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COMMUNAL WHINE

September 7, 2013

There’s this meditation class I attend semi-regularly. By semi I mean, sometimes I go for long swaths of time showing up every week for my dose of dharma and silence, but then I book a show or download a new video game or a new season of So You Think You Can Dance starts and I don’t make it for a few months. As such, last week I made my triumphant return after months of show/game/dance.  It happened to be a special class where instead of the usual meditation and dharma talk, we sat for a bit and then heard from the LGBTQ members of the class, and heard testimonials on difference and sensitivity and understanding.

Lovely.

Truly. It was a well organized and incredibly well spoken evening. But it nagged at me that almost everyone’s share involved a glowing description of the incredible community and family they found in this class, in all the amazing friends they’ve made in this very room. While I sat feeling like the Kool-Aid got passed around while I was in the bathroom, one girl exclaimed, “I just want to give you guys all a big hug! I feel so much love from this group!”

Now, I’ve been going to this class for over two years. From what I’ve seen, no one talks to people they don’t know.  In fact, that very day I had arrived early, and found myself alone with a woman to whom I’ve introduced myself a couple times previously (mostly while waiting for the bathroom), and she told me her name as if I were brand new to the class. There is a crew of cool kids who all sit up front near the teacher and ask questions, and the teacher knows them all by name, and then the rest of us sit behind them, staring at the back of their gregarious heads. There was one girl I really liked who talked to me occasionally, but she hasn’t been in class in a year or so. Maybe she found a new video game.

It would be easy for me to write off this group of people as having hierarchy and clique issues, and maybe some of that is at play, but this particular experience of exclusion throws a wrench in the story I usually write about myself and groups, at least for the last 4½ years.

Not drinking alcohol (though unequivocally one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life) has proven the perfect Ego-tool for narrative manipulation. “Because I don’t like being around drunk people,” is a terrific, catch-all excuse for reclusiveness and social anxiety. It is terrific, partly, because it is completely honest. I really, REALLY don’t like being around drunk people. But it is also effective because it projects my issues outside of myself. I don’t have to deal with my insecurities and discomforts, the problem can be “them” and not “me.”

But in this class, because the founder of the parent organization came from a recovery background, and my teacher comes from a recovery background, a high percentage of my classmates come from recovery as well, and I would say if not “most,” then “many” of people there are non-drinkers and non-users. Not to mention, it’s a meditation class – no one’s hauling a keg up 3 flights of stairs to a Bowery yoga studio.

My tool is broken. But the Ego is a remarkably tricky vixen. Faced with feeling exclusion from this population, my brain went through gymnastic efforts to reorganize: “It’s because I don’t identify as an alcoholic.” “It’s because I’m not queer.” “It’s because I’m not covered in tattoos like everyone else.” It’s a lot of noise.

At some point, being unable to find community, can’t be blamed on the community. I can try to blame the lack of alcohol in my blood or the lack of AA in my schedule, but when it comes down to it, it’s a lack of something in myself. It is a received idea that I don’t fit in, that I have managed to internalize, and I’m the only one who can fix it.

Last night I spent a wallowing 45 minute commute home after seeing a terrific show written and performed by an artist I know, but not well. At the end of the show, I waited around with his closer friends but when the opportunity came to wish him well, I turned and headed out of the theater, paralyzed by the fear that he wouldn’t remember who I am. The theater where the show was produced is one at which many of my friends have worked – some of them have had commissions there or been artists-in-residence. But in my 10 years in this business, I’ve never managed to break into the “scene,” there, and the space, though beautiful, fills me with the dread of a middle schooler with nowhere to sit in the lunchroom. As I headed to the subway alone, and pulled out my journal to write, I finally had to look the situation in the face and recognize something was very wrong, and it was in no one’s hands but mine.

