I’ve just retired after thirty years of teaching French at Berea-Midpark High School in Ohio. The metamorphosis I’m undergoing feels like a simultaneous shedding of weight and expansion of space in and across my shoulders.
Robert Bly’s work and the community of Minnesota Men’s Conference made all the difference during my career because my faithfulness to showing up for work, day in and day out was rooted more deeply than the institution of public high school. My felt connection to my body, the earth, to dreams and creativity, kept me vital, honest and playfully unpredictable. During the early years of teaching, I was struck by the bitterness of older teachers with twenty-five years or more experience. Listening to them degrade parents, other teachers, administrators, and “these kids today,” it was clear to me that I wanted to avoid their fate if all possible. Just five minutes with persons like that felt like I had had the life sucked out of my belly. There is T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men.” These were “hollowing men” who seemed pretty heavily self-medicated. The hollowing ones had a permanent slouch in their walk and even more so when they sat around the lunch table in the teacher’s lounge. Recovering my inner wildness was the vaccine that inoculated me against the apparent giving up on life that I witnessed.
Iron John came into my life on a wave of transformation that affected me and many other Americans as Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers presented The Power of Myth in 1988. The depth of experience that opened to me was reflected in my dreams. In particular, I had a dream at that time that featured a strong and energetic baby rat snake climbing a tree near a river. The next evening, a doorway to the mythic way of knowing opened inside me as I watched Joseph Campbell on television speak about the symbolism of the serpent as a bringer of life change. Not long after that dream, I found Eugene Monick’s book, Phallos: Sacred Image of the Masculine. I discovered Jungian psychology and began an analysis. Drawing my attention to earthly powers and serpents, Gene used the word, ‘chthonic’, which I had not read before. I had not considered how the sacred dimension of sexuality could be felt, nor had I considered how the ascendant Catholic images of my childhood were cut-off from the earth, psychological depth, the path of descent, the divine feminine, and my own body. I feel embarrassed to write this now because of how much I didn’t know.
I was primed for truly moving from my mother’s realm to my father’s realm in 1990 when Iron John came out. As a twenty-nine year old man, I first read about the wild man and his student. I felt like the one taken to the Sacred Spring to reflect on his wound, to learn the way he is merged in his body with the sacred and to look into the reflection of his own eyes.
I am also a singer-songwriter. Learning ideas that I cared about came not so much through school, but through listening to popular music and from writing songs. Because of that, one of my heroes was and still is John Lennon. As I was reading Iron John, by an act of synchronistic grace, I saw the Rolling Stone cover where John was naked and clinging to a clothed Yoko. “Wow,” I thought “I really don’t want to live that way,”. I realized that I had reached the edge of where Lennon could help me. I had listened attentively to his music and the ideas expressed in his interviews. For all John Lennon’s inspiring honesty and seeking, he had no place to stand, no ground of his own under his feet. It was clear what he meant when he shared in one interview that he knew he could not live without Yoko. The truth was that the image of a man naked and clinging to a woman reflected my own psychological condition at the time. I wanted a ground to stand on. I never wanted to be interviewed and say that I could not live without my wife.
In 1990, Iron John contained just the medicine-story I desired. I hungered for an experience of being invited and welcomed into a manhood I could be proud of. Though it took me awhile, I finally made it to the Men’s Conference in 2005 and 2006. The wisdom I received there still inspires me because I continue to draw insights from it.
The first thing I did after I retired was to re-read Iron John. It was a whole different book twenty-four years later. This time, what stood out was Robert’s voice. I identified with being an elder because I am now concerned by how to teach the teens in my extended family so that they don’t have to suffer like I did as a kid. I know from lived experience how important it is for older men to invite younger men into a deep experience of life where they are in touch with ‘God and sexuality, with spirit and earth’ (Iron John, p. 249). I look forward to this September where I plan to participate more consciously as an elder and embody more the Wildman who has helped sustain my life.
Here are lyrics from my song,
It is Time
Through the wild heavens,
Stars fly like sand
I know that I love you.
I have a place to stand.
I have a place to stand.
Author: F. Christopher Reynolds, M.Ed.
- VIDEO: T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men
- VIDEO: The Power of Myth
- Joseph Campbell
- Iron John
- Eugene Monick
- John Lennon