This chapter cobbles together bits and pieces about gatherings.
Commentary and recollections
In his recollections of the early days Tony Verner wrote in 1999:
The early men’s gatherings were all about breaking taboos, of finding new ways of being fulfilled, of not being isolated, of gaining strength from others, and not being fettered by “group think”. … The new learnings we made together came out of our own combined knowledge, wisdom and compassion. The emphasis has been on experiential learning not traditional ‘chalk and talk’, nor ‘me-up/you-down’ modes of presentation.
One of the main things that stands out about these men’s gatherings, was the amazing diversity of the men taking part. This continues to be its strength. There are people focussed on individual self-growth, there are those driven by the need to make broad social and political changes for a better quality of life for us all, there are bikers, hippies, yuppies, mid-aged WASPS trying to piece their life together following divorce, happily-marrieds looking for new models to be better lovers and fathers, as well as gays, priests, ex-priests, Buddhists and young firebrands. It’s all very challenging, exciting and enriching.
Tom Laffan has reflected:
An interesting aspect of the local men’s movement was that gay men were attracted to it as they were given a voice, acknowledgement and respect in an era where there had been societal stigma.
Referring to the 1993 Queensland Men’s Festival Ross Buckley, in 2017, commented:
None of us would have thought that twenty-five years later those early festivals we were involved in would still be going. Yet this must establish that they have been delivering very real benefits to a lot of men over a long period of time.
Over the years many different aspects of the gatherings have evolved and become common usage for the gatherings as well for the Mens Wellbeing organisation.
This document first surfaced in May 1997 to provide some points to consider for the planning of future men’s festivals. It was based on the collective experience of men involved in the organisation of men’s festivals and similar events mainly in SE Queensland over the preceding 4-5 years. In the early years the issues for consideration included: venue, food, date (avoiding possible clashes), kids, costs (allowing for a break even plus), bank account, database, brochures, administration, promotion, discounts, transport, book display, insurance and more. In effect it was obviate the need for each new Organising Committee to reinvent the wheel.
Over the years the manual has grown in sophistication to be a more formidable tome of some 40+ pages providing valuable assistance to each new group of organisers. While a format has developed for each of the Manshine and Manhood gatherings there is a good deal of freedom and flexibility for each Organising Committee to add their own creative input.
Food & Catering at Gatherings
Food to nourish the body and spirit of participants, while being a part of gathering activities, became an important aspect of these events over the years. Early on the gathering organisers sought out their own caterers each time with varying results.
At the Mt Glorious Man Alive Gathering in February 1998 (an extra event) the cook offered baked beans on white bread for supper, much to the dismay of some. Peter Rohan (then Men’s Help Line President) commented that good catering became a priority after this experience.
At the 1999 Queensland Men’s Festival (Camp Bornhoffen) one of the kitchen staff was female. Rudran Brannock felt prompted to put out a call for expressions of interest for catering from within the collective. Three men, James Baird, Philip Newton and Paul Cooper formed an alliance to provide the first in-house catering team for, then, Men’s Health and Wellbeing Association (Qld) events. Their first foray was at Manshine 2000 (Ewen Maddock Dam). When Paul moved on after three years Johnny Weston joined the team. Philip died in 2007 leaving James and Johnny to carry on – for years to come.
The team negotiated a fee with the MHWA(Q) Executive Committee for provision of a certain quality and standard for meals for gathering participants. As the years have passed the quality and range of food has been nurturing, satisfying and impressive.
Over the years they found “damaged souls” to help in the kitchen. Often these helpers would go off to a workshop, come back full of enthusiasm for what they had experienced resulting in a re-run of the workshop topic with the other kitchen staff.
When James invited his 12yo son Alex to into the kitchen one year there was interest from other men in having their sons join the kitchen crew. The Pathways to Manhood camps (conducted by Pathways Foundation) also led to invitations to graduates to participate in the kitchen. Currently some 70-80% of the young kitchen crew are graduates from the Journey to Manhood (J2M) camps (conducted by Powerhouse Programs) – generally aged 13-16. Participation of the young men in the kitchen has involved guidance, mentorship, teamwork, service, leadership, planning, preparation, self-reliance and personal growth. In fact, the kitchen “village” helps to raise the young men. This is a great source of satisfaction to the kitchen organisers.
Within the kitchen there is an attitude of service from the crew as they have their unique experience of a gathering through food preparation for three quality meals each day. Of course, they create their own sense of fun and camaraderie over the weekend.
At each gathering, these days, the kitchen organisers gifted a knife and cutting board to each new young kitchen worker. A number of these young men have gone on to work in the hospitality and catering industries.