I got home, put my bag on the kitchen table and took a deep breath to calm myself. As I did, I caught the scents of multiple hugs I had received throughout the day: the oils of two separate yoga teacher friends of mine, one peppery, one sweet; Febreze and cigarettes from one actor friend, bourbon from another. The thought was soothing. Maybe my community is not in one place, under one roof, in one occupation, following one philosophy. Maybe I will always have to amass my “family” from far reaching, disparate corners of my life. And can I be ok with that? Can I accept that I may never fit in with a particular group, but can choose to chisel out my own version of sangha?

I’m not sure. Maybe. Right now I still sort of feel like the kid in the lunchroom. But maybe.

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They Say It’s Your…

June 28, 2013

I have to come clean about something. I did not have a good birthday. There. I said it.  Despite the Facebook onslaught, not only did I not have a good birthday, I can’t remember when I have in recent past.

To preface my malcontent, it’s not the aging thing that gets me – I’m quite delighted to be 32. As far as my career as a character actor goes, there are only more parts for me as I age into my type. As far as a biological clock goes I don’t seem to have one.  And as far as maturity goes I’ve always believed if I can look back at a year prior and think I had moments of sheer idiocy, then at least I know I’ve grown. My birthday just makes me sad. I don’t know why. I always seem to get to the day after and feel like I missed something; like something was supposed to happen that didn’t.

[Note: It probably doesn’t help that this year my birthday also marked the beginning of the end of a relationship I just broke up out of.]

I don’t know at what point in my life it was implanted in my head that I was supposed to have a fantastic day on my birthday.  I assume it was in early childhood; it probably was for all of us. Whenever it was, I’m left, in subsequent adulthood, with a dull ache of embarrassment and the feeling of having disappointed someone when I don’t have a particularly good day, which seems to be always. There are plenty of moments of goodness surrounding the day – sometimes picnics, celebratory meals, usually a massage, maybe a baked good or twelve – but come the end of June 18th, for years I have found I’m mostly just sad, dreading the date June 19th, and feeling like I’ve let someone down.

The easy, pop-psychology explanation for who that someone might be is, of course, “myself.” But that doesn’t feel quite right. Another easy response is “my parents,” because that’s always the easy response when dealing with psychology. But that doesn’t seem to fit either.

The only other option I can think of is, “everyone.” Did I, at some point, develop the belief that by not having a good time on my birthday I’ve somehow disappointed everyone?  That is to say, the entirety of cultural expectation?

I decided to test my theory and stop lying when people ask me how my birthday was – to quit serving up the “oh it was great!”s with a side of subject change, and instead answer honestly that it felt mostly like any other somewhat stressful day. The results have been … awkward. At best. There have been some pitying looks, inability to respond, uncomfortable “aawws…” and so forth.  It hasn’t been pleasant.

[I reserved the description of crying in my bathroom at 1 AM while my “boyfriend” took up 75% of my bed, having barely touched me all night, for only my closest friends. I spared my acquaintances unlike I’m not sparing you now.]

I wonder why it is that we want so badly for people to tell us they had a good birthday. Maybe it isn’t just me – maybe we all get a little sad around our birthdays, but no one wants to see it reflected back at them in anyone else’s eyes.

One of my meditation teachers, Sylvia Boorstein, once explained the Buddhist practice of LovingKindness meditation as akin to wishing someone a happy birthday. (More specifically, she appealed to the nerds in the room by describing the phrases as a function of the Hortatory Subjunctive [*glasses push*]).  That is, reciting the mantras, “May you be happy. May I be peaceful,” is not about imploring a person or the self to be free from suffering, but rather wishing it without attachment to outcome. But I guess I feel like the comparison is inaccurate – people do seem attached to outcome when they wish a happy birthday.

This is not to discredit all the lovely people who wished me well on my day, or to downplay the enjoyable things that did happen. Just to acknowledge that I think it’s ok not to have a good birthday, even if you don’t really know why…

[Did I mention I’m single?]

