As the long slide to 1951 reminds me on the online pull-down birthdate menu, the 1950’s of my childhood were a different country, if not a different planet, in numerous ways. When it comes to the gender discussion, this was a time when the only known labels for those who leaned toward the other side of the midline were “tomboy” and “sissy” and neither of them complimentary. Girls were “sugar and spice and everything nice” (though I wished they told that to the girls who used to tease me or certain adult women throughout my life) and boys were “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” (though none of us ever knew what a “snip” was unless it meant cutting of the braid of the girl who sat in front of us at school. And what’s with the snails and puppy dog tails? Probably smashing the one and pulling the other).
I was pretty much a boy’s boy, which meant that I was pretty good in sports, could hold my own in a neighborhood fight, loved watching war movies and thought John Wayne was cool, and my Uncle George often gave me a toy gun for Christmas (though one time a drum). Playing the piano and listening to my parent’s classical music records was not wholly on the stereotype’s agenda, but Beethoven was my man because I loved his thunderous temper and explosive symphonic bursts and was taken by the story of him raising himself up on his deathbed and shaking his fist at the Gods in defiance.
But there must have been some watering of the feminine in my nature in those early years or how could it have blossomed as it did when I began to grow my hair long just before going to college? Perhaps the tender slow movements of Beethoven helped lead me to later Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins and later still, ballads sung by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m sure a childhood habit of constant reading certainly helped lead me to Whitman and Thoreau and the possibility of communing with Nature rather than brutalizing it, helped open the doors to e.e.cummings singing of Spring and Love, the Incredible String Band weaving their magical landscapes, and the long path of poetry (hardly a boy’s boy pastime!) that brought me to Mary Oliver.
By the time I was in college, I was a full-blown long-haired flower child flashing the peace sign and though I still played some intramural basketball with my boy’s boy aggression and determination to win, I bought hook, line and sinker the notion that gentleness was preferable to brutality, that art was superior to money, that working amongst mostly women teaching young children was a worthier profession than Wall Street or boxing. I took a college class in feminism, vowed to co-participate with the chores of cooking, diapering and driving the kids to lessons when I eventually had a family and did all of those (though still fell short in the area of doctor’s appointments and such).
Truth be told, when it came to teaching, I preferred (most of) the girls in my music class to the wilder energy of many (but not all) boys. There were three years when I taught both musicians P.E. and I found myself enjoying the girls’ superior focus in music class while the boys ran around randomly and then enjoyed the boys’ energy in P.E. while the girls (some but not all) stood over to the side and picked flowers. I thought it would be good for me to have a son, but when I had two daughters, I was secretly relieved.
But approaching forty, I found myself working almost exclusively with women both at my school and in the world of Orff Schulwerk. My daughters had mostly girls for friends, so outnumbered 3 to 1 in my home, the ratio got larger when my kids had friends over. Like many of the men I knew, the women in our families mostly determined the social life and we found ourselves without man friends that we talk with forthrightly beyond sports scores or the latest cool gizmo we got.
So when the Men’s Movement came along in the late 1980’s, I was ready to consider that there are forms of masculinity that are not toxic, but can be converted to a life-giving tonic. That my boy’s boy energy that I put in some box in the basement could come out in a different form and use its strength, aggression, desire to win, in service of life. That the archetypes of King, Warrior, Magician and Lover all had their place in the ecology of manhood and need not be shamed, but more consciously embraced in their most positive forms.
And why am I talking about all this at this moment? I believe it has been sparked by the week I spent with my grandson Malik, the last day just the two of us. I instantly fell in love with Zadie, my granddaughter and still feel a deep soul connection. But it has taken me a bit longer with Malik and I’m sure some of it has to do with my push-pull lifetime confusion mixed with occasional clarity about what it means to be male. It’s a good sign that I found so many ways to connect with him on so many points along the archetypal masculine-feminine spectrum and though I didn’t have a son, I’m supremely grateful for the opportunity to cultivate this beautiful relationship. I have more to say in his praise in the next post, but just wanted to feel what it would be like to tell my story in all its work-in-progress character.
Meanwhile, I hope to continue to snip my way through the threaded lies of brutal men, to learn to move as slowly as a snail savoring this life and to wag my puppy-dog tail with unabashed delight every time I see my grandson.