How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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When a Community Loses the Biggest Energy in the Room

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher asked us to describe the first time we processed the idea of death. As was the case with most of my high school papers, I came up with a much better description of this childhood moment years after writing the paper; the assignment has stuck with me for years. If I wrote the paper today, I would talk about my paternal grandfather’s passing when I was ten years old.  I understood the idea of death, but I didn’t yet fully comprehended the human confusion that succeeded someone’s passing, especially when the person lost was one of those “big energies,” one of those people that changed the energy of a room, who drove the conversation and led a community in subtle ways that no one truly notices until the person is gone.

In my limited memories of him, this was my grandfather–a “big energy” kind of guy. At the funeral, my dad–who up until this point I had never seen get emotional or speak in public–told a story (Dad, I’m sorry, I’m probably going to butcher this). As he was driving out to Pennsylvania for the funeral, trying to process what he was going to say in the eulogy, he stared out into the river alongside route 80. Though most of the water was frozen, there was one circle of clean, melted water right in the center of the river. And in that hole of water, was a swan–just sitting, in his own little area of peaceful space, lit up by some sunlight. This serendipitous sight sparked a memory of when my dad and his family first walked back into their Wilkesbarre home after the flood which followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  He recounted that the house was nearly ruined, the living room and furniture caked in a foot of mud.  But across the kitchen, my grandfather was clearing off a space on the counter, furiously cleaning a few square feet of space. My dad, wondering if his dad had lost his head, asked why he was cleaning off such a specific space when he was surrounded by rooms of mud–what good could that one spot possibly do?  And my grandfather turned around and explained that all day, no matter how overwhelming things seemed, he would have that one clean space amidst all the mud. It was a space for the swan in the frozen river. Whether it was a well-read coincidence or a sign from my grandfather, the world reminded him of his wise energy and profound lessons, even after he was gone.

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The Troubled Relationship Between Time and Art

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Back in college, my friends and I invented a day of the week known as Twunesday.   Twunesday fell between Tuesday and Wednesday, and all events that didn’t fit within the constraints of our seven-day week were scheduled on this day.  When will I write that paper?  On Twunesday!  How about taking a nap?  Twunesday is an excellent day for naps!

Nowadays I find myself filling up my Twunesday schedule with all the artistic endeavors only doable on days when I have a clear schedule, void of responsibilities.  I daydream about a clean, cleared-off desk with an artsy looking planter full of succulents, a steaming coffee cup, and a little framed motivational quote about the sun and new ideas, or some other baloney.  This desk does not exist is my house, most of my writing is done at the dining room table with a cat laying half off my keyboard, usually cutting off the use of everything from caps lock to the space bar.  A pile of papers containing theatre mailers, tax documents, and notepads with my husband’s play notes are held down by a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, of which I have read half.

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“You’re Not Good, You’re Not Bad, You’re Just Nice”

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Right after the election, a meme was making the rounds, predicting that Hillary would come out on stage before the inauguration to sing “Last Midnight,” from Into the Woods.  If you’re unfamiliar with the musical, this may have looked like a jab to Hillary’s character, since after all, the song is sung by the witch.  In the song, the witch denounces the actions of everyone on stage, dooming them all, before disappearing in a puff of smoke and returning to her “uglier,” previously cursed self.  But if you do know the show well, you know that the witch is one of the strongest, most complex and powerful characters of the show.

I happen to know the show backwards and forwards because of the lucky fact that I was an introverted musical theatre child of the 90s and staged an imaginary production of this show in my living room.  Nowadays, whenever I see theatre festival notices that state, “If chosen, play must be fully produced prior to the festival,” I think about how I’ll always have the production of Into the Woods in my back pocket, the audience just won’t be able to see my cast of imaginary actors.

Anyway, to put it in a nutshell, Into the Woods sets a bunch of familiar fairy tale characters in one town, all in pursuit of their personal dream.  The Witch is one of the story’s common threads.  She has a rough past–a history of cursing the baker’s family into sterility (after being robbed by them), and oh yes, trapping her daughter in a tower.  But as the play progresses, we hear each character’s side of the story and watch them either grow into empathetic people, fall into a life of crime, or a combination of both. And as an audience, you start to question: who is justified in their quest?

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An Acting Lesson for Troubling Times

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When I was twelve, I played Anne Frank in a local theatre production up in the mountains of North Jersey.  It was in one of those performance spaces that makes you miss the community theatre scene–a sturdy, 19th-century chapel in the center of town, with original wooden pews, a lady bug infestation, and the smell of books and old coffee.

