One of the best things about a party, food and drink aside, is the potential to encounter new people, new ideas and information, or new perspectives. Even if you know everyone who comes, you can’t anticipate what recent or past experience might be on their minds, from starting a new job, buying a dog, seeing a marriage counselor, or scheduling bypass surgery.
Recently I attended a party with well over 100 people, all primed for the 5th annual Easter egg hunt at Rob and Kimberly’s house. Mimosas and Bloody Marys were prudently provided for the adults who would accompany dozens of children in search of 1,015 plastic eggs filled with goodies. I sipped a beverage and chatted in the kitchen with a family friend while waiting for the critical mass of children to coalesce before they were loosed into the sprawling back yard.
Gethin is an interesting guy, mid-40ish, lanky tall with curly hair and the kind of English accent you fleetingly think might be Australian, well-matched with a delightful woman, his wife Megan. They’re the sort of people you enjoy asking “So, how are things?” because the answer will always be something you’d never thought of doing/reading/buying/watching/pursuing.
Thinking he would get a kick out of hearing about a book I recently re-discovered, I launched into a lively description of Fire in the John by Alfred Gingold, a relentlessly funny spoof on the men’s movement of the 1980s, specifically on Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly. I anticipated Gethin joining me in merry ridicule of the attitudes and practices the book described, and even related details I’d heard about one group that spanked a member as he re-enacted the birth process.
I realized I had not heard Gethin laugh and glanced up at him. To my astonishment I saw that not only was he not laughing, he looked serious, even grave. Sensing the possibility that I had inadvertently caused offense, I asked, “Are you familiar with this stuff?” “Yeah, I am,” he said. “Sometimes the rituals are helpful.”
I was completely taken aback. There was no one in this crowded, animated room I would consider less likely to sympathize with the men’s movement as I understood it than Gethin. When I tested him, saying surely there was no justification for spanking a grown and unhappy man, he said, still not smiling, the group must have been applying the principles wrong.
Clearly it was time for me to listen, not talk.
I learned that Gethin was working on a documentary on the extraordinary effectiveness of certain sensitivity practices in, of all unlikely places, Folsom Prison. He described life-changing reformation of dedicated murderers and lifers walking out of three years in solitary confinement, of hardened, brutal gang leaders weeping in response to the opportunity to be loved and understood.
The release of hatred and violence he had witnessed seemed as unimaginable as walking through a solid wall. In fact, he had watched walls being walked through by looking at selfhood and manhood in a different way, a way I had laughed at.
“You said something earlier that made sense to me,” he said. “You said you felt you were meant to write the book you are working on right now. And I feel I was meant to produce this documentary.” We looked at each other and smiled, in part, I think, at the realization that this was an unusual conversation, a first in a way. Still smiling, we shook hands, not as party guests having a fine chat, but in solidarity as story tellers, in acknowledgment that, in fact, we loved the responsibility of bringing truth and perspective into the wider world. He would tell the story of prison inmates reclaiming their souls and I would tell the story of a nautical archaeologist excavating ancient shipwrecks. We smiled at the appalling amount of work that lay ahead of both of us.
However, on this chilly pre-Easter morning, we were called to a far more simple task, and we turned to it, walking outside to watch young children racing across a sprawling back yard in search of one thousand and fifteen plastic eggs.