I am in the middle of reading Robert Bly’s book Iron John. Frankly, I am surprised to only have recently learned about it (thanks Tim) as it sat upon the NYT Best Sellers list for sixty-two weeks after being published in 1990. The book essentially addresses the issues around masculine rites of passage (or the lack there of, in North American culture). In it Bly exegetes the Brothers Grimm fairy tale which tells of a young prince’s journey into manhood. The book is full of prose, poetry, myth, legend and Jungian psychology. In short, it is making me think, which I enjoy, on the whole.
One of the things he addressed is the idea of sitting or living in ashes. Ashes are often used as metaphor for grief, loss, a going down. Job sat in ashes, young Danish vikings would live in the ashes of their longhouse fireplaces in between being boys and becoming men.
I have been told on an occasion or perhaps two, that my ability to discern my own emotions, let alone those of others is stunted. Just recently I have becomes aware, through the honesty (about frickin time) of a few that I am a bit of a control freak. Put another way, I am still in a place of self discovery even at the ripe age of fifty. I think one of my issues, among many, is that I still haven’t learned the art of grieving.
It hasn’t just been Bly’s book that has revealed this insight. A number of people in my life have made note of this deficiency in the past couple of months. Despite my own myopic self perspective, I must admit that it is not something that I am familiar with. Perhaps I am in need of some time in the ashes?
One incident where I feel like I became acquainted with grief was in 2011 when I visited Burundi. I made a trip to the impoverished African country as a coffee consultant with Food for the Hungry. I actually went reluctantly at the time, and most likely would still have the same reservations today. With that said, I encountered at the same time, a spirit of resilience and a crushing poverty on that trip. One evening I called home to talk to Michelle, standing in the middle of rural Burundi I sobbed uncontrollably as I recounted to her how broken the country I was visiting was. Even now, as I think back on that experience, I am confounded by my own response to what I was experiencing. What is interesting, in hindsight, is the fact that my trip to Burundi was my last trip to origin until last February. In many ways, Burundi was for me, the straw that broke the camels back. It was if my subconscious had had enough of poverty, injustice, and suffering. Visiting Costa Rica last February was the first time I returned to a coffee producing country in seven years.
So I am a man very infrequently acquainted with grief it seems. Despite personal loss, death, and failure, I seem to not know how to grieve. Despite almost a decade of living with a warrior wife, who suffers daily, I remain on the fringes of knowing grief. This post offers up no answers. I am not offering up solutions, nor dispensing wisdom in this regard. I am still a young boy in this aspect of my journey. In the Grimm tale, the young prince sets free a hairy wild man, which sets in motion a series of events which leads to maturation. Perhaps having turned fifty, I am finally about to become a man? At minimum, I need to spend more time in the ashes, learning how to discern the emotions in my chest, and in turn, having the courage to look that guy in the face, despite the clouded mirror, and acknowledge the wounds, and learn to grieve.