Near my home, in the woods where I walk, there is a place along the trail marked by a large boulder. The boulder is taller than me and for a long time I had intended on climbing it. Finally, one day, after the first snowfall, I left the trail, approached the boulder for a closer look, and discovered that near it, and behind it, the deer and the rabbits had made a lesser path leading deeper into the woods. I immediately abandoned the boulder and followed the path instead, bowing my head and my body to pass beneath the lower branches, turning first one way and then the other to weave between the trees, climbing carefully over a fallen pine. The deer, as path makers, are far simpler than men. Their paths, as a result, are arguably less efficient. They are narrow and crooked, weaving wastefully and covering more ground than is necessary. They form slowly by gentle steps and their course is determined not by an ultimate destination, which may not exist at all, but by the spaces between the trees that present the least resistance. They meander over uneven ground, where roots and rocks lie hidden and where the next step must always be taken carefully.

It’s impossible to follow the path of a deer without remaining intimately aware of the forest through which you are walking. Trees reach out to grace your shoulders with their touch. The earth rises and falls beneath you. You are conscious of where your foot will fall, but only for your next step. To follow the path requires presence of mind. Ignoring this requirement can result in unexpected scrapes and twisted ankles. You might find yourself altogether lost.

I followed the path with a sense of wonder. The trees here were no different than those surrounding the broad ATV trail, from which I’d digressed. On that trail the forest truly is wonderful, but along the deer path I felt much closer to the trees. I was closer. I brushed by them and stooped beneath them. I felt I was somewhere outside of the touch of man. I felt a part of something wild.

Eventually, I reached what became my destination. Looking up from my careful steps I saw, between the trees, a much larger boulder than the one beside the trail. It reaches half the height of the trees surrounding it and is broad enough to span at least twenty strides. On one side, the boulder is quite steep, but at the place where I approached it, it rises gradually. With moderately careful steps, even with the ice and the snow, it can easily be summited.

That first day was mild, and at the top of the boulder, along its steeper edge, I removed my coat and spread it as best I could over the snow, and then lay there, staring up at the sky. This is medicine, more than anything else I know: to breathe next to the wild trees and be in stillness beneath a sky unmarked by progress. Lying there, I begin to plot how to disentangle myself even further. Lying there, I romanticize reclusion and isolation. Lying there, I feel at home.

I lay, carefully, within the edge of what I know, pressing without pressing into the invisible, amniotic wall that omits me from the place beyond it. The confines of life, tenuous and impermanent, hold me close, but I cannot deny that as much as I exist in this life, I remain unborn. The trees rise around me like so many manifestations of longing, and I, longing to be like them, lay, unborn, atop a rock, yearning to pass through that thin, unyielding membrane, and enter something more like home than this.

I am here. And though my heart longs for something beyond this place I suspect that all boundaries are, in truth, imagined. Which isn’t to say that they do not exist, but that they exist only in the realm of our perceptions. We cast them out from that place and project them onto our understanding of things because we are desperate to make sense of it all. But our perceptions cannot actually separate life from death, or ourselves from God, or our cities from the woods. They influence our experiences, but the truth remains untouched. The truth remains the truth whether we know it or not.

When I awoke, the forest was very still. The clouds had fallen from their higher places and seemed now suspended by the branches. I stood and looked around. I noticed how the sadness, which had led me into the woods in the first place, had lessened, but was still there. I descended, with some resignation, and still with the same gratitude I always feel toward the trees when I walk mindfully among them. There is something about them that alleviates woes. It may not lift them altogether but it does something to remind us of one of the most profound and beautiful miracles, which is simply this: we exist. Rather than there being nothing, there is something. And no matter how exhaustively we attempt to prove, or validate, or protect our existence, it ultimately just is.