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A Love Letter to Boston

April 16, 2013

I can’t tell you the best way to get from Southie to Dorchester.  I can’t tell you how many years the Big Dig took. I’ve never been to Fenway, I don’t drink my coffee Regular, and most of my Rs are fully pronounced. And yet. Being from the greater Boston area is a card I will play whenever given the chance. I love that city with all my heart – every flaw, every inch of its troubled history, every confusing one-way street. Because if it weren’t for my mother’s childhood in the Irish projects, if it weren’t for my father’s Jewish roots in Mattapan, if it weren’t for my weekends at the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science, if it weren’t for walks around Faneuil Hall, and dinner in the North End, I would not be who I am today.

I drive aggressively, I circle a rotary, I zipper-merge from 12 lanes to 2. I drink from a bubblah, I enjoy a Frappe for dessert, and when I’m done I’m “all set.” I have walked a red line to freedom, I have peddaled a swan, I have made way for ducklings. I have seen Cats at the Wang, I have lost Tonsils at Mass Eye & Ear. I have said goodbye to high school from the deck of the Spirit of Boston, and I have watched as the pillars of the Hancock and the Pru appear on the skyline; I have cried as I returned home.

As far as my development is concerned, Boston is as much a force as it is a place; as much an identity as it is a hometown. When Boston breaks, my heart breaks.

May the victims find comfort. May the helpers find strength. May my city find peace.

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Tiny Switches

March 15, 2013

In about a month’s time, it will be 4 years since I quit drinking. I don’t self-identify as an alcoholic, though it does run in my family, and some hardcore AA folk might label me a very high bottom alcoholic. I have written in the past about what lead me to quit, label or otherwise, but have recently learned new information that supports that decision. Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Epigenetics, but now it seems to be all I can think about.

There are plenty of resources out there to explain the new-ish science (I prefer THIS ONE because Hank is funny and cute but sadly married), but to put it in incredibly lay-woman terms, Epigenetics studies the genes above the genes. Your DNA is set for life, and immutable, but these are the chemicals that tell the unchangeable strands of your DNA whether or not to fire. Like little switches.

I, like many of us in the world, have a natural born tendency toward depression and anxiety. After about a year free of alcohol, I realized one day my depressive episodes seemed to have disappeared and my anxiety attacks slowed to just special occasion events (I’d like to see that Hallmark card: “Congrats on your tremors and bowel upset!”) I believe, in retrospect, that alcohol is an Epigenetic trigger for me: I am predisposed to depression, but removing this particular substance keeps the switch from firing.

There are two sides to the Epigenetic coin, though, one very optimistic and one very pessimistic. These are two lines that grabbed me from the above video:

“Your grandmother was making dietary decisions that effect you today.”

“You are making decisions that are going to effect people who are alive long after you’re dead.”

[Affect? Effect? Almost 32 and I still can’t get that right…]

On the one hand, lifestyle and dietary decisions of centuries and centuries worth of ancestors might be determining what may or may not fire in your genetic make up, for better or for much, much worse. As Hank says, “the damage has almost certainly already been done…” On the other, YOUR decisions, right now, if you happen to be a breeder, could determine what is expressed in future generations, for worse or for much, much better.

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but think Siddhartha was onto something when he was ruminating on the whole “everyone is interconnected” dealy. He may not have had the benefit of scholarly articles on Epigenetics, but he seems to have nailed it that our decisions not only impact our own lives going forward in time, but those of our future generations. Hell, even if I don’t have children, if I decide to start smoking a pack a day and blow it in enough people’s faces, I could be Epigenetically effecting their progeny’s on and off switches. (There is no risk of this. Smoking is gross.)

So, thanks, Grandpa, for the depression, the anxiety, and the debateable alcoholism. I’ll take the future and my little set of switches from here…

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With Regrets

March 5, 2013

On February 28th, 2013, Westboro Baptist Church (the classy owners of the URL, godhatesfags.com) descended on my alma mater, Vassar College, in protest of the school’s unabashed support of the LGBTQ community. And by descended on, I mean 4 of them showed up, and were met by hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of students, faculty, staff, alums and family members, gathered not in counter-protest, but in a campus-wide day of celebration of love and equality.

