August 29, 2007

Torn Flesh and Manhood

I'm always a little shocked by stories rite of passage rituals that involve tearing flesh as part of the path to manhood. There are countless examples both ancient and modern. What moves me is not the imagery of the pain inflicted. It's the power of the commitment, of both the men and the young males involved, to do what ever it takes to turn boys into men. I think those rituals represent the critical importance of man-making for these cultures.

What follows is a modern story taken from the unlikely source of the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald Travel Blog for Wednesday August 29, 2007. It describes the experience of a white man visiting a small African village, and being invited to a man-making ritual.

While in Uganda on a tour out to see the mountain gorillas a few years ago, we stopped off for a few nights in a tiny village called Sipi Falls, which is a fair way off the beaten tourist track. There we were quite a novelty, and easily got chatting to some of the locals.

Curious about the group of teenaged boys we'd seen marching through the streets in traditional dress, we asked a few people what was going on.

"Oh, it is our tradition," one man told us. "It is to mark their journey into manhood. Tomorrow they will all get ... How do you say it? Circumcised?"

Yes, circumcised ...

"Do you want to come along?"

How do you turn down an offer like that? So the next day a group of about six of us, clearly the only white people in the entire village, followed everyone else on a pilgrimage along dirt roads and through banana plantations, before arriving at the site of the ceremony, where, as the token mzungus in town, we were honored with a front row seat.

There, 10 boys lined up, naked, in front of the waiting crowds, and were circumcised by an elder. Standing, clutching a length of wood in front of them, not one cried out, or even flinched, instead fixing a steely gaze on the audience. One by one, as they were given a nod of approval by an elder, they raised the piece of wood above their heads and let out a triumphant scream, echoed by the crowd.

We walked back to the campsite in silence.

What is the impact of this story on you?

August 12, 2007

A Trip to Boy Heaven

A recent article in the August 12, 2007 issue of Time magazine titled The Myth About Boys; David Von Drehle tries to help us all find some hope about the "boy crisis." The author takes the perspective that so much of what we’ve heard about the challenges facing today’s boys isn’t all THAT bad.

Von Drehle agrees that the boys are struggling, but argues that the glass is really half full vs. half empty. Try this on, “Is it bad that more boys are in special education, or should we be pleased that they are getting extra help from specially trained teachers? And haven't boys always tended to be more restless than girls under the discipline of high school and more likely to wind up in jail?” I don’t know about you, but that approach didn’t help me to feel much more hopeful.

He goes on like that for four pages, trying to find hope in the small details. He says condom use is up for boys, and that in 1984, 1 out of 3 young black men ages 18 and 19 were neither in school nor working and now it’s 1 in 5. You’ll have to read it for yourself. I commend him for trying to be optimistic, but naming small gains in a huge struggle doesn’t qualify as myth busting for me.

He did accomplish two things with his article worthy of note. First he brought more people into the boy dialogue, always a good thing. But most importantly, he identified a spectacular camp for boys under the title, A Trip To Boy Heaven. Indeed, the Falling Creek Camp for Boys in North Carolina is actually bursting with perfect boy activities, in a perfect wilderness environment, and it’s all driven by boy-literate staff. Not only will the video on their website make any man wish he was a boy again, but Von Drehle has (unwittingly)pointed out that the Falling Creek Camp is exactly what an educational system should look like if it really wanted to educate and motivate boys. Now THAT idea really gives me hope.

Check it out and tell me what you think?

August 6, 2007

Men - Collapsing / Rebuilding Bridges

(Short Speech Warning)

Tragically, due to a lack of political will, passing the buck, and a “just get by” approach to transportation funding, a bridge that was a critical piece of the infrastructure of life in our community suddenly just went away. People died and were injured, everyone is in shock, bodies are yet to be recovered, and lives will be seriously disrupted for years to come because of this loss. It is powerful testimony to how easy it is to take the really important parts of daily life for granted. I'm happy to report that Gwen, I, and all our family and friends are safe . . . but I’m a mess.

I find that I’m living with all the uncomfortable but normal feelings that come with grief and loss. Maybe you are experiencing some of this too. On and off I’m feeling sad, very angry, confused, powerless, vulnerable, and a little lost. I know I’m not alone, and I pray this event will launch much needed dialogue about infrastructure . . . not just transportation, but our core national values. That is not what this post is about however.
I pray this event will launch much needed dialogue about infrastructure . . .
I realized that I have those same feelings every time I learn about the loss of an adolescent male to homelessness, violence or the prison system. In too many of those stories you can find the predictable tale of critical bridges to positive adult male influences which, for those boys, have just gone away. Lives tragically lost because of denial, lack of will, a sense that it’s someone else’s job and we can just get by. It's that infrastructure that needs addressing.

These days I’m choosing to NOT take the easy path of denial, powerlessness, and pretending that, as an adult man in my community, I don’t have some piece responsibility for that situation. I’ve stepped into action, the only antidote I know of to living with the feelings of grief. I’m “seeing, acknowledging, and blessing” boys everyday in the ways I discuss in my book. I’m mentoring half a dozen young males to different degrees. I‘ve written letters-to-the-editor, articles, a book, and this blog. I realized that I’m doing the things I can do in order to re-build those critical and life-giving bridges between good men and under-male-nourished boys. I’m not saying this to brag, but to identify what one man can accomplish once he decided to step forward.

I know I’m not alone. This blog and the Man-Making book profiles many heroes in this work. For the most part, they are regular guys who decided to do some little thing and then masculine gravity took over. But we need more help; the problem is too big.

My prayer is that you find the thing you can do to help re-build this critical piece of your communities’ infrastructure. We can't leave it up to "them." There is little question that your involvement, even in some small way, will be life giving, possibly life saving, and change two male lives for the better.

Thanks, I feel a little better.