Weeks later, I was driving along the highway, nearly home. On either side of me, were the woods. More immediately around me was the machine that carries me from place to place. And beneath me was a very even and straight, manmade path that cuts through the forest so profoundly that it’s possible, even necessary, to ignore the trees entirely. Again, I had to recognize that there was very little, if anything, that actually separates me from it all. We’ve narrowed our perceptions so severely that we often only see the paved road in front of us, and think only of the place it is designed to take us. But these are only our perceptions, and the truth pays little attention to our narrow views.

Moments later I saw a wolf approach the edge of the highway in front of me. I slowed immediately and immediately after passing him, the wolf crossed to the other side. I turned around and pulled onto the shoulder where I drove along side him as he trotted behind the thin veil of trees. I had never seen a wolf before. We watched each other move in tandem, his eyes alight, and his body graceful. He seemed both unthreatened and unthreatening, but I wondered if our encounter would have been the same in a place where boundaries, even manufactured or imagined ones, did not exist. Could we ever regard one another with mutual respect, or have I, with all my machines, and buildings, and vain pursuits, become too foreign to one who has remained so natural?

I wander among the trees when the night brings darkness between the branches and little can be seen of the distance between us. I wander along the edge of the woods, my hand tracing a gentle line along the boundary wall, which bars me from all that I do not know. I hear the wind move, and feel it joining the space between us. I remember to forget all that I have learned about where I end and all else begins. I remember that I belong to life and that my existence is beautiful.

– C


Without Conflict

I walked today, in the rain, and peered through the trees to lock my gaze with an apprehensive doe. I knelt for her in the wet earth and she stepped toward me, and then paused, and stepped again. She stepped through the grass between the oak and the piled anthills that littered the ground and I wanted only for her to know the calmness of my presence and my intention of peace. I wanted her to be at ease in the clearing between us. For several moments we remained like this, and the other doe, the one standing guardedly nearby, watched us both. I slowed my breath, and focused my awareness on my own inner stillness before seeking it also in her. She stepped toward me. And I must have turned only slightly where I knelt but it was enough that her own slow movement was apprehended and then ignited as she turned and leaped away, silently. Airplanes flew overhead and the steady drone of traffic passed behind me. The trees trembled and their leaves spilled water down my neck.


In the city I become a different person. I come here every week and every week I feel an inevitable shift as I drive along the highway and the traffic becomes dense and buildings appear with increasing frequency. The shift occurs in an instant or in a gradual pull that leads to an eventual release. Colin by the Lakeside becomes Colin the urbanite and something inside of me sinks low and goes to sleep in a moment that gives rise to restless responsibility, manic productivity, and the absence of stillness. Again, as in so many aspects of my life, I experience a polarity in my perception and become lost to the gravitational pull of a world in which I feel estranged from myself, and oddly compelled by things that I am told should motivate me, though in truth they do not.


When I lived here permanently I was apt to forget myself. After months in the city I would find a rare chance to leave and I would feel something awaken in myself that I had, until then, forgotten. It was then Colin the urbanite that would go to sleep and someone different, someone distantly familiar that would come to life. He would breathe in the air made fresh by the exhalation of trees. He would feel around him the energy of natural forms and forget those contorted by the hands of industry and progress. He would return to himself and wonder how he could have forgotten this true and holy sense of being.


I am disheartened to admit that among the few reasons I come to the city, the most pressing is the need to make money. There are the more valuable incentives of connecting with loved ones and occasionally taking necessary steps toward the actualization of brewing dreams, but these are things I could, with lesser convenience, do apart from this place. The truth is, if not for my need to earn money, I would come here only rarely. I know that for many the adherence to urban norms is not born of necessity. For some people it is a joy and a pleasure to spend life indoors amidst the amenities to which we have all become accustomed. For some the thought of a forest is an inhospitable milieu rife with discomfort, fear, and isolation that they would rather not entertain. And I will admit that the conveniences and the comforts of the city do continue to have pull on me. But even the most urban-bound citizen must take some pleasure in the form of a tree, the sound of a creek, or the smell of a meadow in the coolness of a summer’s night. Everyone must recall some moment in their life when nature called to something deep within their hearts.