I wasn’t able to attend, but – because it’s the future – there was a live web-feed from a hand-cam a student was operating, which I turned on just in time to watch as these hundreds upon hundreds of community members were joining hands to form a gigantic circle around campus. The image was incredibly powerful. I know I’m not the only alum who turned on the feed and found themselves in tears; we could not be more proud of our school, for their spirit of inclusiveness and joy in the face of hatred (not to mention the $100,000+ the community raised for various LGBTQ organizations in honor of the day).

But pride wasn’t the only thing welling up and out of me. Because I’m a therapy-nerd, I wrote down on a sticky all the things I was feeling while watching the feed, and in addition to the emotions you might expect – pride, joy, nostalgia, love, a little spice of rage at WBC – I realized some of my tears were born of regret.

I grew up Catholic (the only little Rosenberg at CCD…), and consequently spent a fair amount of my childhood and adolescence pretty convinced “gays go to Hell.”  When I tell the story of my “recovery” from Catholicism I usually place the fulcrum around 15, when I met my first gay friend, Jason, and realized my beliefs fell apart in the face of a truly good, wonderful person, who happened to be gay.  But claiming a sudden epiphany and instant acceptance gives me way too much credit.

Watching this group of students and faculty join hands, I was reminded of something I said my first week of college that often comes back to haunt me. It was during orientation at the “Before School Conference” – the BSC, because we love to acronym – for which I had elected to attend a day of – ostensibly – theater camp. At the beginning of the day we gathered in one of the school’s performance spaces, and before events commenced, I observed a particularly flamboyant gentleman across the way from me, and made some comment to whomever I was with to the tune of:

“I’m totally fine with gay people, I just can’t stand when they wear it on their sleeve like that.”

Is it possible for my entire body to cringe? ‘Cause that just happened.

That was August 1999. Just 14 years ago. Now, spending the next 4 years at Vassar College did a lot of good to whip me into tolerance shape, at least as far as this particular population goes, but watching this video did force me to sit with the remorse and regret I felt for my former self – for my actions, but also for what pain must have lived inside the 18 year old me that felt the need to express that sort of diseased opinion.

My intolerance came from a lack of knowledge and education, and I am remorseful for my words while maintaining the awareness that it wasn’t “my fault” necessarily, and that I’ve righted my path since then. But regret, on the other hand, is something I’ve been sitting with a great deal lately. The more I pick apart childhood pain and its consequently reverberating habits in my adult self, the more regret I have. Put simply it’s the old, “If only I knew then what I know now…” deal.

It doesn’t feel like a terribly productive place to be, because there’s nothing I can do about it now, other than extend compassion to that messed up kid and try to learn from it all, but sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by time lost.  Time that could have been spent opening to people, making myself emotionally available. Time that now, in 2013, is spent climbing the mountain of my own emotional life, chipping away incessantly at diamond-strength resistance.

But at least now I can watch the magical live-feed of Vassar kids living in a world better designed for tolerance – at least in some places – than when I was in their shoes. We all got shit, and those students are dealing with whatever version of trauma and heartache they own just like me, but at least maybe they’ll have one less regret-mountain to climb.

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Kidspace

February 23, 2013

For a child in late 80s/early 90s Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Kidspace is a dream come true.  It is a seemingly never-ending wooden structure of slides, wheels, climby things and hidey holes; to a pillow fort builder, its resemblance to a large castle is sheer ecstasy. It is playground mecca.

For weeks after the announcement that Kidspace is complete and open to the public, I beg my mother to bring me. Every kid who has been reports fantastic stories – there’s a steering wheel you can turn like a pirate ship! And all sorts of secret spaces! The slides twist! There’s even a slide with a tunnel – it’s wicked scary, but wicked fun!

Finally the day arrives, but for whatever reason none of my friends are available to join me. I will not be deterred from Kidspace, though, so I, an only child, and my mother get in the car, and drive for hours (10 minutes) to Sudbury.  The final stretch of road to the playground is the long, winding driveway to the public school which owns it (some kids can go here EVERY DAY??!), and as we make our way along the path, in perfect cinematic form, the structure seems to rise from nowhere – appearing in the distance in all its splintery glory.

