Sometimes we live out our inner story never thinking that what happened to us may have happened to anyone else. Until a certain point, we can think that other people are immune. One day we learn that the stories were here long before the story-tellers. It is said that if we can find a branch on one of the Great Stories from which we can hang the candle of our personal story that everything changes. -mg
A Welcoming – by Cory
Before my first Minnesota Men’s Conference this year, I felt an unsureness of self, of not knowing who I was. Looking back on it, interactions with people were often one-sided.
At the time, this felt great, as there were never any problems getting along with people. My ability to stand up for what I wanted or say what I felt was lacking. What was missing was a definite sense of my own desires, of who I was and what I wanted in any given situation. Most importantly, I did not know it was okay to share those wants and desires with others.
One day, I was at my parents’ house rummaging through my brother’s room in search of books. As an avid reader, I was trying to get my hands on anything I hadn’t yet read. There, in his room, was Iron John, Robert Bly’s book about men. My brother told me he’d never read it. I had no idea what the book was about when I began to read it. That book enabled me to realize and understand, for the first time, the lack of self I had been experiencing. For a while after reading it, I was strong. I was able to see that I was a unique person, who did not have to shy away from his own wants.
But, as with all the books I read, it was placed on my bookshelf. After a few months, and in need of a refresher course, I read it again. Then, back on the shelf. The book helped me to understand that it was okay to have my own desires, but I was not yet strong enough to actually be able to share those wants with other people. I needed something more to encourage that next step. An Internet search on Iron John revealed the Minnesota Men’s Conference. Now, four months after the Conference, I can honestly say that I, as my own person with my own thoughts, attended that conference.
Upon going to Minnesota, I was afraid of many unknowns. As a 26 year-old, I figured that I would be the youngest person by decades. Worry overcame me as I boarded the plane.
What did I really know of life? What could I possibly learn here? If I could barely sustain my own true self, would being in a group of people actually make things worse?
The next few hours were fraught with this type of thinking. But, getting off the plane and walking to baggage claim, I was warmly received by a group of men whose ages were as different as the places they were from. I was certainly not the youngest, and felt at home even among the oldest of the men. But still, I worried that I was too young or immature to learn anything from the conference.
To illustrate the next point, I think discussing one of Robert’s other books, The Maiden King, is helpful. It is a book about uniting the many facets of the self together and becoming whole. In that story, a young boy’s mother dies. His father hires a tutor. One day, the young boy, Ivan, and his tutor set out to fish, and they meet a beautiful maiden. Learning about the maiden from the tutor, Ivan’s stepmother gets jealous, and coerces the tutor to knock Ivan unconscious by putting a pin in his neck each of the next three days when the two set out to meet the Maiden. Ivan learns of the deceit, and kills the tutor. Then, Ivan sets out on a long journey into the underworld in search of the Maiden and meets the Baba Yaga. There is more to the story, but this is enough for now.
In Minnesota, I was like Ivan. I had suffered some grief in my past: the definition of myself was lacking. Ivan had lost his mother and was tricked and duped by an evil stepmother. Other men at the conference had lost loved ones, fought in war, suffered through one or more of many different kinds of abuse. The lack of knowledge of who I was as a person had knocked me unconscious—pinned my neck—and prevented me from moving on into other stages of my life. In terms of the story, I could never meet the Maiden because I was asleep.
I was playing the character everyone else wanted me to be, therefore never truly understanding who I actually was.
But, like Ivan searching for the Maiden, the Conference took me down into the underworld of my grief, and going down, my individuality began to be reclaimed. Through the daily story, through sharing my history with others, through simply being with other like-minded men, I walked through the darkness of my individual being.
I felt that I met my individual Baba Yaga, told her the horrors of my hidden truths, laid myself bare to her, and tried to answer her questions truthfully.
Of course, my journey is not over. I think that we all encounter this ashes road multiple times, and each time the Baba Yaga is there, and each time we are either eaten by her or she lets us through.
Before Ivan could get back to the Maiden, he had to journey to the Crone’s house, and collect an egg, from a duck, in a hare, in a coffer, in an oak tree. Sometimes I lose my way in the search and sometimes I let others knock me off my way. But now, because of Minnesota, because I have experienced why I lose my individuality from time to time, which was the purpose of the trip to the underworld, I am able to work through it and solve the issue. I have something I can refer to now; a set of experiences that I can look back on and draw strength from.
There is one detail of the conference that does vary greatly with the fairy tale of The Maiden King, and that is community. Ivan journeyed alone. The boy in the fairy tale Iron John travelled with the Wild Man. But at the conference, we were very much not alone. We could lean on our brothers at any time of day, and be there for them if they needed it. The conference was very much community-based—I was able to share my story to a roomful of men, which meant that I had that much support as well.
The first three mornings of the conference, we all listened to a traditional story. The story spanned three days, and after each day’s segment, the men asked questions and made comments. On the second day of the story, a certain part stood out to me. The hero of the story had married several times. But each time the woman he married had an evil sister who wanted to kill him. And each time, the marriage ended. But, there came a time when the hero met a woman who did not have an evil sister, and it was with her whom he lived happily ever after.
I made the comment that the woman who the hero married was herself a fully integrated woman, much like the hero had eventually become a fully integrated man. Meaning, before, neither of them had united all the separate and distinct parts of themselves, which were represented in the evil sisters and the hero’s inability to stay with the earlier marriages. But, after much time and struggle, the woman he married and the hero himself had grown to fuse all the parts of the self together in one whole, which made for a strong union between them. This had been a difficulty for me in my relationships.
Afterwards, a man around my father’s age came up to me, and told me that my comment really helped him; that what I had pointed out had meant something to him, it was something that he had been struggling with. At that, I felt that I could cry. I was so happy to have helped him. But equally important, I felt welcomed into a community of support. I felt that the men did not see me as a 26 year-old youth limited in experience. I felt part of something. So unlike Ivan, at the conference I had men who I could turn to when the underworld got particularly dark.
And now, outside of the conference I have men who I can turn to when it gets rough out here; making it easier to remind myself of who I am when I forget.
In the Minnesota airport waiting in the security line to go home, I felt a lightness I had never felt in my entire life. I caught myself smiling several times. I spoke to strangers cheerily, something I had never really done. I knew that I had undergone a change in Minnesota, but I did not know what it was at the time.
Now, four months later, I see that the journey in Minnesota was my journey into the dark parts of myself. It was a time when I could pose questions to myself about the darkest things, and have them answered. Like Ivan after he made his descent, upon leaving Minnesota, I was leaving on the Firebird—the mythical being who would take me on an ascent out of the darkness and into the lightness of myself. Am I perfectly whole now? No. It takes a long time for that. But I feel stronger now because I began the process.
The Maiden King The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine
by Marion Woodman and Robert Bly
Ivan Jakovlevich Bilibin: http://visualmelt.com/Ivan-Bilibin