Standing up alive
The four day "path with heart" bush gathering for men
By Mark Thomas
A grey day dawned. Having avoided tents successfully for twenty years, here I was at the age of 41 going camping - and it was raining. Talk about a mid life crisis!
On arriving I was confronted with a suspension bridge across a creek and signs warning of danger if more than one person should attempt the crossing at a time. Clearly the men who were organising this event took the process seriously. I felt a growing sense of confidence - I'd come to the right place.
I unloaded the car and it was time to select a site for the tent. I was one of the first to arrive so there were plenty of choices. I eventually settled on a spot by the creek as far away from the main tents as I could manage. Evidently I was not yet wholly committed to the communal spirit.
So I erected the tent. The end result was definitely lopsided but the sense of haste caused by the intermittent rain provided an acceptable excuse for a tent that would not have impressed my father.
Registering was a warm and welcoming process. The men who took my name and details made me feel comfortable. I was asked to reach into a jar and pull out a piece of material. It came out maroon, like the Queensland football team. I was told to take a piece of cloth that colour that was hanging near by and keep it about my person. This was my totem group's colour. I wrapped it round my head, glad of a badge of belonging...
After dark, when all the men had arrived we settled down in the mess tent to wait for dinner. Bravely I even struck up a conversation. (I was impressed by this even though my correspondent had no recollection of our lengthy chat the next day!) Dinner was just about to be announced when suddenly out the dark a group of black faces appeared. I smiled and went on with my conversation, not wishing to appear surprised by anything, when one of the men introduced himself. A little ashamed at not having made the first move I greeted them. One of the organisers sprang into action then and took over the social niceties. We all sat down to dinner, which was excellent.
Then the night began and what a night! A steady drizzle which would have had me refusing to budge under any other circumstance seemed to add a little spice to the proceedings. It began with the Aboriginal men, who turned out to be the traditional owners, welcoming us to the land. After a few simple speeches we were shepherded, one by one, into a path outlined with bamboo flares. At the mouth we were formally greeted by the traditional owners. We then silently walked the path to be welcomed at the other end by two men from the organising group. The whole thing felt right, despite the rain and the strangeness of it all. I was deeply moved by the presence of the aboriginal men and their support of what each of us there was trying to do. I felt the poignancy of this especially as only a few days before I had been reminded that a great grandfather of mine had, on at least one occasion, joined a party of white men who had gone out to "teach the local blacks a lesson", which lesson had resulted in the deaths of at least 50 men and women. One hundred years ago.
So arrived we were, and milling at the other end of the "sacred path". There was a fire, a circle, some shuffling about and greeting people, arrangements by locality, some poems and, shockingly, a line up by age. Many of us realised that night, I think, that we were closer to the end of the old men than of the young men. It's a graphic way to find your place in the world. It also showed us what a gathering we had: from 17 years old to 65 years young! A large group of men come to celebrate and explore. After an hour or so of laughter and the alarm of strangers I gratefully went to bed in my tent, grateful also that it was still dry when I got there.
I wrote in my journal: "Strange to me I choose to come to these things then always hold back. It's good to be here, to participate, but I feel more and more the hermit. I unfold slowly and I honour this".
Strangely, I had the first undisturbed night's sleep in two months, in a tent, in a field, in the rain, in the midst of the first gathering of men I had attended in eight long years.
The morning alarm clock for the gathering was a group of wandering minstrels chanting and quietly striking a gong as they gently moved through the camp - very civilised, I thought, and a lovely chant to boot.
The morning's work began in earnest. We were summoned to meet by the sound of drumming. We were blessed with three "Official Musicians" at the gathering - drummers of renown who drummed us into each meeting time. As the days passed more and more men joined in. By the end we were dancing our joy to the beat of the drums before every session. It's good to dance to the drums!
Throughout the gathering there was lots of talk, by facilitators and participants alike. I can't possibly remember all the wise and moving things I heard. So I'll stick with the ones that really affected me.