The timing of this show was a major comfort for me and my family, it was just over two years since we had moved from Plainfield, a town that had become so dangerous that we purposely “disappeared” with as little a trace as possible.  These were the days before the internet, and so all you needed to do was select being “unlisted” in the White Pages, and bam, you were off the grid.  Studying Anne brought such solace to me in a time when I felt that I had also up and left my friends without a mailing address.  The door simply closed on that old life.  Unlike Anne though, I started a new one.  I was welcomed by a chance to play in the woods, to ride my bike until the sun went down, to meet new friends, and through that, work with new theatre companies.

I had a pretty lucky theatre ‘career’ as a kid, I probably worked more then than I have as an adult so far.  But up until that point, I hadn’t dealt with a role with such a massive line-load as Anne.  I also spend 99% of the show on stage, only stepping behind a flat to change during the second act; and of course, I did not come in the final scene, when Otto Frank returns without his family.

But my primary focus was on my lines, of the logistics of staying on stage that long, of the ins and outs of imitating and embodying a historical figure I had already looked up to for years.  You can learn a lot about someone’s energy and enthusiasm for life through their writing voice, and perhaps this is why we’re all so drawn to this girl.  I studied the way she viewed the crumbling world around her, how she always maintained empathy and a belief in others’ goodness, even when she got angry and frustrated and panicked.  I connected with the fact that she had terrifying nightmares that woke her up mid-scream (at least this is how its depicted in the show).  I grew up with nightmares, and still either sleep walk or wake up gasping for breath from time to time.  But most of all, I remember obsessively retraining myself on how to hold my pen–sometimes the two front fingers connected to the pencil, my thumb on the other side, and sometimes the pencil between the fore and middle finger, something that took a good deal of practice.  I still catch myself doing these from time to time.

Like this.

Like this.

And so I learned to sit like her, to speak in a rhythm I believed she would have used, and to sink into the small world of the annex; as in real life, I played with the ladybugs and stared out the church window at a similar chestnut tree she describes in her diary.  In the end, as with all roles, I am still me, and so we slowly became one, walking and talking in tandem.  In the early days of living in a new town, she was a friend.

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You Are My Starfish–A Camino Story

Photo via Unsplash

Photo via Unsplash

Despite the past several days throwing us some curve balls (I fell down the steps this morning–no broken bones but some pretty impressive cuts and bruises), I woke up feeling generally okay. Sure, the heat in our apartment still doesn’t work because our boiler almost blew us up last week. And sure, every day, the news reminds us that the country is crumbling.  And yet, as I tried to express in last week’s post, good things are still happening.  Maybe that’s why I can handle wiping out on my back steps, spitting toothpaste all over the room and nearly breaking my elbow.  I can take that.  Because on the bright side, I still don’t have to live through another November 8th, 2016.

After that terrible week, I felt paralyzed.  I felt that no matter what I did, nothing could fight this national disaster.  But as the days passed, and our clouds of fear slowly parted, many of us started finding very small, very subtle ways of trying to improve the days of those around us.  A coworker approached me about a Secret Santa for local low-income seniors, another friend arranged us to volunteer at a homeless shelter.  While I was there, I bumped into another friend, totally unrelated to the first arrangement, who had come just to volunteer with her husband.  Because she knew she had to do something.  Because of these, and some other random opportunities for acts of kindness, this was one of the most fulfilling holiday seasons I’ve ever experienced.

The country has seen this too.  A record-breaking donation season, a huge increase of women running for local offices, people stepping up to defend strangers, just to name a few.

But I’m not here to pat myself on the back.  I’m actually here to talk about a Camino story (surprise!).

The Camino of Animals

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Ben and I were chatting about this phenomenon last night–people’s call to action after the election.  It’s easy to feel that small acts are too insubstantial when the headlines tell you that no matter what you do, an unstoppable sentiment of hate and intolerance has been reawakened in our country.  It’s hard to feel that leaving a larger tip on someone’s bill, or going out of your way to say something friendly to a stranger really matters at all.  Why donate one place, when there are so many groups that need our attention?

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Tell Your Story. I Will Listen.

I started writing publicly about seven years ago.  And occasionally, there are dry spells that keep me from blogging.  I’m too busy, too distracted, or sometimes simply uninspired.  I whine and procrastinate, and come back to blogging eventually, toting apologies and resolutions.  However, this hiatus, the dry spell that was sparked by the election, has been more painful than anything I’ve experienced so far.  It wasn’t my determination or creativity that was questioned, but rather, my purpose–this blog’s purpose.

