Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Fatherless Days

In memory of Franz Wright.

Father's Day is easy for me: I have none.  They all left.

So I don't have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer.  I don't have to make the clichéd choice between necktie or power tool.  I don't have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver.  ("I don't have to," of course, is it's own sort of spin, papering over the "I don't get to" buried beneath it.)

So Father's Day is easy for me.

It's the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

When I was 12 years old, my father divulged his affair with my mother's best friend.  He promptly kicked me, my brother, and my mother out of the house and moved in his mistress, her children taking over our bedrooms.  We moved to a different town and saw him only a handful of times after that.  The encounters I remember were abusive and terrifying.  The last time I laid eyes on him was when our oldest son was born.  That was almost twenty-three years ago.

My mother remarried.  Her husband was the male presence in my life during my teen years, a mostly spiteful, antagonistic father-substitute.  But I'd take what I could get.

He left too.

In many ways, I've been a father longer than I've been a son.  While I make no claims of being either good or exemplary, the most sacred call I'm trying to answer in my life is to be a faithful husband and father.  I've spent every ounce of psychic energy I have to try and make sure that Father's Day is never "easy" for my kids by simply showing, on every other day: "I'm still here."

I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere because I don't want to miss a thing.  I don't want to miss you wearing a cape and rubber boots to the grocery store, or the first time you got an earring (which we did together!), or watching you meander toward finding who you're called to be, or seeing you blossom into the very image of your mother.  I don't even want to miss the disappointments and darkest moments because I can't imagine how difficult it must be to endure those without a father.  Or rather, I can, which is why I can't imagine how my own father could let that happen and why I promise I'll still be here.

I'm still here even on the days that I blow it and exasperate you.  I'm still here on the days I have to tell you, "I'm sorry."  I'm still here even on those days when it seems like I'm a million miles away, distant and detached and aloof because I'm haunted by the overwhelming absence of my father who has torn a hole in my life. Like Keats' "negative capability," this is the sort of absence that is a presence, a hole that takes up space and eats you alive.  It's an absence that makes it difficult to sometimes be present to others, even when you're in the same room.  It's this distance that Franz Wright finally named for me years ago, in a poem about the destructive presence of his own father who left.  As Wright puts it,

If I’m walking the streets of a citycovering every square inch of the continentall its lights outand empty of people,even thenyou are there 
If I’m walking the streetsoverwhelmed with this love for the living 
I will still be a blizzard at sea 
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely 
star-far from the person right next to me, but 
closer to me than my bones you 
you are there

I'll always be in the room and will ask you to forgive me.  It's just that I'm fathering without a father, working without a net, trying my damndest to pull off this acrobatic trick of not leaving. That's how I love you.

Thankfully, despite all these absences and departures, I have found a model and exemplar.  Or rather, I have been found by a model Father.  So there are no fatherless days because I have been found and adopted by a heavenly Father who promises to never leave me nor forsake me.  Indeed, I've been invited into the life of the triune God who embodies everything this deeply human heart of a son is longing for.  The God I worship is a Father who loves his Son, and who says what any and every son longs to hear:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV).
And I know that I am in his Son, I am his son.  I have spent a lifetime hoping to hear these words from my earthly fathers.  God only knows how much my frenetic, driven energies are still subconscious cries to be recognized by a father who left, who never asks, who has never come looking for me.  But the grace of the Gospel is to know that I am a son who is beloved.  It may be heretical, it may be indulgent, but one of my deepest eschatological longings is to be welcomed into the kingdom by the Son who shows me the Father (John 14:9), who will tousle my hair like a boy and simply say, "Good job. I'm proud of you."

All of this was stirred up for me this week by another poem, by Seamus Heaney, a masterful meditator on the relationship between fathers and sons.  His poem, "The Follower," stopped me in my tracks:

My father worked with a horse-plough,                             1
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing                                     5
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye                                        10
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back                                  15
Dipping and rising to his plod.


I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.                              20

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.


