caged love.

Maya knew why the caged bird sings.
When I was 7 and a first grader in Muskogee, Oklahoma,  there was a little red-headed boy named Robert in my class who had a crush on me. He had freckles everywhere, big green eyes, a mop of curls. Total ginger. 

I wore dresses every day, because I wanted to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and she only wore dresses. I wore my long brown hair in pigtails or braids because Dorothy. I read a lot. I daydreamed all the time. Avoided math as much as humanly possible, shamelessly added/subtracted on my fingers, continue to thank god for calculators even now. 

I was one of the best readers in class, and I was definitely the best speller; I had the most stickers on the Spelling Chart. Robert was a rough-and-tumble little boy who, whenever I think of a phrase like, "he wore torn britches covered in worms and dirt and crushed leaves," immediately comes to mind. He always seemed dirty, and he wasn't the best speller or the best reader or the best mathematician. I'm not sure what Robert was good at, actually, but I bet today he's the best at whatever job requires a lot of rough and tumbling.

Every day on the playground, Robert used to chase me around. His main goal at playtime, every day, was to kiss me. It was annoying and exasperating and vexatious and irksome and infuriating. All I wanted to do was sit off to the side, under one of the big trees, reading a book or drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick. I did not want a boy or anyone else to talk to me, to hang out with me, and certainly not to put their lips onto me. I wanted to just sit and read and draw and think and do what all introverted little kids like to do: be quiet, reflecting in their souls. 

And then Robert would show up and a hellish 10 minutes or so of running and screaming and being irritated would ensue. 

One day, Robert and I were alone in the classroom while the rest of the class was outside on the playground. Why were we alone? I can hear you asking, in a very millenial-thinker kind of way. Because it was 1978, fool, when people were still sane. They didn't have all this Social Media or a lot of gadgets to distract their minds, politics wasn't as divisive, food portions were smaller, people weren't as judge-y in their big, glass houses, and children were allowed to roam free as birds like they should be before they turn into adults with a lot of bills and taxes to worry about. But I digress.

So anyway, we were alone. And Robert started chasing me around the room, trying to kiss me. That day, he caught me. Maybe he caught me because we weren't in the wide, great outdoors that had more get-away space. Or maybe he caught me because I was exhausted of running away and just let him. Whatever the reason, Robert caught me. And he kissed me. On the cheek. And I slapped him.

Slapping Robert had the following immediate effects: it made him gasp and put a hand on top of where mine had slapped him, then get very mad and hurt, then tell me he didn't like me anymore, then tell me he hated me, and then tell me we weren't friends. And after that, Robert the curly-haired, ginger-headed little boy never chased me or tried to kiss me again. And I was relieved. I wasn't sad. I didn't miss the chasing. I didn't miss the attention. I was deeply, grateful-to-the-Universe relieved and happy. 

I went back to quietly sitting under the tree at recess, reading or drawing my pictures with a stick in the dirt. Sometimes other little girls would join me and we'd play hand clap games or they'd draw with me. Nobody chased us. Nobody tried to cage us and make us do what they wanted. And we were happy. We were happy together, and I was happy alone. 

From time to time, I'd see Robert chasing another little girl around on the playground and I'd feel a slight twinge of...something I couldn't define, knowing he now had other kissing and chasing interests. Everybody wants to be wanted, even at 7 in 1978, and maybe it was a little sad and disappointing, somewhere deep inside of me that he'd really meant what he said: that we'd never be friends again. Even so, I mostly just felt really free and relieved. And the next year Robert wasn't in my 2nd grade class and I never thought about him again.

Until I started growing up and reflecting on what it means to live a successful life. Because obviously the whole thing had a big effect on me. Obviously, it's one of my big childhood memories. The big ones, for me, always have the most details.

I also think it's become so big for me because maybe it was the beginning of a journey I hadn't even started yet. I grew up as very sheltered child in a codependent household, where approval and making other people happy was very important. There was a lot of love, and my younger brother and I always had the things we needed whenever we needed them. And we had a lot of freedom, because the Internet and 24 hour news media hadn't been invented yet, and so people didn't know to be terrified of letting children roam the neighborhood alone from dawn to dusk. But I was always very conscious of being the kind of girl who would make my parents proud and happy. I was always worried about doing or thinking or saying something that would make my father disappointed in me. And I'm sure I felt like that because he felt like that about his parents. And my poor mom - her parents told her good girls got married and had babies...when she told them she was thinking about going to college. 

(A side story testament to my strong mother: when I was 7, probably the summer after Robert stopped chasing me, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her: "Oh, just a mommy like you." And those words struck fear in her heart, because she didn't want to model for me that my only option in life would be to marry someone and have children, thus becoming trapped in only one kind of life when there was so much more. This moment affected her so much that several years later she would finally go to college and spend a lot of time driving her children nuts with her obsessions over getting straight A's. Overachieving is in my genes.)

Why do we do this to our most beloved people? Why do we place our own needs and parameters on them? It creates a need for the approval of others in them. A constant feeling of: if they approve of me, they'll keep liking me. If they keep liking me, they'll give me what I need. And what I need most is approval. A vicious circle. 

I'm not saying I don't need other people. We all want to love and be loved. Human beings are social creatures; other humans are essential to our survival. I'm saying I don't want to be needed BY other people. At least not in ways that are demanding and confining or desperate and clingy. Because I'm really very perfectly happy sitting under a tree, drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick, quietly reflecting in my soul. If I've got to deal with the crazy needs of your soul, then my soul gets confused and disoriented. And when my soul feels confused and disoriented, I tend to shut down. 

Which is why today, I'm wondering what would have happened had Robert just sat down quietly next to me, picked up a stick, and started drawing. I'm wondering if maybe later, when we were in the classroom by ourselves, I would have let him kiss me on the cheek. I'm wondering if I'd have kissed him back. 

I don't chase people because I don't enjoy being chased. It's much better, I think, when you notice what brings someone a lot of happiness and just sit quietly down next to them and start doing it with them. Or ask them to teach you how to do it. After that, I bet they'll take an interest in what you love, ask you to show them how, and maybe even start to do it with you, too. 

Quiet, gentle, free love. We don't have to cage other people to make them ours. Because if you have to chase them to catch them, if you've got to lure them into a cage to feel they're yours, then they were never really yours to begin with. Right?

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
-Maya Angelou, "Caged Bird"

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