My video reading of the poem “easter” from my book Iron Man Family Outing is featured today on the Beyond Meds website, accompanied by a short written reflection on the poem and its role in my developing view of my father over the years. Click here to watch and read.
angry eyes burn behind cold metal mask muscles tensed for fight in flight repulsor rays boot jets armor he is iron man. all-powerful controller master of his fate vengeful righteous realist almighty godlike hero protector judge destroyer martyr invincible impervious inhuman. mechanical masculinity lover of the machine better safe than sorry greedy me-first hoarder dark doomy death dealer self-satisfying soul stealer childhood's chosen champion. his armor once glistening once wonderful now binds and holds in place battle-scarred time-tarnished too small pitted scorched outdated in the way barrier to growth and love and life. I tried to forget him but he came to me in dreams I tried to kill him but he was stronger than I am I tried to banish him but he wouldn't leave me so I pulled off his grim metal mask. a child's face my face revealed at last frustrated frightened familiar hopeful little boy with wounded heart scared of the body he can't control afraid to come outside it hurts to be with people a quarter century in an armor shell waiting for mommy and daddy to make it right.
a liquid black cloud spreads its fingers across the family sky like ink from a squid filling an aquarium tank blotting out the sun turning everyone and everything the color of a funeral shadow blue. a virus infects the family tree twisting the future obscuring the past spreading from generation to generation feeding on the children turning the adults into monsters or rendering them mute. a parasite enters the family bloodstream burrowing into hearts and minds anchoring in tender bodies protecting and propagating itself with a trance forget forget forget. I will not forget and I will not pass these nightmares on to anyone else. I'll pull those black fingers down out of my sky I'll dig this virus out of my roots I'll burn this parasite out of my blood. I'll hunt down every last trace of this psychic infection this evil rot that was injected into me when I was a child and I'll haul it out into the daylight where it can't survive. I'll scream it out I'll vomit it out I'll drag it out of me any way I can tooth and claw root and branch blood and bone until I've purged it from my life and cleansed myself completely. I reject the conspiracy of amnesia and silence that allows this systemic scourge to thrive unchallenged in secret in dark and helpless places I reject the family commandments thou shalt not remember thou shalt not feel thou shalt not tell I will remember I will feel I will tell I'll take back my life from this shadow blue plague and if that makes me an outcast a traitor in the eyes of the family then so be it.
About the artwork:
The art that accompanies this poem is a mixed media painting called “Virus” by the very talented Canadian artist Staci Poirier. Staci created her painting as a both a response and a companion to my poem. You can read more about Staci here and see more of her artwork here.
Painting and poem were featured earlier this year on the Good Men Project website with a “zoom page” for the painting where you can view larger images of various sections to see some of the marvelous detail.
The artwork and poem also appeared together in the Fall 2012 issue of the Jungian journal Depth Insights, which featured Staci’s painting on the cover and includes some additional background from her about materials used to create the art as well as some of her thoughts on the themes that are being expressed.
Depth Insights is also available as a free PDF with painting and poem presented side by side on page 8.
It’s been a great pleasure to be a part of this poetry-and-art collaboration, and I’ve been very happy to see my poem and Staci’s art presented together in multiple places in such an elegant fashion.
I’ve created a playlist on my YouTube channel (rickbeldenpoet) for the video readings I made a while back of poems from my first book, Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood. The seven poems included in the video series are:
- little iron man
- fused at the wound
- gift (iron man dream #3)
- charley horse
- body memory
You can watch me read these seven poems in sequence using the player above, or you can click here to select and play individual videos directly from the YouTube page for the playlist.
PDF versions of these and many other poems from Iron Man Family Outing are available on the “Contents” page of my website.
I feel like a coward today.
Someone’s pushing me around and I don’t know how to handle it.
A man ought to know how to handle something like this.
I’m angry with the other person for being so relentlessly petty and unreasonable.
I’m angry with myself for feeling powerless to do anything about it.
I’ve been accommodating and accommodating and accommodating in an effort to keep the peace. That makes me angry, too.
