to: personal storyteller
My Twenty-five Years in a “Sufi” Singing Group with Robert Bly and Other Men
At some time in February of 1992, I received a notice in the mail that the internationally renowned poet Robert Bly and others would be discussing “the future of the men’s movement” at a public meeting to take place at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis on a certain evening. Bly was a leading figure in the “mythopoetic men’s movement”. I had been active in the political wing of this movement as a member of the Minnesota chapter of the Coalition of Free Men and the Men’s Defense Associated (headed by Richard Doyle of Forest Lake). I had no previous association with Bly.
The meeting hall at the church was packed. Perhaps 300 persons attended. Robert Bly, Charles - (a black man who had published a book giving a symbolic interpretation of Three Little Pigs), and others sat at a table in front. I remember asking Bly in the question-and-answer session how he related to men’s rights activists. As I recall, he said that some day, during one of his trips between Minneapolis and Moose Lake, he would stop by to visit Doyle in Forest Lake. However, most of the attendees at this meeting were involved with Bly’s wing of the men’s movement. For instance, they attended the Men’s Conferences that had been held annually in Minnesota for the past ten years.
Another, more fateful experience at this meeting was that Robert Bly announced that he was interested in doing something “multicultural”. Specifically, he wanted to gather a group of men to sing what he called “Turkish” music. It turned out that this music consisted of chants in the Sufi tradition. He said he would pass around a sign-up sheet for persons who might be interested. This was something that did interest me. After the meeting, I talked briefly with Bly, said I was interested in his proposal, and did, in fact, put my name, address and telephone number on the sign-up sheet.
The response, received several months later, read:
May 20, 1992
Last February, at the conclusion of the men’s meeting with Robert Bly and Friends entitled “What Should We Do Next”, you signed up for a Sufi Singing Group. This is to notify you that the group will begin meeting soon. The details are contained below. Hope to see you there.
When: Monday, June 1st, 8:30 PM
Where: 1783 Irving Ave South, Mpls.
You may want to bring a cushion to sit on.
For more information: call David Schmit at 729-5289.
Other David (Whetstone)
I received a notice in the mail several weeks later that the group of people interested in singing would meet at Robert Bly’s house on Irving Avenue in the Kenwood area of Minneapolis on a certain evening. Perhaps a dozen men, including Bly, met in an uncarpeted room in this house. Some of them, as I recall, were Mark Stanley, Walton Stanley, Eric Storlie, Craig Ungerman, Jeff Dennison, Kurt Meyer, Tim Young, David Ballman, Michael Hohenstein, and a man named Roland or “Rollie” who dropped out not long afterwards. Our music teacher was David Whetstone, an accomplished sitar player who sometimes provided musical accompaniment for Bly’s poetic readings. We sat in a circle and learned from him a few chants.
The first chant we learned consisted of a single word: Allah. We sang the word, “Allah”, four times in a low pitch, and then repeated the same word another four times in a higher pitch. After that, we sang “Allah” four times in the original tone, and then another four times in a pitch even higher than before. So it went, in rounds of four. After reaching the highest pitch, we went back in tones gradually descending, in two sets, to their original level. Then we would repeat the process over again. We just kept singing four Allahs in a set, going up and down in tone, according to a regular pattern until the group somehow decided to end this chant. Then, after a pause sometimes mixed with conversation, we would go on to another chant.
David Whetstone taught us two chants - the simple “Allah” just described and a chant that had Allah doing various things. This second one allowed greater variation in pitch. There was “Allah sleeping”, “Allah laughing”, Allah dreaming”, “Allah waking”, “Allah breaking”, and then a vast indescribable sweep across the musical scales followed by “Allah HU”, repeated several times. This was the one, I learned, where people could insert lines of poetry into the chanting. When the chants had become lower and slower, some of the poets among us could recite their verse. Then, when they were done, we might repeat the chanting for a time; and finally we would be done.
We also learned a Persian chant which was recited in Farsi. Its author was the 14th Century Persian poet Hafez. The title was “bia ta gol”. It was a revolutionary poem about overthrowing the existing order of the universe and starting over again. The poem in Farsi came in two verses, as follows:
Bia ta gol barafshonim
Vamei dar saghar andazim.
