[Editor’s note: When I read this guest post by Matthew Remski, it brought to mind some of the feelings I have about parenting and being a father. We also just had our third child, Harrison, a few months ago. It’s a full-time job just staring at his cuteness! This post spoke to me about being a better parent everyday and I think it will speak to some of you. Please check out and support Matthew and Michael Stone’s indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to publish their book, Family Wakes Us Up. ~Brian]
On Remembrance Day, I didn’t wear a red poppy. Nor was I inclined to wear a white poppy. I am neither hawk nor dove, but a pragmatist at heart. But deeper than this I share with many others a sick discomfort at the emotion of the day. It’s not just because it presents an impossible tangle of trauma and politics. Or because we’re asked to digest the absurdity of Vimy Ridge together with the heroism of D-Day and the hubris of Vietnam. It’s not because I know my grandfather became a violent alcoholic in part because he survived the slaughter at Dieppe. It’s not because I can feel his fear and rage in my own heart.
I have misgivings about the emotions of the day because their performance reveals both the scarcity of other emotions and opportunities to share them. Specifically: those emotions that might arise from different forms of male intimacy. It feels as if only horror and loss and pride make emotional transparency permissible amongst men. (The demographics of veterans and casualties are becoming less gender-specific, but it is still mostly men.) Deeper than this is the strange resonance between celebrating the absence of men and the everyday fact that living men are so often absent to each other.
It’s appropriate that these rituals around the world take place at cenotaphs – literally, “empty graves” – symbolizing resting places for those who are vanished. I remember being ten and seeing a sepia photograph of the English poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed at twenty-five one week before the Armistice of 1918. His death and absence seemed to canonize him. I developed a strange wish to be like the vanished: exquisite in noble silence, remembered, but not present. Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not, Owen wrote, shivering in a trench in France.
The dead soldier, the missing soldier: you can’t touch them. The dead man, the absent man. The dead father, the absent father: you can’t touch them. How often do men stand in elevators together, staring straight ahead, ascending the silent towers? How often do men fail to meet each other’s eyes, and quickly change of any conversation that approaches the heart?
I have a sense that the austere moods in the shadow of the cenotaph – this deference we pay to absence – distracted myself and other boys being socialized into this construction of manhood from nurturing other modes of bonding. Modes based on the presence, or simply: what we feel through our immediate relationships every day. Simpler sorrows and joys, unorchestrated by the transfer of wealth, unordained by the state. Things that are readily given, can be touched every day, and by touching, make you weep.
From admiring Wilfred Owen at ten years old, I’ll fast-forward thirty years. My partner Alix and I find out that she’s pregnant. Overjoyed, we tell our parents. Alix’s father grabs me by the lapels and says, shaking and through tears, “Now you’ll know what all of the words are about, all of this mythology and literature. All of these rituals. You’ll understand what everybody’s fighting and feeling about.”
Fighting and feeling. I was familiar with the first. But what of feeling? Where would I find my band of brothers in this? With whom would I share this heart bursting with love and expectation? This excitement and anxiety? The premonition that I was becoming more whole, and that I wasn’t ready for it?
I went looking for support and fellowship amongst fathers. Surely there must be fatherhood preparation groups, I thought. But I didn’t find anything in this modern and liberal metropolis. I made a point of taking out all of my friends who were fathers for lunch and asking them “What’s the most important thing you can tell me about being a father?” Many were embarrassed by the question, as though they couldn’t imagine having anything of value to say. I pressed them anyway. I dragged out their stories and drank them in. I said: You’ve learned so much. Do you see how much you’ve learned? We really have to share this. Isn’t this the most important thing?
Meanwhile, Alix had pre-natal yoga, and a network of contacts through the midwifery clinic. We hired a doula, and this extended her web of connections through a whole underground city of expectant mothers. I remember walking with her down a busy city street and passing other expectant couples. Her eyes would meet with the eyes of the other women, and they’d share a moment of recognition. But I never met the eyes of my counterparts, except briefly, which provoked a shrugging, bewildered acknowledgement that we were standing outside something we didn’t know how to enter.
When men stand around the cenotaph – the empty grave – they know how to dress the part, to straighten their medals. They know how to cry, and we expect them to. But when in their ragged circle they stand around the fullness of their partners about to give birth, men become largely invisible to the culture and to themselves. In their emotional invisibility, they are assigned or fall into the thinnest of stereotypes. The bumbling father who screws up the laundry. The distant father, on his smartphone at the playground.
Why are we not socialized to share the wonder of life – the newness of our changing identities? As if it were the natural thing to do. Where is the emotional transparency of everyday things?
Over two millennia ago, the Buddha confronted a patriarchal, economically stratified and belligerent culture that was also fixated upon absences: invisible things like honour and the gods, which the priestly bureaucracies encouraged people to remember with grandiose rituals. The dominant culture encouraged remembrance –smriti in Sanskrit – of mythology, forefathers, glorious victories in war, and the divine nature of the social order and gender roles. One of the main things one was meant to remember was one’s place.
Like many other things the Buddha turned that upside down, using the word smriti in a very novel way. In essence, he said: Go ahead and remember the myths and the gods and your social customs and your gender roles and all manner of things you make up or can’t see. But more importantly, remember that you are alive here and now. That you are breathing. That there is sun and earth and grass. That you can love and be loved every day. That underneath every ambition there is a forgotten peace. Underneath every anger there is hurt that can be soothed. That your first duty is to nurture life. Viewing the eons of war, the Buddha suggested a different kind of Remembrance Day, not ordained by class, restricted to a date, defined by a ritual, or confined to a temple or an empty grave. Instead of two minutes of silent meditation upon absence, he encouraged an ongoing mindfulness of how we are present to the world and each other, lest we forget.
In the end I didn’t find an expectant fathers group. But I did become aware of how many people beyond my heteronormative bubble are pushing back against the gendered constructs that divvy up the labour of feeling. And then I made a friend whose partner was also pregnant. So we started writing letters to each other, every morning. We’re collecting them into a book. For me, a different remembrance day began without flags or wreaths or homilies, or the ringing of guns. It began by writing Dear Michael, I have something to share with you.
[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Matthew Resmki. Matthew is an Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga philosopher. His latest book, Threads of Yoga: a remix of Patanjali’s sutras with commentary and reverie has redefined the practice of yoga philosophy. Family Wakes Us Up, a book about the spirituality of family life, co-written with Buddhist teacher and activist Michael Stone, will be published in June of 2014. He lives in Toronto with his partner and child. He blogs at http://matthewremski.com/.]