Extraordinary days always begin as ordinary ones.
One particularly "boring" Saturday morning, I felt the aftershock of a creativity bomb having been detonated in the living room. Uncapped markers rolled under the couch. Tiny snippets of colored paper festooned the carpet along with several opened glue sticks and half-rotted acorns. The living room looked a bit like Mardi Gras early on Wednesday morning: trashed by thousands with no one within miles willing to clean it up. The only exception was my five-year-old daughter on her own private kindergarten Bourbon Street performing surgery on a shoebox.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
I wondered what alchemy I would witness today. Would the cardboard become an interstellar spacecraft, a prom dress or a coffin? These were the usual favorites. I watched as my daughter Sophia become a crafting tornado of single-pointed attention, the blonde chaos of curls upon her head possessed by some dream of making something from nothing.
"Whatcha makin'?" I asked.
"A leprechaun trap," she said with the confident nonchalance of a mass murderer.
"I'm going to put him in a cage so that he'll give us his gold," she clarified, perhaps hoping that I might be impressed by the financial upside. "Traps are pretty easy to make, Dad!"
Grainy images of serial killers from late night documentaries who as children did similar cruel things to unsuspecting pets flood my mind. When confronted with the unfamiliar, the mind fills in the gaps with fictions of its own creation. It's amazing the extreme melodramas the mind can create to fill in the gaps between fact and the unknown. Part horrified, part intrigued, I chose to recede into the background of my daughter's maniacal craft project, somehow trusting that she was better served with me as a spectator than a helicopter dad.
Creating a tiny world within a large shoebox, Sophia assembled a Crayola forest with faux enchanted topography. Next to a pond, she spread fists full of twiggy grass over a concealed trap door through which the woodland creature would drop into a medieval prison chamber. There the creature would sit imprisoned until Sophia learned its secrets.
We Make Our Own Traps
Where does this impulse to trap things come from? I notice in myself the desire to maintain control of nearly everything in my life -- from how others do their jobs, to how my wife unloads the dishwasher, to how my neighbor mows the lawn. I recognize this familiar desire to control flaming red hot in the kindergarten eyes of my daughter. If I'm honest, I have countless scripts for everyone's behavior to ensure that I get what I want. I'm aware that this craving for control promises illusory contentment when, in reality, it creates suffering.
In the process of managing and controlling everyone else, we unwittingly assume that the source of our own contentment is dependent on the behavior of others. We outsource our responsibility for our own happiness at our own peril. Thankfully, our own happiness is not dependent on everyone behaving appropriately and dancing according to our choreography.
An Assistant to a Master Surgeon
Back to creative project underway in my living room, I pressed the necessary instruments into Sophia's hand when they were called for: scissors, pipe cleaners, a Sharpie. When the surgery was finished, I receded again into the background like a piece of living room furniture. We were silent together for longer than ever before with no sounds but Crayola on cardboard. After a long stretch of stillness, I noticed words leaping from the back of my throat. "I wonder, Sophia...if the leprechaun wants to be captured?"
Her eyes locked with mine. An epiphany had never been so clear. She pivoted with an eruption of intent action and I had a front row seat to the show. Right here, on the same golden hardwood floor where I type right now, she made and unmade her leprechaun trap. My daughter's desire was released in an instant and no trap could hold her back. With the same intensity that consumed her craving for controlling another being, she was consumed in love and wonder with bright eyes for a potential new friend. In a surprising change of direction, Sophia exchanged the elaborate trap for a simple pen and piece of orange construction paper. It began with simple letter of introduction:
Dear Patrick, (Somehow, we both agreed that this was obviously his name):
Hello. My name is Sophia. Would you like to be my friend? Where do you live and what do you like to eat? My favorite food is corn on the cob. Write back soon.
P.S. I don't want to trap you anymore.
I giggled reading this, wondering if dating websites could learn something from the honesty and directness. The note was left on the kitchen table and was replaced daily with a reply. Sophia would write polite epistles each evening in her curliest cursive, and every night after bedtime I would write with exhausted and pathetic attempts to disguise my handwriting. Patrick taught her meditation and the importance of living "in the present moment." He spoke of taking time to enjoy life, the pleasure of walking in the woods, and advised her on how to handle irritable parents. Sophia counseled him on what to do when a disgruntled leprechaun called him names.
Together, they prayed for the cold and lonely ones and the courage to care for all those in need. Sophia would gallop downstairs each day as if it was Christmas morning, eager to devour another letter, apologizing on the rare occasion when a girls' slumber party interrupted their correspondence. We even travelled to South Bend to meet the Notre Dame leprechaun (a second cousin of Patrick's) which seemed like a great excuse to watch a college football game at my alma mater. A proud father watched this astonishing life emerging in his daughter never knowing how it would all end.
Parenthood is the Art of Not knowing.
"It is not down on any map; true places never are." Melville's line haunts me in the moments when I notice myself longing for a clear path to replace the murky ambiguity that is most of life. There are parts of me that seek formulas and linear paths to deliver me what I want. I've come to understand, however, that the art of not knowing is perhaps the most important skill to cultivate in life. Not knowing manifests itself insistently. Is it time to make the decision? Where is this relationship going? Should I look for a new job? Will my kids be OK? Will the cancer come back? Do I have enough money for the future? What will I do with the rest of my life?
