A Remembrance

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Today is Father’s Day in many countries, including of course the United States (although not in Australia, where Father’s Day is in early September – your bit of trivia for the day). My father died many years ago, suddenly, when I was eleven. It shattered my world, and the reverberations from that break I still feel to this day. Some of those singing breaking crystal sounds have helped me mess up my love life, some have made me, perhaps, just a bit more empathetic  than I otherwise might have been, but it’s hard to find an upside to the death of a beloved parent.  People have tried, in that backwards, not really complimentary way they have: Well, look at it this way, he would have been very angry about your choices as a teenager.  Gee, thanks for that, Mom. (I loved my mother in a more complicated way than I loved my father, which is the way of daughters, I guess, and you may notice that I have not written a Mother’s Day entry into this series of blogs and probably won’t.) And others have said it must be easier to grow up with a dead father than a divorced one leaving you alone, which absolutely infuriates me, as if because he couldn’t help it, his absence in my life becomes more okay than if it was a choice. I would far rather have a divorced dad somewhere in the world, even if only occasionally in my life.  It is never easier to have someone you love dead.

My daddy left us, his truly beloved family, via a heart attack nobody expected, while we were in Wisconsin where Daddy planned to get his Ph.D. in education at Madison. We didn’t have a home, our furniture was in storage, we were taking a long car trip across the country, which we did several summers in a row, we were staying with old friends who certainly got something quite different than they expected, including the absence of the linchpin of the family, ambulances and doctors in the night, a furious and grieving woman (my mother never forgave either God or daddy, let alone the United States government, for daddy’s death), a howling cocker spaniel whose world was left in pieces, and a bewildered, numb and increasingly sullen daughter nobody knew how to handle. That last person would be me, and the happy, eager, secure girl I had been before that night never quite came back. I’m not saying that to garner sympathy votes; it’s merely the banal truth.  And it happens to far too many people.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel the hollow place inside where a loved person used to be? In a poem written in remembrance of his father, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote of the place somewhere behind the breastbone that feels both weighted down and weightless. For those who’d like to read that poem and I can recommend doing that, here’s the URL: http://brightweavings.com/journal/2016/06/19/fathers-day/. That day in June in the midst of a Wisconsin heat wave, that day was the first time I felt that heavy hollow place. It has never quite left me. Sandra Bullock once said, in answer to a question about how she went on after the death of her beloved mother, that you open a new room in your heart. And you do. I did. And do. But the lonely, empty room, where the fire has gone out, and the windows have been closed, and it’s cold and bare and still somehow filled, stays in my heart. I go there only sometimes, when the world is too much with me, or not enough with me, and sometimes I dust off the memories. Sometimes I just stay for a while and feel the pain and the heaviness and the lightness again.  There is a nostalgia there, and a distance. It is a room that has echoes rather than life, a reverberation of what used to be. Nothing in that room in my heart is new, or present, or here, but me. There is a distance, rather like having a head cold, where sounds feel muffled. And a chill as if after a snowstorm. And how I long to kindle the fire on the hearth in that room, the warmth and living joy that was my father. But I can’t. I can only remember the fires of long ago. It was a long time ago that he died. And yet, if I go into that room in my heart, I am as bewildered, as numb, as un-understanding of what happened, as sullen, as deep down enraged, as ever I was. As if it was this morning I woke up to him being gone.

I learned to love again, but it is sometimes a limping, scrabbled thing, as if I’m learning to reach for things with my left hand because my right arm has been broken and can no longer be used. I think I am afraid of it, love, though I try to be brave because love is after all the best of what human beings are capable of and love is, I believe, what we humans have incarnated to practice, in all its glory and misery.  I am afraid of it because that hollow, numb, angry, weightless, weighty, sullen room awaits, like a Bluebeard’s Cave, as the possible, and I’m so afraid probable, end point of any love I may try to have.

