My favorite movie is Mud. Having watched a lot of movies, it's hard to pick a singular favorite, but if I have been asked that question often, so there is my final answer. What begins as typical day for a river-rat boy, Ellis, turns into a series of dangerous events that inevitably shape his views of love as he begins helping a dirty man on the run from the law. This man, Mud as he's called, committed a murder for the woman he loves; and in the midst of Ellis's parents' crumbling marriage, Ellis man finds hope and fulfillment in helping Mud...but as the story continues, Ellis comes to experience the heartbreak that can come with even the most valiant causes. One of the supplemental characters is played by a truly legendary influencer on art throughout the 20th and 21st century, Sam Shepard.
Sam Shepard died at the age of 73 last Thursday, the 27th of July. Throughout the last few years, I have studied Sam Shepard more and more for the impact that he has had on contemporary playwriting. Before becoming aware of his iconic American-Southwest wild plays in college, I think back to my youth when I first saw Shepard in a movie called The Right Stuff, that dealt with the space race. I have come to love and enjoy his work and the many discussion-worthy elements that they contain.
In catching up on the details of his passing, I read an article that was published 7 years ago called "The Pathfinder," written by John Lahr. Something that Lahr did a nice job describing is the presence that Shepard had on film. Similar to Paul Newman, Shepard had a uncanny ability to captivate with his eyes on film--and he knew it. Lahr describes how this characteristic was included into some of Shepard's characters in the vast number of plays that he wrote. Honestly... I don't want to recap the article... I would more say that it's just worth the time to read it. However, I will say that the subtitle of the piece is what initially got my attention: Sam Shepard and the struggles of the American Manhood.
The pursuit of manhood is something that I reflect on often. What are the societal expectations of manliness, how does the individual deal with those expectations, my own journey of defining manliness, or who I believe I am being shaped into to, and even more recent the conversations surrounding gender and gender roles; so that being said--"manhood," never bores me. I have read a number of books that deal with this subject and its something I love to discuss when hearing the journeys of men that I have the opportunity to build relationships with. Journey, a good band and also something I will discuss a little later on. The point being...I could talk all day about "manhood," but I'm going to try and keep it rather brief and not cover a number of those topics mentioned above.
Beyond the biographical nature of the article, a lot of it boiled down to this: "Shepard owed a large part of his identity, his damage, and his subject matter [to his Father]" I found that so interesting to know and changed the lens that I viewed some of his work through.
Men's perspective can be highly shaped by their relationship with their father, or lack of relationship. That's probably a pretty obvious statement as is the benefits/damages of individuals' relationship with mothers. Parents are important, got it. But seriously, the role-modeling exhibited by my father under a variety of circumstances has been highly impactful since I was a child--so I can relate to this statement about Shepard's work and process.
I was fortunate to have two excellent parents. Did we have our junk as a family, sure. No denying that, but I'm incredible thankful for the opportunities I solely provided by my parents (obviously there was nothing I did to choose the cards I was dealt, so I would be foolish to just "be thankful"...which I want to be). Dad was always there for me. I have a couple of strong memories of him showing up and stepping in to say or do something when I really needed it. I remember when I had really screwed up and so desperately needed to know, "do you still love me Dad?"--and as tough as it may have been to "like me" or be "proud of me" at that time--Dad didn't hesitate a second to say, "absolutely bubby, you know I'll always love you." These moments have been staples in my confidence and the way I've approached a lot of life. I've also seen my father lose his temper and embarrass himself, and I have learned from those experiences too.
As I was engaged and about to get married, I became highly critical of my father and the way he treated my mother. In my youthful ignorance, it was really easy to point out "what I think could be better," not having "walked a mile," as my father would say to me. We haven't seen eye to eye on everything but we've worked through a lot of that...on our journey...(but wait, there's more!) It's been interesting to say the least, how we can relate on a different level now that time has passed since I was a kid. I am no longer asking him how to hit a curve ball, but how do deal with adult circumstance I'd never even thought of before. We can share on a deeper level. I am thankful that he's still around for me to talk to and that we have an open communication.
