Love is, without a doubt, the most powerful force in this world.
I just felt all the cynics and “realists” roll their eyes collectively.
But, seriously, that is something I know to be true. You can call it cliché or cheesy or whatever you want, but there is no doubt in my mind that love in all its forms is the only thing that can transcend this life.
And I didn’t know that until I was faced with death.
I had been pretty fortunate throughout my life to never have to deal directly with death. My grandfather died in 1997, but I was only four years old at the time so I didn’t really understand it. As I grew up, I became more curious about him. I would watch old home videos he was in, ask my dad questions about him, try to find out about his time in the Air Force through the internet, etc. Even though I lost him so early in my life, I still felt this pull to him- like he was with me, sending me love and light along my way.
I was a freshman in college, when I first experienced death head on, and the true magnitude of love.
I got a call one day after class that my former church youth director, mentor, and dear friend Chris Camp had been taken to the hospital after having a seizure. At this point, he was only 28 and overall pretty healthy. I had no idea it could be anything serious.
After a short time, we got the diagnosis. A brain tumor.
I could not believe it.
I met Chris when I was around 13 years old. He had watched me grow up. He had always given me advice or provided a shoulder to cry on when I needed it. We had just gone on a trip to Disney World with the youth group May of that year. It seemed such a far cry from taking funny stone-faced Tower of Terror ride photos to suddenly visiting him in a bleak hospital room.
While his sarcastic and lighthearted personality hadn’t changed, seeing him attached to tubes and monitors made me physically ill. But I held it together for most of the visit until he hugged me and said, “I’m going to be alright. No matter what, I’m going to be alright.”
As I drove home in the rain, tears streaming down my face, I kept thinking, “Why couldn’t it be me? Why couldn’t I have the brain tumor so he wouldn’t have to suffer?”
I suddenly felt the gravity of life’s mysteries weighing heavy on me. I felt the fear of the unknown leaving me entirely. And I felt a glimmer of the true magnitude of love- a willingness to sacrifice my own life for someone else’s. Not to say there wasn’t anyone else in my life I would have done that for, but this is the first time I was confronted with that feeling.
For over a year, I watched helplessly from the sidelines- doing what I could to make him laugh or cheer him up when he needed it, celebrating with him in April of 2012 when his brain scan had come back completely clear, and mourning with him when the cancer returned in full force in June. We celebrated his 29th birthday praying there would be a 30th.
I got the call in early October, the one that everyone who has ever had a sick loved one dreads getting- The “If you’re going to come, you need to come now” call.
The last day I saw him he wasn’t conscious, but he moved and moaned as if he knew I was there and wanted me to know he could hear me. I held his limp hand and watched him breath slow, labored breaths. I told him I was sorry. I was sorry for all the times I was worried about whether or not the guy in English class liked me, or what dress I was going to wear to prom. I was sorry for not seeing the bigger picture and for not spending enough time with him while I had the chance. And then, I couldn’t help but laugh, because I could almost hear him saying, “I’m dying. Get over it.”
A day later, I was in rehearsals for The Crucible at Ole Miss. I heard my phone ring, and stepped out to take the call.
Even though I was expecting it, the words, “He’s gone,” hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank into the corner of the hallway and couldn’t move. What was I supposed to do? Go back inside with everyone whose worlds were still intact, those who hadn’t noticed everything was just a little darker now?
It was a pain like I had never felt. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I just wanted to curl up and forget.
But in the months and years to come, something magical happened.
It’s hard to notice the beauty of love while in the depths of grief, because the pain can be so overwhelming. But once the pain subsides ever so slightly, once you can hear their name without immediately bursting into tears, once you can celebrate the life lived rather than mourn the life lost, you experience the bountiful abundance of love.
I realized throughout my experience that even if I stopped thinking about him every single day, even if I forgot the sound of his voice, even if I forgot the corny jokes he told, the love I had for him and he had for me would never disappear.
I think life has a way of testing newfound epiphanies, because, while this was my first major brush with death, I certainly knew it would not be the last. And that test came this year.
My grandmother lived a full and healthy life when she was younger, but was plagued by a host of health problems toward the end. She was tossed back and forth between assisted living, the hospital, rehab, and hospice. She had memory loss similar to dementia, although I’m not sure if we ever got a clear diagnosis. She was unable to understand where she was, she had trouble breathing, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating. And on top of it all, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
I wanted more than anything to be able to see her before she died. The last conversation we had was in the summer of 2020, and I just wanted to tell her one more time that I loved her. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to, as she died on January 10th of this year.
