To be animal . . .or not

The memory of learning that I was an animal, a mammal to be exact, still rivets me. The impact lies in my bones deeply but with a significance that’s hard to articulate. There’s a key somewhere in this memory which relates to our planetary crisis of today. On one hand, I abhorred the idea I was an animal. And yet, I knew deeply that I was animal, at home completely with dirt, sky, wood, creek. If Peanuts the cartoon had existed then, I would have identified with Pig Pen with all those dirty motes swirling around his head keeping him real.

But in my growing up days, I face a huge crack in my worlds. To be me or not to be me. I do not see, as a kid, how my animal self and my human self can live in one body, one mind.

Dependency forces the issue. In my family, cleanliness is actually more important than godliness. Self-control, erudition, correctness, perfection, these rule my days. Cultured and civilized…modern. Starched and ironed dresses, white socks, combed hair and even white gloves and purses on certain occasions – even at the age of 3.

My growing-up era deepens the split as I mature.  Women’s lib is not yet known in the ’40’s and 50’s. Girls in school have only recently been given permission to play sports and we do it with gusto but a high price rides on our heads. Half court basketball is better than no basketball. BUT, I run and block and shoot scared to death. I might die by sweat. We wear blue one-piece rompers for physical education class. Buttoned to the collared neck, sleeves just short of the elbow, a cloth cinch belt and bloomers – that’s right, shorts with elastic shirring the fabric tight to the thigh lest an underpant be seen. They were royal blue. If I perspired ( our word in those days ), the cloth under my arms would turn dark, dark blue. Life, as I knew it, would end.

Girdled and stockinged, brassiered and high heeled, bleached highlights and bobby pins  slicking my mousey hair down, nose matte with powder, cheeks blushing with rouge, I lose the home of my body – a dis-ease wildly prevalent today in different ways with different symptoms depending on where you live.

Even when I am forty-eight, my mother still complains, “Deb, why don’t you do something with your hair? You look like something the cat dragged in. ” I remember arriving at her door for a visit one day and she says, “ Go brush your hair, you look as if you’ve been in a windstorm.” In a way that comment pleased me. I was carefully cultivating that windblown look, thinking it Montana chic.

Living in the East doesn’t help either. Propriety ruled there then. I get a hint of what I might be missing when an Australian woman moves into our suburban block with her German, visiting professor husband. We take our kids to the neighborhood swimming pool and she expresses her surprise that kids have to wear bathing suits in America. In both Europe and Australia, customarily, kids under the age of six swim nude. Her family even routinely goes skinny dipping in German hot springs. Her family. All of them together, young and old. Shocking to me.

Then one evening, my sister-in-law, whispers confidentially that she and her husband have skinny dipped under a full moon during a recent vacation in the Caribbean. My up-tight, non-animal self blurts, “Why? Why would you want to do that?”

“It feels wonderful,“ is her simple and candid response. Then she adds, “I want to experience everything life has to offer, at least once. Don’t you?” I don’t know if I do!

More stories to come. In the meantime, I would love to hear yours – How does this split in our natures, influence you?

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About Deborah

Deborah Jane Milton, Ph.D. is an artist, mentor, and eco-psychologist, mother of four and grandmother of eight.
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