Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

Count the Smiles Remember the Laughter


Parenting, Playful Advice

If my worth as a father and parent can be measured, let it be by the smiles and laughter Carly Elizabeth, my wife Z and I share together. I happen to be fond of the Buddhist tradition where one, with conscious intent, negates suffering in ourselves and therefore in others. Joseph Chilton Pearce and I often shared the irony that most of our suffering is self-inflicted. In the East there are two icons for wisdom, the Contemplative Buddha and the Happy Buddha. In a casual way we can say that negating suffering leads to happiness, that ultimate wisdom is happiness.

We are so deeply conditioned to think of genius and wisdom as content, knowing lots of stuff. Genius or wisdom is not the things we know, rather it is the quality of our knowing. It is how we think and feel, not what we think we think and think we feel. Wisdom and genius are states, not content.

My goal as a father is to be completely open and attentive to how and what Carly is relating to, to see that she is safe and by that encouraged to explore fully the experience. Since the day she was born Carly Elizabeth and I bathe together. Sometimes she melts in my arms as the warm water pours over us. Other times she is tossing various things in the tub or watches the water spiral down the drain. I wrap her in a fluffy towel, plop her in the sink and dry her hair. After, she loves to run naked, crawling on the bed, inviting a chase. Today I grabbed the corner of the comforter and tugged. Over she went laughing. Again I tugged and over she flew. Here you have, in my view, the ultimate wisdom, Carly melting in my arms and the next moment flying head over heels laughing. Wisdom is a state, joyful, happy.

What I learned from Carly today is how early language unfolds. Last week something new began. She reached in the bag and pulled out wipes, one after another. Being slow on the uptake, I began putting them back. Then I realized she had a stinky. Later she knocked on the door. Then she brought over one of my socks. Another time it was her shoes. In all these instances Carly was using nonverbal metaphors to communicate what she intended or needed. A symbol or metaphor is one thing standing for or meaning another. The use of symbols and metaphors is the foundation for language and all, so called, higher (meaning abstract) learning and imagination. (There is also a form of embodied imagination but we will save that for another time.) Knocking on the door and handing my sock is the early foundation that separates human being from all other species; in a word, ‘story.’

Sure, as time goes on we adulterated adults catch on and say, ‘oh, how smart she is.’ But Carly is always ahead of me. She is always unfolding new capacities, testing, exploring, long before I am aware of the deeper meaning. My point is, she wants and needs me to share and experience who and what she really is this moment and the next, and how frustrating it is when I don’t get it.

There is a series of books, What to Expect When You Are Expecting, What to Expect The First Year, and The Second Year, etc. Embarking on her second year the “terrible two’s” was given some currency in my wife’s book (which is really silly because Carly carries billions of years of genetic predispositions which has its own intelligence and consciousness, was in utero for months, birth was a transition and not the beginning of anything). Indeed Carly and every child this age is spreading their wings, widening the gap between their inner and outer development and what we dumb-adults see. Sure they get frustrated. You would too.

It is we terrible adults that cause the “terrible two’s” by not being aware and in sync with the unshakable need to learn that is driving the show. Trust and respect are reciprocal. If we see, relate and connect with the authentic child they will do the same with us. They may not understand the abstract need we have but they certainly know there is a need and will respond appropriately. Not always. Often their needs are acute, most often when we are not paying attention.

It is extremely challenging to keep up with the explosive learning and development of a toddler. Attention spans are short; the appetite for new experiences enormous. My wife grew up in a farming village in the Czech Republic and noted that Carly’s world is boring by comparison – no chickens, no pigs, no planting, no buildings being constructed, no ponds, no frogs, and no bands of free range children of different ages to chase after. Carly gets us, a nanny or two, and an assortment of pretty dull adults. Holding boredom at bay is not easy. No wonder most are handed a glowing techno-babysitter. Most adults are not imaginative enough to keep up with a one year old.

“Do you want to read a book?” Carly smiles, nods, grabs a book and crawls on my lap. “It’s time for a walk.” She rushes to the door and knocks. “Would you like to swim (my term for bathing)?” Her arms reach up to be lifted. She is only thirteen months but she knows what these phrases mean. Perhaps not each word as we find meaning, rather the string of sounds together. Carly doesn’t know what ‘time’ is. She has no clue what it means to ‘read’ or ‘take a walk.’ But there is an association of vibrations, sounds with experiences. She connects the dots. And she is using her own symbols and metaphors to communicate her needs, knocking on the door, pulling wipes from the bag. I find that miraculous. Our lives are filled with everyday miracles that we mostly take for granted.

No matter what is going on I’m always looking for ways to touch, connect and to tease out a smile. If I am really good, I will get one of those giggling belly laughs. That’s when I know what being a father is really all about. I wonder – what today will bring?

Michael Mendizza