“Happy thirtieth birthday!!” squealed my roommates and two best friends Katie and Kat. They giddily presented me with what appeared to be a third grader’s art project. From a magazine covered poster board shined Oprah’s smiling face, a city skyline, and a regal lion wearing a crown. Drawn onto the parameter with washable marker was a row of boxes and three stick figures holding goblets of purple liquid the same size as their torsos. Whatever the gift, it involved wine. That I could deduce. The lion wearing a crown I assumed symbolized me, the Leo birthday girl. As for the rest, I was at a loss.
“A subscription to O magazine?” I guessed. I didn’t have the heart to mention I’d already been receiving the magazine due to a cleveland friend’s coke points for years. Who in the world still collects coke points, you ask? Fallon Kemp, that’s who.
“No, silly! Look. Harder.” Katie waved her hand in front of my face in a magical gesture that seemed to indicate it should be dispelling my ignorance. It did not. I turned my palms up and showed her my teeth to convey my bashful uncertainty.
“What is it?” I queried. Then, Kat hit a key on her computer.
Naaaaaaaants Saveeenya bagithi babaaaaa,” the speaker blared. “Sithi uhhmm ingonyama” The agony and ecstasy of youth immediately unfolded behind my eyes as I heard the opening lyrics to The Lion King fill our apartment kitchen. Now it was my turn to squeal.
“Oh my God! We’re going to the Lion King? Wait. What’s Oprah doing on here?” The girls explained that they left Oprah in the mix in order to throw me off the scent, but also because they were aware that my deep love for the theatre was one of the few loves that ran deeper than my adoration of Oprah. (Sorry, O!) They were also so kind as to point out which stick figure exemplified me.
“See! This one’s you! We gave you a braid and big boobs.” Charming.
My passion for live performance started before puberty. My mother, on what felt to me like the spur of the moment, would instruct me to get in the car. She’d proceed to drive for one to four hours until she found a town that had a playhouse. The first time she ever did this, she drove two and half hours to Bigfork, Montana to see a production of “Guys and Dolls.” It’s a play I’ll never forget and soooooo didn’t understand at the time. Since leaving her tutelage, I’ve skipped buying mattresses and I’ve worn through dozens of girlfriends’ cast off clothing, yet I remain willing to drop hundreds of dollars or wait for hours for a ticket to a musical. Furthermore, if left alone in the house too long, it’s highly probable you’ll find me belting out showtunes. In this way, not much has changed since I was a child. Once a drama queen, always a drama queen, I guess.
A few months down the line, we three gals were primped and ready for a night on the town. It was show-time! For those of you who haven’t seen the play, the script is nearly identical to the movie we’ve all seen dozens, nay, hundreds of times. That’s excluding any disney sing-a-longs you may have owned. (We owned two.) It was my first time viewing either film or play as an adult. The set and the dancing and costumes and props created a gorgeous and alluring visual experience. The plot, however, left something to be desired. Who thought this was an appropriate film for children? What was disney teaching us about life?
First, let’s take young Simba’s whole attitude. Holy freaking entitled! Currently psychologists are of the perception that the once adhered to child-rearing philosophy that everyone should get a reward regardless of performance helped create a group of adults that were underprepared for the way rewards are doled out in our big, bad, society. It produced a generation of children that essentially expected to receive something for nothing, all the time. Don’t get me wrong. I one hundred percent agree that I myself tend to be in this category. I have not in the past handled tough love well, if I handled it at all. The constructive part of criticism is still a bit tricky for me to wrap my head around. I have a tendency to shy away from hard work that doesn’t have a clear reward in the semi-attainable future, but Simba took the whole thing to the next level!
During the song, “I just can’t wait to be King”, I couldn’t wait for the little prince to shut his pie-hole! Why had I ever liked this song? Perhaps, my infatuation with Jonathan Taylor Thomas had something to do with my ability to overlook the flaws in the animated Simba. It wouldn’t be the first time a raspy voice and the right coiffure had fooled me into thinking the words coming out of a man’s mouth were laudable. I hate to think it started that young, but surveying the evidence, perhaps it was so.
