Motivational Plant Metaphors

Last week, I signed up to water our school garden.  The science department has a super impressive situation out back, with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and about five planters of herbs.  I don’t know a whole lot about gardening, the extent of my knowledge comes from helping my mom drop seeds into our backyard when I was 5 and asking if I could sit there and watch them grow.  I also know how to get rid of slugs with beer.  That’s about it.

Ben and I have just started our own small backyard garden, so we could use all the help we could get.

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Signing up was one of the best choices I’ve made since starting here.  Each morning, I got to go visit my little basil plants, chat with my lettuce, and prune my cherry tomatoes.  The fact that they hadn’t all died over night was a huge accomplishment.

Luckily I had some helpers.  One afternoon, a colleague of mine swung by with some scissors saying, “We need to eat all the lettuce tonight, the stems are going woody!”  I stared at her and, for a moment, pretended I knew what she meant.  “Not woody stems!…why don’t we want woody stems…”

Here’s the deal (and remember, I am still no expert), apparently leafy plants, as they get older, begin to harden off their stems,  and when they do so, stop producing the edible leaves we harvest.  Basil will turn into a beautiful large bush eventually, but you can only eat the young leaves.  So to keep it from turning into a bush during the season, you pluck off its flowers and trim it down.  Certain types of lettuce get super woody stems as they get older, and if you chop them down to the dirt, they will rise again – producing more delicious salad greens.

I got to thinking, as I do, and talked to Ben one night over a bottle of wine about the metaphor in lettuce and basil bushes.  After this sentence, instead of calling me a lunatic, he said “Sounds like a blog post!” And that is why we’re married.

Woody Artist Stem

woody basil

It takes a great deal of stamina to work past the late-twenties artist slump.  I can only speak for this transition because that is what I am in right now, but I’m sure it applies to other ages.  I have a lot of friends in this position, including myself, and the struggle comes down to much more than if you’ve had a “successful” career thus far.  At least for me, the focus of my stressful expectations have shifted from “I’m supposed to be doing theatre all the time!” to “I thought I would have done so much more by now.”  My present-tense panic has become a past-tense panic.  And this one feels much more damaging.

The past-tense panic includes regret and self-pity, two things that easily lead to throwing in the towel, especially if financial realities of being an older adult (no longer able to live on Ramen)  leaves you in a job that has nothing to do with your art.  After spending a good deal of cuddling time with my friends Regret and Self-Pity, I discovered they ironically come from a place of pride.  There is a lot of hemming and hawing in my mind –  including “But I’ve studied acting for years”, “But I did shows one after another when I was a kid,” “But I’M PRETTY!” …and other BS entitlements.

It was hard to admit this was my major problem, because even if I was the most down-to-earth, trained, talented person on the planet, there’s a chance that I still wouldn’t be working consistently.  There are so many factors out of our control in this business that blaming yourself is not progressive either.  But since I can only change what is under my control, I decided to focus on this.

Back to Making Veggies

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When we moved to Montclair, I cut back my stem a lot.  Not only do I have more time away from the hustle and bustle of auditioning and temping, but I have also had some space to reassess what actually makes me happy as an actor.  Writing to every Playbill and Backstage post that I would possibly be right for by some stretch of the imagination, even if I wasn’t that passionate about the project, was not helping.  Taking classes to meet a Casting Director I felt I “needed” to prove myself to, was not helping.  I spent so many years trying to prove how great I was that I didn’t leave time or money to train or grow.  I also barely had a community.

So I went back to the drawing board.  I took a class that did not require an audition and has no competitive energy.  I emailed every local theatre company I could find and asked to help with ANYTHING, even if it was to hand out programs.  I cut myself back a lot.

Suddenly, it’s like the floodgates of acting have opened.  My class instantly brought me back into my old skin.  It also brought me back to before the days I started ticking down my “biological acting clock”.  Since I’ve begun focusing on my community and my personal growth, instead of my career, things have been making sense again.

I don’t believe that someone needs to move to the suburbs and start from scratch every time they get burned out.  But I do foresee this concept helping me at different stages of my career.  Even if things are going wonderfully, the moment these entitlements take over again, the moment that energy will show up on stage and in my auditions.  And then I’m right back to frustration-land.