Falaq ra sagt besh kafim
Va tar hi no bar andazim.
Agar jham lashkar angizat.
Ke kehuna shekar rizat
Mano saqi beham sazim
Va bunyadesh barandizim.
This chant is roughly translated into English:
Take up the flowers, throw them all around
Let’s pour some wine, the best that can be found.
Let’s smash the bowl of the great heavens
and start the creation all over again.
Oh, east wind take this dust of mine.
Throw it out to the one divine.
So the king of grace and beauty may
Turn his face and throw a glance our way.”
We would sing “Allah hu, Allah hu” after each verse. There were at least another five verses to this chant, some based on our own translations. These were as follows:
“Should you long for Adam’s paradise,
Come with us the tavern will suffice;
One day you’ll be toasting all your friends
And the wine will throw you where this world ends.
Let us pour this old wine as we start,
Into these bowls as if they were our hearts,
And then we’ll pass the fiery incense bowls,
And now we’ll throw sugar on the coals.
If depression’s troops should come with armed men
To try and kill the lovers again,
The cupbearer and I will make a crazy rush
And throw them down and grind them into dust.
So dear friends we make our aim once more
To see the pearl upon the ocean floor
Why then should we have a heavy heart
When this old boat splits and falls apart.
In Shiraz there’s no singing any more
And elegant words are simply ignored
So Hafez, come now let us find
Another place and leave Shiraz behind.”
This chanting was supposed to reflect the Sufi spirit. Poetry was mixed with chanting and meditation. Some Sufi groups became known for wild, mystical dancing. These were the “whirling dervishes”. Our “Sufi” group, consisting of middle-aged American men, did little dancing. Mostly we were seated in a circle surrounding lighted candles in candle holders. There was also a porcelain bowl partially filled with water and a straw basket where we would leave morsels of food as offerings to “spirit”.
From a Christian standpoint, I suppose this procedure was offensive. To be chanting Allah’s name could be considered sacrilegious to a follower of Jesus. I was relaxed about this. There was no talk of converting to Islam, reading the Koran, or accepting the belief system of a particular religion. We were just a group of amateurish Americans trying to recreate the Sufi experience. It was more about ritual than belief. So it did not particularly bother me to be singing the praises of Allah. I just went along with what others did.
We also sang other songs such as this -
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
"Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Steams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above."
We “Sufis” did follow a particular ritual. Before chanting, we would line up outside the room where we would dip our hands in a bowl filled with water. Then we would rub our wet hands across our face or hair as if to wash it. We would then kiss the door sill three times on each side. We would line up in a circle around the candle holder, holding hands. Finally, each person would invite a particular “spirit” into the evening’s event. It might be the spirit of a bird or wild animal, or of a relative or friend who had died, or of an abstraction such as equanimity or wisdom. We did not necessarily follow in turn around the circle, but each brought in a spirit. Then the chanting would begin.
After each session, there was another ritual. Now it was time to “send back” the spirits. We would each remember the spirit that we had brought in and send it back to the spirit world. We would also remember the spirit brought in by someone who might have left before the session had ended and send it back, too. Then it was time for the “kiss”. While holding hands, each man would kiss the back of the hand of a man standing next to him in the circle and have his hand kissed in return. Then that man would kiss the hand of the person on the other side. The procedure would be repeated until the kissing ritual had been performed by each man in the circle. Then we would suddenly say “it is done” and our joined hands would break apart. The session was over.
Between the opening and closing rituals, we might be together for two or three hours. Our sessions originally started at 8 p.m. Later it was changed to 7 p.m. so some could leave earlier. Some participants were chronically late. Between the singing and conversation, we normally took tea. Chai tea, made with milk and honey, was our standard beverage. We often had a choice of regular tea as well. Participants would often bring snacks such as cookies or nuts. This was for the period of personal discussion after we had sung some songs.
