Ash Wednesday: Seeing Ralph

It took me 40 years to understand my part in my relationship with my father. Frankly, I think I was mostly a mystery to him most of the time. It probably wasn’t easy parenting a child who was quiet in public and so loud in private, the contradiction must have been confusing.

I heard on the radio today how engaging teenagers about their day was a good way of staying curious. So much of parenting is akin to programming a new device, the frustration comes around understanding that we are the young ones’ first lens on how to make sense of the world; we often get judgmental when their opinions diverge from our own. So staying curious—asking about a child’s day—helps to be open to how they’re living their life.

My Ate would regularly ask me how my day at school went, mostly about what I learned. At one point in my childhood, I cracked him up with the reply “one plus one equals two.” It was the kind of ridiculous humor he liked, so I’d give that as my standard answer when I couldn’t think of anything.

But as I got older, he was put out and would get insistent, “Hey! I’m serious! What did you learn today?” and I’d shrug my shoulders or I’d think of the most outstanding thing, but mostly I’d shrug.  

He loved the idea of education. Mostly because, I suspect, he finished school in the late 1940s with an eighth grade education, perfectly sufficient for the circumstances at the time. The system, in which he survived, was designed to turn him into a farmer if he was insistent on continuing to live and stand in the way of colonization. But he rebelled and obsessed about education. He would receive a certificate in mechanics from United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota in the 1970s before he came home with my mother to tend to family matters.

He wanted me to be educated, in fact he would brag about my report cards to his closest friend who, in turn, would call me “professor.” I had always interpreted this as the reason why my father wanted to know what I learned in school each day, a way to hold me accountable beyond what the teachers would gush in conferences. But he wanted a relationship with his confusing, backward child, when it got urgent, I got the hour-long lessons that began with, “Let me tell you something,” or “Come here.”

Today, I thought of him trying to stay involved in his child’s life. Not an easy thing for a cagey, sullen, emotionally volatile teenager with a non-boozy social life on a rural South Dakota tribal nation. My teenage selfishness denied us the opportunity to have a deeper, genuine relationship. I didn’t want to be bothered at the time.

After I came out, we skated quietly around each other, his heartbreak at the idea that he wouldn’t have any more grandchildren (a false, heterosexist attitude at the time and in retrospect, an understandable gap in information) and my heartbreak over the idea that I would be considered a disappointment the rest of my life. But we found repair in my consistency and willingness to put our family first through the financial and living sacrifices I made at the time.

So Ash Wednesday is the day I give myself permission to feel like absolute shit. It’s the biggest day of the year where my Christian practices allow me to accept the reality that I am, indeed, a flawed human being. The rest of the year, I get to be sovereign, Indigenously brilliant, joyful, wrathful and free. But on this day, I get to confront myself in my errant ways, I get to apologize and to literally beat my chest three times. It is restorative to be that kind of honest with myself.

I thought of my father and the relationship I denied both of us from an early age. Psychologists would say that, being a child who didn’t know any better, I didn’t know any better and can hardly blame myself. But there is something falsely comforting in that analysis. It’s why my recovery program is useful to me in these times. Holding myself accountable for tending to relationships is my growth work because my mind-centered way of life inherently forgets that others in their emotional beauty have perfectly valid feelings, about how I do or don’t interact. The possibilities that open up are multiplied when I open myself up to curiosity. May I find joy in curiosity this Lent.

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