I know that I’m being provoked by someone who wants a fight. Someone who enjoys fighting. Someone who thrives on it. A bully. Devious. Ornery. Vengeful. Passive-aggressive. And more than a little crazy.
I’m not trying to keep the peace merely for the sake of avoiding conflict. I’m genuinely concerned about how this person might respond if I assert myself. I’m not concerned in this case that I might be subject to direct physical harm, but there are plenty of other ways to hurt someone and sabotage his life.
A man ought to know how to handle something like this.
Did I mention that the other person is a woman?
I’ve been plagued by bullies, abusers, and saboteurs my whole life. I don’t understand them. I don’t know what motivates them. I can understand acting out in a moment of anger or hurt. I can’t understand making that sort of behavior into a lifestyle.
I’ve learned through a lot of painful, costly experience that it’s pointless to try to reason with people who live and act this way. Accommodating them is a temporary workaround at best. Standing up to them often makes things worse. Be prepared to enter a state of all-out war if you do. They’re not interested in peace and they aren’t plagued by a desire for cooperation or a guilty conscience. They need to dominate, they enjoy inflicting damage, they’re more than happy to escalate, and they need to win. That’s all.
A man ought to know how to handle something like this.
I feel like a coward today.
I know that a big chunk of the fear, anger, and powerlessness I’m feeling right now is not a direct product of the current situation, but part of the legacy of a childhood spent in the company of bullies, abusers, and saboteurs. Some of them were adults and some were other children. Some were family members and some were not. Some were male and some were female. The males typically employed a strategy of physical and verbal intimidation and harm, while the females tended more toward manipulation and other more subtle, indirect, passive-aggressive forms of control and assault on one’s boundaries and well-being.
As a kid, I always felt deeply ashamed of my inability to protect myself from people who behaved in such horrible ways, and I remember thinking so many times, “I can’t wait until I grow up so I won’t have to put up with people treating me like this.”
And here I am, all grown up, feeling just like I did then. Scared, confused, and frozen, with no idea what to do, like an animal on the highway staring into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.
A man ought to know how to handle something like this. But I don’t. Does that mean I’m not a man?
Dr. Steven N. Gold, author of Not Trauma Alone: Therapy for Child Abuse Survivors in Family and Social Context and Director of the Trauma Resolution Integration Program at Nova Southeastern University has written:
“… many of the difficulties experienced by survivors of prolonged child abuse are not due solely to discrete incidents of abuse. Often ongoing abuse occurs in an interpersonal environment that fails to teach many of the abilities needed to cope effectively with the complexities of adult living.”
Our history holds on to us until we’ve dealt with it, no matter how much we may want it to go away. Experience tells me that when negative or harmful patterns recur in my life, there’s often some stage of development I’ve yet to complete, usually from my childhood and usually because it was impossible for me to complete it then. There’s typically some unfelt, unexpressed trauma blocking my way as well. There’s also something I need to learn, generally some new way of being with myself, with other people, and with the situations that life presents.
I know that, at some level, I’m still trying to deal with the current situation in the same way I dealt with situations that felt the same or similar to me when I was a child. I know that much of the intensity I’m feeling around the current person and situation is the aggregate of all the unresolved intensity I’ve felt and carried all my life from early, long-term torture, torment, and mistreatment by bullies, abusers, and saboteurs.
The fear and powerlessness I feel right now is the very same fear and powerlessness I felt as a child, while the rage I’m trying not to feel right now is the very same rage I could not allow myself to feel as a child because it was not safe to do so. And I feel trapped, just as I so often did as a child, between the need to stand up for myself and the need to feel safe from the retribution that was likely to follow if I did.
Now, as a grown man, my mind races, my chest tightens, and my guts churn as I contemplate my current situation. I know there’s an opportunity for me here, as there always is. Every situation has healing potential. Every situation holds the opportunity for growth. But damn if I can see it right now.
