When I was growing up in New York City, I shied away from tough Irish-Catholic kids like Michael Meade. They ran in gangs, and they got into trouble with the cops, and sometimes they beat up nice little Jewish boys like me.
Gang fights on Friday night, dances on Saturday night, church on Sunday, school on Monday: these were the touchstones of Meade’s life until his thirteenth birthday, when his aunt gave him a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. He was stunned by the stories, which he read and reread. “The tales of gods and goddesses and humans caught in extreme and mysterious situations seemed more like life than anything else I had heard or read,” he says. They opened “a vast dwelling place within, where the imagination and emotions denied by family, school, and church were accepted. In many ways, I’ve never stopped reading that book.”
Legends and myths became his passion as a teenager, even as his political sensibility was being sharpened by an unpopular war. At the age of twenty, Meade was drafted but refused to be sent to Vietnam. He ended up in military prison, where he staged a sixty-four-day hunger strike and spent three months in solitary confinement before he was discharged and sent home.
For the past thirty years, Meade has continued to study myth, as well as religion, anthropology, music, drumming, and storytelling — while fathering four children, marrying twice, and working a variety of jobs. Today, Meade — whom poet Robert Bly calls “one of the great teachers of men in the United States” — is at the forefront of an effort to make the men’s movement more politically relevant. In week-long conferences, Meade brings together up to one hundred men of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds in order to help them confront their differences as well as find what binds them together. (To assure a wide mix of participants, conference fees are waived for those unable to pay.)
Meade’s goal isn’t to resolve confrontations quickly but to invite the heat of racial tension into the room. Thanks to his hypnotic storytelling, his street savvy, and his perceptiveness, the conferences don’t degenerate into brawls but become instead a rare opportunity for blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans to experience each other’s anger and sorrow.
“The men adore him,” observes writer Don Shewey. “Any concern that this mythologizing and poetry is sissy stuff flies out the window when Meade opens his mouth. Blunt, direct, street-smart, he sounds just like Columbo.” More recently, Meade’s events include women as well as men. For information, write to Mosaic, P.O. Box 364, Vashon, WA 98070.
I spoke to Meade when he was in North Carolina recently to promote his new book, Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men (HarperCollins), a powerful meditation on how ancestral sources of wisdom connect to the problems we face today. In his book, as in person, Meade’s stories pour out in an impassioned, rhythmic torrent. In some ways, he’s still a street fighter, standing up against the bully of our collective fears.
Safransky: You’ve said that without elders a society begins to devour itself. What do you mean by that?
Meade: The elder is a person who has a knowledge of survival, the wisdom of survival — darkened wisdom is how I like to think about it — not just someone who has gotten close to the big white light. The elder is someone who has found the seeds of life, and who has learned something about his or her own emotional and spiritual resources. Not everyone who is old is wise. Only when old people are connected to this deep capacity to survive will they have the courage it takes to engage young people entering adult life.
People can help other people only when they have learned about the depths in themselves. If someone hasn’t dealt with violence in himself, hasn’t been exposed to violence, he’d better not try to deal with gangbangers, because he won’t be treated as an elder; he’ll become a statistic. Likewise, people who have developed a deep capacity to mourn and to sympathize would be good hospice workers, helping people make that last transition toward death. So whether it’s working with the dying or with violent young people or with drug or alcohol addicts, you go back and help people who are engulfed in the same fire you survived.
As a culture, we turn away from people just when they are in times of change. That’s when most communities used to embrace people, so the individual and the culture both benefited. A lot of young people today are in a rite of passage. They don’t know it and our culture doesn’t recognize it, but they are brushing up against death, they are pressing at the doors of greater life. We have to meet them there.
Safransky: This used to happen more naturally in the extended family.
