Good Grief, Gentle Men
or, Healing in front of other people
I’m checking in with a tired body. I feel subtle currents of anxiety. Overall my mood is good. Stable. Relatively bouyant. In recent days I have cried with my neighbors and been held close by another human being. And so much of my bodily angst has melted away.
Much has happened since I wrote you in September. I was accepted into Evergreen State College in Olympia. I’ve attended two grief rituals (more on that in a bit). My chapter seven bankruptcy was formally filed with the court.
As I wrote my last check-in, Squirrel had just posted a video that had garnered 700,000 views. In the subsequent days, the video’s view counter climbed to 1.8 million. That’s 8,834 hours and 11 minutes of viewership. I gained 50,000 new subscribers and a dozen new Patreon patrons through that one video.
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As I’ve said before, the numbers are dangerous. I’m reminded of the Precious from Lord of the Rings.
We wants the numbers very much. We wants the fame and the book deals. We wants to be on Oprah and Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. Don’t we, my Preciousssss?
It’s best, I think, to simply do the work. Most of my videos receive something like the minimum viewership for an account of my size. This is because the videos are long, thoughtful, and slow. But I maintain that’s what people really need. So much of what Squirrel does is simply walk slowly with his viewers.
Let’s slow down, he says. Let’s take a breath.
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IN THE VALLEY OF GENTLE MEN
I growled. I roared. I swung the bat. It hit home. I swung the bat again. I screamed. I fell to earth. I scratched, I clawed, I grabbed at her. Hands full of hay and dust. I bowed down until my lips touched her.
From deep within me, grief roiled up and out my mouth and eyes. I choked, I cried, I leaked. I moaned.
My lips to the dirt, I whispered to someone not present:
I love you.
And then, I whispered through bared teeth:
I hate you.
And then. Such relief.
There it is. It’s as simple as that. It’s out.
Collapsed on the ground, I hear drums, I hear singing. It is night, it is cool and dark. The only light: A broad ring of candles. I hear screaming, crying, wailing, shouting. I hear the rhythmic crack of cushioned baseball bats hitting gym mats. Male forms, crouched like babies, their shoulders heaving. Vomiting? Laughing? Crying? Who knows?
Whatever it is, I know, it’s fine. It’s welcome here. It’s why we’re all here.
I realize I’m done. Time to leave the circle. I turn and become aware of a man in the darkness standing over me. My Second, my Watcher. I have no idea who he is. A tall man. A beard. I can’t look him in the eye. Not after all this time, after 10 minutes of me grieving and screaming and crying.
But then I realize that I must. I must look him in the eye.
I’m still splayed on the dirt, like a child, and my eyes climb up the body of the tall man before me. Up I look, slowly, tentatively (IS IT SAFE?) And then I behold a face. A bearded face in the dark, and in the middle of it, two eyes.
And I know in that instant that these are compassionate eyes. They are soft, they are open, they have seen me in my truth and they gaze back without a hint of reproach, or judgment, or disconnect (for the child in me would know instantly).
I hold his gaze for what feels like an hour but is probably just 10 seconds. I can’t help it: I smile. And so does he.
I look away, it’s too intense. And then. I look again. And he’s still there. His eyes are still kind. We look frankly at each other.
And for the first time in my life, I feel safe in the presence of a man. And in the darkness, I don’t even know who he is.
Afterwards we all lie in the grass under the stars. We hear the soft words of a kindly old man. I am utterly at peace with All of This: With the trauma, the pain, the too muchness, the gifts, the joys, the ecstatic moments. I am awash in a full body gratitude for being here, for being alive. I am curled on the grass like a baby and I look up with a child’s eyes at the stars and I feel the rawest wonder, awe, and joy.
And around me are 25 male bodies, 25 men, 25 of the scariest animals who have ever walked the earth and I am not afraid. I feel my body and heart opening to each and every one of them. I feel…Safe. As if I belong here, just as much as they do. As if we are fellow mammals, bound together by an unshakeable kinship. As if I love them, and they me.
