Men sometimes baffle me. I have never understood the rules by which they are entrained to be strong and silent when, in their heart of hearts, they really just want to be loved like the rest of us inhabiting this mortal coil. Why they play their cards so close to the chest, how they shake off a near-fatal blow with hardly a flinch, what it means to lower their heads and bull on through life: all of this is a mystery to me. Maybe it is baffling to them as well, though it sometimes seems to be genetically encoded in the same strands of DNA where, in women, the genes for empathy and care-giving seem to predominate.
But my dear friend Jim has a little of both in his genetic mix and has taught me a great deal about walking this earth as a man with both unshakeable strength and an available heart. I live along the rocky Northeast coastline; Jim lives in the deep heartland of South Dakota , where (in my opinion) it seems to be cold at least 364 days of the year. Jim writes to me about how, with the right layers of clothing, one doesn’t really have to stay cold while sleeping in a thermal bag beneath the stars alongside the river he kayaks every year. He takes his friends, his brother, his sons and his grandson along on these annual pilgrimages into the spirit-world of nature; together, the boys of autumn embark on a journey that just gets better each time they strike out on the river.
I admit to a love of creature comforts and confess that nothing about this appeals to me. But, to Jim, this is as close to heaven as he might get while alive. He relishes every minute of it: how the beavers are more active this year than last, the sight of a bald eagle perched high in bare trees, the last few great blue herons lingering along the river before they complete their long migration south.
Jim sends me pictures of this journey so I can vicariously join the adventure he loves so much. Vicarious is enough for me, but I confess he teaches me something I will not likely experience firsthand: what it means to merge with nature in such an intimate and fun-filled encounter. As I read his stories of life on the river with only his best buddies along for the adventure, he highlights something I envy in men such as Jim: his child-like pleasure of play and risk-taking in the most primitive settings. Give Jim a tipi to live in, and he’s at home in the world. Give him a river to paddle, and he knows joy like no other. Give him Tristan, his grandson, and a winter walk in the woods with their dogs, and Jim embodies ecstasy. Give him the dogs and a fire to warm them at night, indoors or out, and he can hardly contain his love of life.
I learn volumes from a man who is different from me in nearly every way and yet joins with me in keeping alive a cherished long-distance friendship. I first met Jim in a circle of seekers on Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle . To get there, I had to cross the country by plane, catch a bus from the airport to the Mukulteo Ferry, cross Puget Sound to the Whidbey Island dock, beggar a ride to The Marsh House, locate my loft room, make the long walk through the woods to a round building in a field populated by red-tailed hawks, and claim my seat in a circle of strangers. More than a dozen of us had come together from all parts of the country to live in circle practice with each other for a week-long intensive training. Jim was the charming cowboy with a graying beard who sat across the circle from me wearing a black-and-white dolphin shawl tossed lightly across his broad shoulders. I would lean on those shoulders often in the ten years of our yet-to-be-created friendship.
The cowboy and the therapist found each other in the garden one day during a break from the activities of the practicum. I was alone, meditating, when the cowboy wanted to sit with me to ask a question. How does a person put himself in right relationship with women after a marriage ends badly? In that question, we found our first common ground and began a conversation that continues with constant revision to this day: What might men need to learn about women, and women need to learn about men, for us to relate more respectfully and lovingly to one another?
The cowboy has endured a divorce and the end to a long-term relationship. Both took a piece of his heart. He helped raise his children and grandchildren, buried two canine companions he adored, had a serious run with illness and surgery, endured a terrifying drop in his career and a sigh-of-relief comeback. This year, he plans to walk his daughter onto a beach in Hawaii to marry the love of her life. Every year, there’s the report of his river trip, the one constant thread in his beautiful life. This year when the pictures arrived, I noticed with a twinge that his beard is now entirely white. He has become the elder of his clan.
The therapist has endured a divorce and the end to a long-term relationship. Both took a piece of her heart. She helped raise her two children and, this year, stood joyfully present as both of them married two truly good souls to fill out her little family. She adopted a pup for the first time in too many years and promptly fell unabashedly in love. She counsels, gardens and writes. The one constant in her life is beauty in many forms. She has grown a few gray (largely hidden) streaks in her hair, but her smile remains ever thus. She’s become the woman elder of her birth tribe.
One letter at a time, interspersed with occasional visits in situ, the cowboy and the therapist have forged a friendship few men and women have. A friendship with deep love at its core, good courage to speak the truth, and the determination to listen well to another whose life experience is at once unique, even foreign, yet universally understood when received by the heart.
Once, I would have been reluctant to risk a conversation with men who were so different from me. When Jim extended his heart, we both became the grateful recipients of our own efforts to find a friend where we might not otherwise have looked. That is, of course, the happiest lesson of all, to find a beloved friend where we might not have looked for one, or perhaps even turned away from a potential companion lying in wait.
Byron Katie says this, “Everyone and everything that you meet on your path through life is God-in-disguise wanting to lead you to your liberation.” This has been a period of learning only my thoughts about someone or something keep me from the oneness we share. If my thoughts judge them, I will never get to know the them-in-me, nor they the me-in-them… and we will forever suffer the loss, realized or unrealized. But if I drop my story (as the cowboy from South Dakota urged me to do ten years ago) and step into the reality of another, I may find the One Who Holds the Mirror for me to see myself in my completeness more clearly and compassionately than before.
So many of my relationships suffered from the not-knowing of such a truth: that absolutely everyone and everything we meet along the journey is God-in-disguise waiting to show us the way to liberation. All that separates me from remembering this universal wisdom are my own (often buried) thoughts, judgments, fears and beliefs. If I stop making up stories about other people who don’t look, talk, sound or act like me, I usually find another man, woman or child who just wants to love and be loved.
In this simple truth, nothing separates us.
I close this with gratitude to the man who fords the river I may never cross and with great love for his eagerness to join me in the garden and begin a conversation that may outlast us both. Beyond my personal friendship with the cowboy, I’m grateful to women and men everywhere who risk soul-searching, life-changing conversations in order to discover our common ground and to build our common destiny.