The world offers us a great number of ways of getting from A to B, in our lives, so to speak. These are opportunities in the daily run of life. I view it as just sitting down and doing our job of living. Filling out the job application, paying the bill, responding to the email you do or don’t want to respond to, getting the children to the gymnastics class, remembering the flowers for the anniversary. These are the tasks that if we do them and do them with intent and focus and care will build up and take us where we need or what to go.
Some self-help types will even describe these daily tasks as the path to your destiny—which is sort of where we began this book—my destiny, your destiny to be a poet. Each decision is a step toward your destiny. Do you decide to return the phone call or not. Do you decide to complete the job application or not. Do you decide to kiss the married man or woman from work after you have had too much (or just enough) to drink. My view is that there is not a right or wrong about any of this. There is just the “is” or what Robert Duncan calls it (and he gets it I think from the Arabic mystics like Rumi) the “what is.” Are you living your life in the “what is” or are you fighting against it?
One of the decisions that changed my life totally, completely, irrevocably, was asking John Lee to sell me a copy of his first book, The Flying Boy. John was a faculty member at Austin Community College. I had known John as colleagues know each other, the occasional chat at the photocopy machine, the observation of him tutoring students at the picnic table under the tree. I had seen a notice that he had published his book, so I put a note in his mailbox asking for a copy, and perhaps signing over a blank check for him to complete. Over a weekend, I read the story of his coming to terms with his life of half-starts, indecisions, and sexual misadventures, and recognized myself. I read about his efforts to understand himself and to change his behaviors, his therapy, his reading and the men’s groups he had begun leading, and I knew that I saw a path forward.
At thirty-five, my life was not horrible. It just fell into the realm of that famous Thoreauvian line: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” But after I had read John’s book, I wrote him a second note, asking him if I could work with him or join one of the men’s group. John was open, encouraging, and soon enough a new group formed, and I was sitting in a spare room in the house he rented in Austin’s Hyde Park region in a circle of about ten men in led by John and his teacher and friend, Dan Jones.
Anyway, little decisions in our daily life move us along our path in life. We stay where we are or we move from A to B. And then there are events—under our control or not—that move us from A to M or A to Z, instantly. These events tend to be of a spiritual quality. An epiphany, a conversion. These things are usually not in our control—they happen to us—we may make decision after the event, but the event itself has already moved us further along our life’s path that merely a thoughtful decision would.
So I believe in the quest. I believe in solitude. I believe in ritual. After some time, John Lee’s work as a national leader in men’s and recovery issues pulled him away from the regular meeting of our men’s group and Dan Jones took over solo. Oh shit. I don’t want to write a about
Dan. He recently died of pancreatic cancer at the relatively young age of seventy-three years. It happens. People die. He was an incredibly joyful man, and son of Walt Whitman, whom he loved and quoted and performed. Dan wrote a wonderful poem called “Shameless.” The men’s group that I belonged to for many years al
I wrote the poem “The Vision” sometime following one of our weeks at what we call Rose Mountain a ways outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. This week I had decided that I was going to get my hair cut. At the time, in the late eighties, I had grown my hair long again, like I had worn it in college and graduate school in the seventies. But in my work in the men’s group, I had come to the conclusion that, as I phrased it, “I had my mother’s hair.” I knew that if I were going to grow as a man, I needed to shed my mother’s hair and have my own. This is not a statement about whether a man can have long hair and still be a man. Things are way more complicated than all that. But for me, then, my hair represented some side of me that was feminine. In my time, women and therapists would often say of men: “Oh he needs to be in touch with his feminine side.” Probably the opposite was true for me. I knew good and well that I was very in touch with my feminine side and I needed to be in touch with my masculine side.
So Andy Gold and Dan and I arranged a kind of ritual that the men agreed to. As the line of naked men, one by one entered the sweat lodge on their knees, each one took the knife and cut off some of my hair and left it at the altar mound outside the sweat lodge. In other words, I had designed an initiation ceremony for myself. These men, my friends, my community, would remove from me my own personal attachment to my mother, and pull me into the world of men. There are, of course, many ways to do this in our society. But most involve the armed forces or police departments or team sports.
After the sweat lodge, at Rose Mountain, we men then each scattered across the land and into the adjoining national forest. In previous retreats I had chosen places far from the retreat center, but this year I wanted to be gentle to myself and I selected a little out cropping a quarter mile up the hill where there was a little cave. The sweat lodge is completed in early morning, so we have all day in our power spot in which we are to remain awake and watch the world and to live in that luminal space where things are somehow random and accidental and somehow intentional and transformative. My experience in previous sweat lodges and quests was that I came away believing that I had seen something that was meaningful. I had discovered my lesson. This quest was somehow different. Or I chose to make it different. But the truth is that I did not walk away with one meaning, one image that provided a moment, a synecdochic event that contained larger and greater wisdom.
When the quest was over—we had spent the entire day and night in our spot without food and with little water—we all returned to the retreat center, and kept our silence until after a noon meal was completed. Silence helps keeps the lessons within us. It’s the old lesson about talking too much about the poem or story you are planning to write. “I had a story but I talked it out” You know the guy at the bar or the café or writer’s group who is always telling people about what the next great idea he’s going to get on paper, but he never does—well, he talks it out. No need to write it if you have told everyone—anyway, it has lost its power, its magic.
But sometime later I did write this poem. Because the question for me, on this quest, was “can I see the dualities and live with the conflicts?” Life is not one or the other: it is both. We are worms and we are robins. We are the eaten and the eaters. Tough luck, get used to it. Is this the way a man views the world? I don’t know.
Assignment 1: Think of conflict in your life, a place where you want to or should make a decision about. You know, something over which you should decide one way or the other. “I choose A.” or “I choose B.” It could be a career, whether to have children or not, which person to marry, which school to attend, what major to pursue, whether to stay home or not, become a vegetarian or not, a Democrat or Republican. Make notes, make lists, think of images that somehow evoke the choices. The write the poem in which you choose which direction to go. Or not.
Assignment 2: Write a poem in stanzas. The stanzas can be of any length, 3 lines, 4 lines, 8 lines. That doesn’t matter. Write each line in the stanza to be the same length, the name number of syllables or the same number of strong accents. Then make the last line of the stanza a bit longer, maybe half again as long. Just something different enough to vary the music and rhythm of the poem.