Soul work

Thursday, September 22nd, 2005

Believe me, the most significant moment of this past weekend, which I spent at a YMCA camp northwest of Chicago with 13 other guys, was not — for me or anyone else — my bedtime rendition of “Que Sera, Sera.”

When I was just a little girl,
I asked my mother,
What will I be?

This was sometime after 1 a.m. — we were in our sleeping bags, crammed into the lower berths of bunk beds designed for 9-year-olds. We were beyond exhausted. What a day it had been, this Saturday of the first-ever Men’s Arts Retreat, an experiment in drums, Cray-Pas, ink, courage, bear hugs, synergy. Some things had happened that day that no one could quite believe — souls had opened, hellish memories had spilled into the room, grown men had cried, wounds had begun to heal. We were trembling.

One of my cabin mates happened to be the kind of guy who, well, sings a lot — mostly pop tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, triggered by a word or phrase in the conversation — and he started into some old songs this night. It’s just how the weekend was. What was unusual was that I found the nerve to join him.

Will I be pretty?

It was funny and the dark cabin burst into guffaws. I kept going for the rest of the verse, will I be rich, etc., and then into the “que sera” part, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, channeling Doris Day for all I was worth. And soon enough the moment passed, melting into a snore-punctuated silence and, finally, sleep. And that was that.

Writing about my rare public musical outburst now — a few days back into the real world — is embarrassing, especially when I acknowledge that I didn’t do it for laughs. I was as serious when I started singing as I might have been at, oh, age 7 or 8, however old I was when the song was a pre-rock ’n’ roll era hit and a dime in the juke box filled the restaurant with it. I loved that song for a fleeting period in my life and then forgot about it for five decades, until my boyhood was stirred that night and I felt safe and out it came.

We’d been talking about a weekend like this for a long time — “we” being a group that’s been going for five or six years now called the Men’s Art Forum, started by musician Andy Mitran and painter and psychotherapist Dick Levon. We meet once a month, sit in a circle, talk about our art and our lives, and then do “show and tell.” To read or perform within that circle is to touch an intensely receptive audience. The group has filled a crucial niche in my life, providing a place where art matters.

The idea was, we’d model the weekend after a men’s retreat, that is, two days of soul work — a guided personal exploration into the heart of whatever, rage, fear, addiction, grief — and add the extra dimension of the arts. The arts have a deeper function than entertainment. That was our premise. They heal; they affirm life itself.

We didn’t know what we were doing, we just figured, man, something powerful has to happen if you jam all this into a small space, music, writing, painting, movement, drama, and put it in the service of soul work.

“The aim of soul work, therefore,” writes Thomas Moore in “Care of the Soul,” “is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into culture of family, nation and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart to ancestors and to living brothers and sisters in all the many communities that claim our hearts.”

The weekend humbled me. We left behind the world of war and disaster and politics as usual. In that world, the arts are untethered from the soul — they’re about ego and accolades and inflated self-importance. I suffer from this, and going into the weekend I guess I expected to be pumped up and applauded for what I’m good at, and I was. But it mattered so little.

What I savor is that I sang “Que Sera, Sera.” What I savor is that I cried for other men’s lives and for a moment felt their lives as my own. I cried for the softening of their toughness as they re-experienced the razor-sharp pain of long-ago family fights or whatever else was locked inside their psyches and then let the pain go as we gathered around them and held them and cheered their rebirth and even sang “Happy Birthday.”

This is humanity’s collective consciousness. And the song is wrong. I saw the future with my own eyes.