Several years ago I brought my boyfriend home to meet my family. We all went to dinner at Tom’s, an iconic restaurant that had hosted a half-century of our important celebrations: my parents’ engagement, my 10th birthday, my wedding reception, and eventually Dad’s memorial luncheon. Gathered around the table were my father and his boyfriend, and their BFF, my mother; my sister and her girlfriend; my tattooed son and his tongue-pierced date; and us, the California hippies. Somehow, Mark and I were the oddballs, we were the weirdoes. The ones who were teased for asking for veggies to add to the iceberg lettuce with a cherry tomato they called a salad. The ones with long hair in middle-age who engage in conversations that dare to dive deeper than, “How about those Cubs?”
Being the black sheep of the family isn’t something one aspires to, it is a mantle that is bestowed upon you once it’s noticed that you are one of the rare ones with wooly fleece much darker than the rest of your flock.
By the time I was in high school I had a fairly hearty rebellion going on and already knew my life was going to be extraordinary. I wasn’t sure yet what the extra was that would be added to my ordinary Midwest suburban existence, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge to find out. Dropping out of high school to manage my boyfriend’s band, I took the GED on a bet for a bag of weed and scored 6 points higher than my pal; I won the bet, walking away with the prize and a great story, my ebony coat shining.
I ran off to California a few years later, sight unseen, to make a new life. My family, unable to imagine leaving the flock like that, did their best to understand. Landing in San Francisco, I found other black sheep who shared tales of departure from their own white flocks. Finally, a place where I fit in.
My travels took me around the world on a rock tour which landed me in the South, married to a good lookin’ redneck hillbilly who loved my exotic, dark coat, but couldn’t quite keep up with my need for good grammar. I returned to the flock of my youth to raise my young son; most of the time counting the days until I could leave.
While my son has a somewhat mottled fleece, for the most part, he has happily assimilated into the flock. When he lets his freak flag fly it’s because no one has suggested he shouldn’t, he has no contrasting siblings to compare himself to. My sister is lily white compared to me, fairly conservative and private. I wear my life on my sleeve, letting my black wool grow full and lush, proud of my perversity. This makes her uncomfortable. Once she half-jokingly warned me before a BBQ that I better not do “the life coach thing” with the family.
“We don’t like to go deep, Lis, we’re all pretty shallow. So, don’t go asking anyone what their passion is, just talk about the weather or the Cubs. If not, we’ll have to send you out to a meditation bench in the backyard.”
I broke her rules, of course, and quizzed my cousin, a VP of Finance for Pepsi, about her job satisfaction.
“I hate it,” she admitted, “And the sad part is that I don’t even know what I would do instead. I’m afraid to give this up to find out, and I pray when my daughter grows up she’ll pursue what she loves instead of money.”
Ah. Pursuing your passion is not for the faint of heart, and may mean breaking from the flock. Fifteen years ago I did the scary thing after a corporate layoff and pursued a meaningful career, a choice that made my family wary. In the end, my waywardness has led me to a calling that allows me to help brave souls dye their fleece whatever color they want. Seeing them thrive is part of my compensation; part of my legacy is to see them live theirs.
I also found my way back to California, where I belong.
It’s funny, once you find where you’re supposed to be, going back to where you came from is easy. As long as it’s temporary. I love visiting my flock these days, which I do more frequently now that Mom is getting older. We do deliciously ordinary things like play Rumikub and listen to LiteFM, singing along to the songs of my youth when I felt awkward and couldn’t wait to grow up. We’re good as long as I don’t talk about anything deep.
My son has a place of his own now and he floats in and out of the flock. I see his black wool coming in more fully as mine turns gray. Staying with him is the best part of my visits, observing what he has kept of the things he learned from living with me, and noticing how he lives differently.
I was there the night the Cubs finally won the World Series, whooping it up with Zac and his friends, drinking champagne. It was exciting to be part of the flock that night and to celebrate history with the dyed-in-the-wool fans who couldn’t imagine anything more extraordinary.