I stumble around like an old blind buffalo who's lost his herd trying to find a good place to die. I fight to hang on like a fading rainbow dissipating into a pale blue sky. I tread ever more lightly upon the earth like a cat shadow walking until I leave no trace. I blow my heart open like a bright sunflower bursting into a shower of fiery seeds to take my place.
Note: This is an edited repost of a piece I originally published on this blog in November 2009. It was my first major written work after breaking both my right wrist and right shoulder, and thereby losing the use of my writing arm, in a fall in September of that year. See my postscript at the end for information about why I decided to repost this piece today.
Eight weeks ago, I broke my right wrist and shoulder in a bad fall. Shortly before my accident, I’d completed my second book, Scapegoat’s Cross: Poems about Finding and Reclaiming the Lost Man Within. It includes a poem called “use everything” in which I wrote:
bad luck is the language of the unconscious.
In the days and weeks since I was injured, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to ponder and explore the meaning of those words, and they have led me back, in a most unexpected way, to the connection established with my father during childhood around physical pain, and to the significance of that connection for me as an adult.
For the first few weeks after my accident, I found myself struggling with powerful feelings of shock, disappointment, and despair. The fall, the injuries, the devastating effect on my life, everything about the situation in which I found myself seemed so cruel, so random, so meaningless. But the words I’d written only months before, my own words, kept coming back to me: Bad luck is the language of the unconscious. And those words challenged me to find some meaning, something useful, in what I was experiencing.
Prior to breaking my wrist and shoulder, I’d only broken a bone at one other time in my life. I was very young, just learning to walk, and one of my lower legs was broken somehow while I was outside in the yard with my dad one evening. My memory is that he was walking away from me, leaving me behind, that he was angry with me (just for being there with him, as he so often was), and that I fell trying to catch up with him, breaking my leg. Given my father’s anger problems, I’ve sometimes wondered if there was more to the story of my injury than that, but I’ll never know.
What I know for sure is that I was with my father when I broke my leg, and that regardless of how I was injured, the experience formed a point of deep connection with him around physical pain. I wrote about this connection, and its origins in the broken leg story (as best I understood it at the time), in the following poem from my book Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood:
leg hurting tonight reminds me of how my dad + I used to
run across each other in the dark
when I was little + my leg would hurt.
he had a lot of leg cramps at night
he called that a goddam charley horse
I used to wake up with intense pain in my leg
the leg I broke
trying to catch up with him
when I was first learning to walk.
sometimes we'd both wake up at the same time
on the same night
I liked this because I got to spend some quiet time
alone with him.
I never wanted to go back to bed on those nights
we'd sit in the living room or the kitchen
in the dark or with a dim light on
he seemed more open in those moments
I didn't feel like he hated me then
maybe it was because he was sleepy
or in pain.
those were special occasions for me
nothing to accomplish or be judged on
we each had our own pain
similar but not the same
he was empathetic
I felt connected to him.
in those brief moments
I always felt that I was just like him
just like I always wanted to be.
My father and the men of his generation were masters at controlling and denying the pain in their bodies. In many ways, this was a necessity. He worked in a factory, in brutal, exhausting, dangerous physical conditions. He had a family to support, and he didn’t make that much money. He couldn’t afford the luxury of surrendering to aches and pains, or even injuries. He had to work, and he had to sacrifice his body to do it.
A few years before he retired, I asked my father to take me inside the factory where he’d worked and spent most of his adult years. It was a complex of connected windowless buildings I’d only seen previously from the outside at the employee’s entrance, where every eight hours, the men walked in big and walked out small. In the following excerpt from another poem from Scapegoat’s Cross called “the father I knew”, I described what it was like on the inside:
I was in the belly of that steel and concrete monster that eater of men of lives and bodies and families and marriages and dreams where he spent most of his life it felt like the heaviest place on earth no windows no sun no plants no sky no trees no animals just steel and concrete and oil and chemicals and fire and smoke and a big machine that swallowed his left arm all the way up to the shoulder ...
The “big machine that swallowed his left arm” is another major element in my father mythology and the mythology of my childhood. When I was still small, my dad’s left arm was sucked into the huge steel rollers of a machine at work while he was cleaning it. The doctor told him the damage was so severe that he’d never have full use of his arm again, which was especially devastating given that he was left-handed. My dad’s response, as the story goes, was “Like hell I won’t.” He then went home, built some sort of device with pulleys and weights on the front porch, used it to rehab his arm on his own, and recovered the use of that arm completely.