Meade: Yes, it did. But I don’t think we have the time to redevelop the intricacies of extended families or of village life. Right now, I’m interested in what I call sudden community, sudden family. I’ve been doing conferences that are experiments in sudden community. They bring together men not only of different races — whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans — but also of different cultural and economic experiences, from the poor to the very rich. Homeless people and doctors have participated in the same conferences. That’s what I mean by sudden community. When we bring these different groups together, we find the elements of our common humanity, of hope, and even of conflict. We have to invite the conflict in as well.
Safransky: What gives you the ability to deal with the conflict that arises?
Meade: (Laughs) I’m not sure about the ability. During the first conference of this sort, we said at the beginning that the only rule was no physical violence. There was no evidence that we could abide by this rule for six days, it might not work, we might have to leave. It was purely experimental, and the fact that we got through it taught me that it is possible.
I’ve also been making a study of ritual conflict for twenty years. I believe one reason we have so many pointless wars and so much mindless aggression is that we don’t have ritual ways of expressing conflict. Most cultures once had such rituals that were intended to bring out people’s envy, anger, jealousy, rage — everything that can become increasingly damaging if it’s ignored or denied.
Safransky: What’s an example of such a ritual?
Meade: In Zambia, there’s a ritual about a tooth. When someone in the village is sick or disturbed, they imagine it is caused by an ancestor’s tooth that has gotten inside that person. That person’s sickness affects everybody in the village because they are connected with one another. So they make a ritual to get this tooth, this sickness, out of the person.
But the tooth won’t come out unless the truth comes out. And the sickness includes all of the hatreds and conflicts felt by everybody in the village. The sick person has to express what’s really troubling him or her, and it’s usually not very noble. It’s jealousy or rage or another of those darker human passions. But the tooth won’t come out of the sick person until all of the troubled feelings come out of everybody else in the village. The release happens only when everything comes out, in the midst of dancing and singing and drumming. The whole village gets cleansed by the release of the tooth through the release of these difficult truths.
The idea of community means that if an individual suffers, everybody suffers. We feel something like that ourselves, don’t we? If we see a homeless person lying in the street and we haven’t become completely jaded, we feel an incredible sadness. We feel something has to be done. But the modern idea is that yes, something has to be done: he has to be removed, we have to make him invisible.
Safransky: What difficult truths come out when white men and black men get together at these conferences?
Meade: African-American people need to express their deep sense of outrage and anguish about the injustice that has gone on in this culture for many, many years. If it doesn’t get expressed in words, in truthful words, it gets expressed physically. Either it kills them because they carry it around — like an ancestral tooth that each generation inherits — or it comes out through actions that can be destructive to the individual or to others.
But it gets tricky. People inherit these injustices and these outrages as a group, so even though the anger may be expressed by an individual, the individual is also speaking for the community. The listeners must respect this. It takes the power out of the situation if the white people listening say, “Wait a minute. I understand that black people have been enslaved and brutalized, and that all this crushes a family and a race of people, but I’ve never done it myself.” The ritual is destroyed when ancient pain is challenged in this way.
In the tooth ritual, the people who are participating don’t disagree with the person who is speaking. They say, “Speak your truth, get it out, get that tooth out, get that anguish out.” The idea isn’t whether what they’re saying is literally accurate. The idea isn’t simply laying blame, but moving the anguished tooth by speaking emotional truths. But in a culture of radical individualism, people tend not to be able to hear when groups of people say they are oppressed and hurt.
What we learned in the conferences is that everybody has to listen to everybody else, not as individuals trying to defend themselves, but as representatives of a culturally meaningful group, as witnesses to the genuine anguish of the person speaking. We have to do a lot of breathing exercises to stay seated, to not flee the room or throw that first blow.
Safransky: Has it ever come to blows?
Meade: It’s come close many times. It’s so hard to communicate just through words. It’s hard to find words that carry the true anguish of what people feel.
We have found what people in many cultures have found. When the heat is too much, when the sorrow is too great, you can dance or sing. So all of a sudden, the whole group may start to sing. Everybody may be feeling different things, but we are all singing together. For a moment we’re reestablishing a sense of community. Then we can take on a little more rage or a little more sorrow.
