The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Lessons My Father Forgot He Taught Me
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

My father taught me many lessons—of life, of love, of dreaming. He taught me with his actions and his words, with his mind and with his heart. He taught both by conscious thought and by unknowing instinct, each according to the lesson's need. Some lessons, I recall, were harder bought—my certainty of them purchased only with heartache and pain—and some proved less true for me than they were for him as different times formed our different lives.

Many of these lessons he remembers teaching—the basic strictures like "Don't play with fire," "Always look both ways," and, one of his favorites, "Never turn your back on the ocean"—but the lessons that have shaped me most, the lessons I carry closest to my soul, are those that are so much a part of who my father is that he cannot remember teaching them. These simple truths became a part of my most basic core, and continue to shape my expectations, my actions, and my dreams.

On Creativity

I was eight, and focused on the final stages of making a boat with my Vac-u-Form, a small toy that heated a plastic film and then used a vacuum to shape it over a cast-metal die. I had glued together the top and bottom of the boat, and I was painting it in what had become my own individual style. This "style" was expressed in ever-thickening coats of contrasting color, each one layered upon the last until eventually they filled in any definition or detail that the original form might have held.

Knowing my father to be an artist, I asked him what he thought of my work. Upon watching me gather up another dollop of color by dipping my red-tipped brush into the blue pot, he said simply:

"A good artist knows when to stop."

This gentle rebuke sunk into my mind like a seed, undigested and unappreciated, and it lay there for many years untouched. Ages later, after I had begun my travels through the mysteries of music, it grew and emerged fully fleshed. The notes with which I struggled—the intricacies of Bach, the wildness of Hindemith—came alive only when I stepped back and let them speak for themselves. When I forced them, they strangled. When I listened to them, they sang. I learned, as an artist, how not to stand in the way of the art itself.

On Paternal Pride

On one particularly sunny day in my early adolescence, I was consumed with the suspicion that I'd somehow disappointed my father. I had failed in something, and though today I don't remember what my failure was, at the time it was something I was sure removed my every chance to someday make my father proud. I stood before him, the sun hot upon my hair and my brow bound by worry, and confessed my fear. In answer, he said:

"I don't care if you grow up to be rich or famous. As long as you're happy, I'm happy"

The immediate release these words provided was so profound that I never forgot them. They told me that neither by my successes nor by my failures would my father ever take my measure. I have at times forgotten this lesson and worried about whether or not I have made my father proud, but eventually I do remember the lesson, and doing so I realize that my worry is the one thing most likely to displease him.

On Opportunity

Growing up, the world around me struggled to realize the dream of racial parity. At school, my teachers pried at the doors of my white-bread world to show me the truth of a color-conscious world. My family counted among its friends families both white and black and some that were mixed, and I learned early on to see beyond the color of a person's skin. Our black-and-white TV showed me black men and white men as they spoke, marched, fought, preached, protested, and prayed in an ongoing dialogue that was peaceful at times, and violent at others.

In the spring of '68, that dialogue turned deadly. My family watched as the news of blood and death spilled out into our living room and when it was done, my father turned to me and said:

"You are one of the luckiest people in the world. You were born white, you were born male, and were born in America. Always remember that, and be grateful."

His words puzzled me. They painted the world with an inherent unfairness that I neither understood nor believed. I looked for it, though, seeking it out and in time I saw that it was true. I was lucky. I did have more than many, simply because I was a white American male. But this knowledge did not cause me guilt or give me reason to grow complacent about my future. Rather, it heightened my awareness of the opportunities before me, and taught me to be grateful for them and, most importantly, not to waste them.

On Humility

As a skinny, myopic boy with a bookish nature and a talent with the violin, I was an easy—if not an obligatory—target for the stronger boys. I was often punched and teased and beaten on the school tarmac. Several times I was "called out" to the churchyard: appointments I never kept but instead walked past, shamefacedly heading home while the gathered boys jeered. I kept these trials to myself—for to admit them was to admit my weakness—but one evening after one such "missed" appointment I complained to my father, bemoaning the fact that I would never be as strong as those others. My father did not puff me up with empty promises, but rather told me truly:

"There will always be someone smarter or richer or stronger than you. Be happy with who you are and what you have."

At first I rejected those words and their unflinching precision, but they haunted me through the months that followed. I refused to accept, at the age of nine, that I would never achieve the thing that I then perceived to be the only purpose of life: that is, to be the best at something. But as I wrestled with the concept, I realized that indeed there could only be one person who was the richest, one who was smartest, one who was strongest in all the world; that most people could never be the best. To be the best, I saw, was not the goal, but only to be the best that one could be. It's a lesson I still must learn and relearn periodically.

On Love

It was not until my years in high school that my father talked to me of love. By that time, of course, I had succumbed to my fair share of crushes, passions, and fascinations (including one young girl who treated me so ill that I carved "LD" into the sole of my boot, that I might grind her name into the dust with every step.) But by my sixteenth winter, the tenor of my heart had grown beyond such childish attitudes and toward more meaningful relations. One girl in particular had affected me deeply, and though my feelings were still full of flight and built of fragile glass, love is what it was and I felt it as deeply and soberly as I was able. The day it all crashed down, the day that I at last admitted to myself the futility of my unrequited suit, I retreated to the blue shadows of my downstairs room, threw myself upon my bed, and wept.

Hours later, after I'd grown quiet, my father came downstairs and knocked upon my door. He came in, sat on the edge of the bed and, unexpectedly, he asked me about the girl: who was she? and how did I feel about her? Unreservedly I told him all.

When I was done, he did not try to cheer me up. He did not say I would "get over it." He did not tell me that the pain I felt was just a phase or anything less than love. What he told me was:

"When your heart gets broken, it's bigger when it heals, and the next time you fall in love, your love is deeper and stronger than the time before."

This has proven true throughout my life. Each time that I have loved it's been the deepest, strongest, greatest thing I've known. Each time, the newer love puts former passions all to shame for pallid renderings of true adoration. And each time, I wonder if before I ever loved at all. The dark side of this lesson, though, is that with deeper love comes the risk of greater pain, but if not for love, then what else is worth the risk?

These are the lessons that have stayed with me since the moment of their teaching. I remember them, and they have become a part of who I am. I am not the best person in the world, but I am a far better one for having been taught these things. My father never considered himself a teacher, but he is, and continues to be.

Thanks, Dad.


All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani