I recently ran across a whole set of audio tapes from a weeklong men’s conference I attended in Mendocino almost twenty years ago, back in June of 1991. I’ve kept them stored in a box on a shelf in our den all these years. Although I was at every session when they were recorded, I never listened to any of these tapes until now.
A day or so ago I got out tape eight, labeled:
TAPE EIGHT: WEDNESDAY MORNING Gary Snyder reads Yeats, Jeffers and Sakaki Michael Meade and James Hillman read poems. Snyder on Buddhism and Mythology. Snyder on Practice, Place and Animals.
As I heard the voices of Gary Snyder, Michael Meade, James Hillman and the other men in the room, the wonderful mixture of poetry, good talk, some serious some not, the laughter, it all started coming back to me. All those years involved in men’s groups, going to conferences, spending a year as a “househusband,” working in a daycare center and taking care of our children full-time for a year.
Whatever happened to the men’s movement?
Most people will probably say, “What men’s movement?”
It did happen, and I was a part of it.
Or was it all a dream?
Dream or not, here’s how I remember it.
In the first place, the men’s movement was part of the women’s movement, which as we all know never went away, and is still going strong.
The feminist adage, “The Personal Is Political,” guided my understanding of my life as a young new husband and father, as it continues to guide my understanding of my life as a husband in a long-term marriage of 45 years, and as a father of grown children.
I continue to see the way that some forms of politics are expressions of male insecurity and aggression, even down to our local level. Remember how Bush strutted and swaggered, effective subliminal messages for those tuned to his wavelength? Ever notice the aggressive tenor of much of the anonymous chatter in The Union online threads?
Back in the mid-1970s, when our son was six and our daughter two, I — rashly, it must be said — quit a very stressful job in the Finance Department of the Stanford Medical Center. Soon afterward I saw an announcement for a meeting in Stanford’s Business School to discuss the formation of men’s groups. I had no idea what they were about, but I went to the meeting out of curiosity, and before the evening was over I signed-up for a men’s group in Palo Alto. Soon we began meeting regularly.
I wrote about the men’s group experience in an essay two years after the Mendocino conference:
The process was empowering in several respects. First, when any of us began to complain about anything, say, our relationships with the women in our lives, all we would hear from the other men was, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” The encouragement was always to work it out, listen, seek mutual understanding. The implication was always that we had the power to do that. I never heard any trashing of women, or attacks on anyone not in the room. I learned that blame is disempowering.
Also empowering was the tremendously egalitarian nature of the process. Ultimately this men’s group evolved into a Men’s Center in Palo Alto, meeting in the basement of the old sixties’ Peace Center on Lytton Avenue. We became an outreach organization, hosting events, facilitating the formation of more men’s groups, going out to local industries to talk about our experiences as men, speaking at Stanford Coffee House luncheons, working with the elderly at local nursing homes, with children in the local elementary schools, etc. We took turns “leading” the group, that is, taking responsibility for whatever process was on the agenda each week.
In the same essay I described what it was like to be a “househusband,” with full-time responsibility for taking care of the kids:
I remember one particularly hectic day, after going to the Employment Department with the kids in tow, then to the grocery store, then home at last, past lunchtime, past naptime, the kids whining and whining and whining. I had just put all the grocery bags on the linoleum floor in our little kitchen. We were all miserable. The whining was incessant. Something went adrift in my brain. I got down on the floor on my back, among the grocery bags, and just stared up at the ceiling, completely defeated. Strangely, this had the odd result of interrupting the melodrama. The kids stopped crying and just stood over me, looking at me in puzzlement. I could almost imagine their thoughts: “Dads aren’t supposed to lie on the floor!”
One of the great, influential books which I read during that period was Arthur and Libby Colman’s Earth Father, Sky Father. In their view, father in our traditional, patriarchal system, is a distant and awesome figure, like Zeus on his throne. His power is in the world. He is like a celebrity in his children’s eyes. When he comes home after a day of great accomplishment, they are excited and thrilled by his presence. He is the “Sky Father.” All the while, Mom’s power, because it is so intimate and familiar, is taken for granted. It is part of the background.
