22 years ago, inspired by the work of Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman and a growing “men’s movement,” one of the school parents invited eight men to begin meeting once every two weeks to investigate what it means to be a man. Most of us were ardent supporters of the feminist movement, but found out, like so many men in the country, that it wasn’t enough to get in touch with our feminine side. We needed a positive masculinity larger and more life-affirming than mere sports, beer-drinking, fixing things and macho bravado. We felt mostly estranged from our fathers and reserved our intimate thoughts for women, rarely feeling deep friendships with other men.
And so we began. After a few sessions of telling our life stories, we talked about our fathers. Bly lamented that the loss of working side-by-side with the father, a common practice before the Industrial Revolution, was the beginning of men’s isolation. Dad went off each day to the factory or office and came home exhausted, eager to put his feet up and read the newspaper. He was generally emotionally unavailable, didn’t attend to the details of child-raising and often just worked to bring home the bacon, rarely in love with the work he did each day. If we were lucky, we might catch him with a hobby that brought him more alive— building something in his workshop, painting pictures or playing music, hiking or camping. But as was the case with my own father, who had painted and composed music and even wrote some Ogden Nash-like poetry in his younger days, the 50’s corporate culture did little to support such passions and they often trickled out and atrophied. Meanwhile, the Moms often felt trapped in their own confining roles, dignified in their bearing of life and raising of children, but often feeling less than whole giving up the larger range of their possibilities—their love for science or their pre-marriage singing career or the thousand and one other things that can inspire the human heart.
Our men’s group has met faithfully for over two decades and last weekend we went on a retreat to discuss retirement. Four of the nine of us are “officially retired,” three more cutting back the workload and all of us thinking about it. One of the exercises we did was to make a wheel showing the things important to us and rating them from 1 to 5 (5 being the highest) as to how much we are paying attention to them. We then did another one showing how much we’d like to be attending to them. What struck me so forcefully was how close the two wheels tended to be— 4’s moved down to 3’s or up to 5’s, but it was rare to see a big leap. By and large, we were living the lives we had imagined. That was impressive.
Of course, throughout the 21 years, we’ve all had our fair share of death, divorce, depression and disaster and it is hubris to think we’re in control. The world has had its say in the matter and as we’ve sailed the stormy seas of a typical life, there have been days when the waves swelled and threatened to swallow us, when the rains soaked us, when the hot still days parched our tongue, when the choppy seas sent us reeling sick to the edge, when the sharks circled the boat with their menacing presence. But throughout it all, we’ve kept our hand on the tiller and our eye on the compass and did all in our power to navigate to the land of our dreams.
I imagine in many of our parent’s cases, much of the life they led might have been in the 1’s and 2’s and the life they had wished up in the 4’s and 5’s. The shift in generations came less from the increased commitment of individuals and more from a collective agreement that work and passion might be combined. Joseph Campbell described it as “following your bliss.” Amidst so much that we failed to accomplish, I think my generation can claim this welcome shift in attitude. My own daughters certainly picked up on it, carving their own lives from their interests, talents and aptitudes in faith that the money will come—or at least enough for food and shelter. And it has.
And so retirement for the men in the group has been—or promises to be—less the cessation of the burden of work and a time to play golf in Florida and more an opportunity to re-balance the mix of interests and passions, spend more time in the garden or travel or read or return to music or consult and volunteer in one’s field of expertise. Keep the hand on the tiller and steer into the hidden coves or linger in the harbor where once the relentless schedule kept driving one forward. Hard work, by the way, to have so many choices where once a job decided the balance by default. But worthy work.
I have more to say, but I gotta go to work.