Chanting was our main activity. We always started out singing at least several chants. David Whetstone was with us for only a month or two; then we were on our own. David Schmidt, who joined our group for a time, enriched our musical repertoire with chants from the Hindu tradition. He had once lived in India following a female guru. Later he married and became a professor of psychology at St. Catherine’s college in St. Paul. Schmidt taught us chants such as “Rom”, “Jay-mah”, and “Shiva Hara”, which were some of my personal favorites. He was the leader of another group, “Meeting Rivers”, that had both male and female members. However, when Schmidt suggested that he might be paid for his services, the group did not agree, and he left.
Another musician who stayed with us was Glen Helgeson, a guitarist and music-therapy teacher who was the leader of a group, Gypsy Mania, that played in night clubs around town. I first ran into him at a Men’s conference when he brilliantly improvised a guitar response to Robert Bly’s poetic recitation. Helgeson gave us “Sita Rom”, another of my favorites. He also tried to teach us more complicated chants in the Islamic tradition that seemed less beautiful to me. But then he came up with “Sri Rom”, another winner.
I should also mention that Duncan Storlie, Eric’s brother, contributed a few chants to our repertoire from a tape that he had discovered including Ishkala and Bismillah. To be honest, I do not think these chants were as beautiful as the Hindu ones, but they were preferred by others. Duncan also instituted the practice of beginning each session by attuning our vocal chords to the sounds of the Trudy box, an accordion-like instrument.
Especially in the early years (1992-1995), we were also bringing in songs from teachers at the Men’s conferences such as Malidoma and Martin Prechtel. Malidoma taught us a few West African chants; and Martin, ones from the native American traditions of north America. Much later, Tim Frantzich joined our group. He and his brother, Paul, had popularized certain Christian songs, including a haunting melody (“Come, thou fount of every blessing”) from the 18th century. They were guest singers on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.
I had a secret agenda at these sessions, especially in the early years. It was boring to chant something like “Allah” without variation as if it were a classroom assignment demanding precision. So I tried to mix it up by adding a few personal flourishes. My first innovation was to clap in creative ways. This worked well with a chant such as Allah. Maybe I could develop a rhythm of putting four quick claps at the end of a verse. Next session, it would be something different. The important thing was to get a rhythm going through consistent repetition. That required mental discipline. If I stared at the candles, I found I could clap more automatically and make fewer mistakes.
A chant such as Rom could be molded into music of various styles. I always started out singing the chant as we had been taught. Then, after a minute or two, I would begin looking for little ways to change things around. The pauses at the end of a verse offered such an opportunity. I might utter a monosyllabic sound so as to create a rhythmic alteration between this and the main part of the chant. I might sing different words. I might try to speed up the singing by beginning the next verse a split-second sooner than when it normally began. Others would sense what was happening and try experiments too. My purpose was not to hijack the chant but to introduce new elements that would give it a different feel. These chants were not songs but living organisms that appeared in a different form each night. Blending in with others, I was letting my creative instincts run wild.
I think my creativity peaked in the mid 1990s, perhaps three years after the group began. In our private sessions, the group was creating some amazing sounds with the clapping and scat singing. Then I began experimenting with harmonies. In effect, I developed my own part in a four-part harmony. I would always sing the chant that way after singing it conventionally for the first few minutes. A chant such as Sita Rom lent itself well to that treatment. In it, I would go off soaring in the upper ranges while others were sticking to the basic chant. If anyone else thought this was beautiful, no one ever told me so. (Maybe Craig Ungerman did once.) At times, Robert Bly seemed to appreciate it; I think he was in this for the same reasons as I.
For me there was excitement in that we never knew how the chanting would develop that night. Sometimes we would be clumsy; sometimes we would exhibit a Mozart-like sure-footedness in our experimentation. Unless we took chances, unless we improvised, nothing of worth would come out of these sessions. That, at least, was the way I felt. But it was all unspoken. Nothing was acknowledged by the other participants. The chanting gradually became a less prominent part of each session as poetry, general discussion, and other personal interests took over the time that we spent together. Mostly I listened to the others talk.
