The title of this blog came to me last Sunday while I was walking — as ideas often do. A few thoughts about what I might write floated through my mind as I hiked the small mesa above my home looking out over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. But the actual content came in an unanticipated way — when I stumbled across an online comment to a terrific article that was published on Monday about my dad and me.
The comment read: “Loved Vincent Price but factually he did not support his daughter’s ‘lifestyle’."
All kinds of feelings flew to the surface — hurt, anger, fear, resentment, shame, even humor. Next came the desire to respond. I sat with that for a while, and then realized that the title that had come to me on Sunday IS my response.
Yes, factually, my dad did disapprove of my lifestyle — he loathed the fact that I was a health-conscious eater. He resented having to alter his favorite recipes to exclude dairy or sugar or red meat. He absolutely believed that I had crossed over to the dark side — and had grave misgivings about my ability to have any joy in life without those ingredients.
However, the lifestyle to which I assume this comment refers was not something my father disapproved of in the least. In fact, he loved me more deeply, committedly, gently and completely because he knew that others might not. In 1999, I wrote an article that I still think is one of the best things I’ve ever written. If you’d like to read more about my wonderful father’s response to my “lifestyle", here is a link to that piece.
If you’d prefer a short and humorous indicator of my father’s attitude, I give you instead one of his wittier remarks on the subject. When the director John Schlesinger was putting together my stepmother’s memorial service in London, he asked my father if Coral had any favorite hymns. To which my father replied, “Yes, and quite a few hers."
But perhaps the sweetest “factual proof” is this wonderful photo of my father on his last birthday, surrounded by love and laughter, with all the people who cared for him — every single one of us representing one form or another of the lifestyle to which this comment refers.
While I hope these factual responses will put this issue to bed, I know I can’t ignore what I felt when I read that remark — the hurt, anger, fear, resentment, and shame. You see, while my father may have been one of the most loving and inclusive people on the planet, my mother struggled in her battle between Love vs fear. Ultimately, fear won — and her judgment, exclusion, terror, anger and shame about me played out every day in life in myriad hurtful ways. More than a decade after her passing, I am still healing.
When the title of this blog came to me, the next word that surfaced was joykill. I began thinking about how important it is to be aware of the things in life that try to kill our joy.
I realized that, in addition to practicing joy, I need to root out the joykills in my life by becoming aware of any thoughts, people, actions, beliefs that try to prevent me from experiencing joy, and consciously choosing to reject them.
All of us come with the legacies learned during our upbringings. Those legacies essentially boil down to the choice between Love and fear.
This is a photo of my parents at the same table, experiencing the same moment in time in completely different ways. Even as a little girl, I saw that, as people get older, they seem either to expand or contract. The question for me (now that I have become one of those older people) is — which do I choose?
The older my mother got, the more fearful she became. She looked in the mirror and saw everything she did not like about herself. She looked at her daughter and was afraid that my unruly approach to life would doom me. Just as she pulled back my hair so tightly into braids that allowed not one stray wisp to fly free, so, too, she tried to pull me back into not speaking my truth, not living my idiosyncrasies, and instead into following her advice on how to know what others want so that I could live the life she envisioned for me.
The older my dad got, the freer he became. He married my stepmother, a charismatic British actress with a "checkered past” in which he reveled. The less he cared about what other people thought, the more joyful his life became. He’d always been that person, but Coral gave him permission to flaunt it. For that, I will always be grateful to her.
When I was a little girl, my parents and I lived with an armed security guard in our home. I never found out exactly why. I know that, shortly after the Manson murders and Getty kidnapping, we arrived at our beachhouse one evening to find all the furniture slashed and everything covered with “blood” (which turned out to be catsup). My mother’s fear level spiraled out of control, and the security guard arrived shortly thereafter. Whether there were any specific threats to me, I don’t know. But what I do know is that my mother’s fear for me filled our lives like an eerie presence.
My response was to take more and more risks. I rode horses with names like Nip n Tuck, and gleefully got tossed over fences. I took pride in being sent to the principal’s office for any offense. Whatever I did, it was a badge of honor: I was not going to end up afraid like my mother.
The older I got, however, the more her messages of fear seeped in. Fear of what others would think. Fear of losing the approval of others. Even fear for my own safety. Gradually I began living with my own armed security guard. . .in my head.
The more my mother’s messages of fear took hold, the less joy I felt. Soon, the joykills of my life far outweighed the joys.
Of course, in fairness to my mother, we all struggle to choose the expansiveness of Love over the contraction of fear. Given the fearmongering and egregious acts of hatred being perpetrated today, it is easy to justify feeling more fearful. Reasons to be afraid seem to be teeming to the surface in our fractured world.
