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.