It is the summer solstice and my father has recently died. It is a heat-wave. Too uncomfortable during the day for a long walk. The blazing heat, on the longest day, makes me think of fire—which changes everything it touches, either by destruction or transformation.
There are many things about my father, but what I want to say is: he often told me he did not love me. Whether he loved me or not, I’ve come to understand as an adult, wasn’t the issue. It’s possible he did love me. It’s possible he didn’t love me, back then, when he said those words. He died at 92 and in his last decade it seems quite possible to me that he did love me, as much as he could love. But I spent a good deal of my lifetime feeling, thinking and deciding that I somehow was unloveable. If your own father can’t love you, well, where does that leave you? It takes a much more sophisticated kind of thinking to get the fact that if your father doesn’t love you, it’s his loving-mechanism that’s broken, not your own.
But picture it. I’m a gregarious, out-going, not-stop-talking, “Miss Merry Sunshine,” kind of kid and during a conversation with my father during a visit (my parents divorced many years before), he says to me, “I don’t love you. Why should I love you? Give me one good reason to love you.”
Now, decades later, with all my seminary training, decades of yoga practice and years of spiritual study, reading every self-help book in the section at our local bookstore and having Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life on my beside table for years, I can do a pretty good translation of his words: “I don’t love myself. I don’t know how to love you. I don’t know how love works, can you teach me?”
My father was a critic and demanded impossible things of me. He would “grade” my report card, writing comments next to my grades. One year I received all As and one B. Next to the B, he wrote, “What happened here?”
You can’t know at 6 or 16 that a person who does that sort of thing is holding themselves up to impossible standards, is living with virulent self-hate, and does, in fact, have a broken love-mechanism. It didn’t take too many therapy sessions in my later teen years to understand that I didn’t feel loved because my father told me I wasn’t loveable and I believed it. And no matter how many, “I am worthy of love” affirmations I did, even in front of the mirror (!), even while walking or driving, even while falling asleep, you actually CANNOT download a new system onto the human computer like that.
If you pour water into a full cup, it will only overflow. If you want to replace something broken, you have to take it apart, see if you can fix it, and if you can’t, you have to throw it out.
I’m so glad I got the opportunity to love my father. At age 23 I decided I could either have no relationship with my father (which is what I had at that time), or a relationship with a broken, deeply imperfect and pretty unloving person. I chose the latter. I let go of the idea that I could have a relationship with someone who did not exist. The loving father for me was not available, was not part of this journey this lifetime. I decided that whether or not he loved me was of no consequence ultimately. The only thing in my power was to love him. And so I did. I never needed anything from him during those next twentyyears of his life and mine. I did notneed money, support, affirmation, or love. That was very freeing. What I had with him was enough.
My commitment as a minister and teacher of yoga has been that through my experience of faith and in relationship with the Great God of All Goodness, I would be able to love the unloveable. From my father came the gift of learning radical forgiveness and a rising love that demands nothing in return.
Beside me, my four week old daughter, my fifthchild, wakes and cries. All day long I say to her, “I love you my precious!” All day long her father sings to her, “I love you. I love you. I love you, just the way you are.”
Loving someone just the way they are—especially the someones who aren’t adorable and in diapers, who come with grudges and cruelty, who expect more and give less, who never visited the self-help section, or who were so hurt they only knew how to hurt others—requires a long burn in the fire of transformation. I am grateful to have had such a fine teacher in this regard. From the pain and the grief and the unloveableness and the loss, I am free. I will not ever again hear his voice. But what of his voice in my head?
The man who “did not love me” who “could not love me,” is no longer here. Whatever my father is now—a spirit, a presence of love, an eternal soul—he isn’t the broken, wounded asshole of a parent that I knew. That earthly being has flown the coop. The building is empty, is crumbling, is vanished. Should I even for a moment now keep the structures inside of me that echo his voice?
No, it is time to burn up the waste.
We just passed the summer solstice. And the sun is a fireball. It is a blazing hot inferno ready to burn you if you get too close. This isn’t just a day of light, as in all the new-age movements that direct us to “live in the light” or “be the light” or “follow the light.” Yoga misses the mark when it asks us to glorify the light without understanding it. Light comes from fire. Fire is serious. Fire is dangerous. Fire is marvelous. It wounds. Changes. Transforms. Clears away.
I am not interested in the nice-light-white-light of our smallest hopes, some tinny shallow version of “This Little Light of Mine,” but in the true yoga of transformation. We all go skipping around in fancy yoga pants hoping for some “tiny change” that won’t really ask too much of us. But what happens next is an offering to the fierce-fire that burns up the residual hurts. These flames lick at the old wounds. They burn away even the lingering legacy of criticism inside. Which means I too must go in the fire. My mind too must go in the fire. My forgiving self, she too, must dive into the fire. Even these stories, what he was. What I was. Into the fire. After, I must leave the scars as they are. We are made by disaster and miracle, both. And it will be the new story—the story of bravery, of fire, of change—that becomes more powerful than the old. It will never again be the saying of, “this is the story of my father.” Or even, “this is the story of me.” But:
this is what forgiveness and fire can do.
I wrote this piece on June 20, 2020.