Saturday, June 30, 2012

Where's Your Daddy Gone?

I was feeling fatherless, for the first time (thank God) in my life, but I didn’t like it.   

In spite of all cultural arguments to the contrary, I don’t believe families without fathers can manage just fine, or that single women should have a child because they want a child.  That’s not enough for me; never was.  Because that child would grow up without a father, and that is a great loss.  We have experimented with this scenario in the past few decades and found it wanting, to say the least.  I have watched many of my single women friends go into single motherhood; anyone not notice the hardships of that situation?!  Anyone want to argue the point that the present fatherless generation is a good thing?

Disclaimers: this is not to deny or gloss over the fact that some fathers are horrendous examples of fathers; this is not to deny that some women who have not married live with tremendous pain and stigma at being childless.  I'm also not speaking of single women who adopt orphans for the right reasons, not to fill emotional pain. 

But for those who attempt to adopt to avoid men--quite possibly because their father was one of those horrendous examples--or for those who try to fill the pain of singleness with a child, I have two concerns: they may remain in their relational pain, which a child cannot cure, and the child grows up without a father. 

If you want to see a beautiful visual example of what I’m grappling with, check out visual artist Paul Hobbs, of the UK, and his piece, “Where’s Your Daddy Gone?”  As Paul writes, “In each picture the father is absent in different ways - a shadow, under censorship, or cut out completely. Collaged into the panels are articles discussing fatherhood today, the second panel referring to women who want children without even sleeping with a man. The images reflect the present damaged state of fatherhood. An implicit reference to the Madonna and Child decries the unholy nature of this broken relationship between father and child.”
Paul was responding to a newspaper article on in vitro fertilization. I grieve with him in the present cultural absence of father, in the mocking and minimizing of this key role in a family.  The spiritual implications of father transcend human experience.  There is more here than meets the eye. 

Yes, I miss my dad, but what is so important about fathers that I feel vulnerable without him, and the world is increasingly trying to do without fathers?  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Death in the Family

It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now,it is of a contemporaneous atmosphere that has little to do with them: that of the fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns.— James Agee

Among our favorite books, my friend Martha and I have two especially favorite ones: To Kill a Mockingbird and A Death in the Family.  Two classics in American literature, both by Southern authors. 

The former I could read over and over again.  There are many great themes in that book; but the image of father that Gregory Peck incarnates in Atticus Finch is one of the best I know.  Tender with his motherless daughter Scout, he sets his lawyer face like flint against injustice and racial prejudice. 
The second book I can only read when I’m in a really good head and heart space, and I’m glad I discovered the book long after I was in any personal grief.  In spite of that lovely quote above which opens the story, it is a grueling look in excruciating detail at a Death in the Family—the title says it all. 

When my father died, something like what Agee described happened in our own family.  It launched a grueling year; time slowed to excruciatingly detail. We lost our center of gravity.  Strange stirrings began in my own heart.  Although I was 50, and had lived some distance from him for years, (overseas in fact), I suddenly felt vulnerable, unprotected, exposed spiritually.  The sensation was so strong and compelling I talked to my sister about it.  Maybe it was because I was single, and still looked to my father for advice; perhaps if I had a husband...

"No," my sister replied, "I feel it too."  We fell silent for a while, and wondered what it meant. 

Some context: my father was a good father by most standards, although of course he had his own demons.  He was a strong personality, a dominant authority, but also the parent who made us lie on the floor with our eyes closed and listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral, or Zorba the Greek.   

Never afraid to launch us out into the world, he brought my older brother and I into New York City a number of times when we were quite young (I remember one trip at the age of 10).  We would commute in with him, and he would show us the extraordinary design showrooms of architecture's heyday in the '50's.  Then he would set us loose in that megalopolis for the day while he worked, instructing us to return at 5 for the commute home.  Can you imagine doing that today?!

He bought little gifts from his occasional international trips, and could be counted on for a secret stash of licorice somewhere in the house, which maybe he would share.  When he blew, we scattered, for he carried the rage of most World War II veterans returning from war, in an era before we had the label “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.” 

So when he died, the vacuum was huge for all of us, and on one level that took me by surprise--this feeling of being exposed and vulnerable.  What were the spiritual implications of fatherhood that made our family planet spin off its axis?   What is the role of ‘father’ in a family?  Why is it so potent?  

For over a decade now, I’ve been probing those implications, the Unseen Real[1] that has to do with 'father,' and why ‘father’ is so important in the Christian tradition.  In time, my journey intersected with a book, “The Forgotten Father.”  And that book brought an “Aha” moment, and earned favorite book status on my bookshelf (which you can see on my Library thingy if you scroll down). 

But this post has already gotten long, so I will stop there and ponder more for next week.  In the meantime, maybe you want to ponder the mysteries of ‘father’ yourself.  Or pick up a copy of "Kill a Mockingbird"--a fantastic summer read.    

[1] a term used by Leanne Payne to describe invisible spiritual realities.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


How perfect that I re-open this blog on Father's Day.  

Many of you know the back story to Poems from the Boatyard, and its particular link to my father, and fatherhood in general. So it's perfect to start thinking again about my father, and the genesis of the poetry, on Father's Day. 

Some of you may have read the series of earlier posts (which begin here) that were basically the breakdown of an essay I wrote in France, shortly after my father died.  For those of you who aren’t au courant, here it is:

In the late 50’s or early 60’s, my father decided to build a boat in our backyard, on suburban Long Island.  This caused quite a ruckus, and a lot of excitement, among the adults in our community and family.  Lines split down two majority opinions:

  1.  "What are you crazy?!" 
  2.  "Wow!!!  How exciting!!!"

My own reaction was, “Yippee!!!  What’s a boat?!”  (So you can see how young I was.)  This reaction was largely based on my big brother’s reaction, who fell into category #2 above.  There may have been jumping up and down involved.

Nevertheless, the boat got built…almost..that story is unpacked in those earlier posts.  It has also gone into a long narrative poem that will be part of the sequel to Poems from the Boatyard.   Here’s an excerpt:


And I have finished my walk around this cemetery. 
My father is buried here, his father in another. 
I wonder where I'll end up, and if there will be poplars. 
We don't always get things right in our family,
but we get them done—by God!—
because our father breathed moral fiber into us,
like wind in a sail, like the wind in these poplars,
whose scent I now inhale and say, Thanks, Dad.
At least you tried to build a boat.

My father died in 2001, and the loss remains keenly felt in our family a decade later.  We remain boatyard rats, coastal huggers, and clam shack diners.  Ask any of these questions and watch agendas get reworked, if not entirely tossed out the window:  “Want to go out on the boat this weekend?...Want to walk down to the marina?...Want to take a drive along the shore?...Lunch in Matunuck?”  Life is good when viewed on a salt marsh safari, or sitting at a raw oyster bar, or watching the breakers off Watch Hill, RI.  

After a funeral, we're likely to take a ride to the water.  After a hurricane, or any major storm, we definitely are! In the inevitable conflicts that arise in families, even in the greatest tension points we have ever had, a one-word question can defuse tempers and turn aside wrath: “Boatride?” 

In large part, all because of my father.   

Thanks, Dad.  This one’s for you.