Men, retreat!

I spent the weekend at a men’s retreat. This bastion of the 1980s and 90s seems to have plummeted in popularity since the millenium (a Google search on “men’s retreat” brings up a scant 434,000 hits), which brings up the burning question “Why?”. Could it be that men are now so bonded and well-adjusted that they no longer need the rituals and self-affirmations of encounter groups. I doubt it!

Still, i found the retreat idea intriguing, especially since it built on a Men & the Environment conference that featured Victoria’s eco-uber-guru Guy Dauncey, whom i’ve wanted to meet for a long time. Man and the (degradation of the) environment . . . call it a hunch, but is there a connection there somewhere? I went to both events.

So the five stages of men’s retreat for me seem to be: trepidation, hope, deliberate participation, fear of hugs and tears, fun, annoyance, bemusement, getting lost in the woods, and hesitant embrasure. (How many is that?) It was an interesting experience. An eclectic 14 guys — no, men, let’s not shy away from the word — many of whom had experienced the movement years before, some drawn to it, some pushed by crises in their lives.

What did we do in those two days? None of your business is my first response. There’s a reason rituals are guarded — their secrecy gives them much of their force. The big surprise for me was realizing that ritual does have power. Heretofore i’d looked upon it as play-acting or metaphor, and assumed that what efficacy it had comes not from the acts themselves but from their attached cultural significance.

The water altar

I was wrong: the ritual itself induces change in one’s thinking and the conduct of one’s life. And it works in ways that nothing else can. The more i think about it (i’m writing this ten days later), the more i realize the extent to which it has affected me. And the greater my dedication to the arts, which i see as ritual in another guise.

Men’s groups, as it turns out, also come with lots of gushy language and touchy-feely superlatives, to which i am NOT attached in this age of rampant and meaningless exaggeration. (That piece of toast was to die for, it was amazing, it totally changed my life! Pah!) So part . . . much . . . most of my reservations are me being uncomfortable with the physical and the sharing aspect of the weekend. I have pretty much NO experience spilling my guts to men, and that brings with it the correspondingly meager comfort level.

The whole exercise is pretty much one of creating a safe place for men to be with each other in a meaningful way, which is the key. There are plenty of safe places for men — work, the bar, the street, a sports field — but none are particularly meaningful and in none of them do we dare spill our guts or say what’s really on our minds. That’s necessary but almost impossible to find outside of the formal men’s circle.

Would i do it again? I would. I probably will. I might even start organizing a men’s group wherever i end up settling down.

Our three elders/organizers need mentioning:

  • Michael Tacon, of the Well Foundation, grandfathered the whole thing.
  • Dr. Steven Faulkner has run men’s groups as part of his medical practice for decades, and was our principal guide through the long Saturday. A steady hand on the emotional volume control. In his words (kind of telling me off for my cavalier treatment of the rites):

[The] purpose of the rituals was to re-enter our own mythological space and reconnect us individually to our universal nature. Once we reconnect to that, then we can return to the work immediately in front of us. Guy Dauncey reminded us that that there is an urgent need for leadership today. We engage where our higher self intersects with our natural skills.

  • John Shields, ex-priest and current executive director of The Haven (25 years of personal growth courses on Gabriola Island — How could i not have heard about this?‘), wound the weekend up with a striking cosmological perspective of, well, the universe and everything in it. The man has presence. Brought tears to my eyes.

The conference and the retreat were organized by the Well Foundation of Victoria. It was held at the YM/YWCA’s Camp Thunderbird, near Sooke.

Dauncey, incidentally, lives in Saanich, Vancouver Island, and runs and puts out the Econews monthly newsletter. If you’ve got those world-in-the-toilet blues real bad, Dauncey’s the pill. (Him and action, at any rate.) The man’s an optimist and a visionary and his uplifting message is oh, so welcome in these dark, dark times. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Long ride

My debate leaving Fernie was where to go: Saskatoon (nice city but no hostel), Regina (22-hour bus ride), or straight through to mom’s in Winnipeg (because i’m a bored with the rootless life). Taking full advantage of my footloose life, i didn’t decide till i stepped up to the counter and bought the ticket — to Regina. And then found out it involves an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. layover in Medicine Hat — unappetizing prospect.

The driver, when he saw my ticket, pointed out that the Hat’s bus depot would be closed and i would be “on the street” for the 8-hour layover. Then he scribbled on my ticket, changing it to route via Calgary, where there’d be only a 2-hour layover.

It was a delight to ride out of the Rockies’ Crowsnest Pass into the foothills and finally the prairies, over the next 4 hours. I had a double seat to myself, the clouds were dramatic, the visibility good. By the time we reached Fort McLeod i’d decided to forgo master-of-the-universe Calgary and the tedious Trans-Canada, and stick with the southern route, despite the layover. I like the Hwy. 3 milk run, with its stops in the small places. What, i’m in a rush?

Someplace in southern Alberta it just crept up on me, that flat, flat ground to the horizon all round, that endless sky full of clouds like turtles and shards of pots and gods’ playroom, and i could feel my consciousness unfolding from the valleys and reaching out and out, wide and unfettered as the wind, and i smiled the whole rest of the day. I love the prairies, and i’m back on the wagon train of life in the now. And it’s true, what they say: there’s really very little to worry about, right here, right now.