As much as I wanted her to stay, I knew she was in pain. I knew she had poor quality of life. And just like with Chris, I wished for it to end. In this, I was reminded of one of the fundamentals of love- If you love someone, you want what’s best for them, even if it isn’t what you want.
The morning after she died, I was out early walking my dog when all of the sudden it started snowing. It was beautiful and quiet and serene, and I found myself smiling so widely because I could feel her there. I felt her telling me that she was okay and no longer suffering, that she loved me and was now watching over me.
Death can teach us some pretty powerful things about our world and our lives, and yet we are so afraid of it. We don’t talk about it, and when we do, it’s in somber and hushed tones. But truthfully, I don’t think it’s death we’re afraid of. I think it’s the feeling of no longer having that person in our lives. It’s the feeling of the absence of love. And I’m here to tell you that the love will never be absent.
Energy can neither be created or destroyed. So regardless of the circumstances of death, the impact of someone’s life makes a permanent imprint on the earth through the love given and love received. It can never be destroyed.
With Chris, my grandmother, and everyone I’ve ever loved who has passed over in this life, I realized we will always be tethered to each other, as if they are just in a different room rather than a different realm. And love is that unbreakable tether.
The love that permeates through our being will always remain, no matter what.
They say 27 is the beginning of a time for great personal reflection, change, and a crossover to another phase of one’s life. They say this has to do with Saturn returning to the same place in its orbit as it was when you were born. They say it technically takes Saturn 29.5 years to make a full rotation around the sun (I confirmed this on NASA’s website), but you start to feel the effects at 27. They say, because of this, the effects can last until about thirty (astrology is an EXACT science). They say Saturn’s return is about maturing and taking stock in your life as it is and what you want it to be going forward.
They say all this, but I don’t have a telescope so I must rely on hearsay.
While I’m not one for astrology, as I approach my 27th birthday tomorrow (feel free to tell me what being an Aquarius means), I can’t deny I haven’t done some reflection as of late. I graduated college in 2015 and moved to LA immediately after with goals of working as a writer. In the five and a half years it’s been since, I have made some efforts towards that goal. I’ve gone to numerous screenwriting Q&As, I’ve hooked up with a writing partner and we’ve put some pretty funny things on the page, I’ve connected with the author and real life subjects of a book I’m adapting, and I’ve become the coordinator and occasional contributor to a blog for a highly regarded theater company (thanks Liz and Riley!)
To be fair, surviving in LA is a challenge enough (I’m on my third apartment with my ninth and tenth roommates), but I can’t help but look back with some disappointment. After almost six years I still have a day job (that isn’t writing). I haven’t written nearly as much on my own and nothing I can really show as a sample. I’ve been adapting that book on and off for years and do not even have a rough draft I’m happy with. And while I’ve been working to survive, not to mention figuring out mental illnesses (gotta love just now being diagnosed with ADHD), ultimately when I look back I have to take stock in my role in this.
Maybe I keep waiting for something to happen, but that’s the problem.
Change is a part of nature, but the natural process is slow moving. It can be sped up though by some hands on effort. The world itself is supposed to change at a slow rate, it took billions of years for the grand canyon to form. On the other hand thanks to human industry and capitalistic greed, we may destroy this Earth in the next 50 years! If not sooner! Glibness aside, we people are not the Grand Canyon. We don’t change just with the passing of a new year or the position of Saturn in its orbit. We have to take action in our efforts.
With my 27th year on the horizon, I am looking to make some changes. Making some clear efforts to be better than where I am now and strive towards where I want to be. A friend of mine from college, Zach, recently reminded me I once said I’d give LA a ten year shot before reassessing (thanks for the reminder, bud). Zach also used to say life is about self improvement, and there’s nothing better to think about when falling asleep then what you did today, and how you can do better tomorrow.
Whether it is that big ball of gas with its rings of ice and rocks floating in the sky, I can’t say. It feels like there are moments like this in all sorts of people’s lives. Bill Hader talked about living in LA for five years, working assistant gigs, until he realized he needed a creative outlet. He joined an improv group, eventually got discovered by Megan Mullaly, cast on SNL, and now writes and directs one of the best TV shows out there.
Billy Joel once sang “I'm sure you'll have some cosmic rationale,” but this change is only going to happen if I do something about it.
Now, where to begin? Ah yes, Concerning New Years.
