My husband is a huge Rush fan, and has been since middle school, 35 years ago. For those of you who aren’t Rush fans, or aren’t intimately acquainted with one, it’s hard to describe the passionate devotion these fans have. As I learned more and more about this band, it became clear to me that this devotion doesn’t spring from the music alone. Although their music is exceptionally well-crafted (it’s tough to find a rock musician who doesn’t acknowledge Rush’s truly exceptional talent and skill), there are innumerable excellent musicians out there. What makes Rush stand out is their heart– the way this trio of hardworking men treat each other, the way they treat their fans, the way they treat their families, protecting them from public scrutiny. Their humility, sincerity, self-effacing humor, and quiet generosity stand out in an industry that often rewards arrogance, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement.
I’ve written before about “geniuses” behaving badly because we enable that kind of childish behavior, and Rush stands as a constant reminder that genius and assholicity don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Most drummers consider Neil Peart to be the greatest rock drummer of all time. For you fellow classical nerds out there, he’s like the Liszt of rock drumming– he’s written things only he can play, things other drummers have to find ways around. Yet he leads with humility and graciousness, not braggadocio, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. All three are like this (the other two are Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson)– brilliantly skilled and startlingly humble, far more apt to make a self-effacing joke than brag about their accomplishments or gifts.
It is impressive.
So as my husband introduced me to Rush, I began to understand what he adored about them, why they were, after all these years, still so close to his heart, so close to the hearts of millions.
In 2012, my husband took our teenage son to his first Rush concert. It was the Clockwork Angels tour. It was huge for my husband, as you can imagine. At the tour he bought a hoodie that quickly became his favorite. He treasured it.
Then, in 2016, the Year of Everything Awful, my husband, on the way home from work, stopped to duck into a pub to say hello to a few fellow middle school teachers for just a moment. He couldn’t stay, but he thought he should at least make a quick appearance at the gathering. He was gone for less than ten minutes. In those ten minutes, in broad daylight on a busy suburban street at 4:30 in the afternoon, someone smashed his car window and grabbed his school bag (containing nothing but student paperwork) and his beloved Rush hoodie.
We have insurance, and the school bag had nothing in it that couldn’t be easily replaced. I sighed and went online immediately to the Rush website to replace the hoodie. It was nowhere to be found. I then checked every website and did every google search I could think of. I checked eBay. I was willing to pay double by this point. All I wanted was to replace this hoodie my husband loved so much. I had no luck.
My husband is a very humble man who hates to cause trouble, so I knew my next step would have to be behind his back. Believing that someone within the Rush organization must have some of these hoodies in a box in a warehouse somewhere and would be willing to sell one to me, I tracked down several people within the Rush organization I believed might be connected to merchandising, and told them our story, asking them if there was any way I could still purchase this hoodie. One of the people I contacted was a man named Brandon Schott.
Within a few days I had received an email from a woman named Pegi Cecconi. I did not know who she was and did not think to google her. Brandon Schott had forwarded the email to her, commenting that I seemed “sincere.” Pegi Cecconi, as it turns out, is the Vice President of SRO Management. Her .sig does not give her title, and I was too much of a Rush neophyte to understand how far up the chain she was until I told my husband, who promptly freaked out.
Pegi had forwarded our email to Showtech, the merchandisers, and personally asked them to help us.
Soon, a man named Alex Mahood contacted me. They didn’t have the Clockwork Angels hoodie, but they had one like it, and they would send it right over, free of charge. Soon, we received a box with this hoodie in it.
I had offered to purchase the hoodie in every email I sent them, yet they sent this to us as a gift.
They could have easily ignored my emails. They could have easily just said, “Sorry, sold out.” They could have turned to more important things– they all have far, far more important things to do. Yet they chose kindness and generosity.
It is impressive.
Rush has a song called “Closer to the Heart” that says we can create a better future for each other by approaching our work, whatever that work is, closer to the heart.
2017 is an uncertain year for people all over the world. People are feeling anxious, frightened, and helpless. They see open hatred increasing all around them. They fear for the future. There is only one way to respond to this: Everything we do from this point forward needs to be closer to the heart.
We must take care of each other more now than ever, and this experience gives me hope. I understand replacing a stolen hoodie isn’t equivalent to saving a life or fighting for justice, but the impulse comes from the same place. It’s the impulse to lead with love and to take care of those around us, and we must, now more than ever, take care of those around us.