I didn't know that this stunning relationship would arise with my daughter through the icon of a leprechaun, and I didn't know how it would end. Like most poignant moments, they present themselves like icebergs, revealing only a small piece of their whole, leaving most of themselves to mystery. This is why I practice mindfulness and meditation: to learn to be OK with not knowing. In mindfulness practice, we practice noticing all the judgments, the attachments and the prolific fictional commentaries that we produce in the mind. I practice being with the discomfort of not seeing a detailed roadmap ahead without trying to force a path where one does not want to emerge. "Just show up," I tell myself. When I live with this kind of trust and openness to murky ambiguity, I notice that the path appears beneath my feet one moment at a time.
Farewell to Patrick
Nearly two years after that fateful day of constructing and deconstructing a leprechaun trap, the inevitable words came: "Daddy, the bully on the school bus thinks that you are just pretending to be the leprechaun."
Sophia said all of this matter-of-factly, her wavy second-grade hair only reminiscent of her kindergarten ringlets. My pulsing sack of stomach confirmed that an ending was near.
"Dad, you said Patrick is real. I know you would always tell me the truth, Daddy," she said with pretzels jammed in her mouth, anointing my face with its flecks.
"Exactly," I said as she went to turn on the TV, fully trusting my lie.
While I knew that she wouldn't be seventeen and writing to leprechauns, I also wasn't prepared to hear this news amid my preparations for taco night in the Nappi house. As I shredded cheddar and overheard her chuckling at her favorite PBS cartoon, I began to write Patrick's last letter in my mind. Patrick would be moving back to Ireland to be with his family that he missed. He felt lonely being so far from his home. Patrick would thank her being a true friend and for sharing the woods behind her house with him. After all, such caring and generous friends are a profound gift along the journey of life.
Sophia read the note the next morning with a peaceful acceptance that made me wonder if she fully understood that letters would no longer be appearing at her place on the kitchen table. That night, she wrote a farewell note with cheerful gratitude for a faithful friend. I read over her shoulder observing the cursive, still curly but more confident than before. After all, she agreed she would not make any more traps.
At bedtime, I told her with a quivering whisper that it was me all along. She took the news more gracefully than I did. I kissed her on the forehead and closed the door. Ten minutes later, a voice bellowed, "Dad!" The hollow ache in my stomach announced that this was likely going to be a moment that I might remember for the rest of my life.
"What about Santa? Is he real?" she continued, picking up from our previous conversation.
I climbed into bed alongside Sophia in her frog pajamas, taking her warm hand in mind. "The spirit of giving is very real, honey..." I waxed poetically about the spirit of Christmas, knowing instantly what an unhelpful and unsatisfying response this was.
"Is he real? Tell me, is he real?" She demanded with sharp urgency. Philosophical speculation about metaphysics or the spirit of giving was unacceptable.
"No, we made him up," I croaked.
"The Easter Bunny?" she continued as I felt a litany coming.
"Nope," I grunted.
"Tooth fairy?" she quizzed me detecting the pattern.
"No. It was mom, every time," I confessed, hoping to deflect some of the blame.
"The Elf on the Shelf?"
I shook my head, unable to detect in the darkness how she was absorbing the dominoes of her childhood fantasies falling one upon the other. A long silence ensued which I couldn't quite interpret. We talked for a while and the words we exchanged in hushed tones have faded from memory into fatherhood lore. What I hope my daughter heard in that sacred space between waking and sleep was the great truth that is hidden in plain sight. Life cannot be trapped; it's always changing. What is born must live and die; moments, leprechauns, fathers, and all things blazing with life will someday pass away. This is why we pay attention to every person and every moment with as much of our heart, mind and awareness as we can. Even as I write these words, I'm aware of how much I miss, the moments I've squandered in distraction. I practice this truth each day in my morning practice of meditation, but needed to learn this lesson in the practice of fatherhood.
"Are you OK?" I asked, probing.
"Yeah, Dad. I'm fine. I'm glad you told me."
"I will always tell you the truth, Sophia. I promise."
"I know Daddy. I love you."
A resilient life, a peaceful life, a spiritual life, a life of purpose -- whatever language we give to this brief earthly time hinges upon the fulcrum of letting go. When we resist what is, we suffer. In retrospect, I now recognize that my daughter was my teacher, modelling for me how to let go. Whether capturing a leprechaun, befriending one or saying farewell, she practiced acceptance far more readily than her father. When we let go of old patterns, the need to control or even the need to know how things will turn out, we are liberated to give more freely of ourselves. I now realized how I had become attached to Patrick and to the daily practice of writing letters. Mostly, I had become attached to the fantasy that if I remained being a leprechaun, my daughter would remain a little child.
In the end, Sophia was willing to give up her relationship with Patrick because leaving was in his best interest. This kind of selfless surrender is what we need to teach our children if we want them to surf the unexpected waves life with resilience and compassion. Our usual programs of control will not be of help in the great moments of losing and loving in life. When I die, when her children are born, when her friends betray her, when she gives her heart fully to another in vulnerability, letting go will be the lesson that she will call upon.
Every St. Patrick's Day I remember my two years as a leprechaun and the lessons that I continue to learn about letting go. Daughters grow quickly without their father's notice...until we notice and discover that we need to let go again.