A Mythopoetic Gathering of Men

Standing in the California redwoods, I couldn’t be farther from the French Riviera.

A couple of days ago, I was in sunny Cannes on the Mediterranean, seated at a sidewalk café, sipping a glass of Provençal rosé while surrounded by tourists and a mélange of languages. Now I’m near Mendocino on the northern California coast, at a rustic and mossy camp deep in the woods, attending a men’s conference over Memorial Day weekend. Talk about culture shock.

My linen shirts, tailored clothing, leather sandals and ‘man bag’ have been exchanged for hiking pants and backcountry jacket, heavy long sleeve shirts, thermal underwear, and a wool cap. An entirely different side of me is present (and dressed appropriately), and mostly it feels good. The Côte d’Azur was a pleasant holiday; the redwoods offer a journey to the heart and soul.

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The Mendocino Woodlands Camp was built nearly a hundred years ago, during the 1930’s by down-and-out men as part of the WPA and CCC of the Great Depression. Nestled in 700 acres of pristine redwood forest along the Little North Fork of the Big River, east of Fort Bragg, the rustic camp is well out of mobile signal range. It’s not often that I get the opportunity to completely drop out of all electronic contact, and I’m strangely elated by it. And though I’m not nearly as wedded to my phone or email as most people of my generation (or younger) in the Western hemisphere, the disconnection is part of the rather abrupt counterpose to Provence.

Sitting quietly atop my sleeping bag on the narrow bed in my shared cabin—a modest, redwoodcabinsscreened-in structure with four bunks—I’m trying to fully arrive after my drive north from Carmel, letting spirit and soul catch me up. Breathing deeply to help switch gears, I open myself to the drastically different experience from where I’ve recently been. With the traffic and length of today’s journey, I’ve not arrived as early as I wished to and many of the cabins are already full, marked by sleeping bags, daypacks, and luggage. I’ve brought a drum, and my Thermarest lounger—an inflatable sleeping pad that buckles up neatly into a camp chair—though suddenly I wish I’d also brought my tent. What if my cabin mates snore loudly, or want to talk late into the night? Keenly protective of my ‘space’ and rather solitary, I find shared lodging terribly difficult. Gods help me.

It is my first time attending a men’s conference. I am here on my own, and other than through a few brief email exchanges, I know no one. Given my work with men’s groups, workshops, and ’vision quests’ over the years, in some ways I feel very comfortable in such a setting, yet I have never joined a group of this size (there will be seventy participants). I’m not a facilitator, leader, or guide here, and I’ve no idea what to expect. Will the gathering be an enriching, profound, and bonding experience? Or will it be terrible…? My little white rental car, a Ford Escape, is parked in a spot where it won’t get boxed in by other vehicles, so that if the flavor of the weekend simply doesn’t suit, I can put the car’s name to good use and make an easy getaway.

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Heading back to the main hall where we will gather for dinner and to kick off the weekend, I leave my shoes on the cabin’s step and amble barefoot through the towering trees, feeling cool dry earth and dried brown, flat needle-like conifer leaves underfoot. The coastal redwoods are arguably the tallest trees on earth, with giants measuring over 300 ft /100m (the tallest discovered living tree, called “Hyperion,” a California sequoia, is recorded at over 379 feet), though these that surround me are only half that height. Still, they are magnificent beings and with my head craned upward, I marvel at their erect, noble stature. The collective ‘energetic field’ of this forest is so drastically different from the modern world that it is nearly startling, even to one well acquainted with wilderness and ‘nature’. Far from the hum and electromagnetic pollution of the matrix in which most of us dwell (to the detriment of our health), truly this is a healing place. You can feel it.

Amid the quiet giants, the campground is cool and shady with little open sunlight, dotted here and there with lacy ferns and jade green underbrush. I cross a small wooden bridge over a gently moving stream, stopping for a while in the middle of its span and gazing down into the clear water. Feeling a somatic tug in my solar plexus, I decide that I need to put my feet into the slow current. I make my way down from the bridge to the gravelly stream bank, where I roll up my trousers and wade into the crystalline water to ankle depth.

It’s decidedly cool but the stream isn’t nearly as cold as I had expected. I stand there for about ten minutes, feeling the stones underfoot and wriggling my toes, breathing deeply the evergreen-scented air as the water passes over my feet—recalibrating my nervous system, washing away the past and inviting me to be totally present in this splendid, sensory moment. Cannes has disappeared, along with the long journey to arrive in these woods. Listening to the wind rustling in the canopy high above, feeling wide open and grounded, I realize that it’s been too long since I was deep in a great forest like this one. I’m glad to be here, whatever unfolds for the weekend.

I hear the voices of men throughout the campground, peppering the quietude with human energy and sound. Many are still arriving, wandering through the camp after checking in at the main hall, inspecting cabins and looking for their place to stay through the weekend.