Over the years, James Baird has gained a reputation for his generosity of spirit, commitment to food, the Mens Wellbeing community and to his guidance and mentoring in the kitchen. At Manshine 2021 he relinquished his role in the kitchen for the major gatherings, after some 21 years of catering service to the Mens Wellbeing community.
In the spirit of the gathering theme of Regenerate there was a sense of Regeneration in the kitchen when a newly qualified chef, Zoroah, a graduate of J2M, put up his hand to carry on the tradition set by James
What is a tradition? A tradition could be seen as the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction. Each tradition may have a symbolic meaning or special significance for those involved.
Founding-father Trevor Ozanne notes that over three decades it is possible to point to numerous ‘ways of operating’ which have become established as parts of our men’s gatherings and activities. He is keen to acknowledge those traditions that have developed.
If you have something to announce – hand in the air
At the very first BMF at Mt Glorious in 1992 Gary Schliemann, from The Channon, pointed out at the first meal that if a man wished to address the whole group, instead of a shrill “can I have your attention?” request, there was a SMF tradition that proved much simpler and more effective. This was to simply stand, put one hand in the air, and wait for silence. For every man who had witnessed this process in the past, they would stop talking, and also put his hand in the air. Within 12-15 seconds the entire group has gone quiet – and most have their hand in the air. (Men who are new to this ritual catch on really quickly).
This has proved to be such an effective technique for gaining attention and the ‘new men’ are often bowled quite over by the process.
Ho – this is all I have to say
As a man ends his statement/address to the group, his use of the term “ho” is effectively his means to indicate that “this is all I have to say”. As used in gatherings/activities these days, it has no more meaning than this – and is usually followed by a group “ho” (effectively saying “you have been heard”).
Welcome to new men
Quite a few men have strong memories of their first gathering. For those who have arrived with a mate it may have been a bit of a trial, but it’s the brave men who have arrived alone who report the greatest ‘trauma’. In one man’s words “the most difficult thing that I did on the whole weekend was to step through that front door on the opening afternoon.”
Knowing this, a primary focus for the Organising Committee is to ensure that these new men are welcomed and made aware of what is likely to be the schedule over the next hour or so, and sometimes even helped in getting their luggage to their dorm. Experience has shown that 20 – 30% of the attendees will be at their first gathering – but this is the group of men who are most likely to be appreciative of a friendly welcome.
Various schemes have been adopted over the years to get everyone interacting on the opening night – from getting the men to arrange themselves ‘geographically’ in terms of where they have arrived from, to putting them into ‘age order’ in one huge circle around the hall.
Whatever the approach, the intention is to allow the men to begin to interact with one another on quite simple tasks – but often with quite a bit of light-hearted banter. Usually, the objective is to get the men into a single circle, allowing everyone to be seen and to allow the organisers to begin to explain how the gathering will operate etc. etc.
For the benefit of the ‘newbies’ there is often a point at which the ‘older men’ step back, leaving the new men together – to allow them to be seen as a group – and to allow them to see that they ‘are not the only new man here’.
Affinity or Tribal Groups
An Affinity or Tribal Group provides a home base within the large group. Each man is allocated a place in a group which then becomes a safe meeting space and sacred support group that ties the whole weekend together – so that no one has to walk alone. It provides a smaller supportive environment (usually up to 8 men) to share and he heard. Members of this small group become buddies for the weekend, meeting daily throughout the gathering, and allowing the opportunity to discuss freely any issues that may arise. It becomes a valuable and interactive support group. The concept of Affinity or Tribal Group is likely derived from the Sydney Men’s Festival.
The Closing Circle
Possibly the most significant tradition of the men’s gatherings occurs at the very end of each event when the question becomes: what next and who will be next to step forward to carry on the event to the next year?
The way in which these commitments are made has evolved over time but usually is the principal focus of the Closing Circle.
The entire gathering assembles, and thanks are given to the catering crew and the current committee etc. etc. The ceremonial staff which has stood during the entire gathering is ‘abandoned’ in the centre of the hall, and the question now becomes: who of the group will now step forward to take this staff – to undertake the task of being part of the committee to organise the next gathering in 12 months’ time?
This tradition has never failed – which is a testament to the fact that, for the men at these gatherings, the experience has been so important that they believe that it needs to be supported into the future.
The Heart Circle has become a regular component of the gathering format. It is considered to offer a powerful and transformational opportunity for gathering participants.
A mood of intention and reverence is set up by a host and time-keeper to create a safe space for a man, of his own volition, to speak from his heart and be witnessed by the whole gathering.
The Circle continues in respectful silence until all men who wish to speak have done so. It is a space where trust in the process can result in an outcome of pure gold – for a speaker and the witnesses.
