Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Man's World

Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days and cry over what is happening. Have you noticed: The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting?
I say to myself: “Go on, cry. What’s the sense of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out! See who will answer! -- Robert Bly

"The world needs a man's heart" -- Joseph Jastrab

Men do not yearn for talk about men, for we have heard abundantly on this subject most of our lives from women, and we're quick to wince, quick to blame. While mothers, daughters and wives have a determinate angle on us, they do not know the beast from the inside. We work hard, die much too young, or continue to die slowly inside, unappreciated, banishing ourselves to the sofa or, worse, we suddenly find ourselves out in the yard sharpening our blades for war.

(This is the point in the writing where real dudes or the homophobic log off the website, shred the book, set fire to bad news. But read this entire sentence before you roll your dulled, dry eyes: The reason you won't or can't participate in this discussion is because, up till now, you've never been asked by another man to have a true heart-to-heart, man-to-man. This is a different thing than slamming down your shot glass, turning to the other guy, and blaming "the bitch" for your self-inflicted misery.)

You were raised by a loving mother who supported your earliest campaigns and a father who destroyed his body to lay bread on the sideboard. Perhaps even back then, as it certainly is now, your mother worked, too. Mine built periscopes during World War II. In the fifties and sixties it all looked fine from where you sat quietly at your end of the dinner table. Dad went to the shop or office, your mother attended to the care and feeding of your body and soul and -- under best circumstances -- she tried to listen to your exploits, adventures, triumphs and early sorrows. She knew all about empathy, about love... but she did not know YOU. Dad might have known, but he wasn't saying. What you heard growing up was from women and all about your shortcomings: we're not intuitive, we're violent, we smell funny, we're strange, we're slobs, we live to screw, we're snakes and snails and puppy dog's tails.

Even among those boys who were loved and recognized in youth, there isn't a man I know today who doesn't occasionally act like an asshole. It's our nature. It's theirs, too, by the way. But women have felt our savagery historically and paid dearly, so don't ask them to concede the darker part of themselves--or suffer ours gladly. But when men won't talk to each other about our sudden melancholy, our shadowy fears, our loss of financial, spiritual or emotional security, about how it is to live for the two week golf trip, the ownership of the remote control, the ability to find a quiet place where we don't have to respond on cue to feelings we have yet to identify, we let women do our defining for us--and we end up torching the house.

Today there are thousands of decent, angry men in my life, co-heads of households who have lost the generational means of sustaining themselves and their loved ones. They sold cars or fished deep waters. They invested in training for life in a cubicle that folded up on them as when a circus leaves town forever. When I worked as a Fortune 500 web consultant, my firm hired a man to fire half the staff. A professional butcher. He was a scary fellow of innuendo, deflections, and the ability to smile to your face while he locked you out and took your badge.

There are fathers and sons, too, throughout the country, who have lost their land and found themselves numbed as a conduit in a fast-food assembly line; and there are fatherless, inner-city youths who have never understood a thing about their rage except that it flows in torrents of a steady dance beat, boys and men who have watched the upper class accelerate away from them without notice, let alone justice or compassion, or men who have listened patiently for decades now to female rage and felt themselves grow fearful, ashamed, distant and unheard. A ruthless energy runs through the thoroughfares of our cities and towns. It even appears among the fortunate men for whom life is good, where security and friendships seemingly abound, but where talk is sterile and ideas have withered.

So, let us say here and now that YOU are decidedly invited to the discussion. In fact, it's your turn. I have found men who have opened their hearts, expressed their rage, their shame, their frustrations, speaking of and listening to our relative truth without giving into fear or the need to blunt it with drugs, or gambling, or hookers, or endless food buffets and a routine coma in front of talk shows each night. When we give voice to our secrets, we discover that most of us are alike at the most profound levels. We may be violent by nature, but are loving by opportunity, by good fortune, by magic.

We need not take all too seriously the women criticizing our love of sports, or yukking up our friendships, calling them "male bonding", or "doing the guy thing." They never question communion among themselves, and perhaps some are afraid of their men changing, despite their claims otherwise. For when that happens, women will receive the equality they more than deserve; they'll lose their identity as the sole care-takers of inner life. We've abdicated our half of the responsibility, walled ourselves off of our families, our children, our peers, and our wellspring of hope. Most women I know are sick and tired, anyway, of playing mom to grown men, and men, freed by our new connections to each other, can learn to define ourselves precisely as we are: bright, organized, creative, intuitive, fathering, funny, imperfect, growing, wounded or betrayed, grieving, angry, lonely, unfulfilled, or rudderless in a cold culture we helped create and sustain by our silence.