Now, that's all heartfelt and nice, but I do have many friends who have a completely opposite relationship with their father and it has affected them to this day. Men who have been disowned because of drugs or their sexual lifestyle. Men who never knew their father or they weren't around. Abusive fathers. There are mega wounds there that are difficult to overcome, and I can truly only speak into the observations I've made from friends and haven't truly lived. It's often a slow process--but it is possible. Love can be really messy, and it can so quickly turn to hate.
Beyond my own father, I have seen other men that I've wanted to be like; mentors, teachers, my father-in-law (I totally lucked out with a really great in-law family). I'd like to think that most of my life I have pursued being a kind, patient person. I have seen men exhibiting kindness amidst strength. I have seen overbearing angry men and wanted to be nothing like them. But for all I observed, I came to a place of not knowing what it meant to truly be comfortable in being a "man" and at times felt like a kind-boy without strength or an angry/bitter boy without tact along the way. For a long time I would not stand up to conflict, victimize myself, or allow unfair things to happen to me to avoid the risk of offending or hurting someone else's feelings. Other times to my shame, I would take advantage of a situation because I was stronger than the other person.
From a book entitled Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge I gained some perspective about living boldly and courageous. The books is written in reaction to "nice guys," not really being all that's cracked up to be...but how can you be free to not have to be a "nice guy," and also not be a "bad boy." I have met guys who were not a fan of the "manly stereotypes" presented in the book--fighting bears and mountain climbing and blahdeeblah. And I agree, you do not have to do those things to be welcomed into manhood and the book may be a little out of date now, but there were some good nuggets that I held onto. The most impactful part of the book was John's retelling of a moment when his son was in 1st grade, a bully chose to pick on him. Eldredge told his son that the next time it happened, "to hit him as hard as you can." This caused a bit of a hiccup in my head as a reader as it did with his wife, Stasi, sitting across the room in the scene. As a Christian, we want to live peaceable, turn the other cheek, and this was the expected lesson that Stasi and I thought would be taught. But I've hung onto John's response:
"You cannot teach a boy to use his strength by stripping him of it. Jesus was able to retaliate, believe me. But he chose not to. And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life." (Wild at Heart p.79)
I don't condone violence. I also don't condone bullies, but unfortunately I believe bullies don't just go away. I hope that if I have children one day, I can help equip them to be strong enough to deal with bullies without violence and to stand up for those without a voice.
So I find myself learning from lots of types of men from lots of types of backgrounds/perspectives/experiences...but I still wasn't sure where I fit in, in that picture. I thought to myself, "where is the manual for how to be a man?? I feel like I've heard a bunch of thoughts on and I'm still not even sure what I think is the best??" Maybe it's because I cared too much about what other people think--to be perfectly honest, I'm still working on that.
But a couple of years ago, something shifted in me. My perspective about "manliness," shifted from a title to something that isn't truly achieved. Being a "man" is something pursued daily. The advice that I had been given, experiences I'd lived and observed, combined with my own personal wiring has challenged me to live with joy in the pursuit of a peaceful, courageous, patient, kind, perseverant, leadership driven, serving, loving manhood. Finding fulfillment in the journey and not the destination is one small area that grace really touched my life. I experienced that in the same place I found the best framework/manual for manliness, in the example of Jesus Christ and I hope to walk closer to that example every day.
Ultimately I think that's why I enjoy Shepard's work so much, all of his stories have someone going on a really interesting (sometimes scary and intense) journey. Hey-oh!...that's where journey showed up...at the end...That journey is what drives me to enjoy storytelling, and I aim to enjoy every day of my story no matter the circumstance. I think that's what we're all on--and sometimes we can miss part of it if we are too busy thinking about where we were or worrying about where we are going. At least for me, I want to try to actively live in the moment more and more, and not be so wound up over the future or past.
In the closing of this post, I would say; if you get a chance, read the article about Shepard and check out some of his plays and screen work if you're unfamiliar with it (my favorites are probably A Fool for Love and True West)-just be ready for some pretty gritty scenarios. The article may give you some interesting background for the plays you may read/see. If you like movies, I would totally recommend Mud. I know some people think it starts a bit slow, but it's a really interesting story if you can hang in there.
Alrighty, some classic Adler rambling writing today....check.