Saturday, June 13, 2009

A tender warrior redux...

Let me go a little deeper with an idea I started a few days ago: a tender warrior. Contrary to what popular culture has suggested about Robert Bly - mostly a caricature of an ungrounded wild man beating drums in the forest with other men of privilege - dear Robert is simply a poet whose soul aches for the healing of the world. This is a high calling - to both ache and discover words that bring healing - and he does it with compassion and care. There is a little shaman in Bly, a little trickster as well, a healthy dose of cultural critic and even a bit of an evangelist, too (at a poetry reading in Tucson he told me that a Bly was one of the last missionaries to China.)

+ He is very much at home with the wisdom and insights of contemporary feminism and understands his calling to be in solidarity - not competition - even as he works with men in a parallel exploration of soul, wounds and redemption. I remember hearing him in a conversation with Deborah Tannen in NYC as they considered the ways women and men are different and alike. Many had hoped for something like an intellectual version of the tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King - they were sorely disappointed - for the night was spent helping us all learn how we might grow closer in love and healing. He said even though his work has been ridiculed - mostly because the men's movement is 20 years behind the women's - serving as a holy fool is a sacred calling. Think St. Paul, think Ginsberg, think Loki or Kokopelli or St. John the Baptist... think Dylan in spades!

+ He has come to believe that the secret wound that most men must wrestle their way through is shame. It often comes out looking like anger - or addiction - but is grounded in the fact that many of us don't know how to be authentic men in our age. In rejecting the harsh and emotionally crippled masculinity of the traditional cowboy who doesn't talk about his feelings and just wants to get the job done, ma'am, countless men in the West have become "soft." We are loving and gentle - grounded in compassion rather than assertiveness - but unable to rise to the challenges of the era. Bly calls this "the yogurt man" who hides behind the skirt of strong women, refuses to live into his calling as a tender warrior and essentially remains a child in an adult world.

His work with Jungian Marian Woodman as well as James Hillman is called "the sibling society" where men refuse to mature because our traditional understanding of masculinity is so empty and often violent. This is moving in the right direction, to be sure, but it is complete because... it is born of shame and confusion. I think of the music of James Taylor and the singer-songwriters of the 70s - so beautiful, so tender - all moving us away from the swagger and violence of the old men.

Bly's poem, My Father's Wedding: 1924, speaks of this, too, with sweet insight more passion.

Today, lonely for my father, I saw
a log, or branch,
long, bent, ragged, bark gone.
I felt lonely for my father when I saw it.
It was the log
that lay near my uncle's old milk wagon.

Some men live with a limp they don't hide,
stagger, or drag
a leg. Their sons often are angry.
Only recently I thought:
Doing what you want...
Is that like limping? Tracks of it show in the sand.

Have you seen those giant bird-
men of Bhutan?
Men in bird masks, with pig noses, dancing,
teeth like a dog's, sometimes
dancing on one bad leg!
They do what they want, the dog's teeth say that.

But I grew up without dog's teeth,
showed a whole body,
left only clear tracks in sand.
I learned to walk swiftly, easily,
no trace of a limp.
I even leaped a little. Guess where my defect is!

Then what? If a man, cautious,
hides his limp
somebody has to limp it. Things
do it; the surrounding limp.
House walls get scars,
the car breaks down; matter, in drudgery, takes it up.

On my father's wedding day,
no one was there
to hold him. Noble loneliness
held him. Since he never asked for pity
his friends thought he
was whole. Walking alone he could carry it.

He came in limping. It was a simple
wedding, three
or four people. The man in black,
lifting the book, called for order.
And the invisible bride
stepped forward, before his own bride.

He married the invisible bride, not his own.
In her left
breast she carried the three drops
that wound and kill. He already had
his bark-like skin then,
made rough especially to repel the sympathy

he longed for, didn't need, and wouldn't accept.
So the Bible's
words are read. The man in black
speaks the sentence. When the service
is over, I hold him
in my arms for the first time and the last.

After that he was alone
and I was alone.
Few friends came; he invited few.
His two-story house he turned
into a forest,
where both he and I are the hunters.

Playfulness and humility - tenderness and passion - are at the core of what Bly shares because he has embraced the shame as both teacher and shadow. And thankfully he doesn't stop with simply exposing the wound - he invites men to enter it and live into the wisdom of their wounds. This, you see, is how men become tender warriors - bringing healing through their strength and protection through their fear - rather than remaining trapped in rage, sexual brutality and emotional emptiness.

Once I prayed for only girl babies because I had no idea how to be a healthy and holy father for a boy - shame, yes? I give thanks to those who have helped me face and embrace my shame - and discover that it isn't the whole story. I give thanks to the poets and singers and artists who have continued the inward/outward journey of the Spirit. I think of the aging Bob Dylan... and James Taylor who has been sober and creative for the last decade... and my old "soft" friend, Cat Stevens aka Yusuf who is now more passionate and alive than ever before.

I loved "Father and Son" and "Peace Train" before, but now they are even better... as is his playful and powerful reworking of "I Think I've Seen the Light."


Black Pete said...

The beginning of a much-rambling discourse:

Re Robert Bly: I will be the first to admit that I stopped at "Iron John", despite my membership in the men's movement of the time. Part of the reason for that was what i perceived to be Robert Bly's use of language: to me, he mixed metaphorical/spiritual and factual, interchanging between them, often in the same sentence without qualification or explanation. It had the effect of his coming down too hard on issues that needed nuance, i felt.