A relevant aspect of the tooth ritual is that the tooth is considered a spirit ancestor. It enters someone who is troubled or hurting, and it is painful while it’s inside. But once it comes out, it becomes an ally, a source of spiritual support. Similarly, people become allies to each other if they can get through their points of conflict. Deep human connections are made between people who would otherwise pass on the street and not look at each other.
By getting groups like this together you start to see the medicine that different ethnic groups carry. The cultural roots of people contain medicine just like the roots of certain plants. The willingness of people to remain in these conflicts stimulates medicine in their root memories, which can begin the healing process. For example, white people are fascinated by black people. I think that’s because black people carry medicine that white people need — say, the capacity to carry an incredible weight of sorrow through the blues. The blues make it humanly possible to carry inhuman anguish. There are also medicines within the Latino memory that certain circumstances bring out. During one conference, five Latino Vietnam vets constructed an altar on the spot for all their friends who had died. They began to talk to the altar, to rage and weep at it. It just broke everything loose in the room. All of a sudden everybody had a place to direct sorrow, fear, anger.
You see, I don’t think the concept of the melting pot was ever accurate. It was a bad image, an industrial image — the idea of melting everybody in this big pot, like in one of those old factories in Chicago. It didn’t work. Individuals got melted down, but not groups. Not group memories, the old memories.
It’s very easy to connect the fires burning in the Gulf with the fires burning in Los Angeles. All that oil burning into black smoke in the Gulf and the destruction of buildings right in the middle of South Central L.A. are both reflections of the same kind of desperation.
Safransky: You’ve written that without the rediscovery of radical cultural ideas “this society will collapse, the old leaders will suck the marrow from the bone, the youth will burn the carcass.” Is there more of a political climate today for radical change? Do you think that Clinton and Gore being in office makes a difference?
Meade: I think there is a definite difference. Clinton’s propensity for consolidating groups, for gathering information, for consensus, is valuable. Whether it leads to immediate solutions or not, I think it makes the dialogue more open. And Gore’s involvement in ecology is very encouraging.
But I don’t see solutions coming from the top down anymore. There have been periods of history when big symbolic ideas, as well as big institutional forces, came down from above — the way the Ten Commandments came, in stone, from the top of the mountain. But what’s going on at the top now is impossible to understand. The health care program, NAFTA — if you sit and read this stuff, your brain explodes. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Aren’t they all right and wrong? I don’t see anything getting solved there.
I think now we’re in a time of symbolic ascension, when things come from the ground up, from the grass roots. Rituals, for example, traditionally are made from what’s at hand. They are partly remembered and partly made up on the spot. I think that’s what’s going to happen politically. I think people are going to find solutions in their neighborhoods, in their communities, by having their hands on things, by being involved.
I see peace coming from the ground up, too — from the Vietnam veterans who survived, who found a way to put themselves back together. They have this great capacity for survival, and they have ideas on how to deal with violence, on how to negotiate very dangerous circumstances.
Safransky: Isn’t there a paradox in your seeing peace coming from Vietnam veterans, given the fact that you refused to be sent there?
Meade: I’ve had the good fortune to be in ritual conflict with those who barely survived Vietnam, men who were wounded physically, emotionally, spiritually. In conferences, these men were in the same room with men who went to jail as war resisters, men who had claimed to be insane, men who had claimed to be homosexual (some were, some weren’t), men who got deferments because of privilege. There was anger. There was skirmishing. There was rage from a man who had lost part of his body and, more important, perhaps, part of his soul in Vietnam. There was anguish from a man who had been exiled in Canada. Slowly it came out that Vietnam was a life-changing experience for everybody of that generation, even if the nature of the change was different. The war was like an initiatory event that sent people in different directions. Yet by expressing their rage and their sorrow, everybody could for a moment be back together. You could feel the sense of genuine community of that generation.
