The Ghosts in These Muscles
Four years ago, at age thirty-four, I had had enough. I had emptied my bag of life tools. It was time to admit that my life would be either painful repetitions of the past or a scary adventure into new territory. When I came to this realization, circumstances (or was it God? A higher power?) offered a ticket for adventure. This ticket states: “You can change your life if you so desire. But if you accept, you will change your life in ways never imagined.”
My ticket was reading John Lee’s The Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man. I had known John when he taught at the college where I work. I bought his book out of professional courtesy, but when I finished it, I was ready for adventure. He had changed his life with sweat and tears; perhaps I could change mine, too. I wrote John a note telling him I wanted to join a men’s group. After six months, he had an opening.
The man I was then — the man who sat nervously and uncomfortably on the floor, leaning against the wall, staring at ten men I didn’t know — is now a distant relative of mine. I had short hair combed to one side and horn-rimmed glasses. I wore grey slacks and a button-down shirt. I felt uneasy in such clothes, but I had no others to wear. I had lost my sense of who I was, and my imagination was failing me as I tried to recreate myself. I relied on a closet of old selves to cover me.
The man who I remember being then was not a bad man. I was a tired man, a depressed man, and a scared man. I did not beat my wife or my two-year-old son, but I yelled at them too often and distanced myself, watching too much television and working too many hours. I don’t believe I am an alcoholic, but I drank daily and looked eagerly forward to Mexican food and margaritas every Friday night.
I was not failing at my job, but there were days when I stood on the street corner in the rain, unable to decide whether to go inside or to go back home and call in sick. I felt trapped — trapped by what many middle-aged, middle class men feel trapped by: mortgage, pay check, sexual ineptitude, boredom, and colorless visions of the next thirty years — the long wait for retirement, golf, and more boredom.
John and his partner Dan Jones explained what the group would be like. Their approach to counseling and men’s work is varied and wide-ranging in technique. It rests, though, on the practice of “releasing emotions.” All of us have a large store of emotions — grief, anger, shame, frustration, fear, terror — a lifetime of “stuffed” emotions that are waiting to be expressed. Since men are taught their entire lives, from boyhood on, not to express emotions — it being both unmanly and unprofessional — we have an extraordinarily large reservoir of unexpressed feelings. Often, for instance, the inexplicable rage that pours from us in the kitchen when, say, someone has left a bill unpaid, derives its force from unexpressed shame we experienced in childhood.
After a couple of months in the group, I wrote a poem, one of the handful I ‘d written in ten years. The poem not only illustrates this idea of retained emotions, it also shows the extent to which my retained emotion was anger.
You breathe somewhere inside me
beside the blue fish
who have snapped at my guts
(and someday will again)
as if I were a five-dollar fly.
You stretch your bones
in the cool pools of my spleen
with long and lovely strokes.
Their wakes are mere shivers
on my tender skin.
Take care, the ghosts in these muscles
will eat you up;
as the dragonfly lights
on the slim wet leg
I wait like a learned fisherman.
A Fire of Cold Ashes
Perhaps it was the first session of the group, maybe the second, when I revealed what I had always considered the defining fact of my life: “My mother died of cancer when I was fifteen. She was forty-six.” There was little emotion in my voice as I revealed my dark secret, a secret I had previously revealed only to women I was attracted to. It usually aroused sympathy from them.
From John it brought, “How do you feel as you say that?”
I told him I felt sadness, a sadness that rose up to just behind my eyes and stopped. Then I felt nothing.
He asked me to scan the sensations in my body to see if there were other emotions.
I could not find one. I was numb.
Strange. For me the statement “My mother died when I was fifteen” summed up my entire existence. Yet, when it came time to feel what her death had meant to me, I couldn’t feel a thing. I was sensitive and serious because my grief had shown me the dark side of our lives and I knew what terrible things life could hand a person. My on-and-off love of poetry, I thought, was rooted in the deepest, most hurt place in my soul. I had begun writing at about the time she became ill. I attributed my lust for and fear of women to my need for the attention of many women to replace the one that I had lost. But I would never let one hurt me again. Then there was my heavy drinking and wild horseplay which had developed, I thought, since I had no good mother to control me. And finally, I rebelled against my father with anger, for we had competed for her affection. When she died, we blamed each other for the loneliness we felt.
During another session, I struggled to tell the men in the group how I felt alone and detached from my wife and son. Dan Jones asked me to describe what I saw when I thought of the family I grew up with.
“When I think of my family, what I see is my dad, two sisters, and I‘m standing around a dead campfire on a chilly day. The campfire is a circle of emptiness that keeps my family huddled near each other, a vacuum that binds us. It’s really bizarre—the essence of my family is the loss of this wonderful woman. If she had lived, we probably would have separated naturally.”