New years for many years meant for me to clean house with everything the past year taught, brought, and fought for me. I guess in many respects, a year renewal holds differently per the individual. I know of many friends right now who are starting their own businesses, some are reaching their long thought out health goals, and some are welcoming new family members into their tribal brood. What we can mutually agree on is our feelings towards 2020 since we certainly had no such feelings transitioning from 2019 to 2020.
I had hoped to finish working my accounting job so I could pursue acting full time. I was ready to tackle auditions, attend script analysis classes, continue gym training to a healthier lifestyle, and to fully embrace an unknown future laid out before me. As I write this we know exactly what had happened instead. I am unable to truly specify the dismal dismay we all share for the last particular year. Open your phones and you’ll find countless memes, posts, songs, articles and videos collaborating what we truly feel, especially as we slowly march together into the new year, with reluctant hope.
My question is: why reluctant? Why should we fear what has yet, or not yet happened? Because we have all been hurt. Hurt is a very universal feeling. It proves you are alive, you are human, yet so many attempt to avoid it at all costs. None were spared from the relentless onslaught of hurt the previous year brought upon us. So can you really blame us if we entered the new year with the same mentality as Frodo Baggins did when he returned to the Shire? He was home, he was amongst friends/family, his normal life restored, his world was saved from an enormous catastrophe, and yet a small part of him knew. He knew he could no longer see his life the way it was before, no matter how many times he was told “Frodo, you’re safe now.” Seeing his resolution brought me comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in feeling what I was feeling, as I’m sure we could all mutually feel for. We’ve seen things, experienced things, we know things will still take time before any sort of normalcy returns, and yet, we have this shining reluctant hope, buried deep down inside every one of us. We almost don’t want to stick our heads out of the bunker until we are absolutely certain the war is over. We never could’ve imagined our lives playing out the way things are, or how much we had to transform to this new world.
This is what I can assure to you: whatever flame of hope you have, if it is blazing mightily, or dimming weakly, if it’s still there it is worth the trouble keeping it burning. We somehow slowly stumbled upon the finish line of a year we initially figured would be endless. Yet, we are stronger; we are wiser; we are more patient, appreciative, and grateful for what we have, who we are, and where we are going. This has been an accumulation of many pivotal life events we’ve worked so hard in arriving at, to which when the pandemic hit, the universe provided us a way to stop, smell the roses, and reflect. Please, I implore you to not lose hope. Darkness is not forever, darkness must fade away at some point, and the light will shine upon your smile once again.
We still have a long road ahead of us, and we still feel so restless of what this new year has in store. As of the start of this year 2021, just recently discovered that I contracted covid-19, and had to suddenly learn the intricacies of the virus and in recovering from it, but that is for another tale.
With that being said, I leave you with these words from J.R.R. Tolkien from The Return of the King, by Frodo Baggins:
“How do you go on when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back. There are some things time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep that they’ve taken hold.
You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one, and whole for many years. You have so much to enjoy, and to be, and to do.
Your part in the story will go on.”
Wishing a Happy Hopeful Safe New Year, to you all! I Love you, from the bottom of my heart.
Liz and Riley, co-founders and Artistic directors of It’s Personal, pivoted their live theater show and classes to an online format at the start of the pandemic. Along the way they learned a few things…
1. Find Your Partner In Crime.
Grab your roommate, husband, partner, or that stranger on the street (virtually, we mean. Don’t be touching people!) We promise you will need them to push through the year 2020. We began our journey at Columbia College Chicago and found ourselves both moving to LA in 2013. 7 years later we had a successful theater company and started the journey towards a new year in 2020. “This was our year,” we said.
Running a theater company is no easy task. Running a theater company when you can’t perform in an actual theater is even harder. In quarantine, we were able to bounce ideas off each other, cry to each other, and celebrate ourselves when we had a win. Having each other to get through this year was irreplaceable. We highly suggest you find that person.
2 . Go digital. Now.
We don’t have to tell you, dear reader, how epically our expectations of 2020 quickly went down the drain. We made it through one of the five themed shows we had planned for the year; our Crush show in January and February. We made it through one month of classes in our rental space. We started rehearsals on our March and April show...and then the world shut down. We decided to just...wait it out. Wait for a date when theaters would open back up, when we could put up our now postponed Growing Up show, when we could cast our fall shows.
