On manly companionship

Can most men share deep feelings in true fellowship? Can they maintain their manliness in the process?

I affiliate with men from multiple groups, including "the guys" from elementary through high school, fraternity buddies, and longtime church breakfast group members. All address important relationship needs for me.

Sometimes, however, I feel most deeply connected to groups with whom I've spent much less total time. This phenomenon, I believe, results from their different settings, purposes, processes, membership and group dynamics. My experience with one such group over the past several years reflects ideal conditions for such fellowship.

Four autumns ago, my close friend invited to his Duck, N.C., beach house three men. We'd briefly worked together in the mid-1980s at a center for students with emotional disabilities. Even then, John, the principal, mysteriously referred to us as "Men of the Path." I wasn't completely sure why but knew it stemmed from our love of beer and storytelling, and our philosophical bents.

Crisis counselor Ray, social worker Randy, and school psychologist Mike were minorities among mostly female co-workers. We shared some wild experiences with our difficult students and enjoyed a few ourselves on rare occasions when we imbibed together. However, family commitments and geographical distance precluded additional contact.

I hadn't seen them for 20 years as Randy moved to Norfolk and Ray to South Carolina. But I often recalled them and John as models of manhood: strong, outdoor types but also uncharacteristically empathetic and insightful men.

When John summoned the Men of the Path (MOTP) to reunite, I anticipated some healthy drinking, as well as manly conversation, laughter and philosophizing. What evolved has become an annual ocean pilgrimage that radically exceeded my expectations.

Yes, we drink, especially exquisite American and Belgian ales, one of which, Three Philosopher's Quadrupel, serendipitously signifies our MOTP roles. We converse plenty too, but rarely discuss typical male topics like sports, money and politics.

What we talk about are our families' lives in this frantic, technologically interconnected but emotionally disconnected world that often inhibits the savoring of simple beauty and truly personal encounters. We consider Sufi, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and existential philosophy, the human spirit, our increasing appreciation of music and nature, and the interplay between aloneness and community.

We deliberate about our fears for mankind and our hopes for the compassion and community building that can save us. We disclose strangely synchronistic events and heroically kindhearted acts that we've witnessed.

We discuss favorite poets, artists and musicians, retell hilarious stories about family and past-life girlfriends, and laughingly commiserate about the aging of our minds and bodies. We also share great pride in our wives and their tolerance of our foibles.

While John occasionally directs our activity with suggested readings and manly DVDs about sailing, we watch no TV at all. All activities, except for being present to each other, are optional.

Nevertheless, we always marvel together at the ocean's might and recount youthful indiscretions at the beach. We spend time alone also as Ray fishes, John cooks and Randy runs, while I hike the shore and test the November waters.

With tongues in cheek, we collect MOTP beach artifacts and invent mysterious MOTP lore that accentuates the playful spirit of our gatherings. Thanks to the trust that develops, we later disclose personal concerns we've yet to divulge to closer friends and family during amazingly supportive discussions.

It's funny how many rituals develop spontaneously during our brief encounters. By Saturday night we are drinking from a communal beer goblet, reverently saluting the God of 1000 faces, irreverently toasting each other, taking turns on a hookah pipe, softly reciting poetry, passionately cursing, and contentedly contemplating the evening skies.

We leave each weekend encounter reaffirmed, nourished, thankful and amazed at the renewed sense of community and hope generated by our stories, walks, poems, music, rituals, meals and intimate dialogue. Throughout the year, we exchange intermittent email reflections that add to this sense of brotherhood and connectedness to something much bigger than ourselves.

Male stereotypes, upbringing and DNA make it hard for men to collectively share deep feelings as women more easily do. For MOTP, our pristine setting, desire for community and aloneness, and our willingness to be serious and silly in pondering life's big questions make this process easier. Our fondness for nature, great ideas, music and beer certainly facilitates our fellowship too.

Craving more such experience, MOTP are considering a spring retreat to the West Virginia mountains, where I trust our good karma and camaraderie will continue. God knows how men's souls need such periodic restoration in today's world.

Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County. His email is mcgrewclark@hotmail.com.

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