Up until yesterday afternoon, I honestly felt that creating anything new or trying to reach out to an audience was pointless.  I began this blog discussing how to stay creatively healthy in a field that often offers little to no financial stability.  It has evolved into a place to discuss Buddhism, personal stories, and even my experience with health problems.  And yet on the morning of November 9th, all I could think was, “Who cares?”  Why focus on building ourselves as empathetic, motivated beings, when the country is filled with such anger and chosen ignorance?

And then my house almost blew up…

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Day 24: Beginning at the End

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!

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During the six weeks leading up to our move from Plainfield, I kept a countdown both on my bedroom calendar and in my butterfly-adorned diary.  Even back then I was a passionate journaler, but I held back in what I wrote.  A few years earlier, my older sister ripped all the pages out of my diary and posted them on the refrigerator to get me in trouble (I said some not-so-nice things about my mother).  Years later, when I started blogging, I though of it as a form of “posting my own diary on the refrigerator,” but this time about the thoughts I chose to share–and not ones about lamenting the daily life of a 5th grader.  It’s the harder stories, the ones that I fear will somehow come back to get me, that I hesitate before writing.  And yet, if this birthday challenge has taught  me one thing, it’s that these are just stories.  They are not my current reality.  Still, our pasts can drive our decisions and mold our views of the world in ways we don’t even recognize.  When I finally started seeing a therapist in college, it was like wearing glasses for the first time.

My issue now is that I don’t have the words to tell these stories, to really do them justice.  So where do you start?

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Rainy Day Post for Robin Williams

Yesterday afternoon I hit a writing high.  I wrote a blog post in the morning, revamped my layout in the afternoon, and submitted an article after work.  Every hour brought a new blog post idea, and by the time I left the house to write at a coffee shop, I was on fire.

Yet a strong melancholy creeped its way into my evening.  I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.  And then it hit me, today was the anniversary of Robin Williams’ passing.  You see, even though his death is by no means about me, he was my generation’s Peter Pan, on and off the screen.  In his spirit and unbridled silliness, I found comfort that even though I was constantly growing up, here was proof that you can still live your life as an enthusiastic child, especially as a performer.

I was walking home from a dance class last year today when I got the news.  I called my mom and we cried together over the phone.  His beautiful life had a lot to do with me wanting to be an actor, and I guess it selfishly hit me that I would never have the chance to shake his hand and thank him for this.  But again, it isn’t about me.

I have always been an irrational believer in signs.  When I started thinking about all this while writing in the coffee shop last night, I pressed further into the editing of my article, desperate to get it done so I could walk home.  Suddenly, a shiny blue sneaker poked into my peripheral vision.  I looked up and a small wide-eyed boy, probably about six, stared at me, unforgivingly stretching out his leg in front of him.

“Do you like my new shoes?!” he yelled with excitement.

“I do!” I said, “The colors are so bright and awesome!”

He ran back to his mom’s table happily and sat down.  She swiveled in her chair and apologized, “I’m so sorry to interrupt you, he never does that.  He just suddenly said, ‘I need to ask her about my shoes!'”

I laughed, told her it wasn’t a problem and waved at the boy.  I smiled and returned to my writing.  When the mother was paying later on, he snuck by my chair and sat in the seat across the table from me without saying a word.

Just then, an adorable toddler walked by the coffee shop (I was sitting by the window), locked his sights on me, squealed with delight, and pulled his dad into the coffee shop.  I waved when he came in and then he ran to the barista for a hug (clearly he was the cutest regular ever).

I developed a new enthusiasm for my writing, perked up by the adorable and unexpected visitors.  I paid and walked home.  Now maybe it was just a growth in my awareness, but I felt like every kid in the neighborhood was out enjoying the unseasonably cool air.  A girl on her bike passed by and said hello with the familiarity of an old friend.  Just as I thought I was making it all up, I walked into my backyard only to be greeted by my upstairs neighbor and her painfully adorable 1 year old daughter.

She has recently learned to walk, well waddle, and took a determined journey to our garden to retrieve a ground cherry that had fallen off its stem.  She nearly face-planted to lean over, grabbed the muddy fruit and launched herself up to her feet.  With a dramatic swivel, she reached up with kindness and offered me the cherry.

Well, there was my answer. If you, or your soul or your energy, or whatever you believe, goes anywhere after you leave this earth, then perhaps Robin Williams sent me a hoard of smiling children the moment I started to feel sad about his premature departure.  And if not, if it was all a coincidence, then his memory allowed me to find meaning in a wave of generous toddlers.  I said good night to the adorable little girl, went inside, poured myself a glass of wine, and watched the impending storm from the porch with childlike enthusiasm.

