Since this is the month where we in the United States celebrate Father’s Day, I want to begin June thinking about fathers. Reading with My Father chronicles some of my engagements with my father’s memory through books, sometimes songs, fashion, and films. Throughout this month, I want to think generally about the idea of fatherhood in U.S. culture. Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” offers an eloquent way to begin.
The poem is told through the voice of a man coming to terms with himself over what he couldn’t or didn’t understand about a father’s love when he was merely a boy. His father never experienced relief from working, as on Sundays he “too” continued his labors. What made Sundays different, despite that he remained unprotected from the elements, especially the cold, is that he worked through it to make warmth for his own family to enjoy. The father’s habits are similar to Troy Maxson’s, the complicated father that August Wilson crafts in Fences, whose deeply held principle that he owed “a responsibility” to his son at least drives him to work through the humiliations of his work for the sanitation department. In Hayden’s poem, the father endures the cold until the warmth set in, protecting his son from having to tolerate its bitterness. The father’s sacrifice reveals his thoughtfulness and his sense of compassion. Looking back on his father’s efforts, the son realized the gifts of sacrifice and kindness that he once overlooked. Chastising himself so as to forgive himself, the son realizes that he had not recognized love as a series of seemingly plain and spartan acts. “Austere,” with its suggestion of cold, solemn, sternness does not usually cling to our expectations of how love behaves or performs.The poem makes you wonder how much unrecognized love we’ve known. What does it actually mean to know a thing that you do not recognize?
It’s interesting to think about what work needs to occur to make this kind of love–plain, austere love– visible; to imagine what it has to cut through. I remember feeling struck by the recognition of mis-seeing love when I first saw Jean-Marc Bouju’s 2003 World Press Award winning photograph of a hooded Iraqi prisoner comforting his son:
The text accompanying the photograph described the soldier’s compassion towards the man and his son; I had missed that. I was too overwhelmed by the father’s grim, black hood and the spiky wire to notice anything more. Eventually, love came into focus. I saw that despite how frightening I found the father’s appearance, the child was clearly comforted by him. He gives in to his father’s body and allows himself to be held. I imagine the same American soldier who cut the plastic handcuffs also neatly placed the boy’s shoes beyond him. Thus, instead of seeing the photograph as a chronicle of what was not done to make the scenario more palatable, I began to see and appreciate the traces of humanity that were to be found.
Whether fighting through Hayden’s cold or through the barbed fences surrounding the arid desert that Bouju forces us to peer through, there is work involved in coming to recognize love, which is unexpected. I think we expect to easily recognize love because we think of it as a noun and not a verb. Erich Fromm writes about this in at least two places, To Have or To Be as well as in The Art of Loving. In brief, love conceived as a noun considers it as a possession, something that you have. Love, Fromm insists, is not a thing, but an activity:
“a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. (To Have or To Be, 19)
Hayden’s self-questioning and self-admonishing narrator raises the question of how we come to learn to recognize “love’s austere and lonely offices” by coming to perceive an experience. It is what the narrator does when he sees his father’s efforts to warm the house, polish the shoes, and wait for the cold to dissipate as love. His father gave him the experience of warmth but the child was too distracted by his father’s sternness and solemnity to appreciate these expressions of love. Thus, there is a caution raised in the poem against overlooking the value of pared-down, quiet expressions of profound feeling. The work suggests that raising children with a greater sense of the scope and the magnitude of love in their lives might just involve teaching them to see love through both the eloquence and the mechanics of austerity.