Not every important action will be earth-shattering and felt by thousands. Sometimes working for a better world is one tiny, unseen act. Listening and believing instead of dismissing and arguing. Hearing the truth of someone’s lived experience with an open heart and mind instead of acting defensively and angrily. Holding space for grief and pain instead of policing the way that grief and pain is expressed. Taking a moment to understand that our experiences and beliefs are not “right” or universal. Taking a moment to understand that difference can be celebrated rather than feared. Taking a moment to see the humanity in each other.
Sometimes we take care of each other by standing against racism and homophobia, robber barons and oligarchs, zealotry and hatred. Injustice. Hunger. Greed. Selfishness. And sometimes we take care of each other in small, personal ways. They are all important.
Yes, 2017 is here, and many are frightened, but we are not helpless. Every day, you can lead with love and act closer to the heart. Every day you can work for justice. Every day you can recognize the humanity in others. Every day you can reach out your hand to help someone, in large ways and in small ways.
Maybe it’s silly for a single hoodie to give me hope. Maybe, maybe not. But I have hope in others. I have hope in you. Live 2017 closer to the heart.
Happy New Year.
(And thank you, thank you, thank you Brandon Schott, Pegi Cecconi, and Alex Mahood. <3)
And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar Moses, Jules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.
Order your copy here!
The news has dropped that this, our 20th season, will be my company’s last as a producing organization. It’s been overwhelming and emotional to say the least. I’ve been away from the blog, social media, and, you know, REALITY for awhile while we were working toward this decision. I have a lot of things to say and some memories to share.
I’m deeply grateful for all the love and support given us over the years by our artists and audiences, local critics, and theatremakers and writers nationwide. Impact’s mission was always one of service. Our mission was to provide early-career actors, writers, directors, designers, and tech professional opportunities while producing work that spoke to a younger generation of theatregoers– early-career audience, if you will. We felt that mission was underrepresented in the theatre community, so we set out to change that. Watching our artists grow– both in-house and as they moved on to bigger things– has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. Right this moment, there are artists who came through Impact working Off Broadway and at OSF, and, of course, in TV and film, whose voracious appetites for playwrights support emerging writers with regular salaries, a development I never could have predicted when we began this company in 1996. I know one day someone who came through Impact will be accepting that Tony, Oscar, or Pulitzer.
If I had a coat of arms, it would be a pair of hands giving someone a boost-up. My only regret is that I couldn’t help more artists. Thank you for trusting us with your talent, your time, your attention, and your work. I love you all, you magnificent bastards.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Impact 2.0 will exist online. Impact’s mission has always been one of service, so we’re discussing ways we can continue to be of service to the theatre community. We’re looking at providing profiles of artists and writers whose work we recommend, articles with advice for emerging artists, articles from varied and diverse perspectives in theatre, reviews of local indie shows, resources for teachers, and more. Nothing’s set in stone, but the new Impact will likely cover at least some of that. Our annual season planning retreat is MLK weekend, so we’ll be planning a new Impact for you then. Stay tuned. And again: THANK YOU.
I have two kids, one I made myself and one I got free in a marital acquisition merger. So of course the title of this article is a joke, but the kind of joke that feels like the comedy equivalent of a right cross.
The truth is, it’s really, really, really difficult to have kids while you’re working in the theatre, most of us do it anyway, and most (all?) of us who decided to have kids while in this madness of a “lifestyle” believe it was totally worth it.
I’ve been asked many times about how I made parenting and a life in the theatre work. The sad truth is, there’s no magic formula that will make those early parenting years less difficult, but the happy truth is, it goes by in a blink. Your life as an artist will last decades, and your kids will only need direct supervision for 15ish years. It’s over before you know it. I know that’s not much consolation to people with a screaming baby who somehow have to teach three classes and rehearse for four hours on 37 minutes of sleep, but believe me, it’s true. Your screaming baby will be 15 and able to come home, do his homework, make his dinner, take a shower, and get himself to bed at a reasonable hour sooner than you think. It will be bittersweet, but it will happen.
How to make it to that point is the trick. When the kids are little, you’re living your life day-by-day. Just getting through each day with everyone fed, clothed, and alive is a minor triumph. On some days, a major one. My kids are now 16 and 17. I taught university classes and a high school summer intensive their entire lives. I finished my PhD when my son was three– one of my favorite pictures of myself is carrying him the day I was hooded. I went through four surgeries on my hips and pelvis. And I was doing theatre the entire time. Impact Theatre was founded in 1996, and my son was born in 1998. In 2003, my stepson, also born in 1998, came into my life. So I’ve been there, and I know how difficult it is.
