For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
Looking back, it’s fascinating to think that my in-person relationship with Joe Patenaude was actually quite brief. We first met when I was ten, in the height of the Plainfield saga. He was one of those people that bridges the two worlds for me–I met him when I was still living in my old life, and then he returned in a bigger way, in my new life, many years later.
My mom had a play produced at Drew in 1996, a poster I’d always look for at our annual end-of-the-year theatre party, a reminder that I actually stood in my future-college cafeteria, many years before college was even a thought. I remember very little, other than the fact that the show went up with a David Ives one-act, and during the little party afterwards, I shook his hand and remember thinking that he had rather large eyebrows. That’s now all I can think of when I come across David Ives plays. Tall man (because I was very little at the time), big eyebrows. As my eyebrows started to get bushier in my teen years, I genuinely believed that I was getting some sort of Karmic punishment for making fun of David Ives’ eyebrows in my head. But I digress…
To my knowledge, Joe was there that day as well. Again, I was little and barely remember which adults were which. Nevertheless, I had a great time that afternoon and went on my merry way, livin’ my life. When senior year crept up, and I seemed to be the only one among my friends who was completely lost when it came to choosing a college, my mom reminded me that Joe could be a deciding factor. She reminded me I met him as a kid, that I would already had a familiar base of people there, and that she approved of him as a teacher. My mom knew a lot of wacky 70s acting teachers that had their own bizarre ways of teaching performance, and she passionately steered me away from these guys. For Joe, however, she gave the stamp of approval. So this was not to be taken lightly.
And so, Drew it was. It’s needless to say that the college you choose often shifts your life, in expected or completely unexpected ways. Without Drew, I probably wouldn’t be married to Ben, living in a Jersey town surrounded by a group of loving Drew people that we see every other day, nor would I have hiked the Camino. So there’s that.
Two weeks before Joe died, I went to his office (since he was my advisor) and asked him for advice about upcoming NETC auditions. The New England Theatre Conference auditions is an annual gathering of summer theaters in the North East that audition actors for a long list of summer stock. But first, you must apply with references. He’s my issue with these mass, torturous cattle-call auditions–they are skewed toward musical theatre actors. And that, as much as I tried (and still try), I never really became. I felt confident in most audition rooms, but the moment I had to sing, I felt small and insignificant. I had labored over the decision between applying for the musical theatre or non-musical auditions on this form for weeks, and finally brought it to Joe for advice.
“Why the hell not? What have you got to lose?” he asked me. “If you don’t get accepted for Musical Theatre, you don’t get accepted for musical theatre. You’ll just do is again next year. You might as at least try.” This sounds like simple advice, but as someone who had strained over the politics and strategies of an acting career for twelve years at that time, just a simple, “Why the hell not?” attitude is what I needed to hear. The day before I left for Spring break, I got his signature and headed on tour with our a cappella group.
Side note: I also left a note on his door, hours before getting on the bus to the airport, about needing something signed for our study-abroad forms. I remember being frustrated with him and later felt guilty that his was his last impression of me. But what can you do, right?
The news of his heart attack came when my a cappella group stood in the parking lot of Disney Land. For a while, we debated turning back. We froze in shock, we cried, we called everyone we needed to call, and then we made the decision to go into the park. The thing about Joe is that he was a character—a character in the best kind of way. And like I said, I didn’t know him for long, but his influence on small decisions in my life continued to follow me. Deciding that Joe wouldn’t have wanted us to leave Disney Land, we carried on with our day, even if our heaviness and disbelief followed us through each hour. We changed our flights that evening, and headed back to NJ for the packed funeral.
As expected, I did not get a the NETC musical theatre slot, but I did get a normal slot, as predicted. Joe’s signature still sat on my copied form, attached to my audition packet as I waited in line to audition for the thirty companies waiting inside. I remembered his, “Why the hell not?” rally, and carried this into the audition. I have to say I still think of this when my nerves get the best of me in the waiting room.
In Joe’s name, a scholarship for graduating theatre majors was formed, allowing those seeking unpaid or low-paid internships to jump into the field. After getting hired for a gig in Florida, I applied, and was among a group of students that was offered the grant. This was the first special scholarship I had ever received, and it meant the world to me. But I had no idea how much it would continue to shape the upcoming years.
When I arrived at my job in Florida, I hit a rough patch. I remember the first night in my Florida apartment being the hardest. My close friend that I drove down with had left, and for a few nights, it was just me. My roommates had a few days before arriving. I don’t think it was smart to skip the decompressing phase, at least for a few days, after college. I began to emotionally nose-dive the moment I was alone, and this desperate feeling continue to claw away at me as the hot, lonely Florida weeks trudged on. I kept a smile on my face, as you’re supposed to do at a new job. And this particular group encouraged a Disney-quality of cheer in all its students and staff, something that was hard to muster when you were fighting through a wall of pain each morning.
Joe’s grant allowed me to take the position, subsidizing food and travel, but I barely touched the money for anything else. I wouldn’t say the town had much of a social scene, and I wan’t in the place where I even know what to save my money for. For the first time in my life, there was a blank, dark wall ahead of me, and I didn’t know what was beyond it.
Then, mid-July, I called my close friend Claire and asked if I could join her on the Camino that fall. I did the math–with the remainder of the Joe grant, a graduation gift from my family, and by squirreling away the rest of my summer stipend, I could make this work. I hit a huge bump of guilt in the beginning, realizing that the money was supposed to only go toward this internship, that’s what I had applied for. But, it had–I was just too depressed to spend it on anything other than basic needs. And yet again, I could hear Joe saying, “Why the hell not?”
There’s a spot toward the end of the Camino, called the Cruz de Ferro. Pilgrims carry a rock, a flag, or a small remembrance from home, and leave it at the top of a hill of other people’s rocks, usually affixed to a cross overlooking a stunning mountainside. It’s about bringing your home with you across the world, across a pilgrimage. It’s also about leaving it behind.
It’s odd really, how one person can indirectly affect the path of your life in so many little ways. Because of Joe’s influence, I am sitting here, Drew grad in the next room, with a cat on my lap. I can look up at my Compostela (camino certificate of completion) on the wall ahead of me, and I can say that I walk into each audition with a bravery of the phrase “What have I got to lose?” I left Joe’s funeral card by the cross, feeling it was my own personal way of saying that his unexpected influence got me up to that mountain in the middle of Spain. It is surrounded by the rocks of the world, and by the good wishes and hopes of thousands of pilgrims.
We still toast a glass to Joe on the day he passed away in March, and I constantly meet people who knew him in one way or another. It’s always shocking to me how he wove his way into so many other people’s lives as well, in equally indirect ways. I am deeply thankful for that and continue to think of him, even if our time together as friends was brief.
Enjoy the pretty day, everyone.