There must have been a subtle buzz in the back of the room that caught our high school drama teacher’s attention. Lips pursed in irritation, she marched down the center aisle directly to the group of desks where three or four students sat, heads together, whispering excitedly. With the swiftness of a predatory bird, she swooped down on them and seized the distraction in question, her face quickly dissolving into an expression that was a mixture of shock and rage. Attempting to regain her composure, she walked back to the front of the room then held the image aloft, her hands shaking, as she declared through gritted teeth. “This … this is pornographic!”
As we stared up in the general direction of the classroom’s flickering fluorescent lights, this is what we all saw:
With shouts of indignation and cries of “That’s mine. You can’t take it!” our teacher marched off to the principal’s office with the poster tucked under her arm, no doubt to give the principal an earful of Is this the kind of school we’re running?! or How do you expect me to teach when … I’m quite certain that in the principal’s office, tongues clucked and heads shook and there was general agreement that our generation had a shaky grasp on morality. I’m sure parents were called and it’s likely that the poster wound up crumpled in the principal’s trash can. But that’s the thing about iconic images: Try as you might, you just cannot throw them away. They’re indelible. Once you’ve seen an iconic image, it’s there for good.
Well, kind of.
I pulled the image up on Google on Thursday afternoon as I shared this memory with my own high-school-aged daughter and realized that there was a part of that iconic image I didn’t remember. Yes, there was Prince, standing under a stream of water in a tiled shower, in all his exposed-pubic-hair-g-stringed-glory, but there is also an actual icon in the picture: a crucifix, just above his left shoulder. I can’t say why I didn’t register it back then. Most likely because I had seen crucifixes before, but a man in a shower with a black g-string — this was something new for me.
Thinking back, I feel like this was the magnetic appeal of Prince: His unwillingness to sacrifice pieces of himself to make himself palatable. I love sex AND I love God he seemed to be saying, and I won’t hide that I love sex to make my faith in God palatable to you. And I won’t stop loving God to make my sexuality palatable to you. When we serve up only the parts of ourselves that we believe are acceptable, we are palatable to most everyone. When we show all of who we are, fully and without apology, we may become unpalatable to some, but we become irresistible to those who have been hungering for the one-of-a-kind delicacy that only we can serve up. People can take or leave what they find palatable, but they can not walk away from what’s irresistible (you are not a fucking Ritz Cracker; you’re a damned dark chocolate truffle dipped in candied rose petals — you hear me?)!
A spiritual teacher of mine once said to me that the greatest creativity emerges from the points of greatest tension: At that very place where opposites meet — that place where it would appear that lines can’t be crossed — the most creative among us will find the point of power, the place where the barriers break down. This is the point where apparently mutually opposed energies flow into one another and create an admixture that help us all to see that the boundaries we assumed were immutable and eternal are not only unreal, the belief in their immutability is actually preventing our evolution. The dissolution of that boundary is an evolutionary moment, a moment when we realize we are greater than what we assumed we were. It is the point at which we realize that our parts create a whole that is more powerful than their sum. And once the energy of that whole has been released, there is simply no way to contain it — it shines of its own accord.
Which is all to say, when all of that tongue-clucking and parent-calling was happening in the principal’s office — while they were affirming for themselves that a boundary had been breached — back in the classroom, my peers and I were seeing a new world of possibility opening. We didn’t believe that boundaries had been breached, we saw clearly that the boundaries were never real. The boundaries were fictions. Illusions. And once an illusion is destroyed, it is impossible to restore it.
Great artists do this: they shatter illusions. They give us front-row access to worlds previously unseen. They show us what is what is possible within ourselves, and by extension, what is possible in the world.
In the title track of Controversy, Prince sings of the boundaried world of limiting categories that the fearful among (and within) us cling to:
I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white, am I straight or gay…
Do I believe in god, do I believe in me?
Some people want to die so they can be free
I said life is just a game, we’re all just the same (Do you want to play?)
Through his life as an artist, Prince was categorically uncategorical. Through his music, he taught us that no one can squeeze us into a box, unless we ourselves crawl inside it and tell those who would try to contain us, “Okay. I’m all in. Go ahead. Seal it up.” Ultimately, we are as small or as large as we consent to be.
And as Prince taught in “Controversy” (and in life), we don’t have to wait to die to be free. We can free ourselves from that box right now. And we may find, in the process, that we are giving others permission to do the same. Some may be shocked, but even more will be inspired. And they will be grateful because those ingredients you had the courage to mix together and serve up — that was just the medicine they needed to heal their soul.
I am an educator myself these days: I’m the principal of the religious school at our local synagogue. On Sunday mornings, you’ll find me at the front of the sanctuary teaching lessons on life and spirituality to students from toddlers to teens. And here’s another fun fact about me: come late spring, there is a line of environmentally sound, organic, toxin-free, coochie-friendly underwear launching from a company called Thundress (created by the wickedly funny, dangerously smart, fully badass and stunningly beautiful Tylea Richard). Thundress is a company whose straightforward motto is Protect Ya Puss! And when that line of underwear launches, there will be a pair of underwear named after me: the Lauren Booty Shorts. And, by the way, I’m not saying that the Booty Shorts just happen to bear my name. I am saying they are named after me (this was one of the optional perks of Tylea’s Indiegogo campaign — have an underwear style named after you — and when I saw that, I was like: Yes! I must. And I will! Booty Shorts it is!)
Yes. All true. Because my role as an educator and spiritual leader does not limit me to what anyone thinks an educator and spiritual leader should be. Who I am expands into all the spaces I travel in. And wherever boundaries exist, I am determined to break through them. And where there is illusion that separates me from me or you from me, I will do my damndest to shine a light and show it for what it is: an unnecessary and limiting boundary. I am here to mix together all the delicious ingredients of who I am. And I am going to serve it up hot, y’all. I am here to show up as who I am fully, so I can show up for you with the fullness of who I am. Powerfully. Unequivocally. Because that is what Prince did. And he would want us all to do the same.
Go on … Shake your head if you will. Cluck your tongue if you must …
I am here to be irresistible. Not palatable. And I believe the same is true for all of us.
And for that lesson, I bow, hands-over-heart, to Prince, who was not only a great musician and performer, he was a great spiritual teacher.
And if anyone has a problem understanding the plain and honest truth of that, please send them to the principal’s office. I’ll be there.
It’s my office, now.