As I said, we held our early session in Robert Bly’s home on Irving Avenue. Around 1994, he and his wife Ruth sold that house and bought another one, several blocks away, on Girard Avenue. This house had a garage and a spare room behind the garage and, upstairs, a kitchen, bathroom, and suite of rooms where Bly could work on his writing. We decorated the spare room with batik-like cloth on the ceiling to give it the look of the inside of a tent. Small cushions were placed on the floor for people to sit. On carpets in the middle of the room sat a wax-covered candelabra with places for six candles. There were other objects such as baskets, bowls, and rattles surrounding it.
This was to be the site of our Sufi singing, especially in recent years. Before that, we met in a number of different homes. Eric Storlie’s house on Humboldt Avenue in Uptown was an early favorite. We also frequently sang at Glen Helgeson’s house when he lived on Toledo Street in Golden Valley. Several times we also sang at Mark Stanley’s house on East River Road in Minneapolis. Once, I even hosted the group at my home on Glenwood Avenue; only two people showed up for that event. Lately, however, our singing has taken place exclusively at Robert Bly’s place on Girard Avenue in the Kenwood section of Minneapolis.
We were scheduled to sing once a week on alternate Fridays and Thursdays. Each month would start with a session of Friday evening. Then, the following week, we would sing on Thursday. The singing would revert to Friday in the third week of the month; and then, for the fourth week, we would go back to Thursday. If there was a fifth week in the month, we agreed to skip the session. Again, the sessions started at 8 p.m. and lasted for an indefinite period - usually we were done by 11 p.m. Then they were moved up to 7 p.m. Some members complained about stragglers who arrived perhaps an hour late, but nothing could be done about this problem except for occasional shaming.
In a typical session, we might have five participants. But this varied, too. Sometimes I was the only one to show up. Sometimes, there were one or two others. We would usually skip the singing when attendance was this light. Normally, however, we would have four, five, six, or more people. Occasionally, it was a dozen or more. Robert Bly himself usually attended when he was in town although he sometimes left early. There were long stretches of time when Bly would be out of town at men’s conferences or other events. We had access to the garage building and would meet there in his absence.
We started with a core group of singers, some of whom remain active participants to this day. New people joined in later years, and several dropped out when they left Minnesota. Mark Stanley compiled an email list of group members which today has fifteen names: Robert Bly, Glen Helgeson, Kevin Gregerson, Brad Fern, Mark Stanley, Walton Stanley, Duncan Storlie, Eric Storlie, David Ballman, Geoffrey Reiff, Kurt Meyer, Lanny Kuester, Tim Frantzich, Tim Young, and myself. Some attend less frequently than others. I would say the more active participants today include Mark Stanley, Duncan Storlie, Tim Young, Glen Helgeson, Geoff Reiff, Lanny Kuester, Walton Stanley, myself, and Robert Bly, when he is in town. I exclude Eric Storlie from this group because, during the summers, he spends months at a cabin in Idaho.
Mark Stanley, Duncan Storlie, and perhaps Tim Young take the lead on much of the organizing work that needs to be done for the group. Stanley is the computer expert. He often initiates emails to see who might be attending the session that week. Each session, someone needs to make the tea in the upstairs kitchen. It is served from a crock pot taken downstairs. We need to have an ample supply of Chai tea on hand which someone needs to purchase. Then, after the singing, someone needs to wash out the glasses and crock pot in the kitchen sink; I often assumed that duty. Robert Bly often made the tea. Otherwise, it would likely be Tim Young or Mark Stanley. Duncan Storlie was the task master proposing new exercises or urging people to be on time. Glen Helgeson’s role is to lead us in the singing as a guitar accompanist. Tim Young is a poet who often reads or recites to us his latest verse. Bly, of course, is the acknowledged master in this area.
A key member in the beginning was Craig Ungerman, a man of great business talent. He is the one who organizes and administers the Men’s Conferences the Great Mother Conferences in which Robert Bly participates. These annual conferences attract perhaps one hundred men from around the country. Besides Bly himself, the teachers include shamans such as Martin Prechtel and Malidoma Some, psychologists such as Robert Moore or John Lee, James Hillsman, Michael Meade, and other cultural luminaries. The conferences are generally held at summer camps for boys after the camp season has ended.