But again, I felt little. All I could say was that I missed her and that I wished she had lived to help me through some of the hard times I had experienced. I remembered a poem that I had written in a hotel room on a high school trip. I was feeling low, so I wrote a poem that said something like, “But there are days I wish I could rise to heaven and tell my mother I love her.” I showed the poem to one of the girls on the trip; she showed it to other girls, and they showed it to the mother who was the chaperone. They treated me as if I were special, and I felt better. Someone cared for me.
In another early session, I discussed my love of writing, especially poetry writing. But I admitted I had written almost no poetry in ten years. My current writing was academic, logical, critical, and opinionated.
“Both my father’s and my mother’s dream for me was to go to college, join a fraternity, play college baseball, enlist in the ROTC and become a lieutenant, graduate, and become an administrator of some sort.”
John asked me, “If your mother had not died, where would you be today?”
“I would be working in some corporation. I would have gotten my degree in business, remained in the fraternity that I had quit. I would be living the sanitized, picture-perfect American lifestyle.”
He seemed surprised. “You see, John, my mother was a sociable person whom everyone liked. She would have visited the fraternity and become friends with the houseparent, who would then have looked after me. She would have lovingly kept praising me for accomplishments in business school. She would not have asked me what I wanted; she would have loved me into her vision of what I should be.”
Then, under Dan’s guidance, I envisioned a conversation with my mother. I saw her. “She’s coming toward me from a distance. She is wearing a white gown.”
“What do you need to say to her?”
“Mother, I want your blessing on my being a writer and on my writing.”
To my surprise, the woman spoke, “Lyman, you get great joy from writing. You can make beauty with words. Follow that dream, and I will be there with you.” In imagining this, a great sense of peace overcame me. I was calm. A couple of small tears formed in the corners of my eyes. “That was beautiful,” I thought. “I’ve been wanting her to say that for years.” It had seemed like a visitation. A spirit had stood near me, and its essence had emanated from it like waves on a pool until I was encompassed by its calm, loving, and totally accepting view of life.
The Water Moans
After a couple of months, I began to grow frustrated with my work in the group. I wasn’t able to get in touch with many deep emotions. I could tell my stories, but I couldn’t feel them. Maybe I had told them too often in my twenties to each new girlfriend. To make matters worse, I was running out of stories. I had trouble remembering any events in my childhood before my mother’s death especially events that included her.
Then one day I remembered her uncle’s country house. She and I had visited there when I was eleven. The memory turned into a poem. Maybe finally something was beginning to move in me. And it was poetry! I remember the joy I felt after I had written the poem. I drove over to John’s house to show it to him, drove past his house, stopped, hesitated, ashamed at my childlike joy, then finally decided not to bother him. He had so many clients, right? What if they all dropped in midweek with the daily developments in their recovery? I drove back home and saved the poem to read at the next session.
The gate at the bottom of the hill
was opened for us, and two tracks,
grass short and lush between
(that which separates and defines them),
gracefully curved up the hill
toward your dead uncle’s home,
past a pond, the still water enveloped,
but enveloping, too, an island dollhouse,
a copy as tangible as the object it is the mirror of.
It is midday in spring,
cows crowd the fence
near the curving drive,
their udders growing full,
and flowers (I still cannot name them)
clump color and lean our way,
last survivors of the cows’ long tongues.
You warn me that the cellar has bees
and to stay away or else.
I stay away
and walk down to the pond.
As a girl you used to row across
this pond to play house.
(Your uncle warned you of the snakes.)
The boat has sunk, they say,
but I see you then,
my country girl, no Victorian bows,
your thick brown curls blow across your face,
your rural cotton dress undulates.
It rises and falls like waves on the pond.
(What did your uncle think
from his front porch
spying on your billowing girlhood?)
Yes, I see you,
your thin, thin fingers
delicately arranging your furniture and your dolls.
You see, Mama,
I remember these things you told me
as we walked hand in hand around that pond.
The frogs dove in from the shore.
Now I half expect your tender face
to rise from the waters of my dreams.
I will gently lean to kiss your lips
but fall and drown.
That little house will shake,
the water moan.
I was proud of this poem. It was not like anything I had written before. Based in fact, somehow the poem took over and wrote itself. The description of the place is accurate, but I don’t think we walked hand in hand, nor do I know where the frogs came from.
Most surprising are the poem’s hints of incest. The images forced me to reconsider the relationship I had with my mother. As long as I can remember, I have trusted images that arise from the unconscious, whether they appear in my poetry or in my dreams. I knew the images held a truth for me, if I could unlock their meaning. As I thought about the poem, memories I had forgotten began to surface.
I remembered that when I was five years old my mother used to put me to sleep by getting into my bed and patting my stomach. For a long time, I thought that she slept with me and not my father. I also remember that about this same age I had erections when I would take my evening bath. My penis would sting from the soap’s irritation, and my mother would powder my penis with talcum and rub it in. I can also remember that in my early teens I became aware of my mother’s menstrual cycle; often, when she would pick me up from junior high, I could smell her blood from her Kotex that she had not had time to change. A few years later, when I began masturbating, my forty-five-year-old mother was an important fantasy figure.