I have been bound to the city for the past several days, sleeping in a basement surrounded by brick walls that fail to omit the sound of traffic steadily rolling by. My spirit sinks, and if I am not careful it continues to descend until it seems to escape my reach. How did I survive this feeling in the past? How did I endure this absent-minded noise? The answer is there. I feel it creeping in and my recollection of it induces fear in my heart. I have lived here before. I can survive this place – but at a cost. I must simply go to sleep. Let Colin the urbanite awake and perform as Colin of the Lakeside becomes silent and forgotten. Let them both admit their elements and submit to polarity and the nights will pass without effort and the days will disappear in time. Let the city define me, and the rest will fall away.


The clouds came in and the air became cool and the day was mine and the walls around me were made of brick, and I did not wish to be contained. My heart was not hardened and my spirit was not silent and I clung to both with love and desperation, believing that although my past experiences had often been defined in these moments by a resignation to the dullness that pressed against my mind, I need not be defined by it any longer. I listened to my spirit with a pliant will. I quieted the voice of fear. I obeyed my heart and heard the weighted door close behind me as I walked into the air made softly damp by a cool mist.  


We live in cities where once the meadows filled the spaces between the wooded dells. We covered the rivers with concrete passageways and filled the earth with veins of electric current and raw sewage. We built our homes and our factories and our retail outlet malls. We took over and said yes, we will dominate this place. We left the thought of wilderness behind and made comfort our primary goal. We were happy to be rid of the nuisance creatures, and the nuisance weather, and the arduous tasks our ancestors once endured. We created a place in which to prosper under the protection of our civility. We came into a new era.


We tried to leave discomfort behind, but what we could not leave behind was our sense of belonging. Nature was full of harshness and pain. But the urban myth did not negate our connection to the fields and the trees that lay beyond our borders. We longed for them and found solace, in rare moments of celestial perception, in the sky that moved slowly overhead. We remembered, in fleeting moments, the origins of our birth and were then drawn to come to life. We stepped out from our shelters, from their comfortable distractions, and pressed our soles to the earth. We wandered to the river’s bend were the city became invisible and surrounded ourselves with the patience of sedentary trees.


Lest I be caught in the shadow of my own idealism, I must remember: in this city, the trees outnumber the people ten to one. Pure wilderness may not surround me but there is a way to survive in this place without silencing my inner voice, which calls to the wild with a yearning I cannot ignore. I stepped out from behind brick walls, and the city was all around me, but in the air the rain was wild, and the trees were no less themselves than they would have been in any other place. I walked along the sidewalks and even rode a bus. I returned to the forest I had frequented in my youth, nestled quietly between subdivisions. I filled my mouth with berries and my hair grew damp in the rain and the sounds of the city were silenced in my mind and all that remained were the trees, and the furtive creatures, and the tall grasses. Colin the urbanite held his tongue and had no qualm as Colin by the Lakeside began to speak. There was no conflict.

– C



I was eight years old when I learned that I could run. Having recently changed schools I was not keeping up in class and had only a few friends. I spent many recesses inside staring in bewilderment at the incomplete homework on my desk, not knowing what I was supposed to do and wondering why all the other kids were so much better at it than I was. It seemed unfair. I nearly failed grade three and I wonder if the only reason I passed was so that my teacher could put an end to her own bewilderment. I felt isolated and unsatisfactory; a word that littered the pages of my report cards, and perpetuated my feelings of inferiority. I wondered why I wasn’t better.