Then, the little trouble-maker loses his Father. I admit, I sympathized with the rugrat at that point, but when Scar, (who has already led him astray in the elephant graveyard, mind you.) tells Simba that it’s his fault, Simba believes him! No second opinion! No assessment of the facts. Not even a moment's pause to say goodbye to his family. Homeboy just bounces! He runs off into the desert and leaves everybody else to starve! Like a putz! Children, don’t think for yourself! Believe whatever any adult tells you, even if their only distantly related to you. If the going gets tough, you get outta town! Book it to next neighborhood. The grass is greener in the desert, or something like that. Hakuna Matata!
Speaking of Timone and Pumba, initially they created a relationship with Simba that mirrors many of the friendships I had in my early twenties. These boys embody the characteristics of “party friends.” They are a whole lot of fun, crack a lot of jokes, and seem to be pretty good at kicking back. At some point, however, you start to realize that you don’t actually know that much about each other. If a topic hasn’t naturally emerged during a round of beer pong, then it’s probably not very high on the priority list. Trash talk is high on the priority list. Truth and consequences are not. Party friends are too cool for consequences. Eat another grub worm. Hakuna Matata!
Don’t even get my inner feminist started!!! What the heck were the Lionesses doing the whole time Simba was missing? They were in charge of all the hunting and moving in a huge pack and they couldn’t take down one old crotchety lion with a bad leg? Get in formation, ladies! What would Beyonce do? (Pretend I didn’t say that!) What would Susan B. Anthony do? That’s right! She’d protest. Rebel. Organize. Aggravate. Educate! You know the mantras! Get in the ring! You have him outnumbered. Why do you need a man to rule the Safari? You all seem pretty badass to me. I love your dance moves. You seem pretty in sync. I bet you could apply some of those mad deer-hunter skills on Captain Dreary over there.
Let’s not forget Nala. Girl, you deserve a man who can communicate! Past or no past, you gotta get some information. I’ve heard the hype. Right brain. Left brain. Women are built for this. Men are built for that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Here’s the truth, despite cultural nurturing, men, you are fully capable of open communication. Women, you are fully capable of staging a coup. May the world be a better place now that we’ve cleared that up. Thanks for nothing, Disney. Ready. Break.
Back to the indignance at hand, when Simba FINALLY decides to rejoin society and save his STARVING family from the overconsumption of the hyenas (Okay, Disney. Points for getting that part right.) He just strolls back in and everyone cheers and welcomes him home. Why? Oh yeah, because he’s entitled! We’re back to birthright all over again, because you were born, you are awesome. Yay, Simba! You ran away from all responsibility and dicked around in the desert for YEARS! Now we, the women, are super excited that you’ve decided to grace us with your presence. Please go challenge your narcissistic polluting Uncle to a battle to the death. Nice to see you! Looking good, by the way. Those grub worms are doing you good!
A beloved, and at times, irritatingly on point friend of mine, often reminds me (Damn you, psychology majors!) that anger is a secondary emotion. In other words, first we feel fear, defeat, sorrow, guilt, or loss. Then, anger arrives. For a lot of us, anger is easier that sorrow. It is a natural stage in our process of accepting loss. I recently took a class about communication. In the section about defensiveness, the textbook encourages those who have grown defensive in their communication, those of us who formulate rebuttals or denials to the assessments of others, to ask themselves this question:
“What am I defending myself from?” For me personally, the answer to this question is nearly always guilt. Sadness is, at times, an unavoidable companion. Fear, for me, is a constant one. Guilt and I, at some point, took a blood oath to remain mortal enemies. If so much as a squeak of a door hinge seems reminiscent of guilt’s battle cry, I press my back against the wall where we keep the kitchen knives. Anger, righteous or nonsensical, is my weapon of choice in the duel I dance with guilt. So when a somewhat ridiculous bout of anger erupts after what could have been a pleasurable night at the theatre, I’m left asking myself that very same question.
“What am I defending myself from?” This question exposes my own non-negotiable guilt. In the case of young Simba running away from responsibility, as well as from the process of mourning a loss, or from his own misinformed but heavy conscience, I am also found guilty. In the case of Nala, chasing after a man, okay, men, who she knows aren’t coming clean or being forthcoming? Guilty as charged. As a defendant in the trial of the Lionesses, no matter how many hours I’ve spent listening to Ani Difranco and foraging for the occasional small game, I, like the dancing divas, am yet to take down a patriarchy. In regards to Timone and Pumba, I have most definitely been THAT friend and chosen to spend time with THOSE friends. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s free. Hakuna Matata! Until it isn’t free. Until you’re hooked on grub worms, leaning up against a log, moaning like an old alka seltzer commercial. (I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!)
