This short essay is from Talismans Against Boring Culture, a fortnightly newsletter – an adventure in ideas.
Fatherhood squared is a phrase I stole from my friend, the writer / artist / single-parent mother Luna Hine.
‘It’s not just one child plus another,’ she said. ‘There’s an increase in chaos. You’ll see.’
She was right. Around two weeks ago, my wife Laurie woke me up at about 4am and said ‘It’s happening.’
It did, and now we have a daughter. Her name is Sylvie Carol Holden, which sort of means ‘Song of the Wooded Valley’ – an echo of her local landscape.
She is a breeze compared to what new-borns can be like, but her arrival transforms the reality of her brother’s world. Robin, not long turned three, has been in a right fettle, his energy drained by illness at the same time as this massive change to his world. The need for close care and attention has been through the roof, so time for projects has been scarce.
During parenthood² many important endeavours go on the backburner. Between work and childcare, one’s calling and creative life can get shelved, especially if you’re a mother. We’ll explore this more later, but for now the question I want to ask is what makes a good father? The answer isn’t simple, and as usual the poet Rilke is here to elevate the conversation.
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly
We have the Quest and we have the Dishes. There is the sacred ground of home and family, and the sacred ground that is elsewhere, hidden or forgotten, recoverable only by placing enormous trust in one’s daimon, one’s calling.
To ignore that call is a soul-death that will afflict the entire family and beyond, no matter how remote that father becomes, or how involved and supportive he tries to be.
Around the age of four my parents broke up, like a lot of parents do. My father tried sticking around to help with the Dishes, but at that time his soul was poisoned and he didn’t want the venom to spread. And besides, some daimons won’t take no for an answer, so he set out to find ‘the church stands somewhere in the East’ – not the literal church or the literal East, but the sacred ground that rests between the heart of one’s desire and the wounds of the world.
At the age of four your psyche is still hyper-continuous with your closest kin, the ones you live with everyday, so when my father left for the quest… that was a massive blow, as if the king in me had just been exiled before I’d got to know him.
The four year old me was broken, but the thirty-six year old me can smell the sacred ground close by, closer than I ever would have thought possible. Had my father chosen the dishes then I’m pretty confident you would not be reading these words now. When a boy’s father leaves for the quest then there’s a decent chance, if that father is up to the challenge, that all kinds of magic can spill back through the wound that was opened.
But when one leaves for the Quest, another’s relationship with the Dishes intensifies.
My mother, Carol, whose name Sylvie now carries, was a highly creative woman with all kinds of ambitions. She was a musician, poet, astrology, teacher, healer, and she knew how to throw a damn good party. But as a soloist in parenthood a lot of this was lost, great spans of free time cleaved away by the scythe of Saturn, the Roman god of death and limit.
It wasn’t that her calling went completely unrealised, but it was forced to take another route – a subterranean spring that spilled out when it got chance, or dissolved itself into domestic life and work. Our house became a refuge for misfits, vagabonds and broken souls trying to find their way in a broken world. It was the house of a healer on the edge of the woods.
All this places me in an interesting situation. I’m afflicted with the furor agendi, the rage to do, which for me is bound up in writing, in stories. But to pursue that blindly would be to horde time, leaving none for my highly creative soul-mate, the singer-songwriter Laurie Shepherd.
What would my female ancestors think if I spread my wings so wide there was no room for Laurie to stretch hers? I can see their stony faces, and their eyes, big and dark like Sylvie’s, staring into me with crushing openness.
You knew, and you still did it.
Sylvie is asleep on me right now. Quick little breaths, her body’s heat concentrated on my chest like a stella signata. What will her destiny be? Will she have good footprints to follow? How can I pursue the quest whilst tending the dishes?
No answers. Just praise words for the challenge. Once again Rilke’s got our backs.
Just as the winged energy of delight
carried you over many chasms early on,
now raise the daringly imagined arch
holding up the astounding bridges.
Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing
living through and defeat of danger;
miracles become miracles in the clear
achievement that is earned.
To work with things is not hubris
when building the association beyond words;
denser and denser the pattern becomes––
being carried along is not enough.
Take your well-disciplined strengths
and stretch them between two
opposing poles. Because inside human beings
is where God learns.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly