong on a Sunday, writing while Tara chops ume for pickles, I think of how lucky we were to have folk visit before travel stopped. How despite all the urging we did, we probably didn’t do enough. Because there might not be time, after. The world is here, now. Or it was, and, vaccines done, we hope it will be again. I’m getting ready, on these quiet weekends of chores and writing, for whatever’s next. Getting ready to move again, to act again, and to be part of other people’s lives again. It’s been a while.

We said we needed time, like Ani sings. Have we had time?

New traditions

Wun Sha Gai

On our street the old couple sets out their boxes of fruit and vegetables before we wake. Today there are passion fruits and cherries along with the standard oranges, apples, and pears. On the far side from our window there is lettuce, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Next door the local restaurant does a brisk business in toast, eggs, fried pork and some noodles. Up and down the street chairs and tables are set out and proprietors take in the air. It is Christmas morning and the world is quiet, but not empty.

For the first time this pattern is familiar. Unlike the year before we do not hoard groceries before the two day holiday, Christmas and Boxing Day. We are comfortable that the grocery store and fruit stand will be open. In the afternoon our neighborhood is alive, someone somewhere hammering on a tin sheet trying to fix an awning. Mostly it is the foreigners that are quiet, not visible on rooftops, their apartment windows shaded and dark. Of our local establishments only the coffee shop is closed. I am glad that they get a break, the Australians and locals who run it. Outside, on it’s steps, a couple takes photos of their Akita, lush and happy in the cooler weather.

The weather is relative, of course. Twenty one C is not exactly cold, not to these children of Colorado and New York. Not, probably, to that dog bred for northern Japan. A balmy Christmas is still new to us, and for the week leading up to it we are uncertain of the season, busy with other pursuits. Finally, though, with the Christmas tree in the building lobby and carols sung by groups in Cantonese outside our train station, we acquiesce and agree. Far from family and with many friends traveling, we spend the days quiet, reading and chatting. These are always some of my favorite days, the quiet ones at end of one year and the beginning of the next. They are time for reflection and for planning, for taking stock of growth and remembering our hopes.

In these years we barely give presents. We share a few, with friends nearby and those we encounter on our travels, or those elsewhere when inspiration strikes. Mostly though we grin at each other, carrying fruit back to our apartment in the sunlight, lucky already with what we wanted most.

On the road

We spend a week in motion in a rented Kia, exploring toll roads from Illinois to New York. We get gas in Ohio and an Easy Pass in Pennsylvania, and stop in neither state. It is a quick but thorough tour of relatives and friends, and despite the pace nothing feels rushed.

It’s been a while since we drove the east coast, down 81 and through Philly. Longer since I drove from Chicago to Ithaca, a part of the country my companion has never seen. We encounter fierce rains in Cleveland and the Endless Mountains, and see great lightning in Cherry Hill and Rumson. It’s the kind of tour that sees us admire flowers, play tennis, and hold snakes. We eat in back yards and dining rooms, at local restaurants in Brooklyn and at Google’s cafe in Chelsea. I even get a couple of bagels from College Town Bagels in my home town, and eat them while driving.

We do better than the above listing suggests though, and on our flight out of Newark I am happy and relaxed, and then asleep. By the time we land in Denver for the next stretch I feel sated, rested, and comfortable with the conversations we traveled those miles to have. We’ve gotten better at pacing ourselves, planning less and focusing more on each evening, on the mornings around the kitchen table and the walks to get breakfast. Fewer photos, less posting, and more focus on the people we came so far to see.

More and more I am grateful for our abilities, for the freedom to fly so far and be so unburdened. As I once wrote about being thirty eight and biking to the gym, there is a luxury now to being able to spend time with friends and family, despite the choices we have made to move so far. The conversations are brief, often a single hour or a single evening, yet they are real.

And so with each such loop of short visits we share a bit more of our lives, and we remember each other a little more clearly. With the tools of rental cars and trans-pacific flights we are pushing back on the erasures of friendship by distance and time.

20 hours

When I was young it was hard for me to understand why my father and his best friends lived in separate towns. They had gone to high school together, moved apart for university, and stayed. Individually the decisions made sense, but as a group, for the friendships, the decisions made quality time rarer, made being a part of the day to day impossible. They still worked to maintain friendships, traveling for events or birthdays, making the long distance phone calls that used to cost money.

I no longer am surprised by these decisions. I haven’t lived in the same town as my best friend since college, and haven’t lived even in regional proximity with most of my good friends since the location where we became friends, be it college, Tokyo, Shanghai, or San Francisco. In many ways this has forced me to make new friends, people who are now in that category of too far away to be daily contacts but still remain my favorite people”. It’s a strange category but one I keep adding to. Which leads me to the topic, and my new focus on short chunks of time.

