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
Our tenth conference, in the millennial year, was Bringing Forth The Gift, the Soulful Expression of a Man’s Life.
Our culture discourages creative expression in everyday life. A few ‘stars’ receive the projected glory while the rest of us are relegated to the role of consumers. Life is a process of creative expression. If we only take in images from the media and the culture without active expression, we are merely spectators, a story untold, a gift unopened.
And what we consume in “the culture of death,” the images persistently broadcast by its media can be toxic and self-limiting in the extreme. Most messages promote comparison of ourselves with others, always to the diminishment of one’s self – never making enough money, not possessing the sexy woman or fancy car being dangled before us, quite simply never good enough. A fragmented society knows only how to further divide. We become resentful and suspicious of other men, most women, younger people, all authority and the world in general. We fear and hold as an enemy all who were different, and the “culture of death” masterfully and incessantly advertises differences, seldom sameness. An emphasis on comparisons and divisive differences spells death to our creativity.
As men, we often find ourselves providing for and taking care of others, burdened by duties and responsibilities that crush passion and heartfelt purpose, leaving us passive and often depressed. It is easy to forget that that among these responsibilities is the one we have to our own authentic expression. Creativity is not something we generate; it is something we unlock. Somewhere inside every one of us is a creative voice longing to be free. By its release, the universe moves. It is every man’s right, or more accurately, every man’s gift, to feel the creative force move through him. This grace awaits every one of us.
The conferences were building a psychic and soulful momentum. The more we had the courage to surrender to the collective work of transformation, the more we experienced its gifts. There were so many – the gift of self expression, the gift of feeling and loving more, the gift of support and alliance – gift after gift and always another one, perhaps more subtle, perhaps more complete, some greater refinement of our wholeness, always another awaiting.
The key to releasing our gifts, what all the gifts have in common, is accessing our innate creativity. Creativity, like longing, is at the heart of all we might wish. Creativity, I imagine, just might be longing’s handmaiden. It is that part of our liberated Will which marshals the resources and shapes the route our Will might take in our collective dream, this world we experience together.
One man who has attended the last ten consecutive years, told me that when he first heard a man speak of his feelings, he had no idea what that could mean. Now, he is himself a prolific and accomplished poet. He credits the conferences, singing with men amongst the trees, grieving his own enormous wounds, ones he had thought he could never overcome, finding his own at-first-hesitant powers of self expression, all these gifts leading him to “unlocking” his own boundless creativity. “To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!” Walt Whitman sings ecstatically in his “One Hour to Madness and Joy.”
Lest you get the idea that everything is sweetness and light, let me share another part of our story. The year 2000 was Robert’s last year with us. In addition to the blessing he bestowed, that magical moment I have described, he always imparted in his genteel way the wisdom of an elder. One theme he returned to regularly was the importance of owning one’s own shadow. We discovered the truth of his wisdom, time and again, as we grew together in community.
In planning the 1997 conference, described above, we were greatly impressed with the ritual work of Malidoma Some and imported without adequate thought and preparation an African ritual, born on African soil, in an Arican village culture and designed to serve African villagers’ needs. We imposed the ritual, one in which men were to literally vomit up their pain and stuck-places into holes dug in the ground and then dance in relief around a giant bonfire we kept going all night. The energy released was more than any of us had bargained for and more than we knew how to handle. All sort of hurt and offended feelings arose from this. It took the bulk of the conference to even begin to process them and, in the end, much was left unresolved. There was real hurt and damage done, and some men chose to leave the conference and some men, to our sorrow, have never returned.
The ritual may have been effective in Malidoma’s village in Africa and might have been effective for us had we prepared more fully for it, leading up to it slowly and providing a meaningful context and a safe holding container. We simply, in our ignorance and pride, sprang it on the participants, full-blown from the inflated head of our collective Zeus. As I have said, rituals borrowed intact from alien cultures tend not to work when transplanted directly without careful thought and appropriate modification. Far better is it to allow the ritual to arise from the needs of the moment. As we advance in this work we try to become more skilled in the differences and the balance between planning, permitting and imposing.
We have had other misses, as well, leading to conflict. There was another year we had an all night fire. To make sure the fire was always tended, we asked each man to take a stone, like drawing lots. Time slots were written on the underside of each stone and the late night time slots proved problematic. Some men did not show up for their allotted time. Others, then, were forced to leave the fire untended or stay beyond their committed time. Hours of conflict ensued. The rocks with the numbers on them were brought forth as evidence, as if a trial were in progress. And though this conflict was of a different nature and of a different intensity from the thoughtless transplanting of Malidoma’s African ritual, it, too, was instructive and forced us to look at ourselves and laugh. We were arguing over a pile of stones.
Men respond to conflict in a variety of ways, sometimes with avoidance, sometimes with self-righteous picayune detail. What we have found as effective when conflict arises is to allow it to air completely – no cross-talk, no rebuttals. Usually when a man has had his say and his sense of insult and outrage has been released, reconciliation will find its own course. I believe men are gifted at synthesizing differences when the context and forum for such is respected. Anger is permitted but never violence. We understand that up-front, and, more and more, as safety is assured, the conflict either finds its own resolution or the differences remaining are accepted without rancor. When a man feels he has been fully heard, neither concurred nor disagreed with, simply heard and held within the circle, he is a part then of community. He is validated.