Even as I write this, I can FEEL — I mean really FEEL — my mother’s fear for me for speaking my truth. But the fact of the matter is that everyone whom I admired growing up, everyone I wanted to emulate, everyone who I believed made a difference in the world spoke and lived their truth.
Ultimately, I have come to see that the more I’ve whittled away at my own truth, the less joyful I’ve become. But as I’ve stepped into this daily practice of joy, I have realized that I cannot keep “trying to fit in”, being careful of what others think. Those are the worst joykills, because they remove us from our own lives and gradually eradicate any sense of who we truly are, even to ourselves.
So here's another joy equation: You can never be truly joyful, never completely say yes to life, if you are ashamed of, fearful about, or hiding some of who you are.
It’s one of the best things I’ve learned from attending horror conventions: When we let our freak flags fly, we feel joy!
And I do mean FLY!!!
Tolerance is not acceptance. My whole life I have been fortunate enough to have been tolerated instead of completely rejected or reviled. Until now, that has seemed like cause for gratitude. It took me until this year to recognize that tolerance is not enough. In fact, as my dear friend Mary reminded me, a more accurate word might be tolerhate. Because deep in our souls, that’s really what it feels like, actually what it is. Don’t ask, don’t tell is no way to live. To be proud of who we are, to stop apologizing and celebrate being alive — THAT is my father’s legacy of YES to me.
That is my daily practice of joy!
I used to feel like not fitting in was a curse. I kept hoping that one day I would find a group of people just like me (some narrow demographic that I now know actually doesn’t exist).
Now, as I did when I was a child, I recognize my nonconformity as a blessing. In fact, not being able to fit in prevented me from seeking complacency in things that will never bring peace. It has allowed me to feel comfortable in discomfort. It has guided me to seeking out others who are committed to following their own paths — whatever they may look like. Our common ground isn’t found in having the same ideas or words for something, but in the heart behind them.
My friend Kathi and her husband created their own church on the simple premise that Love is always inclusive.
My friends from Black Beauty Ranch acknowledge all the difficulties inherent in the animal rights movement, so they simply let their love of animals be their guide in doing what they can for them, without getting caught up in the politics of people.
With my beloved fellow interspiritual seminarians from One Spirit, I have found a community of truth seekers committed to supporting one another in whatever paths we take to reconnect to our own hearts and to helping others heal theirs.
I have been working in Austin, Texas, a city who growth is fueled by money and technology, but whose motto will always remain: Keep Austin Weird. Love that!
As a lifelong sports fan, I have loved watching "regular people" leave their inhibitions and differences at the door in celebration of the love of their teams. Sharing this has always brought me joy!
And then there are my beloved horror conventions. I don’t think I’ve ever met nicer people than I’ve met at horror conventions. Whether they’re wearing pith helmets or bloody chainsaws for hands, monster masks or a t-shirt with their favorite actor, they leave their joykills at home and show up with love in their hearts and joy in their spirit, ready to celebrate themselves, their friends, and their beloved horror genre!
From all my new friends, I am learning to let my own freak flag fly! From all my new friends, I am releasing my legacy of fear and fully stepping into my legacy of Love. I am releasing the joykills and stepping into joy; expanding, not contracting.
In a week during which a community has been devastated by yet another racially-motivated senseless act of violence, based on the terror of difference with which we have been inculcated as a country for as long as we can remember, perhaps this exhortation to let our freak flags fly may seem simplistic, crass or even untimely. But I believe its is part of our path toward healing.
It began when we freaks reclaimed the word, which originally meant people who were thought to be “agressively antisocial, promoting fear for fear’s sake”. Of course, the word was coined by people in power to encapsulate their own fear of outsiders and the disenfranchised, of those of us who feel we have never quite fit in.
To let our freak flags fly is to turn judgment into joy by reversing a perception of fear couched in a word created by those who were afraid of difference. To let our freak flags fly in the face of the fear of others in the first step. But even more important, we need to stop fearing difference within ourselves.
We are all so afraid of being ridiculed, ostracized or even hurt for what we perceive as our differences, that we come to see only Otherness as we move through the world. And I do mean all of us — especially those of us who feel that we might have something to lose, some perceived position of power, if we were to really be who we are . . . warts, wierdnesses and all.
What if we all recognized that every single one of us feels in some way like a freak? What if we started from a place of compassion for the fearful people who taught us to be afraid of difference, but then began to heal that fear in ourselves? What if we all had the courage to celebrate our differences by recognizing that really we are all just people faced with same the choice between loving or fearing ourselves and others? Wouldn’t that slowly begin to heal the world?
We all need to take a page from Michael Franti and recognize that “all the freaky people make the beauty of the world.” We are ALL those freaky people. If we can each have the courage to let our own freak flags fly and celebrate those of others, not only will we bring back the joy in our own lives, but we will also open our hearts to the only power that can heal our planet. That is the power of Love!