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Letters to My Son
A Father's Wisdom on Manhood, Life, and Love
By Kent Nerburn
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Kent Nerburn
All rights reserved.
The Shadow Of The Father
The image of my father floats like a specter before me as I try to form my thoughts about manhood. I see him as he is now — a shell of a man, lost in private memories, spending his days idly flicking a television from channel to channel in hopes of finding something to occupy his time.
I see him as he is, but I remember him as he was.
I remember his strong back as he worked late into the night, weeding or raking or painting, the sweat forming a great, swooping arc down the middle of his spine.
I remember his perfectly ordered workbench in the basement with a hook for each tool and a label on every box.
I remember his outbursts of anger, his halting attempts to talk to me about sex.
I remember his silences and his diligence, his inarticulate efforts to show me through ritual what he could not say in words.
And I remember his unspoken pride as his children grew, graduated, found mates, and went off into life.
He remembers little of this. His memory has begun to fail. The man who would recite me Lincoln's Gettysburg Address from memory can no longer remember the day of the week. His workbench is in shambles and bits of long-forgotten projects sit in dusty piles behind boxes in the corner. The man who in memory towered over me, all shoulders and biceps and strength, seems shriveled and small, cautious in his gestures and tentative in his gait.
I should feel sadness for this, and I do. But it is a sadness mixed with awe. With each passing day I realize more how much he lives within me, and how great a shadow he casts over my life.
It is the same for all men. None of us can escape this shadow of the father, even if that shadow fills us with fear, even if it has no name or face. To be worthy of that man, to prove something to that man, to exorcise the memory of that man from every corner of our life — however it affects us, the shadow of that man cannot be denied.
I am lucky. Though his anger ran deep and his heart was lonely at its core, my father did me no damage. His hand was always on my shoulder when I needed it, and he worked hard not to visit the sins of his father onto the life of his son.
Other men have not been so lucky. Their memories are filled with violence and brutality, the smell of alcohol, moments spent cowering in corners beneath the sound of breaking glass.
Others have only the aching emptiness where the memory of the father ought to be.
But we all labor under the shadow. It makes us who we are and shapes the man we hope to be.
To become a father is to understand the power of that shadow from the other side. You realize that the touches you make upon your son will shape him, for better or for worse, for his entire life.
And who can know which touches have meaning? A word here, a glance there, a time together, a time apart — which will be the moments that will rise up in memory and shape the child who looks without judgment on all that you do and say?
I see an image before me. It is an apartment hallway, bathed in half-light. My father stands there. I am behind him, a frightened ten-year-old, peering tentatively toward a door. We have a bicycle with us. It is a purple "racer," as we called them, with hand brakes and a gearshift. It is the most beautiful bike I have ever seen. We are returning it to its owner.
My father had found this bike on one of his early-morning walks along a city beach. He had kept it in our garage, covered with a blanket. He wouldn't let me ride it because, he said, it belonged to someone else. For weeks that bike had stood in our garage as my father advertised in the local papers for its owner. I had secretly dreamed that the owner would never call so I could have that bike for my own.
But the owner did call, and now we are standing at his door prepared to return his bike to him.
My father knocks. The door opens a crack. A man peers out and looks past us both toward the bike. He pulls it in the door and examines it. My father and I stand in the doorway, waiting.
"It has a lot of new scratches on it," the man says.
My father says nothing.
The man turns the wheels, test the handlebars. He looks at my father accusingly. I want to cry out that there are no new scratches, that it has been under a blanket in our garage. Instead, I look down. The bike glints and shines in the hallway gloom.
The man pulls it further inside and mutters, "I suppose I should give you something." He pulls out a crumpled bill and tosses it toward my father. My father gives it back.
The man glares at us and goes back to examining the bike.
We turn and walk down the hall. I grab my father's shirt. "Why were you so nice to that man?" I ask. "He was really mean."
My father keeps walking. "Maybe he'll pass it along someday," he says. I trail behind him through the spare yellow light. We never mention that bike again.
This image fades, recedes, is replaced by another.
It is many years later. I am visiting a local jail on some minor administrative task.
While I sit in the waiting room I notice the name of one of my former students on the prisoners' list. He has been arrested for some act of public drunkenness and destruction of property. It is not his first arrest.
I have always liked this boy. He has a winning smile and there is a genuine kindness and love of life somewhere deep behind his eyes. He has no family. He has spent his life being shunted from foster home to halfway house. He doesn't know who his father is and he claims he doesn't care.
I ask the jailer if I can see him.