I have heard stories about men and their mothers that are truly frightening; my story does not compare with theirs. The details of our relationship are fairly mundane. Still as my memories returned to me, I had to admit that as a boy I had experienced emotional incest. I don’t know if it is possible to be a boy and not be emotionally incested by your mother. My sexual imagination, innocent as it might originally have been, asked for some of the attention I received. From watching my son grow up, it seems that boys ask for some sort of sexual merger with their mothers. A woman would have to be extremely strong and aware not to accidently encourage or aid such impulses.
Still, writing the poem showed me I needed to look at the lack of boundaries between my mother and me. This was indicated in the images throughout the poem: the parallel paths, the two houses, the shoreline. My inability to defend my boundaries is obvious also in the cow eating the flowers, my own falling and drowning. Now I had something to work on.
In the Company of Men
I felt that I was beginning to understand and feel the effect my mother and her death had had on me. My energy was beginning to rise. I was noticing how various women affected me. I liked strong women with sharp verbal skills; I felt safe because I knew how to defend myself from them. I was afraid, on the other hand, of “sweet” women who wanted to take care of me. Sooner or later, it seemed they tried to make me feel guilty for not taking care of them and I knew I would oblige. I was beginning to understand the roots of my codependency.
But my world changed, and, with it, my focus. My father had cancer and soon would die. I needed to heal my relationship with my father and grieve his death. Luckily, he and I had grown closer during my late twenties as he began to see that his greatest fears about me were unfounded. I could finish graduate school. I could hold down a regular job. I wasn’t a drug addict. I wasn’t going to be a starving, disgraceful poet. Most important for both of us was the birth of my son, Will. For my father, it meant the family name would live on—after my sisters had given him six grandchildren, my father’s only son now had a son. For me, it meant that I could understand what it meant to be a father, and perhaps, forgive my father for his fear and his injuries to me.
I had already forgiven my father for much the night my son was born. Holding Will, moments after his birth, wet and bloody and so very, very small, I instantaneously experienced the joy and terror of fatherhood. The first thought that flashed through me was “So this is why my father worried so much about me.” My father had known me when I was helpless, and some part of him always saw that part in me. I knew at that moment, more than at any other time, the power and beauty of sperm. I understood the pride of male lineage.
So when my father died, I felt a chaos of emotions. I felt confusion because I now had no adult family member to rebel against. I had no one to prove anything to. I felt pride that I had been with my father when he died and that I was able to take his place as the eldest male Grant. I began to feel myself a complete individual, singular and whole, among my family.
Most importantly, I began to feel my emotions. Losing my father was so immediate and so earth-shaking that I began to feel everything. In the men’s group, I screamed, bellowed, and howled. I tore at pillows with my fists and teeth. I broke plastic bats. I relived every memory I could dredge up of my father humiliating me, whipping me, shaming me, imprisoning me. I joined a gym, and three days a week for months I punched a bag telling my father how he had hurt me.
For me, another part of that grieving process was to take an administrative post in my college. Though I feel that teaching is more rewarding than administration, my new job allowed me to feel closer to my father, to understand what he did every day, to feel the feelings he felt, to face the problems he faced.
Through these experiences, I began to change, slowly but permanently. The most significant change was that my quick anger dissipated. My wife and I can now discuss personal and family matters without their triggering in me instantly hot reactions. This of course reduces my wife’s need to defend herself. Another change, and one that I was surprised by, was that as I emptied myself of my grief and anger toward my father, I began to write more poetry.
Eighteen months after my father died, I entered group one night, again tired and depressed. By now I had learned to recognize that something was wrong when I felt nothing. John and Dan asked me questions, and I told the men how that weekend I had moved the last of my father’s belongings from the family house, which had been sold. I had closed down the home where I had grown up. I began to cry and wail more deeply than I ever had before. I felt as if I were one painful wound crying. It hurt so much not to have a father anymore. It hurt even more to have had a father who had not loved me unconditionally.
The men gathered around me and rubbed my head, told me it was all right to cry. They held me and rocked me. They gave me the gift of allowing me to feel my emotions, no matter how unmanly or unprofessional they supposedly were. For eighteen months these men had watched me rage; now they held me when I wept for my lost father. I may not have a father, I thought, but I knew twelve men who were gentler and stronger than my own father was. And I knew I was a good father. When I needed them, I was sure these men would help me father myself.
About this time, I wrote a poem that expresses metaphorically this need for men to turn to men for support. In writing it, I relied on the traditional images of water and mountains to symbolically refer to women and men, respectively. The poem grew from an incident just as I describe it in part one. My wife turned away from me and these images appeared. I got out of bed and began to write. The stories in part three are stories I heard men tell in group.