Around 1998, Craig Ungerman and his wife divorced. Craig soon remarried a woman whom he had met at a conference and moved to rural Connecticut. He and his new wife continue to administer the men’s conferences with help from people like Mark Stanley who design the brochures and maintain the web site. Scandals erupted in the aftermath of Craig’s divorce.
(two paragraphs deleted)
Other than this, our Sufi men’s group was fairly tame. We did not admit women to the singing sessions. We did not participate in any public events other than the Minnesota Men’s conferences in the fall. Most of the group’s members, including me, were married. I was single when I joined the group in 1992. I married Sheila in 1995 and divorced her a year later. Then, in 2000, I married my current wife, Lian, in China. On separate occasions, of course, Sheila and Lian both attended events with members of the Sufi group. However, I seldom discussed my personal life with the group’s members and no one asked. (But I will tell you that I have since divorced Lian and remarried Sheila).
Glen Helgeson, too, went through two marriages during the period of the group’s existence. He was single when it began. He married a health-insurance administrator at a lavish ceremony held at Valhelga, the family estate north of St. Cloud. (Glen’s family owns the Golden Plump chicken-processing company.) They were divorced six or seven years later. Then, two years ago, Glen married Rita, an attractive woman originally from Indiana. Tim Young was also divorced and remarried during the time when we were together. So was Jeff Dennison. Others such as Walton Stanley, Mark Stanley, Kevin Gregerson, Kurt Meyer, and Robert Bly remained married for the entire time.
All in the Sufi group were white males. All were from the professional class. Kevin Gregerson has become an acknowledged expert in the area of workers compensation. Glenn Helgeson teaches music to special-needs students in the Prior Lake school district. Eric Storlie is a retired English teacher at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College who now teaches a yoga class at the University of Minnesota. Walton Stanley does technical writing and training for the Dairy Queen corporation. Duncan Storlie is a former printing technician who now drives a school bus. Tim Young edited a community newspaper in St. Paul and then was a teacher at the Red Wing detention center for young men. Lanny Kuester is pastor of a Christian church. Mark Stanley, who used to work for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, now has his own computer consulting firm. Jeff Dennison works in the Minnesota drivers-license office. I am a landlord who used to work in accounting. My claim to fame in this group is than I am or have been married to women of other races. I am also politically more conservative than some of the others.
Robert Bly himself came to prominence as an anti-war poet during the Vietnam war. He also participated in some of the “Honeywell Project” demonstrations organized by Marv Davidov to protest armaments production. Therefore, a standard topic of conversation was to criticize Republicans like Newt Gingrich and, later, Cheney and Bush. Over the years, we grew tired of this unproductive political talk. Instead, Tim Young would discuss his experience with delinquent males at the Red Wing detention center. Lanny Kuester had some problems with his son. The discussion was more about the problem of parents, or relationship problems, or deaths in the family. We never hatched schemes to change the world but merely shared information, ideas, and personal insights.
Robert Bly wrote and published “the Sibling Society” in the 1990s after the group was formed. I remember him briefly discussing some of this book’s issues with us. It was around the time that our group, for the first and only time, held our singing session out in the woods at a public park in Golden Valley. We seldom, if ever, discussed Bly’s most famous book, Iron John. We did not want journalists infiltrating our group and reporting on its activities. There was a certain sensitivity about this because the media in the early 1990s tended to stereotype Bly as the leader of educated white men who went out in the woods, beat drums, hugged trees, and pretended to be savages. People like us became objects of ridicule. The only time we allowed our singing to be taped was when a television crew from Chile recorded a session held at Eric Storlie’s house in the mid 1990s.
In truth, we were not fanatics of wilderness living but middle-aged males who led fairly comfortable lives in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, while aspiring to knowledge and cultivation. Some such as Tim Young were aspiring poets. He has lately taken up the task of translating a Muslim poet who lived in Spain in the 12th century. Another young poet, who was with us for two years in the late 1990s, was Jay Leeming, who now lives in Ithaca, New York. Some others, such as Walton Stanley, had a great interest in mythology as popularized by Joseph Campbell. We all had an interest in religion in one or another form and in the history of various societies.
