On a hot August night in Marquette, Michigan, I joined a group that has been meeting for over 23-years. A few of them have been involved from the start in something they simply call, “Men’s group.”
I’d been away from Michigan for a long time. But when walking the streets one day in July, I ran into John “Mac,” Mac Devitt, one of the groups founders. I didn’t know they were still meeting, and when he invited me to the August gathering, I put it on my calendar.
At Northern Michigan University in the ’90’s, I was working as a graduate assistant in English and the university’s communication department. I wrote speeches for the university president and provost, taught two-sections of Composition 111, and was completing my MA. Along the way I met “Mac,” a psychologist and faculty member at NMU, and Jeff Gibbs, head of the university’s alcohol awareness and prevention department.
Together, we formed the group and casually organized meetings in a fluid style. Anyone was welcome to enter or leave a meeting at any time without fanfare. During that first year, we gathered about once a month, and planned a three day retreat at Gibbs’ home in the remote wilderness of Upper Michigan. Late at night, I heard wolves howl and restless men search for food in the kitchen.
During that retreat, revelation came to us from roots of the ground and from our collected heartbeat. Each of us were searching for ways to be complete in our careers and love relationships. It helped to dig deep and explore in trusted community what that meant and how we could get there.
Without seeking attention, we were suddenly known as a men’s group around town and featured in The Mining Journal’s community section. Most of the time we met in members’ homes, and each of the hosts made sure the house was empty of spouses and children.
We kept distractions to a minimum; alcohol was not present during our meetings. Trust was. Over time, the atmosphere led to bonds of trust and support well beyond gatherings that focus on secondary subjects: jobs, sports, or hobbies.
Sitting around a picnic table near Lake Superior, I reaped benefits from a rare history of men talking in honesty and courage. Nobody judged me, and I was allowed to say my piece to their rapt attention. And when the conversation turned from trivial to terminal, how could I, a former clergy having presided at many funerals, not pay attention?
Death is rarely a public subject. Talk of death is bathed in angst, and most of the time not a welcome subject. It’s not a unique cultural criticism to state that much of our public talk is superficial. But death is not; many fear talking of death, as if they might catch it by bringing it up.
But death was close as one member (I’ll call him Raymond) sat on the edge of his journey and at the end of our table. Raymond was in a wheelchair and suffered advanced stages of cancer. Someone asked him how he felt about dying. He answered in a thin voice powered by a certainty that stunned and gratified me. “I know that this is not the end. This is only temporary,” he said, as if reciting a fact.
We sat together in the shadows of an angel sculpture anchored to a rock memorial. Under the metal outline of curled wings, a plaque warned of danger and noted the waters of Lake Superior are treacherous. I read, “In these calm but treacherous waters of Lake Superior sixteen lives have been lost since 1961.”
Many who drowned here were college students at Northern Michigan University. Its campus is only three blocks away, making the familiarity of Lake Superior seem benign. In June, two more students drowned, rendering this number inaccurate.
In the early years of men’s group, we were filled with anxieties about how to love our partners and how to handle crap at work. In the middle of our careers, we felt pressure and struggled with financial stress and children. Our budgets were stretched, but we found creative ways to fix our houses with little money or time.
But in 2016, the talk is different. Stress remains, but our concerns go beyond ourselves, centering more on those with whom we live our lives and for whom we are responsible. Now we want to know how to be – in the best sense of the word – generative to others. The more immediate threat of mortality has sharpened our focus to what is truly important: giving and forgiving, each man said this in his own way.
We have learned to give a lot and we’ve also learned how to take a lot. Many of us are still paying for decisions made long ago. We don’t whine or complain about it. It hurts, but we state this as fact without malice or evasion in the same way Raymond spoke of his impending death.
I was reminded of this description of writer Gary Soto on the back cover of, Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature. “Like many boomers, he laments his sense of failure. Like them, he shrugs off that failure to recast his remaining years.”
Waves from lake superior lapped the shore as men jabbed and made-fun of one another and wondered aloud about other members that might attend. This took time – at least 45-minutes – of casual socializing.
With most groups, social talk stops there or goes into a lifeless agenda mode. But this one was, and always has been, different. Suddenly someone said, “___ what’s going on with you,” and the conversation was recast. The periphery became center, and talk went from socialization to sacred confession and absolution.