Michael, one of my only friends, joined the running club that spring, and I didn’t want to be left out, so I also joined. He quit after the first week, but I soon discovered an aptitude for endurance that set me apart in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and in the following years I continued to run, becoming stronger and faster, until, by the time I was in high school, I was training with the best runners in the province. I became known by my peers for my ability to run, and to run better than anyone in our school, and better than most in the city. But after competing provincially, and later nationally, it became increasingly clear that mere potential was not enough. If I wanted to continue being better I would need to be more focused, more disciplined and more driven. I tried for a while, developing a strict regimen of training and diet, racing whenever I could, and devoting most of my attention to my development as a runner, until eventually, intimidated by my own expectations, and placated by a genuine understanding of the meaninglessness of these feats, I quit. I continued to run but abandoned any notions of athletic accomplishment as a path to personal betterment. I admitted to myself my deeper concerns and regarded the ways I felt more truly deficient. I began to question how I could become better not as an athlete, but as a person.


I met a friend this week and sat with him for a while. We talked of his life and mine, of the things that rest and move in our minds, and I was struck by the remembrance that there are better men than me. I do not know his faults to the extent that I know mine, but I see evidence of his virtue and am filled with admiration. He is a good man, and it breaks my heart at times to know how I have failed to be more like him and the other men I’ve come to admire. Already at the age of 29 I am often arrested by the fear that I should have been more genuine, more honorable, more aware, more considerate, and more upright. Already, I feel I have failed at so much. Already I believe I should have been better.


The sky reaches down to touch the shifting lake with innumerable kisses. Their ephemeral marks expand and collide and meld and disappear while all around them the fragile sheets of lingering ice begin to shatter. The crows call out in bleak regard and the lake patiently listens. I am blessed to watch the rain and to feel in its continual descent a secret and holy intention. With indiscriminate grace it falls to the water and, upon landing, unites ancient lovers with a delicate and repeated expression of belonging. The ripples cascade, and fade out. And the lake remembers herself.


We were loved as children for our innocence and our purity, and yet soon were taught by the world and those who loved us that innocence does not last. Our deficiencies were then revealed and we began the endless task of trying to be better. We sought better grades, more recognition, more achievements, and better friends. We silently compared our paper-bag lunches and our hand-me-down clothes. We looked in the mirror and discovered what we lacked. We learned we were too slow, or too weak, too stupid or too sad. And so we tried to be better. We grew up pursuing the better lover, the better job, the better worldview, the better body, the better home, the better life. We wanted to be better and we wanted do better and we wanted to have better, desperately hoping that accomplishing these things would render us no longer deficient. We played the ego’s game of worse and worst, best and better, and no matter how well we performed we never won, because we were only ever competing against ourselves.


We came into this world beautiful and innocent, untainted by our inevitable failures, and our undiscovered flaws. We looked around and saw our mothers and our fathers, our sisters and our brothers. We saw our own hands, and the wicker of our cribs. We felt the textures of our blankets, and our toys. Everyone and everything appeared before us as extensions of ourselves. Nothing existed beyond our scope. We believed ourselves to be the universe. We believed ourselves to be whole and sufficient. We believed these things with a deep and unconscious knowing that was unobstructed by fear. And then, we began to learn. We began to understand that there are others, and that we are not the universe, and that we are not sufficient, and that we do fail to satisfy. We began to understand our need to be better, and not just better than ourselves, but better than the people around us. Because love, we learned, is a finite resource, and only the most deserving will find it.


What is the better I have been hoping to find? I look beyond myself and see only the illusion of better. I reach to it and it turns to dust in my hands and though it crumbles I still endeavor to cover myself with it in ever thickening layers, so deluded am I to think it will ever make me better. Again and again, I repeat this gesture. Again and again, I succeed only in further concealing my truer self. What is better if not a fantasy by which to escape our reality? When we enter a relationship believing that it will make us better, we enter a delusion and a fantasy that quickly fails. We discover that that person does not make us better, and in fact often only illuminates our failures. We might begin to resent them for failing us. We might begin to wonder if there was someone better, someone capable of making us better. We leave one relationship for another. We leave one job for another. We leave our entire lives for a fantasy of what another life could be. And to this new life, to this fantasy, we carry our same deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and plant them again in new soil, and are surprised and discouraged when they once again rise up to disappoint us.