Kate Mulgrew did a talk a few years ago at the SAG Foundation, and I never forgot what she said toward the end.  To paraphrase, she said “It’s all about loving the work. Do the work and the rest of the shit with fade away.”  Since I’ve stopped chasing my next job, a lot of the shit has indeed faded away.

You Are Not a Pointless Basil Bush

Still a great looking plant!!...just less pesto.

Still a great looking plant!!…just less pesto.

So here is where my metaphor could turn sour.  There is nothing wrong with a beautiful bush that used to produce Basil.  If you choose to take a different path in life, you are not a pointless bush.  Nor do I condone putting yourself down to become a better artist, some acting teachers definitely latch onto that idea.  What I do feel is that the rigid nature of our habits and expectations hold us back as artists.  THAT is what will keep us from creating.

So whether things are rolling a long for you right now or not (and I hope they are), it’s comforting to know there is somewhere to go back to when if you hit a similar wall.  A rigid plant does not mean a dead plant, it just needs some pruning.

 

 

Special thanks to Karen Braga, our Alexander Technique class at ESPA, for inspiring this post and teaching me where my feet are.

Childhood Dreams of Growing Up

Way back in high school, when the “reach for the stars” talks started turning into “where do you see yourself in five years?” talks, my friends are I started chatting more bluntly about our artistic dreams.  I always knew I wanted to be an actor, it was encouraged before I was even born.  My mother directed shows while she pregnant with me, before my parents could officially plant the idea in my head.  But at eight, I was introduced to Tennessee Williams in my first production (I know, strange childhood), and I was hooked.  There was no question after that.  Until the middle of high school, I never flinched when asked about my mathematically-plotted artistic future.

Stop telling me to be calm, posters.

Stop telling me to be calm.

Later in high school though, I started loosely tossing around another idea altogether.  But I always mentioned it with an air of “I’m not really serious though.”  The two paths I laid out seemed like polar opposites:  I claimed I would either move to NYC and accept the life-long rush of auditioning OR I could move to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, work at a school, get to know the local theatre, and write children’s stories in the afternoon, probably while drinking a lot of tea in cotton dresses.  So basically, opposite life-tracks.

And yet yesterday afternoon, I walked out the front of my school (where I started working a month ago) and realized that somehow I was pulling off both.  I may not be in the middle of nowhere, but it definitely isn’t NYC.  I drive to work, I am home in 5 minutes, we get welcome letters in the mail from tiny family-owned companies nearby – with signatures!  And yet, when I walked outside, the petals dramatically swirling around me in the breeze from the lilac trees on campus (oh come on), I couldn’t help but think, “This isn’t too bad.”

Outside my door.

Outside my door.

But why isn’t this the polar opposite life that I expected?  Why didn’t I have to make some huge decision one day to give up my professional acting career to move here?  I think it’s because we’re lied to.

Reach for the stars, but you better know what those stars are at 15!

Sneaky girl with a net seems to be stealing those stars.

If your dream is to steal stars with a net.  Sneaky star stealer.

The guidance counselor message of the 90’s was geared toward kids who had very strong opinions on things they didn’t know a lot about.  And that sounds harsh, I know.  But I had the balls to believe then that I knew how to be a professional actor, and never stopped to think that MAYBE there would be other factors along the way- like a changing industry, or an economic recession, or you know, a lack of real-life experience.  So how was I supposed to have these solid goals when I didn’t know how the industry, or my own mind, would look in 10 years?

By the time I moved to NYC in 2010, the pressure to make this all look easy, as everyone on Facebook had managed to do, was intense.  I thought- you get a food service job, you go to auditions, you get drinks with your friends to talk about your crazy NYC lifestyle, you get into shows, and that’s that.  #blessed and #actorlife, or whatever.

Only #blessed that this show exists.

Only #blessed that this show exists.

It wasn’t quite like that.  I would go into the details, but the past four years of this blog has it all there (because as you can see, I had all of the feels).  But my point is that no guidance counselor ever said, “And hey, if you get to where you planned to go and you don’t really like it, don’t freak out about changing your tactic.  That doesn’t mean you’re a failure.”  Yeah no, “don’t give up on your dreams” is a wonderful mantra, but it really should include that you may not know the extent of your dream yet.  How could you?  You are not a time traveler, and most importantly, you are young.

You’ll know where you’re going when you get there.