Finally, Simba, dear, precious, deluded Simba, you are the most difficult for me to wrap my head around. I am angry with you because you think it’s okay to waltz back onto the safari and start over again. You expect people to forgive you and praise you for doing that thing you did. What was it you did again? Oh, yes. Show up. Well La-de-dah! Aren’t we special? Here’s the annoying part. Yes, Simba, you are special. So am I. So, dear reader, are you.
We all inherited a birthright. Maybe our parents honoured that birthright. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe other people noticed that beautiful light of preciousness, that radiates from every living thing, beaming out of you. Maybe they didn’t. Either way, each of us was born into glory. By virtue of being born, we deserve to be alive. We deserve to be loved. Yet here’s the real kicker, we will inevitably screw up both of those things. Royally. We will, at some point, make decisions that do not honour our divine right to be alive. We will not honour our own right to love and be loved. We will also, at times, dishonour other people’s right to do these same things. We will attempt to control the way they live and love. We may even attempt to rob them of their love or livelihood out of jealousy or greed or ignorance or misguidance. Simba is not the first person to run away from loss or accountability. He’s not the first cub to blame himself for circumstances outside of his control. He’s not the first to feign apathy in an attempt to feel light-hearted and free. He’s not the first one to develop that nasty habit of eating grub worms. He certainly is not the first or the last to forget what it means to honor what he was born to do: Begin. Screw it up. Then, do it better. That, my friends, is the circle of life.
So why, oh why, with this knowledge, did I get so perturbed by the grateful reception of Simba? Is it truly possible that all we have to do is show up? How did the entire pride embrace this flawed and foolish lion with seamless forgiveness? Does Simba’s unworthiness reveal my own? Am I constantly trying to prove myself worthy to live and be loved when all I have to do is be present?
There is ample evidence to imply that my leagues of loved ones across the country live by this creed. I’ve arrived on doorsteps, with minimal notice and empty hands only to be greeted with open arms. One person lent me their bed. The other lent me her whole apartment. A mother I’d just met donated canned goods to her daughter’s vagabond. Air mattresses were dragged from closets. First name introductions were made between myself and pets. Our love stories commenced as though no time had passed during the cessation. They greeted me as though I’d knocked on their doors with gifts but all I had were tales of travel and clouded judgement. Yet each and every friend honoured me like it was my birthright to be loved by them. I did not have to earn it. My very presence was deemed enough.
I’ve long ran from pain and loss and sorrow. I’d run from guilt, if righteous rage would let me. Yet nothing puts my feet to the pavement and my tires to the asphalt like responsibility or (shudder) commitment.( I feel you on this one, Simba.) Yet every time I show up, faces split into smiles, people’s arms open irrelevant of my folly, and if I stay long enough, I get to see the leaves turn green and the garden grow. It doesn’t always feel or sound like an Elton John song yet evidence suggests that I. AM. LOVED. And despite what I wrote before I don’t always feel like I deserve it. Like Simba, I’ve believe that my mistakes would cause love to crumble, yet time and trials reveal most people I know to be quite sturdy, and crumbs, though messy, can sometimes show you where you’ve been before, so you may more carefully choose the direction of your next steps.
I nod to Simba and his youthful recklessness, but mostly I honour the ones who waited, the ones who hold the slates they now lovingly wipe clean. I bow to the smile-cracked faces and crumbley hearts of the lovers, the patient ones, the friends and the family that welcomed me when my wild feet and miles of breadcrumbs led me home. Simba and I, we are the RUNNERS, the lost sheep, the self-appointed sufferers who weighed down our own hearts with guilt and blame. You, you are the LOVERS, the wise ones who whisper “worthy” though it would be so easy to dole out shame. Soon, I’ll set aside my piece of crumpled cardboard where the words are scribbled “will work for love.” Instead, I’ll take my place among those who whisper and wipe slates clean. I’ll dance for joy at the return of lost boys and I’ll learn the words to love songs. I won’t sing about perfect love. I also won’t sing about perfect people, and I’ll still refuse to treat anyone like royalty, not even loved ones. We each must rule ourselves. We’ve seen the folly in treating young ones like they were born to rule, when truly they were merely meant to live, imperfectly, in this world of lions, unruly uncles, unlikely wise ones and outrageous friends. In this world, we live. In this world, we love. Screw it up. Start again. Circle of life!