I think the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., is probably the most sacred spot in the country. The descent of that black wall into the earth is the place where America comes together. It’s the one truly powerful monument in the country that sustains a continuous ritual of sorrow.
Vietnam is still unfinished. Personally I trace the increase of violence in this country to our taking men who were on fire psychically, bathed in napalm, and dropping them into the cities, as if no transition were required. I think the drug habit came into the city then, along with the habit of ignoring the use of drugs — both of which were part of the Vietnam military experience. I think the familiarity of carrying automatic weapons was transferred directly into the city. The unhealed aspects of that war have given birth to this increase of random violence in the cities.
Safransky: How is that different from the legacy of other wars — the Korean War, for example?
Meade: Wars don’t die unless they are fully spoken about, and Korea is the war no one spoke about. Korea lived silently, like a ghost, in the closets of America. It hung in the closets, and the uniforms quietly dripped blood. Korea was a ghost in the fifties, and Vietnam was that ghost let out into the streets.
Safransky: What about the Gulf War?
Meade: The Gulf War was like a drive-by shooting. It was a fly-by. In the Gulf War, we saw more bombs dropped in a few days than ever before in the history of the world. And then we decorated everybody. We announced that even those who were hurt in some accident on the back lines, even those who were hit by an ambulance, would get a Purple Heart. I don’t mean to defame anybody who truly suffered and truly struggled. What I mean is that such an act gives permission for all kinds of violence. It’s very easy to connect the fires burning in the Gulf with the fires burning in Los Angeles. All that oil burning into black smoke in the Gulf and the destruction of buildings right in the middle of South Central L.A. are both reflections of the same kind of desperation.
Safransky: When you were growing up in New York, you were involved with gangs. What’s the difference between gang violence now and then?
Meade: Luis Rodriguez, a great writer who grew up in the gangs in the barrios of L.A., wrote that every group of men is a gang. The Baltimore Orioles are a gang. The Chicago Bulls are a gang. The police department is a gang. Rock bands and rap groups are gangs. Gangs are what men do. I don’t think we can ever get rid of gangs. The real question is what’s the intention of the gang.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were neighborhood gangs everywhere, and everyone in them was experimenting. Loyalty was one of the major experiments. You learned who was going to stand with you. Everybody could be cool when they were putting on their jackets, but it was when the trouble hit that you found out who would “take your back,” as we used to say. You also found out who and what you would die for. That’s what it came down to. That much stays the same. That’s the attraction for young people. You find a place to belong. That need for identification is deeply human, and it’s not just an adolescent need. It’s a deeply human need for kinship.
We were always flirting with breaking the law, which is part of the nature of youth. Youth finds its connection to community by going against community. The rites of passage in all cultures have included antisocial behavior. Youths could get into trouble, find out who they were as individuals in the midst of the turmoil, and then return to the community without being judged criminal forever. In other words, the culture kept in touch with them while they did this. Now we don’t keep in touch. Culturally we turn our backs to them.
I think there are three differences between the gangs in the fifties and the nineties: the lack of hope and expectation that one will live a meaningful life; the lack of connection between people, whether through family, the church, or community; and the availability of weapons. The availability of weapons means that the natural experimentation with life and death becomes extremely dangerous and often tragic.
My own feeling is that young people can’t be abandoned in those circumstances. They have to be given signals that they and their turmoil are welcome. I think that’s the job of elders in the culture. It’s not to make more laws. It’s not to make more prisons. The prisons just become a higher stage of initiation for gangbangers. There’s a fire in all people, but especially in young men, that can burn toward dominance, brutality, an excess of competition, and destruction. But when it’s engaged and welcomed and appreciated it becomes part of the heat in the hearth of the community. The same fire that can brutally kill can also lead a young man to courageously risk his own life to save other people. Rage and outrage are the same essential energy that makes art and beauty.