Bly himself, while interested in those subjects, had a particular interest in initiations as a gateway to healthy male development. For that reason, perhaps, he brought shamans to the men’s conferences who could teach initiation. Malidoma Some was a black African native of Burkino Faso who, after attempted molestation, escaped from a Roman Catholic seminary to return to his village and be initiated in the ways of his ancestors. Martin Prechtel, half German and half native American, went to Guatemala as a young man, became an apprentice to a Mayan shaman and later a village leader. He was driven out of that country during its civil wars, returned to the United States, and hooked up with Robert Bly’s men’s conferences. So, the men who attended these conferences were exposed both to African and Mayan shamanic traditions including initiations, chanting, storytelling, and ritual.
I attended two conferences in the early 1990s. I also had a private fortune-telling session with Malidoma Some. While these experiences were personally enriching and worthwhile, I could not give them the commitment that was needed because I was, in fact, committed to other things. Besides being an accountant and then a landlord, I was a writer. I published a book on free trade in 1992 and then one on world history, which was published at the beginning of 2000. In the new century, I ran for elective office several times and published books about those experiences. I was co-leader of a political group representing landlords. In other words, my thinking was not mythological or symbolic, but more matter-of-fact. It is not that I despised things of the spirit world but that I could not remember them well enough to discuss them intelligently or work them into my own mental routine.
Even so, I attended the men’s conferences in subsequent years as a Sufi-singer volunteer. Thursdays evenings were set aside at these conferences to do the type of chanting that we practiced each week. Members of our group would sit on mats in the middle of the floor and begin the chants. Then the rest of the conference participants would join in. I was honored to be part of a select group in effect “teaching” others the chants we knew. There was even room for my improvisations.
The conferences were generally held in September at Camp Miller on Sturgeon Lake, about fifty miles south of Duluth, Minnesota. I would drive up by myself, have dinner with the conference attendees, do the singing, sleep in my car or in a bunk, have breakfast, and then return to the Twin Cities after taking in a session or two of the conference. One year my car broke down on I-35 near Pine City and I had to spend the night there. But I make most of the conferences.
This is not so much a narrative of events relating to the Sufi group as a description of the experience. We were not working toward anything in particular. At times, Bly or another person suggested ways to deepen our understanding of Sufism or its practice. In the first year, we were asked to buy a book of Rumi poems and memorize some of the verses for recitation at our gatherings. I lost that book some time during the third year and never replaced it. I also lost the green cushion that I brought to the meetings. I became more haphazard in bringing morsels of food to put in the spirit dish. I became less creative in my musical variations. In short, like others, I was taking this too much for granted. I was not sufficiently grateful to be Robert Bly’s houseguest and personal companion in a spiritual and creative enterprise.
I remember a session that took place on the evening of Friday, July 23, 1999. There was going to be a dedication ceremony that weekend in Madison, Minnesota, at a county historical society exhibit, of “Robert Bly’s study”. Bly grew up in Madison and lived there with his wife, Carol, in their younger years. I thought I might drive out with my brother and his wife that weekend to attend the ceremony. I had just finished my book on world history, “Five Epochs of Civilization”, and was arguing with one of the Sufis about its approach. This had been my big project for much of the past year.
It was hot that night and I was tired. In the middle of the night my brother, Andy, came stumbling into my room from his room across the hall, complaining about the heat. I did little about it. Then, somewhat later, I heard a loud crash on the floor. My brother had fallen to the floor. I gave him a sip of water and placed him on a cushion on the floor next to a small fan. His wife Ginny sat next to him. I then went to bed. The next morning, after reading the morning newspaper for twenty minutes or so, I went across the hall to check on Andy. He was lying face down on the floor. His eyes were closed and his face was strangely swollen with blood that had gone to his forehead. I had never seen him that way. The thought suddenly came to me that Andy was dead. His body was still hot.
More than ten years have passed since that experience. I did see the exhibit on “Robert Bly’s study” three years later when I went to Madison in the course of campaigning in the 2002 Independence Party primary for U.S. Senate. By that time, I had a new Chinese-born wife and a step-daughter, Celia, who was graduating from high school and entering college. (We are since divorced.) I lost my mother in April 2001; my father, in November 2004; my younger brother, in March 2005; and was down to one younger sister, who was an attorney in Maine. Meanwhile, the Sufi group continued much as before. We were all growing older. There were no more scandals. The annual men’s conferences continued to be held. I was spending more time at the computer and becoming set in my ways.