A few nights ago, I met two fabulous actresses, who in two separate conversations, said the same thing.  They explained that they recently moved across the country, and had no idea how natural it would feel to live there until they arrived-  as if they were always meant to truly be themselves in this new place.   That’s how I felt when I walked out of my school yesterday.  When I lived in the city, no matter how much I tried, I never felt like I blended in with the crowd.  I would get home at the end of the night and spend so much time decompressing that writing was one of the the last thoughts on my mind.  And auditioning?  I was running around from job to job so often, planning the next day, figuring out my schedule, that auditioning was always an afterthought.  When I got in an audition, all I could think about was my stress.

But I wouldn’t have guessed that my “alternate” plan from childhood would make the original plan happen.  Now that I live somewhere that makes me feel more like, well me, I want to write, I want to take classes, I want to look at a real long-term acting plan.  My brain has the space to do what it wants because I am no longer pretending to be who I decided I would be when I was 15.

Tiber is pretty pumped about the suburbs too.

Tiber is pretty pumped about the suburbs too.

For the past three weeks, the middle schoolers outside my office have been rehearsing Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The school chooses a Shakespeare play each Spring and in addition to the auditioned cast in the full production, every student learns one scene for their class.  So I have 10 versions of the lovers’ fight one day, and 10 versions on Puck’s final monologue another.  It’s adorable.  I have also reconnected with several NJ theatre companies, and because this job pays me (imagine that!) I am already starting to sign up for summer classes.  Hallelujah!  I almost cried when I registered for an Alexander Technique class yesterday.  I thought that was a luxury for the trust fund babies.  But what I’m saying is, I am now surrounded by theatre, just when I thought I was taking a step back.

Maybe you also need some chocolate…

It isn’t just these big lofty life goals that need this intuitive-based treatment.  I’ve been realizing more and more that when I say yes to unexpected opportunities, I usually find what I didn’t even know I needed.  I knew I was missing something, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  It’s like when you’re exhausted and can’t figure out why, and then you eat an apple and think, “Holy hell, I haven’t had fruit in a week!”  Or when you want to punch the wall, but a snickers actually makes you feel better.  It’s finding what you need without overthinking it, and working from your gut instead.

So no, I am not suggesting we wander through life aimlessly hoping we bump into the thing that fulfills us, but I have not had a lot of luck obsessing and calculating what I will need down the line. My real answer to that awful question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is, “Someone who can inspire those around me, in whatever I am doing then.”  My only real hope is to find a way to share the adventures and lessons, just in case they help someone else too.  Is that done by following some career formula?  I don’t have a clue.

I cannot control where I will be happy living in two years, or how much education or acting will be a part of my life, I do not know 30 year old Ginny yet.  I know what makes me happy now, and I will continue to welcome those things into my life.  But if my plans change, that doesn’t mean I am disrespecting my current goals.  I don’t know everything, and if I did, that would be terribly boring.

Poll for the group:

What have you always wanted to say to the dreaded interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

To get you started, Ben’s answer has always been: “Not answering this question.”

 

Happy weekend!

Epic Fail: Gym Class

G Train of INSPIRATION

I was riding back on the G train today from Park Slope reading Whole Living magazine, sipping iced coffee and soy milk from a hipster coffee shop, and carrying a bag full of craft supplies for art class next week. We’re making kites and learning about wind, the earth, and enjoying the outdoors. It will probably involve a lot of talking about self-affirmations and running in circles enjoying the wind. This is my life, I’ve become a hippie teacher.

I came across the section called “10 Thoughts” which includes little philosophical and feel-good phrases. I usually put it up in my kitchen for when I’m feeling funky and taking out my mood on the cat. But today, the 9th one really spoke to me. It said “The upside to grand failures: THEY MAKE GREAT STORIES.” Immediately I was struck with the urge to write so started scanning my brain for something I considered a “grand failure” in my life. Note: this is an incredibly depressing exercise so I wouldn’t recommend it for a writing class if you plan on teaching one.

So I steered away from the heavy things and instead thought about grades. Did I ever actually fail a class? Failed a whole bunch of tests (I think I got a 4 on a chemistry exam once), but never a class itself. The closest I ever came was a D…in 6th grade gym. How does one get a D in 6th grade gym you ask? By not bringing your gym clothes, and therefore not taking the class at all. Really thinking about it though, there was much more to the gym class saga than me being forgetful.

