During the height of the long-overdue #MeToo reckoning, when so many people (primarily women, and feminine-identified) were sharing their stories of assault, violation, and pain, I wrote a reflection that’s turned out to be my post popular online writing to-date, with over 20,000 readers sharing: An Open Letter to my Brothers in light of #MeToo.
In this reflection, I name ways that men and masculine-identified types can bring ourselves to greater integrity, to be better – for others, and ourselves.
Someone I knew, minister and spoken-word artist Dale Frederickson, was so inspired by this post that it became part of the motivation for him to record a heartfelt album of lament and healing, for the masculine in all of us: Blessed Is the Man. It’s quite the recording, at times comforting and confronting. I recently got to catch up with Dale about that compelled him to speak difficult truths and and beautiful possibilities for the masculine in our era. Here’s our conversation..
Hi Dale. Your new spoken-word poetic release, Blessed is the Man, strikes me as such a heart-felt meditation on what it means to be masculine in today’s world: Equal parts celebration and lament. What inspired you to undertake this project?
This might seem an unlikely moment for creative inspiration but here goes.
In late September of 2018, there was a Senate Judiciary Committee Review for the then Judge who would become the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Through a live stream, millions watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified that during their college years Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her. I don’t typically get caught up in highly publicized media events, but I was transfixed by this trial of sorts.
Dr. Ford demonstrated tremendous courage and strength and named her pain before America. When it was time for Judge Kavanaugh to defend himself, his words sent a cold, familiar shiver down my spine. The message that his body exuded reminded me of what I’ve experienced from a number of men throughout my life. He was right, angry, and inconvenienced by this hearing. As I processed this moment and my bodily reaction I realized that Kavanaugh’s behavior is not ‘one of a kind’ but a thermometer that tells a bigger story about the destructive norms of masculinity in America.
Soon after this trial, A wave of stories of women who had been abused by men either emotionally, physically, or both flickered on my social media streams. The #metoo movement was followed by even more courageous truth-telling and the #churchtoo movement was born. What a painful and sobering moment in our history together! That cold, familiar shiver down my spine was an invitation for me to feel again, to think deeper, and to write in a way that excavated the air of toxic masculinity. Could the winds of change bring about a fresh air of hope for all?
The poems in Blessed is the Man are my attempt to inspire and contribute to the larger conversation about healthier form of masculinity. It is not meant to say “Blessed is Man” who is angry, arrogant, and entitled but blessed is the man who is humble, kind, and learning to love. I knew that If I didn’t write personally and intimately about my own toxic patterns and behaviors it wouldn’t be an album worth listening to.
We’re hearing a lot about ‘toxic masculinity’ these days, to the point where some (men and others alike) hear the phrase as meaning that masculinity is synonymous with toxicity. Why do you suppose this is? And what does ‘toxic masculinity’ mean to you?
Your question makes an important observation given our moment in history. The fact that men hold 95% of the world’s most powerful positions does not mean that all men are toxic but that our collective understanding of the gift of masculinity needs to change. Calling masculinity synonymous with toxicity does a disservice to the complexity of the issue and does not excavate the real problem.
What I learned from writing these poems is that masculinity has been defined in such narrow ways that it has stifled the growth of men. If we define masculinity as emotional restraint, worth judged by productivity, and relational distance, then men will suffer in a shallow pool of regret and never learn to swim in deeper waters. I think that inadequate notions of masculine identity have led to great suffering. This is why I wrote in the poem to my son, “Masculinity is not a bumper sticker or cliché but an epic poem that you must write and rewrite.”
You’ve been exploring these themes in your own life for awhile, and the album has been out for just a bit. In your life or your work as an artist, are you seeing signs of hope for who we as men can become?
