I spent the last few days at a Renaissance Festival, sitting with my oldest daughter in her furrier’s booth. As I’ve watched the remarkable parade of humanity that accompanies this annual bacchanalia of the ersatz and the arcane unfold before me, I’ve been moved to consider anew how we become who we are.
There are women, large and small, dressed as belly dancers, hairy men in tartans, goths and furries, faux pirates, the leather and chain clad, the buxom and tightly corseted, the feather capped and string bonneted, all chorusing in a cacophony of nonsensically bad cockney. Around and between them mill the marks; visitors in shorts, t-shirts, sandals and loafers, out for a day at the sideshow, enjoying the sights, entertained by the acts, buying overpriced souvenirs of the modern Middle Ages, gorging on fried turkey legs the size of emu thighs, while their children spar with wooden swords, and purchasing, in surprising quantities, my daughter’s furs in a place where it’s 80 degrees in the shade in April.
My daughter is often in an anomaly in the world of suburban Tampa, a soft spoken outdoorswoman, a taxidermist and huntress whose archaic interests can be hard for some people to accept, let alone understand. It’s even been hard for her family to understand sometimes, a motley crew of animal lovers who, in fact, inspired her love of nature and the outdoors in the first place.
How do we wrap our minds around the things our loved ones love sometimes, from food and dress, to politics and religion, and gender preferences and career paths? But she’s given us food for thought, as well as food for our table. And because we love her,we’ve taken the time to listen to her and learn from her.
One of the things she’s taught me is that there’s a big difference between loving nature and understanding it, between valuing live animals and realizing what an integral part they play in our daily lives in death. Nearly 100% of livestock animals, for instance, are employed in a variety of ways, with everything from hair and hide, to fat, blood, organs and enzymes utilized in things we touch, use and wear every day (Encyclopedia of Animal Science By Wilson G. Pond, Alan W. Bell). So when a disgruntled shopper, with a leather handbag and leather soled shoes, makes a disparaging remark to my daughter about being cruel to animals, I find myself musing about my own uninformed snap judgments.
Where Ionce might have chuckled at the big woman in the jingling gypsy outfit, now I’m moved by the thought that, here, she’s free to feel beautiful and exotic. Similarly, the men in kilts feel at home walking freely among men in pantaloons and feathered caps. Here, people are freed of the binding chains of “social norms”.
Furries roam in safe and happy packs, free to be the animals in whose skins they feel most at home. The goth couple walk happily hand in hand without fear of censure, past a suburban family listening to a man dressed like a troll sing a silly song on the bridge. This is the world as it could be: The beer flows, laughter floats, we’re all friends, or at least not enemies.
Sure, people gawk, and occasionally a pot will call a kettle black. But for the most part, for a few weekends a year, people can affect accents, wear tartans and hooped skirts, don tight corsets and furry ears and walk equally among those who don’t.
Could we really live at peace like this I wonder? Some of our social codes serve important purposes, of course. But is there really any socially redeemable reason to ostracize or marginalize those who find their way through the world differently, whose comfort stems from different clothing, lifestyles, archaic or esoteric skills or practices that affect no one but them? Why is it so hard to allow one another to be who are? Why are we so threatened by appearances to the contrary; especially when we are, in fact, only looking at variations of ourselves in the shared mirror of our humanity?
I don’t think there are any hard or fast answers. We find safety in numbers, especially in numbers most familiar, and we develop shared social codes within our affinity groups. It takes courage and a self-honesty to see beauty, and love and hope and promise in the strange and unfamiliar.
But with acceptance – of ourselves and of those who appear different from us – comes peace and freedom from fear and from the self-destructive behaviors we indulge in to escape that fear; because I think that’s basically why we mock and bully – we’re afraid of what’s different.
Can we live happily ever after together? The Renaissance Festival suggests we’re never too old to try.