I was reluctant to attend the men's retreat at the Mendocino Woodlands last month, even though it was organized by Steve Siler, a highly regarded teacher and therapist. Several years ago, in describing a similar retreat, faux journalist Bruce Anderson reported seeing fat white men, their bodies garishly painted, running naked through the woods, baying and howling like hounds after foxes. I knew of course that Bruce was a compulsive liar, but the possibility of finding a thread of truth in the cloth he fabricates made me cautious. Would I be joining some second-rate actors, make-believe banshees, mock militiamen?
I needn't have worried, although, to tell the truth, a storyteller did dab a bit of paint on his chin during the opening ceremony. And, although I didn't visit the sweat lodge, the men who did probably took their clothes off.
Actually, my reluctance to participate had more to do with Robert Bly, warrior poet in a Junginan smörgasbord, but instead of Oedipal ballads there were edible salads, not to mention chicken and spaghetti, meats and cheeses. Instead of mythic magicians in pointed caps there were next-door neighbors with teenage sons.
I was also afraid I'd find weak, defeated men, masochists who fancy they scars are medals, but the men I met were strong and self-assured, community leaders and political activists, teachers and woodworkers, musicians and businessmen. Then, too, I wouldn't have mistaken the gathering for a Rotary meeting: too many men had long hair and beards. Two ex-convicts hoping tto turn their lives around were present, as were a couple of men in declining health and, more than likely, a few in difficult circumstances. On the whole, however, a more interesting and genial group would be hard to find.
I'm always wary about possible scams, con artists making big money on false promises, but here the cost was minimal: $45 for two days and two nights, including food and lodging, workshops and activities, long walks in the deep woods, and all the friends one could make.
I so much enjoyed being in the company of these men, I intend to stop and chat with them when I see them on the street instead of rushing past as I go about my business. We'll talk about this retreat and the ones to come and about how much could be accomplished if the boards and commissions that run our towns were composed of conscious and compassionate men and women instead of greedy, angry, frightened people.
Other than making new friends and cementing old friendships, nothing spectacular happened. There were various activities (tai chi, construction, workshops in counseling, parenting, relating, etc.); there were inspiring opening and closing ceremonies: there was a bone game (a Native American gambling game). The most unusual event was the building and burning of a wicker man, a 15' tall effigy constructed of saplings and branches, his face a mask, his penis a chopped bough. As he was carried down to the fire circle by a dozen chanting men, I grew angry thinking about the brutality of circumcision. In Asia and the Middle East, boys are circumcised and girls are genitally mutilated at puberty. In Europe and America, we welcome our sons to this world by slicing them. We punish our children because we were punished when we were young. I distrust ritual when it become a tradition.
Before burning the wicker man, we investigated ribbons with our unwanted traits and tied the ribbons onto the effigy's torso and limbs. On my red ribbon I wrote F:/ire as a symbol of the intellectualized anger that clutches at me when I think of how we imprison and torture, maim and kill one another in every part of this civilized world in retribution for having been imprisoned and tortured, maimed and killed. It's a tradition handed down from generation to generation.
To put an end to it, we tied our fears and sorrows to the wicker man and set him afire. It may seem atavistic to engage in such rituals but it creates a sense of community. I view rituals as transitions that lead us from old attitudes to new insights, from a belief in patriarchal religions that separate the individual from the godhead to a celebration of the collective unconscious.
To evolved people, the collective well-being is a conscious pursuit. The conscious man is joyful partner to the liberated woman, counselor and mentor to children whose growth is not stifled by the tyranny of malevolent giants as expressed in a mother's slap or a father's sneer. Conscious people know how to engage, how to let go, how to feel, communicate, think clearly and cleanly.
Starting December 23, and continuing every Monday evening from 7:30-9pm at St. Michael's Episcopal Church (corner of Franklin and Fir Streets in Fort Bragg), several men from local men's groups will host a drop-in rap group for men in transition. Unaffiliated with any church, bureaucracy or institution, the group will provide support and assistance without charge to men concerned about their marriage, divorce, jealously, parenting, grief, rage, depression, etc. It should also provide a good opportunity to make new friends. For more information, phone 961-0543. To learn about future retreats and men's gatherings, call Steve Siler at 937-5629.
Back at the Woodlands retreat, the wicker man was lighting up the night sky. The leaves that were his hair sputtered like candles. Flames wove through his ribs. Fire engulfed his limbs. Sparks soared and gyrated in the still night air above the burning figure.
As the wicker man burned, we chanted, “Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit.” I was reminded of how important it is to care for the earth, our body. We've got to stop polluting the sea and the air, or we shall die as ignominiously as the wicker man. We've got to keep our creative energies burning, so we can evolve.
The mask that had been the wicker man's face had melted and he was now without expression. The fire subsided, leaving a charred and twisted structure, no one, everyone, death itself. We let him go, that useless creature, and I returned to the lodge, anger gone, to talk, drum, dance the night away.
Nothing spectacular, but I learned a few things, simple things. Anger doesn't help; you've got to let go before you can move on; community is important. Embarrassingly simple, but the most powerful truths are simple: peace... freedom... love... life. And the simplest words are strongest: blood...water...body...touch...taste...mouth.
The language of love is spoken in monosyllables. Sit here close to me. Let me know you. Look at me. Know me.
It's all free. What's important can't be bought or sold. Have some. My brother, my sister: my self.