Last week on the way home from school, I asked Justin about lunch.
Me: Did you eat lunch today?
Me: What did you have?
Me: I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t hear you. What did you have?
Justin: I had a particular sweet potato.
Me: A particular sweet potato?
Me: That sounds pretty special Justin. What made it a particular sweet potato?
Justin: We don’t have to talk about it.
Me: You’re right. We don’t. It’s okay.
Justin: (eats snack)
He was right. We didn’t have to talk about it. And we didn’t either. The particular sweet potato wasn’t mentioned the rest of the ride home. It hasn’t been brought up since.
I wasn’t completely honest with him, though. I told him it was okay that we didn’t talk about it. I told him that because I want him to know that he can talk about the things he wants and needs to talk about. And if he doesn’t want to talk, it’s his choice. And. It absolutely wasn’t okay. I want to know about the sweet potato.
I have so many unanswered questions.
Was it a ‘particular’ sweet potato? Or a peculiar one? What was particular about it? Did you have sweet potato fries and you only picked certain ones? Or was there like a whole bin of actual sweet potatoes that you chose from? Or was there not a sweet potato anywhere near FPGB and you just had them on your brain for some reason?
So many questions.
And here’s the thing. I will never get an answer. I will never know what the hell it meant when Justin told me he had a particular sweet potato for lunch. And I have be okay with not knowing, because we can’t go back and revisit what happened. If I brought it up now, he either wouldn’t remember or wouldn’t want to talk about it. So. I must accept the mystery and embrace the open-ended nature of the declaration. I must be comfortable with the discomfort.
I am not any of those things.
Justin, on the other hand, is completely comfortable with all of it. He says confusing, cryptic, inexplicable things at least a couple of times a day. Sometimes they are profound and insightful. Sometimes they are cute or funny. Sometimes they make sense only to him. Often, I will ask clarifying questions to learn more. I will go all Trixie Belden and try and solve the mystery. And Justin could care less.
We don’t have to talk about it, he tells me.
One of my favorite games as a kid was Risk. I loved it when we would get together with my aunts and cousins and we would have enough people to play. There was something about that map, about organizing and deploying armies, and strategizing on a grand scale that I loved. And I always wanted to win. I am competitive by nature and want to win most things. And there are some things that turn that competitive nature up to 11. I might be pissy for an hour or two if I lose Monopoly or Connect Four. But if I lose in Risk that might be days.
I passed both the competitive nature and the love of Risk along to Matthew. He always picked Risk when it was his turn to pick for family game night. He would look at that map the same way I used to, only – and it pains me to admit this – he was much better at the game. I looked at the board and thought about all the different paths to victory. Matthew looked at it and saw one true path. And he broke the game for the rest of us.
We call it the Australia Strategy.
Matthew would start the game by placing an Army in Indonesia. Then he would follow by putting armies in Australia. He would focus there, putting as many armies as possible down under. And when the game started, he would wait. Every turn he got bonus armies for being in control of a continent. He would add them to Australia. While the rest of us gallivanted around the globe, winning and losing territory, Matthew would bide his time in Australia.
Much later – sometimes hours later – the map would be a mess. There would be rival world leaders with armies spread all around. And down under, Matthew would have this impossibly large Army. And that’s when he would finally leave Australia. He would then rampage across the board until his pieces were the only ones left. By the time he left Australia, there wasn’t much anyone could do. As predictably as day follows night, he would win.
He won so much that we stopped playing Risk. And when I say “we” I mean I. I stopped playing Risk. I got tired of losing. It was boring. He had found the cheat code. The way to win. The girls were willing to play with him. But not me. So, we didn’t. We played Catan and Oregon Trail and, ironically, Pandemic.
But we stopped playing Risk.
I have thought about the game Risk the last few weeks. By the time this newsletter hits your inbox, Russia may have already invaded Ukraine. There could be war in Europe. Again. Because time is a flat circle and Putin is Putin and because we are on the worst timeline in the multiverse.
The thing about Risk is that it is just a game. Plastic pieces pushed across some printed cardboard. What’s happening in Ukraine isn’t a game.
For military families like ours, the situation feels even more fraught. Our son-in-law is an infantry Marine with additional training in cold weather warfare. Like the weather in eastern Europe in February. Troops from my old unit – the 82d Airborne – are already on the ground in Poland.
And Matthew is watching and processing it all from… wherever he is. There is no way for me to know his role in all this. Part of that is because of the very secret nature of his work. He is working levels above top secret now. He couldn’t tell us what he was doing if he wanted to. And I understand that. I did classified work for a long time.
What is harder to comprehend – what I am really trying to get my head and heart around – is that he doesn’t *want* to tell us.
In fact, Matthew has decided that he doesn’t want to have contact with anyone in the family at all for now.
The reasons for Matthew’s absence are complicated. They are tied up in the way he sees the past, and they are bound up in his vision for his future. The reasons for his distance from us are legion, and they are his. I can’t (and won’t) speak about his reasons. I can only speak for myself. His reasons are his alone. And his reasons are important.
And, as important as his reasons are, they are less immediate to me than his feelings. Right now, he feels hurt and he wants to have some of that hurt stop. And as much as I want to, I can’t be there to help right now. I can’t stop the hurt he feels. There is a gulf of time and distance and feeling. Matthew is in his own Australia, fortifying his armies.
I am trying to make sense of it all. I just know I love him, and I miss him terribly.
I would do anything to be able to play Risk with him right now. I would even let him put the first army down and secure Indonesia. I would try another path, another strategy. I would lose, and probably be pissy about it. He would win poorly, taunting me and asking why I let him do it again. He would win and I would lose, but I would try. He wouldn’t want me to give up.
And I won’t. I won’t ever give up. On him or us.
I am trying to be more like Justin. I am trying to be comfortable with the not knowing. I want to be okay with discomfort. I want to embrace the mess. It’s not easy for me. When I was a kid, discomfort meant danger. It was always better to know what was happening. The more you know the better you can react. The more you can control the outcome.
Control is an illusion. There is nothing that we can control. I can’t control when Matthew will want to talk to me again. I can’t control what will happen in the Ukraine or with climate change or Covid or our country’s continuing descent into authoritarianism or the fact that Wegman’s doesn’t carry the cereal I like which is not a big deal but is super annoying.
And. Shit happens.
Small annoying shit and big heartbreaking shit and all the shit that is somewhere in between. And beautiful things happen and you hear your kids laughing and wind in the pines and see flowers bloom in your lover’s eyes when they smile at you. And sometimes you just have a good hair day.
All you can do is just be. Make your way the best you can. Sometimes that means sitting in Australia and letting everyone else in the world do their thing until you are ready to act. Sometimes it means finding a particular sweet potato.
Whatever your strategy is – whatever gets you to where you need to be – do it. Do it if it means pulling away for a while. Do it if it means leaning in. Do it if it means hustling. Do it if it means taking a nap. Whatever it is, do it.
And Justin says you don’t even have to talk about it.
As always, thank you for reading. I hope you have an awesome week and maybe even get to play a game or two.
Be well, y’all.
And keep pounding the rock.
Thanks for sharing your heart and the examples of what mature love and respect can look and feel like. You “didn’t have to talk about it” either, but it is compassionate and nurturing toward yourself and others to bare this truth. I hope that the armies of Australia emerge as the ushers of shalom when they are ready, and that they are welcomed everywhere they go.