Wild Thing

Photograph by Julee BrandDuring a question and answer session at a recent women’s conference where my friend Sally and I were speaking, we were each asked what we most liked about ourselves.  Without hesitating I declared my affection for the wild part of me that lives on in spite of repeated attempts — both internal and external — at domestication.

Two things surprised me. The first was my response given immediately without thought, and I recognized it for what it was: a sincere love note from my subconscious. The second was the reaction of some of the women I was addressing. They approached me afterwards and confided that they too held on to the ‘creature within.’ But they meant it as a pejorative, an aspect of the flesh that still squeaked out a rebel yell and had not yet been tamed by a “holiness” makeover.

I am well acquainted with self-destruction and debauchery, but that isn’t the kind of animal behavior I was referring to. I was thinking of something deeper, more instinctual, that is not learned but just is — and essentially is.

In her book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes claims that “Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species.” And she wants to save wild women from that impending extinction through language itself: “These words, wild and woman, cause women to remember who they are and what they are about. They create a metaphor to describe the force that funds all females. They personify a force that women cannot live without.”

Estes uses words like freezing up, de-clawed, and tiny-hearted to describe the loss of our natural, primitive vitality and says that what often remains is a “well-behaved, well-meaning, nervous woman, panting to be good.” She says it’s far better to be as we are made — and to extend the same grace to others. But often, the work of discovering who we truly are is done in exile.

I was born into Southern Society in Knoxville, Tennessee. My parents were well-heeled and expert in navigating the “smart set” without a single bead of sweat between them. I dropped into their midst with one chip on my shoulder and another in my DNA that eventually led to alcoholism and drug addiction. The broken heart that rode the wake of their divorce added to my mounting distress, and the resulting insecurity made it impossible for me to understand the distinct beauty of my own design for many years. I was a maverick, but not by choice. I simply could not fit in. What I did not realize was that I was never made to fit in.

As a child I claimed my outsider status and displacement in Northern California where my mother relocated to begin anew. I’ve never had any math skills, but I got the arithmetic right away that no confidence plus no frame of reference equals no account. This was my lasting lesson from elementary school, and I learned it with no small amount of bullying and shame.

As a teenager back in Knoxville each summer I retreated further from the pack when I realized that I was not a “girly” girl and had nothing of value to contribute to that crowd other than a certain daring-do that kept me on the edge of desirable cliques. I was the occasional party favor who could provide entertainment and raise a few eyebrows, but my antics ultimately isolated me even further as a “bad girl.”

My size and shape were sticking points to inclusion as well. I was too large to wear the popular clothes or shoes, and my fashion sense was stuck somewhere between Neiman Marcus (my father’s gift store of choice) and the lingering head bands, tunics, and love beads from the California hippie era. My stylish friends told me that the only taste I had was in my mouth. 

Then I found music and a voice for all the inarticulate truth in my soul. I am a musical child of the 70s and had the benefit of the great rock and roll era, launched in the late 50s and the undisputed ruling class until it began to sputter and stall in the age of 80s disco. Listening to bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Little Feat, the Band, the Who, the Allman Brothers, and Fleetwood Mac along with artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison, I discovered my native tongue. I found a way to sing my own song. I learned my voice and explored its nuances by singing, howling, and purring. I found a melody for sadness, anger, yearning, and joy. Songwriters like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Stevie Wonder offered a road map for the lyrical path I would eventually embark on.

But equally present in my late adolescence was substance abuse. I had begun binge drinking and using cocaine and hallucinogens. Music ultimately was not enough to get me sober, but I do believe that it was the talent God gave me as a coin of belonging until I could accept His gift of sobriety. And that tiny flame pulsing in every chord I played was the one thing that offered me any hope for a place in the world for a long, long time.

Oddly, during the years of active addiction, my connection to my instinctual self remained strong. “Courage in a bottle” supplied the drive to every form of reckless, licentious conduct, but it was also the unapologetic source of a plumb line to all that was real and authentic in me. It wasn’t until I surrendered to recovery that my wild woman faced serious threat.  

I entered a season where my musical dreams began to die, but my hopes for a family life came alive. These things combined with the absolute structure I relied on for sobriety made for some calmer emotional weather, but it was a disengaged calm that prioritized everything before my imaginative life and left my wild woman in the coat closet.

Every musician understands that the business of music is often enemy territory to freedom and creativity. Chart positions and sales figures declare an artist’s value in stark terms. In my career I’ve had a lot of critical caché but very few chart positions and not much in the way of sales. I listened far too carefully to those who declared that I had exceeded my “sell by” date and far too little to the small voice within and over time I lost my drive for music. Frankly, it didn’t seem to be worth much.

Simultaneously, I found many rewards and challenges in marriage and parenting. I devoted much time to my family. I devoted increasingly less time to personal pursuits, to writing and creating music, both of which are immediate vehicles to my own unique way of being. Fortunately, I had an ongoing career performing and recording albums — and I had the voice of my husband, never far from my ear urging me to use my singular gifts and put the vacuum cleaner away.