In the meantime, we did what we could. We did start our podcast in 2020 and figure out a way to record remotely so we could continue to put out an episode every Monday. We brought our classes from classroom to zoom call and many talented teachers in their respective fields taught classes on the It’s Personal zoom. We realized being in a theater again this year wasn’t likely so we took our storytelling shows online too, doing 6 online shows from May to October with so many fantastic performers. Raising money for charity has always been an integral part of our company, but this year we were able to raise more money than we ever have, raising over $1000 for dozens of amazing charities that needed our help.
Don’t wait for the world to open back up! You have the creative juices flowing so use it! Hop on instagram and share your story, send out email blasts, create zoom rooms where you can laugh and feel connected. (Maybe you even make a Tik Tok musical like Ratatouille.)
3. “Call Your Girlfriend…
I think it’s time we talked.” (Please just play Robyn on Spotify while reading this next paragraph.) Ask all your friends to help you any way possible! We are constantly scared that we are burdening people by asking for help or asking if they want to be a part of something. We forget that people want to work towards something and want to see their friends succeed. The worst thing someone can say is, “no thanks.” Okay, no biggie! Let’s ask the next person. Remember that most creative people are seeking a community.
We truly could have not done this 2020 year without our dedicated executive team, cast, crew, teachers and collaborators. We pushed them and asked a lot of them, but we all grew because of it. A creative outlet feels a bit like therapy too! And it’s 2020...we all need therapy.
4. Goals Are Not Just For Athletes.
As artists we are constantly inspired and working towards bettering our art. It truly helps to make goals (was this a good sports analogy? We don’t know, we’re theater kids). We found ourselves creating agendas, goal sheets, lists, and long winded emails to better understand where we were progressing our business and art towards. Don’t feel like you fail if you don’t accomplish your goal. Keep adding it to the list and keep working towards that goal. At IP, we have had ideas in the works for months, sometimes years! We are focusing on the stuff we already do, but also looking toward the future of what we can do next. We started this company as two women who wanted to make a space for people to tell their stories. It has grown, and will continue to grow, into something even more magical than we could have anticipated. Staying true to your mission is important. Staying true to your story is our mantra.
5. It’s Okay if it Isn’t How You Thought It Would Be.
Who had a Resolution for 2020 that they didn’t stick to? (raises hand) It’s okay if you didn’t accomplish everything you set out to do this year. Just surviving is honestly enough. You are enough. It’s okay if what you accomplished doesn’t look like what you thought it would. Making art is affected by your environment, and if your stage is a computer screen and you can’t connect with your audience, you may feel like a failure. But you’re not, because somewhere in the interwebs is someone receiving your art and better because of it. Because you shared a part of yourself with the world when you would have rather stayed under a blanket till 2021. If you don’t take anything else with you from 2020 (and like, please don’t) go into the next year and do the thing. The thing that scares you, the thing you don’t think is good enough, the thing you’ve been putting off. Because you, and the world, will be better for it.
We will be continuing (and expanding!) our digital efforts into 2021. We want to thank everyone that has supported us during the insanity that was 2020. Being able to continue telling our stories has meant the world to not just us, but the entire It’s Personal company. While we look forward to being back on stage at some point, we thank you for your ongoing patronage. Here’s to a better 2021!
I turned 26 last month, and I’m not thrilled about it.
I used to indulge in the chance to reinvent myself at a new age. At 10, I’d be one of the mature kids on the playground – sitting on the sidelines, braiding hair, and making conversation with the teachers – an old soul, if you will. At 16, I’d drive to school and back, and sometimes, if my parents allowed it, to the Krispy Kreme down the road. At 18, I’d finally be “an adult” and blissfully think I could “do anything.”
But the anticipation of a fresh number has gradually lost its sparkle. The older I get, the more I can’t get rid of this gnawing feeling that I’ll never have time to do it all, and that I’ll have to compromise – either travel the world or have kids. Either climb the ladder at the same steady-income-job, or try something new and have to start from scratch.
I consistently can’t make up my mind, and that’s not stopping the time from keeping on, and dragging me through the dirt. I am aware that 26 is not “old,” but 26 is not your early twenties. Am I setting my life up for success? What is success, really?
For my birthday this year, I went on two walks, ordered overpriced pasta from Jon and Vinny’s, and had a Zoom dinner with my parents – just enough to not feel too much like a lonely loser. It was expectedly sad, not just because of COVID, but because here I am again, feeling like I’ve lost yet another year of my life. Everyday is another day that I haven’t found the answers, and I know I know, that’s not how life works, but that doesn’t stop me from the existential panic.
At what year does that sentiment switch? How old are you when age becomes a thing that’s lauded, and not an imminent dread?
