I had never seen anything like it, of that I was sure. The creature erupted spontaneously, grew quickly, gathered strength, energy and power right before my eyes. Soon it was massive, undulating, amorphous—and hungry. It sported 100 arms, half as many heads, spoke with one voice.
Only later did I realize I have seen it many times before. No, not so much have seen as felt it, feel it. In fact, I feel its presence almost every day—almost all the time.
But back to the moment.
Last month my husband Dave and I participated in a weeklong communal gathering that welcomes people of any sexuality, orientation, gender identity or expression. Over 100 of us camped in the woods of Eastern Tennessee, ate, played, worked, danced and drummed together.
At sun set Friday evening the weather turned unexpectedly chilly. A few people ringed the communal campfire. Several more lay huddled on a nearby grassy knoll, warming themselves by group body heat. Each lay his or her head on another's belly. Some interlocked arms and legs. "Look! It's a puppy pile," said one man as he hurried to join. The clew grew larger by the minute as others followed suit.
We approached with caution. Dave had sprained his ankle and was walking with difficulty. We opted to steer clear of the frivolity, aimed instead for the fire. As we made to pass by, arms reached out grasping, beckoning. Voices called, "Join us! Join us!"
We shook our heads, smiled our apologies to the multi-limbed creature, gestured toward the fire.
From somewhere in the deepening twilight came a single voice: "No! Don't feed it! Get away while you still can!"
We laughed, walked on over to the fire, joined a drumming circle. I tapped out a repetitive line—one and two and three and four. But I kept an eye on the mass of people on the knoll. I loved what was going on there, a spontaneous action, an event, a happening. It embodied humor, served a practical function and fostered togetherness. Plus, the participants were having a lot of fun.
"We could feel each other laugh," one of the group members told me later. "We all had our heads on each others' bellies and we could feel the ripples of laughter. Words, too. A word would just erupt and we'd all chant it in unison. We called ourselves a 'pheno-moeba.'" My informant was located on the outer edge of the group. "I guess I was the asshole of the creature," he said.
One and two and three and four. The moon rose over Short Mountain. The pheno-moeba howled in delight. One and two and three and four. I marveled at how long they kept at it. And with such enthusiasm. With their bodies, their voices, their coming together, they were creating community. They were being playful with it. They were keeping each other warm. And having a great time all the while.
One and two and three and four. A fan dancer decked out in white feathers and sequined drag came by and presented impromptu entertainment. Flashlights served as makeshift spotlights. When the show concluded the howling resumed.
Then the single voice again, this time preaching a gospel of freedom. "You are all individuals! You each have your own mind! You can think independently!"
From 50 mouths erupted one word: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"
"WE ARE ONE!" the creature insisted. "ONE! ONE!" The prophetic voice was silenced. Night blanketed the hillside; I couldn't see if the preacher-prophet escaped or if he was pulled in and subsumed into the group mind.
One and two and three and four. I pondered what was playing out alongside me. A parable of sorts about groupthink, about the unwritten codes that pressure us to conform, walk, talk, dress, vote, buy, spend, waste same as everyone else. The call to uniformity. In the larger society and in our subculture niches, as well. The comfort and warmth of being sucked in, feeling a part of a whole. The institutions—church, family, academe, work, legal system, politics—that define, reward and reinforce acceptable behavior. And punish anything else. The voices that cry in the wilderness, speak out against the blob, the pheno-moeba of social structure, stricture, prejudice. What happens to them.
A sudden chill of recognition. Although I do not see a physical creature called Societal Pressure, I feel it breathing down my neck in nearly every aspect of life: I can't do/say/think/love/be that. What will the neighbors think? What will my mother say? Will people like me? Will I be accepted?
Dare I stand against the pheno-moeba? Do I? Will I? Will you?