The other day, a mentor of mine texted me a few paintings he’d been working on. Now, this is probably the only mentor I’ve ever had who not only raised me as an artist but has stayed the most consistent staple in my twenty years as an artist. I’ve known him primarily as a poet and had only heard about his glory days as a visual artist through stories. It’s how he got his start. There are even a couple of notable names that have his work in their collections, and back in the day, he literally lived in his art studio and taught classes even. Never met that guy, so I was thrilled to see him pick up a brush again.
Most writers I know, particularly poets, are also visual artists. Making images with words is not so different from clay or canvas or photos. I was surprised to see the paintings and wowed at their depth. He has an engineer’s mind and to see that mind play with vivid color as opposed to the black and white page was a treat. I asked him how it felt and he said something to the effect that it was like remembering a part of himself and that these were only several pieces he’d started but was eager to see the 10th or 12th. The nice thing about working with career artists is that they know about the alchemical process. Quantity IS quality. You don’t usually know what you’re looking for but do enough of ‘em and you’ll know it when you see it.
Another poet I’m close to has, in the last year, picked up a pen and just started drawing out of nowhere. And still another who also happens to be a bang-up cook has taken his poems and turned them into these digital collages in Paint. I didn’t even know Paint was still around! And what he’s done through pure instinct is in short, inspired. I could go on...I’ve been amazed at the little pockets of some of the most men’s men I know who are also woke display such unexpected tenderness and vulnerability as they learn more about the supple space within themselves that is the creatrix.
The first two brothers had each, both in their early fifties, also both experienced the loss of a parent within the past year and then had a baby (the same gender coincidentally) within months of their parents’ passing. The third, born a day or two within the same date of his own father, had been witnessing his own dad come to terms with his ancestry and lineage, which apparently wasn’t what he thought it was. So his dad was experiencing a serious ego death. Additionally, he and his family had just moved for the first time in a decade, his middle-school aged daughter is already looking at college reading lists, and this semester was the heaviest load he’d probably ever taught on top of everything else.
I think these brothers quite unintentionally gave birth to themselves this year. Or at least the latest model. It’s kind of like in Deadpool where that seedy lab experiments on civilians by injecting them with something to flip on a genetic lever and then subjects the body to excruciating circumstances so the body activates latent defense mechanisms to protect itself.
I’m typically used to watching women learn to stand in their power—embrace their animus, that assertive, generative, solar-plexus space to move closer to their dharma or at least the next pit stop along the way. But with men in the last couple of years, watching them—my students, friends, colleagues, and compatriots—soften, become creatively pliant? It’s a very different type of bloom. It’s urgent but quiet. It’s receptive. It’s yin.
I taught a Women and Writing class last semester where at the last minute, a football player had to enroll. This young brother, biracial and from Kansas, showed up with no school supplies, no books, and a lot of questions. He had just uprooted from his home state in January to move to Ohio to play and in four months, he went from thinking he’d just taken whatever writing requirement was available to becoming more comfortable articulating questions about women as well as his own personal restrictions re: clinical depression. Wonder of wonders, he was probably the most open-minded student I’ve had the pleasure of working with in a long time. It was a true delight watching him work through the texts I’d selected for them which became new again to me too, from The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui to Butler’s Parable of the Sower to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. They read Shange, Cisneros, and Gay, and DiAngelo, and Lorde, and Truth in that class. We watched Beyonce videos, talked about the reception of the Michelle Obama portrait, and the latest rash of celebrity creeps sparking protests.
The women in class, most of whom were already very savvy about a lot of the subject matter, answered his questions from the 20-something standpoint, even the most simplistic, with patience and compassion. When I spoke to him, it was like talking gently to a feral cat to let it know the outstretched hand meant no harm, but sometimes had to reset a splintered bone. By the end of the semester, he confessed that he’d been more reciprocal in communication and adding more emojis in his texts to women (for him, this was apparently a coup). He’d also interviewed his teammates only to find out they were just as lost as he. It reminds me of that scene in Anchorman where Ron Burgundy’s news team, behind a closed door, asked Ron what it was like to be in love.
One of the other challenges with that class has been when I have an ESL student show up, the language barrier can really get In the way of dissecting the contextual layers surrounding women’s narratives. The final project for that class was to create a video feminist manifesto based on what they each perceived as the greatest restrictions surrounding women’s voices. They would film and write the script and present it the last week of classes.
When my ESL student (from Saudia Arabia) came to my office to pitch ideas, it was clear that he didn’t really have an audience in mind which, of course, dictates your tone and aesthetic for papers and video manifestos a like. I was asking him question after question to see if there were women in his life that he felt could use more empowerment and we went through some generalized scenarios, but then, I caught the image of two baby girls as his desktop background on his laptop. “Whose precious babies are those?!” I exclaimed. He grinned and told me they were his daughters. I asked how old they were and when they were born and figured out the eldest was a Capricorn and probably just disappeared on him all the time and the youngest was an Aries and bossed him around all the time. When I correctly assessed their personality traits he sat straight up and his English improved by like 50% immediately and he told me how the older girl is so quiet sometimes he forgets she’s in the room and he basically does whatever the youngest points which was frustrating but also kind of tickled that she had that power over him at so young an age. After maybe ten minutes of me talking to him about his daughters, I said his manifesto wasn’t going to be like everyone else’s in class. He was my age and had kids—his priorities were different. “Your manifesto is going to be a letter to your daughters. With all the restrictions there are now on women and women’s voices, what kind of world do you want those precious little girls to grow up in? You are going to tell them in your letter.”
His face grew thoughtful and in one of those rare, priceless moments when a student is processing a concept that is new tread, he sat back and said, “Huh.” His video was one of the most compelling I’d ever seen from that assignment. He narrated the video himself to his girls about how he wanted them to grow up without restriction, and this was laid over top videos and pictures of he and his girls playing, and man. It was so, incredibly moving, and again, so, so gentle. I seriously had to fight the tears on that one on presentation day because I was invested at that point, lol.
Like a lot of women in the 21st century too aware that our independence is hard won and harder to keep, perhaps because of so much emphasis on what men are doing wrong, I sometimes forget about the radical moments where one by one, there are men out there who are learning that there is strength in surrender to the unknown. If it hadn’t been for these quiet moments of what to me may seem like low threshold entry risks, but in reality for them are YUUUGE, I would have missed it. Social change cannot begin without personal change—and in their case, it’s like watching the time lapse of a desert flower bloom after rain, like fingers launched away from a fist. A cupped palm, an upturned face, no longer attempting, at least artistically, to impose but to learn, be led, explore, accept, and receive.