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May 3, 2012
The shadow knows . . .
Recently I found myself, in the spirit of fun and brotherhood, saying something to a good buddy of mine, in a public setting, among friends, quite willingly and even with a bit of a rush at the saying of it, that was not very nice, even hurtful. But he didn’t miss a beat and fired back, all in good fun, a jab to put me in my place. Laughter all around and the evening went on.
Some twenty odd of us had gathered on that evening to share a meal and camaraderie together, fellowship among men of like mind and heart—lovers of beauty and song and the spoken word—soulful men, all, gathered with intention to celebrate each other and our common loves.
I had looked forward to the evening for a number of weeks and had scheduled my return flight from Portland in order to arrive just on time at 7:00PM. I knew everyone there at least by sight and felt privileged to be among them. How is it, I have asked myself since, that in the company of such conscious men that I behaved in that way?
I will tell you what I know.
To begin at the beginning
I can’t say I actually remember
holding back the tears,
stamping my foot defiantly,
asserting, “I was, too, borned!”
But I know I must have done
and I can certainly imagine it.
I know my older brothers
used to tell me that,
taunt me with words—
You weren’t born—they’d say.
And as it turns out
they were right.
Like Caesar, I was pulled into this world—
the bleeding left no choice—
pulled by Dr. McClellan on that Sunday morning
just weeks before Pearl Harbor,
the fourth and final son
of Chester and Louise—
a Southern Presbyterian preacher
and his North Carolina farm-girl wife.
Yes, they were right, my brothers,
and I knew, in spite of myself,
I was different—somehow.
As much as I was the same
and shared the genes
of Chester and Louise,
of Will and Mary and Will and Ada
and on and on, all the way back,
I felt that difference,
about me, inside me
and from that place, then,
I chose a different path,
I chose to leave
my place of birth,
I chose exile—
I tell you this that you might know a tiny bit of who I am as I unravel for you my own behavior on that evening.
The evening was full of merriment and laughter and quiet and not so quiet conversations among small groups within ear shot of each other, renewing old connections and exploring new ones and men making heartfelt toasts to one another and speaking poems from the heart. One among us, Barry, rose in jest and seriousness to toast himself, setting of a raucous peel of “ME! ME! ME! ME! ME! . . . ” When the laughter subsided, he spoke of his life’s work. In a self-effacing, “shameless self-promotion” he pitched his book, his gift to the community and to the world, the fruition of a lifetime love affair with Greek mythology and ten years of dedicated labor, triggered by the events of September 11, 2001. Clearly he wanted people to read his book. Clearly it was a desire linked to his deep love of the world and his anguish at current conditions—I don’t think I project here.
When he was done another man rose and spoke of the book, saying, “I have read every word . . . ” and he went on to praise it in eloquent fashion. I rose next to speak praise of the book in the same manner. “I, too, have read every word of the book. It is a difficult read . . . ” at which point, the Barry interrupted me, saying, “You should have gotten the English version!” Laughter, all around. Shaken, taking it on, unable to parry the moment back into a realization of my original intent, I sat down without completing my thoughts.
Not too long afterward when my good buddy, Maurice, had risen to share a poem from his native Australia, a nineteenth century poem that needed a bit of a context, I interrupted is earnest sharing with a sarcastic question, “Were you saying something, Maurice?”
My words need no gloss but for the record they were meant to annihilate.
I had felt annihilated, much as I had as a younger brother, perhaps, and I simply passed on the feelings to another, feelings of not having been seen or heard, feelings of anger at not having been able to stand my ground, to absorb the joke—not designed for annihilation, like mine, but more likely coming from a place of discomfort at all the praise and a desire to be out of the spotlight—mission accomplished, however indirectly—and go on to deepen the conversation as I had intended. I had wanted to say to all present, that the book calls for effort from the reader and to honor the author’s effort we must be willing to bring equal effort—to experience the book as fully as it deserves, we must match the author’s effort with our own.
There are powerful forces at work, within and around us. I need to be seen and heard. I need recognition and validation from other men. I need to feel a part of the group. In my experience, humor among men is often of the type I describe here—sharp, sarcastic, critical, competitive, calling for a like response—certainly the opposite of open, direct, honest, not to mention vulnerable, communication.
It is hard to stay conscious. Cultural norms are powerful.
Feeling cut down (not that I was—I could have acted otherwise) I told myself, “You want to play that game? I can play that game!” removing myself even further from my real feelings. It looks so simple now, but it took me a while to see myself and how my shadow spoke.
Maybe next time I will make a different choice.