We finally park and I run from the car and go to check out this spectacular creature. I feel the damp coolness in the cavernous internal spaces, and then climb to the top of a slide where the sun radiates off the new wood and metal. As I get there, though, some other kids bodily push past me – a group, all playing together.

Maybe it started that early? Seeing those kids together? Or maybe it’s whatever happened next – the memory so hazy – that set the pain in motion. The group goes down the slide as a unit – one behind the other with their legs wrapped around each other. The last one in the row turns to me just as they push off, sticks his tongue out at me and says… something. Something about how I’m alone. Something about how I’m not part of the group, and off they go.

I wait a few beats then follow them down the slide, walk to the area with the swings and the picnic benches and claim a swing for myself. I don’t go back in the magical, wonderful part of the park – for the next half hour I sit and swing. My mother asks me why I’m not in there and I make up some lie about how much fun I’m having swinging by myself. Finally she says something to the effect of, “we didn’t come all this way just so you can swing,” and we go home.

Despite it happening 20+ years ago, the image of that little girl sitting on the swing has a haunting hold on me, such that I wonder if that were the first time I became sentient of loneliness. In particular, the images from that day flood back to me whenever I’m feeling like the Other. Alien. An individual disparate from the group, always alone.

I also wonder if that’s when the defense mechanisms first began. If, when I formulated a lie about my enjoyment of swinging by myself, I flicked the switch on a lifetime of excuse making and wall building, telling myself stories about not needing people, broadcasting an impenetrable facade of fierce individualism and self-sufficiency, when actually I’m just protecting a sad, lonely little girl who desperately wants to connect with people, and slide down the slide.

Interestingly, when I’m cast in a new production, in my professional element, my social ineptitude abates and I usually have no problem making connections with the cast and crew (from what I can tell – if you disagree please let me know…). However, take me out of my comfort zone, and I tend to disappear into the rafters.

To wit, I’ve been going to the same meditation group most Tuesday nights for almost two years now, and have never made a single friend. Before that I went to a different group and… also managed to make no friends. Now, admittedly, silent meditation isn’t the most team-developing activity, but you’d think where I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over 6 years, at some point I would have carved myself a little sangha. But, like Dan Harmon, Community has escaped me.

(Rimshot… for the 5 of you who get that reference.)

At least by developing awareness of these feelings and their history, I can start to work on it, but – as GI Joe should have said – knowing is ONLY half the battle. I feel like I am swimming against my own current right now, scaling a mountain of my own making, chipping away at years of self-protection.  I look forward to a therapy session in the future where I don’t leave feeling like a broken machine.

I write this post in a desperate attempt to exorcise the image of that little girl on the swing – that by purging this story perhaps I can give her a different outcome.

Or just find someone with whom to build a pillow fort.

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Life Still Happens

February 10, 2013

For the most part when I travel I try to stray from the familiar, but every now and then a good old fashioned Starbucks calls to me: where I know exactly what it will smell like inside, what to order, how to order, even what music will be playing. Call me trashy but I need my comforts now and then and I’ve convinced myself, hey, at least it’s not McDonald’s. To this end I found myself on the island of Kauai, sipping my iced grande unsweetened iced coffee (they always say the iced twice), sitting outside the familiar mermaid-emblazoned doorway on a gorgeous Hawaiian afternoon, watching pastel-clad Midwesterners amble past.

One such group included a quietly crying toddler in a stroller – the kind of cry that isn’t whiny or obnoxious, but rather broadcasts fatigue, disorientation and, to my ears, a general discomfort that can’t quite be pinned down to words. I’m sure we’ve all felt it as wee ones and adults: I’m sad; I can’t tell you why, I’m just sad. As the group passed me by I heard the father say to the child, “Oh come on. You can’t cry. You’re in Hawaii. It can’t be that bad.”  Without realizing it, he had put words to precisely the war I had been waging with myself for the duration of my vacation to that point.