My mom has always talked about saving money for a rainy day.  Today, at least in North Jersey, it plans to pour for most of the afternoon.  I have also been very personally affected by the inexplicable pain of depression and anxiety, a disease which still strongly eludes this country’s understanding, so I know a good amount about doing something nice for yourself or a loved one on a rainy day.

Today I suggest a loving, enthusiastic child-like act in remembrance of our fellow-human who inspired us in his work to see the innocent enthusiasm in all things.  Find a rainy day adventure, as simple as it may be, and do it in honor of those who may be struggling to find their inner kid.

Thanks for reading.

Hook

An Unexpected Tale of Perseverance

The story of my morning has three characters: a spider, the Quick Chek Man, and me.

The Resilient Spider

For the past week, a brown and black spotted spider, about the side of a nickel, has taken residence in our driver side mirror.  When he isn’t building his web, he crawls inside the casing, angrily taking shelter from the wind of the car’s motion.   He first appeared last Tuesday when Ben and I came back up from vacation.  We came back up midweek to work a few days, and then returned on Wednesday.  When I left my house for work Tuesday morning, I opened the car door and felt familiar, “Oh crap there’s a spider web attached to me,” feeling and quickly smacked around my head to make sure its owner was not attached.  This time, it was.  Swinging toward me like an panic-stricken trapeze artist, the equally frightened spider came barreling toward me.  He was attached to my dress.  I did the only logical thing and screamed like a small child, to which my brave heroic husband came to the rescue and brushed him away.  The spider swung up to the car and begrudgingly took to his hiding spot.

It wasn’t until I got into the car that I saw the beautiful web attached to the car I had almost completely destroyed.  I didn’t have much of a choice, I had to drive my car, but I still felt bad.   To both our surprise, there he was the next morning, beautiful web right back where it was.  Well now I just felt like a jerk.  The spider saw me, retreated into his mirror, and I started the car.  The web was gone by the time I got to school.  Even after leaving for Cape May for four days and then returning, he is still at it, claiming our car for his home every morning.  I tried to snap a photo of him this morning, but only got his house.  As much as I don’t like spiders, I have respect for this little guy’s perseverance.

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The Quick Chek Man

For the past two days, I have stood behind an older man in yellow at the Quick Chek by my school.  After noticing him the first time, I’ve started to see him every time I drive down the main road leading to the store.  Each morning on my way to work, and each afternoon on my way home, I see him, walking back and forth to Quick Chek.  He walks with the gait of a determined sleepwalker, and though his presence is intimidating, he has a kind face and is always polite to the cashier.  I worry about him in the heat.

In my family, we would say he’s “one of my dad’s.”  My father has worked with mentally disabled adults since we were kids and since using the phrase “mental disability” was hard for younger kids (and because the word “retarded” was NEVER accepted in my house, even before people realized it was a hurtful term), we always said “one of my dad’s.”  I’m not sure of Quik Check man’s situation, but I do see him three times a day, making his journey back and forth, even in the recent weather.

Me

I spent the morning feeling sorry for myself.  Sometimes I feel like it’s just when we think we have our feet on the ground, something slips through the cracks, and yet again, we’re scrambling.  Nothing major happened, and yes, we will be fine.  But because of what has to be a bank error, we woke up to an all too familiar frustration.

It’s hard to not feel like you’re starting from square one sometimes.  Like the days are going around and around and each day someone is ripping down the web you spent all yesterday building.  I dropped Ben off at the train and drove off feeling bad about our financial goof, bad about screwing over the spider, and just bad about anything I could find the excuse to feel bad about.

And then I saw Quik Check man.  He was on his morning trip, making his familiar journey to a place I’m assuming brings him comfort.  I started to feel bad for feeling bad, but because of my experience with this cyclical frustration in the past, I caught myself.

The spider, Quik Check man, AND I, have places to go and things that are important to us.  It’s frustrating to feel like you’re only going in circles, hoping that things change.  That throughout the day, you’ll get some magical email that says everything will be a little easier now.  But the important thing is that the three of us are all still showing up.  We got out bed and we are doing our thing.  We are trying.  Why does the constant rebuilding or the continuous journey back and fourth need to feel like a failure?  And if this frustrating morning helped me connect to a spider and a stranger, then I am thankful for that.

 

Keep doin’ your thing, everyone:)