At some point, my wife, Lian, and I may move to Milford, Pennsylvania, to live in the house which I inherited from my parents where Andy had once hoped to live. Like several others before me, I would move away from the area and lose touch with the Sufi group. Before that happens, I want to set down in writing as much as I can remember from this experience. It was a totally private experience, known only to ourselves, our wives, and the people attending the annual men’s conferences.
With some trepidation, I asked Robert Bly and others about writing up our experiences with the group. He said he thought it was a good idea. Evidently the old fear of adverse publicity from infiltrating journalists was gone. I now had Bly’s blessing. We have always had an aversion to recording our private experience. But we are, after all, persons immersed in the print culture as poets, scholars, or whatever. So maybe it is fitting to capture these personal recollections in typed words.
The above narrative was written in the spring of 2010. It was posted on line in December of 2016. This narrative captures the spirit of what happened in the early days. The Sufi group has continued to meet at Robert Bly’s house, though less frequently. Its composition has changed somewhat.
Today is December 18, 2016. Robert Bly’s 90th birthday is December 23rd. Earlier this month, on December 2nd, we had a singing session at Robert’s house with Robert again in attendance. Robert and his wife Ruth had prepared a lavish set of snacks for the singers. I came in a car with Glen Helgerson and Mark Stanley. Duncan Storlie was also there.
This month was also special in that, last Friday, the public television station in the Twin Cities carried a documentary on Robert Bly’s life that was shown on Channel 2. The Sufi group was not mentioned.
Having recently made an inventory of my writings created on the computer, I came across the write-up of the Sufi group from six or seven years ago. I want to preserve some of the memories.
P.S. An exchange of emails took place in late December 2016 among participants in the Sufi singing group. I have recorded that conversation in the following section titled "The origin of the Sufi group". Except for me and for Robert Bly, the names have been changed to X and Y. The dates are authentic.
i thought that the survivors and the newcomers would be tickled to see this letter that X sent out to invite people to the sufi singing group that robert announced he wanted to form at the end of a local men's event. those who signed up on a sheet got this letter.
(Note - The original solicitation letter was attached to this email.)
I was part of the original group. I joined about one and a half years later and am grateful for the times together.
imagine doing all that with paper and stamps. i remember robert setting up a phone tree where before an evening he called three people, they each called a few, etc.
I remember that first evening with X teaching us a few songs.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that day.
right; i do recall that X didn't find us a wonderfully apt musical group.
William McGaughey 12-18-16
Six years ago, I wrote up an account of my experiences with the Sufi group and this week posted it at http://www.billmcgaughey.com/sufi.html
My first visit to the Sufi group was shortly after our father died in 1992, X invited me to a session at his house sometime in winter 1993 that was also a memorial for our Dad. It was very good, a fire in the fireplace, singing, readings and reminiscences.
At that time I felt a sense of community I had not experienced before and asked X if I could join the group.
And, hard to believe, here we are 25 years later.
I had to wait a whole year before I received the invitation to join the Sufi group. Not sure why that happened that way. Obviously, requirements to join the group have become loser since then. Good thing that will are all respectable guys. Y
After Robert Bly and I were paired in a grief ritual at the 2001 men's conference, Robert turned to me and said, "well the spirit world has put us together so why don't you come over and sing at our next Sufi night." What a blessing you all were/are. It changed my life.
Then after a few visits it was decided that X would be my sponsor and guide me into the group. Thanks X.
I came to Sufi singing as much as possible for this first 5 years. So good to sing, drink chai, make chai, watch an occasional mouse in the corner, work through some new songs, hear new ideas and poems from Robert and others, read and sing my own new stuff. Talk a little bit about significant others. Such a support through opening our hearts together!
Okay, the historian in me which values community memory, needs to weigh in here.
