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Sometimes you just need to be someone else

June 14, 2009

These were the brilliant words spoken by a janitor at my school when we were talking about my beard.  It lived a beautiful, multi-colored life during May, carrying me from youth group events to grading of essays and beyond.  For most of that time I listened almost exclusively to the Grateful Dead, and my wife called me out on the beard, saying I was growing it because I wished I was in the Grateful Dead.  Sigh.  Maybe it’s true, at least for a little while.  Reading Blair Jackson’s fantastic biography of Garcia, how could I not want to sit with the gang at Kepler’s bookstore talking of Joyce and Ginsberg, listening to Bill Monroe and Lighting Hopkins?  So I did the best I could, carrying the music around with me, sitting in cafes, and reading the words that inspired a generation of musical innovators.  And it helped to have the beard to stroke along with it all. 

And it got me to thinking in one of those “L’esprit de l’escalier” moments (a delightful French phrase referring to the great retort or comment that comes to mind only after you’ve walked away from a conversation) – the janitor is right.  How often do we find ourselves wanting to just be someone else for a little while?  Isn’t that the escapism of movies or books at work?  Or maybe in a practical way, it’s nice to just have a break from being who we are and have the chance to play another role.   For me, it makes me think of grocery shopping in the town where I teach.  Sometimes I just don’t want those random encounters with students or their parents, and not have someone gaze curiously into my shopping cart at the tofu brick or salad bar container filled only with sliced red peppers or 6-pack of beer or personal hygiene product.  With the anonymous check-out clerk (now no longer true since I usually shop late at night at the same Jewel and know the night crew, as well as when to avoid the floor scrubber machine) I don’t have to worry about the same level of conclusions made about me as a result.  Plus, I get to dress however I want.

Another version of this goes in a totally different direction.  I was once asked to play Santa Claus for a party.  Throughout the afternoon, people I’d never seen or met before simply walked up to me and sat on my lap.  They looked right into my eyes and told me about their hopes, their behaviors, the challenges they’ve faced, and what “I” mean to them.   And it was all real, honest, genuine gut-spilling.  People telling me about deaths or illnesses in their families and how I represent a chance for them to have something that will renew their hope and faith.  People telling me about all the good they’ve done and what they deserve as a result.  People asking me if it’s ok to want a little something for themselves.  Children going on about the wonders of a dreamed-of toy. 

And who am I to hear these confessions?  Was it just the beard (hmm – see above) or the suit or the situation?  It was a powerful experience that stayed with me, and in many ways it’s about the need we all have of being heard and validated.  We want to know someone is listening, and cares.  Isn’t that at least a little bit of the reason behind writing a blog, or creating a piece of art?   But what is the difference between being the receiver of these comments as Santa, and the creator of them?  Does one need to be a good audience in order to be a good creator?  Where does that leave us if we’re stuck listening to something we just don’t want to hear?  I guess that’s where that choice kicks in once again – we can just go to the next book or open mike or grocery store and just be someone else.  At least for a little while.  At the end of the day, aren’t we just who we are?

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