Monday, September 2, 2013

Love's Labor's Post

I've been reading some poetry lately.  I guess that sounds sort of uppity, or fancy or self-indulgent - and perhaps it is - but, mostly it has been in an effort to improve my skills at putting words in a row and making some sense with them.  Poets are good at that, for the most part, me, well... not always.

It is Labor Day around these parts.  It's funny, I have a few readers now in other parts of the world and find that I am more aware of my Americentricism (not a word) than I have ever been in my past.  I'd love to give them, and me, a succinct and definitive explanation of the holiday, but, I can't.  Here is a link to what the Department of Labor has to say about it, the gist of it being:  "Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

I know, sounds lofty and important and, all in all, a great idea.  Sort of like poetry.

So, how do poetry and Labor Day come together?  Where, perhaps more accurately?  Well, in my mind, in this poem by Robert Hayden:

        Those Winter Sundays         

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I've loved this poem since I first encountered it in the seminal anthology The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart published by Harper Collins in 1992, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade.

Well before I was a Dad myself, before my own father's death, before I knew the things I know now.  Before the heartbreak of parenting, before the bitter pain of of a dear man gone before his time, before, before... before I was capable of understanding it.

I loved it first for the language.  I often read a poem aloud and listen to it through my ears instead of watching it, observing it, with my eyes.  "Blueback cold" and "chronic angers" echoed as I heard them.  But, one line, even then - before - made me choke back the sob of all of sons:  "No one ever thanked him."

I remember that line smacking me in the face, a full, open-handed slap at my own indifference to my fathers life and integrity.  Like salt in the wound of youth it stung me, shamed me, embarrassed me even.

Now, as I grow into my own fatherhood I see this poem not as a lament, but as a celebration of the labor of love this journey so often becomes.  I know well the feeling so perfectly, sparingly shaped in that first stanza.  "Sundays too" is so familiar to me now, the knowing that there is no time off from the job, even though the hands ache from a week of hard work, the banked fires must still blaze.  The essential symbology of fire and hearth and home so elegantly stated, so cutting into the heart of a man.

"When the rooms were warm, he'd call."  Yes, I do that.  It's safe now, this house is yours, good, decent, ready.  I have done this for you, for us, for childhood, for mankind, for hope and tomorrow.

"No one ever thanked him."  That doesn't seem to matter any more.  I understand now.  "Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well."  I was indifferent to the man who could heroically conquer the cold and humbly take care of the mundane.  As a younger man I let this feeling overwhelm me.  I believe I stopped listening to the poem there, pausing to wallow in my own pity, I didn't hear the glory and dignity in that final, defining, quietly haunting last line:  "... what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?"

Indeed, what did I know then?  I know now.  I know the loneliness of love, I know the sternness, the flint and steel of love.  I know the work, the simple, unadorned and constant labor of love.  I know all this and more.

I know I need not be thanked.  I know the labor is in the love.  I know the honor, the pride, the primality, the grace of love's austere and lonely offices.

I should not be thanked for my labors, I should not be lauded, feted, or praised.  I should kneel on life's stone hearth, before the glowing coals of duty, sticks and twigs clutched in my gnarled and tired and calloused hands, and feed the fires of youth and family, with a prayer on my lips of thanksgiving.

Fathers do this not for our children but for ourselves, for our children's children, for everyone, for the future, for humanity.

So how does this reflect on this Labor Day.  In the every description I could find about this day I saw something about the contributions workers have made to strength, well-being and prosperity.  Parents do that, fathers do that, you do that, I do that.

Labor ennobles love and vice versa.

I will bank the fires.

I will feed the flames.

I will warm the house.

I will shine the shoes.

I will cook the meals.

I will clothe the children.

Please, don't thank me.  It is my duty and my pleasure.

But, if a son of mine were to thank me, it might look something like this note Nick made a couple of years back that hangs on my mirror in the bedroom:

"thank you Dad for your good coking (cooking) too.  you are the most best cock r (cooker, he means cooker) in the U.S.A.  Nick
Thanks buddy, but, you didn't have to... I already knew.

From Marci's  "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

"We don't need any more ideas today. Ideas turn into bad things."

Yes, son, they do, sometimes.  But when they don't, they can soar... 



  1. This was simply beautiful.

    1. Thanks for stopping by,dadcapades. I really dig your corner of the blogarena as well.

  2. This is one of those posts that I will go back to again and again. It is one of your richest and most complex posts and I can't tear my eyes away from it. Especially Nick's note, and your perfectly timed placement of it. He's a good man in the making, because of you.

    1. I must admit that I enjoyed writing it. Poetry is so mind expanding and writing on poetry helps me understand it better. I went into this post not really "getting" the poem and now, well, now I find it essential.
      Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  3. Wow, I love this post! Like Brian said, complex indeed. It brought up so many thoughts/questions/reflections/regrets for me. And made me cry a little too. Beautiful.

    1. Thanks for coming around. I appreciate your interest in particular, I know Neal is a tough act to follow. You all seem like beautiful people.

    2. Bill, finally getting around to this. Now that we finally have hot water and a washing machine running, I can get back to wasting time on the internet! Though, seriously, line-drying clothes takes a lot more time than I thought.

      Anyway, really appreciated this. Beauty in the poetry, both yours and Hayden's. And it explores something that's so layered and tough to define: that idea that the labor of love is enough; that we don't need praise or thanks for what we do; that in some way serving those you love is reward in itself. And it is. And when it's not, it should be. And when it's not and you know that it should be, you feel all the weight of the world.

      But at the same time, the ache in your heart you get when you think of those same labors performed on your behalf, and the desire to give thanks where none was asked for, where none was needed. Maybe it's that belated thanks that inspires one to gift the same quiet labor to your own young things? Maybe, but that's not all of it. I'm going to think on this more.

  4. This is you at your best. I am crying as I write this. Thank you for being my son.
    On the subject of Labor Day it is part of a Labor movement that made it possible for working parents to be home on Sundays to be with their families. Mine wasn't and he was not thanked for working 7 days a week. I am afraid the Labor movement is getting too weak to keep the bread winner at home at least one day a week for the enjoyment of the family they love.

  5. Please, don't thank me. It is my duty and my pleasure.

    Amen, very true.

    1. Nice of you to visit me on my porch of the internet. I love your blog and noticed a Tennyson quote recently, very nice. I think we so easily forget that duty and pleasure are intertwined, like holding hands. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Great post! I loved reading your reflections on poetry and about the note from your son that you included the picture of near the end.