Though not always at this site, the Redwood Men’s Conference (redwoodmen.org) has been gathering annually for twenty-four years, offering men a chance to connect with each other in a meaningful, heart-centered way. As their mission statement says, there is a “need for men to come together in community to express and explore ideas which restore wholeness to ourselves and Soul to the world.” RMC states their further aim is to “provide a container in which to heal the wounds that result from our lost connection with Soul and support men in bringing this healing back to their communities.”

Given its overlap with my scheduled time in Cannes, I had not initially planned to attend the conference until I learned of this year’s theme, “Eros and Its Shadow”—a topic closely in line with my forthcoming book.  I felt called to join in the shared discussion, and perhaps offer something myself (and of the book). Amid the great trees and basically unknown in the circle, I am simply a participant, a role which offers a certain amount of grace in being ‘under the radar’ (though I seldom seem to remain there for long). I connect fairly easily with the conference organizing committee, a hardworking group of men who have dedicated countless hours to this event—gentlemen, I salute you—all of whom are friendly and make a concerted effort to welcome me. Because of an introductory email, a few of them know of my forthcoming book, and some have read a recent Soul Artist Journal post, “Men and Beauty” (click the title to read, opens in a new window), which was forwarded by an unmet friend to the Redwood Men’s Conference community at large.

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Admittedly, it’s different not being in a facilitator or guide role, and I have to push myself through my natural tendency to remain somewhat apart. It is immediately clear to me that one of the challenges of the group itself is the differing levels of personal development. Some men, even ones who have been coming to this event for years, are only at the early stage of asking themselves the Big Questions—who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? What does it mean to be a man?—while others are significantly further along on the personal development and soul evolution journey. Yet all are here for the rare opportunity to connect with other men in an accepting, open-hearted, and nonjudgmental environment, so seldom encountered in daily life. I remind myself that the focus of the weekend is not necessarily soul (despite the conference aim) but simply connection, which certainly nourishes the soul in its own way.

Chronologically speaking, it is a decidedly mature crowd—the average age is well into the fifties, though there are some younger men, even a few youth. Most are straight but there are gay, bisexual, and even transgender men here too, and the diversity is genuinely welcome. It moves me, this camaraderie and acceptance among the entire sexual spectrum of men. Observing the hugs and engaged conversations, it is clear that many established friendships exist within this circle; some participants are in mens’ groups together, while others simply look forward to reconnecting with each other here each year.

I realize that for many of the participants, this event marks the only time of the year when they have an opportunity to connect with other men—‘brothers’—in a meaningful, authentic way. Several participants speak openly that they live for this event all year long, carrying it with them for months afterwards and then eagerly looking forward to the next year, a sentiment which both touches and saddens me. How lonely and disconnected are most of us, even from ourselves. In his own way, each man is here to dismantle the wall that both protects and isolates him from the world, taking down one heavy stone at a time—fear, shame, judgment, anger, grief, self-loathing, competition—and laying it aside. If only for now.

The food is decent if less than inspiring (it’s camp food for a crowd, after all), and given the good weather, we eat together at long tables set outdoors of the main hall. I try to focus upon gratitude for the cooking, and I appreciate the non-meat options, the freshness of the salad when offered, and the good-hearted nature of the kitchen staff. I also value that whenever we gather for meals (or anytime during the conference, for that matter) that no one is connected to their phone—checking email, sending/receiving text messages, or browsing the Internet. It is a weekend of conversations and connection uninterrupted by technological intrusions, a rarity in much of today’s world. Communication/information technology offers such an easy, seductive (and addictive) distraction, and I appreciate—often long for—the certain quality of authentic presence offered by its absence.

Thinking we can have it all, we’ve lost so much.

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There are aspects of the gathering that don’t appeal, and several times the ‘group field’ seems disorganized and lacking coherence, direction, or inspiration. Also, some of the rituals fall flat for me, but I realize that much depends upon one’s experience and stage of the journey, and that a large group faces certain limitations. At times I am torn between being part of the group and simply wandering off alone amid the quietly watchful sentinels, there to appreciate the healing energy and wordlessness of the whispering woods. Yet there is also much that is beautiful in this collective male experience. The level of open-hearted, honest sharing is deeply moving. Heartbreaking, even. In the circle of the group, secrets are shared, confessions made, unanswerable questions asked, oaths taken, and tears shed. As per the structure of the gathering, advice is not given—men simply listen. Throughout the weekend, I witness courage and vulnerability in equal measure, interspersed with generous helpings of both humor and compassion. All of it humbles me.

In small groups and one-on-one conversations at mealtime, I do make some lovely connections with a couple of other men, but my favorite things about the weekend—the sequoias themselves, notwithstanding—include:

~ The repeated opportunity for singing together, including ‘The Temple of Melodious Sound’—an optional, morning gathering for an hour of chanting and singing before breakfast. No experience or good tonal quality required. The sound of men’s voices joined in harmony is beautiful, heart-opening, and soul stirring.

~ The poetry recited by more than a dozen men, stepping forth to share from the heart. Some of the poems I know but many I do not, and I find myself inspired to commit more poetry to memory than the few I now carry in my core. It’s a good soul practice, I think.