Sometimes the stories that begin in childhood weave in and out of our lives through the years and take the better part of a lifetime to play out. Bullies, abusers, and saboteurs, both male and female, have been part of my story from the beginning. Maybe they’ll continue to be part of that story throughout my life. Maybe they are, as Dr. Gold put it, one of the “complexities of adult living” rather than something I can eliminate someday when I get big enough or old enough, as I’d dreamed and promised myself I would when I was a child.
I’d still prefer that wasn’t true, but if it is (and it probably is), I hope I can get better at dealing with them. After all, a man ought to know how to handle something like this.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
When I was a child, one of the inviolable rules of the household, as articulated over and over again to my younger brother and me by my mother, was this:
“Do not, under any circumstances, talk to your father when he comes home from work.”
This was, of course, the precise opposite of what I wanted. I adored my father when I was a boy. I was just about shaking with excitement to see him every afternoon when he came home from his job in the factory. I had so much to tell him about my day, whether I’d spent it inside at school or outside playing during the summer. More than anything, I missed him terribly every day and wanted to be near him, to be close to him, to hear his voice, and to know that he was interested in me.
We did our best, my brother and me, to obey Mom’s rule to the letter. I recall many a late afternoon sitting quietly on the couch, waiting as patiently as I could for the signal from my mom that it was finally okay to pass from the living room into the kitchen, where my father would be sitting at the dinette table, as he did every day upon his re-entry into the family home, still dressed in his greasy work clothes and finishing a cup of coffee.
As I sat on the couch and waited, I would listen carefully to my parents talking for any clues I might gather about my dad’s day at work and his mood. Sometimes I would sneak over to the doorway between living room and kitchen, that invisible boundary I was not to cross, to try to hear the conversation a little better. If I was feeling unusually eager, I might try to crook my head around the door jamb to sneak a peek at the two of them. If feeling exceptionally brave, I might even attempt to catch my mother’s eye to remind her that I was still waiting, which, if I succeeded, invariably resulted in a very stern “Back on the couch right now!” look from Mom.
It was hard to wait, and as I said we did our best, but being kids, we were sometimes overtaken by our natural excitement and spontaneity, approaching Dad immediately as he walked in the door after work (or shortly thereafter) in spite of the prohibition against doing so. The result was inevitably a quick and dramatic reminder of why the rule was in place, generally some variation of my dad reacting angrily at our presence, glaring at my mom, and growling something like “Get those goddam kids away from me!”
It was no surprise to see my father angry. It seemed to me, as a boy, that he was angry almost all the time, but he was especially angry at the end of the workday. This was something I could not understand. I knew that he had a hard, dirty job, but I’d only seen the building where he worked from the outside, so I could only imagine what a day there might be like for him. Nothing I could come up with, given my very limited experience as a child, was sufficiently horrible to make him not want to see me right away when he got home every day, so I began to wonder if it was something I’d done, or something about me, that would make him crazy if I approached him too soon.
Even after the necessary time to sit at the table talking with my mom and settle himself, my father was hardly what I’d call enthusiastic to see his boys. It seemed more like seeing us at the end of the day was something he tolerated, a duty he was required to perform. He was still, on most days, irritable, like he had to make a big effort to deal with us in a civil manner.
This was always a huge letdown, a big disappointment for me. I’d waited, I’d followed the rule, and I’d been patient, hard as it was to do so, and there was no real payoff. It was like talking to a surly statue, or maybe an asocial robot. I wanted so badly to interact with him, to engage with him, but there was no engagement to be had, just distracted silence on his part as I poured my heart out to him, punctuated by an occasional monotone “Okay” or “That’s good” or a non-verbal grunt.
The visit typically ended with me dejected, hopes crushed, feeling like I’d failed with him yet again, and the rest of the evening felt blue. Then I’d start the whole cycle again the next day, and the next, and the next, in the optimistic expectation that one day things would be different, or that maybe I could figure out how to be better somehow so my dad would want to see me and would be interested in me at the end of his day.
