I have been asked about my involvement with men's work, so here's a quick peak at part of an interview that should be out in 2013. As always, some of it i do hope is relevant to women, and so please take anything of use.
THE ROOSTER AND THE TORTOISE:
an Interview with Martin Shaw
"men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair"
What is your interest with men's work?
Well, during its first experience overground (in the media) - in the late eighties and nineties - i was unconnected to it, i was in my teens and twenties and would have regarded it as a little strange, i do remember some of the media propaganda about naked white men bashing out of tune drums and weeping about their father issues. That wasn’t appealing.
Like a lot men of my age - around forty - i come from a background very sympathetic to feminism, so had a radar sharp detection for any sense of secretive groups of pissed off guys moaning about their wives, i wouldn’t and still wouldn’t want any part of that. To my regret i didn’t engage with any further investigation. I was suspicious, i suppose, of homophobia, or some nutty kind of Masonic set up.
So i was living outdoors, getting soaked in weather and holding a tent together through British winters, and involved with wilderness rites-of-passage work during the mens work most visible era - i say visible because it was cooking merrily underground for half a decade before Iron John and has continued in various incarnations every since.
However, i was aware and reading the work of some of its main teachers - Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman - so i received a kind of distant mentoring through the ideas - like thousands of other men.
I felt that the strong emphasis on the need for men to initiate men was actually a subtle point, and not very well handled. I would agree that there is a crucial point in adolescence where a boy needs a period exclusively under the guidance of older men, but that is not the only initiatory stage, there are many before and after that profoundly involve women.
So i felt that could have been communicated more fully and saved alot of confusion and hurt. Speaking to Robert about this years later he said if he wrote it again, he would have given over twenty pages to the grief of women at that point in adolescence when the son breaks certain intricate connections to their mother.
At that point it was less the emphasis on the masculine that really caught me, but a wider connection between myth and our lives - something with a similar scent was going on with Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Marion Woodman - who i also loved. So just that relationship between the images in stories and our everyday lives was mind blowing to me - more than specifically a gender issue.
I had an instinct for metaphorical language, and just loved the sophistication and deep intelligence of these men from across the water. Standing behind the American origin of these guys however, is an immersion in a European tradition - the fairy tale and its exegesis in the work of Marie-Louise Von Franz and Carl Jung. Bly was already fifteen years into leading the seminal mythopoetic conference, The Great Mother Conference, so the idea of him being opposed to the feminine was rather grotesque.
In reflection, it was this wider impact that took a hold, rather than entirely a reflection on the masculine. However, i wasn’t a father at that point, so as I absorb the joy and labour of being a parent, much of that work returns with even greater intensity.
The father is such a mysterious figure in modern families - so many of us are just trying to figure what on earth it looks like these days. Neither as the Saturnian figure of old or a kind of mother substitute. It’s felt a very corrupted image, distrustful.
Well, it can’t remain that way. Just can't. If a family is a like an old growth forest, something fundamental happens when you remove a big tree - there is an absence, and there are consequences, vaster than we can imagine. The whole bio-region changes. After twenty years experience of working with at risk youth, i can say candidly that the vast majority of the young men i work with have not only not grown up with a responsible male, they have rarely met one. That’s old news, but still shocking. I have many friendships and great admiration for many single mothers negotiating this terrain.
Of course, most of us would prefer an absence to a brute, which is the quickest and most demonstrative example of what’s been called an uninitiated man - a boy. So, right now, that is the overriding concern i have around the masculine. And to men who are not fathers i would suggest, to take these ideas towards whatever they are birthing, stewarding, or care-taking in their own lives.
Over the last six years or so i have worked side by side with Robert, Hillman, Malidoma Some, Daniel Deardorff, Robert Moore and many others at conferences and smaller events. Despite the inventive leaps that all these thinkers produce, it is clear that the nitty-gritty of men’s work is still done in small groups, with men risking some vulnerability, tasting the unique experience of sharing grief, living their desires, letting others go, shouldering more responsibility in their communities, being far more open to the feminine in themselves and in women, and developing the ability to praise what deserves to be praised.
This is slow work, and needs to be so, otherwise it lacks a certain groundedness, which appears to be part of this fathering business many of us long for.
So, to the surprise of my younger self, through men’s work i have found some of the most steadfast, playful, courageous men it could be anyones good fortune to meet.
And in doing so, have been forced, by example, to review my own inhibitions about the notion of fathering, and make a room in myself for the reality of a generous, warm-spirited masculine. It’s been a revelation.
In 2012, what are its concerns?