Our shadows, our limitations are always with us, even as we long for soulful connection and community. Part of that longing, as I have said in telling the story of the 1999 conference, was for a more diverse community. To bring a society from division to reconciliation that which was rejected, age, youth, gender, must be re-gathered, accepted and honored. The culture must risk opening to that which was excluded as different or inferior. Further constriction only compounds and multiplies its ills. Interpersonally we were dedicated to enhancing community. To bring a man to wholeness the cast-off parts of himself must be retrieved, welcomed, and reintegrated. Each man must examine his prejudices, his defenses towards the unknown, his shadow. He must open to the possibility that the person he has dismissed may be his brother, in many ways his own self. Intrapsychically we were committed to wholeness, and wholeness holds both lead and gold.
We had declared in our call to that conference that any healthy and enduring community must embrace and celebrate diversity. We had taken on age and found encouragement in a significant healing of generational opposition. Now to go further and take on more: sexual orientation and race.
Sexual orientation is so often a source of deep, painful, and extreme divisions among men. Our conferences are welcoming to and have always had gay men in attendance. As we have grown in community, finding brotherhood between gay and straight has not seemed at all difficult. But I can remember back to the Sonoma Men’s Gatherings and our conferences in the earlier nineties where homophobia would rear its head and gay brothers did not feel completely comfortable. But as we have experienced one another year after year in the more intimate setting of our small groups and in the community circles, gay men have been comfortable enough to express their pain at rejection, have been listened to and held in community with great empathy, “I hear you,” and, unless I am greatly mistaken, it has not been much of a problem with us for at least a decade.
Race and ethnicity on the other hand has been a much more difficult issue to synthesize into our community. We have had men of different ethnicities attend, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, and, although the experience always felt rewarding at the time, few if any would return. For two years in a row an African-American group from Oakland called “Simbha” sent some men and a few youth to attend. They had been drawn by the language in our brochures, had requested and were granted scholarships (we’ve always stretched our funds to provide financial help to those who request it).
I remember much that was moving and illuminating in our encounters with the men of Simbha. In one community circle a white attendee who had grown up in Oakland confessed in a trembling voice how frightened he had been in high school of the numerous blacks there. One of the Simbha men called out ”brothers” and in an instant all of the black men attending were on their feet and in the center of the circle holding and hugging that man. The rest of us got up and surrounded them. For a moment in time, and who knows how long or deep in our Soul, we merged in a rapture of reconciliation.
Several of the Simbha men told us we did not understand how difficult it was for them to attend a white conference, implying that we had not done enough to make them comfortable or ease their way in. “You do not know how much courage it takes for him,” one said pointing to a teen, the youngest brother amongst them to attend, “just for him to be here in the woods. He is a street ghetto brother and the woods themselves are alien and frightening territory to him – much less to be here with a bunch of white dudes.”
I later saw that young man being hugged by Robert Johnson. He hardly came up to Robert’s shoulder. He had his arms around Robert’s mid-section, his head on Robert’s chest, hugging Robert as though he were a redwood. For his part Robert stood still and firm, grounded in his inherent dignity, moving only his right hand to tenderly stroke the youth’s face. That image is indelible in my memory.
How I wish they had chosen to return more than the two times they did attend. I do not believe the failure to create greater harmony in our race-divided brotherhood was either a fault of ours or of theirs. The gap between us in those years was simply too large, the time not yet ripe enough. I sincerely hope we get the chance again.
So this gift, this gentle man, who reflected our gold and alerted us to our shadow, was soon to depart from us. Our final hours together had come to the following Monday morning schedule: singing in the Temple of Melodious Sound, breakfast at eight, the Memorial Day ritual of calling into the circle the names of our departed friends and ancestors, songs and poetry on both the honorable service of men and the wastefulness of war, large community circle in which we would speak what our hearts may yet wish to express, meet in small groups to say good-bye, a closing ritual at the beach, something conclusive to, as Doug put it, “get us out of Dodge,” and then a 1 p.m. lunch with a birthday cake for dessert as Robert’s birthday was right around Memorial Day. At this, our 10th conference, Robert’s 6th with us, he announced it would be his last.
It was his 80th birthday in 2000 and he was retiring from all public activities. He said he wanted to give the rest of his time to facing without distraction, welcoming without reservation, and psychically preparing for his approaching death. We would see him no more but would feel him in absentia, continuing to think of and bless us. And, still on this physical side of the dream, bless him, we have had cards and phone calls from him. Farewell, Robert, your gifts to us were incalculable!
I remember first meeting Robert. I had drawn the lucky assignment of driving him from the San Francisco airport to our 1995 conference at Gualala. My parents lived at the time near the airport and I had visited them earlier. I no longer remember what comment I made about lunch with my mother, but Robert’s response I remember perfectly.
“Ah, the great question is how to separate the archetypal mother from your historical mother and from the mother complex. A man lives with all three. Each can be dealt with in a healthy manner, but if they contaminate one another, if a man confuses one for the other, he’s finished. The great task of mid-life is to keep these forces separate.”
Over the years Robert emphasized the importance for men to befriend and understand their anima, the feminine side of our consciousness. He exhorted us to find the nurturing archetypal Mother within ourselves, to honor, respect , love but not seek redemption from our external historical mother, the woman who gave us birth, and how to untangle in our psyche the knots of the mother complex with its self-defeating collapse into a desire to be mothered and rescued. He demonstrated how to ritualize and symbolize our harmful energies, resolve them intrapsychically, keep them from spilling damage on the physical plane. One conference brother said, “He helped us develop a culture that not only tolerated but honored masculine intimacy.” Finally, he increased exponentially our access to and comfort within the archetypal world. Farewell, Robert!
Having received the blessing of an elder, having absorbed the alchemy of its capacity to turn the lead of our doubts into the gold of self-awareness, we knew, or would come to know, we were moving towards an inevitable goal, becoming blessing elders ourselves.