I finally saw that big machine for myself almost thirty years later when my father showed me the dents that were still there in the steel rollers where the bones in his arm were squeezed through all that unforgiving metal. His injuries must have been severe, but somehow he recovered, and I don’t doubt that it was largely through his own determination and efforts, given that there probably wasn’t a lot of help in terms of skilled physical therapy available to him at the time.
Now I find myself connected to my father once again through injury, pain, and the struggle to heal. Bad luck, the language of the unconscious, has spoken, giving me yet another opportunity to explore the depths and the subtleties of the father wound, and to revisit that mysterious connection through physical pain that was formed so strongly with him when I was a child.
My father was left-handed and lost the use of his left arm for a time due to injury. I’m right-handed and now I’ve lost the use of my right arm for a time due to injury. He must have struggled to recover, just as I have, but he also had the additional pressure of a family to support and he didn’t have the benefit of the excellent medical care and physical therapy I’ve had the good fortune to receive.
Frankly, I don’t know how he did it. And I don’t know how I would have done it had I been in his shoes at the time he did it.
My father turns 75 today. He was not a good father to me in many ways. He was distant, demeaning, neglectful, abusive, threatening, angry, and violent. He did a tremendous amount of damage to me emotionally and psychologically during my childhood, and his mistreatment continued into my adulthood. But as the years have passed and I’ve gained in life experience, I’ve found it easier to see him, not just as the father I knew and not just as the father I needed and didn’t have, but as a more complete human being who had his own struggles, strengths, and burdens, as we all do.
I haven’t seen my father in ten years. Haven’t spoken to him in five. I believe this is for the best. He hasn’t been able to hurt me physically for a long time now, but he was never going to stop hurting me emotionally and psychologically, no matter what I did or how hard I tried. The moment when I finally realized that fact, in a flood of tears and pain and anger and grief, was the moment when I finally knew for sure, once and for all, that it was hopeless for me to keep trying to reach out to him.
Still, his life continues to influence mine, even across the distance of time and space, in ways both obvious and mysterious, as I continue to work toward resolution and completion of my relationship with him, that distant point on the inner horizon of my psyche toward which I am always aiming and always moving, but may never reach.
Postscript (11/17/2013): I’ve reposted this piece today partially in support of International Men’s Day (coming up on November 19) and partially in response to seeing far too many reactions like this one to setting aside one day a year to focus on ways to appreciate and support boys and men:
i feel so sorry for men, the world must be so hard for them :’( :’( :’( sobs sobs sobs
My father, as I shared above, was far from ideal, but for anyone to presume his life was easy simply because he was a man is absolutely preposterous, and I think I’ve made that clear above as well. My father hasn’t had an easy life and neither have I. Being born male hasn’t guaranteed a smooth path for either of us. We have that much in common, if nothing else.
It’s wrong to strip men of their humanity simply for being men. It hurts everyone and it has to stop being acceptable to do it. Men are no less human than women are. Vilifying and demonizing men accomplishes nothing for anyone. The only way to truly reclaim and maintain one’s own humanity is to allow others theirs. Encourage the boys and men you know to live in integrity by acknowledging their humanity and by valuing, appreciating, and supporting them as best you can.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
I need to be near him I need to touch him I need him to touch me I need him to hold me. I need to be small with him I need him to be big with me I need to play with his fingers I need to rest in his hands. I need to crawl all over him I need to nip his ears I need to pull his tail I need him to catch me when I tumble. I need to sleep on his chest I need to drift in his scent I need to fall into his skin I need to dream on his body. his body feeds me it makes me safe it makes me real it teaches me how to be close it shows me how to trust. his body makes me whole his body is my home his body makes my body I hunger for it still.
I was very encouraged to come across a new post last night called “What If He Cries?” by Diane A. (D.A.) Sears, United States Coordinator for International Men’s Day (coming this November 19). In her post, Diane advocates for women to make safe spaces for men to be emotionally genuine during times of grief, sorrow, and loss. She says:
For Women, supporting the emotional and mental well-being of our husbands, sons, fiancées, brothers, uncles, fathers, grandfathers, nephews, and cousins will require us to examine everything we have been taught about Men and to weigh whether it is true or not. We cannot begin to help and support Men if we cling to false and stereotypical beliefs about them. Our conscious and subconscious beliefs about Men drive our behavior towards them.
