Monday, May 23, 2011

When "Just be yourself" is hogwash

"Everybody wants to be somebody they're not," he said, reeking disapproval through his cigar smoke. I had come to work in costume. It was my first job after four sanity-sapping years of being a stay-at-home mommy. I reported on schools, crime, municipal court and local business for a twice-weekly newspaper in a California town still small enough to get by with two high schools. The police chief and I were on a nickname basis. It was that kind of tiny.

Hank, the city reporter, was biding his time until retirement. The rest of us were in our 20s, with big heads, lofty dreams and fragile egos. Hank was the lone staffer who came as himself for Halloween. I felt sorry for his lack of imagination...

When I was growing up in Nichols Air Base (in the Philippines), Halloween wasn't the huge deal it is here in the U.S. Nobody I knew celebrated it, as it was eclipsed by All Soul's Day.
Bells the Dancing Sprite by darklingwoods

Imagine my delight as an expat to be given an entire 24 hours that sanctioned weird get-up. It felt like yet another reprieve from the repressive martial law regime/strict Catholic upbringing/prying eyes and wagging tongues. Best of all, you were guaranteed to have such a day every year! My fellow Americans are all right by me in this respect ; )

But why am I talking about Halloween in May? Simply this: I carry the devil-may-care spirit of Halloween in my heart all year round. (And I want to be a bad influence on you.)

If the spirit of giving should be extended beyond Christmas, and if we're proud to be Americans on 364 days other than the Fourth of July, why not this?

Why not decide, from here on out, that when we weary of being who the world supposes we are, we bail? We molt our skins and slip on something that fits better for right then.

We outstare the swirling abyss and stave off the swallowing up of our selves by proclaiming, "I am more than this."

This is being the mom of anyone (two, three, four...) under five. You fiercely love those rugrats but they've been running you ragged by passing the flu bug back and forth.

This is being the mom of anyone over 25. You raised your brood to be respectable and now they're trying to keep you in line. God help you if you so much as hint at (still) being a sexual being or allude to a viewpoint counter to theirs.

This is being the spouse of anyone who defines your domestic  status as "my slave." It's being the adult child whose parents tell you that you can never do anything right. It's being the employee of anyone who thinks of you as "my drone." It's being the business owner/wait staff/retail worker, et al whose customers may as well address you as "my doormat."

I write for those of us pestered by the taunting voice in our heads that never misses an opportunity to remind us that we were never good at (fill in the blank)—and therefore should never expect to be.

But it's also for those of us who have been lulled by a convenient but colorless life. A lucrative but uninspiring career. A comfortable groove. A vague discontent. A rut.
Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. ~ Joseph Chilton 
The need to escape the confines of the mundane suckles deep in the human heart and feeds on whatever kibbles it can find in film, music, ads and other synthetic experience. Audrey Hepburn discovered the woman behind the princess on Roman Holiday. Norah Jones had a hit with her siren song, "Come Away with Me." Everywoman pleaded to her bath bubbles, “Calgon, take me away!” At peak attendance, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival drew 320,000 people craving pixie dust to sprinkle on their average joe and jane existence.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation to escape births ingenuity. A 2008 episode of “This American Life” features two jailbirds who sprung themselves with a rope fashioned from 18,975 feet—that's 3.5 miles—of dental floss. I’d have given them the Making Do medal if they’d been smart enough to pull off the caper. Alas, they got caught. Reality doth bite.
Nothing splendid was ever achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance. ~ Bruce Barton 

If the circumstances around us don't add up to the sum total of who we are, stepping back from them is only half the challenge. The trickier half is choosing what defines us. Then protecting it from the onslaught of doubters, hecklers, and condescenders.

That's why "Just be yourself" is a cruel oversimplification. Anything that starts with "just" usually isn't simple. Just do it. Just say no. Justice for all.

Plus, why just be ourselves if we don't like who we've let ourselves become?
In that little town where we had just moved, in a rented house, in a dark room just after dusk hit and before I turned on the lights, I faced a pile of laundry to fold. Something made me glance up from the monotony and ask, "Is this all there is?" And then I shuddered at the soap opera scriptiness of that moment.
It took 20 years from my soap opera moment to my aha! moment. Technically the latter isn't a moment but a torturously slow unfolding. In that span I've seen my rugrats through graduation, weddings, spats, and the royal spawn (who is about to be followed by the royal spare). My career ambitions have spiked and flatlined. My marriage's coffee cup ran dry, but we got a refill.

After bumbling around on auto-pilot, miserable yet unable to put a finger on why, I've learned to keep all my senses on full alert. One of the unexpected pleasures of not having a boss and having an empty nest is deciding for myself at the start of each day how to answer the following:
  • What do I want to dwell on?
  • What deserves to be called a priority?
  • What will I get done and how significant is it to me?
I know when to clap the horse blinders on and pop the earplugs in, too. Like when the mean inner voice reminds me that I am a speck in the sand dune of bloggers and invisible pollen in the global garden of etsy artisans.

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life’s about creating yourself.

~ George Bernard Shaw
This summer the dance studio where I teach is hosting the annual showcase. Students and professionals from other dance studios in the Northern California region will join in about six hours of pretense that we are dapper, graceful, saucy and riveting every second of our lives.

We'll come equipped with our smoke and mirrors—soundtracks, costumes, big smiles, sparkly jewelry. Many of us will have enticed our friends and loved ones to witness our fleeting transformation. (I, on the other hand, will resign myself to the inalienable truth that the absent hubby is averse to dance. But at least he's OK with my partnering with other men.)

My partner, X, and I will perform a tango doble. I wasn't content to do either a tango or a paso doble; I had to smoosh them together. Our arsenal consists of leather and feathers, metal and dragon scales. With some techno body lighting thrown in, if we can pull it off.

Some people create scrapbooks of their past and vision boards of their future. I created a treasury as a springboard for my costume. (We'll keep X's costume under wraps for now.)

When holding it together gets to be a drag, come in drag!

The clickable version of this curation of identity shifters, handmade by etsy visionaries, lives in my etsy shop over here. Do you think I should get the braided hair headband or the leather flower one? The flower or leaf earrings? Should I make my bondage corset circle my chest or waist (the ribcage-looking one)? C'mon, you've read this far down, might as well chime in.

In real life I've been described as calm, centered and quiet. So Why Not step out of my skin and put on this alternate persona? As I told a friend recently, "Strange is the new normal."

You know that costume I wore to work at the teeny tiny newspaper 20 years ago? It was right out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yep. I went to the parent-teacher conference in it, too.