One night your wife won’t turn to you
through the dark and you start
a war in another country.
Bombs go off in your father’s arms;
The light is immense but you must look.
Your son is thrown to the bottom
of a well, but you have
no buckets to save him,
for you have turned them into guns.
In one sleepless night,
you have learned how the world ends.
The dark moon follows her own course.
Turn the other way.
A middle-aged man snouts at the mother
who died when he was away at school.
He stares at the mountains in hate.
The angry man cries because his mother
went insane. He has no one to slap
while his father speeds on to emergency wards.
The old man with kids our age
has not left his mother for the tides.
His children laugh at him like a fisherman
who returns with empty nets.
The earth cannot hold all their tears.
No matter where they fall,
they return to the blazing sea.
The tides will turn or not turn,
but there will be no more tears in you:
This is how the world begins. Light rises through the peaks.
After my father died, and as I struggled to learn how to be an administrator, I began to dream about women. The women I dreamed of were slim. In one dream, a dark-haired woman led me to a classroom where she taught in a lively, animated style. In another, I was holding tightly and kissing an older woman (not my mother), but I sensed she needed something from me as if she were alcoholic. In the next, a man in a steam room admitted that he had recently been a woman.
Individually, the dreams taught me much about how I loved teaching and how certain aspects of myself are wounded. As a series, the dreams troubled me deeply. What was happening to my inner woman? Was she disappearing? Is that healthy? My day life was good. I was feeling stronger, more capable of handling stress. I was doing my job very well. I decided to trust myself and not become too anxious. I took myself to lunch and tried to exercise when I could. And I waited for more dreams. For months, no more dreams forced themselves upon me.
I began to look at men and women differently. Women were no longer the people I had to turn to when I needed nurturing, love, and care. Not only is it unfair to the woman in our lives to ask her to fulfill all our emotional needs, it is misguided. No woman is strong enough, given her own daily struggles, to carry our hurts, also. Nor can a woman fully understand everything that a man feels.
A few weeks after I closed down my family’s house, I spent a weekend in the Texas Hill Country with a hundred men. John Lee and his friend, Marvin Allen, led the men in drumming, dancing, and ritual processes. The theme of the weekend was letting go of our mothers. In a grove of oak trees where I camped, I wrote a poem that created for me a new mythology, a new way of looking at the birth of a male child. Perhaps, I imagined, young boys were really born of men, but entrusted to women until the boys were ready to face the full wildness of what it meant to be a man.
There is a womb inside
the womb that we for get,
filled with cacti,
thorns, rotting leaves.
It smells like sunlight
in a darkened room.
It is here your
mother greets you.
She points to prints
n the dark dirt where
men with hooves and
golden hair have walked.
She speaks of broken
limbs, bright bones, claw
scars down the oak
as if you
She does not like
to linger here.
So when the hawk calls,
she pulls you up
into her lap
and takes you where
darkness flows like blood.
You are blinded,
but the heart beats calm,
she holds you
where stars stand still.
The beast in you
waits like a wolf,
against the backbone
of a deep cave.
The sun will rise
when you recall
the glint of gold
in forgotten bones.
More secure as a man, I was ready to return to Mom. So she returned to me. Dan Jones began leading a week-long men’s retreat in the Sangre de Christo Mountains at the Rose Mountain Retreat Center. There he gathered with twenty men to lead them in emotional release work, with the help of Andy Gold, the founder of the Rose Mountain Retreat, a sweat lodge, and a vision quest. It was on my vision quest, that my mother returned to me.
One morning we rose about four o’clock for the sweat. A traditional practice of the American Indians, the sweat lodge helps purify our bodies and our souls, to rid them of toxins as well as memories, fears, and hatreds. The lodge is built on the ground, tall enough for men to sit upright in, large enough to closely hold fifteen to twenty individuals. The frame is made of saplings and thin, malleable branches, bound together with string. Covering the frame can be a mixture of hides, canvas, and plastic tarps.
Inside the lodge, it is pitch black. At the center of the lodge are placed red hot rocks, which periodically are sprayed with water, making the lodge so hot it tests one’s endurance. In entering the lodge at the beginning of the ceremony, one is metaphorically re-entering the womb—the womb of the earth, the womb of one’s mother. Done properly, a sweat is a spiritual and psychological confrontation more than a physical test.
Our sweat was hot and long. After three hours of praying and chanting and pushing the body and soul to the limits, we rested and hiked to a place in the mountains that felt particularly powerful. I had found my special place the day before. There I fasted, drinking only water for the next twenty-four hours.
I had picked a spot midway up the mountain opposite Rose Mountain in some large outcroppings where I could look out on the long expanse of prairie leading back to Texas and home. I had not been settled in my place for more than an hour when I was visited by an overwhelming sense of grief, pain, and fear.