Fixed in Fernie

I stepped off the bus two days ago with the immediate impression i’d stepped into a cathedral. Every direction you look … awe-inspiring mountains, true heaven-reaching ramparts of primordial grey stone. Oh yeah, you remember … this is what mountains look like.

The impression improves. The hostel is a block from the bus station. The town’s streets are spacious without being ostentatious, the houses, blessedly, are tiny, the flat-roofed shops are charming. And those mountains, everywhere around. “God’s country” comes to mind, and not in a cliched way. I’ll have to sort out my picture-posting glitch from this new computer to show you what i’m talking about.

Boy, is it hot here these last couple of days. I’ve been walking a lot, but the heat is taking the piss out of me. this morning i meditated, read a bit, went back to bed and snoozed, and finally pushed myself outdoors to explore.

Strangely, the town seems very slow — little in the way of tourism that i can see. It comes alive in winter, i’m told, and local businesses struggle through the summer. Hard to understand why, if my last two days are at all representative.

I’m deep into a stretch of ennui, i can feel it. Little interest in anything, little passion. I’m treating it as a phase so far — “this too will pass”– and not beating myself up about it.

To spice things up i rented a bike today — one of those downhill monsters with 7 inches of suspension travel front and rear — just to try the damn thing. (Actually i asked for the tame little road cruiser, but they brought out the beast by mistake and i took that instead.) Getting on the thing feels like sitting down on a plush sofa: yoou float. I actually aim for potholes now, just for the novelty of hardly feeling the impact. Stopping, though, is a bit of a trick. Soon as you put your foot down and take some weight, the suspension springs back up and the bike is suddenly several inches taller than you’re prepared for. I fell over at a light today, barely avoiding rolling on the pavement, no doubt causing some laughter in the nearby cars.

A bike, as i’ve always known, opens up the horizon enormously over walking. Suddenly the whole region is within reach. My plan tomorrow is to rise early, ride out too the big ski hill 6-8 km out of town, and hopefully take the chairlift to the top for some views. Or maybe even ride up (yeah, right). The weather’s plan, apparently, is to rain. We’ll see who comes out on top.

Art last!

This walkabout has turned, for reasons unknown to me, largely into a search for local, homegrown art endeavours. I haven’t had much success so far — it takes a while to get into the loop, so it doesn’t happen easily when you’re travelling — but i did manage to get to a couple:

  • An open stage event at Finley’s Irish Pub. Billed to start at 9 p.m. (why i believed that is a wonder), i sat around in a virtually empty bar till 10, when people began trickling in with instruments. We eventually had the requisite first-timer who sang out of tune and forgot half his first song; the regular whose confidence overshadows his talent; and the woman-with-a-great-voice duo marred by bad sound and too many songs. I’m only being slightly glib here; they were all worthy efforts and i wouldn’t have done any better.
    I considered signing up to recite my poem The Battle a Abby’s Butte, which would have gone over well because Abby now lives in Nelson. But i had no local supporters and i didn’t know the protocol, so that wasn’t to be.
    I left about 11:30, overtired, as a 4-piece reggae band (lackluster but for the lead singer’s hat) started up.
  • Abs and i were set to see a play, but she had a rerun of her summer cold so i went alone. Livingroom Theatre inhabits a converted garage off an alley, and seats maybe 30. The twin fish theatre show, well into a 3-week run, was sold out. Written by Bessie Wapp, one of the four performers, it was impressive, much better than i expected in a town like Nelson — rich, nicely crafted, well acted. Loco Phantasmo — go see if it comes near you.
  • In my perambulations i happened upon Craft Connection, a most impressive co-op gallery owned and run by several Kootenay artists. Beautiful big space full of high quality work. I had a long chat with one of the staffers about the long, painful process of getting the facility up and running.
  • I didn’t get to, but at least found out about, the Cottonwood Market Saturday drum circle, which has been running for over a decade. It takes place iin the Japanese garden adjoining Cottonwood Falls, during Saturday summer markets in the park. Sounded great, but the hostel was full up Friday and i had to leave town.

Echo Ukee, echo Toff

I met with Abby, ex of the Sacred Stone Spa in Ucluelet, now of the Stone Spa in Nelson, and we shared a nice cuppa tea.

I tried repeatedly to catch Shawn and Carla, ex of Words End Bookstore in Ukee, now of and, but despite several visits and calls i never managed to catch them at the office.

I wandered into Enchanted Gifts, on Baker St. (the main drag), and started chatting with the owner, who turned out to be Francois, ex of the Enchanted in Tofino.

And at a street market i saw a newsletter put out by Eco Society with an article by Lee-Ann, ex of the Friends of Clayoquot Sound. I thought i’d look for her in town, and found her by pure coincidence on a street corner, waiting for the light to change.

These folks told me about others who have moved from the West Coast to Nelson and area (the Kootenays, or “the Koots” to those in the know). And the single, striking word they all used about their new situation was “happy.” Happier than they were on the coast. Francois elaborated: when he plays hockey, there’s a melange of freaks, cops, hippies, straights, young and old on the ice and they all get along; people don’t pigeonhole each other, don’t separate into cliques, don’t gossip behind each others’ backs and boycott each others’ businesses because of something someone said five years ago. Others echoed the sentiment. Damn — are we like this on the coast?

But there was one thing they all, every one, regretted: they pined for the ocean.