Fierce & Tender: Book Review

Dene Maria Sebastiani’s story has left me—not wordless: I am, and always have been a man of words—but deeply moved, and in some mysterious way healed by their relentless exploration of the dark side of human nature and their celebration of the power of deep consciousness to heal the wounds that scar that every human heart. I’m not sure whether his image on the cover shows a primal scream or a sudden burst of ecstasy. The ambiguity is appropriate.

If this were a “book review” I’d be accused of making it about myself. I will. I must. Because this narrative grabbed me by the balls and dragged me back (again!) to confront the rage, the fear, the grief that I myself had learned so well, since boyhood, to keep under control. I learned it at home; it was politeness. I learned it at boarding school; it was discipline, enforced by the cane as well as the ridicule or fists of other boys. I have long believed that it is the need to control and dominate learned by boarding school boys, ripped from their mothers and fathers at too early an age, the led to the British Empire, where white-skinned men (like me) used control to impose their power, their religion, their material greed, on dark- and brown-skinned “savages”. They tried, but they never fully succeeded in stamping out the wisdom, the medicine, the tribal love connection of the ancients among the peoples they subdued, a truth that is testament to their strength and persistence. Tragically, though, the white man’s practice persists in our America today in the shadow heritage of slavery and genocide.

This book reminds me of the urgent need—and hope—for a great global healing, and that the healing begins, always, with each one of us in ourselves. Dene’s never-ending journey into consciousness leads us from infancy to old age. His childhood wound was inflicted in the midst of family passion and violence. He learned to fend for himself in the brawling streets of Brooklyn, finding refuge in drugs and sex and rock n’ roll.  The life he describes leads us through the chaos of a young man’s rebellious misadventures to marriage, fatherhood, alienation—but never quite divorce. Along the way, he learns to question everything, most of all himself, in his struggle to make sense of a life that veers too often into darkness, sometimes despair.

In search of healing, he is willing to try anything that comes his way, from therapy, to psychedelics, to self-medication in all its many forms—until he discovers what he calls “menswork” in a growing organization of men devoted to the healing of those wounds that so often misdirect the ancient warrior energy of men’s internal architecture into harmful action; and instead to redirect that energy into missions of service to their fellow human beings and the planet we all share. On another personal note, it was in the context I met the author for the first time. My own journey brought me to that same place some thirty years ago and discovered that “fierce tenderness” that led me into the depths of the shadow I had for so long hidden, repressed, denied…

For Dene, the journey does not stop there. Staffing many men’s weekends and always finding new ways to deepen his own consciousness, he delves into the mysteries of the shamanic tradition of indigenous Americans and the natural-healing, psychoactive medicines of ancient Mexico and Latin America. He invites us to join him on countless vision quests into the deep and confounding nature of reality and the boundaries of human consciousness. It is not a journey for the faint of heart, and it brings him finally—and us, his readers—into the profound realm of the feminine, the place of mother and of Mother Earth. It is here that he finds his own deepest healing, the generosity of soul and the love that has so long eluded him.

Each reader will find a piece of him- or herself in Dene’s story, because eventually its subject is not Dene himself and his particular journey, but the journey we are all given to take between birth and death. In the light of human history, each of our journeys is a brief one, a moment in time, and we do well to make the most of it, to not let it drift by, instead to find our strength and purpose, what we are given to do with what we have been given. It is this journey that Dene models for us at a depth that most of us never reach, but many aspire to. It shows us how to heal our wounds and in this way to become better, fuller, more loving and compassionate human beings. Dene earned his status as what the cover of his book calls an “urban medicine man” the hard way; I’m grateful that he makes that wisdom available to the rest of us.

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