One place to start talking is with our friends and at home, fathers speaking their truths to sons, to their fathers. Another is in the workplace, and through our music, painting, acting, hiking, being men among men. In the 1990s I attended one of those heralded Days for Men conducted by Robert Bly. I entered a hall and passed down a welcome line of every man who had entered the room before me. The 600th man into the auditorium was greeted by 599 men. There were grandpas and sons, fathers and infant boys, gays, disabled veterans, twins, cousins, great-granddads in military uniforms, drumming young men in warpaint, whooping, thundering, applauding, loving men who met to see what it looks like from the inside.

And when a solitary janitor, a woman, entered the foyer for a split second with her broom and bucket, 600 voices died.

Undaunted, I spent the next few years at Men's Wisdom Councils in Seattle, where we drummed, formed talking circles, met in small groups to talk about relationships, right livelihood, being fathers or sons, how to take care of our minds and bodies, how to find our own native spirituality. I sat in sweat lodges with men of the S'Clallam tribe, pouring water and praying over rocks for the right relationship between men and the earth, our forebears, and with our families. I built a sweat lodge in my yard and invited men to invite their friends. I taught my father to hug me--or at least helped him to remember how its done--and I kiss him every time we meet.

There once had been powerful fraternal organizations for men, where they volunteered in service to others, raised money for men's scholarships, or built sanctuaries where they could be equals without relation to their jobs, backgrounds, or income. My dad's group of choice was the Knights of Pythias, an organization founded after the Civil War. Such an odd ring to its name! And when I visited their website recently I was astounded to my core to know that my own father had been a member. The order was founded on theories of Pythagoras. "It was a maxim of Pythagoras that the two most excellent things for man were "to speak the truth and to render benefits to each other." Here is more of what they say about themselves:

"The Fraternal Order of Knights of Pythias and its members are dedicated to the cause of universal peace. Pythians are pledged to the promotion of understanding among men of good will as the surest means of attaining Universal Peace. We believe that men, meeting in a spirit of goodwill, in an honest effort of understanding, can live together on this earth in peace and harmony. We seek those who agree with this belief, and have a belief in a personal Supreme Being, to join our ranks in an effort to reach 'Peace Through Understanding'. "

Many fraternal organizations are dying out today, unable to bring aboard newcomers or reach young males. I volunteered at a Shriners' Hospital for severely burned children and learned that the number of men who join up is shrinking, meaning less funding in the future for such noble endeavors. All along I had been laughing at their silly fez caps to take the time to learn what they were about.

When I had been eight or nine, my father took me to a Russian sweat bath (he called it a schvitz) in the Jewish section of Los Angeles. But I spent the better part of the evening in the company of men, young and old, who sweat in thick clouds of steam, whacked each other's backs with eucalyptus leaves, shared conversations about synagogue, school, work, and wives. I had no idea there was such a place, and I'm sure it's long gone now.

Greening up from our own spiritual ice age won't be easy and the opportunity--the absolute necessity of it--comes at a time when men are surely needed. The ice caps are melting. There's a plan for Iraq. Brothers or butchers, which shall we be?

Our work together is not some new self-help program, for "self" is isolated and isolating, and it needs no help. "Self" rather needs our restraint. Simply, we need men in our lives, to give to ourselves freely without strings. We simply must, because it's up to us.


Scotty said...

Growing up, my father and grandfathers were actively involved in my upbringing. As I grow older, I realize how powerful of an advantage that has given me in life.

My father's father introduced me to his circle of friends and compatriots. This Circle of Elders would gather for a Full Moon Ceremony each year that had been led by a Lakota Sioux medicine man of the Rosebud Band.

I still remember choking on the steam and sage of my first sweat, as well as the vision of a Medicine Hat Stallion bursting from the dark in another sweat years later after I had fasted for days.

From the sounds of it, you and I were both introduced to the Mens Movement of the early 90s with Robert Bly et al. I banged the drums, too.

That's why I've always be drawn to the mysticism and ideals of the fraternal organizations (college and non-college). The wisdom of the sages become ever more relevant as we become more disconnected from the tangible world.

Just last week, I picked up the book my grandfather gave me to pass down to future generations. It's a picture book of the cave paintings from Lascaux. Modern men are not much removed from this prehistoric generations.


Gabby said...

Thanks Scotty. I love the smell of sweetgrass to this day. Don't know how you found me, but am especially grateful for your remarks. A-ho!