The jailer escorts me through a series of steel doors, each one echoing a little hollower as it slams behind me. I am brought to an empty cement room that is bright with the lifeless glare of fluorescent light.
"Wait here," the jailer says.
He brings my student into the room. "Hi, Chris," I say. Chris doesn't answer. His eyes are scared and blinking. "He's been a little wild," the guard says, "so he's been in solitary. It will take him a while to adjust to the light."
Chris looks at me. His lip is quivering. "Please don't let them put me back in there," he says. His eyes are those of a frightened child.
"Please," he says again. I have never before heard him say please to anybody.
I look at him for a minute. All I can see are his frightened eyes.
"Okay," I say. "I'll do it." His lip quivers once and he breaks into a grin.
I contact the guards and pay Chris's bail. They bring him his clothes. I sign a few papers and take him out to my car. I buy him a hamburger, then drive him out to a house where he says he can stay. By the time we get there he is chattering away, full of his old bluster and swagger.
As I pull to a stop he jumps out of the car. "See ya," he says. He never even turns around.
The next day I am telling a friend about Chris. He gets angry and begins to lecture me. "I can't believe you did that," he says. "You let him hustle you, just like he hustles everybody. You should have let him rot in that jail. Maybe he would have learned that he can't talk his way out of everything. Why did you do such a stupid thing, anyway?"
I look down. "Maybe he'll pass it along someday," I answer.
My friend shakes his head and goes back to his work.
Somewhere, many miles away, my father stares blankly at a television screen.CHAPTER 2
Man and Male
My father was not an extraordinary man. There could be no epics written about his accomplishments. But he was a good man. He never harmed another person willingly, and he was always ready to do a kindness for those in need.
For the past ten years I have watched him slowly lose interest in life.
He is not unhappy. He is beyond unhappiness. He is depleted and defeated by the losses that have taken all sense of self-worth from him. First it was his job, then his physical strength, and finally any sense of usefulness that gave him a way to value his presence on earth.
It is a sad thing to see. All of us still love him and respect him and honor him as the father, but he no longer loves and honors and respects himself. His world and his body have betrayed him.
How did such a thing happen? How could a man who was always strong suddenly become so weak? Why did he give up when the horizons of life still stretched out to unknown distances before him?
I am afraid he gave up because he no longer considered himself a man.
He had done his best to meet the image of the man he had been told he should become — to raise the brightest, be the strongest, earn the most, need the least. And he had done well. Perhaps not as well as he would have dreamed, but for a boy who was alone in the world by age sixteen, he was more successful than he might have hoped. He raised himself up, found a place in the world, and built a family with honor, dignity, and caring. What took place in his mind that caused him to value his achievements so little? Why should he, who started with nothing and accomplished so much, feel that his manhood is gone?
The answer is harsh but clear. He confused being a male with being a man.
Being a male is part of our biological coding. It has to do with strength, domination, territoriality, competition, and a host of other traits that were essential in the days when dominance was the key to human survival.
Being a man is something different. It is taking these male traits and forming them into a life that meets the demands of the world around you while serving the needs of others. It is action in service of a dream. It is being grounded in belief while reaching for the stars.
The world into which my father was born did not allow him to see his manhood as separate from his maleness. Mere survival called forth all the powers of aggression, competition, and physical strength he had to offer.
He was born into poverty. His father ran off. His mother died. Before he was even an adult he was swallowed up into the Great Depression. To get food he had to work and to get work he had to be stronger and work harder. Soon Nazism and Fascism appeared on the world stage, and he was called to take up weapons against other men. After the war was over, he came back with nothing and had to carve out a place for his family in an economic and social order he had never seen.
From his earliest childhood he had been cut adrift in a world where a person needed to emerge the winner to keep from being annihilated. No wonder his sense of manhood was so deeply tied to his sense of male dominance and mastery.
Now, as his body fails him, that sense of dominance and mastery has been replaced by a sense of dependence. He feels purposeless and meaningless. The loss of his job, the loss of his physical strength and sexual powers, the loss of his ability to control the world around him are the loss of his manhood. He is a shell, living out his days in a benign hopelessness.
It did not have to be this way. As his son, I see his real manhood. I see the man who went for days without sleep to help people who had lost their homes to fires and floods. I see the man who worked two, sometimes three, jobs to give his children Christmas presents and who always put his own needs last. I see a man who took his male strengths and put them in service of a vision of caring and sharing, and nothing can diminish his manhood in my eyes.
He was a good man. In a small way, he was a great man. But he cannot see this. He lived in a time when manhood meant maleness, and he measured himself by those terms.
But now the times have changed.