Diane makes a lot of great points, but I need to expand on one area of her post. She says:
If he cries, without hesitation, run to him … hold him … comfort him. Tell him that you are here for him and that you love. Let him know that he can shed tears in front of you and that it will, in no way, in your eyes, diminish his manliness.
While this may be a successful approach with some men, I would also encourage women to remember that other men (especially men with abuse and/or trauma history) may need space and strong, steady, silent witness to feel safe expressing deep emotions with others, at least in the early stages of doing so. Touching, talking, and hugging may all be too overwhelming and, although well-intended, may actually shut down the man you are trying to reassure.
Each man is different, and will have different needs in different situations. He may, for example, have easier access to expressing his deeper emotions in response to the death of a beloved pet than he does in response to memories of being damaged and traumatized as a child. Women can use their intuition and their own felt sense, as well as their knowledge of the man and his history, to guide their actions in each case.
It may take some experimentation (and some failure) to find out what works best with a given man. It is also important for a woman to check in with her own feelings about what a man is experiencing to assure herself that her motivations and actions are conscious and clear. For example, when you feel the impulse to hold and comfort a grieving man, are you perhaps motivated, at least in part, by a need or desire to calm him down because his expression of grief unsettles you? If so, you may find your approach to him rejected. Men with a history of having their emotions controlled and shut down by others typically have a pretty strong innate sense of when someone is approaching them with that intent, and they will close down quickly in response.
Men often keep the depth and complexity of their inner lives fairly well hidden, to the extent that it is commonly assumed by many (too many) that men are emotional and psychological simpletons or cold mechanical creatures who have no depth and complexity to speak of, especially in comparison to women. But nothing could be farther from the truth, and many men, no matter how protective they may be of what lies hidden within them, are starving for just the sort of safe harbor in their lives that Diane describes in her post:
Women with open minds and open hearts can create a “safe harbor” for the Men in their lives — a place where Men can bare their souls and lay down their emotional baggage. The “safe harbor” is a place that is “drama free” – a place where unconditional love, respect and trust abides. If a Man feels and knows that you respect him, he will trust you and allow himself to be vulnerable. He will bare his soul.
I haven’t experienced such a safe harbor yet myself. I hope to, someday. I also hope for a day when every man has a safe harbor in his life, as this can only benefit everyone around him: men, women, children, and the culture at large.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
mistakes born of confusion and bad decisions made about important matters of life flash in and out of my awareness like fireflies circling the targets in a shooting gallery.
driving through crazytown with the top down cruising through looneyland with an open hand. all amped up on the lust chemicals running through my veins like heroin horses. messages written in my skin tell me what I want tell me what I am. I slide my way into the forbidden zone I wait for instructions on the telephone. I accept my mark I kneel in the dark waiting for a crush waiting for a rush of someone else's energy to take me away.
back in the day he lived like he didn't care if he lived. he tried his best to erase himself to waste himself to throw himself away he spun the chamber pulled the trigger and waited for the bullet but it never came or maybe he just kept missing. he dove head first off buildings and bridges crashed full speed into razor factories ran into fires and launched himself into every black hole he could find. he committed suicide by strip club night after night sometimes for months on end but he always woke up every morning back in the so-called real world where he offered himself up as a meal for countless so-called real women some of them nibbled some of them gobbled some of them stripped him all the way to the bone. somehow he survived all of it everything that got burned off cut off or eaten off grew back in some form or fashion if not in its original state. on the inside he felt gnarled scarred and twisted but on the outside he still looked like himself. he came to believe that nothing could kill him until one day he realized he was only a ghost. now he walks through walls instead of smashing into them and spends his time seeing what used to be haunting the imperfect world of memory wondering where everybody went and waiting to go home.
“My face is buried deep in the mud. You know, I can’t see the trees or the wood, or the valley or the hills. You can only follow what’s on your mind. In fact, a song is something you write because you can’t sleep unless you write it.”
~ Joe Strummer, NPR, 1999
A little over four years ago, I broke my right shoulder and wrist in a bad fall shortly after completing the manuscript for my second book and being interviewed for the very first time about my first book almost exactly nineteen years after its publication. In the aftermath, as I struggled not only to heal and rehabilitate my writing arm, but to try to make sense of what felt like the especially cruel timing of such a devastating and disabling injury, the following image came to me one day while resting:
I see myself deep in the bowels of the earth shoveling massive piles of shit. Not just my shit, but other peoples’ shit, too. No one knows I’m doing it. No one even knows I’m down here.