I believe that art is the antidote to violence. Art can move the fires of passion from destruction to creation. Go into the prisons and you’ll see that the men who are going to make it out of the prison, who will be meaningful members of the community, are the ones who have found art. For some it’s the spiritual arts. They find meditation or religion. For others it’s writing. Others take up law.
I think that those who have remade themselves, who have come out as whole human beings after being judged criminals, have ideas on how to change the system. They’re the ones who can go back into the neighborhood and talk to people and act meaningfully.
All this violence is a fire screaming for the water of human attention. I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep going unless we deal with it. To me the two big events of the last two years are the fires in L.A. and the flooding of the Mississippi River. I think they are strangely related.
Safransky: How so?
Meade: After the L.A. riot, some people asked, “How can anybody burn down their own community?” Well, when it feels like being in a fire to be in that community every day, it only makes sense to eventually make the inner experience an outer experience. At the same time, the fire produces ashes, which is a call for a burial. It’s an attempt to say, “A lot of death has already occurred here. We need to have a funeral. We need to lament our community, destroyed by the lack of concern outside and by the anguish of the people who live here.”
Then, too, the fire is a call for water, for an outpouring of human sympathy, of human sorrow. But the outpouring hasn’t happened. The fire is still burning. I think it’s burning in every city in the country. Every city is L.A. What I see going around is practical proof of it: more firepower in the streets, more people buying and using weapons.
And then the Mississippi floods the center of the country, washing everything away — towns, houses, productive land. A huge flood of loss drawing everybody’s attention to how things can suddenly get washed away — not through anybody’s doing but through an act of nature. Mother Earth weeping in the middle of the country.
To me these events are the most radical expressions of the last two years: one a cultural fire and the other a natural flood. The result of both is a sense of increased sorrow. There is an ongoing weeping, an ongoing sense of loss. We’re losing a lot.
The trouble with intimacy is that it always mixes love and hate. The more you fall into love, the more you fall into hate, too. It would be good if they put that on the marriage certificate.
Safransky: We’re losing many people to the AIDS epidemic, too.
Meade: This is a time when everything has a long shadow of loss. Everybody is a member of a lost tribe somewhere in the modern world. All the tribes are lost. We’ve lost the sense of life. We’ve lost a sense of the stages of life. We are living, almost consciously, in an ongoing funeral, in a huge shedding of life.
You can find almost anybody now who can tell you certain statistics of loss. I call them Those Who Remember Ugly Facts, and it’s an important job. Someone will say, “Every day four animal species disappear.” Someone else can say how many people are dying in the Horn of Africa. Someone else can tell you exactly how many people have died in the past two months in the former Yugoslavia. Someone else can tell you how many have died in Northern Ireland. Someone else can tell you how many trees have been lost in the Brazilian rain forest. Even the shadow side of sex grows longer and more visible. That which generates life can now kill, in a moment.
I’ve watched the AIDS quilt going through the country. Each patch on the quilt represents a death, and that death is connected to all the other deaths. Stitched together, they make a piece of cloth that, when it’s laid down, makes a funeral ground. Everybody comes there. People weep there. It’s a blanket of loss, a moving funeral.
One of the things we are witnessing is the return of funerals within communities that have been hit hard by AIDS and by violence. You actually see improvisation of new styles of funerals — the return of ritual funerals through that shared experience of death. That’s what I mean by rituals coming from the ground up. It starts with the idea of one person, or a few people, then it catches on. People begin to stitch their place into it. That’s how ritual used to be made in most cultures. That’s how it’s being made again.
One of the few ways to feel whole nowadays is to participate in these rituals of lament. To stand at the Vietnam Memorial or at the AIDS quilt can be a very healing experience. It feels very appropriate to just stand there and let the tears come down. Sometimes someone else’s tears provoke you, just someone standing near you; you don’t even know who he is. That’s another definition of what I call the water of life, when those tears come from that deep well of human sympathy, human sorrow. At that point we’re human. We’re connected.
