Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Seeking the Company of Men, Again - J.C.

I am a loner-perfectly content to sit by myself in the back corner of a room taking it all in.  Observing, critiquing, questioning, entertaining myself with my thoughts and perhaps a diversion on my phone.

I've always been this way.  Growing up in Philly, I walked the streets in my neighborhood, constantly curious, pestering street workers with incessant questions until they shooed me away with, "Go away kid, we're trying to get some work done here."

The elevated trains were perfect haunts for loners like me.  As a teenager, I would get on one end of the Frankfort-Market Street line with a bagful of hot, soft pretzels straight from the pretzel factory made all the more delicious by the black, sticky goo on their bottoms from the baking trays.  Bag in hand, I would plant myself in the back corner on one of the trains and ride, unbothered, in my world, for an hour to the other end, and then, back again as I finished the last pretzel bit.  As I got older I'd do the same with Greyhound bus rides to New York or Boston.  No sooner than I got there, I would return since I had no purpose to visit otherwise.  This was my idyll (or so I thought).

I probably had no choice about becoming a loner.  My early life was scary with a mentally ill mother and there's no doubt that made me retreat into a protective shell.  I learned to keep my own counsel, to ask and answer my own questions, to avoid feeling what I couldn't handle, and to prefer seeking answers to life's difficult issues by scouring the library reference section rather than risk the embarrassment and fear of talking to someone.  The approach seemed to work for me, or at least I convinced myself it was working.  I was finding answers and I was avoiding what was painful or scary (including my feelings).

The avoidance became extreme when, rather than socialize in college on a Saturday night, I would hide in my dorm room closet with the lights out so that no one would suspect I wasn't having a good time.  I continued this way all the way through college and 14 years of marriage until, one day, my wife left me and I felt like a rug had been pulled out from under me.

My salvation was a group of men who I worked with at a psychiatric hospital. They were familiar and comfortable with the value of talking.  So, we formed a men's group that met at my house for three years every Sunday 8:00 AM-noon (when no one else had demands on the men's time!)  Little by little, as each man shared his story, his pain, his peculiarities, his hopes, we developed the strength that not one of us need feel alone.  I am forever grateful to the men when, after I described an unhealthy choice I was considering, they grabbed me by the collar, shook me, and shouted, "Wake up and smell the coffee!"  I woke up.  I opened my eyes to my own feelings and needs that I had neglected or put secondary for the first 40 years of my life.

Now some twenty years later, I feel a similar need in my life to seek out the company of men, again.  I am happily remarried, enjoy my retirement immensely, content with my solitary hobbies of woodworking, stamp collecting, and walking.  Yet, I know that the time is right to be part of a group of men who have the same purpose as my first men's group.  We ten men in my MWW group have found the joy of sharing, companionship, teasing, playing, and comforting.

I am 65 now and never felt better or healthier.  I still enjoy the familiarity of being a loner, yet, I now know that other men know that about me, support it, and occasionally push me beyond my comfort zone to engage me.  That's what makes men's wisdom works. 

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