Without any kind of provocation, I began crying as I don’t remember crying before. Sobbing, I suppose, is the word we have that is close to it. I heaved and gasped for breath. My tears were large and hot. I wailed. My stomach knotted. Hunched over, I continued to moan and sob. For a long time, I didn’t know why I was crying. Then a voice came out of me, “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to me?” And I saw and felt my mother beating me with a large leather belt. “Why are you doing this to me?” No answer. Just the image of my mother hitting me as hard as she could across the back of my legs.
The next morning, watching the sun rise, I felt an unbelievable mixture of deep sadness and exuberant love for my wife, my son, and other people in my life. Acting upon impulse, I scooped cold ashes from the evening’s fire and covered my face and arms. Walking back to the retreat center, I picked tiny yellow and white flowers and placed them in my hair. Never before had I felt so light and so grounded at the same time.
Back in Austin, however, I lost my sense of groundedness. Every day after work, I would have a beer or two along with chips or pretzels so that I would get heavy and sleepy. After dinner, I would need a cup of coffee and something sweet to perk me up. For three months before going to Rose Mountain, I had not had alcohol, sugar, or caffeine. Upon returning, my life again became a self-perpetuating cycle of socially approved uppers and downers. I was aware of what was happening, but I was unable to stop it. I had come back from Rose Mountain with a big wound that I would do anything not to feel. I called my sister and asked her if she remembered our mother whipping us.
“Yes. On vacations, she would carry a razor strap that belonged to her father. I remember being whipped with it several times. On one trip she lost the razor strap and always blamed us for stealing it.”
I cannot explain the roots of my “flashback,” but it appears to have been an actual experience that was spontaneously released from my body’s memory. However one explains it, something like it no doubt had occurred in my childhood. The memory altered forever the way I remember my mother. She was no longer the saint in the white gown; she became a dragon with a razor strap. A new poem about her rose in my mind. As I wrote it, I finally understood the old campfire image—my family was not gathered around a campfire, but a pond with ashes that floated upon it.
Ashes float on the pond behind our home.
It’s here we prayed for her return.
Year on year, we skimmed the leaves
the giant oak had spread,
searching for her face beneath our own.
Then another leaf dropped,
and water breathed. One wave became
the flood. Frogs hurled themselves
upon our lawn. Our frightened pets
barked and pawed at the fur less beasts,
fugitives in both their homes.
Then the miracle occurred.
The dragon leaped from the lapping water
and growled like grandpa’s razor strap.
Snap! The cats and dogs went down
with frogs between their teeth.
Snap! I lost a leg and crawled
beneath the house to hide.
Before she pulled herself back to the bottom,
she growled again and covered
the giant oak inflame. We watched
him burn for days before
he collapsed into the calm, accepting pond.
I have a tube now
in my chest that drains a fluid bodies
don’t contain. The ashes never go away.
They drift in winds I cannot feel
on a surface I cannot see.
The doctors say I should stay inside.
I do not know how deep these waters go.
After writing the poem, I saw how similar its images were to those in the “incest poem.” Here again was the pond with something rising out of the center of it, a dragon this time, not a playhouse. In both, there is a house, the adult house, some distance away from the pond. Again frogs leap in and out of the water. Why frogs? I began to see them as creatures of the transition zones. They live in and out of water. They traverse the unconscious and the conscious.
Though I am proud of this poem, it frightens me. The dragon is so vicious, the grief so deep, the wound so gruesome. The doctors are, of course, John Lee, Dan Jones, and others who advise us in our inner work. “Feel the feelings,” they say. But sometimes it seems that feeling those old wounds is a spiral into bottomless grief.
When a person starts the spiral, he doesn’t know where he will land. I landed in another woman’s arms. One night after drinking too much with friends, I found myself in the parking lot of a popular Austin bar, kissing a woman I’d known for several years. I could claim it was all an accident, but I would be lying.
Since returning from Rose Mountain, I ‘d been looking at her across rooms, admiring the shape of her body, her full breasts, her smile, her open manner with people. I could only half listen to her conversation because while listening I kept thinking about how charming she was, mesmerized by the light in her eyes as she told a story and by the sway of her breasts as she laughed.
It was no accident. I stayed at the bar longer than I should have so that maybe she and I might walk out together. I drank much more than I should have so that I would have the “courage” to act, and I enticed her to drink more than she needed.
So we paused beside her car, and we kissed. We kissed fully and deeply. We laughed at how naughty we were. We pulled close together tightly. She held her breasts in her hands and joked about them provocatively. We kissed again. Then we got in our cars and drove home to our spouses.
That was it, but it was enough. The next day I called Dan Jones, insisting on private sessions. Before I risked my marriage and family any further, I was going to understand the cause of my actions.
