October 11, 2019
2019 has been a challenging year for me with the death of my sister in early May, then the death of my mother in late September.
I was going to write about my experiences going through these milestone events but I’m still in process over my mother’s passing. At both transitions I was the sole member of my family present. The rest of my family would have liked to have been there but in the end, I was the only one.
It both instances I felt enormous grief, yet also gratitude and compassion. It was a blessing to have been there doing what I could to ease the transitions. Perhaps sometime in the future, I will speak more about how living consciously through their deaths has provided me with gifts I never thought possible. It has certainly brought home to me the inevitable truth we most all face: “How will I face and embrace my own death?”
For this newsletter however, I will focus on values and share part of a workshop Jody and I facilitated at the last gathering. The content of this workshop is what guides me in my daily life and helps me to maintain some manner of consistency in my desire to live with intention. It also provided me with comfort and direction while I was living into these experiences of death.
If you attended our workshop, I hope this won’t be redundant for you, my intention is to encourage you to continue with your work on values.
Let me begin with this statement:
“Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals. I lost my ethical compass.” -Jeb Stuart Magruder (Watergate co-conspirator)
In my past, there have been times when I recognized I was out of integrity with myself. There’s a shadow in each of us that feeds our ambition; and given free rein, it can overwhelm our best intentions. Sometimes this shadow may show up in the form of a small lie, an unspoken truth, a betrayal, or an easier softer way during a conflict, instead of meeting it head on. Whatever form it takes, it can compromise our best intentions.
At our last gathering, Jody Grose and I facilitated a workshop on accessing the mature King Archetype. In the workshop we talked about the importance of knowing your core values.
It’s surprising how many people don’t give values any thought, let alone, know what values are. Or, more importantly, what their core values are.
“Values are principals or standards of behavior: one’s judgement of what is important in life.” Oxford English Dictionary
Living our values means walking our talk. We’re clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors align with those beliefs. If we don’t have clarity of values, we don’t have anywhere else to look or focus and we’ll bend to the wishes of others.
Core values provide us with clarity, a North Star that guides us in times of darkness. It’s how we establish a good internal support system.
When choosing your values, three questions to ask yourself are:
When I first did this exercise on my own, it was easy to choose fifteen, but it became increasingly more difficult when I had to start narrowing my choices. What I realized was that some of the values I had chosen were actually dependent on another value. What I finally settled on that rang true for me was Courage. Without courage, I could not live into any of the other values I felt were important.
Once you decide on your core values it’s crucial to make sure you have outside support that can help you to be accountable for aligning with them. Supporters should be those who love and care about you, who see your humanness, and will honestly tell you the truth. They know your heart and who you aspire to be. They will lovingly confront you when you may be close to slipping out of integrity.
Important questions for ongoing support:
Living your life with core values guiding you, is another way to grow yourself up. You’re not bending to the wishes of others or living someone else’s desires.
My sister knew two years prior to her death that she was terminal and there was no chance of survival. And she knew her core values were honesty and truth. And encouraged those around her to always speak honestly about how they were feeling. She made it easy to be with her and she chose to die on her own terms. Her transition was beautiful. She died modeling courage and grace. My mother didn’t have the same awareness and her death was much different. But because I held my core values close to me, I felt grounded and supported. I was able to guide my mother while she faced her death, offering love, care, compassion and validation about how she lived her life, when she couldn’t validate herself. If I didn’t have this internal support, I’m not sure I could have done it.
If you didn’t attend our workshop at the gathering and wish to explore more about values, please email me and I will forward the values list to you.
Likewise, if you did attend the workshop and wish to clarify any questions that may be lingering, you can email me as well.
Paul Gemme ( firstname.lastname@example.org) and the COMEGA OC
My wife, Maureen, and I recently returned home from a great motorcycle adventure touring through Pennsylvania Amish country and into the mountains of Virginia. Each summer since I retired we hit the road on the bike for at least a month. In 2017 we traveled coast to coast; stopping each night in a different town, crossing 22 states and staying at lots of hotels. 2018 destination was Montana, by way of Canada, then across the northern states and then Yellowstone.
This year we limited our adventure to ten days with multiple night stays in a couple of places, which made our adventure more spontaneous and relaxing. We took tons of barn pictures, (for my photo blog), played in the mountains, and took leisurely rides to check out local attractions.
Most days we were back at a house we had rented by midafternoon, sitting on the porch watching young calves playing in the field directly across from the house. Each afternoon we also witnessed rain storms roll over the mountains a few miles in the distance. One afternoon we watched as a wall of rain slowly crept across the field in front of us eventually drumming out a beat on the tin roof over our heads and breaking the heat with a cooling breeze. It was relaxing and meditative.