I’ve been performing these poems in small and large venues and I’ve been so encouraged by the responses. I’ve had hundreds of conversations in person or through email with men who are longing to give and receive love. There is a collective sense of waking up that is tangible right now. Most men that I’m talking with have felt the stifling effects of narrowly defined masculinity and are looking for fresh air. A lot of men deeply resonate with the blessing I wrote for the album that is sung on track number 2:
Blessed is the man
Who fails and stumbles
Who learns love is without end
Who is strong and humble
Who feels and finds themselves again
Please plant them near the river
Please plant them near the river
As the ancient poem foretold
Please plant them near the river
May peace within them grow
One of your poem-tunes involves the apostle Peter, with evocative lyrics like:
i’ve built my life on the next catch
marketplace profits and
the mysteries of the sea
my net worth
i keep casting nets
my last payload
i’m a half a lake ahead
don’t ask me to make sense
of my feelings
i am my father’s son
i say over and over
no one is listening
he was the wind
that cut through
the aroma of dead fish
he said to me
“you are a boulder”
i laughed and burst out
“one who sinks”
he smiled and said
“i hope so”
“not today” i threw back
…what inspired you to address Peter’s life in this way? How do you see him as indicative of so many men?
For this poem, I started with the end of the story. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” I’ve always found this carefully written account so beautiful and compelling. Jesus doesn’t shame Peter but invites him to grow his affections. One of my teachers has been bell hooks. In her book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, she argues that men need to grow their capacity to love. I interpreted Jesus’ words to Peter in light of bell hooks’ thesis. From there, I just started working backward in my writing, finding in Peter, a cultural paradigm, that could be helpful in reframing masculinity.
Your album’s opening and closing meditations tenderly address your son, as “my beautiful boy.” By contrast, The Burden That Buries Men addresses a father who continually tells his son to ‘toughen up,’ to the point where the son sings:
i wear my promise
over my heart
like a medal
i’m not like you
over his grave
…tell me more about the grief and desire to be different that’s motivated this album.
The Burden That Buries Men tells the story of generational pain. The father has little to no emotional capacity for his son and then the son becomes a father and confronts his worst fears, i.e. “I’m terrified somehow that I’ve become my dad.” And the poem ends, with the hope that the son sees his father and welcomes him into the community of shared love. This is a poem of hope that love can break our family cycles. The poem is a portrait of many friends that have described for me this father/son tension of wanting to be something different then was modeled to them but not knowing how. My beautiful boy is a poem towards the end of the album that was written for my son. I wanted to take the big and important themes of the album and speak them in simple ways to him. I’ve felt a cold, familiar shiver down my spine of toxic masculinity and want something more for myself, my son, and my friends. There is a different way of being. There is healing.
What are the unique blessings and burdens that following Jesus, and being part of Christianity, give to masculinity and being a man, today?
The burdens of following Jesus in this moment in history is that there’s so much ugliness associated with Christianity. We’ve become so comfortable with easy cliché’s, settled for the status quo, neglected our care for the least, last, and lost, and tightened boundary lines instead of expanding them. Fear has defined us not transformative love. The blessing of following Jesus is that he is always surprising us. The beauty of the Christian life is that Jesus is always leading us beyond fear and familiarity. His vulnerable humanity which whispers to us that “God is love” gives us the freedom to say “no” to the destructive norms of masculinity and “yes” to a new vision of a growing capacity for mutual love for ourselves, neighbors, and the world. “Blessed is the Man (And Woman)” indeed!
What do you most enjoy about being a man, as you’re discovering masculinity on ‘the other side’?
I’m feel a lightness that I’ve never felt before. “Blessed is the man” who learns that they are created to give and receive love. There’s freedom in knowing that I don’t have to be right, I don’t have to find my worth in what I produce, and I don’t have to stuff my feelings. I’m learning that my true superpower is vulnerability which gifts me with deeper relational connectedness. Masculinity doesn’t have to be a shallow pond but it can be a deep river where we experience the endless depths of love.
What’s one thing you hope men tuning in will take away from Blessed is the Man?
Poetry is language that addresses us in the very depths of our being. That cold, familiar shiver down your spine is not an inconvenience but an invitation to feel again, think deeper, and experience masculinity as an “epic poem that you must write and rewrite.”
