For the past week, one word has been creeping around in my head, popping up over and over and over. That word is TENDERNESS.
Maybe it’s because my mom went away for a little while and I’ve had some time with my dad that I might not have taken otherwise.
I know tenderness may not be one of those words you usually associate with two grown men bonding. It’s not typically part of the Y Chromosome Playbook they give you as a boy to commit to memory and take to heart, yet I think it might just be one of the most crucial reasons why my friends are my friends (female and male) and why my family and I are so incredibly close.
Not only do each of those very special people in my life have a capacity for tenderness, they have a propensity for sharing it (with others and with me).
As a young boy, I suppose I looked up to my dad first and foremost as this great athlete, as this man’s man to use an old-school phrase, for being strong and brave and able to do just about anything. Today, I still appreciate all that, but the thing that strikes me most profoundly is my dad’s ability to be that guy and to still share moments of tenderness.
And, in looking back, I think what truly connected us even when I was a boy, regardless of how many sports I played and how many other things we had in common, was that part of my dad’s personality, that part of his soul, which he revealed in those moments.
Tenderness is a word with a few meanings, most commonly “a state of gentleness and kindness,” but I believe it’s also related to affection, to caring, to empathy. Yes, sometimes it’s found in times of sympathy, but also in times of joy, of forgiveness, of hope.
It’s been a long time since I read any John Dryden, but today I came across this line: “When he spoke, what tender words he used! So softly, that like flakes of feathered snow, They melted as they fell.”
Tenderness might simply come in the form of a look, a smile, a word or two, a touch. It might be a shared silence, a proximity of bodies or of thoughts or of emotion. It might be hand-in-hand, or head-on-shoulder, or eyes across a room that find you and hold you and let you know you are seen. Not merely the you everyone can see, but a part of you in that moment that needs to be seen, maybe a part you can’t even afford to acknowledge yourself.
As a teacher, I became aware of a number of students whose lives lacked tenderness. Everyone deserves to experience that, everyone needs to experience that.
I’m not talking about love in the common sense, yet I believe every instance of human tenderness is an expression of love. But even people who spend a lifetime deprived of love can become warm, loving people, if they are shown tenderness. If, during those times when they need it most, someone takes the time to see them, to truly see them.
I have met such people, have witnessed their hearts, and am better for it.
I see tenderness as an act, as a shared moment, as a connection between beings not merely on a physical level, but even more so on an emotional one. Sometimes it’s a thing shared between strangers, by the most unlikely person who stops, who says with her eyes, I’m here, I see you, I understand, before moving on.
You’ll often find it conveyed in commercials, in advertisements with a mother and child (humans or, like in the photo above, animals), their fingers touching; or with a couple curled up into each others necks. Although those can certainly be, and usually are, very tender moments, I believe tenderness goes deeper than that.
Tenderness always is, in the end, a connection in the truest sense.
It’s a slowing down, a perhaps fleeting momentary mindfulness, but a moment just the same where a genuine connection occurs, not merely on an external or physical level, but even more so on an emotional level, on a level of one soul recognizing itself in another.
At the end of my yoga classes, my instructor always says, “Namaste,” which she has translated in her own way to mean the light in me reaches out to the light in you.
I think that’s what tenderness is . . . a moment in time . . . when you and someone else reach out to each other . . . through the distance that comes from being two distinct individuals . . . through the darkness or the light, the smoke that clears or the fresh morning air . . . and you connect at the deepest level . . . if only for a moment . . . and, in that gesture, you share part of yourselves . . .
I wish each of you moments of tenderness in your lives. Including tenderness you extend to yourself.
That’s what my writing is (a way for me to experience tenderness for myself, through my characters, and also by reflecting on lives I’ve been part of or have witnessed or have imagined), for I strive to find, to create, to share a little tenderness each time I’m at the page. In a way, that’s what all artists do, though as Rushdie suggests “What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.”
So, above craft, above creativity, sensibility and tenderness are essential for art, as well as for life.
Below is the first poem I ever read publicly (as part of a Free Public Reading at The Jazz Factory in Louisville). It’s also one of the only poems I’ve written that was taken directly from my life. Though hopefully funny, I think there’s a moment of unexpected tenderness in there as well (at least that’s what I felt at the time), thanks to the gifted actress, Amanda Plummer.
A Cloud in a White Room: Or, What I Learned
Working on the Set of a Low-Budget Movie
What had killed me was never made clear. To this day, I remain posthumously stumped.
One minute I’m mother duck to a flock of nine-year-old extras, next thing I know,
the Producer takes me aside, says he’s going to put me in his movie. “Just think,” he says,
“even after you’re dead and gone, your kids, grandkids, they’ll all be able to watch you.”
“What do I gotta do?” I ask because, the way I see it, he’s getting me for free
so it must be a doozy of a part.
“You play the dead father. It’s a very important scene.”
When it’s time to shoot, I ask, “You want me in makeup?”
The Producer says, “No, you look perfect,” which would be a compliment
only I’m supposed to be DEAD!
It’s a dream sequence and they cough in all this smoke,
too much actually, and then we have to wait because to the camera
it’s like looking out the cockpit of a 747 as it descends through a cloud in a white room.
I lay on the unhinged door—which someone got the bright idea of using as a death bed—
floating shakily over two old kitchen chairs, all shrouded in a white sheet,
and that damn knob keeps pushing my hip.
Amanda Plummer plays the grieving widow. I can’t help remembering her in Pulp Fiction
and I’m frightened for my life until she clutches my hand
to her chest which, even though I’m dead, is a perk.
Amanda rocks back and forth and then, her voice gets so small
and, as she sways, she squeezes my hand, again and again,
pumping herself up, swelling with pain over losing me.
Only I just met her a tick before they unleashed the cloud from some old noisy box.
Amanda said, “Hi,” and pulled my eyelids closed,
drew my hand in her hand to that perky breast.
I can’t help it. I sneak a peek. I watch this slit of a woman wind herself
into mourning over me and I wonder: Is this what death tastes like?
because the smoke is so thick. Someone flipped the switch to the fog machine too hard
and now it’s cranking out a cumulonimbus into this shrinking white room,
reducing Amanda to a weepy angelic head and she can’t turn herself off, either.
Her switch has been flipped and, while the smoke clears,
she pours out more and more feeling.
By the time we’re “rolling,” she buries herself in my neck and I feel the tears.
For a moment, she loves me. And, for a moment, so do I.
She’s so damn good it’s like when someone yawns and it dominoes from one person
to the next, only this is a chain of sorrow.
I try hard to just be the dead guy, but it’s like I’ve lost someone, too,
someone I never knew I was, and I fill with emptiness. I am a cavern of sobbing echoes.
The Director yells, “Cut.” And it’s over.
Amanda pats my hand, says “You were great!”
Two months later the Producer informs me they scrapped the scene.
“Not enough time,” he says.
And I think: It figures, my one great moment of living
would be found in a death no one will ever know.
(first published in Slurve Magazine)