It wasn’t hard for me to understand what I was being shown, and it brought up some complex and intense mixed feelings for me. I immediately identified with what felt like an honorable aspect of generous self-sacrifice on behalf of others, but I also resented the implication that I was doing work (quite literally “shit work”) for other people who didn’t even know I was doing it. I saw myself immersed in a thankless and apparently endless task that felt both terribly noble and terribly unfair at the same time.
That little vision, and the conflicting feelings I felt in response, have stayed with me ever since. I was thinking about it again over the weekend and was reminded of the Joe Strummer quote above about his face being “buried deep in the mud.” Twenty years ago, a good friend said to me, after reading my first book, “Why can’t you write about something nice?” I don’t recall my response, but Strummer’s comment might’ve come in handy in that moment.
Right now, it’s 4:30 AM and I can’t sleep. I’ve been awake since about 3 AM, which brings me to the last part of the quote from Joe Strummer: “A song is something you write because you can’t sleep unless you write it.” And here I am once again, writing something I have to write because I can’t sleep unless I write it.
I can’t seem to comment on previous posts, so this was the best I could do.
I stumbled upon your website at a very low time in my life. I struggle with many of the same issues that you do. In fact, some of your poems seem like they could have been written by my hands. It’s uncanny at times, actually.
I don’t know what knocked the wind out of you and made you almost give up writing, but I just want you to know that you can’t. You simply can’t. You may never make a living from your art. You may never purge the poison through authenticity. But when you create like you do, you spill something beautiful and pure out into the universe. You cannot withhold this from the cosmos.
You’re right, you will never have 25,000 followers on this blog. But every so often, you will have someone like me, looking for answers in a cold and cruel world. And your writing is like a warm fire that I can put my hands up to and fall asleep next to, if only for a night. Dreaming more soundly knowing that I am not alone.
Your gift is not suited to the masses. It is for the travelers. We need it. We need you.
I’ve been sitting with Matthew’s words for several days now. I printed his comment and brought it with me to my soul-numbing cubicle job every day. I’ve wanted to respond, but haven’t known how. I simply haven’t had the words, and “thank you” hasn’t seemed like enough.
I think part of what I’ve been feeling, quite honestly, is simply shock. It’s not as if I’ve never received any support or acknowledgment for my writing and my work. I absolutely have, and I’ve expressed deep gratitude and appreciation for it, here and elsewhere. But Matthew’s comment has felt real and raw and open and vulnerable in a way I somehow hadn’t experienced before, and it shook me. Shook me in a good way, but also scrambled me up a bit because it so fundamentally challenged part of what I was shown in that image I saw four years ago:
I see myself deep in the bowels of the earth shoveling massive piles of shit. Not just my shit, but other peoples’ shit, too. No one knows I’m doing it. No one even knows I’m down here.
Maybe I’m still cleaning the Augean stables. Maybe that’s my task. Maybe my face will always be buried deep in the mud. I can only follow, as Joe Strummer said, what’s on my mind, and I can only do the work I’ve been given and feel called to do. Maybe I’m okay with all of that and maybe I’m not. It varies from day to day. But it’s going to be pretty difficult, if not impossible, in the wake of Matthew’s comment to continue to believe that no one knows I’m doing it.
sex belly beast fear disease shame incest entitlement horrible secret indiscriminate sense of unknown peril in space in time in place in blackness personified a forest of dark trees a night of dull knives a run through a graveyard a dizzy spinning light-headed feeling the desire to sleep the need to zone out the reluctance to awaken from a pleasant dream where no monsters are on the loose and the world is fair and love is real and getting close does not mean getting hurt and getting old does not mean dying alone on some forgotten road with the promise of what has never been received still trailing me like a hungry shadow.
Male Grief: Invisible, Misunderstood, Unwanted
Grief is an inevitable part of every human life, regardless of gender. It is also one of the great isolating forces in the lives of men. Male grief is all too often invisible, misunderstood, and unwanted, which leaves many men in the difficult position of having to deal with their grief on their own, if they deal with it at all.
Most men (myself included) routinely reject vital aspects of themselves and their histories because they do not want, or do not know how, to feel and move through the grief that is bound up and waiting inside them. The fear of being shamed by another when most vulnerable, of being stripped of one’s masculinity by women as well as by other men, is a powerful motivation not to feel and express one’s grief.
The requirement to go into that grief all alone, in secret, for lack of understanding, trusted support is another prime and completely understandable reason for avoidance. There is a deep and profound loneliness in knowing that one must do such difficult, intense work alone, without witness, and it’s no wonder so many men don’t want to do it. I fight that battle myself all the time.