Never in my life have I felt this way.
I’d been hearing about grief rituals for a few years now, but I’d always stayed away. I couldn’t imagine anything more alarming than crying and wailing IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE.
I’d been taught as a child that my authentic emotions—especially my anger, my tears, my unhappiness—were not welcomed by my caregivers or my community. In my house, protest was labeled “whining.” My healthy anger was severely punished by my father. Tears on the playground marked me as a “pussy.”
[Insert long side note about the irony of conflating weakness with one of the mightiest organs in the human body]
So I learned to bury all that. I’ve been told that when I was very young, I was such a “good” boy. As in: Quiet, without needs. As in: Probably in the first stages of self-abandonment. Discuss.
But a few months ago, upon receiving an email invite to a men’s grief ritual, I felt an immediate Yes in my body.
I’ve had a gradual realization, crystallizing within the last year, that I must heal IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE. That I have done all the work I can do by myself. That if the wound came from my relationships, the cure must come from the same place.
I received a very clear message along these lines in September, during a session with [redacted natural medicine].
I’ve found enormous healing with psychedelics. One of the greatest gifts of psychedelic work is that, for the first time in my life, I have been able to grieve. The medicine melts away my inhibitions and before I know it, I’m weeping and covered in slobber. It feels like a much delayed release. And it’s always followed by waves of gratitude, praise, joy, bliss. It’s glorious.
In my latest session, as I was coming down Bliss Mountain, I heard a voice say: Where are the people?
It’s funny you should ask that, Universe. I’ve been wondering the same thing.
In an effort to answer that question I’ve been researching a peculiar kind of psychedelic therapy that is centered around relational healing. It’s characterized by moderate dosing and intensive guidance by a specially-trained therapist (or two). If you’d like a taste of it, I’ve heard the therapy described in the fascinating mental health podcast Back From the Abyss, hosted by psychiatrist Craig Heacock.
On psychedelic healing, with Saj Razvi
On healing with Ketamine, with Saj Razvi
The downside of this work is that it is on the cutting edge of psychedelic therapy. And that means it is vanishingly hard to find, sometimes involves illegal medicine, and is not covered by insurance.
And so, when I received the invite to a men’s grief ritual on the Olympic Peninsula, a little bell rang. Maybe this could be a kind of relational healing experience.
In hindsight, that’s like saying maybe space travel could be a kind of transformative experience.
There was no medicine involved. There were no credentialed experts, no co-pays, no clinics. Nothing more high-tech than a hand drum.
Just 25 men in the woods. And a lineage, from warm hand to warm hand, stretching back to West Africa.
An entirely human technology. The structure, the container built of human beings, hearts, hands. Each of us a casualty, each of us a healer. Beyond singing, beyond drumming, nothing much to do. But simply, radically
and in front of
To let go
I was not expecting the perfect medicine, but the perfect medicine is what I received.
I have much more to say about grief work, but I’ll stop here for now. Meanwhile, I’ll direct you to some of my guides in this work. Firstly, Laurence Cole, the elder who guided our grief weekend. And his mentors: West African elders Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé, the grief worker Francis Weller, and anthropologist Angeles Arrien.
Perhaps my favorite talk on grief, by Martín Prechtel
From the same event, a talk by Malidoma Somé
A gruff coyote of a grief wizard, Stephen Jenkinson, talks to Kimberly Johnson on the Sex Birth Trauma podcast.
Francis Weller’s book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow is now on my required reading list.
Suffice to say I’m lit up about grief. I’m here to spread the good news.
• My dear friends, music makers Yam and Jessi, have launched a Patreon for their lovely podcast, Bliss Is Ordinary. They’ve recorded the only interview I’ve been able to find of elder Laurence Cole.
• And finally, I cannot stop listening to this song from the Kanak people of New Caledonia. It was memorably featured (or stolen without attribution—discuss) by Moby in the 1999 song My Weakness.