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On Finding My Way in the Dark

Copyright © 1995 by Regal Watson


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I salute Tom Golden for his two articles on men's grieving. "A Man's Grief" (November 1994) and "Men. Grief. and Ritual" (January. 1995). Nothing has helped me more in growing up, that is, growing toward becoming an elder rather than a lifelong adolescent, than doing my grief work. Four years ago something called me to leave my career, my wife, and my then grown children, and go into the darkness. As a therapist, Golden sketches the domain of grief objectively. As one who received therapy, I can reflect on my subjective experience.

Golden observed that men look for maps when they are lost. This was my experience. I remember telling my therapist and teacher. Dr. Wayne Smith. after about half a year of working with him. that I felt like I was walking through a dark tunnel and that 1 wanted to find a map showing me the way out. Wayne let me know there is no external map, and while I once thought he was withholding the answers to make it harder for me. so I'd get even tougher. I have come to realize he was initiating me, letting me make my own order out of the chaos of my world as all who would be elders must. A man's work is making order out of chaos. and we must do our own work before we can hope to find our place in this world.

This has been a time for searching within myself for a map I could only hope existed. For me, it has been a time for learning to act out of the heart and the body: doing, trying new things, reflecting, feeling, testing. and praying: letting go of doing life in my head. So, without trying to do someone elseís work for him, but in the spirit of helpfulness 1 sensed from Wayne and from Tom Golden, I offer these map maker's notes from my own journey through what has seemed to me a very dark place.

For me working through this heavy kind of grief has been seeking a spiritual reconnection. Thus the nature of the map is unlike any I've ever used. I only dimly sense the spiritual aspect of me, of other people, and of the world. of the connectedness of all living things, yet this is what I am struggling to find.

I remember leaning over the dock rail at a marina in Anacortes, trying to decide whether to make an offer on a sailboat tied below, when a crow came and sat by me. I sensed some kind of connection with the crow, that some kind of guidance could come from him if I could just learn to understand what he was trying to teach me. That was more than four years ago: I have been studying crows and wanting to be around them ever since. Somehow for me they are a connection with all the things on this planet, to life and death, to the taking of life and the bringing of life again. Eagles, river otters, hummingbirds, red tailed hawks, and black tailed deer have also come to be important connectors for me.

Through losing myself in study of these animals, stories come to me which have helped me get a sense of where I am heading or what I am becoming. As my personal boundaries become better, as I learn more about people, and as my feelings do not seem so overwhelming, I gradually am becoming freer and more human in my connection with other people. I seek people out more often now. I desire connection with them more.

Learning to pay attention to my dreams and learning how to use my dreams to help me do the work 1 need to do has been, for me, a way of getting glimpses of the hidden map. Similarly. letting the final draft of a poem emerge and listening to what comes out of my mouth as I talk with others about my quest and theirs are other ways of getting hints of the changes going on within me and the road 1 want to now follow.

Rediscovering my own "fairy tale," the internalized version of a story once read to me which I embraced as a story about the me I dreamed of being as a very young boy, has helped me understand something of what the second half of my life can be about. In my fairy tale a tree trunk is shattered in a storm and I find a long lost bejeweled family crest which had been misplaced in a cavity in the tree by my grandfather many years earlier. Sometimes now, as Iím getting off my little kid high chair more and more, 1 feel like I have been given a bright, multifaceted stone to hold, one which reflects the sun. I am not the sun, I am not the stone: I get to hold the stone.

Slowly Iím letting myself use rituals which occur to me. Sometimes these come to me in dreams. My journey to the Pacific Ocean with my friend J.B. Webster in which I buried my old, blind, dead self and was given a new name, resulted from acting on a dream I had. I brought back four stones from the ocean which 1 use to create the container or ritual space I need when I pray for guidance.

I have several knives. a chain saw. several axes. two machetes. a brush hook, splitting tools, and a pair of clippers. Frequently during the past four years I find myself cutting up wood, splitting wood, clearing land, or cutting down trees. For me, this is anger coming up and working itself out into my body, and into action. I used to numb myself through overwork to avoid feelings I wasn't ready to deal with. This is something quite different. This time of sharp tools is how I know another turn in the tunnel has been passed, that Iím cutting away something I cannot take with me and am heading for a period of growth. Today I cut blackberries. I enjoyed the afternoon sun, clearing the land, and the cutting ritual reminds me I am growing in a way that is safe for me.

Golden points out that we don't have to do our grief work, but the consequence will be ending up "unable to engage in life, and always having to look over our shoulder to check on the dragon." At age fifty-two I look around me at the scores of grumpy old men who seem scared and angry because they have not done their grief work. Iím often afraid Ií11 end up like them. I still have frequent periods of apathy, anger, and sadness. For comfort I turn to experiences Iíve had such as one last winter.

One afternoon I watched eagles in a cove west of here, near the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. As I made my way toward a log on the beach I would pass under an overhanging fir. Hopeful of seeing an eagle, I glanced up. A white headed eagle sat in the lop of the tree, about forty feet above the beach. Aware that I felt respectful, I walked under the tree. The eagle did not move. I then continued on to a log which faced south, and out the mouth of the cove.

A flock of seagulls sat together in the cove. A pair of immature eagles took turns attacking them. Stationed across the cove from each other, first one, then the other would swoop down, single out a gull and chase it into flight. The young eagle would chase and harass the gull for a minute or two, then turn and dive straight down toward the water. Just before hitting the waves the eagleís talons would extend and it would rake the water as if grabbing something as the eagle pulled back up into flight. Then it would retire to a tree.

Above these immature gulls I then saw two mature bald eagles. Their white heads and tail feathers gleamed in the sun. They too sat across the cove from each other. Suddenly the one behind me flew across the cove and started attacking the other. They flashed and flew at each other for a few minutes before one of them flew away to a tree to the south, while the other sat in the previously occupied nesting place, a Madrona which leaned out over the water.

I heard eagles begin to call to each other. I searched the cove but no eagles called. Then I saw them. High overhead, so high that they must have been half a mile up, two more eagles, black against the sun except for their whiteness, circled and called back and forth to each other, and looked down on all that lay below them.

1 do not yet fully understand this story, but I feel its power for me. I am the grieving man sitting on the log. At the same time I am a gull, a young eagle learning to steal fish, a mature eagle fighting for territory, and an older. wiser eagle circling high above, calling joyously to his mate. Seeing the last two eagles, high overhead, is what gives me hope in the midst of my despair.

Thus I, your brother, am guided to doing my work. Please pray for me.

Regal Watson, an educator, has been active in the menís community for a number of years.

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