This was to be a paean to the wonderful man that my father was, not the empty room he left behind in more hearts than mine, but especially in mine. This was going to list the stories he used to tell, each time in the telling growing and changing and getting funnier, and, because he was wise, more thoughtful and important. It was going to be a jolly remembrance of a man who, like Will Rogers, never met a stranger, a man far ahead of his time in the ways he thought about how people did live and the possibilities they had to live in better, more inclusive ways. It was going to remember Christmases and birthdays, and everyday days when he’d turn off the main highway and get us lost somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. It was going to be about finishing dinner and deciding he couldn’t get through the night without a root beer float and piling us all in the car, including the dog, and going to A&W. It was about the man who loved movies, and parties, and playing cards, and being home and having company and talking with his daughter about life and art and human thought.

He was a man who could never leave a good story alone, always tinkering with words and meanings and giving what began as an anecdote an eventual point that made even the slightest moment meaningful as a lesson in living. He lived as some who have come very close to dying live, hugely and with happy greed, drinking it all in, the sights, sounds and joys of life. What he loved, he loved greatly: good food, coffee, cigarettes, dogs, parties, teaching, directing plays, arguing politics and religion, traveling, exploring his world and the ideas of people in it, reading, writing, and the great love of his life, my mother, his wife, and his daughter, his princess, the girl child he had never expected, the small human being he delighted to watch grow. He was immensely proud of me, and his hopes for me were as large as his life. It was for my mother to be the realist, to set all those limits of being a lady, a good girl, to live in the small world she inhabited.  Daddy believed, no, he KNEW, my life was as limitless as his, more so because I was loved and cherished (and I was) and his life had been empty of love until he met my mother. His death didn’t kill those realities for me, but it made some of them dreams unlikely to be fulfilled.

And it makes me rage, still, because he was far from done. He was going to back to school, to get his Ph.D., because he was, fully and deeply, a teacher and he wanted to know, with that hunger for knowledge he imparted to me, as much about how to teach as he possibly could. His love of life, his ability to create out of the poor clay he was handed such a beautiful sculpture, his achievements as a scholar, teacher, human being, husband, lover, father, friend came from him and his open-hearted joy in life, and as a conscious repudiation of a very hard, even bad, childhood. Besides which, he wanted to grab even more life than he already had. He wanted to see every place there was to see, taste every food, drink every drink (except those with alcohol, he simply didn’t like the taste of it), experience everything.

And now I come to think of it, he missed something he deeply wanted to see and take part in: my blossoming as a human being, even through the exasperation my teen years would have been to him. He may have wanted to dance at my wedding, but I believe he was more interested in watching me learn, in feeling the pride that would come when I graduated from college, when I chose a life’s work, when I succeeded at that life’s work, when I made an independent life. He never got that chance, and because of his death, parts of me were clipped, I think, hobbled in some way I can’t quite understand. I know that my heart hurts when I hear about swan’s wings being clipped so they can’t fly, or parrots being kept in cages. Keeping any creature from doing what that creature is made to do, which gives that creature joy, feels more cruel than killing. I’m thinking, right now, oddly, of a video I saw on Facebook last night, of Secretariat, in his happy retirement from racing, galloping around his large pasture, a picture of glossy health and utter joy in the running he was born to do, that was bred into him. Running, galloping, as fast as he could, because it was sheer joy.

My father couldn’t have trotted without gasping for breath, but in his grabbing for all of life with both hands, for his eagerness to meet and talk to people, find out what made them tick, his joy in his family and his accomplishments, and in simply living life, Daddy was Secretariat. That he didn’t get to keep joyfully galloping as long as he wanted is tragic for him and infuriating and miserable for me, for all who knew him or who might have met him.