Our lives are real, but the fantasies we create for our imagined betterment will never be. Our frail attempts at escape lead us only into newer and more blinding delusions, while the reality of our lives, and our beauty, and our inherent value become more and more concealed, but no less intact. Beneath every frail attempt at becoming better, no matter how many attempts we make, and no matter how many layers of dust we apply to ourselves, there will always remain the calm, though often forgotten, awareness that there is no such thing as better, that as we began, so are we now, and so will we always be; sufficient in our existence and entirely free of the hollow risk of becoming less than perfect. When we remember the moments in our lives when better was a meaningless word – moments of genuine love and acceptance, moments when we felt the true connectedness lying latent between us all – we remember our original state. We remember our universality. It’s only when we are conscious of this original state that we can come to understand our dreams, which, unlike our fantasies, do not separate us from reality, but return us to our truest reality, one defined by love and one free of the fear that has so often compelled us to make our vain attempts at becoming better than those around us. When we come to understand that love is not a finite resource to be competed for, but an endless truth from which any separation is mere delusion, we can then rest in our original state, knowing that we never left.  


I ran through the woods, between the aspen and the oak. I felt the wind around my body, heard the leaves dance, and watched the dappled light shift in quickening withdrawal as it escaped the repeated fall of my feet. I was alone and better than none, and no better than I had ever been before. A deer came beside me and time slowed. I could have reached out and placed my hand upon her back. For fewer than three strides we ran together, neither of us better, neither of us different even. We had returned to something, for a moment at least, suspended in our deeper recognition of one another before we could even realize what was happening. And then she became aware, or I became aware, and she, sensing my awareness, became startled and veered, and disappeared, as I kept running.


– C

The Feminity that Bore Us


He hired me to clear half an acre of his land where he wanted to later build a greenhouse for his wife. It was May and it rained most days. The earth was wet and the thin stalks of dogwood glistened at the bases of the trees. He led me to his garage, pulled down a chainsaw, and promptly began to instruct me on its use, first directing me to the alternating blades, which he taught me to sharpen one by one with a round file, then showing me how to properly oil and fuel the motor. He lent me a pair of steel-toed boots, a pair of Kevlar chaps, a helmet with a visor, and a pair of earmuffs. He took me to the woods and taught me the proper angles and the depths and the heights at which to press the roaring blade into the trees. He named the largest, one by one, distinguishing those he would harvest for firewood from those he would have me discard in a brush pile one hundred meters away. He taught me to see where the tree wanted to fall, and how to then manipulate its path to my liking. He taught me how to anticipate a pinched blade or a kickback, and how to avoid both. He taught me what he thought I needed to know and then he left me to my work.


I’ve always admired trees. I’m fond of them. It’s not unusual for me to press my hand against them as I pass by, or to climb into one and find a comfortable branch where I can sit for awhile. They become instantly familiar and by them I recall many I have known before, those I used to often climb, like the mango tree on the side of a thickly forested hill whose branches were the highways of leaf-cutter ants that would charge me angrily but assert no real threat, or the maple in the front yard when I was still a child whose tears tasted so sweet that I would scrape my tongue on its branches, believing I had discovered something magical. I’ve sat in the presence of trees that have known a thousand years or more, their bodies ascending from valley floors, reaching above waterfalls, dwarfed only by mountains. I’ve tried to imagine the passage of time from their singular perspective. I’ve tried to imagine how many of their kin have fallen around them, by our father’s hands, their bodies given for our survival, or taken for our comfort, or our pleasure, or our power.


