No two men agree on what the Minnesota Men’s Conference is. They might not even agree that it is an evolving collaboration and improvisation, sustained by tradition, devotion to friends, and curiosity.
Increasingly over the years, I have struggled with the recommendation not to try to explain what the Minnesota Men’s conference is to people who have not experienced it; instead just to share with others the part of myself that has been nourished by the conference and let them puzzle over how I got this way. For me, the self-satisfying dodge of saying that I went camping with friends is wearing thin. Despite the cautions, I want to say that the conference over the years has been a big deal for me; a post-doctoral program in something, but what?
One of my teachers told me, “If you want to see God, stay on this side of the altar.” The wonder I experience but do not understand in theatre, the arts, ceremony, and ritual is won at the cost of a lot of backstage messiness and sausage making. And the work that goes into a Minnesota Men’s Conference, essentially a negotiation of many steps involving several hundred parties, is best left to those who knowingly give out of their own experience of mystery, so that others might experience the magic of an opening night and an opening heart.
No two men agree on what the Minnesota Men’s Conference is. They might not even agree that it is an evolving collaboration and improvisation, sustained by tradition, devotion to dear friends, and curiosity. They might say that’s just bullshit. Each year there will be some familiar tasks assumed by old hands. There will also be new people coming in, taking on new responsibilities or handling old ones in new ways. So, it is always a joy-filled scramble. When we are fortunate a man of a certain age is able to give his blessing to his replacement, as to an apprentice, and does not just disappear as so many men have from our lives.
Ontological questions abound. Who will die before we gather again? How will they be remembered? Who will have some crisis intervene in their plans? Who will overcome some intervening crisis to be there? Who will come to teach? What will they teach? How will the parts come together? What meaning will each man ascribe to whatever wyrd dance emerges? Who will go away angry? Who will leave energized and healing? We must hope that the conference leads men to confer and empathize with each other over the questions they might otherwise attempt to sort alone.
When the conference strikes its tent each year, to me, it is reminiscent of the conundrum followingThe Caucus-race, in Chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. One animal asks, “…but who has won?” The authoritative Dodo answers, “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” In the story, the prizes turn out to be little candies called comfits, supplied by Alice, one for each. The prize allocation is the set up for the line I like best. It has followed me through life and suggests the inevitability of a broad range of opinion. “The next thing was to eat the comfits: this caused some noise and confusion as the large birds complained that they couldn’t taste theirs, and the small ones choked and had to be patted on the back.”
Every conference is a hundred conferences going on concurrently, overlapping here and there. Why would there be any agreement about what had happened given the diversity of our lives and the randomness of experiences between those times when we all sing the same song or pray and say together the words “now, our minds are one?” Why would there be agreement about the experience of eating a comfit?
Some people are drawn to orchestrating what happens at the conference by providing food or music to share, by bringing books or gifts, by speaking a particular poem into the room, or by working to see that another man—student or teacher—is there with us. There is great trustand risk implicit in co-creating one of these events. People’s feelings get hurt. Old traumas get churned up. We misunderstand one another and make large and small mistakes. But, what did Daniel Deardorff say, “The key is learning to make the right mistakes.” How do I do that? Is it by means of a blessing or by chance? Why did Miguel Rivera say? “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” Again and again, I fruitlessly hope that doesn’t include my expectations.
These fortune cookie sayings cracked open at the conference, like “Sing early, sing often, let others worry” become touchstones for those who have internalized them. An image from a story told years ago like “showing your gold too soon” serves as shorthand for a way not to be a chump as much as “tell a wise person or else keep silent” becomes a reminder of how to manage whatever inner-gold you have. Maybe this is the way that men have historically shared wisdom, through “wise old sayings.”
Those of us who return and return again eventually learn to forgive ourselves and others. Rough edges are worn away by the tumbling of all of us together in such close quarters. Bits of poems leap into consciousness at odd times. We try to puzzle out why we are so touched or jarred by something that happened years ago. People in our lives outside the conference are mystified that we have somehow developed a poetic sensibility that celebrates mixed metaphor and humor.
When I go camping with my friends, everything that happens, happens for the first time, and has already happened many times. In fact, “It’s like this every year, ain’t it, Honey?” But since it is never quite the way I remember it or want to have it, longing remains the trump suit. Beaten by it, I have learned the beauty of the lost hand and the bittersweet of the moment before the card is played. I have learned how to belly laugh and how to cry tears of joy.
Twenty-five years ago, at my wedding, my friend, Don Rhoades, sang in response to a request, a song of his own for us. He sang, “Every moment lived is just a bluebird song. Its sung and then it’s gone.” It was his way of reminding us of the exquisite beauty hidden in a moment. We will not step into the same river, or ever again have wine like that again.
And likewise, on occasion, while camping with friends, we have sung together some joyfully, some mournfully, some knowingly, and some uncomprehendingly, that “It may be the last time, I don’t know” to celebrate how little sway we have over keeping hold of what we love. That is, until and unless—we renew the old ways of being together, in a particular remembered place, around a fire, beside a lake, to summon together the images all around us who are the keepers of the stories that weave light and dark.
Into the Woods