Here’s my best advice about how to survive as a theatre parent.
1. Make sure your partner is wealthy, unemployed, and uninterested in doing theatre. The people I know with this set-up have a significantly easier time as a theatre parent. It’s even better when your partner has wealthy parents with an apartment or house you can live in rent-free. Did you already mess this one up, like I did, and marry someone awesome but lacking a vast, personal fortune? Or are you going it alone and made the mistake of being born into a family without a vast fortune? Read on.
2. Do fewer shows, and stagger them. My husband and I each did one show a year, and staggered them so there would always be someone home with the boys while the other one was in rehearsals and performances. The fact that I’m the artistic director of the theatre and control the scheduling (to a certain extent) and the casting (to an enormous extent) made this significantly easier for us, but I do know other theatre parents who use this method, even parents who are separated. If you’re not controlling your own scheduling, however, there may be nights of overlap, even when you’re staggering, when you’re both called somewhere. And of course, some of you are raising kids on your own. Here’s where your network comes in handy.
3. Make connections with young actors who like kids. These babysitters are lifesavers. In the Bay Area, pro babysitters are charging a mint, sometimes with surcharges for more than one kid, so you could be looking at an extra $100 for someone to watch little Shaw, Wycherly, and Dekker for one evening while you’re at rehearsal. A friend who loves kids but otherwise has a day job isn’t going to charge you $100 to watch your kids. On the contrary, a young actor will often do it for a few bucks and a bottle of wine, or even for free if you’re exchanging other types of favors– rides to and from the airport, monologue coaching, writing letters of recommendation, recommending them for roles, paying for the occasional dinner– the usual kinds of things we do for the younger actors in our lives. A major plus to this set-up is seeing adorable pictures of your kids pop up on the actor’s facebook or instagram while you’re at rehearsal. Young designers, directors, and playwrights are in shorter supply and usually busy– in rehearsal, feverishly completing a design or a script edit, or drunk. Sometimes all three, lucky bastards. But hey, if you can set that up, your kid might know how to use a sawzall by the time you get home. Score!
4. Make connections with other theatre parents. Childcare exchanges with these families can be lifesavers, sometimes for both families. When the kids are old enough to entertain themselves for a bit, a playdate can keep little Kazan, Wolfe, and Malina busy while you sit down and answer some emails.
5. Moving closer to family isn’t a solution. I see people take this option all the time, and while it seems like it would be easier to be closer to the free babysitting that a grandparent or aunt can provide, in reality, those people have their own lives and problems, and aren’t always available on your schedule. Now you’re in a new location with no contacts, no network, and no one to watch Albee and McCraney while your parents are in the Catskills. And remember that you’re also on tap to help with their problems, issues, and kids as well, so not only do you have no babysitter for this weekend’s performances, but you’re also feeding your parents’ cat and committed to making treat bags for your nephew’s 3rd birthday party Saturday at a park 20 miles away with no bathroom the week after little Gotanda decided she would only wear princess underpants and no pull-ups, ever again, no, no, NO. Move closer to family because you want to be closer to family, not because you think they will be a big help to you.
6. Remember that it’s good for your kids to see you pursuing your passion. You’re not neglecting them if you’re showing them that Mommy is living her dream– you’re teaching them that it’s possible. Yes, they will sometimes guilt-trip you about leaving them and beg you to stay, but showing them that sometimes it’s Mommy’s turn to pursue Mommy’s interests is a valuable life lesson. It teaches them that their desires are not paramount every time (something some adults have yet to learn) and that taking time to pursue dreams and goals is a good thing. Sure, you could take it too far and actually neglect them if you’re doing back-to-back shows and out of the house every evening and weekend for six months. But if you’re doing one show a year, or some other reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine. Honest. One day they’ll be old enough to see your work, and that, I promise you, is an irreplaceable joy.
7. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. It’s undeniably true that a theatre family likely won’t have the resources (money or time) to schedule their kids into 57 extracurricular activities, have a leisurely homecooked family dinner every single night, or take little Rylance and Redgrave on European or tropical vacations every summer. And so what? Stop worrying about the fact that you don’t have the money other parents have. Stop worrying about the fact that you have a life and aren’t devoting every second of your free time to your kids. For one thing, there are children living all over the world in extreme poverty, so intense self-recrimination because, for example, your boys had to share a room in a safe and warm Bay Area house filled with food and videogames until they were teenagers (ahem) is patently ridiculous. For another, remember that very soon your kids will be teenagers, then adults and out of your house. If your entire life was devoted to those kids, when they’re gone, you’re screwed. Raising kids is a temporary gig, but your lifelong dreams and goals will always be there. While you’re in that temporary gig, make room for both– don’t devote yourself wholly to one or the other.
8. Don’t compare yourself to childless friends, don’t criticize their choices, and just nod and smile when they say their pets are their children. Having kids is not for everyone. I don’t understand the pressure we put on people to have kids. The environment is stretched to the breaking point, maybe past it. Kids are demanding of your time, money, and energy. There are plenty of great reasons not to have kids, but some people will make it sound like a life is not complete without them. That’s bullshit. I wanted kids, and I had them, and I do not regret it for one moment, but I don’t see my voluntarily childless friends as some invalidation of my life choices, or as missing out on something necessary. Yes, having children is a unique experience. Having pets or nieces and nephews compares to it in the same way that jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet. There are joys and pains and mysteries and magic that only people with children experience. But living a childless life is ALSO a unique experience that I will never have, with its own joys and pains and mysteries and magic. Sending the kids to Grandma’s for the weekend probably compares to living a childless life like jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet– unlike my first example, I don’t have the experience to know, but I can guess from seeing the spontaneity and freedom my childless friends have. I would love it if we could all stop pretending that one experience is more valid or “real” than the other. Own your choice, love your choice, and be cool about people who make different choices.
Having pets is nothing like having children, and I know it’s annoying as hell when people say that it is. I know it’s irritating when people use that study that shows brain scans revealing that people love their pets like they love their children as proof, when they never read far enough to find out the differences discovered. They’re looking for confirmation about the way they feel, and they have no idea what the differences are between kids and pets because they haven’t experienced them. They don’t know, they can’t know, and I swear you will be happier if you don’t try to force the issue. Telling them they’re wrong does nothing in the world but annoy you both. Smile and nod and move on. If childless people with pets could stop telling people with seriously ill or lost children that they totally understand because they lost a pet, though, that would be cool. In those circumstances, raging at someone may be more of a sanity saver than letting it pass. I sincerely hope you never have to find out.
9. Always remember: THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I know I keep saying it, but it’s so true– it goes by in a blink. Do your best. Show your kids that you don’t have to trash your dreams to have kids. Love your kids lavishly, but never stop loving yourself or your art. It’s one of the most valuable things you can teach them.
I’m a fifth-generation East Bay resident. My family came here in 1900. My son makes six generations of my family in the beautiful East Bay. This is my home.
But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “home” and what that actually means. Recently, my husband and I received a letter evicting us from the house we’ve lived in for nine years– the place we had come to think of as “home.” It’s a typical Bay Area story: the owners want to sell. We had to scramble to find a new place in the same school district, and now we’re packing up nine years of our lives and two kids and vacating this space that has felt like home for so long. Renters can fool themselves that they have “homes,” but we don’t: we have housing. The rug can be pulled out from under you so quickly. In my parents’ generation, a teacher could afford a housewife and an East Bay house to put her in. In my generation, no two teachers combined can afford a house in the East Bay, the area in which my family has lived for over a hundred years. We’re priced out of the only area in the world I can call “home.” Unless something changes dramatically, we’ll never have a home, only housing. That was a startling, heartbreaking revelation.
The same can be said of our theatre space. We rent the space, like nearly every small company in the country. We overlook issues with the building out of fear of irritating the owner or calling attention to ourselves. We’ve put hundreds of hours into renovating the space over the years. We’ve overlooked the set pieces and audience seating ruined by workers the building owner sends in, unannounced, to, for example, open a wall onstage to access wiring. We don’t want to be evicted. We have no home, only housing. It’s a stressful way to live.