Today I’d like to share three posts I’ve seen recently on the subject of male grief that shine some light on this important and severely neglected aspect of the masculine experience. My hope is that, in some very near future, this dialogue about male grief can become far more common and open than it is today, so that men who are grieving can come out of the shadows and men who need to grieve, but haven’t felt the freedom and support necessary to do so, can begin.
What Women Should Know About Male Grief
The first selection was written by Mark Mercer, a hospice bereavement director and counselor for 18 years. Mark says, “Men grieve far more than we show or discuss.” I would certainly agree. Here’s an excerpt:
We almost never cry in front of other men. If we feel that a woman is “safe,” we may cry with her. But most of our tears are shed when we are alone, perhaps while driving our vehicles. In all too many cases, our hot tears become a deep-freeze of anger or rage. Most very angry men are very sad men.
He also makes some important points about the often neglected fact that there are different ways and different styles of grieving. For example, some men find physical activities (such as vigorous manual labor) to be a healthy means of channeling and expressing some of the energy associated with grief. You can read Mark’s entire post here.
Teen Boys – Grief and Loss
The second post was written by Earl Hipp. Earl has been involved with groups and organizations that focus on men’s issues and development for over thirty years. In his post, Earl talks about learning, as a boy and young man, how he was supposed to deal with grief and loss:
The absence of any support, or even positive role modeling around dealing with loss and grief, communicated a pretty clear message: You’re on your own, just deal with it. I did … and became a kid who was emotionally bound up, pressurized, and lived with a thick veneer as a shield over all that anger and sadness. On the top I wore an “I’m OK” mask.
I know that story all too well, as do countless men. Earl’s focus, as always, is on using his own experience as a starting point to help succeeding generations avoid the traps and pitfalls that have caused, and are still causing, so much pain for so many boys and men, and he devotes the majority of the post to that task. You can read Earl’s full post here.
Book Review: Tom Golden’s “The Way Men Heal”
The third and final post is a review of the latest book from Tom Golden. Tom has been exploring, writing, and speaking on the subject of male grief for many years. I’ve shared some of his work here on the blog previously (here and here). The selected post in this case is a reader review by Andy Thomas of Tom’s new book The Way Men Heal. In his review, Andy shares a personal experience that illustrates how the taboo against male grief is often enforced, not only for the man who is grieving, but for any other man or boy who might be watching:
The day after my Dad died, I was speaking to a friend of his when I broke down and cried briefly — I was interrupted by a woman who had known my father, but who did not know me. She asked, what would my 4 year old niece think if she saw me crying?, while handing me a tissue I did not want. Had I been a woman, no doubt she would have put her arm around me, but as a man I was politely told to “man up” — my pain was embarrassing her.
As someone who has a certain awareness of society’s different expectations for men and women, this experience came as no great surprise to me. For young minds, such experiences are painful however, and quickly teach young boys that “real men don’t cry.” They learn how to keep their pain to themselves.
Again, this is a story that will no doubt resonate powerfully and personally with a lot of men. You can read the rest of Andy’s comments in response to Tom’s book here.
Male Grief: No Longer an Alien Concept?
I hope these excerpts will encourage you to read the full posts and learn more about the male experience of grief in all its aspects. I recall being quite mystified 30 years ago when I was first introduced to the subject via the work of Robert Bly, John Lee, and Dan Jones. They all emphasized the critical importance of a man’s awareness of his own grief, his conscious relationship with it, and his ability to feel it and to allow it to move through him so that his natural energy and innate masculine power would not be blocked and withheld, both from himself and the world.
At the time, all that talk of grief mystified me. I didn’t have any idea what it was. I was keenly aware that I was angry, frustrated, lonely, sad, depressed … but I had no sense of any grief. I didn’t really understand what grief was or how it might feel. It seemed completely abstract to me, completely foreign. Perplexed, I wrote the poem “grief” (found in my book Iron Man Family Outing) one day as a way of trying to figure out what this grief that I kept hearing about might be.
After many years of hard work, I understand. I’m far from fully comfortable with my own grief, but it’s no longer an alien concept to me. I hope to see the day when male grief is no longer an alien concept to other men, and to the women around them, as well.
Photo credit: David Jewell. Used by permission.
Poem: “learning to breathe”
Poem: “plow my heart”
Poem: “tears never cried”
Poetry on video: “falling through”
Tom Golden – Crying in public
Tom Golden – Why is it that men’s grief is so invisible?