This week is the 20th anniversary of the publication of my book, Iron Man Family Outing. To mark the occasion, I’d like to share an excerpt from a reader review for the book that was posted on Amazon yesterday:
“This memorable and occasionally haunting book of poetry is less about art and more about sharing and integrating the experience of growing up as a man. It gives words to men that we have not had before. It is graphic and real. It doesn’t pull punches. This is not your momma’s book of poetry. But it is just what you might need if you are a man who is looking for an example of how to come alive!
“This book is twenty years ahead of its time. That is to say that, on its 20th anniversary, it is very timely today for a male gender that is starting to claim a deeper way of life. I have used this book for my own growth and in my therapy work with men who are looking to live more fully. Rick shines the light on the path. Now it is for us to walk it.”
There’s no way I can possibly express how much it means to me to see a response like this to my work, twenty years down the line. For the better part of those twenty years, the majority of the 2000 copies of Iron Man Family Outing printed in October 1990 remained packed in their original boxes, the casualties of a publication deal gone wrong, stacked like bricks in one closet after another as I moved from place to place to place.
I’d felt the work very deeply while writing Iron Man Family Outing, and my conviction that it had value for others was also deeply felt, but I could find no place for it out in the world. I felt haunted by all those boxes of unused, unread books that were always with me, and in the spring of 2006, after more than fifteen years of trying and failing to find a solution, I finally decided to scrap them. I just couldn’t bear the thought of holding on to them for the rest of my life, and then leaving it up to someone else to dispose of them after I was gone. I made them, I was responsible for them, and I honestly felt that there were no other reasonable options left, so I began the process of breaking them down, one book at a time, and recycling the paper.
I knew this task was too big, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, for me to take it on all at once, so I made a commitment to scrap one book a day until they were all gone. Every evening, I pulled one book out of its box in the closet, removed the front and back covers, and tore out all the pages until nothing was left but the spine. Then I tossed all of the pieces into the recycling bin.
I’m not sure how long this went on; probably for about a month or so. At some point during that time, I happened to be standing in the front yard outside my home when the biweekly recycling pickup at the curb took place. As the recycling truck drove away carrying the remains of the books I’d scrapped during the previous two weeks, I saw one of the trashmen riding in the back pick up one of the detached front covers and give it an interested look as some of the torn-out pages swirled around him in the wind. It was a surreal, painful moment for me as I watched my long-ignored work finally catching someone’s interest while its remains blew around him in circles in the back of a trash truck.
This process of scrapping books, one book a day, could have gone on for quite a long time. I was convinced that I was doing the right thing, that I was doing what was necessary to move on from what I saw as my greatest disappointment in life, and painful as it was, I had no intention of stopping. But something completely unexpected happened: I had a dream, a dream that told me, in no uncertain terms, that I should not continue to scrap the books. And so I stopped.
I didn’t know then why I was supposed to stop, but the information in the dream was completely unambiguous, so I did. Eighteen months later, to my complete surprise, Iron Man Family Outing was reborn. Looking back, I can see how absolutely fitting it was, given the genesis of the book’s development in my dreams, that it would be rescued, quite literally, by a dream. I’m just glad I was still listening after all that time.
I sometimes regret scrapping those books and wish I hadn’t had to do it, but I think it was necessary. It’s hard for me to say exactly why. The best theory I have is that I had to let go of all my prior long-held needs and expectations for the book in order for it to become what it was supposed to be, and that I had to sacrifice a little part of it to do so. I had to give up hope to make way for the truth. But even in doing that, I kept my original promise to myself to see the project through to the end, even if it meant tearing up every remaining copy myself with my own hands. I think this was the key. I gave up my hope, but I never gave up my responsibility to the work and to what I had created.
Twenty years is a long time to stick with anything. Earlier this week, a reader wrote to me and said he admired what he characterized as my “perseverance and dedication,” and that sure felt good. But I also know that there’s more to it than that. This project, this process, has always had its own schedule and its own life, and my role has always been to serve the process rather than to drive it. This is trickier than it might sound. When I forget my role in the process, when I try to put my own desires and expectations ahead of the process and the work, I’m only getting in the way and causing myself all kinds of unnecessary trouble. Letting go, being present, being patient, and waiting for direction may sound like “soft” work, but it’s some of the hardest work I know.
Hard, frustrating, disappointing, painful, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, lonely … yes, the last twenty years with Iron Man Family Outing been all of that and more, at times. But not for nothing. Every time I hear from a reader who’s found my book helpful, I feel a little freer because I know I’ve helped someone else feel a little freer. I know I’m not alone in this work, as do they. I liberate myself by helping others liberate themselves. Any sacrifice I make comes back to me a thousandfold as I see one more ugly little shard of my past transformed into something beautiful and life-affirming. That is reason enough to have hung in there with this work for the past twenty years, and to stay on the path it’s shown me, that long, crooked, and sometimes broken path, for as long as it continues to unfold before me.