So here I am, wanting so much to remember the joy. Maybe another time I can write about that without going back into that cold empty room in my heart. Maybe another time I’ll write only about the man as he was, not about my losing him. He wouldn’t have much patience with this wallowing, I know that. He’d tell me to read another book, learn something new, fix a good dinner and laugh with my friends. He’d tell me that my wings aren’t clipped at all, let alone because he’s gone, that everything I’ve done has been reaching past my limitations even if I haven’t yet grabbed on to my dreams exactly as I wish. He’d point out to me the simple truth that I’m still alive and that I can make my dreams reality. And he’d tell me with a hug and a laugh that he liked being compared to Secretariat, but that the real champion is me.


An Exploration of Gluttony

Jacques Callot, The Seven Deadly Sins - Gluttony

Jacques Callot, The Seven Deadly Sins - Gluttony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have done twice before (with Sloth and with Envy), today I plan to explore the Deadly Sin of Gluttony.  Partially because this is one of the few Deadly Sins I remember without having to look them up, and partially because this was the sin above all others (with the possible exception of the array of “sins” surrounding sex) about which my mother commented to me–at length.  So here we need to look at another sin of the flesh.  Let’s explore Gluttony.  Simply put, the sin of Gluttony is the overindulgence of food and drink and the obsession, the preoccupation, with sustenance as pleasure.  The wariness most human institutions display regarding pleasure of any kind is a topic for another day, but suffice for this essay, it seems likely that all creatures that eat and drink feel pleasure when doing so.  It seems to be the body’s way of encouraging a creature to leave the safety of a nest or hiding place to go and find what’s needed for continued life.  At its most basic, life itself, continued existence, requires food and, at least, water, at more irregular intervals but just as absolutely as life requires breathing (of some kind).  And all living bodies reward the finding and ingesting of food and water with pleasure.  And therein, in human cultures, lies the rub.

Now, any human need can and will be abused, can and will be twisted, can and will be taken too far in any possible direction.  Food can have an emotional component much more complex than the simple “food is necessary and therefore pleasurable” equation explored in the above paragraph.  For some people, food was made equivalent to love by a parent or, for some others, food was the only pleasure possible.  These motivations simply scratch the surface.  We all know that humans can become addicted to their pleasures, whether of alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, even shopping according to some experts.  This has something to do with brain chemistry, something to do with filling up an empty space emotionally, something to do with early and inexplicable losses.  Now such things are, at least in the scientific community, a matter of the physical self, not a matter of will.  But to most of us, and most especially to the accepted dogma of our religions, addiction is still equated with lack of discipline, and all self-feeding behavior with a turning away from the hope of salvation.   Thus, sin.  And, with food and drink, the sin is Gluttony.

Gluttony will always be perceived as the pig in the trough, slopping through enormous amounts of food with no real appreciation in the smallest possible amount of time.  Which, regarding the pig, of course, is a bit of a canard.  They apparently, in real life rather than in legend and moral tales, don’t eat either that sloppily or hugely.  And, since their function for humans is to put on a lot of weight in order to provide a lot of meat and lard, the somewhat unpleasant concept of force-feeding enters the picture, thus making the pig not to blame for his, well, piggishness.

"Whatever it is, we'll eat it!" Youn...

"Whatever it is, we'll eat it!" Young pigs enclosed next to the footpath near Monkhall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My own definition of Gluttony as either a sin or as a behavioral problem to resolve probably has to do with occasions when I might eat beyond fullness, when I, in essence, force-feed myself.  When the desire-reward cycle gets out of whack and all I want is more, more, more!  When all thought of sustenance, moderation, health, diet, anything, even pleasure, is lost in the perpetual motion machine my fork becomes.  Did I ever do this?  I remember younger times when I would go out in the evening after a full dinner and still order a hamburger and fries and a malt and eat every bit.  I remember Thanksgivings and buffets in hotels and all-you-can-eat pizza parties.  Is this sin?  Is this Gluttony with a capital “G”?  Remembering those times now, it’s not hard to think so.  And yet, such occasions were relatively rare.  Besides, I have never binged in the classic sense of eating an entire box of cookies or a gallon of ice cream all alone.  That would make me physically ill.  And while I (in spite of all the pounds I’ve lost) still have many more to lose, by and large those pounds were not gained from binging, from force-feeding, from Thanksgiving dinner and Vegas buffets.  The too, too solid flesh still clinging to me came from eating perhaps just a bit more than I should have and exercising a lot less than I should have (for my own benefit, not the desires or approval of others) over a lifetime, not from any specific banquet where Gail kept going back for more Beef Stroganoff, don’t hold the noodles.  It’s hard to find that sinful.  But then, as with many sins, it’s much easier to identify the Glutton, the Slothful, the Envious, the Vain, in others rather than one’s own self.

Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatc...

Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch with dancers and singers. Kwakwaka'wakw people in a wedding ceremony, bride in centre. Photo taken by Edward Curtis, 1914. Edward Curtis photo of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And why is Gluttony a sin in any event?  As in my other essays on this overall topic, let’s look at the advantages to civilization if Gluttony is considered a sin.  First, in our hunter-gatherer days, Gluttony would have been the mark of selfishness.  To cram into one’s own mouth what should have been shared with the tribe for everybody’s well-being would have been considered a mark of wrongness from the very start of the human race.  Just as sharing all one has, especially all the food one has, is considered a mark of favor, a signal of a generous human soul, hoarding to keep all that necessary food to oneself is a very bad thing.  These concepts still operate today. In times of disaster, hoarding items needed by the community is still considered wrong, even when the hoarder has merely been provident in advance of the potential disaster.  And generosity is considered such a good thing in human society that, for example, certain tribes of the First People of the Pacific Northwest created the Potlatch, in which a chief would give away all he had as a signal both of his wealth and of his goodness, hoping only that it would be incumbent upon these to whom he gave to then themselves invite him to a Potlatch in which he would, essentially, recoup all and more of what he gave away.  In my own Christian tradition, there is the concept of casting the bread upon the waters and it will be returned a hundredfold.  (Often, the implication for individuals is that you cast your bread on the waters in order that it be returned a hundredfold, when that is not what was meant by the proverb.)  Obviously, this is a sophisticated concept, this idea of generosity with food; however, there is no complexity to the concept of hoarding, hiding, keeping it to oneself.  That is considered nasty the world over.

Cities of the ancient Near East

Cities of the ancient Near East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the signal reason for Gluttony becoming a sin, in my judgment, was the beginning and continuation of agriculture and thus private property.  To me, this still was a huge mistake on the part of humanity, as I’ve noted before in my essays discussing Sloth and Envy.  In agricultural societies, the “Big Man” (this is a current theory in anthropology, which attempts to explain the eventual rise of kings) would be a person able to talk others into helping him sow, cultivate and harvest his crops.  In return for giving them a (small) percentage, he would store the rest against the bad times of year or against drouth or disaster.  Thus he became wealthy and powerful.  And of course, his motivation would be, basically, Gluttony–the desire to have more than enough to eat and drink.

As time went on, the piling up of extra food through cultivation of crops required the invention of, well, infrastructure.  A man spending all his time cultivating crops or even supervising others doing so would not have time to hunt for meat, to grub out clay for pottery, to make mud bricks to build storage units or a home, would not have time or the resources in his own self to protect all he gleaned from those who would steal it.  And so had to be born in the world specialists who, in return for a percentage of his crop, would make the pottery, graze the goats or sheep, shear them, weave the fleece into cloth, build the mud brick buildings, create a military to protect the community, and, and this is by no means the least of the important specializations, build up temples manned (or womaned) by priests to please the gods.  All these things were paid for by a percentage of the crops.  A gluttonous Big Man, one who hoarded, who waxed in fatness, who ate too much himself, and allowed his family and his servants to eat too much, kept that percentage small and thus the priests, the king, the military men, even the goatherds and builders and potters and whatnot, all those who did other things than raise plants and animals, would not have enough to continue their tasks, let alone have any chance of indulging in gluttony themselves.  And so the civilization prospered because of a balance between the Gluttony required to build and the Gluttony that would destroy.  (The map to the right of the start of this paragraph shows one of the earliest of such civilizations, Mesopotamia.)