I learned two great, consoling things from this book. First, it is possible to be an “earth father.” Men have an innately nourishing side. There is much support, surprisingly, in myth, for the image of a nourishing male. We have so relegated the soft, nesting virtues to the feminine in this culture that it is easy to miss this fascinating reality. One almost has to experience it to believe it. It was helpful to me to have this interpretation of my own experience.
Second, I learned that the one who takes on the role of day-to-day nourisher, will necessarily be taken for granted, and become, so to speak, part of the background. This meant that if I truly wanted to become an earth father (rather than the traditional and distant Sky Father) I would have to willingly give up that heady celebrity status. Thanks to the Colmans’ book, I decided to make that bargain consciously. I’ve never regretted that decision, but I still sometimes feel a melancholy longing for that lost heroic status.
My understanding of the connection between the personal and political was influenced by my reading of Jung at that time. Here’s how I expressed it in the same essay:
Jung said “… rather than develop our unconscious, we marry it.” But this fact, if it is a fact, conflicts with another deep force inside each of us, pushing us toward wholeness. To be whole, we each need to express and be conscious of all the varied energies within us: nourishing, selfish, ambitious, giddy, soft, powerful, etc. These qualities encompass what have traditionally been associated with both the male and female roles. Each of us needs to develop what Jung called the “contra-sexual” qualities.
Men have had particular difficulties in this work. I’m convinced that most male violence against women explodes from the terror and panic men feel when women withdraw from this role of soul-carrier for men. A man in the San Francisco Bay Area recently killed his two small children and himself after his wife left him for another man. He had told her that if their marriage broke up it would be just like death. It is for this reason that the greatest political responsibility men have is to do this long and difficult work of developing their own inner life of feeling. Men must, for their own sake, for women’s sake, and for the sake of the whole community, learn to be less dependent on women as the carriers of soul values. They must learn how to do this for themselves.
Over the years, since my most active involvement in the feminist men’s movement in the seventies, I have from time-to-time been reminded of the importance of these issues.
Once was a few years before my father’s death from emphysema in 1980. We were standing by a lake in the foothills above Palo Alto. It was a beautiful spring day and there was a soft breeze rippling the surface of the lake. He was then about the age I am now. There was something about that day that roused his melancholy, and as he started telling me about the death of his brother and of so many of his friends as he grew older, his eyes began to fill with tears.
I did what — as a father of young children — felt instinctive to me: I moved forward to comfort him by putting my arms around him.
And he did what — as no doubt an ordinary father of his time — felt instinctive to him: He pushed me gently away.
I was sorry he couldn’t accept my comfort.
I thought of these men’s issues again more recently — last year — when we were going door-to-door in the neighborhoods surrounding the Idaho-Maryland Mine here in Grass Valley, passing out fact sheets explaining the serious environmental impacts of re-opening the mine.
We rang the doorbell at one apartment and a young man — apparently a young father — answered the door with one child in his arms and another clinging to his leg.
Was he unemployed, as I had been over 35 years ago when I spent a year as a househusband? Was he home taking care of the kids to save money on a babysitter, as I had done?
The young father greeted us kindly and warmly but — seeing his plight — we just handed him a fact sheet and asked him to look at it when he had time. Having been in that situation myself, I doubt that he ever did.
We live in hard times, and lately it’s been harder on men, who have been suffering higher rates of unemployment than women in this Great Recession.
In such times, while men are rebuilding their economic lives, they could use the wisdom of feminism more than ever.
But there seems to be little of that kind of support for men in our communities these days.
I do know a good man here in Grass Valley — a therapist — who has been driving weekly to Sacramento for over twenty years to meet with his same long-standing men’s group, a relationship surely more rare even than marriages of that duration.