In 2010 we celebrated our 20th Annual Men’s Conference. In honor of that occasion, Hari Meyers, the Redwood Men’s Center Master Storyteller put together a retrospective of the first twenty years.
A History of the Redwood Men’s Center’s Conference-Gatherings
by Hari Meyers
The majority of men attending our conferences and participating in the Men’s Movement in general were white and middle aged, mostly professional. We desired diversity and in our 1999 conference, The Youth in Every Man, the Man in Every Youth, we put out the call:
Although our underlying unity as men is ultimately indivisible by age, race, culture or economics, any healthy and enduring community must embrace and celebrate diversity. In an effort to further expand the circle, we want to encourage and welcome the participation of younger men.
Again, we were blessed. Not only more men in their twenties came but a number of high school youth as well, some the sons of men who had attended previously. These men were hoping to share something they found of value, all of us were, hoping the next generation would find this experience relevant. It was all hope; we did not know how to effectively heal, just that healing was necessary, that there’d been a chasm between the generations for far too long, and, painfully, that most fathers and sons were still estranged from one another. Uncertain, fearful maybe, we had to do it!
To the age old rift between generations have been added the peculiar problems of our times. The demands of work, the high rate of divorce, the pulls of new technology have all created a world in which men often do not know their children, sometimes fear them, ignore their emotional needs and attempt to control them through ridicule and force. In the name of being realistic we dash their creativity, originality and idealism as ours may have been crushed by our fathers. How horrible that youth can not feel safe with elder men, cannot count on their loving guidance. It is time to address this wound and begin healing by listening to one another.
Besides certain designed processes, our format included having the attending men organized into groups of six or so. In these small groups, men were able to feel safer and consequently to share more intimately and freely about a question that may have come up from the story told, or some feelings that had arisen from poetry or movement, or from the singing and drumming. The selection of the groups was often playful but seldom random. We tried for a good mix of seasoned men with those coming for the first time, and, at this weekend, we wanted some young men in each group, and we intentionally placed the fathers and their sons in different groups.
Quite a few of the youth opted to come back to the conference, not once but regularly. In the next eleven years we witnessed several graduate high school and even college. How gratifying for elders to participate in a young person’s life, to offer, if the youth requests, guidance, and to witness with appreciation the journeys of the young. How empowering for the maturing youth to be listened to, encouraged, appreciated, to be, as the poet Sophia deMello-Breyner wrote “beheld, beloved and known.” And these young men, as they returned and matured, and as their elders became more comfortable with simply listening and receiving, elected to be in the same small groups with their fathers.
Elder and younger men need a connection with each other. Younger men often crave to learn from the more experienced, and elder men yearn for the vitality, enthusiasm and vision of the young.
The two hour community circle evolved over the years as such an essential component of expression and emotional healing that our weekend came to have five of them. In these circles or councils, as we call them, any man can have his say, to be received and never interrupted by the others. We had to work our way through various reminders for brevity (confidentiality was always a requirement) and we adopted the use of the “talking stick,” a gift from Native American circles. We learned, and in time there was no need for the stick, a man simply waited until the previous speaker had finished – and we evolved a vocal and ritual gesture of hand on heart saying in unison, once a man had spoken, “I hear you.”
The generations have lived too long in fearful competition with one another. What our culture lacks is a healing ritual through which the generations might look upon each other with acceptance and respect. The elder generation can welcome and bless the challenge that the vision of youth may offer, the new possibilities it brings. The younger generation can honor and bless the experience of the elders, the wisdom it contains.
The term “healing ritual” may sound pretentious, ominous, or too serious for our fragmented abilities to achieve. Yet, it is very simple. The intention is everything. One needn’t be a shaman, nor a priest, nor anything but a man of good heart and will. All that need be provided is the space and time to hear one another — consecrate that space, with a bell, an altar, candles, if it helps, and it will, but what is essential is the intention to listen with the heart and not the mind alone. I can think of nothing more moving and healing than for a man to be part of a community witnessing a father and son express and demonstrate their love for one another – unless it be to be that reconciling father or son.
As elders we want very much to hear the concerns of our youth, to learn what they might wish from us. They will help us remember and rekindle the spark we so often ignore within our Soul. We can reconnect with our own youth and perhaps provide now what we would have wanted then – reliable relationships with trusted and caring elders. We yearn for the love and respect of younger men as they yearn for ours.
As we experimented with the form of the conference, always in the direction of micro-planning less and trusting spontaneity and inspired guidance more, a template of emotional progression evolved: We would explore the issues that came up from the announced theme, reveal and discuss, primarily in the small groups, the wounds those issues may have caused; we might experience catharsis as during our Saturday night grief ritual we collectively mourned the inevitable hurts, insults, indignities and compromises dealt our ideals, our very Soul by a society hardly interested in promoting wholeness, the “culture of death,” which we ourselves unknowingly perpetuated by passing on the wounds we had received. By consciously honoring those wounds however, which meant paying attention to them, giving them respect, and trying to understand any lesson or “medicine” they might contain, we could perhaps find liberation from endless repetitions of the same pain, the same failures, and, finally, by Sunday night or certainly Monday noon, we would celebrate any resultant insight, resolution, or turn towards a healing. Whatever beneficial experience garnered, whichever understanding deepened or self-forgiveness accepted, we hoped to hold the change long enough to place it in service to our families and communities back home.