But while Gluttony that results in creation would be a good thing for the Big Men (and their families) and the resulting kings, priests, generals and whatnot, Gluttony could not be allowed to pervade all the people in the society.  It could not even be allowed to exist among even “important” people other than the king, priests, etc., because then such people would hoard the king’s share, the priest’s share.  And the king and the priest, just as the potter and the herder, did not sow, cultivate or reap their own food.  They subsisted entirely upon the labors of the farmers.  No, Gluttony had to become a sin, had to be punished, guarded against.  From the farmer who stored the surplus grain and paid out of it his taxes to the lowliest worker on his worst farm who would be punished, sometimes with death, for hiding any part of the harvest, everyone in the society needed to feel that such hoarding, over-consumption–Gluttony–was a great sin and would be horrifically punished in this world or the next.  Of course, in the meantime, the king, the general, the priest, the Big Men, did hoard food, did engage in banquets in which food was consumed to a point where rooms had to be set aside to allow for vomiting so that a guest could start all over again, did waste food and lay waste to the countryside in order to get it.  Anyway.

But then, a sin does not rise to the status of a Deadly Sin if it isn’t a popular failing.

Thus, naming Gluttony a sin is a good thing for the civilization, as it is  normally constituted.  But is there anything that can be said in Gluttony’s favor, as we have done with Envy and Sloth?  Well, obviously, Gluttony underlies the will to store food against future disaster, which begins the whole cycle leading to diversification of labor and thus eventually to a civilization.  Plus, to be fair, the immense variety of foodstuffs, the variable flavors of food, would probably not be a part of our world without Gluttony.  Gluttony serves as the undoubted basis for the migration of human groups throughout the world, the underlying cause of human beings taking over the planet,the reason we cook and prepare food instead of simply gnaw at bones and leaves, the development of domestic strains of grain, other kinds of plants, and animals.  Without human intervention, for example, there would be no cattle.  No, none at all.  We developed cattle from wild ruminants, but apart from yaks and water buffalo, what we know of as cattle are quite different from their wild kin and would not be able to survive without continued care (or exploitation) by humans.  Gluttony led to population growth.  Gluttony led to appreciation of the finer things in life, well-cooked and delicious food, wine, beer, ale, mead and liquor.  And, in a sense, Gluttony can be extended to the consumption not just of food and drink, but also of art, of fashion, of performance, of architecture, landscape, beauty.  Without Gluttony, life would be less interesting, less satisfying, less civilized in its more refined sense.

But all the things I’m listing in the above paragraph are in themselves an indictment of Gluttony.  Without it and what it creates, we would be a small population living with the Earth instead of exploiting and destroying it.  Without the wealth that resulted from Gluttony, there would be no civilization so attractive to outside human groups that war was invented and used (and still is) to overcome that civilization and get all that wealth for themselves.  Not that we would recognize such a world.  For most of us, probably, we would not love such a world, no matter how much healthier we and the world would be.

As for me, with my love of good food, of cooking, of creating intriguing new dishes from delicious ingredients, I am definitely part of the problem.  Because I have to breathe to live, I prefer my oxygen to come from pure mountain air instead of the stuff on a subway platform.  Because I must drink water to live, I prefer it to be unpolluted, fresh, rather than skimming from a puddle.  And thus do I want my food to be good, fresh, healthy and delicious.  And plentiful.  I have to eat to live.  I try not to live to eat.  But, much like Lust, which I may explore in a future essay, Gluttony is never satisfied.  There is never enough.  If we indulge in all that we want, we will want more tomorrow and the day after that.  Like all the Deadly Sins, without feeling their drive, we would not be human, would not have the world we know.  But their drive is not self-limiting.  Unless we find a way to rein in Gluttony, in particular, we will gnaw the planet bare.  And that’s not good for anybody.

Flanders, Netherlands