And the same could be said of my employment situation, one faced by millions of people. When my PhD was finally in hand, my plan was to run my little theatre company and teach. It was a simple enough, accessible dream, or so I thought. The bottom had just fallen out of the university teaching market and there were no jobs. I spent twenty years as an adjunct with no job security, being paid less than half what the tenured faculty made for the same work. When those tenured faculty couldn’t make enrollment quotas in their classes (a common occurrence), their classes would be cancelled and they would be given mine whether they were qualified to teach the subject or not, suddenly leaving me with no income, and often asking me to give them, free of charge, my notes and prep work so they could teach my class. I could be offered a full load and relative financial security, I could be offered nothing, or I could be offered something and have it yanked away from me, and everything, everything happened at the last minute. Eventually, like millions of people in every field, I was laid off. Finally, through a fluke, I landed a job teaching at a small private high school. It was something I had never planned on doing, but thank all the gods I did. The staff, students, and pedagogical approach are beyond my wildest expectations. I am in love. And every day, even after nearly two years there, I walk in that building in fear. Every day, I worry that this, too, will be yanked away from me. I would call this school “home.” But I’m not even sure such a thing exists anymore.
It once did, however. The right to “home” for everyone, something we used to call “The American Dream,” was last claimed by the Boomers, who quickly threw a fence around the idea, shutting everyone else out. The subsequent generations are dividing into two categories: the rich few who can still access that American Dream and everyone else. The idea that anyone who wished could land a Steady Job, which would be enough to buy a house and support a family– to create “home”– started with the Labor Movement and began its slow end with the Reagan Revolution. Now it’s over in most areas of the country.
And the idea that you can start a nonprofit theatre that uses grants and donations to grow continually, pay continually increasing rent and AEA wages while still supporting the staff who writes those grants and gets those donations, is over in most areas of the country. It had almost the same life span as The American Dream.
It’s a damaging thing, this denial of a Place to Belong. People are evicted from their “homes” and scramble to find a new place, a more expensive place, forced to shell out thousands of dollars in moving costs and deposits to pay for the privilege of being tossed out. Theatres are cutting budgets further and further and further, doing two-person shows, cutting salaries, postponing much-needed equipment upgrades, facing spiraling costs against dwindling grants, donations, and sales, and being told “I deserve money though” by everyone on all sides, all the while knowing that they could be the next closure, knowing they’re one big grant denial or missed sales goal from closing, and wondering, maybe we should just do a wheezy old standard guaranteed to sell instead of a new play that really deserves to be seen, or maybe we should do all public domain plays next season, saving thousands of dollars, so we can pay another grantwriter. Knowing that closure means yanking “home” away from everyone relying on us to keep the doors open.
The rising generation’s often chastised for their perceived lack of loyalty, but it’s a predictable response to a country that no longer has any loyalty to them, throwing up roadblock after roadblock (impossible tuition costs, impossible housing costs, lower and lower pay with fewer and fewer benefits) while scorning their inability to thrive. Older generations are constantly bragging, “At your age, I owned a house, had two kids, and was debt-free.” When you were her age, honey, you made 250% more in real dollars for the same job, the cost of living was half what it is now, and tuition was $300 a semester. That world is gone, and yet they blame the rising generation for living in the world they created for them.
But we do find “home,” we MAKE “home.” We have artistic homes in theatres that are nomadic or in nontraditional spaces, but rooted in unique, important voices. We have homes in friends and, yes, family. We go on living and try not to think about the instability of this new world, an America that’s become far, far more difficult and unforgiving than it’s ever been for any living generation. An America that’s focused primarily on personal gain rather than cultural benefit. An American as sharply divided between the rich and everyone else as we were in the days of the robber barons.
But I was at rehearsal last night, and my wickedly talented and brilliant and funny and warm theatre family felt like home. I came back to our soon-to-be-not-ours house, saw my sweet and loving and wonderful husband and son, and they felt like home. I’ll go to school soon, look at the inspiring and brilliant staff and students, and they will feel like home. And for that, for all of it, I am so, so thankful.
I’m speaking to you from the center of two mind-blowing experiences.
