For decades, my brother Tomaj positioned himself as something of the black sheep in our family, the third of us four boys, and the wildest among us. We stayed overnight in his Bay Area home on our way to Oregon, where I hope to write some final entries for a book of reflections. Somewhere during the evening he understated, “I haven’t exactly led a sheltered life.”
But the last time I stayed with Tomaj, he had introduced me to some fabulous Leonard Cohen songs, including “If It Be Your Will” and “Another Hallelujah”. Both songs feature the angst of a man who knows there is a God in heaven who is worthy of praise but who also isn’t certain how completely we humans can really understand that God. The older I get, the more I see such sentiment as intimately honest, a recognition that God is the ultimate Other, that even the seeker who finds God can’t control God. We played and sang the songs together, at the top of our lungs, both visits.
Tomaj mentioned that he’d just seen the musical Wicked in San Francisco last week. It’s the theatre production that vamps off The Wizard of Oz tale, except that in this “rest of the story” version we learn about the woundedness and good-hearted nature of the Wicked Witch and the general meanness and silver-spoon shallowness of the Good Witch. Bad is good and good is bad. Sounds like just the kind of thing we God-fearing people should reject out of hand, boycott as a matter of principle… and in the process miss out on some truths that will challenge our certainties on quickly judging things by the way they appear.
Because we had much to talk about in a few hours together, we simply agreed that we’d both loved Wicked when we saw it, and we went on to some other topic. But now I’m sorry I didn’t talk to him more about it, and then in the process told him about an experience I’d had earlier this month that he would have appreciated…
I attended a training conference in Denver along with a few other colleagues. As I walked down the hallway of the conference hotel, I walked past someone whose passing caught my eye. When I turned my head around, I discovered that he wore a tail. A big, fuzzy 3-4 foot long tail bobbed up and down behind him. Then another person walked past on his way somewhere, with a striped tail. Then a person fully dressed as a chipmunk went by, eyes straight ahead almost as though she were late, late, for a very important date. Later, a group of five or six people dressed as various animals stood in a circle, all hugging each other and gesturing mutely.
I asked the “normal” looking person standing next to them what was happening, and he said it was a sort of “mascot convention.” His explanation didn’t make much sense though, so I asked at the front desk and learned that this was FurCon, a Furries Convention. They are people who like to dress up like animals. The national Furries conference has 4000 attendees, and this Mountain States chapter conference would have 400-500 participants. I learned later that it’s known—to them anyway—as anthropomorphic art: portraying animals with human characteristics.
Over the next couple of days, each time they’d walk past us, my colleagues and I would steal a furtive glance at each other, sharing an unspoken humor. Perhaps the strangest glance came after I watched a guy dressed like a typical techie nerd go through the breakfast buffet while a raccoon tail protruded from his backside.
I noticed that these people acted very kindly toward each other. A few were dressed in black with spiked hair, but generally they had the gentle nature of characters from Disneyland or Chuck E. Cheese. Mostly they kept to themselves and to their end of the hotel, though a few seemed to engage with the children of other guests.
We’d walk past their conference rooms and chuckle, wondering in whispered tones: what do they possibly talk about in their breakout sessions? I was interested, so I looked for the opportunity to get some answers from a participant.
But the answers I needed came from an unexpected source. The evening that our course ended, a few of us were invited to dinner in a small banquet room down the hallway with the course leader. We talked about many things, including how his training business had grown, thanks in no small part to an invaluable colleague who was not able to be with us. He told us that she is unusually transparent and joyful, and if she were here she’d be the first to tell you her story… of how she’d been molested by all the males in her family since age five, of having grown up with suicidal tendencies and no self-esteem.
Later she was introduced to community theatre and discovered that she could come alive by portraying other people. Over time she began to admire the personality traits of some of the characters she was playing and discovered that she could retain their strengths into herself to fill in some of her own deficits. She started to seek out characters with the strengths she wanted to have in her own life, and in the studying and portraying of those characters onstage, she learned that she could choose to redefine and strengthen herself offstage, beyond her abuse, beyond her victimhood.
Just as our host was saying “She would tell you that playing those characters saved her life,” it hit me, because right outside our room the Furries were walking to their evening sessions. I blurted out, “And God is showing us this right now because I think that’s precisely the understanding he wants us to have toward those people in costumes out there. We don’t know their stories and the meaning this event has for them.” No one felt more convicted than me, and the next morning is when I sought out and learned most of the above information from attendees.
Everybody has a story. It may not be a story of tragedy, though every story includes some mixture of pain as well as joy. But that evening, like my evening seeing Wicked, and my evening with my brother, was a reminder that it’s almost always too early to judge who is “good or “bad”, or who lives inside the black sheep’s costume.