From my earliest memory I can recall sitting on my Dad’s knee; balanced and perched with my elbows rested on our kitchen table. Sometimes he would bounce me up and down with his right hand on my shoulder or on my back. With his left hand he’d nurse his cup of black coffee with a smoking Camel (or Lucky Strike) between two fingers. We would look at his racing form or boxing news, as he answered my childish questions about work, mother, aunts, bicycles, animals, trees, uncles and grandmothers. In the springtime he’d point to the robins perched in the tree outside the kitchen window of our second-floor, shabby Victorian flat. My mother refilled his coffee mug and he snuffed out one Camel and went for another. Most of what I learned about father’s love was while perched on his knee. When I was seven, I inherited the chair to his right at our kitchen table. My younger sister had his knee, his lap, his arms and his kisses. One day, on his knee, after a sip of coffee and lighting up another cigarette; when the fumes of sulphur match and a Lucky Strike, distorted her face and made her jump. “Daddy, why do you smoke those awful things?” That day he took my sister in his arms and vowed to never smoke again. And, no more coffee. No more beer. No more whisky. No more craps, no more cussing, no more poker, no more races. No more time, either, for me on my Dad’s knee. He taught me how to ride a bike, how to use hand tools and gardening tools, how to wash and wax a car, how to tune up a Chevy in-line six, how to change a tire and how to treat a woman. From the day he quit cigs, java and booze there were no more arms around me or hands on my shoulder. Pointing fingers and working hands. Arms were for hefting, hands were for tools, legs for lifting. Still, I loved being at his side whenever the chance. He taught me to drive, he taught me to shoot. How to whittle, how to “be a man”, how to brag, how to be humble. But never how to swing a bat, throw a ball, or catch a fish. He taught me how to show love, but never how to say it. He taught me how to shake hands, but not how to hug or embrace. Until I was nineteen, leaving home. He hugged me for the first and the last time, ever in my life. Twenty-three months later he died in a car crash on Thanksgiving Day. Two days later, I held his hard-working, calloused, cold dead hands, for the first and last time.
His brand new birthday gift. Three-wheel, bright-red tricyle with streamers from the handle-grips. Sat rusting outside in the November rain. Where he left it; where he wasn’t supposed to. His chin on the windowsill, he looked through the foggy pane of window glass. Fog on the inside from pressing his nose against the window. Cold drops of rain on the outside. Spattering, streaming, obscuring his view. Through the window. Along with the fog of his breath. Along with the tears in his eyes. In his short life, he had never had anything “brand new”. Hand-me-down clothes. Not-quite-new shoes. From cousins, the church, or Goodwill. Daddy told him not to leave it outside. The rain might come. And, if it got rained on, it could get rusty and worn-out. He wasn’t sure what “rusty” or “worn-out” meant. He was afraid of finding out. So he watched through the rain spattering on the window. Watched, as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Watched as he hoped. And even prayed that God would keep his new trike from rusting away. Prayed that his Dad would not take it away. When he got home from work in 22 more minutes. Would the rain stop by then?
December 8, 2014
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.”
Jesus on the guard tower watching
Drunken predator-poets on the porch
Saw Eddie lose his teeth the night before
A real three-legged dog night.
Walking Willie stumbles into the corral
Heading to blow up the arsenal
Diablo Woman watches the front gate
Her hands kneading arsenic into bread
Intoxicated, street-walking whore
Feels a bite taken out of her ass
Then gives herself out of love for money
On her way to Canadian Margaritas happy hour.
Bombs exploding in churches and cathedrals
The retired virgin Magdalena shuttles diplomacy
Between El Capitan Morgan and La Flor de Cana
While the Holy Spirit feels up her chalice.
Over the agua de Lago Nicaragua
White caps slap against ship’s bow
All contraband donated to la policia nacionales
To the isle of fucked-up poems and transvestite kisses
Wake up to chickens scratching on the floor
Under the bed, hiding from la senora’s stew pot
Teenaged cock crowing the instant coffee blues
Another day in Cordoba’s paradise.
Walking Willie heads for Taguizapa Beach
Eddie, now steady, with extricated chompers
We head into la brezas down by la playa
Through banana jungles and mango hideouts
Fishing families steal dinner from the sea
Steady Eddie claps to Walking Willie’s ay-yi-yi-yi
While a 50’s squeezebox screeches us tunes
From Old Mexico, Nicaragua and Memphis, Tennessee.
Under the roof of Ometepe’s 800-year old tree
We feel the energy of ancient warrior blood
Spilled upon the soil of the slopes of Concepcion
Weapons, bones, armor and teeth washed away to sea.
Walking Willie moves, or, he stumbles away
“Mas cerveza, senorita. But first I must pee.”
Into the shade he shuffles watering aged roots of our giant tree.
Then a final toast before we depart:
“Slainte y saludo,To the Father, His Son and their Holy Ghosts”.
Baseball players, papas and school girls along
With mamas and babies, curb painters and drunkards
Line the streets to celebrate sixty-nine positions of the cross
And Marys with Jesus, sipping cups of wine, return our salute.
“El Diablo, you say? By now you are his, so watch us depart.”
Mounted on steel steeds we are off to explore
Volcanoes and beaches, pool halls and cantinas
Rocky roads, lava beds, old stables with light bulbs and mattresses
Scorpions and bull frogs under the tropical moonlight.
