Masculinity

Masculinity means so many different things depending on who you ask. In 1991 there was a meeting set up by Warren Farrell, one of the earliest pioneers in men’s issues, at his mountain retreat in California. A dozen or so of us so-called leaders of the Men’s Movement were invited to come and share our thoughts, feelings, and positions regarding the question of what true masculinity was, among other topics, including whether or not the Men’s Movement should be politicized like the earlier Women’s Movement.

By the way, this is where I got to be friends with poet Robert Bly. He and I shared a cabin together and it allowed us to start a relationship as equals and colleagues for over 20 years. This relationship helped to forge my understanding of my own masculinity.

It is kind of ironic that the recognized Father of the Men’s Movement was a character like Robert Bly. He is one of the most sensitive, kind, generous, and generative men I’ve had the pleasure to know, learn from, work beside and be friends with. It took a wild-haired bear of a man who is a poet and a master storyteller of fairytales and ancient fables to lead men right down into their well of pain. Here is a man who blends intelligence, emotion, music, poetry, passion and love of all things into what would be considered a new definition of masculinity.

As for the question, should the Men’s Movement be politicized, Robert and I, and a couple of other early pioneers, Shepherd Bliss and Aaron Kipnis, agreed that the Men’s Movement should focus on an interior journey, not an exterior one. Women had to become political to assert their rights as equals in every way to the predominant male culture. Robert and I said, “We’ve been political; let’s go into our souls, bodies, and hearts” for answers on how to live in the 20th and 21st centuries. Poetry – his own, Rumi’s, Hafiz’s, Machado’s, Jimenez’s, and dozens of others – was a way inward, and fairytales would help those of us who listened as he said – often accompanying himself on his Greek instrument, the bazuki – “We’re leaving our time now.”

One of the main reasons I was asked to attend this little-known conference was due to my approach to masculinity. I felt, believed and taught through workshops and writing that men who are abusing alcohol, anger, rage, and drugs should sober up and discover who they really are under all the layers of addictions.

Both Robert and I are adult children of alcoholics, which greatly impeded our growth and development of our masculinity; we talked about this and other issues while we shared that cabin and for 20 years after.

So what is masculinity? I can tell you much more easily what it is NOT.

True masculinity is not John Wayne movies.

True masculinity is not who has the biggest cock or stock options.

True masculinity is not homophobic, xenophobic, anti-feminine or anti-feminist.

True masculinity is not full of rage.

True masculinity is not oppressive.

True masculinity is as tender as it is tough and tenacious.

True masculinity is a balance between the wild and the sensitive.

True masculinity is not afraid of being called names like prissy, pussy, or fags because we read, write poetry, play music, sing to our brothers,’ fathers,’ and sons’ souls.

True masculinity mentors the young men and women.

True masculinity weeps, mourns, celebrates, laughs, wonders, looks at how we were wounded and how we have wounded others and our planet.

I could go on, but the truth is that true or deep masculinity changes over time with new information and experiences and at different stages of life. It changes as the seasons of a man’s life change. My own sense of masculinity at 67 is somewhat the same as it was at 35 but also much different. My masculinity now includes a kind of patience my younger masculine self did not have with people, processes and life in general. My masculinity incorporates the old Arabic saying, “Haste is of the devil, slowness is of God.” My masculinity, while still a little competitive, doesn’t do harm to other men. My masculinity finally learned lovemaking is 100 times better than fucking women I don’t know hardly or at all. My masculinity sits on the porch much more often and drinks coffee and eats banana nut bread without worrying about calories. My masculinity demands I stay in shape, but my ego is not damaged if I don’t, and as my old friend, Martín Prechtel, would say at our men’s conferences, “Long life and honey in the heart.”

Letter # 40 – Sitting on a Rock by a Small Stream

Dear Mr. Lee,

I’m sitting on a rock beside a small stream in the Memphis Botanical Gardens as I write this letter to you. My name is Thomas and I am a 25-year-old graduate student who knows where you have been. I can and do identify with everything you have written in The Flying Boy.

Last night I started reading your book and immediately felt a connection. As I would read, I would feel the tears well up in me like an oil well ready to burst; however, I had a tight lid on and it couldn’t escape. I went to bed and in the morning still had the said feelings and also questions about the woman I am in a love/friendship with. I continued to read your book and have the tears come to the surface. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at class, so I skipped and came to the spot by the stream. The point in your book that really got me was on page 67, when your father said to come home. I started crying and sobbing; thank you.

I wanted to write you and let you know how much this book means to me. I am also a fan of Robert Bly’s work and a fledgling member of the Men’s Movement. I hope one day to become a counselor and work with men and women and help them reclaim themselves.

Thank you for your work and God Bless.

Sincerely,

Sitting On a Rock by a Small Stream

Dear Sitting On a Rock by a Small Stream,

I want to honor you for sending this poignant letter in a different way than I have others.

I want to share with you one of the greatest quotes about tears from a man you wouldn’t naturally assume would come from him, but you know his books:

Men are allotted just as many tears as women. But because we are forbidden to shed them, we die long before women do, our hearts exploding or our blood pressure rising or our lives eaten away by alcohol because the lake of grief inside us has no outlet. We, men, die because our faces were not watered enough. Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini.

We men were taught so much bullshit about tears, weeping, crying, sobbing, that most of us like you, my friend, we hold tears and put them in the tanks, barrels and drums of our own bodies, and as you said, put a “tight lid on” so they can’t escape.

I remember when I allowed myself to enter the slipstream of my own sadness it scared me. Like I told my therapist at the time something thousands of men have said to me, “I’m afraid if I ever start, I’ll never stop; I’ll flood this therapy room. A second Noah will have to build an ark.” But once I got my tears back, I told myself I’d never let anyone take them away from me again and if I need to shed sadness through my eyes, I’d do so no matter where I was or who was watching, and I’ve kept that promise to myself.

So much so that at my wedding a thousand and one years ago, my best man, Robert Bly, gave a toast; he said, looking at my wife’s family and friends and my own, “What can I say about John Lee? He is a great weeper, and he’s taught me to grieve and I wish I could be more like him.” After those words were spoken, I didn’t hear anything further from my friend’s mouth because I was looking at the mouths dropping open from Susan’s mother, dad, uncles, and cousins thinking, “Okay, Robert, thanks. Now my in-laws are worried.” But I wept as he said them. So you keep letting your tears come out and never let them be taken from you.

Oh, one more thing. Men carry handkerchiefs not for the women they love necessarily but for our grief that could come pouring out anytime, anyplace.

Take Care,

JOHN