On Fathering - for Vermont Public Radio

For more than thirty years, I’ve had a kid at home – the last one leaves for UVM this fall – and I am starting to wonder if I will, in fact, begin to ask myself what I’ve been doing all this time.

We get into fatherhood for obvious reasons, probably related to the nesting instinct. Every year I watch the swallows on our porch as they nest. They begin with a fury, bringing the bits and pieces of straw and mud to exactly the same spot where we’ve previously knocked out their nests after the birds flew away. We watch the babies hatch, see them go, and wonder how they all made out. Are they the same ones who return the next year with more straw and mud?

Are we, like them, condemned to repeat this cycle?

In my classes at Middlebury College, I often talk about the word generation. In his poem “Jerusalem,” William Blake, the great English poet, wrote: “O holy generation, image of regeneration.” He was thinking of generation in its root sense, traced back to Greek and Latin, where “gens” means people. Hence, genealogy, gender, genocide, progeny, and – of course -- genitals.

Probably Father’s Day and Mother’s Day should fall on the same day, as it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Generation requires a mix of genders, male and female, unless we ramp up our efforts to clone human beings, and I’m not seeing that as something near to hand, but who knows?

In the meantime, as I think about the work I’ve done as a father, I look for an example to the person nearest at hand, my own father, who died over a decades ago.

Leo Parini was born from Italian immigrants, one of five children: Nello, Leo, Antonio, Julio, and Geno: what in poetry we might call a rhyming quintet. Then again, in Italian, even the phone book rhymes.

Leo left school early, to help support the family. He eventually made his way through a succession of odd jobs – bean pickers, gas station attendant, roller skate repairman, and so forth – to become, in later life, a Baptist minister, leaving his Roman Catholic origins behind. He was a kind and gentle man: that word gentle has root-associations with the word gens as well.

One hopes, sometimes, that the good things follow the generations, and that gentleness survives – from grandfathers and fathers to children, on and on. I often think of some lines from the poem “April Inventory” by W.D. Snodgrass, about the passing of seasons and lives. In the last marvelous stanza, he writes: “Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives, / We shall afford our costly season; / There is a gentleness survives / That will outspeak and has its reasons.”

This year, that’s my only Father’s Day wish: that a gentleness survives, from generation to generation.

- "On Fathering" originally aired 06/07/13 on Vermont Public Radio .  See the commentary at vpr.net.


Iraq Anniversary - for Vermont Public Radio

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I was in Egypt and Jordan, giving some talks on American literature at the behest of the U.S. State Department. The idea was for American writers to meet with students and other writers from the Middle East - a form of cultural diplomacy that seemed, at least to me, a good way to promote serious conversations, especially at a time when American bombs were falling nearby on Iraqi civilians - not a particularly useful way to promote ties between people. 

While in Amman, I was introduced to an army general who had spent a good deal of time in the region, and he was heading to Iraq the next week. I remember our conversation vividly. I asked him where Iraq would be in ten years, and he said: "Well, for a start, we'll be long gone from the region. American troops will have been pulled out because this war is going to prove unpopular and wildly expensive, and it will have a very negative effect on the U.S. economy. Second, the Shiite majority will have taken control in Iraq, and they will largely be directed by Iran, their Shiite cousins. The fight between the Sunnis and the Shiites will continue, as only Saddam Hussein, using brutality, could have kept this country together. I don't see that the US will have gained anything but an enemy in the region. On top of which, millions of refugees will have left Iraq for safer places." 

Now, ten years later, I often think back to this chance conversation. It was spot on, and the situation in Iraq is possibly even worse than the general predicted. Every week there are bombings, usually in Shiite neighborhoods, and Al Qaida, once barely present in Iraq, has found a footing there. The cost in Iraqi lives has been staggering - more than a hundred thousand dead, and many more wounded. Most communities still lack basic infrastructure and services, such as water and electricity. 

And with Nouri al-Malaki in charge, American-Iraqi relations are strained - to put it mildly. The Shiite strongman supports the Syrian dictatorship and has allied himself with Iran. Ned Parker and Raheem Salman - two longtime Middle Eastern correspondents - have written in the World Policy Journal that "...the reign of Maliki is an object lesson to other nascent Islamist leaders across the Middle East of how to consolidate one's rule from the rubble of a toppled state." 

Calculating the cost to the American public in actual tax dollars is even more problematic. Millions in no-bid contracts were awarded to civilian companies like Blackwater - and it's impossible to calculate the effects this conflict has had - and will continue to have - on members of our military and their families. One way or another, we'll be paying for this war for decades to come. 

Given this moment of retrospective, it's hard to imagine that anyone could ever again choose war as a rational or moral option. One can make a compelling argument that events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq simply make difficult matters worse. 

- "Iraq Anniversary" originally aired 03/26/13 on Vermont Public Radio .  See the commentary at vpr.net.


Cultivate Leisure - for Vermont Public Radio

The word essay has associations. By etymology, it has French roots in the term "essai" from "essayer" - meaning "an attempt." The great essayist was, of course, Montaigne, who would take up a general subject, such as friendship or the education of children; but the topic at hand was a starting point. He went off into the deep woods of reflection by himself, unsure of his destination, stopping to smell the flowers or sit quietly by the banks of a stream. He claimed he would write "for the private benefit of friends and kinsmen," and that his essays would reflect "some traits of my character and my humours." 

His so-called "humours" were his moods, and he moved through a range of these, being sometimes gentle and charming, other times fierce and testy. "I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself," he wrote. 

We all have a variety of monsters and miracles residing in our heads. And it's good sometimes to allow them room to wander, especially on Sunday, which is, for many, the Sabbath. In Genesis we read: "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." 

The tradition begins with the Judaic concept of Shavath - a day set aside from the others, when meals are elaborate and slowly savored, when poetry and music are enjoyed, when families gather to tell stories. It's also a day of reflection, which includes prayer and meditation, a celebration of the spirit. It's not that Israel has kept Shavath, as the saying goes, but that Shavath has kept Israel. 

Life in the modern world often doesn't allow much opportunity for meditation, let alone deep and self-reflective thought. We're just too busy, living life at a pace our ancestors would not have believed. 

I have to remind myself to keep the Sabbath, as it takes reminding. Many years ago, as a young professor and writer, with a growing family and obligations that seemed endless, I found myself unable to write. I went to my old friend and mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren, who is buried in West Wardsboro. Red and I often took a long hike on Sunday afternoons up the back side of Mount Stratton. I remember him stopping dead in his tracks one day, putting a hand on my shoulder, and saying: "Cultivate leisure." 

I didn't understand what he meant, but I do now. One needs to set aside time to cultivate ease, to reflect, to savor life's genuine pleasures, to wander without an obvious destination. That might take place in a synagogue or a church. We might find it on a trail up the mountain. But wherever we're headed on this Sunday morning, the critical thing is that we continue to search, to open ourselves to the wonders that lie all around us, even deep within.

- "Cultivate Leisure" originally aired 03/03/13 on Vermont Public RadioFind the commentary here.