The Beginning of the Gym Class Curse

St. Michael’s, my elementary school in Cranford

Sixth grade was my first year in Vernon, and therefore, in Public school. Though living in Vernon was heaven compared to Plainfield, before this I was never particularly bothered by what I just thought as a bizarre class. The most I remember was an angry teacher who clearly hated his job from my elementary school that we called Kram to piss him off (his first name, Mark, backwards). My sister’s class got the record for most people kicked off the court by intentionally swinging their field hockey sticks over their heads at the same time. So before 6th grade, gym class seemed pretty silly to me.

Public school changed things a bit. First off, sixth grade was the year I discovered I had legs. Not in a “oh boys are looking at me” kind of way, but literally in a “I have two limbs coming out of the bottom of my torso and I don’t know what to do with them” kind of way. I was supposed to shave them, walk with them, and apparently try to play an odd myriad of sports with them against my classmates. I was lucky if they even moved in the direction I asked them to go. So gym class seemed like the last place for me. Maybe forgetting my gym clothes was intentional somewhere in my subconscious or maybe I had other things on my mind, either way, I know I hated it.

My teacher at the time would rip me to shreds each time I forgot them and tell me my GPA would be shot if I didn’t take gym. But I was 11, so didn’t quite know what a GPA was. And anyway, I was going to be an actor, so what do I need with gym grades? She threatened to fail me so I cried all the way home and my mom talked her into D. I think I at least muddled through the class from then on.

I don’t know who this poor girl is, but that’s basically me.

The following gym years of hell would include getting hit in the face with every piece of gym equipment which wasn’t fastened to the ground. These included: baseballs, volleyballs, shoes, a golf club, and most memorably…a hula hoop. The hula hoop incident was traumatic. I survived whatever humiliating high school game which involved the hula hoop just to have some meat head whip the thing across the gym…into my nose. I basically got a black eye. My gym teacher and boyfriend at the time thought it was hysterical and I was the talk of the nurses’ office.

 

How to Torture 16 years olds: Make Them Square Dance

I’ve never been quite sure why my high school was so dedicated to an entire marking period of square dancing, but they were. I went to school in North Jersey, that though very pretty, sometimes acts like it wants to be in a different part of the country. Square dancing is what I assumed was their answer to the creative part of gym class. I hear of schools nowadays teaching yoga, pilates, or even modern dance. Nope, we did square dancing. At the beginning of class we were told to “sqaure off.” This involved scrambling (if you were an oddball like me) to find a group to be a part of. If you were an odd one out, you had the pleasure of wandering around the gym between dances and tapping someone out. This usually involved breaking up a social group that wanted to dance together, therefore making you EVEN COOLER. If as a theatre kid, you lucked out and managed to be in class with another group of theatre kids, we’d stick together and try to stay strong. Otherwise, you’d end up dancing with either the terrifying crowd that self-declared themselves as popular, the poor kid who was going through a severe adolescent sweaty phase, or even worse…the boy you were madly in love with…

Which brings me to running around the track…

“D” for Effort

If it wasn’t rhythmically choreographed to music (other than square dancing), physical exertion and I didn’t really get along until the end of college. So running in endless circles for a grade always confused me. Running for me usually made my double over and start wheezing, so yeah, wasn’t my jam. Track days were always something like “A= 6 laps, B=5 laps…” and so on. I knew five or six wasn’t going to happen so I decided walking with my girlfriends and discussing the woes of being a teenager was much more important. I had a teacher tell me my grade were slipping because I was “hanging around the wrong girls.” (10 points for great teaching skills!) What she didn’t know was that the things we talked about not only helped me mentally survive high school, but also taught me a lot of what I knew about dating, boys, and surviving crazy family catastrophes. Thanks Allie, if you’re reading this, you taught me a lot and made wandering in circles much more productive and educational:)

So though gym never particularly involved any “physical education,” it was a character building activity. I knew one day I’d look back, maybe while walking across Spain, and I’d think “that bitter gym teacher was wrong, I’m NOT lazy.” I am also no longer afraid of my legs, or square dancing if the opportunity presented itself. To come full circle, I’ve even become a teacher, one who will never make a kid do something that makes them feel even more physically uncomfortable that you already do at that age.

So take that gym class, I win.