Nine men came to my house last night to talk. We didn’t gather around TV to watch football or play poker, but sat in a circle of chairs to talk. The topic was “Who were you in 1990? And who have you become? And who do you think you’re still becoming?”
Why 1990? It was the year our men’s group was formed, inspired by a retreat attended by our founding member. He came back from a week in the woods with 100 men led by Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman and Malidoma Somé, leaders of the burgeoning men’s movement, and called up ten friends and said; “Let’s face it. We’re alone and lonely and sharing all our tenderness with women. Let’s start to talk to each other and see what happens.”
And so once every two weeks, we convened at each other’s house and sat and talked, reaching higher that “What about those Niners?” and deeper than “Hey, check out that babe!” We began with our life stories and lo and behold, we weren’t alone in our suffering and doubts and insecurities! From there to our relationships with our fathers, eventually our mothers and then wives and work and family and sex and art and what have you. Sometimes we danced or hiked or cooked or shot pool or wrote poetry or recited poetry or did ritual dances with heavy sticks.
Along the way, parents, siblings, spouses died and one of us died too, from suicide. We were estranged from our children or got divorced or fired from work or got caught by depression— the whole catastrophe. We also fell in love, re-connected with loved ones, travelled, felt renewed wonder and pleasure in our lives, the whole marvel. After a while, we didn’t need to choose topics— we became the topic, our lives unfolding like a Dickens serial comedy and tragedy and always with each other as a listening ear and shoulders to help us bear up. Two left the group, two more joined and here’s the miracle:
25 years later, we’re still going!
Seven of the original ten still with us. The youngest was 39 (me) when we started, the oldest is now 75. That’s a lot of life together, a lot of years side-by-side. And in our culture of transience, a glorious longevity. Back then, we were knee-deep in work and family raising. Now six out of nine are retired. The ritual check-in is less likely to be about probing the mythological nature of the deep masculine and more about failing body parts, puttering in the garden and time with the grandchildren. Though our heads are white, all are well-exercised and as trim, if not trimmer, than our 1990’s self. We’re not the most diverse group outwardly— same or similar class, race, sexual preference, political values— but take any nine people around and invite them to disclose and be vulnerable and you will discover that no two alike will negotiate life’s obstacles and invitations the same. And yet we all have suffered and rejoiced in more or less the same things. The big take-away is that we are not alone and yet, we are unique, each of us.
It was fascinating as each threaded the story of who they were back all those years with what they did last week. Mostly threads were unbroken, with a few surprising detours in each story. There are patterns in each of our life whispering (or shouting) to us about why we’re here and what we’re meant to do and when the group hits it right, we help each other reflect on and reveal those patterns so we awake each day with a bit more clarity and purpose. Retirement appears to be a mixed blessing, time to follow deferred interests and beckoning paths and breathe more fully into each day’s promise. But also more time to question and doubt and wonder what’s important and think about mortality. Back then, most of us were too busy to pay those things mind.
So hooray for us, for hanging together in the long haul and though the numbers are against us, still I ended the meeting with “Here’s to the next 25!”