The first involves a close friend of mine, the amazing and wonderful Cassie Rosenbrock. She’s been going through an incredibly difficult time, including the sudden and unexpected death of her father and her husband’s mysterious and debilitating illness they’re now hoping the Mayo Clinic can diagnose. All while giving birth to her second baby. This family is generous, warm, and full of love and humor. No, seriously– you would LOVE THEM. A few of her friends and I set up a donation site to help cover their ballooning medical expenses, and the money just roared in. We’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
The second involves my theatre company, Impact Theatre. We’re a small company, living close to the bone. The first two shows of this season were huge successes– we were artistically satisfied, we got great reviews, and we had very happy audience members whose responses were very positive. We also raised artist stipends this season to match what other companies our size are paying. We’re still at the low end of that, to be honest, but we had to at least get on the board to remain competitive and continue to attract the best local talent. We have three upcoming shows this season we’re very excited about. We just made a local critic’s (the awesome Sam Hurwitt) list of top ten productions of 2013 with our summer show, Thao P. Nguyen’s Fortunate Daughter. On the surface, things couldn’t be better at Impact.
Unfortunately, neither of the two shows so far this season came even close to reaching sales goals, and, with very little cushion this year, we’re facing a truly terrifying financial crisis. We weren’t even sure how we were going to pay rent over the next few months. We don’t do donation campaigns very often. I think we’ve done about 3 or 4 since we started the company 18 years ago. We’re quite open about the fact that we accept donations, and we put words to that effect in our programs and on our website, but that end of the year letter or email you get addressed to “Mail Merge” from 132 places asking for donations during this season of giving? That’s just not something we usually do. We decided we really needed to if we wanted to live to fight another day, and put out a call for donations. And again, the money just came roaring in. It was overwhelming. I got email notice after notice after notice with donations from actors, audience members, former Impact members who had moved away. We received donations from people we only knew through social media. Twenty-four hours into it, and it looks like we might, if this keeps up, reach our goal.
I was floored going through all the emails. I could not stop crying.
I believe the “meaning of life” is to live in service to others. I have a personal mission to somehow help everyone I meet to success and happiness. I want to leave the world, and people’s lives, better for having known me. I always want to be the person who reaches out to help.
But nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for what it was like to reach out *for* help and see 100 hands reaching back to me. It’s been one of the singlemost humbling experiences of my life.
The world is remarkable. Yes, it’s shit, and people are awful, and politics are awful and terrible people say terrible things on terrible TV shows about their terrible beliefs. But the world is remarkable, full of love, and hope, and kindness.
My blog will be a year old in a few days. I’m grateful for each and every one of you who read it. Thank you so much for helping to make this such a remarkable year. Happy Holidays to you and yours.
I was deeply honored to be asked to participate in Lit Crawl by the head of Limina Magazine— an online journal of women writing about faith that will have its inaugural issue in January. Because the piece was supposed to be about faith or spirituality in some way, I needed to write something for it rather than pull something from here. I took a deep breath and, without thinking too much about it, wrote a piece that was more vulnerable and frightening to me than any other piece I’d ever written. It was about how I had become an emotional isolationist, and how that functions in my life.
God, I used to just hand my heart out to people like passed hors d’oeuvres. I look back on it with astonishment. And it was just a few years ago, which is even more astonishing, because it feels like a distant, foggy past. I had an intensely shocking, painful experience, and the whole machine just shut down. There are a few people I still confide in, people I knew from Before, but even with them, even with people who’ve demonstrated trustworthiness for years, I’m guarded, fearful. This event knocked the emotional wind out me, and I still haven’t gotten back up.
I understand why it happened. Sometimes it takes strength to do the right thing, and not everyone always has that strength. People will lie to make themselves look better because they can’t stand the disapproval of others. They create casualties to stand on to get their heads above water instead of learning how to swim.
I once handed my heart out, invested myself deeply in the people around me, and gave of myself lavishly. I was, in a word, an idiot.
I told myself I was just pulling away from the two people responsible. Instead, I just . . . shut down.
So now I’m an emotional isolationist. A different kind of idiot. This is the story I read for Lit Crawl about it.
“I want to go home.”
This phrase pops, unbidden, into my head at least five times a day, almost always when I’m at home. Fives times a day. For over two years. You can only respond to yourself, “You ARE home, dumbass” a certain number of times before you’re forced to acknowledge there’s something happening to which attention must be paid.
Homesickness. Longing. Loneliness. Ah.