The moment we left our driveway at the start of our adventure we felt relaxed and in the flow. We allotted ourselves enough time with our plan for plenty of stops; limiting the amount of miles we would ride before we stopped for the night.
Maureen’s excellent navigation skills always found uncongested back roads, nurturing food stops, and interesting parks and historical sites to visit. We felt supported by the Universe with serendipitous happenings and with people we came in contact with. It’s easy to meet people when you roll into a restaurant, hotel or National Park and they spot all the travel stickers from across the country on our little trailer. We even had a mechanical breakdown on the bike where we were dead on the road. What could have been a catastrophe, turned out to be a minor hiccup, and we were offered support by people we had never met before. Incredible!
Sounds relaxing, right?
It would be wonderful if I could maintain that sense of aliveness, support, nurturing, and love of life consistently, even when I’m not on a holiday, but unfortunately, stuff beyond my control still happens. Maureen and I were living in vacation mode while everything we left behind was still plodding on.
We rolled into our driveway to find a lawn looking like a hayfield, a garden that resembled a jungle from all the weeds and wildlife that took up residence in there. The resident groundhog and rabbits were eating through the garden like a buffet.
I have my OC responsibilities that need following up on, my adult children who need some help, and then, when I call my 99 year old mother who lives alone in Florida, I find her in total crisis. She lost her wallet (in her house), it’s been missing for two weeks with her credit card, medical ID, SS number (which she doesn’t remember), and she sounds horrible (raspy voice). She’s worried because she doesn’t know what to do, and therefore, hasn’t been eating or sleeping well. It’s starting to affect her heart condition which is exacerbating her anxiety. Then it hits me! Shit! I’ve got a lot of stuff to take care of.
Over the next couple of hours I triage what my priorities should be, plus the new responsibilities from the OC meeting I just attended, and I find that I’m getting aggravated and annoyed much easier. Every little extra chore feels like another rock I have to carry. I want to blame people for putting extra burdens on me or not meeting my expectations of them. My morning meditations start to get shorter and I skip one or two yoga classes because “there’s so much to do.”
When I go outside to tend to my garden I find myself getting pissed at the rabbits and the fat ass groundhog that lives under my shed and continues to decimate my garden. And I feel violated! I want to kill them!
Bing! Oh yeah, that feeling of being violated. I breathe into the feeling of being violated, and recall the specific times I felt violated, impotent, scared and betrayed as a child and how angry I became from those violations. Feeling violated is my biggest trigger. I breathe in deeply and remember I have the ability to be in my power even if I feel powerless. I’m not that wounded kid, I’m an adult, with tools, abilities, knowledge, wisdom and support.
I recall a Celtic quote: “You don’t give a man a sword who can’t dance.”
To be able to dance you need to remain flexible and light. If the man is rigid he’ll swing the sword right into his own personal hell. I had been too rigid and wanted to control and power my way through my issues. The way through was to release into my wounds, feel them, then breathe into my wellness with compassion and grace. So be it.
I deepened my morning meditations. I remain consistent with my yoga practice. I booked and enjoyed a 90 minute massage. I’m eating food that supports my health and lifestyle. And I breathe. Deeply.
I realized, when dealing with my mother’s issue, I found my getting annoyed at her resistance to receiving help. It became clear to me that that my mom’s resistance was the shame and self-loathing she felt after losing her wallet and her inability to care for herself like she used to. It was by meeting her with empathy and compassion that we were able to resolve her problem. She now has her wallet and will soon be on her way to live with my brother.
My garden is looking good, the critters, which I love, (nah, maybe just tolerate) and I seem to have come to an understanding, there’s plenty for all of us. My lawn is mowed, although it needs mowing again; and I’m finally writing this newsletter.
I even had enough time to finally go through my sister’s papers and sort out what to keep and what I can let go of. The gift I received from that was the deep appreciation and pride I have for who my sister was and how she lived her extraordinary life.
What steps do you take when you’re overwhelmed?
What do you need to put into your life to minimize stress?
How do you betray yourself when you’re flooded with responsibility?
Be well and remember. “We strive for perfection, and settle for progress.”
In the spirit of brotherhood,
Paul Gemme and the COMEGA OC
As I pack for another motorcycle trip I can feel my excitement building. I love the adventure of being on the road and the anticipation of what’s around the corner. When you take a road trip in a car it’s similar to looking out the window at a movie screen, but on a motorcycle you are the movie. You feel and experience every subtle rise and drop in temperature as you pass from sunlit to shaded road. You smell the subtle fragrances of Honeysuckle and Pine of the forests; and even the overwhelming putrid smells of mid-west stock yards let you know you’re alive. Adventure.