My grandpa’s birthday is a few days before mine, and I forgot to call. I remembered this as he and my grandma called me – they’re seriously punctual about phone calls, especially on your birthday.
Pop-Pop is 81 this year, and he spent most of October in the hospital, alone. He’s out now, and currently on dialysis and a strict diet. He honestly sounds a lot happier than he’s been in a while – we think it’s from the lack of tobacco use (thank you long-term hospital stay), but it could just be that he’s thankful to be home.
Our phone conversations don’t usually last more than five minutes – neither of us are solid at small talk. But the past few calls have been five times that – on my birthday, we energetically chatted about the clam pasta that my grandma cooked him for his 81st, and all of the other low-sodium, doctor-approved meals he’s been eating.
We agreed that next year, we’re going to have a massive party, because we all deserve it. And I felt guilty that he called me, and not the other way around.
I keep thinking that it’s an honor to know him. To have gotten to know him. And I’ve strangely never thought about what he’s accomplished in life. I just think about the way he loves the Yankees, does every New York Times crossword, and gives good hugs.
At 26, all I want is to have my year back. But I’m trying to revel in the days spent. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we don’t know who it will take. I’d like to start believing in the passing of time as magic in itself.
This very blog post was on my to-do list.
There’s always something I’m working on and a to-do list on my phone really helps me get all of my tasks organized, but even then some errands get lost in the shuffle. You see, when I skip a task on my list, a push notification lingers on my phone and it drives me bonkers! I absolutely despise having a push notification on my phone, probably because I have some mild, undiagnosed OCD. I’ve seen people with email notifications in the tens of thousands and I had to bite down on my lip to prevent myself from snatching their phone and smashing it on the ground. Seriously, just disable push notifications at that point to keep a clean phone.
This list is incredibly helpful though because if I don’t get a project done, it nags at me from the back of my head. Not all the time, just when I’m relaxing and feeling accomplished.
“Oh man, I’m really enjoying this movie! I should make a movie. Well, I need to write a script first. Ah geez, I was supposed to write a script…”
Writing it down and having that nagging push notification is a great visual reminder to do that before the guilt sets in. I’m sweating thinking about what’s left on my list.
Deleting that task seems like cheating in a way. It’s sort of like I’m skipping a level in a video game. The developer wants me to experience the entire game from start to finish, but I’m cutting out certain obstacles and deceiving the game and in a way, myself.
If I have an idea in mind for a project, I just have to finish it. I can’t really show off my work portfolio with a bunch of half baked projects. I need to have some completed works that I need to show off. If that’s not my line of thinking then I think that I have to complete it for myself. I need to prove to myself that I can complete that project or I can never really move on from it.
Sometimes a project just does not work and even if it does, it keeps me away from other obligations such as bigger ideas, friends, and even my own self-care. You can’t force a piece of coal to shine, just as much as you can’t force a project to work. People change with time and that means older ideas don’t align with who they are at the moment. They need to express themselves in new ways and not get stuck in the old ones.
Though that project is still on my to-do list, it is ready to be deleted. I've made the conscious effort to abandon it. All that’s left to do is discard it from the list. Though it’s just a simple swipe and a tap on my smartphone, it feels like I am pushing a boulder with all my ideas, hard work, and heart off a cliff. Once that boulder reaches the bottom of that cliff, I can’t push it back up. It’s gone. Time to roll up a completely different rock.
Hopefully, I’ve become a stronger person after that project. Maybe I can tackle the new one with a bit more ease. If another project doesn’t sound too frightening, I might add a brand new item on my to-do list. Maybe I can check it off this time.
When I was around eight years old, my carpool locked me in the car. It was accidental. I think. They just...well, they just forgot me. I wish I were joking, but alas:
I remember being squished in the backseat middle, and when we got to school (my favorite place in the whole world!) all three kids and Mrs. Morris (their mom, who had been driving) piled out of the car. As I was scooting across the sticky seat to the door—which Graham, the kid next to me, had oh-so-helpfully closed behind him—I heard the click of automatic locks. It didn’t register at first. Not until I pulled the door handle, and...nothing. So I—seemingly very calmly—pulled again. Nothing. Now, you should know that I live in a perpetual state of low-grade anxiety—you know, a general feeling of impending doom!—but that second attempt at the door is when I started to really freak out. It must have been childproof locks or something, I don’t know. As a matter of fact, to this day, I still have no idea what happened, because what did I do after I couldn’t get that door open on the first two tries? I stopped trying—And this from a kid who loved school and was deathly afraid of being tardy!