Breasts. How does a sensitive, intelligent, enlightened man talk about breasts? Our entire culture, including both men and women, is obsessed with breasts. Breasts are used to sell everything from rock and roll to Toyotas, from air conditioners to Cosmopolitans. Women long for larger ones, men long for a touch, a feel, a lick, a suck. A nice man, like me, doesn’t talk about breasts. My mother’s breasts were large. My wife’s are not. With one exception, the girls and women that I have fallen most deeply in love with have had small breasts. Yet, I have always fantasized about large breasts. I love slim women, their sleek legs, their fragile wrists, their backs so delicate when I hug them. Seldom do slim women have large breasts. We fantasize about the things that we need, and the things we need frighten us. I think I am afraid of breasts.
The following poem came to me as I confronted my fear of women and their sexuality. It is part of a series of poems exploring my fears. Since I am not a thin man, I use “The Skinny Man” as that part of me that is dissipated and life-fearing.
The skinny man fears the delta.
He will not swim
where muddy rivers merge.
He won’t go down
sways in discarded shells.
He could never rise
from briars and tangled moss,
settle his feet in crustacean beds,
let reptiles with teeth like nails slide
around his legs.
When he is brave,
he wears a vest
large as momma’s breasts.
The sorrows of oysters
and crocodiles sing somewhere inside.
By working with Dan, I survived the danger zone where I might have called my friend and tried to resume what we had begun. In group, I continued to dig deeper into the needs I was trying to satisfy by having an affair.
I said to John: “Every woman that I fantasize about has large breasts, not huge, just nice full breasts. There is the woman in the parking lot, an ex-student whom I occasionally have lunch with, a next-door neighbor. I know what you are going to ask me,”
“Oh, yeah. What?”
“What is it that I want to receive from these women?”
“Pretty good, you’re learning,” John replied.
“When I visualize sex with these women, I tend to do a lot of kissing, licking, biting of breasts. I feel their softness, their acceptance of my nose and cheeks as I push my face into them.”
“How do you feel telling this?”
“I feel embarrassed telling this to a bunch of guys.”
“And how do you feel in the fantasy?”
“Lost, powerless, encompassed, hungry, needy. I feel as if I am searching for the ultimate satisfaction, the ultimate drug that would make me feel totally safe and nurtured and cared for.”
“Just like your mom made you feel?”
“No. Sometimes. But no.”
“How did your mom make you feel?”
“Cautious. Like I was okay only when I was good.”
“Lyman,” John said gently. “I don’t know if this will make sense or not, but repeat after me. “Thanks a lot, Mom. You really taught me how to love myself. I’m toying with adultery so I can find something to make me feel loved.”
John was right. My attempt at adultery was simply a way to find total acceptance of myself; it was an attempt to find someone who would love me in a way I couldn’t love myself. This was a lesson my subconscious was trying to teach me also.
I began dreaming about breasts. I dreamed of a beautiful, athletic, tanned blonde dancing beside a swimming pool, topless and joyfully displaying herself. I dreamed one of my wife’s best friends opened her blouse to let me suck her left breast. I dreamed I disrobed a woman I’ve known for years and, to her pleasure, kissed and licked her erect nipples. She calmly cradled my head close to her chest. While being embarrassed by these dreams, I knew by their persistence that my unconscious was attempting to tell me something. Finally, I realized .that the women in each of these dreams were freely giving themselves to me. I was not seducing them. They were, sometimes strangely, nurturing me.
Bats and Butterflies
My experience at Rose Mountain had been so profound and instructive that when Dan Jones announced that he and Andy Gold were going to offer the week again the following summer, I immediately knew that I must go. I did not know exactly what I was going to do there, but I knew I needed to take another step in letting go of my mother.
Almost three years had passed since I began my personal explorations, and I was satisfied with the progress I was making. My anger had almost dissipated. My wife and I could argue, and I would not fly off into a rage and immediately assume that the marriage was over. I was more comfortable with myself as a person, pleased to be writing poetry regularly, happy at work, and proud of the progress my colleagues and I were making.
I had freed myself in other ways. I had slowly acquired a new wardrobe of comfortable, cotton clothing. My colors were brighter, my patterns bolder. And I had allowed my hair to grow into a ponytail. I looked similar to many middle-aged movie stars and rock and rollers. I felt at once hip, open-minded, sharp, and professional.
Allowing my hair to grow long contained much meaning for me. It symbolized the warrior spirit that I needed to perform my administrative duties. It also symbolized beauty for me. Long, my hair has a full and natural wave that, during my twenties when it was also long, was the envy of my sisters and girlfriends. With long hair, in moments of boredom or discouragement I could always reach up and feel my badge of honor: Here is something beautiful that I will not let society take away from me. By the time I returned to Rose Mountain, my hair waved down past my shoulders.
