I’ve said this is a story from the other side of “what if?”, but there are other important questions that came up along the way as well. Questions that had their own significant impact on how I would choose to live my life. Questions that had to be answered to make the next stage of my journey possible.
I was a very religious child. When my father marched down the aisle during the altar call to join that Southern Baptist Church we became a part of when I was 9, our family jumped in with both feet. Not just the Sunday morning service, but Sunday School beforehand, too. And the Sunday night service as well. And Wednesday night prayer meeting. And Vacation Bible School in the summer (both weeks). And even for a while, visitation on Tuesday nights. Looking back it feels like an amazing commitment of waking hours and energy, the sort that one would devote to a relationship or a job. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was just a kid. That’s just what my family did.
I’m not sure how I came to understand the deal I’d struck with God in becoming Born Again. I had the idea that there was original sin for which I needed forgiveness. There was a strong component of belief that being a Christian would make my life easier or at least make it make more sense. Hellfire and damnation were pretty powerful disincentives to living a life of sin. Especially when I heard about them every Sunday morning and every Sunday night and every Wednesday night as well. So I attended the services and Bible study meetings and memorized my verses and actually got pretty good at delivering an impromptu prayer when called upon. It all added up to the evangelical goal of “becoming more like Christ.” The problem was: though I was turning into a more genuine Christian, I was not becoming a happier person. Something inside me was feeling overlooked and neglected. There was a portion of my soul that wasn’t getting fed. No matter how many verses I committed to memory and how often I reflected on changing my thoughts to be in line with the mind of God, I felt restless and unresolved.
Fortunately, help arrived from a most unexpected source. I had kept my faith through my college years and soon after graduation, I met and married a woman who was a believer, too. She had come to her beliefs later in life following a haphazard Catholic upbringing and that permitted her some distance from the church and granted her a less fervent connection to religion. Being a bright and insightful person, she regularly opened herself to new ways of looking at life and seeing the world. She eventually went on to get a doctorate in psychology and become a Jungian analyst, though in our newlywed days back in the early 1980s, that career was just a gleam in her eye. I can imagine a conversation she might have had with her father back then, one in which she mentioned being interested in psychology, because one day he sent us a book he had enjoyed called The Road Less Traveled. It was a unique synthesis of spirituality and psychology that spoke directly to the people we were at that time. We had roots in religion, but we were a generation that willingly questioned the stories we had been told. With a willingness to examine where we were with clear eye, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck made it possible to step back from the road we were on and reevaluate our path. And apparently we weren’t the only people who felt that way. The book became a publishing phenomenon going on to spend ten straight years on The New York Times bestseller list. For me it was a turning point. Dr. Peck drew on experiences and examples from his practice as a psychoanalyst to argue that the sole purpose in our lives is to find and to embrace our true selves. And in this quest, nothing was sacred. One client loses his religion along the way. Another client discovers meaning in religion and becomes an ardent believer for the first time.
This was groundbreaking for me.
Instead of my spiritual life being the foundation upon which everything else played out, I was able to envision something deeper at work below the level of religion. My faith lost its grip as the belief that informed all corners of my life and became instead one of many things that wrestled for my attention as I went about the greater work of becoming myself. Peck’s take on psychology came from what I was to discover was a Jungian perspective. Each of us carries within a Self that yearns toward wholeness, and all the steps we take along the journey of our lives are naturally drawing us closer and closer to that authentic expression of who we are. Suddenly, I was free from the impossible mandate to embody the perfection of Jesus Christ. Instead of feeling like I should be more “Christ-like,” I could now with a clear conscience pursue what had begun to make more and more sense: I could become more “me-like.” And as I let go of the burden of fulfilling my own salvation, I found myself discovering a new peace and contentment. My religion wasn’t making me happy. But here was a new direction that offered growth and maturity—and was already making me feel better about myself.
I hadn’t given up on my fondness for footwear or my still undefined appreciation of Eros in my life. But with the new insights that The Road Less Traveled made possible, I could step into a world where the energies that stirred me could exist without guilt. I read that book over and over. I highlighted key passages. I sought out people with whom I could explore the questions it raised. It had become my new bible, and I pursued its teachings with the fervency I had brought to my Christianity.
