Solace…and Solution

farridayIn the company of about 65 other men, I attended the UU Men’s Fellowship annual Spring Renewal at Camp de Benneville Pines last weekend.  The UUMF was founded in the 1980s by Rev. Tom Owen-Towle and a group of interested men at First UU Church San Diego, and remains affiliated with that congregation.  It has spawned similar groups at other California UU churches, and the Spring Renewal enables the men involved (and friends) to gather as a larger brotherhood.  (Click HERE for more info.)

The weekend included a mix of exploration and sharing in large and small groups, workshops and activities, and ritual/worship.  One way these came together for me was in the sweat lodge ceremony I did with five other men on Saturday afternoon.  In this dark, sacred circle we shared hopes and prayers, chanted in English and Sanskrit, and felt the steam open both our pores and spirits as we took turns ladling water onto the heated rocks piled in the center pit.  This was all terrific.  But it was an occurrence outside the lodge that touched me the most.

As has been the case for years, several men had assembled the sweat lodge that morning using a wooden frame and fabric coverings that one guy stores in his garage and hauls up in his truck.  The finished structure was pretty tight, but as the mountain winds picked up a couple of chill drafts found their way through seams.  “Sam,” the facilitator of the sweat, noticed these and called the locations outside the lodge to “Bob” (I’m using pseudonyms because confidentiality is one watchword of the Renewal)—and in moments tarps covered the gaps and made the space more airtight.  And I was filled with gratitude.

Sam and Bob are two pillars of the UU Men’s Fellowship.  Their love for this ministry is plain as day—and they wanted this particular experience to be right for the participants.  And in that moment of quick responsiveness, Bob embodied for me the spirit of fatherly support that so often takes a back seat to competition.  There was no manly rivalry here.  No drive to plug the gaps better than someone else.  No performing to please a superior.  Just unconditional loving-care.

And the fact that Bob was outside the circle made his action extra special to me.  He didn’t benefit directly.  Rather he was willing to stand at the perimeter and be watchful, aware, alert to the needs of those inside.  Guardian… custodian… elder in the most dignified sense of the term.

Sometimes love takes the form of solace.  Here it took the form of solution.  I think it often tends to in men.  And for this I am thankful.

-Peter Farriday, Ministerial Intern

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One Response to Solace…and Solution

  1. This is great, Peter, thanks a million for writing it. I really like your sweat lodge story, so well written; sort of Jack London via Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche but better than any of that, from YOU! I was almost sweaty reading it.

    It’s moving reading what happened to you. The fatherly support you felt, that “so often takes a backseat to competition.” (Competition for what?) I could feel how you felt looked after, protected, and loved by these older men, and that’s a powerful thing to be able to trust – it’s very sweet. It’s not the usual rivalry and quick retreat behind the self-sufficient mask; way inside the football helmet. Being comforted by an older man, or any other man, is powerful, and really starts to break down the male isolation. You called it “unconditional loving care.” Hallelulah, brother!

    About a decade ago I went to two in a row of these kinds of men’s conferences (I called it a camp-out when I got there and almost got thrown out on the first day!) up in Minnesota by a big hero – Robert Bly. The first one was September 2000, the second was the next September, about a week after New York happened. I was lucky to be there with those guys and cry about the attack instead of in a sports bar looking around for somebody to kill. But I wasn’t there for politics; I was there for something closer.

    The truth is, I probably wasn’t there for fellowship or trying to connect to other guys at all. I was hoping, as a fatherless child turned grown-up man, and with Bly as my Big Kahuna hero, for him to look out over the 100 or so men there, see me, and realize that I was going to be his next son – at least for that week. So I kept to myself a lot, snuck through the woods at night to a tavern to get drunk, missing the nightly campfire ritual. I brought my isolation with me to the conference, then deepened it.

    The second year I wanted to move closer, but I was still distant from the other guys, trying to get close to Robert Bly for a “special moment,” eye contact, whatever. I felt awful about it, but couldn’t open up to these generous, loving, trustworthy men around me. I was ok with the bartender.

    One morning Bly announced that at the end of the week we would have an African ritual conducted by Malidoma Somé; we would all have to get naked for it, then get in a massive bonfire circle near the shore of Lake Sturgeon, which would trickle out into two parallel lines where we would all pair off and walk into the lake. This ritual was going to interfere with my nightly tavern run plus get me naked with 100 guys, definitely interfering with my self-imposed isolation. A lot of the guys giggled about this naked business and seemed to be praying for rain, but the night came …

    I vividly remember standing in that campfire circle with all these guys; old and young, fat and skinny, big bellies, surgery scars, bony knees – all of us smiling at each other and glorious in the firelight. I felt so WITH these men, also so with and full of myself, even as I was much more finally OUTSIDE of myself. The drum signal came from Chief Malidoma, and the lines moved toward the lake. I looked past the fire, past the trees to the dark water, also to the adjacent line for who I might me paired off with. But I didn’t care really, I felt so absolutely a part of this bunch of guys; then I saw Robert Bly. Big, furry white, naked Bly … walking next to me. And we walked out, arm in arm, into the lake!

    I remember him covering my astonished silence with one line: “Oh boy, it’s such a mysterious and ancient night – all sorts of sparks and spirits out here!” I think I just nodded yes and stared. Then Bly lifted one naked, slimy foot out of the lake and said: “Muddy, too!”

    And that’s how I got naked in a lake with Robert Bly.

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