You were born into a different world that will present you with different gifts and challenges. A new vision of manhood will be called for that does not tie so closely into the more aggressive and competitive residues of our male character. You will need to search out new ways of expressing strength, showing mastery, and exhibiting courage — ways that do not depend upon confronting the world before you as an adversary.
To a great extent, you will have to find the ways for yourself. In times past there were rituals of passage that conducted a boy into manhood, where other men passed along the wisdom and responsibilities that needed to be shared. But today we have no rituals. We are not conducted into manhood; we simply find ourselves there.
When our bodies tell us we have arrived, it is with a desire and a longing and a sense of unfulfilled outreach. But what we think is manhood is nothing more than our maleness coming into full flower. And when maleness operates untempered with moral value, it visits damage upon the earth.
I want you to consider this distinction as you go forward in life. Being male is not enough; being a man is a right to be earned and an honor to be cherished. I cannot tell you how to earn that right or deserve that honor. But I can tell you that the formation of your manhood must be a conscious act governed by the highest vision of the man you want to be.
As you reach for that vision, the echoes of the male will always be with you. The competitive, the dominating, the great sexual urgency and desire for outreach will always whisper. But if you are able to transform them, these male attributes will become the true measures of manhood — strength and honor and moral force; courage, sacrifice, and confidence of touch.
So acknowledge your male characteristics. Celebrate them. Honor them. Turn them into a manhood that serves the world around you. But do not let them overwhelm you and do not let those who confuse maleness and manhood take your manhood from you. Most of all, do not fall prey to the false belief that mastery and domination are synonymous with manliness.
Be like my father. Be like the generations of nameless men who served as stewards of the age into which they were born and never willingly raised their hands to harm another.
Measure your greatness by the length of your reach, but also by the gentleness of your touch. For now, the world needs hands that love, not hands that conquer. Let your hands be among them.CHAPTER 3
The other day I saw a group of boys pushing against another boy outside a local store. The lone boy was gesturing as if he was going to hit back at his attackers, but you could see he was afraid. The others kept crowding him and taunting him and daring him to strike them. Then they were going to jump on him and beat him. They only needed that first blow to set them loose.
Finally, an older man walked by and stopped them. The taunters looked at him and skulked away. The lone boy was free, but not safe. His attackers will be waiting for him on another day, in another place.
I don't know what caused this confrontation. I'm sure it was nothing important. The wrong word, the wrong action. But from it came a ritual as old as time — boys measuring themselves by their physical strength.
It's a sad ritual, and not one to make us proud. Yet, somehow, this notion of physical strength has survived in our biological coding as something significant, and even the best of us feel its shudder deep inside us. It is a residue of our days as hunters and protectors, when our physical prowess was a legitimate measure of our success as men.
Now it is a caricature of all that we need to be.
For ages we have lived with this biological imperative by which manhood has been defined as strength — strength to master others, strength to master our emotions, strength to master the world around us.
Can we lift more, carry more, run faster, work longer than others? Then we are better men.
Can we subdue another person physically? Then we are stronger men.
Can we resist tears when we experience joy or sadness? Then we are truly men of strength.
The world doesn't need this version of strength anymore. We are not locked in some physics of survival where we must turn force against counterforce in an elemental battle to see who will prevail. We need greatness of spirit more than we need greatness of physical strength.
Let me tell you two simple stories. Perhaps you will see what I mean.
Last week I was home alone. I had two tickets to a chamber orchestra concert to be held on Friday night.
I started calling our friends. Those who might enjoy the concert were busy. Those who might be willing to go didn't really like classical music.
The ticket hadn't cost much — I could have just thrown it away and gone alone. But something kept gnawing at me.
For most of the morning I avoided the issue. I tried to ignore the ticket that sat innocently in my billfold. By noon it weighed about a thousand pounds.
Finally, I got in the car and went over to the local nursing home. I went to the nurses' station on the second floor and found the head nurse. "Is there some resident here who can walk a bit, likes music, and wouldn't mind going to a concert with a stranger?" I asked.
The nurses who were standing nearby looked at each other and began discussing various residents. "Edna? Florence? Joe?" After a few minutes they decided that Edna would be the perfect choice. We went to the dining room and asked her. "No, I don't want to," she said. She was afraid.
So we decided on Florence.
We went to her room. She was sitting in her wheelchair with her hands in her lap. She was probably eighty, almost completely blind, and had heavy orthopedic shoes with straps and four-inch soles and laces up the side.
Excerpted from Letters to My Son by Kent Nerburn. Copyright © 2014 Kent Nerburn. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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