|image source: thephoenix.webs.com|
When I was a kid I loved mythology. Just gobbled it up. Jason and the Argonauts, the twelve labors of Hercules, the Odyssey. You name it, I read it and loved it. I wanted to be these heroes. But there was also a more mystical side to my love of mythology as well, a kind of symbolism I cultivated which came to light in my work as a nascent poet. Chief among these symbols was the phoenix. Naturally it was a symbol of rebirth for me, but it also became a symbol of action in that regard. A verb. Since then, in life, I have several time quite literally 'phoenixed'. I shed an old life for something completely new.
The first time I did it was when I was 15 or 16. But a little background first.
As soon as I hit my teens, I crashed and splattered against a wall of who I was. I had a painfully tough time adjusting to the emotions and attractions that came from being a young gay man who didn't know (and didn't want to know) he was gay. There were no positive role models, plenty of negative ones on TV and in movies, and everyone around me condemning me for being 'different'. It was not unusual for me to be called a 'faggot' by kids at school; some of them clearly hated me for no reason other than that. Besides this, I didn't fit in because I liked music and art and writing, and I didn't care about being popular or going to prom or dressing the right way.
To me, most of the kids around me seemed to have had their lives planned out before they had made any choices for themselves. You go to school, fit in, prepare for college, get a degree in something like business, get a job, work a lot of hours, get married, buy a house, have kids... It felt like a machine sucking living creatures into it and spitting them out as deluded zombies who never had a chance to learn who and what they were before being shellacked with white, protestant, upper middle class values and trajectories. I could tell some kids were okay with it because it's who they were in fact. However, I felt the majority were conforming partially or entirely due to the social pressure to do so. And I rejected this.
Ironically, part of the reason I was able to do so was because I was different. I wasn't well-suited to the gravity of expectations in the town where I grew up. This gave me the breathing space needed to stop, think, resist, and ultimately to fly free of what I saw as a sewer of gleeful self-immolation. Of course, while I was very clear about what I didn't want to be I had no notion of what I did want to be...and in many ways that's the worst situation to be in of them all. And without that guiding understanding or goal, swimming upstream and moving against the grain was even harder. Not licking the boots of the popular kids was a mortal sin, not caring that they thought I dressed funny was criminal, and being different was social poison. Doing all these things with no apparent reason behind it could only come off as 'rebel without a clue'.
Anyway, for several years I was extraordinarily depressed. I felt trapped, spit on, directionless, hopeless. I had a few adults step forward to provide guidance, but the majority - especially teachers at school - were only too eager to ad their voices and hatred to the cacophony of 'the crowd' and its universal condemnation of 'me'. Wheaton is also a very religious town, and the religious institutions I went to or to which my friends tried to introduce me pretty much poured acid on me from the moment they laid eyes on me. It seemed that no matter which way I turned, the door was shut and I was 'other'.
It was art, writing, and music that saved me. My creativity was my sanctuary and my therapy. It was where I could express feelings I could not put into words. I could explore the questions I didn't know how to ask. It was my safety valve, and it kept me going for a good six to eight years. Looking back, when I was writing or drawing, I was in a form of meditation. It was not a very disciplined form of it, but some of the essentials of the practice were there in larval form. So I'm sure this is what helped me to hold onto reality and fight back the delusion around me.
Anyway...back to phoenixing...
When I was 15 or so, long before I'd found my way out of this multi-minotaur labyrinth I had been plopped in the middle of, I had a major insight. I realized that though I had allowed myself not to fit in, I had not embraced my 'otherness'. I didn't realize this in words, but I do remember thinking: "You know what I'm different, and they hate me. So why not be real different? Why not go all the way in that direction?" I openly pursued my creative side; I made over my clothing in the new wave/new romantic style of the early 80s (think Duran Duran, Annie Lennox, and Mad Max) to ensure I stood out; I made a whole new crop of friends. I 'made myself over', not just in appearance but my attitude and my life as well. It was a transformation, and I called it 'phoenixing'.
It was still very hard to stand up for myself, and I still had no idea how to deal with the horrible secret of being gay (which weighed very heavily on me all the time). I still had little sense of where I was going. However, I did feel a certain sense of ease and happiness come to me, the true freedom that comes from embracing yourself and having faith that - wherever the hell I didn't know I was going - I had me. I was happy with that.
Phoenixing was very symbolic for me, almost like my own religious rite. Not to be practiced often and only with the utmost seriousness. Each time, it was as if an old phase of my life and myself were consumed in fire and replaced by something new. It was still the same old me, but the 'next level' so to speak. And I was ready to go in that new phase the moment it happened and propelled myself forward in some important, visible way in a very short period of time. Often with people around me noticing and commenting on the sudden change.
I've phoenixed several times in my life since then. It happened in 1988 as part of my decision to go away to college. Then again in 1990 partly due to my coming out. In 1993, with my move into the city. In 1994, as I changed the direction of my career and life. It happened in 1998 when Jim and I bought the house and I moved back to the burbs for a new life, and it happened in 2007 when I turned 40 and reassessed myself through that lens. In each case, career, home, relationships...my entire direction and self-awareness...changed. I fully expect that it will happen again, perhaps many more times in my life. It's the most important experience in life, because it's about growing.