While his pro-feminist credentials are impeccable, I found his choice of "warrior" (expressed factually, not metaphorically) as the best archetype for men to be profoundly disappointing, as I expressed in an earlier post. I still find it wanting, and I think its fatal attraction has pretty much remained with us, and most men have bought into it, still.

So, I admire him as a poet, but don't find he has much to teach me about masculinity. Still haven't found, etc etc.

I think that your concept of "tender warrior", RJ, is beyond where RB took us those years ago. And it is well worth thinking about. The trouble is, the "warrior" part of it speaks of life as inherently and always competitive. Inherently, maybe; always--I do hope not. I have rarely seen a competitive value that can be transferred into the areas of relationship, nurture, even compassion, successfully. I'm from Missouri (which is odd, as I'm a Canadian) on this one.

Black Pete said...


Marion (Boa) Woodman was my high school teacher in London, Ontario. English, grade 10. She was dynamic, brilliant, forceful. She forcefully urged us to go against the grain, find ourselves, not conform, etc etc. This may sound like a "woo-hoo!" these days, but in 1963 to a scared rabbit like me, with ADD and anxiety disorder (and not knowing it), it was terrifying, because life was.

Many years later, I learned that Marion had left teaching high school and founded the Applewood institute in Toronto. As well, i learned of her informal partnership with Robert Bly.

She has recently confessed on our splendid CBC radio program Tapestry, that she has since felt that she rather overdid her forceful urging, and wouldn't do it that way again if she had to do it over. I wrote to Marion after that, to tell her basically and fervently, "amen!" But I also told Marion that she had been a good teacher, that she was part of the reason that I was drawn to English and to language and to writing.

There was another reason for writing Marion. Her brother, Fraser Boa (yes, the same one who produced a film on Joseph Campbell, and published several books of interviews with JC), had been my grade 10 and 12 English teacher, and had been the first one that i recall to say that i had some gift for writing. That affirmation was lifesaving, and came at a very good time. Although I lost track of Fraser over the years (I heard of his death several years after the fact), I wrote to Marion in part to acknowledge my debt to her brother. In her reply, Marion promised to share my words with his children. She still lives where I was born and raised, London, Ontario.

"The mercies of the currents"--Bruce Cockburn

Black Pete said...

Small correction: Fraser had been my grade 9 and 12 English teacher. I really am bad at numbers! :)

RJ said...

I hope we can take this whole conversation deeper, too. I think you are right re: RB - his language re: warrior was incomplete. It was helpful to me as I was searching for strength beyond the "soft male" - and for a time his ideas were as good as I could find - but they are not sufficient. I wonder what another way of speaking about living into our protective and noble calling might be beyond the archetype of "warrior?" I am unwilling to leave warrior without the qualifier of tender and/or gentle as you have clearly appreciated.

Let's do some more thinking about this tender warrior thing as time unfolds, ok? I would appreciate your insights and experience. BTW I have found Bly's poetry anthologies - and introductions to Rumi and others - essential for my spiritual growth. Who do you like, Peter?

RJ said...

That is a very powerful and loving reflection on Marion whom I continue to cherish as a teacher. And the connection with her brother is beautiful, too. It is great that you were able to be in touch with her -both for her impact on you as well as that of her brother, too.

I spent a little time in London back when I was living in Michigan, but not enought time. As I wrote to you guys, we'll be in Montreal in August (Joyce gave me some good ideas about place to hang.) And, one day in the next few years, I am committed to getting up to your neck of the woods. Again, let's explore this whole theme more deeply, ok?

Black Pete said...

Thanks, my man. I was walking the dog just now and on the verge of tears through much of it. This has taken me again to some of my woundedness and that isn't a bad thing at all, sometimes.

Yes, let's look at this more deeply.

I think that you have hit it on the head, if i may say so, in juxtaposing the "tender" and "warrior" (for now; hey, maybe we're stuck with it! :) ) as two potential opposites held in tension. So much of our faith journeys is that very push-pull of opposites (remember yin and yang?) leading us into places we'd rather not be (such as, uncertain, having to dig deeper, etc), and this one is a beauty.

Put another way, we must claim both, or be in danger of being horribly unbalanced. That is very, very difficult to do! That's why i so often talk about so much being a work-in-progress. Ourselves, included.

Part of my journey with my wife has been reclaiming what is good and useful, including shadow parts, over the years, from my past. So, I have reclaimed what Robert was trying to articulate when he used the word "warrior"--it occurs to me that maybe what he was trying to say is like "God", simply beyond any language we have to express it.

Anyway, I really must get down to preparing some pad thai for supper! Further digging and deepening to follow.

Grace, RJ!

RJ said...

Isn't it fascinating that you, too, were close to tears. This is such important work and it is always so close to the wounds - just below the surface always for me - and sounds like you, too. Your wife sounds like a blessing who gives you space to become an ever more real you - I know that is true for me - and your words echo much that I have shared.

So... I will cook some dinner, too, (Di is resting now) and join you again tomorrow as we find new ways of seeing where this leads. It is too funny that you said what you did about "God" - that word is so inadequate and yet the best we have, yes?

Blessings aways, my man.

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