Alcohol and drug-free
With the honesty that becomes central to even a small group or gathering of men, very soon it becomes clear that quite a few of the attendees have had bad experiences with drugs and/or alcohol (either on their own part or through families of origin). In fact, this may be the reason for their being recommended to attend.
Consequently, the no alcohol/no drugs policy has never become a problem.
Men stay for the whole event
Over time, the gatherings have come to offer a holistic approach for men who attend. Thus, an attendee is asked to bring his self to a gathering, to be available to experience the totality of the event, whether solely as a participant or, perhaps, as a workshop presenter as well, or as part of the Organising Committee for the event. As such, there is an expectation that all gathering attendees will remain present for the whole event
From the early days a pricing policy was put into place with a range of prices, eg, Super Early Bird, Early Bird, Full Price, Workshop Facilitator, Tribal Group Leader, Subsidised Man, Young Man to encourage early bookings, commitment, men of lesser means and an early build-up of numbers.
As a not-for-profit organisation, and with ambitions to perform important functions within the community, the opportunity for raising funds has taken several forms over the years.
Having Tony Dean (real estate manager and professional auctioneer) leading the Executive Committee for a number of years, a pattern developed at the three-day Manshine gathering of having an auction on the night of the cabaret. A request was put out beforehand for items to be donated to be auctioned. Tony’s enthusiasm energised the room and created enormous fun for those gathered. Great generosity was shown leading to an influx of funds into Mens Wellbeing coffers to support its ongoing work for another year.
With Tony’s overseas absence in 2021 the Auction tradition was carried on by his son Zak.
A cabaret has become a sometimes feature as an after-dinner evening event
On the premise that anyone can get up and perform men have the opportunity to share and entertain each other with poetry, stories, jokes, magic, dancing feet, singing voice or musical instrument, it is open to all. It can be by turn, notoriously funny, deeply moving, challenging and generally entertaining. Get together with a bunch of men and let it rip, or simply sit back and enjoy.
Golden Stick Award – Recognising men of service
Alex Robey (a past Executive Committee member and more…) noticed the spirit of contribution, service, self-sacrifice and loving heartfelt connection by many men within the Mens Wellbeing community. Largely, Alex noted, these were men who quietly went about both role modelling, and providing active support …. giving their service with compassion and leadership. Men who undoubtedly expected little or no recognition, but who none the less, were worthy of being noticed, if not for their efforts, then at least for the wonderful role modelling they demonstrate to the rest of our community.
To support recognition of these men of service in 2015 Alex set up an annual acknowledgement process called the Annual Golden Stick Honouring to recognise men who have contributed to the Mens Wellbeing community over the preceding twelve months. Nominations are invited from men within the Mens Wellbeing community with the honouring taking place at the annual Manhood Gathering.
The awardees each receive a mounted gilded talking stick and have their names engraved on the Golden Stick Award shield. In some years there are joint awardees with a total of 17 up to 2021: Tim Fisk, Robert Ah Hoon, Trevor Ozanne, Tim Easton, Paul Mischefski, David Murray, Craig Wyld, Warren Huck, Nicholas “Dob” Dobrosklonsky, Gavin Daly, Tony Dean, Dave Reynolds, Hunter Reed, Mal Missingham, Alex Robey, Simon Ayres, and Richard Kaser.
In 2021, at the request of Alex, the Golden Stick Honouring passed on to the Mens Wellbeing Elders Circle with Hunter Reed and Paul Mischefski (both former recipients) being the new custodians.
Fire plays an important and often profound role at a gathering. It may be lit during an opening ceremony or already prepared and waiting.
The flame of the fire is alluring, mesmerising, a place of peace, of reflection, relaxation, pondering and contemplative. Sitting around the fire, in community with others, being witnessed, held, supported, and seen is a place of safety for many.
The fire burns steadily, reminding us that we are a part of an ancient tradition of men gathered around an evening fire, sharing their stories in brotherhood. For many it is a deeply sacred and spiritual space.
Resonating Sound – Voice, drumming, didgeridoo
A hall reverberating to the sounds of massed male voices, the vibrating beat of an accumulation of African drums and the alluring drone of the didgeridoo are all regular elements of the gatherings. Each, in its own way, has a moving effect on the spirit of attendees.
Various skilled songmen have offered their talents to encourage men to use and express their voices. The effect is often amazing, especially for those who since boyhood had been carried a ‘taboo’ about their voice.
The beat of the drum and the drone of the didgeridoo provide a deep sense of connection and speak to the heart of many men whether as part of a ritual or ceremony, or simply to provide a thundering cacophony to the gathering.