So you've got your pocketful of scratchy, sparkly, icy, joyful memories. Now what? There are bills to pay and dishes to be done and a global economic system crashing around our ears. Who cares what happened to a child decades ago when the real challenge lies in predicting the future well enough to survive and hopefully profit. What possible difference could it make that you can remember how the thick turf seemed to rise up, to gleefully meet each strike of your horse's hoof beat - that the light of the sun mixed with the stroke of the wind to create a golden drink you could feel sliding all the way down your throat.
Let me answer with a story. Will Smith's movie "Hancock" enlivens an incredible amount of symbolism and provocation. One of my favorite moments is when Justin Bateman's character asserts that Hancock is a Hero and that he'll never be happy until he makes peace with that truth. Hancock certainly already does the superhero crime-fighting thing but in such an incoherent, drunken way that he causes more harm than the original crime. He has super skills - phenomenal strength, the ability to fly, bullet-proof skin - but no context for his unusual abilities. Seventy years ago, he woke up in a hospital with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there. He could do things, amazing things, but without the compass of why. So, he made up his own context. You see, nobody came to the hospital to look for him, to claim him. "What kind of bastard must I have been," he tells, "that nobody, nobody came looking for me?"
This context then became the real story, the scenery and plot through which his extraordinary gifts were to be expressed. He was unimportant, unworthy of love and care and worry. For all his unique power and urgency to help, the world was better off without him. The movie twists this experience into an exceptional story that I highly encourage you to watch for yourself.
Hancock's gifts were obvious. Super strength and bulletproof skin aren't easy to forget. Most of us, however, know our context but have lost track of our gifts. There are a bazillion books and self-help programs out there to unleash your hidden power, to find your true path and set you on your way to a successful career, marriage, body, etc. I think all these well-meaning plans are mistaken. It seems their primary goal is to squish all your lovely, full, round life into the square hole of cultural context.
Another story, true this time rather than scripted. I worked for awhile as an Administrative Assistant in a small private middle school. I shared office space with the Business Manager and Head of School and was privy to most internal mechanisations of the school. One day, I sat quietly while the Head met with a teacher, a student, and the fourteen year old's parents. I can still feel the helpless fury as I listened to the young man tell his side of the story with honest, struggling-for-maturity control. He had been wronged and everybody in that room knew it. After an agonizing pause, his father said, "Sometimes in this world you are right but it doesn't matter. You just have to suck it up."
That is a big, fat lie. And who was enforcing that lie? In this case it was the teacher who would be allowed to continue her cruel behavior unchecked and a Head of School who could maintain order but lose integrity. This is what happens in every single instance of human society. When there are too many students in the classroom to allow for individual expression and discovery, we always standardize. We have done this as an entire culture - the American Dream is standardized to mean the biggest paycheck, house, car, retirement account..... Standardized Achievement tests are designed for one thing only - to test the retention of what has been taught. There is no way possible for an authority to test what they didn't teach you. And so it becomes unimportant, disruptive, even dangerous. Your ability to reflect the context becomes the total measure of your achievement, the quality of your gift.
Don't confuse the context with your gift. Sometimes even when you recognize your gift, it remains merely a distraction unless the external context affirms its importance. I've done that too. Searching and searching for some proof that I was switched at birth, had some secret identity that would explain everything and all the crazy, recurring pieces would finally fit together in a coherent worthwhile story. But that doesn't work. Nine times out of ten, there are no extraordinary details that will change everything you believe about who you are. I was not born on another planet or hidden away by a Faery princess to keep safe until the time was right for my return to the throne. I'm just a girl with supersensitive skin and an overactive imagination.
These are my gifts. They make me question what I'm told - to look behind the words for the real story - to wonder why a father would advise his son to accept injustice. Context isn't concrete for me. It is a shifting plot line, a different chapter where a whole new character or setting can be explored. It isn't real. I am real. My skin tells me so.
Right now, our cultural context is going to hell in a handbasket. But you've had a week of Christmas - all the big and small sensory experiences that make you who you are. How did the cranberry sauce taste on your tongue? How did the sound of wrapping paper being ripped from a gift feel in you ears? How did that moment when you slipped from asleep to awake and realized that it was Christmas morning feel in your throat? Here are your clues to how you long to move through the world.
Search through them. I don't imagine they are all Disney-movie wonderful emotions. I don't care about the context - whether it was Aunt Ruby's famous cranberry sauce or that you were disappointed in the quality of the gift under the wrapping. I want to know what you felt. That was real. Give it a whole weekend of practice. Just notice the color of maple syrup on your tongue. The sound of a hot bath after the frigid trip to the barn or store. What does your skin ask for when you hear the alarm on Monday morning? Give it a whole weekend of being the real thing moving through the scenery of cultural context.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
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