The word is out. For a good few weeks.
We’re starting up a men’s group (notice no capitals) but it’s more defined by what it’s not. It’s not a workshop that will call artisans and would-be artisans. It’s not a guise for a working bee. No chain saws or tools or swaggy hats within cooee.
For god’s sake, there’s not even the word “shed” or symbol for a shed in any of the thinking or sketchy ideas. The idea pivots on men talking and thinking out loud about being men. Thoughtfully. Courageously open. Born of a conversational tranquillity. Can the revelatory talk burrow its way through the usual embankments, the usual armour? The armour we are told is always there. I’ve heard about the armour all my life. And it sits uncomfortably with me.
A smokey fire in the darkest corner of the Rupertswood estate, the reflected light off the dam, and the rumblings of trains on the impressive bridge are the only accompaniments for the gathering uncertainty of the twenty-five blokes or more who show up to talk or quietly imbibe men’s business.
No one really knows how it will all unfold. Not even the organisers. But having two blokes who can talk and storytell and reflect in an open and coherent and compelling way creates this gentle momentum towards something beyond posture and bravado.
Phil Cleary, ex-independent politician and ex-VFA footy player who played when elbows were not tucked in, kicks off the night. You sensed he was raised by pre-feminist women who were feisty and determined and could get political. He alludes to being steeped in Irish politics, too. You sense his instincts for collectivism and speaking independently coalesced in those bloodlines.
Phil is strong of language and presence-commanding but not overbearing. The take-no-prisoners VFA footy-tribal, pre-corporate, was played on the most naked of stages. Within his exhortations to be independent of ideas and language and action, I could hear a lament about the violent side of men’s history. His activism on standing up to male violence stems obviously from the murder of his own sister at the hands of her partner. But his recollections of men in talk and with talk was that they could do it well, and in their own way. They could be storytellers and could weave a bigger story from fragments, and this was why we needed to come together. He spoke poetically about the young men of Somali and Lebanese and Muslim background who come to play footy for Coburg, where he still coaches at under 16 level. Paradoxically, it is the collectivist ideal that stands out most in footy, he says. Woven around the game is the invitation to talk about all the big themes: courage, endurance, endeavour, others, sportsmanship, honour, valour, doing for others, expressiveness, kindness and so much more. There could be openness and realness there. It might be the only place for some to hear and participate in that open ended exploration of vexing male things.
You sensed from both Tony Birch and Phil Cleary that the spaces and places away from the academy and the institutions were conversations about life-meaning themes could be held: the writing groups of homeless men, the local footy clubs, campfire-lit open spaces, kitchen tables, pub lounges and any other place where folk chinwag and gather un-self-consciously.
Tony Birch, author of Blood and university lecturer, entered the conversation on our night with stories that were achingly personal and spoke big things in gentle tones.
Tony spoke of women who endured great distress but held firm in their capacity to love and nurture and put steel into frightened and wayward young men. He was pugnacious and street-wise as a young bloke, but, at a reunion with people who had known him in his brawling youth, he was moved and surprised to hear that they knew other sides to him that he thought were tightly wrapped and out of sight.
Tony would connect with any group of young men that I’ve ever known or taught. You sense that he is at his passionate and revealing best when he can come out of the stories of his youth into deep reflection about men and young men. He urged us to take up the mantle of speaking clearly to young men about men’s stuff. We had to do it: it was necessary. On friendship between men, too, he urged us to make space and time for it. We need to walk the uncluttered spaces and talk, not just run our lives along parallel but never-connecting lines.
So where does this conversation now go? I sense that for the gathered blokes something moved and opened. I detected an openness to more of the flickering, softly expressed thoughts that unchilled the night air.
In the hushed silence of many, and in the expressed post-conversation reactions. I dare even think that if there were an instrument that tracked the journey of our deepest thought within ourselves, that the map revealed of the travels of those thoughts and feelings would have a dense and luxuriant topography.
It’s one I think our blokes would like to explore more.
Creative Coordinator, Twilight School