Three worn out Mounties trying to ride three worn out nags
Made it to pool halls, tranny bars, gay bars, pot farms and beach bars
Banged up, scraped up, dented and bent
Who could tell? Who could see? Which were the wrecks?
The wind blew, the waves crashed. Managua fat cats
Lost their minds to rum, their boat to the volcanic seas.
The Red Planet spied upon Earhlings hiding their sins
In the light of a Blood Moon warmed by Maderas’ fire.
Snoring, farting, belching, talking awake and asleep
Memories, dreams, visions of ex-wives, lost loves
The insanities of regrets, remorse and countless broken hearts
Collided with violence, like molten lava into the surf.
Willie walked free, Eddie laughed steady, Serious held Quiet.
Howling monkeys, crowing cocks, barking dogs and dead fish
Filled our ears and our bellies. Wind in our hair,
sand in our eyes, bugs in our teeth, sun burned our skin.
Sun up. Rosy, wispy dawn. Smoking, gurgling, burping volcano.
Placid lake, gentle breeze on the pirate’s cove.
Fishermen up firstlight; rowing boats, dragging nets.
Breakfast from the waterOur pick from their net.
Still, instant coffee blues.
Walking Willie, Moto-Willie, Jabber Willie, Rummy Willie
Went for a swim in the waters next door to his place
With ten macheteed, ten rock throwing, ten cursing
and one rifled Indian after his hide and satchel of deeds.
The road to Walking Willie’s lakeside farm is rocky and gritty
The land is most beautiful, the lake is most calm
But the people are on fire with lust for his blood
The air riddled with bullets, we make our retreat
William Walker and His Immortals live to fight one more day.
Cerveza in the shade to celebrate our escape
Infatuated, intoxicated, fabricated, decimated, emaciated
Souls moving from beach to valleys to mountains to craters
Excursions into debauchery on motorcycles with Che.
Awaiting us at the dock, Che Guevara’s own ferry
Sailing, rocking, rolling and carrying us back to the
Land of not-so-normal.
Eddie steady with beers and the broads
Willie into the wheelhouse and dons the hat of his
(A poem, by Steven Lindsey, inspired by my recent trip to Ometepe Island, in Lake Niacaragua…with William (Will/Willie) Hape and Gene (Eddie Munster) Price; April 10th-18th, 2014…leaving by ferry from Puerto de Granada and returning to Puerto de San Jorge).
days of warm sun
nights of crystal clarity.
As you had learned,
year after year, before…
it was time to prepare
for winter’s stormy nights.
Before we met
you knew the fence
was dry and in need of
cleaning and staining.
A few repairs,
a nail or two,
here and there.
The fence encircled your house,
embraced your garden,
provided sanctuary for
cats and dog,
and had held
the girls close through
years now passed.
Ir promised safety and privacy, too,
for little dippers, baby swmmers
in the living, teaching waters
of your backyard pool.
Moms and Dads, Grandfolks,
brothers, sisters of pupils
would sit in the shae and
lean against the warmth of
that cedar fence.
Backyard fence, patio fence,
swimming pool fence, garden fence…
Gates to the future, gates of home,
gates to summer barbeques,
birthday and pool parties,
encircling and holding the
celebrations of life.
Standing guard over the
events of our lives.
Weathered, faded, exposed to the sun,
you knew it needed care before the
onsloughts of autumn and winter weather.
You didn’t ask, nor expect
help in the task you planned.
You knew enough brush strokes
applied, over and over again;
perhaps, taking days, would
penetrate the wood with new
life and strength.
“Let me help you”, I said.
“It’ll be fun, like Tom Sawyer
and Huck Finn. We’ll become friends.
Working together, we’ll talk
of our lives. Get to know
one another. Who knows
where it’ll end?”
So we cleaned and we brushed,
washed away dust and old paint,
as we talked and laughed and
shared from our hearts.
You told me of playhouses, swings,
sandboxes and toys
that had all been within
the holds of that fence.
Around your garden we moved
and took greatest care to
protect all you had planted
and nurtured that year…
We moved together form place
to place, with buckets and rollers,
brushes and hammer.
We explored past years
of growth and some sorrow,
in our separate lives that
within the fence that held
and the gates that opened
to our life that began, together.
Made clean, repaired, mended
Once we were finished,
our mutural journey began…
as we walked through the gate.
Pleasant Hill, California: October 1995
Shared with me by my good friend, Max Lafser (Unity minister, Walnut Creek, California Unity Church).
May I be at peace.
May my heart remain open.
May I awaken to the light of my own true nature.
May I be healed.
May I be a source of healing for all beings.
May you be at peace.
May your heart remain open.
May you awaken to the light of your own true nature.
May you be healed.
May you be a source of healing for all beings.
After walking several miles,
I take my rest and sit
in the shade of a pepper tree.
I wait on you, thinking of what to say,
and no that for evermore
I can only speak the truth of my heart.
For months now, I haven’t seen your face
with my own eyes.
Yet, I hold your vision in my heart
and feel your words pass through my mind.
If I had only heard your words
before; and let them pierce my heart,
and had chosen to see all you knew
I should see.
Then, perhaps, we’d hold hands
under this pepper tree;
instead of wrestling for some
restoration of sanity.
August 24, 2003; Benicia, California
February 28, 2014; under a mango tree in Granada, Nicaragua