I never want Father's Day to be as "easy" for my kids as it has been for me.  Which is just a way of saying I don't want them to have to endure fatherless days.  I'm not going away.  But I'm not haunting them.  I don't want to burden them.  I'm cheering them on, ready to pick them up when they stumble. I want to be that net I never had, so they can acrobatically launch into their lives, confident in the love of a father loved by the Father that loves them, too.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Memoriam: Helen Piett

As many of you know, I don't come from a small "town;" I come from a small village.  Embro, Ontario had a population of just about 600 people when I was growing up, without even the one proverbial stoplight to slow down passers-through who would miss it if they blinked.  If you've read an Alice Munro story or a Robertson Davies novel--especially the Deptford trilogy--you'll have a pretty good sense of what it was like.   A lot of stiff-upper-lipped Scotsmen who coached hockey and spent Thursday nights at the lodge; a lot of salt-of-the-earth women who tolerated them and ran things from behind the scenes.  Within a block of each other was the Presbyterian church and a local United Church congregation, and the green between them was where I remember celebrating Embro's 125th anniversary in 1983.

I won't romanticize it.  No doubt it was a difficult place to be an outsider.  And when I was young, the stability of the place was already eroding: the culture of divorce and dislocation would eat away at a more ancient fabric.  But the village and surrounding rural township forged an identity in two primary nodes: the hockey arena and our rural school.

I am just old enough to remember the original arena: a green ramshackle driveshed of a building on Argyle Street--basically corrugated metal and a roof over what would otherwise be an outdoor rink.  It was here that I would take my first steps on the ice, though within a few years a new arena would be built on the other side of town, the local temple of Canadian religion.  For a significant swath of the community, life revolved around the arena.

But even more of us were bound together by the school.  All of us were bussed from miles around to a country school north of Embro: Zorra Highland Park, whose name signaled the Scottish heritage of the township ("Embro" is said to be a garbled form of the "Edinburgh").  My first teacher there in kindergarten also happened to be my great aunt, Helen Piett (née Smith).  I was terribly sad to learn that Aunt Helen died a few weeks ago, on November 22, 2014.  I feel like I owe her memory and legacy a word of thanks.

My first-hand memories of Aunt Helen are memories of "Mrs. Piett," my teacher.  Because it was a country school, we went to kindergarten all day, every other day, so I remember her getting us settled down for nap time in the afternoons.  "Get your mats, children"--cushy, ugly, brown naugahyde mats for sleeping on the floor.  I remember her comforting me and putting a band-aid on my hair after Darryl Fraser hip-checked me into one of the cubby-holes, sending me off with the principal to get stitches in Tavistock.  I remember how every year, for generations, she created silhouettes of each student's young profile by tracing the outline of our heads projected by the stark light of the filmstrip projector.  She would cut these out of black construction paper, mount them on stark white backdrops, label the name and date in her meticulous cursive hand, and then present them to the parents.  Often when I visited friends in their homes, these shadows of their younger selves adorned the walls like memories.

For reasons that are painful to discuss, I never really got to know Mrs. Piett as "Aunt Helen."  Those corrosive forces that fractured families hit my own, leaving estrangement and dysfunction in their wake.  The entire "Smith side" of my life disappeared behind the walls erected by divorce--walls that are invisible and yet also block our way.

But then just before we moved to the United States in 1995, somehow Aunt Helen got in touch with me and passed along what is now a treasure to me: a family history of The Maisley McWilliams in Canada, 1846-1939, with five supplements tracing the history up until 1994.  Little did I know that Aunt Helen was also the family historian.  Most significantly, she had written me into the history I thought I'd lost.  There was my name in this story.  And even more: there was my marriage to Deanna in that final supplement.  And there were my two sons, their births in 1992 and 1994 etched into this family tree.  While I thought this family had forgotten me, Aunt Helen hadn't.

And she didn't ever again.  Faithfully, every year, she would send our family a Christmas card with one of her lovely letters of reflection and gratitude.  And we would reciprocate, partly in gratitude, but mostly because she was the only set of arms reaching out to us from this lost side of my life.  In Children of Divorce, Andrew Root argues that divorce is traumatic because its effects are ontological: it rends our very being.  Aunt Helen was someone who was trying to keep me stitched together.