I mentioned that The Road Less Traveled owes a lot to the science of psychoanalysis in general and the teachings of Carl Jung in particular. It’s no surprise that in the wake of having that book shake up my world, I soon sought out a counselor to work with in therapy. I didn’t know where to begin. My wife had taken a position with a counseling center affiliated with our church at the time. I naturally fell into a seeing a man with an MDiv (masters of divinity degree) in counseling. He was a good place to start, but in retrospect, in spite of his irreverent attitude toward the church that I welcomed, he really didn’t know what to do with my erotic desires. I wasn’t ready to go further any faster. And besides my career was growing quite comfortably at the time. I explored the contents of my head, looked at my upbringing, brought in some dreams, and created drawings to explore the energies that moved and motivated me. And the end result was to make me aware that there was work to be done there. It just wasn’t the place to do it.
Fortunately, I took a new job opportunity soon after terminating with my first therapist. It was a position that honored my talents and presented new challenges and brought me into a new level of employment as well as a new part of town to work in. It also made me exceptionally unhappy. I had left the comfort of a group of co-workers that felt like family to throw in my lot with strangers who didn’t speak quite the same language. And though I liked the paycheck and the opportunity to do something new, I found myself coming home each night ready to cry. What else could I do but go back into therapy? This time around I sought out a Jungian analyst and got a referral. His suite was a few blocks from my own downtown skyscraper, and I enjoyed the conscious journey I made every Thursday to thread my way to his door. Again we looked at my childhood. And again it was eye-opening to examine the particular stories I recalled from my upbringing. But this time, as I related being laughed at for confusing a slug for a snake or being forced to wear a pair of snow boots I hated, he expressed surprise at my lack of emotion over these indignities. He found himself feeling the anger that I couldn’t get in touch with. And we began our work by examining the ways I had learned to suppress myself in order to get through my life. It was an insight that I came to value in working from a Jungian perspective. So much of my background in a conservative family and a conservative religion was about identifying what one did that was “wrong” or “bad.” I loved the Jungian attitude that we did what we did because that’s what we needed to do to survive. Which is not say that I was denying responsibility or attempting to shift blame for my actions. The Jungian point of view chooses to meet us where we are, to take a look at what we’re doing there, and to ask if that’s what we want to keep doing. There’s a great story in The Road Less Traveled that illustrates this approach. A young woman served roast beef to her new husband and her parents at a family gathering. But in preparing the meat, she had sliced off both ends. At the table enjoying the feast, her husband asked why she prepared it this way. Innocently, she replied that that was the way her mother had always prepared her roast beef when she was growing up. But her mother chuckled and explained that she had only cut off the ends because she didn’t have a roasting pan that was big enough. In therapy I found the opportunity to safely explore the things I did and to consider whether they were the things I truly wanted to do. Did I want to feel bad when I didn’t measure up to some expectation my mother had of me? Did I want to feel ashamed when I bought myself a pair of women’s shoes? Did I want to keep cutting the ends off the roast?
