Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  — I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

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.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.


Portrait of Carl and Lillian Sandburg by Edward Steichen

Carl Sandburg called it the “creative hush,” that holy place where the heart sings and the pen records. He found it at night, after everyone had gone to bed; while his wife and daughters slept he wrote in his upstairs office: poetry, Abraham Lincoln biographies, folk songs. At five in the morning he’d shuffle in his slippers over to his bedroom, hugging on the way his wife Lillian who was just heading out to milk her prize-winning goats.

There’s not much silence where I live. Bynum is quiet, but the acoustics in our old mill house produce more cacophony than symphony. House guests do not sleep in late chez Blackshaw-McKee. (Rio may chortle at your earplugs.) Annie and Rio both have the gift of the gab, and one generally knows where they are in the house, no matter what their activities. Rio has taken to busting out improvised rock n’ roll choruses while he plays, and Annie does a mean Ella Fitzgerald while cooking pasta putanesca. When Rio slips into bed with us in the early morning, he and Annie usually joke and giggle in a half-asleep state, me turning over and sighing histrionically, relegated to the outermost edge of the bed. The last time Annie was out of town, Rio came to bed as usual in the morning, nestled into her spot, and then said to me, rather formally, “Excuse me. Can we cuddle?” We did of course, but only after he relayed to me the dream he’d just been having.

Yeah, I get my quiet where I can. I read Rumi on the toilet.

But old Sandburg wasn’t so flexible. He needed his hush. He was 67 when they moved from Michigan to North Carolina. Lillian was sick of the cold northern climate, which proved difficult for her goats. She researched the best spot for raising her particular breed, settling on western North Carolina in a town called Flat Rock. Carl was fine with the whole thing as long as he didn’t have to change his routine. And so before they moved in, Lillian had the upstairs renovated so that it matched the exact layout of their house in Michigan. By the time they drove down, she’d had the contents of their entire house shipped and put in their proper place, down to the last book.

Carl wrote at this sprawling house until he died of heart failure at 88, winning the Pulitzer prize for poetry in his seventies. He said he only needed four things in life, maybe five: to stay out of jail; to eat regular; to have what he wrote printed; to have a little love inside the house and outside of it; and, he said, sometimes, to sing.