Praise for Blessed is the Man
“It is difficult it to confront the darker parts of our nature. Many get off the planet without having ever attempted it. It’s so much easier to make a home of our bruises. Those wounds are, after all, someone else’s fault. Oh but the healing … healing is our responsibility. It takes courage and empathy. Dale has knuckled around that work, fought ego and the strange inheritance of patriarchy-gone-wrong to choose love. He is in fact a storm chaser. With this album Dale affirms for us that with faith and hard work we get to be the beneficiaries of our own hard-won wisdom. ‘Blessed is the man …’ indeed.”
—Dominique Christina, Women of the World Slam Champion 2012/2014, Author of The Bones The Breaking The Balm, They Are All Me, This is Woman’s Work, and Anarcha Speaks
“There is something vital in Dale Fredrickson’s work: an architecture, a bidding—a disarming and disorienting language play by which we become more human.”
—Josh James Riebock, Best Selling Author of Heroes and Monsters
The final movement of the poem ’on this night I wonder’ shows Joseph’s hardened masculinity being undone into vulnerable love and wonder as he considers the miracle of his firstborn. This serves as a thematic keystone for the whole album as Fredrickson traces the masculine journey through hardened toughness into a more gracious vulnerability that is the beginning of real strength. The earnest and moving vocal delivery throughout the album drives home just how real and desperate is the yearning to be made new and gentler. Fredrickson delivers his best work thus far as he hones was the closeness he feels to his own vulnerability and strength. Each is felt so thoroughly as he powerfully portrays the nakedness of this paradox at the heart of the modern man.
—David Burchfield, Singer/Songwriter
“Blessed is the Man is an absolute gift! It is like healing balm to my soul every time I listen to it. It slows me down, creates space in my inner being, and helps me to become attentive to the voice of the Spirit within me. Even though the album helps me to view masculinity differently, it is equally impactful to my feminine identity in a significantly deep way. For anyone who is serious about his or her heart, Blessed is the Man is a must-listen. For anyone who is serious about deeper thinking, Blessed is the Man is a must-listen. For those who are interested in a conversation about masculinity, no matter what your gender, Blessed is the Man is a must-listen. For those who desire to feed their soul with beauty, Blessed is the Man is a must-listen. In short, I think this is a very important album for everyone who has ears to hear!”
—Kelly Archer, Founding Artistic Director at Chadash Contemporary Dance Movement
“Dale’s poetry sets a table and places chairs for all kinds of stories. He looks around and brings many to the table: those who are bleeding and those who are blessed; those wounded with wonder and wondering at their wounds; those who are appalled by faith and those to whom faith appeals. These poems open up a door, they light a candle, they say you’re welcome, they say I need to learn from you.”
—Pádraig Ó Tuama, Irish Poet & Leader of the Corrymeela Community
“The poem ‘My Beautiful Boy’ gives me hope that I can raise my boys to be men, but without toxic masculinity, aware of their gentle side, as a part of the foundation for how they understand what it is to be male.
—Javier D. Arvizo, Father and Husband
“Honestly wading into disappointment, sorrow, pain and confusion is not for the faint of heart. But there are moments when we find a direction in the midst of and hear a voice that offers guidance. These are the moments we are invited into our pain in a way that is filled with hope and promises beauty. This is what Dale accomplishes in his latest work, Blessed is the Man. His prose and lyric are far more than words that compose a smooth rhyme. His words possess power that reflect the courageous paths he has walked in his own life and reflect his keen insight into the beauty and power found in the Ancient Text. This album promises more than just strong poetry and powerful lyric; it promises first steps into healing and promises to be a companion on our journey toward wholeness.”
—Michael Hidalgo, Lead Pastor Denver Community Church, author of Changing Faith: Questions, Doubts and Choices About the Unchanging God
About the Author
Dale Fredrickson is a pastor and poet from Denver, Colorado. He’d like to inspire the entire world but finds that inspiring himself and his family and friends is work enough. He writes and speaks about beauty and misery and his favorite story is the one about how love surprises us in the end. He serves as a Teacher in Bible & Theology to amazing middle-school students at Cherry Hills Christian School where he fails a lot. On his best days, he lives by Samuel Beckett’s motto, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”