By Men Alive
I knew I needed a men’s group in the worst way. I had just returned to the San Francisco Bay area after a cross-country trip with my wife. We had hoped to save our marriage, but the trip nearly killed us, or rather it nearly killed me. My wife was a violent woman who slept with a gun under her pillow to “protect herself from men.” We had been married for two years and I suspected that I was in another abusive relationship and if I didn’t get out soon, I might never leave alive.
The flyer posted on the bulletin board in Mill Valley said, “A Day With Well-Known Men’s Activist Dr. Herb Goldberg.” I had recently read Goldberg’s book, The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege and resonated with the words from the introduction. “The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power. He is out of touch with his emotions and his body. He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”
I met for the day with twenty other guys who ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. We had our own reasons for being there, but each of us was looking for the understanding and support most of us had never gotten from men. In one of the exercises we did in the workshop, we were asked to reflect on ways we had been wounded by other men in our lives.
I recalled my father who had become increasingly irritable , manic, and
depressed with he was in his 40s. He took an overdose of sleeping pills and was sent to Camarillo State Mental Hospital north of Los Angeles. I was five years old at the time. I somehow felt responsible for his leaving and grew up wondering if I would become mentally ill.
Following the one-day workshop with Herb Goldberg, one of the organizers asked if anyone was interested in a regular men’s group. The following Wednesday, ten of us met at Tom’s house on Thalia street in Mill Valley. We agreed to meet weekly and the group soon narrowed to seven guys. We’re still going strong after 38 years. Over that time two guys dropped out and two were added. The “new guys” have now been in the group 25 years. One man died a few years ago and we are still grieving his passing.
We continue to provide love and support and to challenge ourselves to go deeper. If you want to get a feeling for what goes on in a men’s group I highly recommend the recent film by my friend Joseph Culp called
“Welcome to the Men’s Group.” It’s a feature-length production that isn’t about our group, but captures the kinds of things our group has dealt with over the years.
Here are a few of my own highlights of the group:
• The early years where we were able to talk honestly about our relationships and the challenges of living and loving. Opening my heart and trusting guys with my deepest secrets was something I had never experienced.
• Getting uncomfortable and comfortable sharing the range of our experiences with sexuality. Never easy to talk about, but always rewarding to hear real experiences of lust and longing, not the ones we often make up in our imaginations.
• Learning to accept our own bodies. I still remember the terror of standing in front of the group, taking our clothes off and getting feedback about what each man liked about our bodies. It was a revelation to me to be seen and appreciated by other men. I was amazed at the difference between what the men saw and what women saw.
• After meeting for ten years, the group was safe and comfortable. We were beginning to feel like an “old married couple” and looked to find some new challenging experiences. We decided to do the New Warrior Training adventure with the Mankind Project and came out changed for the better.
• For our 10 anniversary, we hired a limousine, rented tuxedos, had dinner at the best restaurant in San Francisco, drove to Bodega bay and spent the weekend talking to each other and the ocean. Ten years seemed like forever, then. It seems only a blink in time now.
• We had an opportunity to explore cultural differences when we met for a number of years with an Asian men’s group. I still remember one of the exercises their group gave us to help break through our White-guy programming. We were forced to crawl on our bellies and felt the indignity of being controlled by others with more power. We began to get insights into what it meant to be a minority in America.
• I remember the day we decided to stay together forever. Up until that point we were a group gaining skills to be good men. After that we became a band of brothers–together to the end.
• The end came for John, the elder of the group, at age 83, on June 22, 2010 . As an only child, I never lost a sibling. John was my older brother, my friend, a quiet sage, and a role model of how to live well to the end. I will always miss him and he still lives on in my memories.
Here are some of the truths I’ve learned in our last 38 years together.
• My wife, Carlin, and I have been together for 37 years and we both attribute a great deal our marital success to our being in a men’s group and a woman’s group (Yes, with the group’s help, I got out of the abusive relationship I had been in previously).
• The group attended numerous events with Robert Bly, Michael Meade, and James Hillman. In his poetic way, Bly reminds us of the importance of being in a men’s group “in order to hear the sounds that male cells sing.”
• Memories of unusual events stand out, but the glue that holds us together is the comradery we feel when we meet for our 4 day retreats, where we eat good food that we make ourselves, drink good wine, smoke good herb, talk good talk, laugh, and play. We know we’re in this together to the end and are blessed to be walking this life-path together.
• There’s always the edge between enjoying the men we are today and going deeper. We enjoy the ease we have of knowing what to expect, but also the willingness to risk going deeper. After 38 years, we feel we are deep into the well of who we are with each other, but we also do things to explore “the last two feet.”
• We don’t talk a lot about loving each other, but the love is present when we meet and in the quiet spaces between times. It’s a love like nothing I’ve ever known. It’s different from the love I have for my wife, children, and grandchildren. It’s different than the love I have with other relatives. We chose to be in the men’s group and we chose to stay together forever, a highly unusual choice in today’s world. We continue to experience the ripples those choices have made in our lives.
• Words can’t capture how I feel about these men. All I can say is that I hope they know and I hope some of you who read this will take the opportunity to be in a men’s group that lasts forever.