That May, I spent a week plotting and executing the slow descent of a small forest, systematically disassembling its delicate composition, and hauling its corpses away to an unmarked grave. Trees far older than me, and far larger and stronger, fell at my will. I partitioned their bodies into manageable lengths and placed them on alternate shoulders. I felt the weight of them upon me. I felt masculine. It rained most days and my body ached, and this too felt masculine. I worked until I was exhausted, until the weight of fallen limbs bore down upon my strength, and this too felt masculine. I cut them down, young and old, until all that remained were the stumps, standing still, like gravestones to be later removed, and this too felt masculine. In the night, I dreamed the trees were angry with me. And in the morning, as I continued to cut them down, I felt both powerful and sad.


I’ve been compelled by nature all my life. Its beauty pulls at my heart. A deer passes beneath the apple tree. I see its grace and am drawn to place my hand on its shoulder. I see the hawks, still as sentries, perched in the trees and I’m drawn to know the softness of their feathers. Even the trees draw me to them, and I wonder, as I have always wondered, how to respond. For the times in my life when such compulsions felt too pastoral to entertain, I have looked cynically upon myself with the thought that although its beauty calls to me, my attraction to nature is not qualified by a sense of belonging. Beauty dwells in every unborn leaf. It emanates from the melting ice upon the lake. It moves with the deer’s every step. It is in the slow breath of trees and in the soil awakening beneath me. And I, a man, remain apart.


I was once a boy, tearing a branch needlessly from a tree. I saw its flesh, smelled the freshness of its fluids, felt at once a sense of wonder and a tinge of remorse knowing I had wounded something beautiful and innocent. And on the sidewalk, with a piece of convex glass, I held the sun against an insect in a focused beam, watched its body swell, smelt its skin burn, and felt a tyrant and a thief. And in summer’s evening light, I watched a plague of frogs rush across the gravel of a church parking lot, their tender bellies thick with coarse, dusty grit, their legs splaying with every wild leap, as they desperately fled the onslaught of emerging believers. I felt my own guilt swell as their eyes bulged and their voices burst beneath the laughter of another boy’s stomping feet – with whom I shared at least one thing in common, though the sickness in my stomach compelled me to believe that, in some ways at least, I was not like him.


The supposed nature of boys is one of aggression, dominance, and assertion. We are taught the value of competition, of skill, and of power, while tenderness and sensitivity are deemed negations from our true nature. Repressing and starving these parts of ourselves, we suffer an inability to respond with gentleness even when beauty pulls tenderly at us. And so, to the wonder of tiny creatures we respond with tyranny, and to the simple beauty of a tree we respond with destruction. But behind every display of cruelty, there must have been some confused desire to connect, to receive rather than destroy, to admire rather than take, to love rather than kill. Beneath the desire to prove our masculinity, there must have existed, within each of us, the fading memory of the femininity that bore us.


Compelled by the beauty of a tree, or by the wonder of the intricate lives of tiny creatures, we experience an innate desire to respond. And we are told that this response, even as young boys, should be inarguably masculine. But what is the masculine response to beauty? I watch the deer cross my yard and it compels me. As a man, I am taught that if something compels me, I must act, I must dominate, I must possess. Perhaps, as a man, I should pull a rifle down from above the mantel, and with one clean shot, bring the the deer to his knees, where, in his grace and his beauty, his body can bleed out, and his bowels can empty, and I can know, with certainty, that amidst all this beauty, I have a role, that I am not separate from it. Beauty calls, and I want to answer, but what do I say?


Born of a deep misunderstanding of beauty, our insecurity as men compels us to dominance, assertion, and a will to possess. Afraid that we do not belong to beauty, or that belonging to it would negate our masculinity, we take control, and in doing so invert beauty’s role in our lives. But beauty does not exist as a thing to be taken and possessed, and yet held distinctly separate from us. The masculine response to beauty is not to dominate, but to submit, to be held, to know that our own connection to beauty, which we have known since birth, is not a thing to be buried, or abandoned, or even diminished, but something to be embraced, with familiarity and without fear.