I have always been a creature of order. Having everything neatly in place helps me to focus and balances the enormous chaos that sacks my mind. In sobriety, though, I became fairly rigid and even pathological about household management and, ever prone to extremes, traded swinging from the trees for making sure the beds were made properly.  Chores have value and sometimes tidiness and organization truly equal peace and feng shui harmony. But when order takes precedence over everything then my life becomes a series of mundane tasks and I, the restrictive master.

In a reflection on Job from her book Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis writes, “God’s involvement with the world expresses itself in huge, unapologetic delight in a creation whose outstanding quality is quite simply magnificence: power and freedom on a scale that is bewildering and terrifying.” She then describes God’s enormous pride in Leviathan and Behemoth, two creatures well beyond taming: “Behemoth, God tells Job, is ‘the best thing I ever did’ (40:19); and every one of Leviathan’s scales was set in place with the same exquisite care (41:15–17) that fashioned Job in the womb.”

Davis sums up her thoughts on this by quoting Annie Dillard: “The creator loves pizzazz.”

So . . . what’s your pizzazz? What is the thing in you that is passionate and wild but also perhaps bewildering and/or terrifying? What do you get lost in? Most importantly, what is that innate thing in you that is so untamable that it can only belong to God? And if it belongs to God then He is the One who must define it and guide it. After all, as Ellen Davis suggests, “the great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”

A huge aspect of this lack of personal control is in our own composition. Our loves, our drives, our looks, our longings, our genetic read-out — all are given in secret and all are an expression of an attentive Creator. We are fallen creatures to be sure and not fully as we were intended, but perhaps one of the greatest burdens of a fallen world is the restriction and conformity we place on how we are made and how we operate. We say: this part is good, but this part is bad and needs adjustment or even excising. Often we are drawn to specific pursuits, but if we don’t know how to make them so, we simply let them go. Rather than stepping into the frightening mystery of exploration, guided by the eye of God Himself, we tamper, subdue, and even break ourselves in order to be comfortable and accepted by those around us.

For me, a critical piece of the transformed, surrendered life has been to claim all of my parts, including and especially those that have a feral quality to them. To take seriously the question Estes posed: “So why do women keep trying to bend and fold themselves into shapes that are not theirs?” She urges us instead to find our own packs: 

To not only accept one’s own individuality, one’s specific identity as  a certain kind of person, but also to accept one’s beauty . . . the shape of one’s soul and the fact that living close to that wild creature transforms us and all that it touches.

When we accept our own wild beauty, it is put into perspective, and we are no longer poignantly aware of it, but neither would we forsake it or disclaim it either. . . . Like the creatures, we just are, and it is right.

Reminds me of what Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: “I love to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights—any evidence that they have not lost their original vigor.”

What are your native rights?

Ask yourself: what do I like? What do I love? What captivates my attention? What am I drawn to? What do I deny?

Are you an artist, a poet, a scientist, an inventor, a crafter, a builder, a gardener, a musician, a stargazer, a mathematician, a chef?

Are you a tomboy, an explorer, a child at heart, an animal lover, an ecologist, a landscaper, a writer, a feminist, a fashionista?

Are you a big-picture person, a visionary, or a detailer? Are you an archeologist, a traditionalist, a revolutionary, a custodian? The list is endless. Furthermore, are there things in your make-up that you bury or push away because they set you apart and make you feel awkward or even ashamed? Are there inclinations or even longings that you ignore because you can’t see them going anywhere?

Let your mind roam over every part of you; all these things are aspects of and avenues to your identity. But they are not the sum. I am a servant of Christ, a singer, a musician and an author. I am a lover of dogs, owls, domestic arts, lichen and bark, running, hiking, books, Scripture, and solitude.

I am contemplative and introverted. I am tactile and love to make things. These are all catalysts for articulating my individuality. I am also an alcoholic, a drug addict, an egomaniac with an inferiority complex and an emotional lightning rod. These things do not supply my identity either, though they are as much a part of me as the traits I cherish. And I am equally grateful for them because the helplessness they triggered ushered me further into dependence on God and finding my place on the path, one step at a time. Dependence led to intimacy and within this intimacy I have discovered increasing freedom, spiritual health, and choice — and I have fully begun to reconnect with my native self.

At this time your focus may be your family, your aging parents or your job.  All of these are worthy pursuits and important to your story. But my challenge to you is to find a way to nurture those essential pieces of you that run with the wolves, roll in the leaves and bay at the moon, the parts that belong to God and provide Him with no small amount of pride and pleasure. Keep them alive — they are crucial to your shape and your place in this world.

Since her debut on Atlantic Records in 1991, Ashley Cleveland has recorded 9 critically acclaimed albums. Her latest, Beauty in the Curve, released in 2014. She’s won three Grammy Awards for Best Rock Gospel Album (the first female to be nominated in this category), and been nominated for 6 Dove awards — winning twice for compilation records. Ashley received her fourth Grammy nomination in 2010. Her albums have been on Billboard’s year-end best list three times and she’s been nominated twice for a Nashville Music Award, winning for Lesson Of Love. She is the subject of a new documentary currently underway, produced by Morgan Neville and Bart Peters.

Ashley is also the author of Little Black Sheep: A Memoir, and has contributed essays to two books: The Dance Of Heaven and The Art Of Being. She’s written articles for national magazines such as Performing Songwriter and CCM, and is currently at work on her second book.

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