My girlfriend picked me up at Logan International last Tuesday. I cleared customs downstairs in Arrivals and took the escalator up to meet her at Departures.
Finding each other at my departing point felt right, in the sense of a journey as ending where you began, but as someone different. We soaked up the hug that ended a week apart. Our puppy climbed over the seat into the trunk to lick my face.
In the car home we held hands and I told her about my vacation to Venice, Italy. She told me about her adventures at home with my son.
Have I just described a happy Tuesday evening, or relationship trouble brewing? What I just described seems off to my married friends. After “How was Venice?” I usually hear, “So, you went solo?”
They noticed. They read my group chat messages saying “I’m” on a trip. They saw the pictures of me with no family in them.
“Yeah, it was solo,” I told my guy-friend the other night. I grabbed a flight deal, I told him. I spent days at La Biennale de Venezia, eating up the art. But that was a happy accident — I navigated on intuition and little planning.
“Is that weird?” I asked.
“It’s not the cultural norm to travel without your significant other if it’s not a business trip,” he said. “How is your relationship?”
My relationships are never stronger. My son and I can reduce ourselves to giggles over nothing more than my handwriting.
Watching me jot a note on a stickie the other night, he laughs. “Your ‘P’ looks like Oliver!” he says, drawing our puppy to demonstrate.
His likeness of Oliver captures his spirit, if not the existence of his knees or ankles.
“Can you label it?” I ask. He writes “Oliver.” Now I have some handwriting of his to work with.
“Your ‘O’ looks like… a robot octopus,” I claim. I copy his “O” and use it as a body on which to draw a toothy mouth and some robot-octopus arms.
But I’m imprecise. I stop at five arms. We’ll see if he’s present…
“You only drew five arms,” he says. “That’s a robot… cinque-opus,” he says, renaming the octopus using “five” in Spanish.
“I want to see what your ‘O’ looks like.” he asks.
And we go on like this. And more than giggles — we share sorrows and seek each other’s counsel. It’s my girlfriend’s turn to go on a trip, so now I’m solo-parenting. I’ve been a dad for 10 years and yet still, the fear can arise, “Can I do this myself?”
I was raised to look for approval from mom. It was useful to a point, but I noticed in my late thirties that I had a choice. I could either recreate approval-seeking in every one of my relationships, or I could grow through the discomfort and become my own man through and through.
I felt like going to Venice, and going alone. I felt I could handle it, and our relationship could. It also felt right because all my fears pointed to an opportunity to heal codependency.
With no one to talk to, would I be bored? With no one else’s needs to put before mine, how would I decide what to do? How would I recognize the good art? Could I decide on my own when I was bored and ready to leave the museum? Would I feel homesick? How would I feel about this decision if my son had a hard week?
Back at home, I’ve been celebrating a wild orchid, a pink lady’s slipper. Orchid seeds are different. They have only the DNA they need to grow.
Like human babies, they are helpless on their own. But they’re not on their own. What brings an orchid seed to life is connection.
The pink lady’s slipper here dropped a seed last year to the forest floor. It lay there for a while, hibernating. Then it was found by someone, recognized by the mycelial tendrils of a soil fungus, Rhizoctonia. The fungus fed the seed, giving it not just sugars, but all the nutrients the seed needed to sprout.
And it did sprout. With time and luck, a new orchid emerges and begins to photosynthesize for itself. It flowers. And if that were the end of the story, the pink lady’s slipper would be the most beautiful parasite in the world.
Now, as the orchid’s leaves come online and start producing their own sugars, the flow of nutrients from the fungus slows and stops.
These are separate organisms. They can stand on their own.
And the orchid keeps growing. It flowers and makes seeds. It still has extra energy. And so it reverses the flow, feeding the Rhizoctonia.
I didn’t plan on going to Venice’s cemetery island. But there I was, tired from glass-blowing on Murano, riding the vaporetto south toward Giudecca. The dock appeared — Cementerio. They closed at six – it was quarter till. No one else got off. Most people on the boat were on the way to dinner with their families.
I didn’t have to check with anyone. I leaped.
Some things I impart to my son by being with him. Some tendrils of wisdom and joy operate with proximity. We’ve been putting our heads together this week on co-creations, playing music.
Some things I impart by parting from him. That moment when I pulled my index finger away, and now my toddler was walking on his own. Up to that moment, he had all the DNA to walk. He had the energy. He had the balance. The one thing he needed was for me to pull back, give him space.
As a father, I gauge his comfort zone and I strive to make this offering bigger when I see a safe opportunity. At the Cementerio, I visited the bones of poet Ezra Pound. He said, “The only thing one can give an artist is leisure in which to work. To give an artist leisure is actually to take part in his creation.”
That’s the kind of leisure that my girlfriend, my credit cards, and other co-creators gifted me with in Venice. I cherish every shared giggle with my son, but he also has the spirit of a solo adventurer. When he’s photosynthesizing more of what he needs, will he trust himself to answer the call?
One day they will tell tales like these about my son and other adventurers like him. They will embody what the toddler learns. That we can stand alone, and connected.