I learned that in the last 23-years these men have continued supporting one another while sharing sacred stories of bad bosses, broken families, the daily struggles of partnerships, and the happiness in children’s accomplishments and loving forgiveness. I experienced the process of men’s group as the perfect blend of sacred and profane. They curse and they bless, just as I remembered. And to me, it all sounded like an Old Testament Psalm.
I framed our time in a language of which I’m familiar: sacred talk. I listened to confessions of the soul and its joys. With my head as clear as Superior’s cold water, I looked lovingly upon three men I hadn’t seen much in the previous two decades. I could see aging in their bodies. But some changes I wouldn’t have known from talk on the street.
A few of the men had been through surgeries that left them with one less body part than they had before surgery. And since most of them were wearing shorts, I glanced at their legs and noticed scars along with biting flies and blood-sucking mosquitoes. Two of us were wearing knee braces. I was eager to hear the stories of the group’s new members.
Raymond is one of them. He’s a former researcher in primate behavior who suffers from advanced stages of cancer. Another, a retired fireman and group participant for 20-years, limped to the picnic table with the help of two canes having suffered a fractured femur this summer after a fall from a ladder.
Most of the others had faced medical challenges and operating tables; the reality of our short time on earth was etched into each face. Every man limped to the table, and I did too, having recently suffered a knee injury.
These scars mark the physical blows, but through the years each of us also survived emotional blows. Talk turned to our adult children and our never-ending care and concern for their welfare; to our ex and current partners, to the world and its troubled state. But this was not your ordinary coffee klatch; our talk was fed by depth and our responsibilities etched into our bodies as wrinkles and scars.
The field was safe; there were no umpires or rules. Sacred talk, lewd talk, walking-canes, cold water, a wheelchair, and the iron angel of Lake Superior shadowed our hot August night. I was happy to be there and find myself steeped in all of it and embraced by the flesh and bones of these male soul-friends. I truly love these men, and after I was with them, I wondered how I coped all these years without their support.
But I remembered quickly when our talk became cheeky, clever and insightful. We were brave in telling our challenges, and their adult male humor had a familiar edge. When each of us finished speaking, we listened as the others freely offered thoughts, counsel, suggestions, or reflections.
Us men want to fix things . . . but sometimes all we need is silence and a knowing certainty that we were heard. When Raymond spoke of death coming to him in the form of cancer, he was met with silence but he was heard. Nobody was checking their cell phones, nobody was absentmindedly staring into the distance, and nobody offered clever suggestions. Nobody was carving on the table or kicking the ground. Everybody was listening.
What else is there? In the deep listen, there is an unspoken empathy. I realize that’s all I’ve ever wanted from my friends, and on this night all of us gave it to Raymond and to one another. The big lake called Gitchigummee is considered sacred by the indigenous Americans who first walked this land. To me, it’s the ultimate symbol of the deep listen and it holds in confidence part of my story.
I learned once again that good men continue to give and give. It’s rarely acknowledged, and I heard examples of giving as a man’s daily lot in life. One man caring for his infirmed wife wanted her to be comfortable, so he bought five portable wheelchairs and carried them to the beach, making sure she tried them all and choose the most comfortable seat. It’s only a small sample of what that good man has done for years and years without fanfare or social-media kudos.
Another man shared his bug spray. It’s a smart plan to think of a solution for mosquitoes and their aggravating presence; sharing it was his simple offer, but it’s giving. Another spoke of his efforts to keep quiet in the morning so he doesn’t wake his sleeping wife: it’s a simple act, but it’s giving. And how could I let pass the story of a man who steps out and dances with his wife and tells her she’s beautiful: it’s a simple act, but it’s giving.
To leave a note, to plan for death, to pay bills, to serve our children, to disclose and invite others into private space: all of this is giving. Men need to affirm one another for their giving because these acts are not small or meaningless. It’s our life meted out in works of body and mind.
I heard these men, and I made it my point to affirm, to notice, and to shout it out – Yea men of Michigan, you really are the best of what we are!
Someday soon, the angel wings will enfold Raymond as they will each of us. It’s impossible to know how and where that mystical embrace will happen, which intensifies our need to support one another.
Men, our time to affirm is now, our time to celebrate life and each other is now, our time to hold gatherings and speak of death in lewd and sacred language is now. The time to listen is now. What are we waiting for?
Title Photo: Getty Images
Additional Photos courtesy of the author