Still, at least one more problem remained in my life. I felt like a young man; I didn’t feel completely mature. As I searched for explanations, I came to believe that I felt like a son, my mother’s son. In returning to Rose Mountain, I decided that I wanted to create a ritual that would help me discard my old self. Two months before it was time to go, I knew what I wanted to do.
One morning as I brushed my hair, massaged gel into it, and pulled it back into the ponytail, I realized that my entire sense of beauty was based on holding on to my mother. I knew that if I were to fully mature, I would have to discard my connection to my mother. I told the men at Rose Mountain: “As much as I love my long hair, it is a young man’s hair. Every strand of it grows as if reaching toward my mother to reconnect with her. She had beautiful hair and I display that for her.”
With Andy Gold, I created a ceremony that would help sever that connection. As the men gathered in the dark, we formed a circle around the sweat lodge. I stepped out of the circle and stood before the opening of the lodge. I knelt, then offered a prayer saying that I was ready to leave my mother behind. With a pair of scissors about two inches from my scalp, I cut a thick strand of my hair. I placed the handful of hair on an altar beside the lodge, then handed the scissors to a friend, who cut more hair. One by one, in the dark silence before dawn, each man stepped up to me, still kneeling, cut my hair, and placed it on the altar. When they were finished, we crawled into the lodge and awaited the placing of the bones of our grandmothers in the center of the lodge, where the rocks’ red heat would purify us.
After the sweat, I gathered my hair and took it to a spot that called me for my quest. In a forested area, much more gentle than on my first quest, I dug a hole beneath two young aspens and buried my hair. In burying my hair, I was burying the young man that I had once been.
I began weeping and told that boy how proud I was of him for his bravery, his daring to question authority, and his strength in withstanding the punishments he had received from his parents, teachers, and bosses. I praised him for his intelligence, his love of beauty, and the underlying gentleness and compassion that grew from the root of his soul. I also told him that it was good and fine that the time had come for him to die. In his dying, his fears and mistakes were dying, but his goodness was living on.
Then, through my tears, I surprised myself by forgiving all the people who had harmed me growing up. I named each person and what he or she had done to hurt me. I was crying very deeply by this time. Then I surprised myself again. I began thanking all the people who had been kind to me. I listed every girlfriend I had ever had, each girl who had loved me, if only for a day or a week. I named their mothers, who, after my mother had died, had given me their attention. Maybe they had invited me to a family meal and recognized in me my goodness and my care for their daughters. It was a very long list, and I cried over every one. Then I told that young boy good-bye. I said good-bye to my pain, to my dead mother, and to my need for women and other people’s mothers.
I returned to a small cave I had found and watched butterflies and hummingbirds cavort all day long. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. Several times during the afternoon a hummingbird flew up to me and hovered six inches from my face. In some American Indian mythologies, the hummingbird symbolizes joy. It is an energetic animal, darting from flower to flower, ecstatic in the beauties of God’s creations. When I considered the hummingbird with the butterfly, which represents transformation, I had much to look forward to in life.
That night, I had another visitor. Sitting in the opening of the cave, I was half-awake when I heard the swish of wings and felt the rush of air around my head. A bat. The few people I have told this story have been appalled that I just sat there when this occurred. But on a quest, you accept what God gives to you. What is more, the bat, too, is a symbol of transformation and rebirth. As one book on Indian symbols states, the bat “symbolizes the need for a ritualistic death of some way of life that no longer suits your new growth pattern. This can mean a time of letting go of old habits, and of assuming the position in life that prepares you for rebirth, or in some cases, initiation.” For me, my bat visitor acknowledged the rebirth and initiation I had just undergone.
Returning from Rose Mountain was much easier the second time. I did not quickly relapse into the endless cycle of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and fats. They are substances that I still have trouble controlling. I am addicted to them and will always be tempted by them. Too often I still give in. However, their use to suppress and deny feelings is much more specific, and I don’t feel as helpless against them. I am still hoping and struggling to eliminate them altogether. I have no interest in being pure. I have simply found that I am happier when I avoid eating them.
The Waters of My Dreams
In returning from Rose Mountain, I came to accept a new purpose in my life. Actually, I really came to understand a purpose I had had all along—writing poetry. As I have begun confronting my life with my mother, not only has my relationship with my wife improved, but so has my sense of joy and oneness with the divine.
In one of his early articles about men, Robert Ely points out that the last step for a man’s spiritual and psychological growth is to meet and wed the divine feminine. To do this, among other things, a man must have separated emotionally from his mother. The divine feminine can take many forms. The poet Robert Graves called her “The White Goddess,” and, for him, she was the source of all true poetry. For the last year, I have begun to hear the echoes of her voice speaking to me.
As I searched for ways to find her, friends suggested various techniques. One friend recommended a meditation technique that he had used. It is simple: one envisions the great nurturing aspect of the universe, however one pictures it, as holding you, enveloping you, and protecting you.
