Report: Michael Meade: Master Drummer, Mythologist and Storyteller

By Alan A Mooney

I attended a workshop for men in April this year. This was not the first time I have attended such days and weekends. The thought of spending time like this with men appeals to something very basic in me and it is difficult to define. Sometimes I seem to be very subdued by the presence of men and at others I seem to be freed to express myself in a way that feels unique. At other limes it has felt frightening for me to be in the company of men who might reject me. I have even felt bored and disillusioned because some vague and unclear expectations of mine have remained unmet.

On April 27″‘ I was glad to go to another workshop led by Michael Meade at Marino Institute. I suppose there were about sixty men there, some of whom I had met before. It was satisfying to see some familiar faces and to remember the stories they had told about themselves previously. It gave me a sense of ‘distant intimacy’.

Michael Meade has been working with men in workshops and conferences for men throughout North America, England and Ireland for over a decade. He says,’men’s work’, began for him when Robert Bly (the author of Iron John) invited him to teach hand drumming and mythology at a workshop in the beginning of 1981. He says he was surprised to find that men were willing to experiment in the practice of myth, music, emotional expression and ritual forms. In his own words he sensed that ‘a path had been opened up that led from the present to the age-old grounds of the masculine psyche.’

From Meade’s point of view, mythical stories are always simple and unadorned. This has nothing to do with oral tradition but rather that the story has a purpose and that purpose is to allow the listener to engage with the story by bringing his life experi­ence to react to the events of the story. In this way mythical stories are individually unique because every man who hears them hears them with his own slant and bias and fear and prejudice and hope. It is because of this particular quality that the story provides the framework for men to explore their experience and even to argue over interpretations of the meaning of the story. Such arguments and differences of inter­pretation allow men to connect with their own process and to interact with each other safely, gradually leading to a willingness to expose themselves in more per­sonal ways to each other as trust accumulates.

Mythical stories are as much about re-discovery of deep and ancient awareness of simple and pervasive truths as they are about stimulating immediate ‘here and now’ reactions to them. Meeting the story with one’s own experience and interpretation of the world is very much a consciousness raising event because the story provides categories of understanding and a framework that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. Because of this one is brought to a place where the territory must be negotiated with a new map that has some familiar symbols and some strange directions.

Meade often uses tribal stories from cultures different from our own though he also highlights the stories of the Celtic tradition as equally mythical and initiatory. My own reaction is to be drawn more to the strange and unfamiliar rather than to the vaguely familiar Irish/Celtic myths. I think this is because my attitude to our own heritage of stories is to see them as stories, complete in themselves and not to give them the same power or validity as the foreign and strange. This may echo why we tend to look to the East or the Native American for our mystical and ritual re-dis­covery of the spiritual in ourselves.

During the course of the ‘conference’ in April, Meade used two stories during the day. I will focus on one of them to illustrate the way he uses story and perhaps to give the reader a flavour of ‘bringing your own life up to meet the story’

Michael told the assembled men that this tale came originally from Borneo and that it was formerly used as an initiation story for young boys making the ritual transition from childhood to adult responsibility. It is the story of the ‘half-boy’ and it goes like this…

Once upon a time, it may be this time or that time or another time but some time…

The idea of speaking about time like this is to illustrate the timelessness of the inci­dent and the idea that it appeals to whatever is important in time to the listener.

…there was a boy child born in the village who was only half a child, half a head, half a chest, one arm, one leg. In the beginning there was great sympathy for him and his parents and everyone in the village did all they could lo help and to make life easier for him. He was carried around from place to place, people helped him to dress, others helped to feed him and to help him with all the things that had lo be done.

As he grew older he became more and more distressed and cried and moaned so much that the other villagers began not to hear him any more. He was left alone and forced to do things for himself, some things he could not do and that made him cry and wail even more.