Although I keep my machine in top shape, there’s still the potential element of surprise. I often have to be aware of rambunctious deer bounding across the road or the errant dead truck tire on a densely fog covered stretch of highway. But the sense of aliveness I feel on these roads trips is always worth the risk. As Paulo Coelho once said, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it is lethal.”
I used to get the same feeling of aliveness when I helped my friend Jody facilitate week long father/son canoe trips on the Penobscot and Allagash rivers in Maine. They were always filled with wonder, excitement, and wildlife. Curiosity about what was around the next bend, and the transformative magic the wilderness held for boys. Giving up cell phones (no use in the wild), to spending hours around the fire laughing and whittling spirit animals out of driftwood cedar. Magic.
For me, aliveness needs an element of fear, excitement and unpredictability. Even in times of discomfort I can find that aliveness. When I paddled the Pelly River in the Yukon Territories we were in grizzly country. Each evening when choosing a campsite we checked for bear scat, often having to search for another location when scat was too plentiful. Some nights I felt very uncomfortable crawling into my tent, trying to quell the pit in my stomach, knowing I was bedded down in an area that’s home to twenty-five percent of the world’s grizzly population. Uneasily Alive.
All of my adventures leave me with incredible memories, experiences and stories; but not enough to support the level of aliveness I want to feel in my daily experiences. I can, however, experience the same element of fear, excitement, unpredictability and discomfort when I allow myself to be consciously present and fully engaged with another person. Engagingly Present.
Living my sister’s approaching death with her this past year was one of my greatest learning moments. It forced me to feel alive despite my discomfort and pain. No withholding of feelings, truth, or fears; just pure openness and intimacy, which paved the path for being totally present to her the moment of her passing. Gratitude.
I also feel the aliveness in men’s groups when we’re deep in process and not just story telling. I feel my heart open, and my connection and love for the man sharing. Lovingly Alive.
During this last year I’ve tried to maintain more contact with my mother, who I don’t always see eye to eye with. She once yelled at me, calling me what she thought was an insult, “a damn liberal” during a disagreement. I chuckled a long time over that one. Anyway, I knew my mother was experiencing shame and guilt about my sister’s dying and her not being able to be physically available. And she was not very emotionally available either, but I still had a shit load of empathy towards her.
She’s ninety-nine years old and unable to travel, and because of her own difficult childhood she was never able to be emotionally present to herself or to others. She always reacted from her wounds.
I did want to support her though, and because of the work I’ve done it was easy to be present to her; even when she was avoiding her grief by trying to start an argument. I learned to accept and forgive her long ago and just by being present and fully engaged with her I felt an aliveness in our connection. Even to the point of her expressing her gratitude and appreciation of how I was living my sister’s death with her. Today I sent her pictures of my sister’s memorial service. I wanted to demystify for her what a Buddhist memorial ceremony looked like and hopefully, make her feel somewhat included. Compassion.
What makes you feel alive?
When during your everyday life do you have an opportunity to choose aliveness?
Which relationships in your life could you choose to be more alive in?
“You are not born a winner; you are not born a loser. You are born a chooser.”
Blessings, Paul Gemme email@example.com and the COMEGA OC
By Paul Gemme
I’m touched by the beauty of men today, but it wasn’t always like that.
I entered my journey into men’s work with a fear of men and a shit load of homophobia. My youth was spent trying to figure out how to fit in when I wasn’t good at sports, wasn’t one of the “in” kids. I was socially awkward.
My parents sent me to a Catholic boarding school because I wasn’t making it in public school and the corporal form of punishment, which was the school’s policy, appealed to them. They believed a hard slap across the face or a pants down around your knees and a paddle would straighten out any bad boy. It didn’t straighten me out though. In fact it fueled my rage and feelings of being violated, which can still be a trigger for me today.
Most of my days at school were spent in survival mode. The fact that the school was ‘all boys’ definitely cheated me out of my dating years. Not to mention dealing with the constant threat of sexual abuse by the Brothers handed me a healthy dose of “Fuck You.” It was during this time that my drinking and drugging began in earnest to escape the lack of nurturing and sole connection I was craving.
My adult life didn’t fare much better regarding my relationships with men. Most of my male connections were acquaintances or work mates but nothing in the realm of intimate connections. Being an introvert, I spent much of my free time alone. I built a home on six acres of land, way off the beaten path, with a long driveway so you couldn’t see the house, and I had two Doberman Pinchers to keep people away.
