In the Valley of Gentle Men

This piece is an excerpt from my two-part essay on grief work (part 1 and part 2). I performed this piece in late February at a lit event on Orcas Island. The event was hosted by Source Paper, Intermodal Spirit, and the Orcas Island Winery.

It begins in a silly way. Some 25 men have gathered in a forest meadow in the Olympic Peninsula. We’ve set up our tents. We’ve chatted with a brittle, nervous energy. Some of us are friends, some of us are strangers.

We are mostly younger men in our thirties and forties, but among us is an elder, Laurence. He is to be our guide for the weekend. He has an intent gaze, a gravitational presence. He is not prone to small talk. We circle up for the first time and he tells us to do a silly thing. Which is to walk out of the meadow and walk back in.

Because, as he explains, we have not formally entered the Space.

This feels silly to me, as in, arbitrary, a game we are playing. But I’m here to play along so I walk with the others. Laurence plays a solemn drum beat. It is sunset and then it is very dark. We process through a rutted path in the woods. And then we pass through a natural arbor of old cedars. And one by one, we enter the meadow.

We are in a silent queue. I can see the silhouette of Laurence mumbling something to each man in turn.

And as I shuffle forward, something cracks quite suddenly and grief wells up from my gut, up my throat, and out my face.

All the silly things—The drumming, the procession, the little loop back to the meadow—coalesce into something not at all silly. Something very ancient and very human. And the irony peels off me like snake skin.

A voice says to the terrified wounded little boy in me: This is for you.

And as grief drags my face down like a palsy I am before Laurence and he says in his deep baritone:

Welcome to the healing ground. You are not alone.

And of course, I break apart.


I growl. I roar. I swing the bat. It hits home. I swing the bat again. I scream. I fall to earth. I scratch her, I claw her, I grab her. Hands full of hay and dust. I bow down until my lips touch her.

From deep within me, grief roils up and out my mouth and eyes. I choke, I cry, I leak, I moan.

My lips to the dirt, I whisper to someone not present:

I love you.

And then, I whisper through bared teeth:

I hate you.

And then. Such relief.

There it is. It’s as simple as that. It’s out.

Collapsing on the ground, I hear drums, I hear singing. It is night, it is cool and dark. The only light: A broad ring of candles. I hear screaming, crying, wailing, shouting. I hear the rhythmic crack of cushioned baseball bats hitting gym mats. Male forms, crouched like babies, their shoulders heaving. Vomiting? Laughing? Crying? Who knows?

Whatever it is, I know, it’s fine. It’s welcome here. It’s why we’re all here.

I realize I’m done. Time to leave the circle. I turn and become aware of a man in the darkness standing over me. My second, my watcher. I have no idea who he is. A tall man. A beard. I can’t look him in the eye. Because what if he is angry? Like the original man, my father.

But then I realize that I must. I must look him in the eye.

I’m still splayed on the dirt, childlike, and my eyes climb up the body of the tall man before me. Up I look, slowly, tentatively (IS IT SAFE?) And then I behold a face. A bearded face in the dark, and in the middle of it, two eyes.

And I know in that instant that these are compassionate eyes. They are soft, they are open, they have seen me in my truth and they gaze back without a hint of reproach, or judgment, or disconnect (for the child in me would know instantly).

I hold his gaze for what feels like an hour but is probably just 10 seconds. I can’t help it: I smile. And so does he.

I look away, it’s too intense. And then. I look again. And he’s still there. His eyes are still kind. We look frankly at each other.

And for the first time in my life, I feel safe in the presence of a man. And in the darkness, I don’t even know who he is.


Afterwards we all lie in the grass under the stars. We hear the soft words of a kindly old man. I am utterly at peace with All of This: With the trauma, the pain, the too muchness, the gifts, the joys, the ecstatic moments. I am awash in a full body gratitude for being here, for being alive. I am curled on the grass like a baby and I look up with a child’s eyes at the stars and I feel the rawest wonder, awe, and joy.

And around me are 25 male bodies, 25 men, 25 of the scariest animals who have ever walked the earth and I am not afraid. I feel my body and heart opening to each and every one of them. I feel…Safe. As if I belong here, just as much as they do. As if we are fellow mammals, bound together by an unshakeable kinship. As if I love them, and they me.

Never in my life have I felt this way.


There was no medicine involved. There were no credentialed experts, no co-pays, no clinics. Nothing more high-tech than a hand drum.

Just 25 men in the woods. And a lineage, from warm hand to warm hand, stretching back to West Africa.

An entirely human technology. The structure, the container built of human beings, hearts, hands. Each of us a casualty, each of us a healer. Beyond singing, beyond drumming, nothing much to do. But simply, radically

to be


and in front of

each other.

To let go


I was not expecting the perfect medicine, but the perfect medicine is what I received.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s