A few years ago, I had an experience so full of high school-style drama nonsense I’m cringing as I write this. I knew a young woman in a bad relationship. She and her boyfriend both confided in me regularly about their unhappiness. She was naïve and confused; he was troubled and controlling. They were both miserable. I loved them both expansively and did my best to help them. I trusted her. I trusted her so deeply and completely that it never crossed my mind that there could be any other possibility. And then, in order to save herself from his disapproval and shift blame for something, she told a series of horrible lies, accusing me of something monstrously unethical. My trust in her impeded my ability to understand what had happened, and it took me weeks to put it together. She told him I had done something monstrous. He believed her (of course!) and accused me, angrily. She told me she had said no such thing. I believed her (of course!) and accused him, angrily. My relationship with both of them shattered. Not only did these lies destroy our friendships, but they also completely destroyed my ability to trust. She has a very sweet, caring personality that no one could have predicted contained within it the capability of such intense betrayal. If she, of all people, had been hiding the ability to commit such an act, who was not? I stopped trusting—everyone. I became incapable of trust. I locked myself down and became an emotional isolationist.
Like everyone, I live on the internet. I have a whole network of friends I talk to every day, people I would truly consider friends, people whose lives, whose triumphs and failures mattered to me. And of course I shared with them my day-to-day ups and downs, my own triumphs and failures. But the deep secrets, the true face of my soul, I showed no one. My husband and I had been through a rough patch (like everyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship) that left us further apart than we wanted to be, and with a difficult pathway ahead to re-establish connection. Instead of reconnecting, I went further into myself. I had pulled my innermost, vulnerable self deep inside me and locked the door.
Then it started: “I want to go home.” At first examination, I took it as a sign that I was done living on earth and ready to check out. When that idea occurred to me, it felt right. I’m a firm believer that we must live out all the life we’re given, and that my continued existence means there’s some part I’m playing in something bigger than myself. I believe that we’re all interconnected and that our life’s work is service to others, so my continued existence was, must be, about someone else’s need. My children. My father. The young artists who work in my company. My continued existence was proof that my service was still needed. So I began to wait. My life became about waiting for my service to be over, and wondering what the last act, the one that would release me, would be. I filled my days with tasks. I was ready to go home.
I’ve been fascinated with religion my entire life. I was raised Jewish by very Reform Bay Area parents. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in the Bay Area, so we were a long way from the Old Country. I belonged to one of two Jewish families in my school in Fremont, so I was detached from any kind of Jewish community as such. From the moment I had heard of such a concept, I longed for a female deity. I had been told the Greek and Roman Gods, all the Pagan Gods of old, and all the Gods of existing polytheistic religions, like those of the Hindus living all around us, were “pretend,” and I was bitter about being denied female divinity, and suspicious about why a male God was “real” but a female Goddess was “pretend.” I envied, intensely, my Catholic friends’ ability to pray to Mary. I prayed to her in secret—not because I thought she was the mother of God; I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus—but because I thought she could hear me. She was a kind of Goddess—a Jewish woman who sits at the right hand of God. This appealed to me. I wondered about people who felt they had the authority to make the decision about which Gods were “real” and which were “pretend.” I would sit in the backseat as we drove past the rolling hills of the East Bay, and I would see them between imagining and believing as the curves of a Goddess lying asleep beneath the blanket of the grass. When I was twelve, I finally decided that all religions were “the same song in different keys”—that was the phrase I used, and still use sometimes. My Goddess was real; she was in the hills, she was without question in the ocean, she was in the trees, in the earth. I sat in her cupped palm like a baby bird.
I got older and discovered that there were people who were practicing Pagans, even Semitic Pagans, and that my need to understand at least some aspects of divinity as female was not at all unusual. I found meaning in why one of the primary words for “God” in Hebrew, “Elohim,” was plural, and what I believed the Shema was actually about. Even now, as an adult, no Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) explanation of why “Elohim” is plural has held water for me—it’s plural, they say, but not really. There’s only one God, therefore it has to be singular and we’ve been jamming it into singular sentence structure since the Torah was written. OK. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever been much good at monotheism. “Who was this Asherah,” I asked myself as a child. But I already knew. Christianity in particular always seemed to me to be overt polytheism, and I mean that as a compliment. Elohim: This made sense to me. The Shema is the central tenet and most important sentence of Judaism: ; Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Even as a child, it seemed unlikely to me that the central declaration of our entire faith was just, “We’re monotheists.” There had to be more to it than that, I thought. Distanced as I was from Jewish community, I had less than no clue about the intricacies of Jewish mysticism. I had to sort it all out for myself armed with my wits, such as they were, and what I could find in the Fremont Main Library. Discovering Paganism snapped the Shema into place for me: The mystery of unity, of The One, where all aspects of God unite in one divine element that connects all living things, where all Gods and all Goddesses become the same God seen from different angles, sung into focus in different keys by people who were both part of and apart from that divinity. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery.