Safransky: I’d like to talk about other ways we’re connected to one another — in families, in marriage. You’re married. You have grown children.
Meade: I’ve had two marriages, and my wife and I are adjusting to living on our own, now that all four children are on their own.
Safransky: As your children have grown older, how has your role as a father changed?
Meade: I think as a father I’ve become more prayerful. It’s difficult to let children go. They, too, feel the anguish of the times, the huge weight of a culture that is rattling seriously, where all of the institutions are shaking and there are cracks in the cement. There are cracks between men and women, between races, between rich and poor. Young people are stepping over those cracks, and they know it.
I sit at home at night not knowing where my children are. I try to imagine what they’re doing. I begin with an awareness of not knowing and with my concern. If I stay with it, that’s the beginning of a prayer. I don’t mean a formulaic prayer. I mean my prayerful attention that they get through that night OK. Not that they have constant comfort — they’re not looking for that anyway — but that they find meaningful dangers and awakenings and that they find some beauty. I pray that my children will find mentors, teachers who can love them or love something in them. I have to pray for that because there are so many things I cannot do for them anymore.
My mother always told me she prayed every day for me, but I never understood. Now I understand that to be a parent is to be always learning more and more about prayer. You hope the prayer brings a little protection to them.
The other thing I’ve learned is that when your children are grown and gone, the fathering doesn’t disappear. I father projects more seriously now, bringing to projects the attention I used to bring to the children.
Safransky: What keeps your marriage alive?
Meade: William Blake said that if people are going to remain in a marriage for a long time they both have to live in the world of art. I agree. Sure, it’s important to know one’s own psychology, one’s own internal wounds. But it doesn’t satisfy the tremendous complexity that a marriage or an ongoing relationship requires. Blake’s idea, I think, is a fine one — that both partners have to be involved in making something. They have to be giving birth creatively or else they begin to expect the relationship to satisfy the human need for creativity and expression. And the relationship can do that only on occasion. In fact, it does it on more occasions if both people in the relationship are being creative. Then when they’re together, the great desires have already been partially satisfied in their art. I mean the arts of living. Community building is an art. Raising children is an art, too.
Safransky: In addition to working with men, you also work with groups of men and women together. Do you sense any change in the dialogue these days between men and women?
Meade: There seems to be some new willingness in men and women to approach each other, which I think is very promising. Women have done a lot of work together — serious work — and they speak differently than they did twenty-five years ago. And I think some men have done good work too. Men’s groups have been made fun of, but when the work is serious, when it has meaningful intention, when there’s true vulnerability involved, the groups can be a place to wash one’s wounds, not just to gather support, but to actually change one’s imagination and one’s capacity to love. And more men have learned how to listen. I see it in the workshops. A woman will stand up and say something that five years ago would have prompted some man to jump up and argue. Now it hangs in the air a little longer.
Just as important, more men and women realize that no great issue is going to be solved by one gender group, or one group of any kind. The solution, if there is one, is going to come from men and women together. I think the gap between men and women looks smaller. If we’re going to stop cultural violence and natural disaster, the decay of ecological systems and the ungluing of nature, we’re going to have to do it together. When it comes time to pile the sandbags up because the Mississippi is flooding, it’s really not an issue of what gender or what race somebody is. It’s an issue of whether they’re willing to stand there and pile sandbags.
Safransky: Yet when the conference is over, when the man and the woman are home again, don’t they still hurt in the same ways? Don’t they still fight over the same old slights and resentments?
Meade: The expectations of romantic love are so hard to satisfy. I mean, romantic love has its moments, but they are moments only, and they come and go. The expectation of constant romantic love, combined with the daily lack of meaning in modern living, leads to truly disastrous circumstances. How many of us have spent hours and days and years at jobs that grind against the body and the soul? Then we come home, hoping for this romantic flame that will burn away the grist of the day, and it turns out that the other person has been ground down, too.
