September 21, 2017
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These Maine men gather to challenge cultural norms, consider their role in society

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Courtesy of Bob O'Connor | BDN
Courtesy of Bob O'Connor | BDN
Maine Coast Men, a group aimed at building camaraderie, conversation and relationships among men, will hold its yearly spring retreat this coming weekend, May 5-7, at Camp Tanglewood in Lincolnville. Late registrations are open at $100 and men who have not registered may come on Saturday for $30. Teens over 13 are welcome to attend if accompanied by an adult. This photo was taken at the group's fall gathering in 2014.

The weekend forecast is calling for cool temperatures and rain, but that won’t keep a group of about 30 midcoast men from gathering at Tanglewood Camp in Lincolnville for a few days of warm camaraderie, conversation and relationship-building.

Maine Coast Men, now in its 25th year, was established in 1993 to meet a growing trend in challenging conventional norms regarding men’s social and cultural roles. Many associate the men’s movement with the work of poet, author and activist Robert Bly, according to Maine Coast Men member Charlie Crane. Crane is relatively new to Maine but was active in men’s groups in California and New Mexico for many years before moving to the town of Hope about three years ago.

“Bly talked about how men had gotten lost with the development of the women’s movement in the 1960s,” Crane, 67, explained. “There was a sense that men had not kept up, that they were stuck as teenagers and not moving into responsible manhood.”

Many cultures, Crane said, have adopted male initiation rites that mark the transition to adulthood, that fix in place values such as taking responsibility for one’s actions, the respectful treatment of women, the deliberate passing on of knowledge and other ideals.

“But we have stopped doing that as a culture,” he said.

The men’s movement acknowledges the complex and changing role of men in a changing society and the deep need for thoughtful male companionship, modeling and mentoring throughout life.

“The worst thing I can imagine is a bunch of guys sitting around in a bar talking about sports or women as objects,” Crane said. He needs more than that from his male friendships. He needs the chance to talk about stuff like handling frustration in the workplace, being emotionally accountable in his relationships and what might be waiting after life ends.

He’ll get that opportunity and others at this weekend’s Maine Coast Men retreat in Lincolnville. The group meets twice a year, in the spring and fall. This is its 54th meeting. The fee for the weekend retreat is $100.

The chemical-free program gets started Friday night, May 5, with a vegetarian potluck supper and a fireside “opening circle” for introductions and the brief sharing of personal issues that people hope to discuss more deeply over the weekend. The opening circle frequently includes ritual and pageantry, according to the program bulletin.

“You can bring anything to the opening circle,” MCM board member Bob O’Connor, 66, of China, said. A few years back, he came to the retreat needing to air his sadness at having recently lost his parents and ended up leading a workshop the next day on grief.

“People come needing to talk about their relationships with their partners, work issues, health problems — any kind of life transition,” he said. That introduction helps determine the flow of the next day’s workshops and other activities, with some structured groups convening to discuss specific themes, such as spiritual expression, sexuality, financial pressures or the loss of a loved one, while others adlib activities such as drumming, cooking, playing music or fire-building.

“It’s kind of free-form,” O’Connor said. “People have done napping workshops.”

Saturday, May 6, is open to unregistered, drop-in attendees, including adult men with male teens 13 and older for a game of bocce, pitching in to prepare the evening meal, more fire-tending and an evening variety show.

“It’s a chance to try stuff out, get up on stage and tell a joke or practice your karaoke,” O’Connor said. Not only is the audience friendly and supportive, he said, but photos are not allowed during the weekend without the express permission of the subjects, so attendees can feel confident their creative efforts won’t go viral. The Saturday-only cost is $30.

This year features a new activity: an auction to raise funds for the organization. Each participant is asked to donate an item with a value of about $10 and an associated personal story or life lesson that makes it meaningful to the donor. The items will be auctioned off at the end of the weekend, when all the stories have been shared.

Sunday features a closing circle for reviewing progress on personal issues as well as a group photo for those who choose to be in it. An all-hands group cleanup ensures everyone gets on the road home by early afternoon.

At 47, Tom Beal of Ellsworth is one of the younger members of Maine Coast Men, but he’s been active in the men’s movement since he was in his early 20s. “I didn’t feel like I had gotten enough input from the men in my life about how to be a man in the world,” he said. “I clearly recognized the pervasive messages from the media and from my peers about men being aggressive, hiding their emotions and not being considerate of others.”

That wasn’t the kind of man he aspired to be.

“I wanted a broader understanding of what friendship is and the intimacy of being able to share my thoughts and feelings,” he said. Though he is happily married, he said, “No one person can meet all my relationship needs. I need acquaintances, companions and friends.” That’s what he finds, not only at Maine Coast Men but also in the local monthly men’s group he participates in.

In the safe and confidential environment, topics like healthy parenting, childhood traumas and male stereotyping can be discussed openly. “I can express myself however I need to, and I don’t feel that I’m being judged,” Beal said.

Maine Coast Men is actively seeking younger members. The average member is mid-50s “and getting older,” according to board member Bob O’Connor.

Activities such as ropes courses and other outdoor group challenges have proven popular with younger men, he said, as has using technology such as pre-recorded TED talks to jump-start conversation, though the group generally unplugs from computers, phones and other devices for the weekend.

The men’s movement was more popular a couple of decades ago, O’Connor said, but it’s still important now.

“We’re trying hard to keep this relevant to younger members,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff we can learn from them.”

Maine Coast Men will host its fall retreat at Camp Tanglewood in October.

 


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