One of my absolute favorite things to do while in New Orleans is to simply hang out in Jackson Square and enjoy the street performers, especially the musicians. During our last trip, we needed to kill a couple of hours between the time we checked out of our condo and when our room would be ready at the hotel (our time share runs through Friday morning but we can’t bear to leave until Sunday…or Monday…so we always move to a hotel for a couple of days). We ate lunch and then planted ourselves on a bench near a couple who were performing the perfect music for a sleepy, sunny afternoon. We chatted with them during breaks and ended up buying a couple of their cds. I was listening to these cds yesterday in the car. During one song, the singer/guitarist speaks the following words:
You know, some people, they walk through this life and they take really careful steps. They plan everything they do. And they still fall down and bust their butts. Other people, they run head-long through life. They fall down, too, but they’re just not as surprised. I’ve decided to dance through life. If I hit my knees or my ass, it’s just another move. What I believe is that there is grace and beauty in life, you just gotta look for it.
All morning before I went to town my mind was whirling with thoughts about life and how I want to live it. Then I hear these words on the stereo and think, “Wow. That’s it exactly.” I have spent most of my life planning and playing it safe. And while I’m not ever going to be the type to “run head-long through life”, I am working on that dancing-thing.
One of the perks of getting older (yes, there are some) is the growing sense of the brevity of life. Along with that realization comes the desire to make the most of it, to live life to the fullest and most of all, to live life on your own terms. Years of trying to meet the expectations of others while denying one’s true self begins to take its toll until finally, with any luck and a modicum of good sense, you say, “Screw it… I’m done with all that.”
I’m sure being a first-born has a lot to do with it, but I’ve always been the “good girl”. Quiet, shy, neat, precise, obedient, responsible. And for the most part, those words do describe me. Or perhaps I should say, they describe one side of me. The side I’ve shown the world. The side my parents, other relatives, teachers and most friends are familiar with. But there’s another side, one I’m only beginning to acknowledge and embrace.
My kids and husband have seen that other side and in fact, I think they recognized it before I did. Several years ago my then-teenage son made the comment to me one day, “Mom, you’re just a hippie who bathes.” Btw, that’s the origin of the title for my blog, The Well-Groomed Hippie. My daughter, the environmentalist, tells people that I was the original impetus for her eco-passion. A favorite story is how, at age two, she saw her father starting to throw away one of her baby food jars and she said, “No, Daddy! We ‘cycle those!”. And David claims he sensed a bit of a rebel in me even as a young teen, although I kept it well-hidden most of the time.
When I think back, way back, I remember things like coming home from school during junior high and doing yoga along with a program on PBS. And reading nutrition books by early health food guru, Adelle Davis while in high school. For some unknown reason, I was fascinated by a lot of so-called counter-culture activities and interests. For a time I even entertained secret thoughts of attending Berkeley, although no one suspected a thing.
As a young mother, I didn’t quite embrace “the norm”, either. For instance, I was determined to breastfeed and did so for almost a year with Chris and a bit over eighteen months with Lisa, even though I didn’t personally know anyone else who did so at that time in my circle of friends. We co-slept with our kids for several years and in many ways practiced what is now referred to as “attachment parenting” although I had not heard the term back then. Despite the fact that influential parenting examples in my family were quite vocal about how Dr. Spock was responsible for “the ruination of an entire generation of children”, I wore out two copies of his book “Baby and Child Care” and appreciated his verbalization of the notion that good parents instinctively know how to care for their children. And I absolutely adored the gentle Dr. T. Berry Brazelton whose television program I watched religiously.
I tried to provide an environment for my kids which stimulated creativity and imagination. I eschewed most of the popular battery-operated toys in favor of things like dolls, cars, blocks and craft items. I tried to feed them as healthy a diet as I knew how at that time. I did all of these things despite the fact I didn’t personally know anyone else raising kids like that. Later, I would decide to remove my kids from school to homeschool them. And we didn’t even homeschool like others I knew. I asked a few homeschooling moms in my community to recommend some books when we first began to seriously consider homeschooling, only to be told they really hadn’t read much about it. Most were homeschooling for religious reasons which wasn’t my primary reason. With nothing much to go on, I decided to make use of the local university’s library and spent hours combing the stacks in the education section. That is where I discovered the works of John Holt whose thoughts on education resonated deeply within me. Over time, we became more and more *relaxed* about our homeschooling endeavors until we were pretty much unschoolers by the time they were in high school. I didn’t share much about our methods and educational philosophy with others in our local homeschool group because many already didn’t approve of our family’s lifestyle choices (for one thing, we had a television-gasp!).
