Walking into the house of fathers means beginning in questions and entering into mysteries.
Questions abound about our “real fathers”. At the root our fathers connect us to a mysterious spark that flared between ancestors and two living people when we were conceived in the world. After that conception, walls stand between father and the child to be.
When an infant comes struggling from the warm body of the mother it begins to fall into the expanse of air and light and the world of innumerable things. And the infant falls into a realm of questions: Is it a girl or a boy? Is it okay? Is everything intact? What’s its name? The child is leaving mother, falling in questions toward father.
Before the umbilical is cut, questions surround the newborn. Cutting the tie to mother increases the uncertainties that attend new life and begin shaping of that life from outside. Father may be in the hands that catch that child and ease the fall, or nearby in eyes that alertly watch the entrance to this life; but father may be kept back, too, by custom or fear. The father may be in question himself: Where is he? Is the father here? Who is the father? Is the father known?
Whether in the hands waiting or long gone, the father inevitably brings distance to the child’s world.
He is somewhere beyond the falling, reaching, calling of the child. And later, whether the father moves closer through the efforts of love or disappears in some struggle, he will always be present in the distance between one thing and another.
So father must be sought in the world, in the wind between things, in whatever separates and distinguishes, in questions that penetrate the past, and in “distant footsteps” that we inevitably follow, not knowing where. Even in his own home a father presents a mystery, as the American poet Robert Bly writes:
“His two-story house he turned into a forest, where both he and I are the hunters.”
We are ALWAYS hunting SOMETHING of our father’s, and he’s hunting too, and we’re sure we’ll know more of ourselves if we can get to him.
Father is absent even in his own house.
Somehow the father must be reached, touched. And we must be touched by him to fully enter life, to feel held in the world and separate from mother.
In some “primitive” tribes of the Americas, the child was not fully born until held by father overnight, sleeping against his skin and bathed in his sweat. The child is not fully born, except by laboring and milk-giving by mother and stopping of work and giving of sweat by father.
Seeking that touch, that blessing from father can cause us to be as passive as an infant, or as eager for risk as a youth with a burning question. We will seek it in whatever gentleness we can find—in the tangle of his hair, the stare of his eye, the nod of his head, the strength of his hands upholding us.
But we will also endure the weight of his hand, the wreck of his rage, and bitter ring of his words to learn his touch. And the father risks too, risks turning into an old Titan, a Kronos-Saturn giant who fears the touch of children and so eats them.
As the poet Sharon Olds says:
“…no one knew my father was eating his children…and yet as he lay snoring…our lives slowly disappeared down the hole of his life.”
Something in every father is Titanic, ancient and huge as a cave or the depth of the sea. Something ancient awakens in a man who has become a father. Something that comes from those old Titans at the beginning of time. There’s some of Prometheus in a father that again and again will steal fire from the “blue black cold” and warm the rooms of family and culture. There’s some of Atlas there too, as new fathers heft great works and plan ideal futures for child and family.
Also activated deep in the psychic roots are the titanic forces of the brooding underworld. And Kronos, with his will to devour everything. The Titans, once defeated, were pushed down into Tartaros and forced behind an iron wall and beneath the roots of earth and sea. Becoming a father opens the iron gates, and the Titans awaken and come striding up carrying our inheritance from the Iron Age.
The father of the Titans was Ouranus, the Father of fathers. He is the disappearing sky god who mated with great Gaia Earth. That started the whole thing. When Ouranus awakens, father disappears behind newspaper walls, floats off like a cloud of “ask your mother”, or smolders in silence like a sky withholding a storm. Ascending like Ouranus, the human father rises above Titanic errors of fatherhood. Instead of heavy-handedness and the sweat of mistakes made, the absent father offers disappearing acts and clouds of uncertainty.
Father now has become a distant god, a Holy Ghost that keeps everything mysterious and hidden behnd vague generalities, or single-minded endeavors or metallis silences that haunt a child’s entire life. The twentieth century…and now the twenty-first…have birthed great broods of children trying to reach him as “…father moves faster and farther ahead”.
Each one returning to the house of the father must go through the door of uncertainty; who can foresee what knocking on the iron gate will call up?
Once again will he be unreachable? Not really home? Or waiting, willing to sweat out the truths? Or will Saturn answer the call with a raging appetite that crushes the bones of children, steps on their hopes, eats through their ambitions with acid criticism, and slams the gate shut again?
This time will my own anger and resentment diminish, and I’ll find him in a room making fires “with cracked hands that ached from labor in weekday weather”; find him “steering through the vicious seas of bitter times”; find him attending some mystery I didn’t know, didn’t guess at; fin him decently attending funerals; find him among “the race of fathers: Earth and Air and Sea.”