In Praise of Men Who Matter

For more than a few weeks I have had the intention to write a post about my positive relationships with men. And the difficulty starts right there. I can’t just say “relationships with men” without immediately clarifying that I am not referring to romantic or intimate relationships per se, but to friendships and familial relationships with men. I want to speak about men whom I know well, whom I like and respect and whose presence add value and meaning to my life. I want to write about them because they matter and need to hear from me directly that they matter. And the questions that came up for me in this process tell another story, though: Why does it feel risky to write good things about men? What is the significance of being a strong, independent woman and saying nice things about men?

What got me started on this idea was a series of empowering conversations I had earlier in the year with three very different male friends of mine on three consecutive days. Following each conversation I felt so remarkably grateful for the friendship we share and the way we can go deep on topics of personal importance. Each of these men challenged and encouraged me in these talks. Each of them was open to the feedback I had for them and in each instance I enjoyed being on equal footing. There was no competing for air time; no awkward power differential to overcome. And yet I could recognize some differences to conversations I might have about similar topics with female friends. My male friends offered some approaches I hadn’t considered, they shared their estimations of certain situations from unique perspectives as males and I felt enriched.

The weeks ticked by and still the post was not written. More positive conversations and connections had with other males in different contexts, still no post written. Rather, other posts were written, but not the “nice things I have to say about some men” post. And I began to wonder. Of course, public writing has made more sensitive to a host of social and political undercurrents in current discourse. In my self-selected filter bubble which is decidedly left-leaning, feminist, strongly social justice  and education oriented, men are welcome but need to watch their step, check their privilege and avoid saying the wrong thing in the wrong way or both of those. Women acting in the same forums, of course, face challenges in other dimensions (death and rape threats) which put those male ‘constraints’ (for lack of a better word) absolutely  into perspective. It is fairly uncomplicated and certainly a pleasure to write great things about the women in my life as I have done before. It also striking to acknowledge the ambivalence I feel in doing something similar for men.

And this intersection is where I think we need to go.

Appreciation and acknowledgement of men as allies, as valued members of the same society may seem redundant to some. I mean to let major media tell the story, men get all the gold, glory and the credit or at least most of it. Yes, and. This is not true for all men. As a rule it benefits me greatly to listen to women and men. In order to write this post and be witness both to the struggles women face daily and the good things that I observe among men I know, I have to maintain a mindset of “yes, and” rather than “yes, but”.  Holding the space for both realities, for differing perspectives and experiences is critical to taking this walk. “Yes, and” is the walk I commit myself to every time I press “publish.”

When I was a 13 year old boy-crazy girl growing up in Cleveland, my dream was to be surrounded by good looking guys. Well, as the saying, goes: watch what you wish for because you might receive. Here I am at mid-life and when I celebrate Christmas I am surrounded by good looking guys, only (my husband, my Ex, and 2 sons). The irony.  I love them all and I think each time anew about options for recruiting some female energy into our party next year. The ingredients I consistently seek in promoting my own growth and those around me are balance and diversity. So the value of male voices in the dialogues in which I engage is not lost on me, even if their messages can infuriate me. Sometimes I forget that I, too, have the potential to frustrate and infuriate my dialogue partners, male and female. No one holds a monopoly on this capacity, I’m afraid.

On social media I have had the pleasure of encountering numerous male contributors who regularly expand my horizons and stretch my thinking. I find much in common with them on several themes specifically around education and social justice and I appreciate the many ways in which they have supported and championed my voice in digital spaces. I am so glad they are present and engaging and also willing to wrestle with some of the tough stuff. These are also men who can examine and unpack their various layers of privilege which are unique to each of them. In their company I feel safe, valued and welcomed.

I have a brother who is five years older. Although we have lived on different continents for most our adult lives, what impresses me most about him is his role as the family connector. He is the one who has maintained and strengthened ties with uncles, aunts and cousins across the country on behalf of our family. Every cousin imaginable is only a phone call away for him. I love this about him and my gratitude to him is immeasurable. And I applaud the fact that he is a male taking up what has traditionally been ‘women’s work’ in our family.

In my world, the men I care about and value are several. Who they are, the gifts they bring, the time they take – all of these mean so much to me and certainly to many others. Being male is but one aspect of their identity and each one of them expresses their maleness distinctly, uniquely and vitally. Our mutual capacity to sustain each other in life-affirming ways, friend-to-friend, brother-to-sister, partner-to-partner, requires careful tending to from both sides.

In this spirit, I raise my glass in honor of the great men in my life. You matter. Live long, prosper and please stay in touch.

The Commencement Address I Never Gave

image via pixabay.com
image via pixabay.com

Dear Graduates,

You are here, I am told, because you made it. You fulfilled the requirements, satisfied the criteria of your studies and now will be rewarded with a diploma. Congratulations!

In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons? Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding? What are you proud of? To whom are you grateful?

I ask these questions because in my experience, some of the best graduation speakers turn out to be the students themselves. Often they are selected by their peers. When you speak as a student, you can address the graduating class as peers. You know what many have been through because you were there. And now as you sit, organized perhaps alphabetically, or by discipline or a combination of those, you may be sitting next to some people you know well and near others whom you perhaps hardly know. Yet whoever stands up here where I am now may be hard pressed to  recognize you as anything other than a collective, a class of, yes, graduates.

I want to change that. Rather than have me talk to you or about you for 8 or 15 or 30 minutes. I want us to do something different with this time we have been allocated. I want you spend some time talking to each other. I want you to spend five minutes (2:30 for each person) responding to one of the questions I posed at the beginning. Each of you will have 2:30 to respond without interruption. I will signal when the time is up and then ask you to switch places.  I want everyone here to participate, not only the graduates. Speak to the person next to you or behind you and share your responses. Listen without interruption until you hear the signal. Then switch and tell your story.

