My Father’s House
April 26, 2011 § 11 Comments
“My father’s house has many mansions.” I always loved this sentence from the Bible. It is little like a Zen koan, a confounding statement that galvanizes the attention and makes we realize there is more to the truth and to reality than we think there is. Truth unfolds. I remember hearing it when I was a little kid and picturing an ordinary smallish house where each room turned out to be a mansion. I remember hearing or reading in college that Jesus had a special way of using language that wasn’t just poetic but “giantistic” (I think that was the phrase). He filled his speech with unforgettable metaphors–a camel going through an eye of the needle, the tiny mustard seed that becomes a faith that can’t be uprooted–that drove home the scale of reality. There are modern translations that read “My father’s house has many rooms.” But I like the fancy King James version because it captures the way seemingly simple, humble things open up and become grand when you grant them attention, when you open the door and enter.
These days, the sentence about the house that contains many mansions makes me think of my actual father, who is 91-years-old and still living on his own in Florida. He is a World War II veteran, and in a few weeks he will be flying up to Washington D.C. to visit the World War II and other memorials, on an “Honor Flight” tour, courtesy of a local Rotary Club. The Honor Flights are the brainchild of a non profit group intent on honoring veterans, especially World War II veterans and critically ill veterans. “There aren’t that many of us left,” my father told me, when he announced that he had been chosen. I’ve since read that they are dying off at the rate of more than 1,000 a day. My father has been walking regularly to get ready for the trip (one of the requirements is to be able to walk the length of a football field). And unbeknownst to him, the loved ones of these vets are invited to write letters appreciating their service or their lives that will be given to them during the flight (someone will come down the aisle announcing a “mail call” and handing the letters out).
There are many things I could say. But I’m thinking of one fascinating detail I learned one day when I “interviewed” my father about his early life and war experience. Like many young men, he enlisted and received training and anxiously waited to be sent overseas. Finally, he shipped out only to be issued double gear–a woolen overcoat and other woolly things for the war in Europe and tropical weight clothing for the war in the Pacific. The troops (as we call them now) slept in hammocks and were served two meals a day. Only when they were many miles out to sea did they learn what their fates would be. My father was ordered off the ship in Panama, to be among the troops dispatched to protect the Panama Canal. It turned out he was lucky and he was quick to say this. “But I was ready to go wherever they sent me,” he told me.
I asked him what it takes to be ready to face the unknown like that. He spent summers on his grandfather’s farm growing up and he told me that commanding officers counted themselves lucky if they had farm boys among their troops because “farm boys know how to do things.” He meant basic surival things–build shelters in the forest, fix machinery, find good water, tell which way is north. But over the many years of knowing him, he also showed me that this simple phrase unfolds to be a mansion. By example, he taught me never to confuse active intelligence with book learning. He taught me how, well, interesting it can be to be interested in life, to observe closely and ask questions. As he grew older and pain became inevitable, he showed me the importance of maintaing a sense of humor, of meeting life with a realistic but optimistic expectation. He showed me what it can look and sound like to live in the moment. “I know I haven’t got forever, but I plan to roll with life and see what I can as long as I can.”
I’m very grateful to my father for making it impossible for me to stay a “cliff dweller” (as he called people in apartment buildings, especially in Manhattan) or a cube dweller in a tightly controlled corporate environment. My father showed me there is a way of being awake and alive to your life that involves more than one dusty little room in the house, more than the thinking mind and its clutter and attachments. He showed me that true intelligence draws on the senses and feelings and the whole of a person in the present moment. It means being more interested in process than results and seeing what to do when you don’t know what to do. My father actually built much of the brick ranch house I lived in when I was young. He showed me that volunteering for the life you are given–being willing to face the unknown and then digging in and finding it interesting, bringing the whole the intelligence you were given to it–makes even a simple task or house open to reveal mansions.