It is never too late to become what you might have been. ~ George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans
People have always trusted me with their stories, whether that was wise on their part or not. I remember a grade school friend trying to tell me he was gay before I even understood what that meant. I have a memory that we were leaning against the warm brick school building during an afternoon recess one lovely spring day and he began to share his feelings about another boy in class.
Maybe we were in 6th or 7th grade, and far less knowing than children are today, dressed in our uniforms (“Catholic-school-camo”) and trying to be cool. I remember his words alarming me, as though he’d suddenly lapsed into gibberish or begun revealing an advanced fluency in a foreign language, leaving me far behind in my English-only comprehension. I had no idea what he was talking about, of that I’m certain, but I can still see the anguish in his eyes and recall the immediate response of fierce protectiveness flooding my body; though, again, I had no idea what was happening. I innately knew I would attack, claws extended, anyone who deepened the pain my friend was already suffering for being “different.”
Friends and relative strangers have continued to come out to me through the years. I came to accept that there was some identifiable badge I received at birth that signaled “safe harbor” to friends burdened with this form of otherness and a need to find relief and peace.
I suppose, we all have these odd “openings” in our spirit that invite surprising revelations or secrets of one kind or another. Thankfully, I realized at an early age how sacred these exchanges are, and have tried to offer the love and support such intimacies deserve, for they were given so honestly and with such purity that one definition of sin I’ve come to understand is when we reject the invitation to witness another’s vulnerability laid bare on the world’s altar.
“May I tell you and show you who I am?”
My parents appreciated and celebrated the arts, but didn’t actually want their daughter to pursue an artistic discipline as a career. They encouraged me to supplement my theater and English degrees with another in education, or perhaps I might also consider nursing, or even law, as professions that suited my intellectual gifts and would also ensure a life above the poverty line. They loved me and I loved them, but I caught their anxiety, or it matched my own, and I doubted I could survive if I chose a life in the arts.
I admired friends who had blazing internal loci of control, who nourished and validated their gifts regardless of whether they had the support of parents, teachers, critics, and friends, or not. They knew who they were and why they were here; there was nothing that prevented them from living authentically from the heart of this self-knowing. I wasn’t that secure, certain, or courageous, and turned towards choices and behaviors that assured approval, if not from myself than from those who mattered more in my creation of self-image.
We know where that leads: a life lived falsely can never truly make anyone happy.
I would never present the ensuing years as a tragedy, although they were initially not particularly joyful and I was not particularly alive.
Laurence G. Boldt, in Zen and the Art of Making a Living, says, “In Japan, the place where ‘the art’ is practiced is called the ‘dojo’ or ‘house of enlightenment.’ There is a popular saying. ‘The Dojo is everywhere!’ Wherever work is done in a present, conscious way, there is the house of enlightenment. Transformation is the action of both spiritual liberation and art.”
Eventually, I understood that I could make art of anything, and so I approached writing ad copy as an artist, and then teaching, and then chaplaincy, but I still identified with the job title rather than the deeper truth of my identity. I guess I needed the lengthy gestation many late-bloomers have required. The risk, of course, is that time will run out before we emerge from our safe cocoons and utter our cri d’couer; ironic, given all the years I was the vessel others chose for holding their own spirit’s true song…
And then, about six years ago, I began a graduate program, and in the first class we were asked to use one word to describe ourselves. It was surprising to hear many people identify themselves with their occupation, but not nearly as surprising as when I heard myself say, “Artist.” Immediately, the feelings of unworthiness washed over me; I felt others would feel I was pretentious and excessively egotistical. What on earth had come over me and why did I say that? Out loud? A lifetime of self-doubt and voices not my own banged around in my psyche and began their practiced parade through my heart.
And then the professor smiled, hugely, and said, “I love that!” Like magic, my words, affirmed by his, banished the voices from my spirit. And though they’ve tried to sneak back within, the eviction sign posted that day has remained and ended the appeal of my spirit as their residence.
Perhaps encouraged by the wonderful storyline in the movie Beginners, I’ve been telling friends lately that I’m “coming out” as an artist. In this film, Christopher Plummer’s character, based on writer/director Mike Mills’ own father, reveals his homosexuality to his family and friends when he is 75, and despite a diagnosis of terminal cancer, he dies while blossoming, fully himself and joyfully still becoming.
I love to watch the Monarch butterflies lay their eggs in mid-summer and have allowed milkweed to take over the garden in front of my dining room window for that reason. It smells heavenly and the intricate ball of blooms, like some lovely orb of Murano millefiori, is beautiful. The caterpillars, with their yellow and black stripes, are fun to observe, though they make the once tolerable milkweed display raggedly less acceptable. But the payoff comes when the glistening iridescence of the cocoons appears, and they hang from leaves and the deck railing like fairy decorations left for our delight. Now the daily observations become more faithful until the 10th day or so, when the fragile butterflies emerge, damp with new life and unsteady until the wings slowly uncurl, and they fly off, tender and brave.
I don’t know why, all my life, others have come to me as they’ve begun to emerge from their cocoons, or why it took me so long to spread my own wings, but I do know we’re asked to hold each other through our transformations. And we have to witness and welcome each other’s coming out, saying, “Yes, this is who you are and I love it! And I will do everything in my power to encourage you to joyfully become still and fully more of who you are.”
One fine spring morning she pierces the shroud and comes out a butterfly. That is how in us, through the darkness, deliverance is busy. ~ Nikos Kazantzakis