As time passed and I got older, I became more independent and developed friends and other interests outside the home that ended my “waiting for Dad to come home from work” ritual. But even as a teen, I knew better than to go anywhere near him as he was pulling into the driveway at the end of his shift because that was just asking for trouble.
As a boy, I idealized my father. His anger when he arrived home every day mystified me. I knew, or had some sense, that his job was difficult, and that he was tired, but I couldn’t understand why that would make him so hateful toward his own boys. In the absence of any reason or explanation that made sense to me, I came to the conclusion that he was reacting to some failure or deficiency on my part, and devoted myself to doing better.
By the time I’d reached my late teens, years of relentlessly abusive behavior toward me on my father’s part had stripped away my boyhood idealization, and I was left with the view that he was just a mean-spirited old bastard I could never satisfy, no matter what I did. That wasn’t far from the truth, either. But it wasn’t the whole truth.
Many years down the road and having done an enormous amount of personal work to come to terms with my history with this man, I’m able to see him more fully as what he was and is: another human being with his own pain and disappointments, trials and tribulations. This doesn’t excuse or absolve him of any of his bad behavior, but what it does do is help me understand him a little better, bit by bit, which is something I’ve been driven to do for as long as I can remember, ever since I was a child. Understanding him, in turn, lets me off the hook, bit by bit, because it allows me to correct the belief I’d taken on as a child that I was somehow responsible for his moods and behavior, a view youngsters develop all too often when their parents act out their unhappiness as openly and dramatically as my father did.
This process of coming into a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of my father and his behavior during my childhood (and after) has not been a strictly intellectual, analytical experience. Far from it. There’s been a lot of gut-wrenching emotional work to do, a lot of anger and a lot of grief to be felt, acknowledged, and expressed. I’ve also had to look at myself, at my own behavior, failures, and flaws, as unflinchingly as I’ve looked at his, and there have been many times when I didn’t like what I saw.
I, too, have been an angry man, although I haven’t expressed that anger in my life the way my father did. Where he tended to direct his anger outward toward others (mostly in the home: wife, children, pets), I’ve tended to direct my anger toward myself, with relentless expectations of achievement and perfectionism and, as a younger man, a brazen recklessness with alcohol and other risk-taking behaviors that could’ve easily put me on a slab.
I’m long past the worst of that now, although I still tend to drive myself too hard and expect too much, to the point of paralyzing myself with doubt at times. I remember my mom rationalizing my dad’s brutal behavior toward me many times by telling me, “You know, he’s actually much harder on himself than he is on anyone else.” I received, accepted, and internalized this information as a fundamental lesson in how to be a man. It became one of my unconscious operating principles of manhood: a man is much harder on himself than he is on anyone else.
In practice, this creates all sorts of rather obvious problems, not the least of which is an ongoing state of self-imposed martyrdom/victimhood and its equally pernicious twin, resentment. Life is experienced as a series of traps within traps: I can never be hard enough on myself and no one else can ever appreciate it enough. If someone does me wrong, it must really be my fault somehow, even when I really know it’s not. And so on.
I operated this way for years and, not surprisingly, it wreaked all sorts of havoc on my life. I’m far more conscious of the pattern now, and far more aware of the way it was conditioned into me, so I’m far less likely to fall into that way of thinking, seeing, and relating to myself and others than before. It takes time, sometimes the better part of a life, to unwind these snakes that coil around our psyches when we are so very young and so very open to everything.
There are still areas of my life in which anger is a persistent companion. Probably the most obvious and problematic of these is that, much like my father was, I am frequently angry as hell at the end of the workday. I’ve written many times over the years about my unhappiness with the work I do for a living, as well as my ongoing struggle to move myself into a work life that’s meaningful and satisfying to me. It’s my failure to make such a move that prompted me to ask myself this question a few months back: “What can I learn from doing work that feels like such a waste of my life and my energy that I’m furious at the end of every day?” And that’s when it hit me: maybe I’ve needed to relive a part of my dad’s life so I can understand him a bit more.
