Being ‘natural’ was never on my priorities list. The first person I met who truly believes in being himself, my Dad, is practically homeless, alone, and bound by emotional scar tissue so thick that it would take a whole other lifetime to force blood back into it. “Just be yourself,” was understandably suspect for a very long time. But it’s 11:30 pm and I just left the park after placing the second of my caskets, my arms wrapped around the tree I placed it in, crying and whispering thank you into the wet bark. The dimples and bark bits are still pressed into my forehead. The howl of my natural life, hungry to thrive, is all around me these days, and it is good and perplexing and refusing to be ignored anymore.
I think we mistake the idea of living a natural life for a lot of things, or at least I did—a life that is excessive, disregards others, is selfish, irresponsible, unrealistic. It was very easy to do. Fear and famine sent me crawling into the arms of some rigid taskmasters early on. The demands of organized religion broke me apart, commanded compartmentalization, so that even those who sought to love the whole me could only find a handful of pieces. And my awareness of how differently I was wired made me believe that I should be grateful for any bit of excavation here and there. I learned a term recently which is bubbling through my consciousness: lateral racism, or intra-group hatred. The article, written by a Native American elder, quoted a line he had read on the subject. “We could not fight the oppressor, so we fought each other.” While this post is not about racism, I resonate strongly with this idea. I couldn’t name the things that locked me up inside, kept me small for so long. I’m still not a hundred percent sure I can name them accurately, so in lieu of fighting nameless shadows, I cast suspicions on anyone whose life was too large, had too much fire.
However, I had believed many of these issues in the neighborhood of religion to be over with, in the past. Not so. I was sitting on the couch with a friend earlier this week, enjoying a glass of wine as we stumbled into a conversation on religion. I paused shocked as I heard myself say, “And the measure of love in the Church is how many things you can force people to do that they don’t want to do.” Give up a “sin”—points for you. Get a non-Christian to give up all their “sins” and cross the line—triple 7’s jackpot o’ points. While the thought itself was not new, the iteration of it was. Years worth of weight from trading love for compliance landed squarely in my chest, and it struck me that I had taken that same attitude into my teaching for many, many years. “If you do what I want, whether it’s because you think it’s best or you’re trying to game the system, I will love you.”
Those of you who know me well will say, ‘that’s not you,’ or, ‘you’ve always been very loving to all of your students.’ There are two rivers in me that run parallel my friends, but it took me a while to realize them and that they do not touch. In one river, I love my students deeply for their humanity, they are the people I always wanted to be; funny, filterless creativity, fiercely kind. In the other river, their lack of obedience chafed me dry, and for many years I found reasons to feel sorry for them for not wanting the right thing. Sadly, that looks like love to fellow grown ups, but it does not feel like love to kids.
Now, I’m not advocating anarchy. I realize that children must be made to eat broccoli even if they don’t want to, and adults must be made to live peacefully in the world with others even if they don’t want to. But at what point are these orders and laws necessary, and at what point do they steal our souls? What is the line between nurturing guidance and egomaniacal kidnapping? And do we as order givers really understand the toll theses things are taking on us? Are teenagers really incapable of judging what is right and healthful for their souls and what externally imposed definitions they should run from? I stood with my seventh period class just last week, facing great resistance to a lesson with little understanding as to why, and I thought, “I am so tired of making people do what they don’t want to do.” Being with students that are seekers is ridiculous fun, the joy of every teachers day, but trying to turn them into seekers seems increasingly to miss the point.
And as adults are we equally incapable of judgment, or are we just blinded to the fact that there are other options? There are squares, but there are also circles, and if we bring the two close enough, and provide the right mood music, maybe they will even make baby ovals. Maybe there is a place where the forced life and the thing that twirls, stomps, and sings from the soul can live together. That’s what I was hoping as I placed casket two in the tree tonight: may there be a way for the natural and the unnatural to merge, find balance, find new life, find peace. I sat in my last meeting of the week on Friday afternoon, unusually drained for such an uneventful week. As I struggled to put together sentences and find any desire or engagement in the conversation, a huge orange butterfly drifted onto a bush outside my window. The other person in the room with me was not impressed, and in fact her face said I might be slightly challenged to break off mid-sentence to notice it, but something in me was laid flat by the juxtaposition between the place I was and the place I wanted to reach.