As Father's Day approaches, I am reminded yet again that I grew up without a dad and how difficult that has been. Each year, Father's Day has been a reminder to me of all that I missed. This year, however, will be different. As a forty-two year old man, I will celebrate my relationship to the men I have come to know through the men's movement. This year, I will pay homage to those who have mentored and guided me, who gave me their shoulders to lean on; they fathered me and brothered me, and introduced me to the men's work that has helped me recover and move on.
My parents split up before I was born and I was raised by my mother, a government secretary, along with my three sisters in the Riggs Park section of northeast D.C. Throughout my childhood, I saw my father a half dozen times, and then only for the few minutes when he would appear to hand my mother an intermittent alimony and child support payment. In my young child's way, I wrote often to him, pleading with him to come back. He never answered my letters. Amazingly, my mother never consciously tried to make me dislike my father. Her willingness to see the best side of things has helped me to persevere, through occasional calls and visits, to try and get to know my father.
It left me with a sad vacancy that he had shared so little of his life. He never appeared to be a mean person. I constantly ruminated on who he was and why we were separated: "He must have left because I was one child too many," was one. Another was, "Dad can't stand relatives." I made countless drawings of how I imagined my father fighting in WWII and Korea. Sometimes I wished he had died in the war so that I could draw some plausible conclusion.
Only when I had grown up did I learn from other people that he had been the army inspector general for those MASH units that the Korean War period TV show was about. He designed a complete dental office that fit in the back of a truck, so that even the soldiers in the front lines could be seen by a dentist. A distant relative sent me a magazine article about his success as a bridge player.
I did not do well with the few male teachers I had all the way through school. I witnessed my high school P.E. teacher strike a boy hard, shoving his head into a tile wall for not responding to an order fast enough. The music teacher was unpredictable as to whether he would praise or chastise you in front of the class. These men terrified me and I felt their scorn for my not being so eager to trust them. I often found myself crossing the unspoken boundaries of maleness. I was much more comfortable playing with the girls during free time. When other boys threatened me, I refused to fight with them (which to my surprise, only made them angrier rather than feel victorious).
While out dancing with friends in college, I wondered at how men and women could hug each other, even where no sexual relationship existed, or was necessarily desired. The women did the same between themselves, but none of the men hugged another man. I decided that if hugging was about affection, not sex, I was going to start hugging the men, too.
I spent my twenties and thirties as an artist, struggling through my paintings to make sense of my father's abandonment. In one work, painted in furtive cross-hatched strokes, I depicted myself with outstretched arms and legs running across a barren landscape. My figure, like the painful longing I had in those days, fills the whole foreground, my head is turned to see my father descending a hill towards me. Like some prehistoric cave painter, I hoped that by means of capturing my desire for reconciliation with my father on canvas, the event itself would certainly come true. In parallel, my early adult years were filled with bouncing from one unrewarding job to another just to get by, and a succession of relationships with women who feared my neediness. Maybe the proviso deep down was, if I could make those impossible situations work, I had a chance to get the really impossible thing I wanted, the love and approval of my father.
By being a working artist I began to live in the world of men who I had more in common with. I shared my first apartment with Jon, a folk musician two years younger than me, who became the brother I never had. He had a wonderful way of never letting a dispute come between us. He always hung in there with me until it was settled. Jon shared all his secrets and was interested in mine, reassuring me when I became depressed or had a hard time understanding him. He would pose for me while playing his mandolin. In these gentle ways, he helped me begin to overcome my fear of being unacceptable to my fellow man.
It was with Jon's encouragement that I began to see a therapist. After many years of treatment I came to understand my father had not rejected me, but that he was a damaged person incapable of demonstrating affection and to whom deep communication and commitment was just too painful. This framework for his actions did not take away the pain I felt. How he got to be this way, I will most likely never know. Somewhere along the line something happened to him that made the price of intimacy too expensive. Despite my many attempts at appealing to him through his interests, such as playing bridge and his army days, he still refused to let down his guard with me. Our relationship remained entirely on his terms.
Towards the end of my therapy, my psychologist encouraged me to get involved with the men's movement as a means of bringing more active, positive relationships with older men into my life. She told me that I did not have to be trapped in the "emotional disability" that my father had imparted to me. I could go on to experience manhood as both powerful and warm. I was still skeptical that I could find many men as thoroughly insightful and caring as her, but my need out-weighed the risk of disappointment.
With curiosity I accepted a new friend's invitation to go with him to the Buffalo Gap Men's Retreat on Columbus Day weekend. Having sent in our $140 fees to the Men's Council of Washington, the non-profit sponsor, we drove through the stunningly beautiful autumn landscape, and arrived in Capon Bridge, West Virginia, two hours west of D.C. The schedule of workshops and events began that evening with a greeting ritual. All one-hundred and fifty-plus participants formed a circle in order of age. Each man greeted those older than himself, and then took his place to be greeted by his youngers. The greeting varied from eye contact, or hugs to a touch of the hand on the heart. The youngers acknowledged with deep respect the elders and the elders gave their blessing. I gave and received from my elders the warm and encouraging hugs I have never gotten from my father.