Still, despite all this evidence to the contrary, I continued to think of myself as fairly conventionally mainstream. It’s really only been since the kids became adults that I’ve started to look within myself and see the truth of who I really am and what I really believe. For instance, I grew up in a staunchly Republican family (as did David) and just about convinced myself that my political views fit this mold. True, I’d always secretly sympathized with the anti-war and anti-death penalty crowd, but otherwise I was certain I was politically conservative.
Then we took a trip to New Orleans, barely escaping before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. David and I watched in horror and disbelief as the city drowned and government screwed up. We heard people say that New Orleans didn’t deserve to be rebuilt and that most of the poor blacks whose homes were destroyed were just lazy criminals anyway. Much of what we heard wasn’t new but we were actually hearing it and absorbing it for the first time. That’s what caused us to start re-evaluating all our preconceived notions.
And then we began going to New Orleans twice a year, stretching out each visit as long we could. We talked to people, asked them to tell us their stories, listened to them with open hearts and minds, and learned. Oh, did we learn. And I don’t mean just in a political sense, although that certainly was part of it. No, more than that, the people of New Orleans began to teach us some very important lessons about life. In the midst of all the suffering and loss, these people retained that je ne sais quois which distinguishes them from the average American. Within a few short months, even while still grieving, plans were underway to hold Mardi Gras. People in other parts of the country said they were crazy but the typical New Orleans resident wears crazy as a badge of pride so that was certainly no deterrent.
We didn’t attend Mardi Gras but we did visit during Easter. Some of what we saw broke our hearts but I think that visit was when we really began to understand who the people of New Orleans are and got a glimpse of what makes them so special. We attended Easter services at a church which had flooded. This was their first Sunday since the storm to meet in the sanctuary rather than an upstairs Sunday School room that hadn’t flooded. The pews were still being refinished so we sat on folding chairs but no one cared. In fact, the joy in that place was palpable. It was a small crowd as many members had scattered to other parts of the country and were as yet unable to return to their homes. It was one of the most memorable church services I’ve ever attended. The music was magnificent (“Amazing Grace” with pipe organ and jazz ensemble simply has to be the way God intended it to be sung), the people were gracious and joyful, and the sermon…well, it was simply perfect for the occasion. And guess what the minister spoke about? Dancing through life. Yes, he really did. In spite of all the pain and sorrow these people had experienced, he told the congregation that God meant for them to have joy in their hearts and that life was meant to be a dance. I’ll never forget it.
Little by little, with each visit to the city we love, I peel away another layer of societal and familial expectations. And with the shedding of each layer I feel a sense of freedom I didn’t know was possible. I’m becoming much more aware of what makes me happy and comfortable and authentic. I’ve discovered that while I still enjoy dressing up for special occasions and am perfectly fine wearing “age-appropriate” attire when called for, I feel the most like “me” when I’m wearing a long, flowing skirt, sleeveless top and my Birkenstock sandals. And while virtually all of my friends my age have short, “mature” hairstyles, I just cannot give up my long hair. Sometimes I carefully blow it dry and use a straight iron on it so it looks smooth and controlled but in humid New Orleans I just let it dry and wear it a little wild and curly. I’m sure there are those who think I should grow up, cut my hair and dress like a 40-something mom. I suppose they’ll have to get over it, though.
I suspect my altered political and social views are the most surprising changes and rather disconcerting to my conservative relatives. I know I’ve been talked about behind my back, some have de-friended me on Facebook, others frequently blog about the views I hold using negative and rather hateful terminology, knowing full well I’m likely to see it. Yes, this sort of stuff hurts but I’m gradually beginning to let go of the pain and recognize their actions for what they are. It would be nice if I could be accepted in spite of my “evil”, “idiotic”, “socialist”, “Marxist”, “mental illness” but since that doesn’t seem to be the case, I’m learning to laugh off the insults.
I still have a long way to go but I’ve made huge strides along the path toward authenticity. I am who I am and I’m learning to embrace that without apology.
Instinct … directed me here, to the Vieux Carré of New Orleans … I couldn’t have consciously, deliberately, selected a better place than here to discover — to encounter — my true nature.~Tennessee Williams