My daughter is fourteen now, and in about three weeks’ time she’ll be off to her first year of high school.
It’s a tough thing for a dad to know his children are growing up. Harder, I think, when it’s your little girl doing all the growing. You get to feeling at times that something precious is beginning to slip away, and do you all you can to staunch that flow.
Which was why this past Saturday, with her brother and momma away and only the two of us and the dog to hold down the homestead, I thought it high time to have a little father/daughter afternoon in the best way possible.
I was going to let her meet John Coffey.
If you are unaware of that fictional character from Stephen King’s The Green Mile, I won’t spoil things for you. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, then I expect nothing more needs saying. The story is one of the few I often return to whenever I need a reminder that there is still light and goodness in this world, even in the dark places.
We sat on the sofa with the dog and a giant bowl of popcorn between us as the opening scene unfolded—an old man in a nursing home, crying over a song. From there we made our way through the first act, acquainting ourselves with the main cast and supporting characters. It was awful silent in that living room when John Coffey made his appearance on the Mile. My daughter never moved once he set about doing his quiet sort of magic.
We’d gotten to the final scene when old Mister Jangles peeks up from his cigar box when I noticed my daughter looking at me. Her cheeks were red, her mouth caught in something like a grimace. Two eyes red and crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“What do you mean, ‘What’s the matter?’ I’m CRYING.”
I squeezed her knee. “That’s okay, you’re supposed to.”
“I know I’m supposed to,” she said, “but what about you? You’re not crying AT ALL.”
“I’ve seen this movie a hundred times. Read the book maybe a hundred more. After that many times through a story, all the emotion in it’s been wrung out.”
She would have nothing of it: “You HAVE to cry.”
“Because it gives you The Feels.”
Ah. I nodded then, understanding things better. Because of The Feels. I don’t know where that expression first arose, whether my daughter picked it up at school or she read it somewhere. Maybe she made it up on her own. Regardless, it’s been a buzzword in our house for going on quite a while. It comes whenever one of those SPCA commercials shoot up on the TV or when my daughter stumbles upon an Internet video featuring either soldiers coming home from war or a litter of puppies swarming some unsuspecting child. It came as our family strolled the neighborhood on the night of July 4, gawping at all the fireworks.
Spoken in whispers and in shouts, when things are quiet or still. Day, night, afternoon, evening. First thing in the morning:
“I got The Feels.”
Sitting with me there on the sofa, she asked, “When’s the last time you really got The Feels?”
My answer was the one she dreaded: “I don’t know.”
She grabbed the remote and turned off the television, looked at me. “You seriously don’t know.”
“I don’t know. I used to, I guess.”
And in her best Mommy voice, my daughter then said, “Well, you better go someplace quiet for a while and try to figure out why.”
So I did. I sat on the front porch and watched the sunshine and the deer and tried to figure out why it seems I don’t get The Feels much anymore.
Granted, I don’t think there is anyone who can come down with a good case of The Feels so often and with such power as a fourteen-year-old girl. Such a thing isn’t possible, especially when you are a forty-four-year-old man.
But it did bug me then, and continues to bug me now, that I can go long stretches of months and even years without being struck by awe or passion or beauty, much less all three at once. Which sounds pretty bad especially considering I spend a great swath of my days writing stories that revolve around the very things that have long gone unfelt in my life.
If pressed, I would say I’ve been this way for quite a long while now. Life can do that to you.
At a certain point you move away from the innocence that defines your childhood and allow other things to take over. You become an adult with adult troubles.
But more than that, your view of the world tends to morph into something wholly different. With age comes experience, and with experience comes the shedding of the rosy caul that so long covered them. We go from seeing the world as a place of wonder to knowing it to be a place of ruin. We begin to see people not as souls but as bodies in possession of every awful thing. We see hate and avarice and violence. Maybe we even come to a point when we feel those very things in ourselves.
Living becomes not a thing to experience, but to endure.
We spend so much of our adult lives wanting only to be children again. For me, that desire had little to do with growing back down to a boy. It was more to reclaim once again that childlike state of belief and hope. To see again that all things hold a beauty and wonder.
Somewhere along the line, I lost all of that. I’ve let a wall grow around my heart as a means of self-protection, a shelter against the storms I saw raging around me each day. It was better doing that. Because constantly seeking out the good in others was to invite only disappointment, and risking belief in the good of the world only meant subjecting myself to constant hurt. And that is love most of all, is it not? It is hurt.
According to my daughter, that’s the The Feels really is, too. Deep down at its most basic level, this constant buoyancy of her spirit is not owed to joy, but a kind of pain that stings your heart and leaves behind a tiny bruise that remains behind long after the hurt of it is gone, keeping the best parts of us soft rather than hard, pliable instead of brittle.
That hurt, it seems, is necessary. That hurt you have for others and our world says that you still care, that you are still alive, and that because of those two things, there is yet time enough to start making things better.
I think we could all use a good case of The Feels right now. Hate may be the safe way to go and anger may never put you at risk, but both of those only work in the moment. But in the after, once all the destroying has been done and all those nasty words spoken, we find that the bridges between us have been reduced to mere fragments and made near impossible to put together again. To be made stronger than they were.
We can each view this world as a place of threat and fear and so look upon it with only a measure of gloom. Or we can seek to smile and search out the light that remains even as a closed-fisted hand seems ready to strike.
That choice is a big one. It’s also like every other choice there is—one entirely up to us.
But I know this. I’ve gone far too long opting for the first. It’s high time I seek out the second.