It’s foolish to think that two people in a mortgaged house at two in the morning are going to be able to solve the huge issues about being male and female that no culture has ever definitively solved. Any culture I’ve ever studied has always had places where people could retreat, so that when they came back to their marriage everything wasn’t dependent on the next three words that came out of the husband’s or wife’s mouth — words that can wound to the quick forever, or at least for the next few years.
There’s great benefit that comes to a marriage when each partner has some other intimate involvement — by which I don’t mean a love affair. I mean doing things in which feelings and vulnerabilities are exposed, where spiritual or artistic elements are present. It takes pressure off the marriage.
The other good thing I’ve noticed in workshops is that men and women are learning how to argue. More people now realize that some periods of a relationship or marriage are battles. In the past, it was generally understood that when two people entered a marriage, they were entering a battle between two families. Now, even though we isolate the two people in the marriage, in an apartment somewhere, the psyche doesn’t notice. It knows they’re not alone. They’re in there with all their ancestors and with tribal memories. This causes people to give insults they don’t even know they’re giving. They act in a normal way according to their inherited memory, but it is a deep insult to the ancestral group on the other side of the bed. Both families are involved, and each family’s style of fighting is involved. For instance, in one family, to give the other person the cold shoulder is a dignified way of dealing with conflict. In another, it’s the worst insult you can give.
The trouble with intimacy is that it always mixes love and hate. The more you fall into love, the more you fall into hate, too. It would be good if they put that on the marriage certificate.
Maybe we get so arthritic in old age because we’ve rejected sensuality. Maybe there’s so much Alzheimer’s disease because a culture that forgets its old people makes its old people forget.
Safransky: Truth in advertising.
Meade: “You have now entered into an eternal embrace that includes love and hate.”
There are some things that never get worked out, and I think that’s a useful idea, too. There are some parts of a marriage that remain always confusing, and we keep stumbling into those areas. There has to be some forgiveness for that, some allowance that part of being married is stumbling around together, falling down in the same hole over and over.
On the other hand, marriages have to be recelebrated all the time, and I don’t just mean on anniversaries. The marriage needs to be recreated in a real sense. My wife and I have certain celebrations that are an attempt to reestablish ourselves as us. Right now, we’re apart a lot, both working on other projects. When we plan on getting together, we also allow some room for a fight, because certain parts of the psyche are pretty damn unhappy about the separation, and they want to express it. We have to trust that we’ll get through that part and then get to the celebratory part, which heals the wounds of the fight.
Safransky: You mean you plan for the fight the way you might plan to go out to dinner?
Meade: Yes. Fights are unavoidable. Intimacy causes desperate frictions. We should work on getting the skills for how to fight rather than getting the skills for how to avoid fighting. Also, as people become older, more accomplished at what they do, more certain of who they are, they want to be recognized that way. This can be difficult for the other partner. People who love each other know where all the wounded parts are. You can always hurt the other person because you know where they’re wounded.
Another thing that’s amazing to me is learning how different your partner is. Everybody starts out trying to want the same things, and I think that’s natural. But after awhile you realize that your partner really likes things that you don’t like at all, and may never like. So there are accommodations. For instance, Erica and I each have our own writing studios, and they are completely different colors — utterly, completely different. There’s not even one similar color in them. It’s as if we each live in a psychic space that is colored differently from the other’s.
I’ve come to appreciate her colors more than I did. At first, I didn’t understand why anybody would want those colors. It seemed to me that my colors were the more proper way to see life. Now I see that those colors are valuable, and they actually complement and contrast with my colors. Yet each of us will defend his or her colors at certain times and say, “I’m going to my space over there, because it has my colors and I want to stay in there.”
At one time, we were seeing a therapist because we were having trouble with the way we were fighting. The therapist recommended not only that we learn certain fighting skills, but that we work on loving and celebrating joyful things. So our job for a while was to take turns having these romantic evenings. I went first and set up a whole evening that I thought was wildly romantic. I wasn’t supposed to try to accommodate Erica. She had to go along. But somewhere through it, Erica said, “You call this romantic?” And when it was her turn, I had the same reaction.