Really listening to the story so far means that you are beginning to create images within your own mind, drawing on your own experience to fill in gaps in the story as it is told. Really listening to the story means you are beginning to bring your own reactions and emotional response to the tale. How cruel for him to be left to fend for himself!   Maybe he should have been put out of his misery! He should accept his situation and make the best of it without whining all the time! etc..

Eventually, the boy decided he must leave the village and go away. As he dragged himself along the dust out of the village no one stopped him to ask where he was going, no one asked if they could help and no one even seemed to care what he was doing.

After much arduous dragging and resting and more dragging he eventually came to a river which he would have to cross. As be lay there, half aware of what was going on and half-dead from his efforts he noticed another half boy struggling towards him down the river bank…

So now, what’s going to happen? Again the listener fills in the gaps from their own image of what is occurring and makes provisional conclusions. This story is not told in one chunk but is broken up to give time for listeners to colour their picture of the story and to reflect on their reactions to the plight of the half-boy. The reactions of the listeners are important for they reflect their own internal psycho-emotional process.

Suddenly both half boys meet and they engage in a violent struggle. During the struggle they notice they are the mirror of each other. One is all left side and the other is all right side. In the struggle they are destroying each other and are so preoccupied with their fight that they fall into the river which immediately begins to boil up in waves of foam and agitation. After a while the river becomes calm and peaceful again and the two half boys are gone…

What has happened? Are they destroyed? Why did the river boil up like that? What does the return to calm mean? Listeners to the story may have many other ques­tions flashing around in their heads or they might not. They might simply be bored or unwilling to engage with the story. All are valid choices and all say something about the listeners.

Suddenly, in time, a long time, a short time, the river begins to boil again and out of the depths the two half-boys are flung onto the river bank where it is now clear that they are no longer two half-boys but have become fused together and look quite whole. There is a left arm and a right arm and a left leg and a right leg. In fact everything seems to be properly in place. The new boy tries to stand and stumbles, tries again and manages it but very awkwardly. Co-ordinating the new wholeness is not easy and seems to require as much struggle as getting around did when both were half-boys. Eventually he manages to move more easily and to begin the journey back, to the village which takes ages and no time at all. As he arrives at the gates of the village he meets an elder of the village who says he has been waiting for him and welcomes him to the village. When they go inside a great feast is prepared and there is much dancing and drumming and fun. Everyone rejoiced, I know because I was there and I brought away with me a magnificent mango salad to share with you, however on the way borne a large black dog decided to sample my salad and it was spoiled….

The reader and the listener may speculate upon the meaning of the outcome of the story and indeed that is the purpose of it from the beginning to engage you deeply or minimally but to engage you in such a way that you have an opinion. Your opin­ion teaches you something about yourself and you can choose to ignore it or not.

The ending about the mango salad is a way of ‘breaking’ the story and bringing the listener back to ‘this time’. It is also a way of making sure the story is not ‘kept’ here but is available to others for ever. It is never finished or owned.

Reading this account cannot hope to capture the full flavour of being in a group of people (men in this instance, however the idea of using story in this way is not unique to men’s groups, it is obviously a way for any group male, female or mixed to engage with themselves) listening, reacting to and offering suggestions about what is happening at the different stages of the story. Nor does it capture the feeling of the story being told to the sound of a hypnotic drum beat.

Suffice it to say that for most men present, the level of personal involvement grew with the tension of the tale and aspects of their lives came to consciousness to be echoed by others in such a way that some men present on this particular workshop began to see they were not alone in their fears and concerns. Other men may have been frightened by their reaction to the tale so that for now they need to stay safe­ly within the edifice of their own security. It is no accident that the average age of men at this and other similar workshops is 40 something because the reality for most men at this stage of life is that they are looking for some understanding of where they have come from and some new meaning to take them into the next 40 years. Much more could be written about the reasons why it is important for men to look for something like this kind of conference; suffice it to say that they keep turning up.

When Michael Meade returns to Ireland again to tell another story I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll even tell a story myself.