In relationships separated by long distances, everything becomes discrete, a single visit, a single evening, a cup of coffee. In the best cases we get a day and a half together, one night and the following day. Call it twenty hours tops, to both remember the old times and share current challenges, to have longer conversations about serious topics and laugh at common jokes. These opportunities are short, but real, repeatable with most of my circle every calendar year. My abilities here are a gift of work travel and the result of personal dedication, because I know now that regular contact will not happen if not prioritized. The world is too big and our lives too full to allow accidental gifts like this evening in Las Vegas to cover all our desires. And so my most important friendships are built in chunks of hours, and require a kind of focus, a dedication, that has improved my life. Knowing that our time together is rare we all prioritize the moment, and are willing to be unavailable elsewhere to make sure the conversation is our focus and our thoughts are not overwhelmed by minor obligations, background stress.

The results of this mutual focus is incredible, and something I have grown to appreciate over time. At first I was let down to realize that, like my father, I’d created a life where my favorite people were rare guests rather than regular members. Lately though I understand that the depth of commitment required to sustain friendships across years and borders has resulted in my best sounding boards, my most true conversations. In twenty hours there is little time for superficial, and we quickly jump to career questions, business challenges, and family. The questions and ideas posed to me in these brief meetings over coffee in New York or drinks in Los Angeles drive my mind for months, often until the next meeting with a different member of my ever-expanding circle.

And expand this circle I do, with new friends gathered at each stop, in each new city. The best moments, then, are of realizing how large the circle has grown, how many of these distant deep friendships there are, and how much they sustain me and enable whatever is next. As expected Hong Kong is providing the next home base for this growth, for new friendships to blossom into deep ones and old acquaintances to swing through. In just a few short months in the city we’ve hosted friends from Singapore and San Francisco and seen family from both sides, which are good indicators of the new life’s pace. Writing this from Los Angeles, while my best friend is briefly at a meeting, is another indicator of my own circles and how they will be maintained despite the move abroad. Through twenty years of friendship we’ve continued to find time together, whether we live at opposite ends of the state or across the Pacific.

Here then, if you’re reading this, is to the next time we’re in the same place for an hour or twenty, and how those moments will not just sustain friendship but improve it. The past two decades are proof that this method works for me, just as the past four decades have proved it to for my father, who is this weekend en route to his high school friend’s daughter’s baby shower. May we all be in our own ways so lucky.

Time away

In a shop on Rue de la Roquette a man buys white peonies. They are in bloom and smell excellent. He intents to purchase five and ends up with ten. On the table of their rooftop apartment, next to the balcony doors, ten is a good number. He doesn’t mind the earlier linguistic confusion. It is that kind of week.

In the mornings they wander the Seine in cloudy weather. In afternoons they eat lunch on the balcony, often at four, and nap in the sun until six. They read, and write, and talk about the last eight years. Sometimes, after a bottle of wine, they talk about the next eight. Mostly though those conversations involve work, peripherally, and so are avoided. They look at photos of a year previous and celebrate health. A year prior they weren’t aware how hard things would get. Now they are both healing, both able to run, and both thinking of the future as a gift rather than challenge. Twenty fourteen at last seems lucky in the late afternoon light, and they can reminisce without tears.

Let’s leave them here, on this rooftop in Paris, for a while.

Weekends without hurry

On off weekends they rise late.

The cat, having long since missed weekday breakfast time, finally can wait no more. He climbs to the head of the bed and sniffs their sleeping faces, his nose close enough for each breath to have force. When even this close attention does not work he retreats and yeowls in the strained voice of a cat that does not meow. His short sounds wake the sleeping humans, and the ritual of coffee tea and kernels satisfies all three. It is almost noon, and they sit in the sun of open kitchen windows without talking, letting the last of Friday’s sleep fall away slowly. The cat, fed, covers his head in water from the dripping tub faucet and then watches pigeons across the street. He is content now that the people are awake and still home. These are his favorite days. He lies on the kitchen table, facing the window, his paws dangling off the edge. It is not the pose of a hunter.

They read and then write postcards to distant friends as a break from fiction, to free themselves from the worlds in their heads. Eventually she is hungry and eggs, homemade sauerkraut, and bagels follow. Somewhere in this process they move past the time for silence and into a quiet chatter about the neighborhood, potential plans, and the cats’ strange war cry upon sighting a fly. If able he will chase and consume, but more frequently after letting loose this strange vocal challenge he loses sight of the fly completely and wanders the small apartment confused until, bored, he returns to the table to watch the open windows from whence the fly first came.

Weekends that move this slowly are a gift. On mornings like these all three lounge without urgency, glad of the company, weather, and time.