First there was the story of the Five Brothers. This was a clear look at the two men who would provide the bulk of the direction for the gathering - Rein and John - the Hermit and the Fool. They had a good act going, casual, rough and tumble, yet staying in the groove. I'll admit to a little frustration at first - they weren't as tight and professional as I'd experienced long ago in New York, but that was then, and this was now.
After we had the first instalment of the story, which was about Five Brothers preparing to seek their fortunes and the varying degree to which their quests were valued by their fathers, we were posed with an interesting question and the first and inevitable horror of small group work.
Oh god, find a group, introduce yourself, break the ice around your heart... Well, I survived. The question we were given was to remember some talent, some skill, some genius that we had left behind. I had a flood of memories...
I once played the violin, under protest and my mother's stern insistence. But despite my dislike of it I had a real talent: Honours in the first grade exams. If only they had given me music to play that I had liked I might have kept it up. I told my story to break the ice.
I also remembered how much joy and satisfaction I had had directing plays in high school - sometimes with actors much older than I, yet during my five years of studying drama and film at uni I had never once directed a play. I remember the feeling distinctly that I never thought I was good enough. Everybody else seemed so much more sophisticated - so much surer of themselves. So, I told this bunch of strangers how that seemed a sad thing to me now.
Then a fellah called Glenn asked a real simple, real smart question: "Do you know why?" "No," I responded immediately, then "Yes, of course! I have always thought of myself as the youngest, least able person in the room because I grew up with such older siblings and I had brothers who excelled at 'boy' things that I was no good at."
I suddenly remembered the line we had made the night before, with me towards the older end of the line of the line. Then I thought how I had been in New York eight years ago with Michael Meade and here was Rein running this thing who had been inspired by Meade only four years ago and a host of other epiphanies large and small and I knew that my "youngest in the room" obsession had just flown away for good. Time to grow up. I'm grateful to Glenn for his simple question.
After lunch we did some "playback" theatre. Small groups, a topic from the audience and then instant theatre. Scary, embarrassing, silly yet obviously powerful for many there. I can't say that I ever really enjoyed doing it and at times I found it downright irritating but in retrospect I'm happy about it. Got the adrenalin going, broke down reserve and was actually quite challenging to do. Anyway we got through that only to be told that that night we would, in our "totem" groups have to put on a little piece of theatre that illustrated something about the story behind our group's totem. (Ours was the Angophora tree, making a home, stealing a habitat where there was really no home to be found).
Oh the horror that swept through many a belly. At least with the playback, if you looked like a dork, there was the excuse of spontaneity! Here we had a whole afternoon to plan how to make fools of ourselves! We split up into our groups for the first time in great trepidation.
Well, we got into the group and I think none of us in my group was terribly impressed with the crew we'd ended up with. Three out of the five expressed the desire to go home, a fourth was belching loudly from his stomach upset (the same man mentioned above) and the last man looked like he been bush for twenty years! It wasn't a promising start. After we got over that we had to start planning our theatrical event. Well, we all tried a bit harder and eventually came up with something that seemed like it might do, but I for one thought it very silly and felt humiliation was inevitable!
The stage was set in a natural amphitheatre behind the meeting tent. The ever present and endlessly useful bamboo flares provided lighting and there was even a rather sophisticated bush footlight arrangement which I was rather impressed by. In the planning session, I'd developed a bond with one man who seemed to be quick witted and not afraid to speak his mind. In fact I'd had a good chat with him the night before without realising we were "totem brothers"! Padraig and I sat up the back and watched as the other groups did their thing. Our spirits rose as each group performed in playlets that, to relieve our own nervousness, we eagerly found fault with. By the time we were on our confidence was soaring!
I'm sure in the end we were no better than anyone else although we did feel that our piece had a dramatic structure a little lacking in some of the others. The experience was terrific because it gave me confidence in working with the other members of my group that had been missing up 'til then. I went to bed feeling much happier about the whole venture. (And I was secretly convinced that we'd been up there with the best in an Oscar winning performance! Vainglorious, but good for the heart!)
I woke with the most graphic dream. I went into a repressive place to rescue someone. The rescue involved crossing a chasm over two tight ropes. The rescue was a success. At the same time, the abscess on the back of my neck had burst and I somehow knew that this was the last of that stage of my illness. An auspicious start to the day as if my subconscious knew I was in the right place even if my mind was not so sure. I celebrated the breakthrough and the unbroken sleep as I arose at first light.
