The Illustration Friday word of the week is mask.
A young man in full early twenties regalia caught my eye as I drove through town yesterday. At a distance, I couldn’t tell if he was Thrift Store Aficionado or patron of Eco Hemp Hip, but it was clear that he was going through (if I remember my sociology correctly) the Ashes phase. His long hair, slouchy walk, and baggy, faded and layered clothing proclaimed his individuality as loudly as any bright T-shirt slogan or placard. The message was, “I am my own person now!”
Growing up, changing roles has never been a graceful or easy process, and even long before the exuberant era of sex-drugs-Rock & Roll, young men in tribal societies had fewer, but usually ritualized, methods of relinquishing the childhood role and “cutting the apron strings” between mother and son: kill a bear, take a walkabout, survive a dangerous ceremony, or cover oneself with ashes and hang out by the fire pit being useless and belligerent. But one of them always worked. Mothers got the message, “My little boy has become a man,” and they let go. Boys were free to take on new roles without the emotional impediment of worrying about how their mothers felt about being left behind. It was an outwardly dramatic process, but probably not as emotionally messy as boy-to-man changes are today–transitions that can last into the thirties, forties, sixties, or even never fully come to resolution. This particular male journey is not the only transmogrification casualty. Writers and psychologists have commented in increasing numbers on the lack of clear guides in modern culture for both men and women for transiting the Stages of Life, and the rippling and long-lasting negative effects of that foggy confusion throughout society.
But I digress a bit. I remember that time in my own life which paralleled this young man’s Ashes phase. I was living in the dorms and later living further away from home on my own, and the sex-drugs-Rock & Roll youths were catnip to this young woman going through her own stage of establishing independence and individuality. I had my baggy and torn jeans, I put away bras forever, and I grew my hair long. I loved the Rolling Stones. But mostly I loved those wild, dangerous and adventuresome boys. They were doing what I couldn’t quite bring myself to do. They were breaking loose, taking flight. For a long time, I felt that I had failed to be truly Free, that I had not taken full advantage of the tumultuous and ‘important’ Sixties and Seventies.
Years later, I realized that changing costumes and masks, was not the ‘meat’ of change at all. The process of Change was about so much more than changing one’s attitudes, lifestyle, or even one’s religion. It was about so much more than reinventing oneself. It was so much harder than these outward changes, and yet, at the same time, so much simpler. The change was to realize–at any age of life–that I was not the roles that I play, my history, the way that I look, the things that I do or even the things that I make, learn or believe. The change was to realize that I am–and always have been–the Awareness that watches ‘myself’ do all of these things in this thing called My Life. I am, simply, myself. I am. No apologies, no explanations needed.
What a relief.
“Untitled” (acrylic on paper) This painting, circa 2000, was inspired by an interaction with a wild raccoon who left a paw print on our side door’s window. Later, my husband found him staring into the rain, totally soaked by the side of the road and brought him home. The wildlife advocate we took him to later told us that he had died of one of those relatively rare but not unusual diseases that wild creatures sometimes get. Clearly, though, he was seeing Mother Nature coming for him. A collector (who was facing prostate cancer at the time) bought this painting without knowing the raccoons’ story. Isn’t the unspoken language of art amazing?