A Lifelong Workshop
Around Labor Day I get the feeling that school’s about to start again. Which for me means that the hazy days of summer are over, and I’ll soon have to starve myself for Yom Kippur, and also have to attend the Spirit Weekend, the annual men’s retreat that will take my comfort zone and stretch it till I retch. This past weekend, I completed my 22nd such retreat. I dread it every time. But when it’s over, I don’t want to leave.
In truth, however, I’ve been challenging that zone most of my adult life. It all started when I had to change in the worst way.
At age 23, with all my friends gone, and in the midst of a stagnant malaise, Debby, my lady of four and a half years, who’d taught me everything about sex and love, music and life, dumped me. I was left alone to deal with myself and all my long-avoided problems. I was not only heart broken, but completely lost as well. I hadn’t realized how dependent I’d been upon her, which was probably why she left me.
Scraping the bottom of my barrel, I found strength I never knew I’d had. And a determination that I would never leave myself so devastation-prone again, for I was so desperately lonely without her because I didn’t really have myself. I would do whatever it took to find me.
Like Dylan, I was…
“…Wondering what price
one needs to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.”
The price, of course, was a lot of hard, pain-in-the-ass work. I put myself in therapy, reached out to others, and I’ve never been the same.
In the process, my life has become something of a lifelong workshop.
This has involved some 30 years of Freudian, Gestalt, Primal, group and couples work. A week in the woods of California at a naked encounter group. And a series of weekend workshops that slowly and surely transformed my life. Soon after Debby, a woman friend named Louisa said to me, ‘Oh I get it. You’re on a self-improvement kick.” She didn’t get it. I was on a self-improvement life.
The best weekend workshop happened to be the one with the worst P.R. It was called est. It transformed my life — not overnight, but slowly over the ensuing decades.
I recall how, often during a particularly good weekend workshop or retreat, with the illusion of my separation from the rest of humanity momentarily dissolved, I’d have the feeling of “Don’t let me go back there!” Meaning back into my old patterns and solitary mindset with all my internal chattering monkeys. Over the years, I found a way to bring it all back home. The workshop would give me a taste of a better way to live, but to keep me from slipping back I needed ongoing support.
That’s why being in a weekly men’s group has made such a difference for me over time. And the work I’ve done with them around my own masculinity and the way I relate to women is how I built my current love life.
What this has all resulted in is a midlife (age 40) switch from a business-oriented, moneymaking path to one where I did work that actually meant something to me.
Another result came a few years later when I left my first wife, who would regularly complain that I had turned our marriage into one long workshop. (I kept insisting on dealing with our issues, which drove her bananas. We were better off apart.) I then put myself on an eight year trajectory of dating and growing as a bachelor that led me directly to the reward of a happy and healthy second marriage. And to being plugged into a few communities where this cantankerous misfit can actually feel like he belongs.
What I’ve learned along the way helps keep me from succumbing to two of ageing’s greatest hazards: Isolation and comfort.
Each tends, in its own way, to creep in and take over.
About isolation, and speaking from experience, I’d say the person who goes it alone is in bad company. This tendency especially in men is, I believe, one reason we die sooner. And in an age where millions of people have adopted their smartphones as their primary relationship, I can see why I’ll never, as a therapist, run out of business.
And as far as comfort goes, I’ve learned that avoiding my problems only feeds them. Facing them is like the discomfort of dragging oneself to the doctor to deal with a nagging symptom: It’s scary, but a pretty good idea.
I returned home this past Sunday night from the Spirit Weekend, exhausted, strong, full. I sat on the couch, my arm around Shelley on one side of me (“It feels so good to be held by you!”) and Romeo curled up on the other, the three of us purring. This kind of comfort I’ll take happily, and feels, after a weekend stretch of body and soul, like the reward of a warm towel after a cold shower.