I was a bit frozen in my feelings and well-guarded against anyone who didn’t approve of my lifestyle or thought I was a threat. Pretty good defenses right? Wrong! It wasn’t long before it all began to unravel and I eventually lost my house, family, business, and myself, when I finally went head first over the edge.
I got sober in 1985, after years of dysfunction, with a hunger for something different. It was my sponsor and mentor, Smokey, who eventually began to thaw me out. Smokey helped me to, reluctantly at first, accept platonic love from another man. He worked in the local hospital drug and alcohol program and took me on as his personal mission.
We would walk down the street together, his arm around my shoulder, and he’d tell me what he loved about me. Whenever he would introduce me to someone he would always bless me by saying how good I was at this or that. After a while I began to believe it, he had great King energy, yet he was still my only male friend.
Being newly divorced, I was living in a little two room efficiency apartment and I hanging around with several woman friends, nothing sexual. I would drive these female friends to AA meetings and we would hang out together. It felt good to have close friends, even if they were women.
They told me everything. They felt safe with me. I knew when they got laid, when they were on their periods, all the things I felt were intimate. One day after a meeting we were all together and another woman, outside of our group, wanted to talk to my friends, but she stopped because I was there. One of my friends said: “Hey, don’t worry about Paul, he’s one of the girls.” At the time we all laughed, but the painful truth was not lost on me. I had no male friends except Smokey, my sponsor! That evening I made a commitment to begin developing healthy male friendships.
It wasn’t long after, Smokey and I attended a men’s workshop with Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Mead in Boston. I knew I had struck gold! I loved it!
Before the early years of COMEGA, I was already active in pursuing personal growth and passionately following my creative energies. I was making a living working in the field of addiction recovery while in my spare time building drums, Native American flutes and facilitating men’s and community drum circles and workshops.
During earlier COMEGA weekends I used to facilitate a mask making workshop. During the workshop I would use plaster gauze strips to cover a man’s face to form a mask while other men would act as supports for the man having a mask made. Some men would drum softly, others played flutes, while still other men would gently massage the participant’s shoulders and gently whisper affirmations or poetry to him. It was always a very sensual experience.
Sometimes the workshop would include twenty or more men, taking turns in various roles and three to four men having their mask made at the same time. In one such workshop, I may have personally made as many six to eight masks on different men. I was astounded by the diversity in each man’s face and the electrified energy I was drawing from each man. As my fingers followed the contours of each face the more beauty I experienced and the more I could feel the love I had inside me for each man, my body vibrating from the connection and tactile energy of each face.
As beautiful as this workshop was, it also raised hell with my back. That evening at the talent show with my back sore from bending over for hours, my body and mind still juiced from the workshop, a friend set up his massage table in the back of the room and began working on me. I started to clap following an act in the show and was amazed when beams of light, twelve inches long, extended from each of my fingers. I remember waving my hands in the air playing with the light beams. It was a profound moment for me that deepened my desire to continue connecting with men at a heart level.
At this past gathering we had a man I dearly love step into the circle to say his goodbyes to us. He told us he only has months to live and so would not be back to the gathering. He’s a man I hold dear to me and who was instrumental in healing much of my homophobia. As a gay man, he taught me how to be flirted with, by another man, without feeling threatened or ashamed. He also made me confront myself on the stereotypes I held about gay men. We were always able to greet each other with an authentic kiss on the cheek because we loved each other without sexual connotations. I will deeply miss this beautiful man.
As men we feel deeply, we love deeply, we laugh deeply and we grieve deeply; and to heal our wounds we need connections with other men who are doing the same work, even if that connection frightens us. Comega and men’s groups are the best arena I’ve found to do this work.
For myself, I find it very easy to love another man in his incompleteness if he’s willing to own his wounds and his desires to heal them. It’s men who don’t own their wounds, and leak on others unconsciously, that becomes a challenge for me. It reminds me of how I once lived.
As I reflect over my years attending Comega, I can think of hundreds of men who have imprinted on me what I love about men and the difficult work we’ve chosen to step into to heal ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and our families. We are true Warriors of men’s work!
I love all of you and your willingness to continue to show up!
I love your imperfections, and your messiness, your willingness to own your shit, and I love your willingness to make amends when warranted.
I love your fears and I love your courage to push pass them.
I love when you’re vulnerable, in pain, and you need to be held.
I love your deep-seated grief and I love your tears.
I love your belly laughs and I love your good spirited pranks.
I love your benevolence and I love your compassion.
I love that when I look at you I see myself reflected back.