Men of all ages, boys and teenagers, too, were there. Other married men, singles, gays, blue collar workers from central Virginia, the lawyers and doctors from Bethesda, clerics and clinical social workers, men in the military, blacks and whites from the shy to the effusive, engaged each other with compassion and concern. I even saw an artist from D.C. I knew. This was not so easy for me. I kept thinking, "If only I could have had something like this ten, twenty years before, how less complex getting to know men would have been by now." I found out as the retreat progressed that this was a new experience for many of us.
The next morning, I walked up an open field and into a grove of cedars where the "Finding Your Inner Voice" workshop had already begun. The leader smiled as he welcomed me to join the others. His chopped salt and pepper hair and thin crinkled face beamed a reassuring blend of concern and delight. "Try just singing your name, any old way," he drawled with a soft gravelly pitch. One guy in casual dress slacks and penny-loafers and another with no clothes on at all were laughing at themselves as they each came up with very original tunes. By the end of the workshop I felt an unstoppable grin spread across my face as all our voices came together as one, under our leader's tutelage.
The sweat lodge, an introduction to the Lakota ritual of purification, was probably the most popular activity. The steam-filled tent made of old blankets and bits of blue plastic tarpaulin was tightly packed with sweating bodies in bathing suits, in bathrobes or just plain naked. It was a much more solemn affair than I expected, with the ritual leader or "water pourer" quite strict and the heat difficult to stand. When some of the men started to spontaneously hum or "om", he gave the crowd an extended lecture on how, "you shouldn't mix medicines," I am sure he was right given the tradition he was representing, but he reminded me too much of a rule-bound father. With absolutely no light, save for glow of the hot rocks in a central pit, I could not see the leader that I then chose to have some words with. Months later I called an acquaintance I had not seen since college, whose name I saw on the list of participants. Upon asking why I had not recognized him anywhere, he said that all he did at Buffalo Gap was run the sweat lodge. "So your the guy that was so pedantic," I chided. "So your the jerk who argued with me!" he responded. We had a laugh and agreed to disagree.
As a sometime conga drummer, I enjoyed more the drumming sessions in the open pavilion, and the chance for rhythmic union with drummers far better than I.
Over the course of the weekend, I listened to other men's stories, especially those who had been to Buffalo Gap before. An older man, from Richmond, told me, "When I go into my feelings here, I'm not rejected or made fun of. Everyone listens in accepting silence, not trying to block me because of their own fears. You get respect for what you have to say." A middle-aged man from Takoma Park spoke to me of his need to "face my fear of all that I have missed by not showing up for life." I felt honored to share in such a revelation, and wished that my father would acknowledge such thoughts.
That evening, with mugs of hot coffee in hand, the friend who I had come with and I walked outside the camp and up the hill and into the woods that surrounded us, to get a better view of the bonfire ritual below, the final event of the weekend. From this darkened height I could see the thirty-foot flames illuminating the large swirl of men dancing and skipping counterclockwise around its base. Their arms swinging wildly about, all seeming to scream in unison some sort of guttural chant. These are the things that make some people I have met or seen in the media say are weird or silly. I found this event to be a passionate culmination of newly-forged bonds.The strange song the mass of men were emoting was mournful of our losses, but it was also exulting in our liberation. Many shook rattles that they had made at the "Ritual Object Workshop." Some wore the fierce beaked masks they had painted with blotches of red, yellow and black and festooned with feathers and bits of stone for teeth. The drumming echoed up to us in waves that alternately droned and thundered on and on. "Go forth and make a joyful noise unto the lord" came to my mind, as I went down to join them.
By Sunday, I could see clearly what happens when we men gathered to put aside what status we possessed in the world, and joined to help each other's personal growth and spiritual development. It was a great relief to find meaningful commonality and friendship in an environment free of the drinking, bars and sports triad that so typifies most American men's sense of camaraderie. I needed a more thoughtful environment for my male bonding.
As the music and reverie was replaced by the sound of guys packing their belongings, I wondered what changes of spirit we would take home with us. I sauntered down to the site of the still smoldering ashes of the bonfire. A few of the younger men and teenagers were still milling about, poking at the embers with long sticks. None of them wanted to leave.
At Buffalo Gap and in the subsequent monthly Men's Council meetings I joined back in D.C., I found that thoughtful environment. I listened to the stories other men told about their dads, and that many of those at-home-dads were as emotionally removed as mine. Their stories made me feel lucky. I had already overcome some of my earlier hurdles, had managed to meet and marry the woman of my dreams, to sustain a successful marriage and to build a second career for myself doing home repairs.
My journey--transforming my life--is not over yet, . But I have found the means to continue the process.By being involved with the men's movement I have found a place to get some of what I can not get from my father, to dissipate the anger and ambivalence I feel toward him, and to better accept the limitations he places on our relationship. Recently, he called and asked me to do up a genealogy chart for his side of the family. I will be bringing it out when I go to visit later this year. I doubt that we will have the heart-to-heart talk I have always wanted, but regardless of his response, I know it is okay for me to want it. At least I have achieved getting him to like trading hugs with me. I can now take joy in some of the ways that I am like him: the sound of my voice, the way I use my hands, the wrinkles that are forming on my face. I have freed myself to move on to be mentored by older men, and to father those who are younger and in need.
Used with permission of author (Thank you so very much, Donald)
This article was originally published in The Washington Post
on Father's Day, June 16, 1996. It is also published on MenWeb.org.
You can reach Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See Donald's wonderful art he created for the Traveling Artist Wildflowers Project.