Find a partner you will speak with and raise your hand to let me know you are ready. We are a lot of folks here, so please hold off with your conversation until the signal, just raise your hand silently to show me that you’ve found a partner.

Looks like just about everybody has a partner. Great!

Here are the questions to which you may respond. Pick one: (Displayed on giant screen)

  • In the process that has brought you thus far, what have been your greatest lessons?
  • Where has your learning been its deepest and  most rewarding?
  • What are you proud of?
  • To whom are you grateful?

First partner, are you ready to tell your story? Okay, begin.  (Full buzz of thousands of conversations unleashed)

(at 2:00) You have about 30 more seconds, partner 1.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1.  Thank you!

Partner number 2, are you ready to share your story? Okay, begin. (Even louder, more animated buzz)

(at 2:00) Partner 2, you have about 30 more seconds.

(at 2:25) Please finish your sentence. 3, 2, 1. Thank you!

Continued buzz. Pause.

How did that feel?

Graduates, this is the opportunity that I continue to long for – creating entrances into meaningful conversation. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our family members. Even as we dance on this planet, many of us hyper-connected and often more in need of unplugging than of anythings else, meaningful, face to face dialogues which unlock our intellect as easily as our emotions may become scarce yet no less necessary to our thriving. And if you or I intend to make a dent in the world, then we must understand that our significant dialogues need to extend beyond our most trusted circles.

You are leaving this ceremony with a degree in your hand. You know, too, that you have had classmates along the way who are not here with you. Classmates who have not yet made it to where you are. Right there is a space for dialogue which is often overlooked. The dialogue between graduate and drop out. What might you be able to learn from each other, to contribute to each other’s understanding of the world we inhabit, especially when you may each see the world very differently?

As a graduate, you enter adulthood in one form or another. There will be new demands upon your time, money and wits. You likely have friends and family who are in your corner rooting for you.  What kinds of new conversations will you be having with your parents, siblings, grandparents?  How will your freshly won independence express itself when you need to ask others for help?

Thinking about being able to live with yourself, what internal conversations do you need to have before you leave this place and head for the next? Even when you know what to do (get more sleep, exercise regularly, brush and floss daily), what gets in the way from acting on that knowledge sometimes? How do you bridge your own ‘knowing-doing gap’? How do you talk to yourself when you fail? What do you say to yourself to make it alright again?

I raise these questions not to throw you into a philosophical crisis, but as signposts for the conversations I wish more of us would entertain. While dialogue, even with yourself, may not be the solution to the world’s problems, it strikes me as a perfectly fine place to start. Each of us is capable of becoming an effective listener.  We can learn to respect and honor multiple perspectives. Without these capacities, I fear that your education is hollow and of limited use to the world.

Make your education useful: Become an expert on gaps.

Recognize the gaps that exist around you – through gender, race, class, education, health status, to name a few – and dare to stand in those gaps. No need to raise your hand anymore; raise your question. Question what is and perhaps try “what if?” Gather the responses. Investigate  their sources and interrogate their meaning. Research possible ways forward. If your education has equipped you to do as much, we can all be well pleased.

Do not fear the gap; make the gaps you encounter an unending source of creativity.

What questions will you pose to the world?

What is life asking of you?

These are the questions that come up for me as I look at you in your caps and gowns. To me you all look lovely and promising and slightly uncomfortable.

I have often wondered about the purpose of commencement speeches. When they are good, they are often highly marketable after the fact, particularly if they are delivered by uniquely wise and well spoken members of the celebrity class.  Yet what good do they do? What do you gain by listening to someone offer anecdotes, some encouragement and of course, a bit of advice? Speakers at graduations are of course talking to a much wider audience than just the graduates themselves. They are addressing parents and families of the graduates, the faculty and administration of the institution, and perhaps other invited members of prominence.  Of course, you, the graduates, are the focus of these ceremonial activities but rest assured that there is much more going on than folks simply gathering here to say “Congrats!” and to wish you well. We have the pomp and circumstance along with apprehension and nervousness. We have joy and cheering along with tears and departures. A commencement address seems to be there to tide us over until we can get to the main course; to forestall a widespread emotional implosion should all the other parts move too quickly. That said, I have one more quick exercise for all of us before we go.

This exercise has two parts, the calm and the storm. During the calm we are going to go silent for yes, a whole minute. Use this time to breathe and simply be where you are, who you are right at this moment; nothing more, nothing less. Then, when you hear the signal,please stand up and give us a whopping loud cheer of celebration.

Here’s the calm.

(at 58 sec.) Now the STORM. (Very loud cheering from all angles !!!)

Pause.

Congratulations, graduates and Thank you!

Conversation Starters

I am somewhere else in my Twitter development now.

I used to lurk and now I engage.

I used to post links to other people’s words, now I regularly share my own.

I used to follow conversations already in progress but kept quiet, afraid to butt in.

Now I find that I can start conversations and others join in.

That is new. And edifying. And yet another reason to continue:

sharing my words.

welcoming dialogue.

opening the can (maybe it’s not only worms).

participating in community.

offering support.

daring to disagree.

keeping it short.

making it meaningful.

making friends.

gaining insights.

showing up.

being heard.

being seen.

having fun.

signing off.

 

Hat tip to my recent conversation partners who allow the term to live up to its most positive definition: @gowithjordan, @sarahdateechur, @RusulAlrubail, @Jennwillteach, @Sisyphus38, @adamphowell. Thank you, friends!