These were just some of the significant questions that surfaced as I began working with my analyst. But the one that became a turning point for me was the simplest of them all. I graduated from college into a career in radio broadcasting. I had experience as an announcer and as a producer/audio engineer. Basically, I was a creative. I started out working for a rock station writing and producing promos and commercials and filling in as a disk jockey. I moved from there to another adventurous station doing the same sort of creative work. I know it’s only radio, but it is show biz. We were celebrities in our own way. The magical personalities that presented the music our listeners loved. And occasionally we got to interview the artists and celebrities that populated our playlists. Or get up on the stage before a concert and talk to the audience from the very same microphone the star performer would be singing from in just a few minutes. Show biz. In the midst of this career, I found myself in my analyst’s office taking time to examine what I thought I wanted to do with my life. I had left the long-haired, T-shirts and jeans culture of my Chicago rock station to tidy myself up with a hip looking suit and sport coat style for my Michigan Avenue employer. (I’d attended a friend’s wedding just a year or two before, and the only formal thing I had to wear was a painfully conservative three piece suit. As the attendees milled toward the receiving line, I noticed a guy from the local concert promoter where the bride worked wearing vividly patterned windowpane check coat and pants. Really? I could have been wearing that? I went home with the conviction that I had to make some changes.) Yet still, I knew I wasn’t where I saw myself in my mind’s eye. I wanted to start wearing bracelets. I wanted to get my ears pierced. And although my previous employer was a rock station, there were some of us there who had a flair for fashion. My co-worker on the evening shift celebrated the punk aesthetic that was being imported from the U. K.: ripped T-shirts, skinny pants with bondage straps, and thick crepe-soled brothel creepers. Another co-worker doing middays was an out lesbian, still something of a rarity in those pre-Ellen days, and she tended to dress in very mannish button down shirts and twill trousers. As the staff studio whiz, I tricked out my closet with red corduroy overalls (given to me by a former girlfriend who couldn’t fit in them anymore), super wide-wale corduroy pants, collarless shirts, and in my late ‘80s wardrobe’s most distinctive fashion statement, black leather jeans.
I had been driving a used Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon when I started my career in Chicago. One night while emceeing a Jeff Beck appearance at the now dismantled Granada Theater, a passing motorist collided with my back bumper, and I ended up getting an insurance settlement to take care of repairs. Tellingly, I spent the money instead on other things. Like a $280.00 pair of leather pants I had my eye on at North Beach Leather. They fit like the proverbial glove—on not only my body, but in my psyche, too. I went through a phase of wearing them pretty much every day to work. If summer hadn’t arrived with its heat and humidity, I probably would have kept them on through June, July, and August, too.
When I made the move from my rock and roll lifestyle in an obscure northwest Chicago neighborhood to the more conservative corporate radio culture situated in a high rise on the Magnificent Mile, I was reading from my own script about what I should and shouldn’t be able to do. The leather pants were relegated to the closet for weekend fun and after hours. And a laundry list of other things I didn’t dare dream possible were shelved for what I thought was going to be a step into stultifyingly safe adulthood.
But as I told my analyst about my wish to wear bracelets and get my ears pierced and grow my hair out again and put on my leather pants for work and maybe, just maybe even find a pair of not too controversial women’s shoes that I could wear during the day, he asked me one of the most important questions of my life.
Well, my wife might not like it.
“She’s been very supportive of the work you’ve been doing and the changes you’ve made so far. Why not?”
Well, my friends might not understand.
“If you had a friend who came to you and explained the things you’ve told me that you want to do, would you reject him? Why not?”
Well, my employers might not be comfortable with it.
“You work at a radio station where people are expected to carry themselves like celebrities. Why not?”
Time and again, he would ask, “Why not?”, and I would come up with some excuse which he would then knock down. I came to see that the things that held me back were not out there in the world, they were inside of me. I had constructed the boundaries that held me in. I had legislated the laws that kept me constrained. There was clearly a vision I had for myself. There was life I wanted to live. There was a way I wanted to move through the world. There were things I wanted to accomplish. And oh, yes, there were shoes I definitely wanted to wear. It wasn’t long before I started to embrace that question and ask it of myself.
[On the feet here this week: nothing like making a grand entrance at a New Year's Eve party in Black Milk leggings and a pair of red metallic Litas from Jeffrey Campbell and the awesome Emery bootie (with latches, zippers, and laces) from Matiko.
The next day, a trip to Nordstrom Rack found a pair of oxblood Rylan clog boots from Dansko on my feet. But they were a size 41 and my toes were not entirely happy. Especially since I suspected there might be a size 42 still available somewhere. And I was right. I snapped them up online and wore them proudly on Saturday. The soles are actually molded plastic designed to resemble wood. But I know better. Within striking distance: a pair of purple suede Bikers! from the Lindsey Line from Sven Clogs.
Then finally, a couple of Kork-Ease fans held a meet up. Me in my burgundy Marlo booties and she in her brown Maya hiking booties.]