Directing ourselves

At an old friend’s house for the weekend we enjoy the rare time to think together. In between adventures and barbecues we discuss our lives. Goals, hopes, and simple steps for self improvement fly back and forth. With days together there is no need for specific scope. We pause on new backpacks and suitcases before moving on to new houses, jobs, our families, and vacations. Books, movies, and funny videos found on the internet litter the three days of conversation. Towards the weekend’s end, with our enthusiasm tempered by the calm of long days together, the important topics return. Family, work, and hopes for both.

These are new topics for us, though the seriousness of intent is old. For years we have focused on adventures and apartments, cars and sports. Smaller things that were big at the time. Now, with children at breakfast and wives who are not drinking at dinner we are more careful with our words, more aware of our ambitions. Cars seem like things again rather than signs of freedom. Houses feel more like homes and less like temporary parking spots. And our hopes for work are shifting, from fifteen hour work days to Friday afternoons at the beach with company from out of town.

Driving to the airport later I think of how fast these changes have happened: less than five years. An awareness of mortality, I think, and a belief in the importance of our time here. Part of this change is the joy at having friends who are likewise changing. Having old friends to talk to here in Los Angeles, at home in San Francisco, in Tokyo, London, Shanghai, Portland, and New York, makes each day in any of them feel precious. These friendships, more than anything, are the background against which our awareness and our changing selves becomes clear.

Days later a friend says he thinks of other people’s children as a reminder of his aging. In his words I recognize the same idea as the prior weekend’s conversation, that our view of others gives us a new sense of time. We are not aging faster because our friends have children, but we are more aware of each year as our friends take more permanent steps. At twenty five in our circle no one owned a house, few were married, and there were no children to plan around. Now breakfast with a stroller is not uncommon, and recent changes in mortgage rates are a conversational reference point. In some circles, at least. In others we spend time in the mountains, we dance, run, and climb. We commiserate via IM from New York to San Francisco about the fact that the phrase birthday party’ involves cake instead of wake boarding, balloons instead of pistols. And then we each close our laptops and head to dinner with another set of friends who have serious news.

We are aging, if not growing up. And in the hours in that Santa Monica back yard we talk for long enough to discover what this change means: it’s time for new projects, bigger and more permanent than what has come before.

Forgetting

You know him, but you probably don’t remember his mom, she was an…” This is how stories begin in my parent’s home. I do not. It has been decades since her son and I shared a playground in middle school.

Decades.

The children we once knew have grown, moved, married, and are contemplating children. Some parents, like mine, remain in old circles and wonder at our forgetfulness.

The loss is not intentional. Rather too great is the world, too many are the people. We do not mean to surrender these memories of childhood, they are forced from us by the onslaught of days. To manage we devote our meager resources to our current locations, to our new homes. On the East Coast for a few days of stories and family, I learn of another method, long practiced, for defeating the limits of memory.

My father’s parents drive me south to Philadelphia. We have scant trips like this together and many things to share, tales of those gone and those unable to join us. We alternate between the two as the miles pass. Sometimes we speak of our future desires, my own hopes to visit Scotland this fall among them.

It’s really beautiful out at the north edge of Scotland,” says my grandfather, I forget the name of the town, I’d have to look at my notes. Anyway, you ride along…”

In an astonishing moment an entire world previously unknown appears to me, revealed after decades. The same decades that have hidden my childhood companions suddenly contain copious detail, personal history, the travel of those with no limits on time.

Notes?” I ask, thinking of my poor scribbled collection of memories from earlier travels, from years abroad.

From everywhere we’ve ever been,” he says.

Every night when we get back to the hotel,” adds my grandmother, he writes while I read my book.” With that my own urge to organize and record no longer seems so strange. The first image I see is of our cruise in two thousand six, me writing in a lounge high on the ship late in the evenings, others having retired to their cabins. I imagine him sitting at a table, looking out over the Mediterranean, writing.

A day later I have copies of his notes from three weeks spent in Scotland in nineteen ninety four and can add format and handwriting to my imagined evenings. The notes are in a kind of short hand, and the hours driving together lend me the sound of his voice as I read them, which I do for much of my plane flight home.

9/10 Saturday Stayed — Toured Hadrian’s Wall — Housesteads Roman Ft. (high on ridge, impressive remains & views, walked wall — really windy)

Almost twenty years ago. As with so many written things I picture a book of these travel diaries, with appendixes that list the miles traveled per day, that list the names of each hotel, as they are recorded on the paper in front of me. I see a book of things forgotten and yet not lost.

We have a finite memory. Most things slide in and out. Relationships, good times with old friends, one-time travels to distant lands, even these drift from our fingertips though we do not mean to let them. What then of the details of Japan, of Shanghai, of our travels, houses, kitten? On the bus home from the airport I think of this site, of my attempts to record time and place, and vow to continue. Looking down again at his notes as I sit in the fog of San Francisco I am amazed at the details so long forgotten and so quickly returned to hand.