My first impression of The Comb was one of sadness and desolation, which at the time felt odd. In fact, it really concerned me: I didn’t understand why I felt that way. I’d had a pleasant enough drive up, re-connecting on the way with two brothers who were staffing at “my” ManKind Project Adventure Weekend just over a year before. I want to take a moment here to honour these two men and many more like them who give up their time regularly to keep the NWTA-wheels rolling. It’s a great gift you give.
Also along for the ride was a man I hadn’t met before, with whom I had an inspiring conversation around the subject of family. Looking back now, I realise that the empathy with which this man spoke somehow planted the idea in my head for the first time that I was going to a place where I could be held, held safe. Previously, that seemed impossible. In my iGroup I always say “You and all the energies you bring are welcome in this circle of men tonight” - and I mostly believe it, but not then, at The Comb. At that time, I just didn’t feel welcome.
As a first time staffer, I’d never seen how a man can fully let go of his grief without running the risk of somehow disrupting the process with the initiates, and so my dark thoughts were that if I let go, I’d be swamped. The initiates must come first and there would be no time for me. And while other people felt welcome, people who could stay cheerful and positive for the greater good of the task we were gathering for, even if they were in mourning, that wouldn’t be true for me.
Because I was in mourning. It took me the whole journey to accept that - and the OK-ness of it.
In June last year I flew out to Cape Townfor three weeks to be with my Mom and brother. She died about half way through that time, which was great in a sense because I was able to stay on for the Celebration of her life. I’ll never forget it: there were lots of people, many with outlandish anecdotes about how she’d touched their lives. As a member of the Black Sash, she’d actively demonstrated against Apartheid in the bad old years.
Later she was member of a whole string of volunteer groups, some of which I’d known nothing about. She became something of an eco-warrior, a peace activist, a writer, a teacher, a Quaker. Eccentric and iron-willed, she had very clear ideas about right and wrong, and if something was wrong she was all about finding a way to change it. One story typifies this quality: I guess she was in her mid-sixties when she noticed that her favourite outdoor clothing shop, Cape Union Mart, had an advertising campaign that was unduly biased towards the young and hip; I think of pouty nubile models who normally wouldn’t be seen dead within a mile of a camping site. She duly marched into her local branch to discuss her “constructive criticism” with the management. The result?
We found a clipping from the Cape Times, an advertisement for this same shop featuring a black and white photo of a raggedy-assed pensioner with an unruly shock of grey hair sitting bow-legged on a park bench, looking for all the world like a hobo, except she has this smuggest of grins on her face. It says: Name: June H. Occupation: Peace worker. Favourite restaurant: so-and-so. Favourite clothing shop:CapeUnionMart. And then just: “Real clothing for real people.”
Much of this felt new to me. To my deepest regret, I realised that my Mom had been the realest person I’d known. It was almost as though it was only through death that I’d finally managed to connect with her warrior spirit or somehow even realise that she had one. How did I miss that? At 23, she’d hitchhiked alone right through South Africaand Botswana. She was 50 when she got stabbed while demonstrating for People Need Water, Not Weapons. Later -- I think she was 69 – she suddenly announced to us that she was off on a backpacking trip toIndia. And at 75, she came to England to take a job looking after the elderly, rounding it off by taking herself off to the Edinburgh Festival for some culture.
Even on a shoestring budget, she always knew the things she wanted to get done and wouldn’t rest till she’d found a way.
I stood in awe of her integrity and single-mindedness and decided to dedicate my life to becoming a son worthy of such a role model. But in Cape Town I was on compassionate leave and the clock was ticking. Two days later, back home and standing outside my workplace, steeling myself to go in, I slammed the door on all that had happened and moved on.
Fast forward 10 months to MKP and my staffing at The Comb and I was still trying to get fully into the idea that the grief I’d shut out, the grief I could feel welling up again, had any place in what we were doing.
I was in conflict: on one side, it was dawning on me that I had both the right and the need to grieve. On the other: what was I thinking, bringing this weight in with me, when there was men’s work to be done? As a first time staffer, I guess I just hadn’t seen it modelled and didn’t get how grief this deep could be turned into a gift. And then a man pulled me aside and pointed out that there would be men coming who were experiencing a similar grief and, whether they knew it or not, were looking for someone to model a way of expressing it. The penny dropped, the light went ON!
I was still dazed, rushing round the kitchen like a headless chicken or losing my focus, but from that moment on I let go and started to enjoy myself. The patience, humour and support I felt from my team-mates in the kitchen and from every man, though not always spoken, was palpable. And ... well, humbling.
And I’ve since remembered that being strong-willed has a shadow side. Not so, Ma? Actually, she’d be the first to admit it, bless her.
These are simple truths, I see that now. But what was it the fella once said about the journey from the head to the heart? It takes a little longer sometimes and that’s not always a bad thing.