It is incredibly hard to be sad in Hawaii, by which I do not mean it’s hard to stay sad in Hawaii, as the expression might insinuate, but rather when you’ve spent ample amounts of time and money to get to one of the more beautiful places on earth, there is a sense that you are not entitled to feel anything but joy. But sometimes the confluence of current events of your particular situation leave you sobbing through resplendent sunrises, time and money be damned.

I had a rough month before I left for vacation: my boss’s kid started chemo, an “It’s Complicated” came to an abrupt end, my cervix was medically violated, an acute SneezeBeast invaded my respiratory system, I injured my calf and couldn’t exercise, I participated in the worst staged reading known to man, and about 24 hours before I got on a plane, my therapist announced that upon my return we would begin seriously digging into the brick wall I seemed to have hit with emotional and physical intimacy. If that doesn’t set one up well for 8 days in paradise, I don’t know what will.

Having landed in Hawaii, I think part of me expected it all to suddenly get better; like the vitamin D would hit me, the exquisite views would take over and the whole mess of the previous 30 days would magically come into focus. I experienced no such divinity. Despite the clean air, rolling surf and spouting whales, for at least the first half of my trip I still found myself covered in tears, trying to process everything I was feeling, unable to gain clarity on any of it, and all the while riddled with guilt and first-world-privileged-person-shame for not frolicking around in happygasms at my great fortune. It was a rapid feedback loop that created a downward spiral of heroic proportions.

Luckily, I happen to be Facebook friends with a phenomenal Buddhist teacher, Josh Korda, who posted the following status right around the time I was hitting rock bottom:

Emotions aren’t always logical, neat, compatible, nor can they be intellectually solved. We can simultaneously fear change and seek it; crave deep connection while trembling at the touch of another. These inconsistencies don’t mean there’s something that needs fixing. We can move forward in life by accepting how we feel right now. What our feelings and desires need most of all is a compassionate witness, a secure base of understanding; not a judge passing a verdict.

Now, when you’ve been in therapy as long as I have, while simultaneously being exposed to various bodywork modalities (yoga, acupuncture, Alexander Technique…) you start to catch yourself thinking ridiculous thoughts like, “all the fear stuck in my psoas is really throwing off my pelvic alignment,” or “there’s just so much sadness in my vagina.”  And then, if you’re me, you debate gouging your own eye out for turning into such a hippy. But It’s hard not to look at psychological or physiological imbalances as problems that can be solved. Fixed.

I think I live in a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, and the overwhelming emotions and clouded confusion I feel would go away if I could just fix whatever the problem is. Oh, and, don’t forget: everyone else has it all figured out and I’m alone in my struggle (not true, but tell that to my Superego). But, of course, the only problem with me is that I have this human brain and human body, both of which are interminably busy processing and rehashing the joys and traumas of 31 years of existence.

What would life be like if I could exit that headspace – stop thinking there was anything on the other side of “fixed”? What’s left if I can hush up judgment and just bear witness?  Beats the shit out of me, but at least being told (via Facebook) that it was ok to watch myself be incredibly sad for a while, even in Hawaii, helped ease the guilt-ridden suffering I had layered on top of the base pain.

Before I left LA to head to Hawaii, I got my first bikini wax (Mazel tov, right? I’m finally an adult…) from a woman who happened to be from Maui, and had just returned the day before. “The problem is,” she told me when we talked about living there permanently, “life still happens, even in Hawaii. People die, people break up with you, you still have to pay bills.” I wish I could have said something like that to this father as he gently berated his child for having the nerve to feel feelings. “You’re in Hawaii. It’s not that bad.” It might be. It might actually be that bad. And then it might not be. And then maybe it will be again. And then it’ll be amazing for a while and then neutral for big chunks of time. Life still happens, even in Hawaii.

If not this shit, then other shit. If not this joy, then other joy. If not this place, then another place.