~ The epic and masterful storytelling each day by Hari, one of the conference elders. Seated beneath the trees, a gathering of men in a circle listening to a great myth (or even a common folk tale) by a skilled, story carrying elder, feels timeless. It is an auditory and oral tradition enacted for eons by our ancestors, one whose richness still feeds the soul on all levels. Really, it is my favorite aspect of the entire weekend.

I’m fond of the drumming, too. Little frees and animates the bodysoul like the powerful, primal energy of collective percussion. It effectively dissipates our restricted containment, compelling us to move and dance. At moments I wonder what the great, silent redwoods think of our wild drumming and frequent singing…? I can only imagine that they welcome it with thousands of outstretched green fingers and deep roots.

Few others seem to notice the pair of magnificent ravens that perch in the branches overhead or that wing through the camp, croaking loudly. Curiously, as if they are listening, they often alight on a near tree when we are singing together or drumming. I watch them deftly navigate the green canopy, dappled sunlight glittering on their wide wings in a flash of blue black obsidian, their deep, guttural voices full of stones and laughter. Magical and mythic. I note too that they are the only birds that I encounter during the entire weekend.

On the final evening, during an open sharing format, I have a brief, three-minute opportunity to stand up and promote my forthcoming book, The Bones and Breath: A Man’s Guide to Eros, The Sacred Masculine, and the Wild Soul—the heart of its pages so closely aligned with the conference theme. Afterwards, and even the next morning until my departure, I am met with a generous response of genuinely interested men approaching me to ask questions about the book and inquiring how to obtain a copy. (I have brought a stack of flyers created by my publisher to share with interested persons for pre-orders, and I end up handing nearly fifty of them out.)

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I wake at dawn on Monday, the air chilly and early light filtering through the shadowy forms of the Standing Ones, and I am ready to depart. More than ready. With a six-hour drive ahead of me, I decide to leave just after breakfast rather than staying for the morning’s gathering and closing circle. I want to get on the road ahead of the holiday weekend traffic (as much as possible) and through the Bay Area by early afternoon, driving on to Carmel for a couple of days before flying to Hawaii. I’ve been away from home and my beloved for a long stretch, it’s time to return.

Navigating the several miles of dirt road that threads through the dense forest, heading from camp towards the main road, I’m glad that I came… and that I didn’t drive off after the first evening. It was good to experience a conference like this, a different format of soul sharing than anything I am used to. I’m pleased that I allowed myself to show up and join in, rather than remaining apart and wishing that the gathering was something other than what it is. Too, it was decidedly worthwhile to withdraw from the technological world of nearly constant, mostly superficial connection and be present with a circle of brave, openhearted men. Good, indeed.

On some level, I wish that I could linger in solitude amid the grace of the trees for a day or perhaps along the alluring coastline, letting the sharing, stories, music, and connections digest slowly; opening my heart a bit wider and allowing the sum of the experience to work deeply into my interstitial spaces and soul. But it is time to return, to rejoin the daily world and face the other work that awaits me. Indeed, emerging from the woods and arriving in the charming postcard town of Mendocino—yearning for a flavorful, strong cappuccino before the long drive ahead—my hitherto silent phone rattles suddenly to life, a barrage of waiting texts, voice messages, and emails pinging through in rapid succession with a familiar chime. Welcome back.

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Soul Artists are radically authentic people, intent upon offering their soul’s gift to the ‘more-than-human’ world. In his or her creative expression, a Soul Artist helps others to expand their own definition of self and awaken to possibility, myth, and the Larger Story. They inspire others on the soulful journey. As men, they embody the Sacred Masculine with their heart-centered, relational, creative and compassionate approach to life, while discovering and claiming their personal power, and embracing cooperation rather than competition.

Many of these men are Soul Artists in the making. I honor them for asking the Big Questions, striving to evolve their concept of masculinity, and seeking meaningful connection with other open-hearted, conscious males (and nature, too). Each in his own way endeavors to embody something other than the stale, outmoded, one-dimensional options that society has handed him—a prefabricated, one-size-fits-all design that blunts the spirit, degrades the soul, and poisons us silently from the inside out. These men are bravely seeking their Eros, passion and authenticity, instead.

In a world gone awry, where tremendous damage has been done at the hands of the imbalanced, immature masculine, what could be more essential and timely than such personal and collective evolution? Nothing. Ultimately, the personal journey of the soul becomes transpersonal. There is a Great Work at hand, and in my few minutes of speaking to the group, I urge these men that they are each a part of it—discovering and offering their unique gifts, and ushering in the return of the Sacred Masculine.

As said and sung at the conference, “In beauty, it’s begun.”

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that your journey leads you to junctures where you can connect with others in a meaningful, authentic, open-hearted way, and be witnessed in a supportive light. May you find yourself in places and opportunities where you are seen and heard for all that you carry, whether that be openly or in secret, and where you bring the most essential, vital parts of yourself forward—those gnarly and deformed parts, too—to share for their unexpected, priceless gifts. Especially you men.

I wonder, what will you reveal of your authentic, generous self to the world today? What will you dare to embody as the truth of your being?

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