Well i can only speak of my own, and a few friends around me engaged with the same issues. Although men’s work continues in small groups, it doesn’t really have figures like Bly anymore to bring together the many different groups, and there is a woeful lack of books and ideas around to really create some sense of momentum. When it just becomes an old boys club you can count me out.
Although many hate to admit in, men respond to leadership, and there would have to be a move from a deep passivity into personal motivation to change this slumbering trend - especially from guys who have been involved in this work a long time. To teach it is a real art form; if you handle the material of story, ritual, wilderness work clumsily then you invite havoc. I remain hopeful of some coming through though. We would have to become as adept in spirit as we have in the business of soul for men's work to catch some urgency again.
But, many of the concerns of twenty years ago - the lack of initiation experience in a mature rather than faux fashion for young men for example - have increased in urgency.
A large amount of the men that entered these ideas in their forties are now in their sixties, and an ideal age to start getting involved with active mentoring - the kind they themselves would have longed for. A common mistake is that all the blessing occurs from the mentor down to the youth - but the mentor requires the blessing of the younger’s eyes and attention in the first place to get it started. Without that flow, nothing much will happen.
Three issues i find myself working through in my own life are:
Damaged Eros: The access to hardcore pornography through the internet is causing a massive interference to mens erotic imagination, and a lack of real relating to their flesh and blood partners. That’s something that has rapidly accelerated in the last two decades. I would suggest we need to stake some claim to our own passions again, to revive the old gods of imagination that stand behind sexual appetite and ingenuity - Dionysus, Eros, Pan. Porn chucks all that into some shadowy hinterland that we find hard to talk about. Shame and desire are weird but very common bedfellows. We enter relationships already ashamed of ourselves. I’m interested in a different approach.
External Work: The strand of mens work i am connected to - what is often called mythopoetic - is very engaged with relationship to an inner life - through myth, poetry, ritual and the wider arts. This is a huge step for many men. I feel that that awakeness, needs to be taken into an outer experience of caretaking some some area of the natural world. Plant according to the moon, cultivate difficult relationships, think carefully about what you abandon, find ways to display some real gallantry, pay attention to what is happening to the mountains and arctic ridge, invest in the outer world in some way that feels of service. Be visible for gods sake. There has been some admirable work creating ways out into the wilderness for young people, but far less on an integrated return - to engage in the ‘things of the world’. Something wakes up in man when he sees something beautiful and true crafted by his own hands flourish in the outside world.
I struggle with some of this myself, to be clear. Whilst i think the gathering of time for women just for the company of women, and men for men is important, i’m more interested finally in the coming back together to be directly engaged in the raising of wild, snuffling kids, protecting owls and whiskery field mice when they need it, crafting art, working hard on things that connect us to oak trees and star formations. Ultimately men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair. And we get there by time apart - allowing longing as well as constant proximity into the experience. Something holy can break out in that absence.
Shaking your Tail-Feather, but Going Steady: Quite a few men i meet have either abdicated entirely from any kind of cohesive parenting, or they are are unsure of how it looks in a man, so they mimic the skills of the mother. Clue: women will always do it better. It’s old news that some men learn their emotional expression through women, because they haven’t seen the masculine range embodied. But there seems to be some damage in this - their feathers wilt, their coat lacks shine, they lack a certain decisiveness. So how could we get some of that back, whilst also displaying a greater commitment to our loved ones?
For this, i go back to the old stories, and the images within them. The god of the storytellers is Hermes - and storytelling is always a job of both parents - the father, just like it is the mother. Two totem animals of Hermes are the rooster and the tortoise - I would suggest we could focus on the steady diligence of the tortoise (who carries a house on its back remember), but not sacrifice the plumage, display and general panache of the rooster. To find a connection between those two animal powers could be a great step towards simply being a deeper human being.
The tortoise seems to be to do with the issue of trust. Some quiet steadiness, some resilience, not caught in the hysteria of the new. And then rooster - a place for the lover - that place not crippled by shame, that allows our funky little shape to howl its love-cry up to the yellow moon. In the Greek world this is relationship between the Puer and the Senex - the luminous boy who feels a little like god, and the old man who keeps a gnarled fist around their ankle as they float off towards the sun. Ensuring that neither quite wins over the other is the business of growing up i think.
I like this because it provides an image to work with (rather than just a concept) and an image from the animal world. What i’m not going to do is give a five point plan for ‘reclaiming the rooster’ - that’s to be figured out oneself, and those connections suffer when dragged into the thin light of the literal. In my own life i seem to gather the stories, friendships and challenging situations that call forth these seemingly opposed forces. I think an adult is someone who has absorbed and maintained certain tensions in their life and transformed them into something rather stylish. They know their own mind but are curious enough to change it.
copyright Martin Shaw 2012