It’s the 16th of June, as this blog is being posted, just days before Father’s Day. My father died in 2012, and I miss him in big moments and small ones. As I sit on the back patio putting together an out-of-the-box cabinet, I hear his voice in my head saying, “Remember, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.” I put 22 screws and washers in the piece turning the screwdriver to the right each time. I think about how uncomplicated yet essential his words have been in my life, how often they had saved me time and trouble or even allayed my fears. Once when I was six, walking with him in the California desert at dusk, I remember asking my dad fearfully if the snakes were asleep. Of course, he said yes, so I didn’t give it another thought. His “yes” was all I needed. Later as an adult, I learned that snakes have no eyelids, so they don’t sleep. His white lie was harmless. He knew that I would get more out of a walk in the desert at dusk than if I remained fearful of a snake popping out at us.
Jean Piaget, the renowned Swiss psychologist, was known for his study of child development. He labeled the stage from around age two to seven, the preoperational stage. At this stage, children think symbolically and learn through their five senses. They are unable to use logic, transform, combine, or separate ideas. Piaget’s theory may explain why seemingly innocuous things we are told while in the preschool to elementary school years can affect us profoundly. For example, a close relative once said in earshot of my five-year old ears that I was backward. She meant euphemistically that I was shy, which was true. In my preoperational mind, I worried that I was different from everyone else who was forward. It took me years to understand that I was headed in the same direction as everyone else. I overcame my shyness, but at times I feel a little out of sync with others. Our parent’s words or those of trusted adults can have a lasting impact.
My father’s words were not the lofty phrases of the philosopher but the practical words of a man who understood what it took to create his way in life. As a left-brain-driven engineer, my father was always prepared. He took the time he needed to gather materials, read instructions, and problem solve. As his right-brain daughter, I would usually jump right in, learning by the mistakes I made along the way and only read the instructions as an afterthought. Both paths lead to an outcome, but his was less bumpy. Mine was full of potholes. If I heard him say it once, I heard him say hundreds of times, “Slow down!” My father was the steady tortoise and I the twitchy rabbit from the tortoise and hare fame.
Find the Humor
An illustration of how my father’s words affected me is a cartoon he drew of me on a makeshift plywood treadmill desk I created. In the drawing, I was typing papers for grad school while working out. He included my Starbucks latte, favorite smoothie, and my cat, Serendipity, sitting next to the treadmill. My speech balloon said, “Only two more papers to go before my Pilates class.” Serendipity said, “Whew, she never stops!” He paid attention to minor details about people while understanding and accepting their quirks. Through his funny yet astute depiction, I was reminded that it is good to laugh at ourselves, and yes, to slow down. Now, my self-talk includes the words slow down, though every fiber of my being wants to race through a task. I also find humor in life as much as possible. Slowing down was how I could get through the grueling exercise of researching and writing a dissertation. Laughing at myself was the antidote to stressing out.
Sometimes Life is Good
Another phrase that I keep close to my heart was one he spoke while we were all vacationing at the beach. There is a photograph of our family at a restaurant. We were tanned from our day in the sun; my two children scrubbed clean of sand, hair combed, smiling at the camera. My father quietly surveilled the group, sighed contentedly, and said, “Sometimes life is good.” His understated pronouncement struck a chord in me that I think about frequently. Life is messy and complicated, full of unexpected and sometimes unfair occurrences. We struggle, celebrate, strive, we overcome, and we experience life in all its iterations. But occasionally, life gifts us moments that carry us through the tough times. Remembering his words is like having a mantra, like “this too shall pass,” infusing the moment with hope and a promise of a better tomorrow because it is true. Sometimes life is good.
Turn On the Light
Finally, a phrase my father spoke that I hear myself saying to my children, grandchildren, and husband is, “Turn on the light so you can see what you’re doing.” An ordinary directive with huge implications both practically and as a philosophy of life. The presence of light reduces eye strain and allows us to notice details we might have missed while reading, building something, cleaning, or doing tasks. As a life lesson, being enlightened helps us to see what we might miss, such as cultural differences between people that can affect relationships or knowledge of history that can prepare us for possible events to come. The meaning of enlightened as an adjective is having or showing a rational, well-informed, modern outlook or being spiritually aware. Both head and heart knowledge are forms of light. Turning on the light means dedication to learning and understanding. My father was a life-long learner whose intellectual curiosity was vital until the end of his life. Some of his projects included experimenting with teaching computers to electronically talk to each other and dabbling in robotics. He lived the way he died, with curiosity and dignity. Even as he lost the battle to Mesothelioma, he kept thinking about the details. For instance, he insisted on dying at home. It made his transition from life to death easier for all of us, being in such a comfortable, intimate space. When he took his last breath, my brother and I were close to him. It was a final gift to us without words, and we were able to find closure and retain positive memories of his passing. Until his death, my father’s light was on. His words are still a beacon for me.
My Prescription for Achieving Anything
So, my prescription for achieving anything was a gift to me from my father that I share with you. Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, slow down, laugh at yourself, sometimes life is good, and most importantly, turn on the light. For all of life’s challenges, some moments shine like the faces of children after a day of fun at the beach. If we pay attention, we will begin to notice that those moments are there for us in abundance.
Here’s to you, Dad, for the gift of your words and your wisdom. Happy Father’s Day!
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