Sometime before the 1992 men's meeting at Hennepin Ave. Church that Robert asked me to organize for him - as mentioned in the letter X posted - "What do we do next?" - he had been talking about wanting to sing with men. Several of us drove up to Moose Lake and we met in his little log cabin behind his house and we tried to do some singing. Todd Davis and John Lang were there. I had a slew of chants from my days leading chanting groups in Florida and Minnesota, but when I introduced a couple of them, Robert did not warm to them.
And yes, at that 1992 "What do we do next" men's meeting at Hennepin Church, I solicited names for those who wanted to sing, after Robert's request to do so. I sent out the first invite, which X posted in the email.
I remember the first meetings at Robert's former home on Irving. I faintly recall X at the first one or two meetings, but he quickly stopped coming. I introduced other chants, and Robert warmed up to them a bit more. But when we would get a chant going, he would stop it, saying something about fish being only able to jump out of the water a little. It didn't seem like chanting as I understood it, so I left. I believe it was at that time that X joined to help with the music.
I returned a couple of years later. By that time, Robert and Ruth had moved to their current home. There were a bunch of new members, and you guys were really chanting with some energy and devotion. It was if you had figured out how to do it. Impressive! I rejoined. I wasn't able to attend every week, but I attended often over several years. This time, Robert took interest in several of the chants I introduced, including Ram, Ram Ram, Jai Ma, and Shiva Hara. Those years were of the greatest value. I learned how to work with poetry and music in that group; skills which we put to good use in both Meeting Rivers and the Wild Moon Bhaktas. Gratitude to Robert for making the space available for the group to meet.
I can't recall the date, sometime in the early 2000s, it was time to leave for reasons I won't go into here. I remember a last meeting that was a bit tense when I expressed some dissatisfaction with Robert's leadership. I left the group. Wanting better closure, I sent a letter to him - a very genuinely felt letter - thanking him for all the teachings and letting him know it was simply time to move on. Later, I sent he and Ruth, at their request, a copy of the Wild Moon Bhaktas first CD which has musical renderings of one of his Mirabai poems and a couplet from his Kabir book.
I have many fond memories of sitting in that converted garage space with you guys, the candle opera, the incense, the poems, the chants and songs, the tea, and occasionally, chocolate. I also have memories of going upstairs to use the bathroom, which would give me an opportunity to glance at what books were laying open on Robert's desk. Pissing in that bathroom was a literary experience. While doing so you could look at the titles of poetry books in a rather creaky shelf next to the toilet.
Thanks X for chiming in and giving some more historical detail!
I was able to join the singing group at the first meeting at Robert and Ruth's house on Irving- I remember X trying so hard to teach us Qawwali singing- it seemed so complex!
It was really a particular moment at the Hennepin Ave. Church meeting that brought me to the group - that meeting was becoming bit chaotic, with so many different groups gathered and we all were trying to voice our opinions on "what next.".. Then Robert toward the end suggested we all sing together right then- and asked us all to join him in what was probably a simple sufic chant. I felt the whole atmosphere in room change after all the men sang together, so many in one voice. Then Robert invited men to sign up on lists for different groups - drumming,etc- I choose to put my name in the signing list right away. Then one day X's invitation letter came in the mail!
It's really been an incredible journey together and I am glad we are still keeping it going. Lots of gratitude.
I am checking now to see if the first friday in January will work as planned to sing together.
Good memories X and I was always intrigued by what books Robert had stacked in his bath tub. I wish I could see the footage of the documentary on Robert done by an Argentinian film company filmed sometime back in the mid 1990’s. They came to X’s house and filmed us chanting one night. I recall how distracted we all were by the bright lights and the “hot” Argentinian reporter interviewing Robert. That was an interesting night. Y
(Note - It was a Chilean film company.)
I'm sitting with Kelly in a South Korean coffee shop as I write this.(Deajon) And I've been reading this email thread. So grateful to have found Robert, the men's work, and Sufi group (You guys!).
Thanks to X and X for combining the great music and poetry and allowing me to join in. Thanks to Ballhead for the wonderful singing.
As many of you know, I've switched carreers. Whether as a therapist or a coach, I regularly find myself quoting Robert, Martin, Moore, Mead, Hillman, or one of you wandering drunkards.
Who needs college?!!!!
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