Like me, my father had an enormous amount of creative, expressive energy, but for him, the mode of expression was manual (building and fixing things) rather than verbal as in my case. He loved being outside, doing projects, making things, taking things apart and putting them back together. He always had a long list of projects in mind and never enough time to do them. Every holiday and vacation was his opportunity to do the work he really wanted and needed to do, the work his interests and energy naturally drove him to do. He was, in his way, an artist, and brilliant one at that: an artist with a hammer, a wrench, a shovel, and a welding torch.
I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to wake up every morning and put his ideas and his natural motivations aside to go into a dark, noisy, dirty, dangerous factory for eight hours, then come home exhausted with only a few hours left, at best, to do what he really wanted and needed to do. I don’t know if he hated me or not, or whether or how much he blamed me for his situation (I think he often did, given that I was the first-born child), but I do think he hated his life, and more than that, hated himself for sacrificing it every day to do someone else’s work under someone else’s thumb for a paycheck.
There’s no way for me to know if I’m actually right about any of this. I may be projecting. Maybe I’m still trying to explain his behavior on my own terms. But it does give me pause, as it did the first time I made the connection, to observe that I am, after all the years and everything I’ve seen, experienced, and learned, still living out my father’s legacy of anger at the end of the workday.
Maybe by making this connection, by making what had been unconscious conscious, I’m taking a step toward changing things for myself. Maybe, as I said, I needed to experience all this frustration for all these years in order to understand my father a little better. Maybe, in my desire as a kid to emulate him, I unconsciously took on his experience as my own, perhaps as a way to feel closer to him, perhaps as a way to share his burden, or perhaps as a task to finish for him. Maybe all of this. Maybe more.
Robert Bly has said, “When a father, absent during the day, returns home at six, his children receive only his temperament, not his teaching.” Carl Jung once wrote, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” My father, the flesh and blood man, has been out of my life for many years, but he is still with me, in his temperament and in his unlived life, at the end of every workday.
Writing this now, I’m realizing for the first time how much this pattern and experience of feeling angry like Dad at the end of the workday has been a way for me to continue to feel close to him. I’m surprisingly sad at the prospect of letting go of one of the few experiences I feel I’ve ever shared with him. I feel as if I’m betraying him somehow if I leave him, that young father who now exists only in my own childhood and psyche, to his own frustration and misery. So strange how these silent deals, these unspoken bargains we make as kids with our parents in an effort to be close with them (often without their knowledge), continue to hold so much psychic and emotional power over our lives.
There’s deep grief here for me, grief for the frustrated young father in his greasy blue overalls, a man I loved so much and for whom I wanted so much. Grief for the child who tried so hard and waited so long for the father who never really came home from work. Grief for a grown man so desperate to maintain any semblance of a connection with his father that he’s been willing to carry the man’s misery, anger, and frustration as his own for years and years.
It’s hard to know to what extent (if any) having this knowledge, and processing the grief that comes with it, will impact my own working life. This is but one of many factors with a bearing on that situation. It’s only one root of the tree, but one of the oldest and the deepest, and I will follow it to see where it leads.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
“A boy learns he is lovable from his mother, but he learns how to love in the relationship with his father.” ~ Miles Groth
In the excellent video presentation that follows, Dr. Miles Groth, editor of New Male Studies: An International Journal, explores the problems, issues, challenges, and rapidly changing dynamics and expectations that boys and young men face today. He also shares his thoughts on how they are being affected and how they are trying to cope (unfortunately with limited success in many cases) with these factors their lives.
Dr. Groth’s presentation was recorded in 2011 at a symposium titled “Boyhood to Manhood: Difficulties and Challenges of Transition”. This event was held in Adelaide, Australia and was sponsored by the Australian Institute of Male Health and Studies (AIMHS).
Clear, centered, original, engaging, and highly accessible, this presentation is broken into four video segments of about 15 minutes each. Requires the commitment of some time, but well worth it.
my father wound: I will earn his love by winning his approval. my mother wound: I will earn her love by saving and healing her. my family wound: I will earn their love by leading them out of the darkness.