This week we received a letter from Aunt Helen's daughter, Marlene Matheson.  Its first line both pierced my heart and cheered my soul:

It is with sadness that I write this last 'Christmas' letter for Mom.  Mom will be spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I am grateful for the quiet, steady witness of saints like Aunt Helen.  Thank you, Aunt Helen, for the gift you gave our family: the gift of a history, a story, but also the model of one who longed for the Lord of history.  Enjoy your well-deserved rest in the country you've been looking for your whole life.  I can't wait to see you there.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Responding to a Common Critique of "Who's Afraid of Relativism?"

Eduardo Echeverria has published an article-length critical review of my book, Who's Afraid of Relativism?in the latest issue of the Calvin Theological Journal and the editors gave me an opportunity to respond.  I took them up on it, in part because Echeverria's serious engagement deserved a reply, but also because his critique reflects a common mis-reading of my project (of the sort you might see, for instance, in Philosophia Christi).

I've uploaded my response, "Echeverria's Protestant Epistemology: A Catholic Response," at Scrib and embedded it below.

One contextual note about a joke embedded in the title: Echeverria is a former Neocalvinist who converted to Roman Catholicism; I, on the other hand, am a Reformed Protestant.  Get it?


Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day Lament: A Poem

This "last Friday" of summer has a feel of Fall about it: we'll head to the first high school football game tonight with sweatshirts to guard against evening chill.  As I'm watching the kids on our street squeeze out the last dregs of summer, I'm reminded of how I approached Labor Day weekend as a child--which then reminded me of a poem I wrote several years ago.  It's probably not worth the light of day, but it might capture how some of us feel about the twilight of summer:

Labor Day Lament

When did Labor Day lose
its apocalyptic tenor? 
its doomsday connotation? 
its autumnal terror?

For a boy of twelve
Labor Day comes like a thief in the night,
with the sound of a dreaded trump
announcing the end of
catching crayfish and walnut fights—
as if the first day of school
was a recurring Armageddon.

For a boy of sixteen
Labor Day is the Day of Judgment,
the parousia that quashes
a summer of paramours—
when teasing bikinis and spaghetti straps
become draped in the wool of
Catholic school uniforms whose
scratchy discomfort enacts
a tartan penance.

For the young man at twenty-seven
Labor Day is lost in the blur
of cubicled time,
barely a blip in the whir of ambition
and the tribulation of his toil.

But at twilight
in the yard—
in the cemetery of his play—
in the gloaming of summer,
the smell of that adolescent dread
briefly hangs on the unkempt lawn
like neglected manna,
a tenuous revenant lurking
between tricycle and sandbox.

Its haunting no longer spooks
his responsible adult disenchanted soul.
Tuesday will be no Second Coming.
Apocalyptic is kids’ stuff.
We’re too busy slouching toward success.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sending our Daughter Off to College: A Guest Post by Deanna

Today we moved our daughter, our third child, into her dorm room at Calvin College.  It was everything we could have hoped for, and everything we've been trying to pretend wouldn't happen all summer.  Our baby girl has been launched into the next season of her adventure with Christ.

My wife, Deanna, sent a note to our closest family to share an update.  I found her little note so lovely, so fitting, so poignant, I asked if I could share it here, and she agreed.  

I just got home from taking Maddie to Calvin. The day we have been both looking forward to and dreading all at once. We like her so much. 
All the cliches are true. It goes by so fast. It seems like just yesterday...Where does the time go? Of course, there were so many days that led to this one. 6649 to be exact. So many of them ordinary, trying, never ending. And then there were the magical ones. All of the "firsts." All of the moments that have added up and been tucked away and made us into the people we are today. 
We are so very thankful. Profoundly grateful for our Maddie and her brothers. We look forward to watching her grow over the next 4 years and are trusting in God's amazing love for her. 
One of my favourite pictures of her from when she was little is this one I have included. She was pretending to be  a bird. Arms open wide, face to the sun, looking ahead, soaring. It perfectly encapsulates who she is. She is ready to fly. 
Love,
Deanna