So we found out that despite having a mutual romance, there was a lot about each other that we didn’t know. And we had to learn about these parts of ourselves as if we were making our mutual space bigger. I think by doing that we became more patient and more observant of what the other was doing.
Safransky: Unfortunately, in so many relationships the passion seems to die, especially as people get older.
Meade: We have a fantasy in this culture that everything good happens in youth. But in many cultures there are images of people deepening their sensuality and sexuality as they get older.
I once saw a movie about people in a village in the highlands in Cuba. There was a great scene in which the drummers were playing and women and men were dancing and singing. Then this old man came out and sat down on a drum and played it with his heel and his hands in a very old style. He lent a sensuality to that drum that really got everyone going. After he played for a while, he stood up and went over to his wife. They both looked about seventy years old. And they began to dance, with none of the inhibitions that we typically see in our culture. Their entire bodies were moving — these old bodies that no longer had the shapes of youth but had subtle and confident moves. It was incredible. They danced with obvious sexuality and sensuality, and yet they had dignity like fine old instruments.
I sometimes wonder if certain diseases don’t result from puritanically crimping our bodies. Maybe we get so arthritic in old age because we’ve rejected sensuality. Maybe there’s so much Alzheimer’s disease because a culture that forgets its old people makes its old people forget.
I’ve been thinking about how we change as we grow older, and about the effects of events we don’t choose: the unexpected transitions, things that erupt. Things like a draft notice or a divorce. And I’ve been trying to understand the ways in which a person’s life really changes when something unexpected occurs to break a person’s life open or break it down. It can result in what we call a nervous breakdown, an attempt by the psyche to remake itself. Or in criminal behavior. Or in falling in love. Or in having a big success of some kind. Whatever it does, it changes a person’s life forever.
I think there are two psychological territories in a person’s life: the realm of the child, of family, of growing up; and the realm of the radical, life-changing experience. I call the latter turning-the-head. It turns the person away from the child and toward the adult, and eventually toward the elder. It’s not about the family but the community. It’s not about birth but death.
Safransky: The psychologist James Hillman says that where we are in life is as important as where we came from, but that our biographical sense of psychology overemphasizes childhood.
Meade: After a certain point, the psyche is altered by radical change. It doesn’t develop anymore, but it radically alters and reorganizes itself — which I think was the basis for initiation. Initiation wasn’t something that people did because one day they thought it was a good idea. They noticed that people were remaking themselves in these dramatic ways, and so they formed rituals around what was happening.
Not everything can be run through the child loop. Not everything happens to people because their mother was this kind of mother or their father was absent. Some things happen because of some deep purpose or some spiritual awareness breaking out. Some of it has more to do with an awakening of the elder — someone who is going to carry authority and resources not just for the individual but for the community. And some of it has to do with learning about death rather than childhood.
A culture that denies death, like ours, weakens community. Community binds us together because of the awareness of death. When you deny death, you automatically weaken the courage of the community. Then no one recognizes elders. You just have old people. And when the elders aren’t recognized, adults aren’t adults. They don’t act like adults because they don’t feel they can become elders. Eventually what happens is that people deny life-changing experiences, and everybody keeps going back to their childhood as if whatever is there could explain their lives. They don’t value the life experiences that have happened since then.
Safransky: Because if death is denied and you can’t ask what we’re dying for, then you can’t ask what we’re living for.
Meade: Exactly. Camus said a person’s life is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover those one or two images before which the heart first opened. In a time of difficulty, that’s what people go back to. There are places in the psyche that are deep, and in times of difficulty we drop right into them. We operate out of them. But people are not going to affect other people just from their childhood. They’re going to affect other people from where their psyche was ripped open, from where they experienced radical change.