This day proceeded as the others with different exercises in the morning, great breakfast, chat including the interpretation of any dreams offered to the circle, instalment two of the Brother's story and more playback theatre. Lunch, then meeting in totem groups and the painting of story boards. Aargh, as if little plays weren't bad enough they wanted me to paint - I can't paint...
Well, I managed to avoid the painting and the talk in our small circle was much freer and open after the artistic triumph of the night before. I found myself actually quite liking my group. One of us revealed something deeply sad and lonely about his life and we felt the strength of quietly sharing his grief.
Then a bit of time off, dinner and then the third amazing night: the Heart Circle.
We had lots of circles but the Heart Circle is special. We used a special pearl shell given to the Circle of Men by an aboriginal elder from the Kimberley. It is called a Jakoli and is engraved with a pattern representing a sharing system called the Wunnan. It is used in times of great difficulty and strong emotion. To speak, come to the centre of the circle, take the conch and speak your truth.
Many men did and they were awesome in their truth, their courage, their pain, their aloneness and in their community. Don't die without experiencing at least one Heart Circle. This is not a place to be found anywhere in the workaday world.
So, our last full day. More of the same really. Circle and chat in the morning, some dreams shared, the story of the Five Brothers continued and more guerilla theatre. (I was still pretending not to enjoy the theatre stuff but noted the pride I took in coming up with something apt when it was my turn!)
By now I was really into the swing of things. Glad to be there, little resistance, participating fully. And another epiphany. We were asked to make something with clay! (God, more handicraft, I thought) I picked up my bit o' clay and found myself moulding the metaphor of my family yet again. There it was, explicit in my hands. I was really getting the point of this thing that had held me back for 23 years...
Another great lunch, with a barbie for the carnivores, more drumming, more chat and then into the "totem" groups to finish the story boards (which this time I happily added my bit to) and then to create a ritual - a tall order. This was worse than the theatre of two nights before. This was serious. What on earth could we dream up that would be worthy of our fellow's time?
We didn't have to do it alone. Each totem group paired off with its affinity totem group. Ours was the Bower Birds, the group to which all the facilitators belonged. Together, we were the Thieves. (In honour of one of the Five Brothers who became a master thief!) So we got together with them and came up with something that seemed like it might work.
After dinner, it was time for the rite of passage. Here's the setup. Five groups, each presenting an initiatory experience themed on one of the Five Brothers from the story we'd heard instalments of each day. Each group selected a patch of bush in which to create their experience. The "maze" was joined with a path, "gates" (the ubiquitous bamboo flares) at either end. At the start a large fire for the men waiting, and a gatekeeper at the gate to send them through. At the other end, another gatekeeper and then a magnificent sanctuary made from all our ten story boards (and bamboo flares), then finally another campfire - the "village".
Throughout the course of the night, and it lasted four hours or so, there were men at the first fire with clap sticks and the waiting men chanting. At the village end were the drummers and the men chanting. In the maze were the initiates going through and other men from each group performing the rite.
The moon was gloriously full, the night was cool but embracing and the chanting and the drumming resounded without ceasing for hour after hour as we gave and received the gifts of ritual. Well, it's never too late...
I started at the first fire, chanting with heart, proud in the meditation rug given me by my lost love, stamping my feet in time, awaiting my turn. And then it came.
I approached the gate, was given my candle and wished well on my path by the gatekeeper. I chanted my way through the moon to the first station.
I won't say much about the detail of each group's contribution. It was all simple stuff, not particularly confronting. Certainly none of the horrors that "initiation" held for me at Scouts or Boarding School. I just remember that each rite moved me further and deeper into a sense of the sacredness of myself and the worthiness of my energy as a man.
Finally I came to the gate at the end of the maze. I was reminded by the gatekeeper there that now was time to make a commitment. I stood in the gateway of life and made my commitment born of the learnings I had felt in my heart and body and the clay of the earth over the last three days.