When I was a child, I also liked to hide in closets. That dark, quiet hiding spot meant safety. If no one could find you, no one could hurt you. I would hide in closets and be alone with my thoughts about God. I believed solitude, quiet, and darkness were sacred, and I knew they were safe. And now, decades later, I’m doing exactly the same thing, only instead of hiding my body, I’m hiding everything else. I sit every day with the divine, this all-encompassing Goddess, her counterpart, the God, the earth, the sky, the air, the flame of a candle, the electricity that animates my cells, my blood, my breath. I created a sacred solitude of the soul, a safe place, and made it a prison. And I do want to go home. That phrase is still part of my daily inner monologue. But I’m ready, or maybe I just want to be ready, to step away from this isolation and learn how to trust again.
I experienced an event that destabilized my ability to fully experience my web of connections to the people around me. I didn’t choose to become an emotional isolationist. One day I realized that it had already happened, past tense. One day I realized I was alone, and I had created that solitude, and although it’s safe, and sacred, it’s not enough. We experience our personal connection to the divine both as individuals AND through communion with others. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery. In retreating to this safe, sacred space, I’ve cut myself off from experiencing the sacred that exists in true, deep, intimate connection with others. The sacredness of the world I live in is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is half a world. Stepping away from solitude and back into the world has to be a deliberate act, and I don’t know what those actual actions entail. I love to bake. There are many recipes I know so well I can bake them almost without thinking. Step One: Get the big bowl out of the cabinet. I want to trust others. I want communion. Step One: who knows. Maybe Step One: Open your mouth and pour out your story? Maybe.
Eventually I will find the door out of this sacred, dark room or it will be shown to me. I won’t be left here unless I refuse to leave. I love sacred solitude, and I want to be able to come back here, often, but living here permanently is not living completely. There has to be a way out. For now, I’m still in the dark closet, safe, sacred, and close, like the womb of the Goddess. I don’t breathe. I don’t talk. I just wait.
I read Questlove’s article about Trayvon Martin and how Black men are perceived in America (which also had the byproduct of teaching me who Questlove is) while it was making the rounds of twitfacetagram in July. I thought a lot about it, and what it means to walk around in a body that others perceive as threatening. I’ve been told stories in the past about hearing the sound of car doors locking as you walk by, of women clutching their purses a little tighter. I’ve wondered at that, at what it must feel like. When I read Questlove’s elevator story, it really hit me hard, as things do when privileged people suddenly become aware of a piece of their privilege previously invisible to them. It had never occurred to me that anyone would think that they had to be on their guard around me, fearing MY POSSIBLE FEAR OF THEM and its potential disastrous outcomes.
Soon after that, I went to Kaiser and parked on the 5th floor of the garage. I always park on the top floor of every garage ever because I can never remember where my car is. I stood alone and waited for the elevator to arrive. When it finally did, it was empty save one person: an older Black man with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed graying beard, in work coveralls, who had been cleaning the elevator. He was finishing a wipe as the door opened. We looked at each other and he instantly said, “I’ll leave the elevator to you,” holding the door as he stepped out. Time slowed. I knew he had no reason to leave that elevator since there wasn’t a damn thing on the top floor of that garage save a handful of parked cars: no office, no storage closet, no nothing. I knew he was doing it because he was nervous about frightening ME, about what I might say or do or accuse him of. Without thinking, I smiled and started teasing him, “You’re not riding with me? Is it me? I’m not good enough for you?” He smiled back and got back into the elevator, smiling and flirting with me the entire way down, calling me “good eye candy.” In one respect, it was one of the best elevator rides of my life (nothing will beat 33 floors with Malcolm McDowell), because who doesn’t want to be called “good eye candy” by an older gent? But I think about this man over and over and over, and I feel sick. I feel sick that he felt nervous around me. I feel sick that our culture has given him good reason to be on his guard around me. I feel sick that I had so much power in this exchange. HE’S the elder; HE should be the one deferred to, the one with the power. Who am I? I’m NO ONE. I have no power. But the racial dynamics in the US being what they are, I have power I do not deserve.
Whoever you are, elevator cleaning guy at Kaiser Richmond, you made my day with that “good eye candy” comment. You gave me the second best elevator ride of my life. And I’m so, so sorry.