On the sixth day, when nearly all the trees had fallen and the sky was vacant and grey, and my body was tired and warm from exertion, I cut down the last of the birch. I sighted its descent carefully, started the motor of the chainsaw and removed the initial notch from the North side of the tree then came to the other side to make the final cut. The blades moved cleanly through its base and when it began to fall I calmly moved away. I felt the air move and the ground pulse as its body lay down amongst the scattered stumps. I regarded its tremendous form, no less impressive now supine than when it had stood above me. When I turned to examine the cuts I had made my heart immediately sank even as my curiosity peaked. In its stump I saw the trembling womb of an entire colony of hibernating ants. And they were beautiful, and they were doomed, and I felt masculine, and conflicted, and sad.

– C

As the Deer


The deer have begun to move more frequently through the backyard. After the coldest winter in 64 years, these docile and nervous beasts still have the will to break trail and the strength to bound through four feet of snow. The temperature this year has often dropped below -40 and the wind has gusted persistently from the north, and they, having eaten only pine needles and tree bark, somehow survived. At night, when the wind off the lake is not too strong, they burrow deep in the snow beneath the apple tree and rest against one another through the night and I wonder if it is a peaceful rest or one wrought with fear. At least here, close to the cabin and far from the wilder woods, the wolves are not likely to find them so vulnerable. At least here they experience some semblance of safety. I watch the deer, knowing they are aware of me, and I wonder what it is that they’ve come to teach me. Perseverance? Gentleness? Caution?


I’ve always wanted to be a good man. Most people in my life would say that I am. Like the deer, I have sought to live a life of gentleness and humility. I’ve done my best to persevere through hardships and remain cautious as I move forward through the seasons of my life. I’ve always wanted to be a good man, but often I have acted from the fear that I am not. I’ve found myself caught in a belief system defined by duality, one that demands perfection in one hand and condemns me irrevocably in the other. And so I have tried all my life to be virtuous and I have condemned myself when I have failed. I know that the deer are not plagued by these notions of morality the way that I am. They have only their nature to guide them. But we, as humans, exist in a context defined less and less by nature, and more and more by our constructions. Were I to measure my goodness in the context of nature, I would come up with nothing and have to wonder if it was a senseless question. Even here where I live, beside the lake, surrounded by the woods, I feel that I don’t belong, that my place within nature has been abandoned and I have instead taken a position of dominance over nature. The deer exist within nature. I watch them from the window, but I am not a part of their world. I have isolated myself from it. But I also long for it, and in the presence of the deer, or the crows, or even the trees, I feel I’m receiving a gift.


In the forgotten context of nature, I might have known what it meant to be a good man, or I might have come to realize that in nature there is no good or bad, only reality. Instead, I exist primarily in the context of a society full of conflicting voices and I must sift through them and discern what I can believe in as truth. From these conflicting voices I attempt to determine what it means to be good and then live according to these determinations. I have failed utterly again and again, but my ultimate intent has been to be virtuous, and I can only hope that this means something, or come to recognize that it doesn’t. In which case I might see that I am already virtuous by right of birth, innately and irrevocably. I might see that life itself is a virtue.


The deer, quietly wandering through the yard, speak to me with a gentle, passive voice. Their lessons are given like the breath of trees, freely and without condition. How I experience society’s voice is often quite different. There’s nothing quiet or passive about the abruptness with which it takes me by the ears, locks eyes with me, and demands my full attention. Maybe I experience this contrast more starkly now that I spend half of my time removed from it, now watching the deer, now the trees, now the lake. With a voice far stronger than nature in volume, language, and insistence society peddles its wares on every corner, indoctrinating me in its systems of success, teaching me the value and the quality of my masculinity, promising me a means by which to prove my value as a human being. Less concerned with goodness, it dismisses my convictions, disregards my dreams, and dissuades me from nurturing the parts of me that I value most. It speaks with authority and subsumes me with ideas of which I am often too oblivious to question. It’s hard to understand its motives, but its purpose is proven in the resulting myriad of individuals pulled along by its rhetoric, among whom I often wander, in a daze, wondering what I really want from life and if it’s possible to find it. And the deer continue to move through the yard. And their voice continues to softly speak. And I know that to them, I am a man inherently, while to the rest of the world my masculinity is a nebulous thing that I must somehow prove and quantify.