My response to this meditation was immediate, though it was not what I had expected. Within a week, I dreamed twice of my mother. I can’t remember ever having dreamed of her since her death. Both dreams are long and complicated, but very similar. In both dreams, my mother appears as a stem, distant and judgmental figure. A young, jealous, distant, and physically ill man is with her. In both, I (as I looked in my twenties) am associated with a young woman, whom my mother perceives as a threat, and rightly so, because in both dreams I choose a life with that young woman rather than accept my mother’s rules. In both dreams the young woman is wearing white.
Much can be said about these dreams, especially about the young man who is sick. In Jungian terms, he is, no doubt, my shadow side. Although I no longer view my mother as the saint of the family, I am surprised by the extremes that her authoritarian nature is exemplified by here.
These dreams are fairly recent and I haven’t learned all they have to teach me. But I do believe I have the tools to approach the end of this part of my adventure. For instance, I am writing a series of letters between the “people” in the two dreams. In one letter, the young woman writes to my mother about how much she loves me and how kind I am to her. The young woman tells my mother how my mother’s judgmental nature has hurt me. I have also become convinced that the woman in the white gown, whom I envisioned when I began this adventure and who encouraged me in my writing, was not my mother but a manifestation of the White Goddess. Recently I wrote the following poem, which explores how sometimes I feel the presence of this joyous goddess energy.
You breathe beside me.
The light of silent
distant moons enters
the room and leaves.
The air of a goddess
deeper than lungs
rests in feathers
we float above.
Someone is breathing you.
I dream your friend
is lying in my arms.
Her fingers, thin as shadows,
part the folds of her blouse.
I can’t help myself!
There is a wound in me
that needs the offering.
What do you dream?
Of movie stars? Men with
one arm and salt in their beards?
Priests who whip themselves?
A young boy with goat’s feet,
a scattering of wild hairs
swirling from his chest and crotch?
I clasp the hems
of your white dress
in this black night.
You breathe beside me.
Your sighs are a light
from another room.
Dreams pull us toward
women who sleep in straw.
Recovering from a Good Mother
I continue to work on my mother with John Lee, Dan Jones, and the men in my group. Recently, though nothing in particular was greatly troubling me, I decided I wanted to go deeper into the sense of betrayal I feel in what I considered my mother’s abandonment of me. I used to blame my father for the pressure I felt to become a businessman and all the rest. Certainly, my father was guilty of pressuring me in many ways to “be like him.”
In looking back, however, I believe the greatest pressure came from my mother. This is the mother whom I recently dreamed about. She desperately needed a good soldier, a young handsome lieutenant, as her son and consort. I remembered a telling remark she once made to me when I was around ten years old and having trouble in school. In a gentle tone, but one in which I heard deep criticism, she said, “You Grant men are just alike. You’re so unsure of yourselves; you always need someone to bolster your ego.” She was apparently disappointed with my father and was passing that disappointment on to me.
Probably with all the intentions of being a good mother, my mother dishonored me and encouraged me to dishonor the tender, playful, creative part of my character. I haven’t quite recovered. That is, I haven’t dug up from my neglected memories all that my mother did to me. I do know that I was praised for my math abilities, aided with science projects, and accompanied to hundreds of baseball practices. Never was my creativity praised. I was never allowed music lessons, though I asked for them. I don’t remember being praised for my writing. I believe it is significant that it was not until my mother died that I decided not to become an architect, but an English teacher.
These are scars I was not aware of until recently. In working on these issues in group, I have again begun expressing my anger, screaming, and swinging toy baseball bats in ways my mother never encouraged. I curse her and spit on her. There is a part of me that disapproves of my actions, but I am convinced that in recovering all the emotions and memories I have concerning my mother, I will recover the good in my good mother.
One night a month ago, I was cursing my mother and showing her how angry I was that she had dishonored the creativity in me. A voice rose in me, “She was only doing her best.” I stopped. Then I recovered my anger and resumed my work.
“Sometimes we want to forgive them too early,” I told the group.
Someday I will forgive her. I know she was only doing her best. I know that compared to other mothers she did an excellent job. But knowing that does not mean that I have to carry the wounds she gave me. I can release them. The wounds we receive growing up are not usually honorable wounds from righteous wars. Passing them on to my wife and son is not honorable or respectable.
Someday I will forgive her. I am asking for more dreams. I am learning to play a couple of musical instruments. I am writing more poetry and performing it in public. I am learning ways to nurture myself. I am returning to Rose Mountain in two months, and who knows what my vision quest will bring this time? Four years ago, I accepted the ticket that promised an adventure into unknown lands. Before this adventure ends (and I begin another), I want to see and understand everything the territory has to offer. Someday I will forgive her. I am almost there.
From Through the Fire, edited by Mary LeLoo (Crossing Press).