I walked slowly to the altar of shields announcing, "I honour the child within and now I honour the man". Youngest child no more!
I placed my candle in front of our shield, adorned with the red rose I had painted for myself and the yellow treble clef I painted for my grieving friend as a prayer for the return of music to his house. I admired the artistry of the diverse bunch of men whose shields sanctified my own. Deeply changed, or maybe just profoundly returned, I walked to join the chanting drumming circle of men around the village fire....
I waited only a moment by the fire and then ran to replace one of my colleagues in the maze to have the joy of offering the ritual to other men!
I became the gatekeeper at the Den of Thieves, paint on my face, wrapped in my meditation rug, and dancing like man to the beat of the drum, the chant of the heart and the glory of the full moon.
All of us went through the maze that night, even the cook. For all men, I think, it was evidence of the closeness of the sacred in our lives. None of us were experts in this art. But together, with love and intention, we created a ritual event that everyone I spoke to found either profoundly moving, deeply engaging or at least seriously thought provoking. For me, it was all these things and more. My commitment at the end of the maze was real and deep and resonates in my heart yet.
I slept like a king that night ...
I woke with a thought on my mind. Years ago in New York, I had a men's circle and there we used our names and our father's names: "My name is Mark Thomas!". In our circles here we were only using first names. I wanted to tell the men this in the morning's circle. As I lay in my sleeping bag rehearsing my speech I suddenly felt the loss of the men's work I had missed for eight years. I found myself weeping and resolved to speak my piece that last morning.
Breakfast, exercises. Suddenly our holy fool came out with some wisdom to help us through tough days out there in the "real" world. All together now: "The people, united, will sometimes win and sometimes lose!" It's important to laugh.
Then the circle. I'm biding my time. It never quite seems important enough. Then a man reads aloud the words of a song written for him by his twenty year old daughter walking to Machu Picchu in the lands of the Maya. It's a beautiful song and the man is proud.
Out of nowhere, totally by surprise, I'm racked with sobs, I dare not breath lest I wail out loud. Padraig puts his arm on my back, the father who read the song comes to hold me, the keening sobs won't stop...
Finally, I find my breath and find the thing I need to tell these men:
I have a daughter I have never met, never seen, never acknowledged, rarely even spoken of. She will be twenty one in two months time...
I speak her name and some men generously speak it back.
The circle flows on as my kind brothers hold me through my tears.
I never knew how deep the pain of loss in me 'til now...
After that we lined up youngest to oldest by the platypus pond, split into two lines and from the oldest man down ran naked between the cheering lines to the shore where we were blessed by our shamans and baptised/cleansed for the return journey. The creek was alive with laughing splashing beautiful men in their strength.
Then, for me, the pièce de resistance or the coup de grâce. We dressed ourselves, formed two lines and marched up the valley chanting our heart chant from the night before. To be greeted at the end of the valley by the women, local women, who came to welcome these men, most of them strangers, back to the world of women, family and work. Back from the men's work, back from the shaman time, back in to the arms of a loving community. They had prepared beautiful food for us and sat looking lovingly as we chanted our chant and then sang our song of the spirit for them. I could no longer tell the difference between laughter and tears. That group of women seemed the most loving, most generous gift I had ever known. There was only one woman missing for me and for the man I laughed and cried with only one missing woman, too...
Then it was time to go, names and phone numbers (and, wonderfully modern, email addresses) exchanged. Lingering reluctantly with new friends...
In our own private ritual, Padraig and I went back to the platypus pool, with our sculptures of clay and released the images we had made back to the mother...
Looking back, Standing Up Alive 96 has healed many wounds in this heart. Family remark how well I look. Healers note the new power in my eyes. Already things have gone wrong, as they will, and I'm sailing with equanimity.
Finding the path with a heart was the theme and with the energy of John and Rein and David and Greg and Joseph and Cinta and Rob and Peter and all the other Circle of Men who bravely mount this gig each year and the brave men who came to it, I shall live and celebrate that path.
And I'll be there next year, you bet...
How to Subscribe to Certified Male
Go to table of contents
© Copyright 1995-1998.