Had I been raised in any of a number of alternate cultures I would have by now gone through a rite of passage that would have defined me as a man. I would have hunted and killed a lion using only a spear. I would have gone into the woods alone without food or water in search of a vision for my life. I would have been sent away from my family to live with an elder in seclusion. Had I experienced a rite of passage like these or any other, I may have then known that I was a man. But even that would not have been enough. The question quietly whispering in the back of my mind is one propelled by a deeper desire for purpose. Beyond performing a physical feat of strength and bravery, or enduring hardship and isolation, beyond earning a salary, or fathering a child, I want to know it means to be a man – and a good one.


My father asked me one summer evening if I would join him for a walk after dinner. I was twelve at the time, and though I was often aloof with my father I still had a strong desire to connect with him. I put on my shoes and waited for him outside. He joined me and we walked in silence for several minutes until, at the end of our street, he turned to me and asked me something unexpected. “Do you have any questions about sex?” My knee-jerk response was a quick and dismissive, “no.” I hoped that that would end it. The last thing I wanted was to have an open and honest conversation with my father about the most uncomfortable thing I could imagine. Luckily, my response was enough. He said nothing more. And that was my experience of the dreaded “sex talk.” I don’t know what else we talked about that evening but I had the sense that my father was as relieved as I was to leave the subject behind. In the wake of his silence and mine, the voice of society spoke up. In the coming years I began my education under the instruction of friends who knew no more than I did, stories told in movies and television, over-sexualized images in advertisements, and eventually pornography. These became the voices that demanded my attention. These were the voices that told me with the greatest conviction what it means to be a man.


Under the onus of this culturally defined breed of masculinity it’s no wonder that so many of us are bending like blades of grass in the wind. We ascribe at conscious and subconscious levels to the belief that our value as men is intrinsic to our financial status, our accumulation of power, our establishment of a legacy, and our sexual prowess. To attain these things, we agree to give up our deepest dreams, repress our deepest emotions, and dismiss our deepest beliefs. We do this not because it’s what we really want but because we are told it is what we want. We do this because Society’s silver-tongue offers a louder, simpler, and more alluring vision of masculinity than anyone else. We listen and follow, at times overtly, at times with resistance, at times with lies, at times in secret, at times with the blessing of those around us. We listen and we follow, but it leads us nowhere.


If we were to pause for just a moment, and see with honesty what we really want from life, if we were to regard those around us and see how clearly our true desires mirror theirs, these constructed ideas of masculinity could dissolve, or at least become less convincing. The untruth of them could become obvious and we could realize that although they have entangled us they are, and always have been, mere fabrications. We’re held in tow by an imaginary rope. When we realize this, maybe then we can know how free we’ve always been. Maybe then we can find an answer to the question of masculinity. I don’t pretend to be clear enough in my own heart and mind to discern with perfect consistency my true sense of purpose in this life. I don’t expect I ever will be. But it is my intention to quiet the blaring voice of society, or at least to see past its deception. It is my intention to listen instead to my own inner voice, and to the men and women in my life who are concerned with experiencing life in a truthful way. I want to know not what it has meant to be a man, but what it can mean. I want to experience something good, and unexpected. I want to experience something absolutely real.


The lake outside my home is still frozen and the deer continue to move through the trees chewing on twigs as their stores of fat slowly dwindle. They have endured the coldest months of the winter and it is incredible, but this perseverance is not enough to keep them alive forever. If the winter does not end, they will die. Despite all of their faculties for survival they still need the spring. As do I. As do we all.

– C