But in that moment, I was more deathly afraid of being visibly “stuck” or “wrong” or not being able to figure it out,” so I simply stopped trying. I didn’t pull any other door handles. I didn’t honk or scream or bang on a window. I just sat there—watching my carpool (who —it was clear—had forgotten me) blissfully skip off to school (OK, they weren’t exactly skipping, but still). Anyone who walked by the car in those moments would’ve seen a little girl casually sitting in the backseat, totally fine, totally normal, nothing to see here, folks. But the reality that no one saw, of course, is that inside the car, I was trapped and internally, freaking out, sliding all around the seat which was no longer sticky, because at that point, I was sweating in places...well, all over.
And that exact picture—that kid in the car, left behind, panicking, sweating all over but trying to look calm, cool, and collected—perfectly sums up my experience with anxiety. It’s my reality. It’s the reality I made for myself long before I was locked in that car—and long after I made my daring escape. In fact, I’m still living in that reality so much of the time—afraid to rock the boat or honk the horn, afraid to speak up, not surprised or indignant when I’m left behind or forgotten, just trying desperately to look cool and quietly figure out what I’m doing wrong in this situation. I’m still so mortified by my very existence.
I’ve lived with anxiety my whole life, it seems. I feel like it’s this huge thing that follows me around—like it’s stuck to me almost—and so I’m forever trying to find creative ways to hide it. Like a big zit smackdab in the center of your forehead that absolutely refuses to be covered by any amount of makeup. So then you start contemplating giving yourself bangs just to cover it up (anyone else? Or is that just me?). Kids at school used to make fun of my sweaty palms, which would leave slimy handprints on the papers at my desk. Sometimes by the end of a class period, the papers would even stick to my palms—you know, like Spiderman! But with an anxiety disorder. My thoughts are always racing like bullets. But if they’re bullets, the gun is pointed always at me: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m stupid, I’m stuck, I’m old, I’m unlovable, I’m doing it wrong, I’m going to get in trouble, I’m wasting my life, I’m poor, I’m sick, I’m lonely, I’m unlikeable, I’m worthless, I’m going nowhere, I’m afraid, I’m a fool, I’m anxious (yes, I even beat myself up for being anxious).
Some well-meaning people like to point out that anxiety (and the low self-esteem that often accompanies it) is actually very self-centered, because you’re always thinking about you—even if it’s just about how inadequate you are. But that’s not really the whole story. Sure, I struggle with thoughts of self-hatred, and yes, they take up a lot of mental and emotional energy. But truly, my anxiety comes not from being intensely aware of myself, but rather being intensely aware of myself in the world. How I relate to it, how I interact with it, how I can make it better, how I might be making it worse. I’m hyper-aware. Like, to a fault. Or a superpower. Depends on how you look at it, I guess.
And if you’re looking at me now, you wouldn’t know it. You wouldn’t know any of it. I’ve learned to hide my sweaty palms and my racing thoughts. I’ve learned to hide period. I’m no longer eight years old, locked in a car. That kid’s still inside me, sure, but she’s inside a woman with way more life experience (and who can take on any childproof lock, thanks very much). And what I’ve garnered during those thirty-some years of life experience is that anxiety isn’t all bad. Don’t worry!—I promise I’m not going to sugarcoat this; no fairytale endings here. But hear me out: apart from being biologically, ancestrally-designed to keep me safe, my anxiety makes me a kickass friend, a giving lover, and a talented writer/storyteller. Sure, I overthink everything. But that means I’m thinking about you a lot of the time. I remember birthdays and anniversaries, I can tell almost immediately when you’re having a bad day, I want to help you feel good, I worry about you. I won’t just walk a mile in your shoes. I’ll also polish them and bring them back to you. With a hug and a cup of tea. Because I understand—perhaps better than most—what you’re going through. My anxiety makes me incredibly empathetic. Which is arguably precisely what we need more of in the world today. So I own all of it. The good, the bad, the ugly, the zit. I wipe off my palms. I try again. I speak about it. I share it. I tell my story. I honk the horn.
And in case you’re wondering: Mrs. Morris did eventually remember and retrieve me for that car. I didn’t get a tardy. She apologized profusely to my mom, and we all laughed about it for years. Because it is kind of funny. And after all, it didn’t turn out all that bad.
\When I was in college I had a professor named Robert Hass. This is noteworthy for two reasons: 1) I had been a high school dropout who somehow managed to get in to U.C. Berkeley, and 2) At the time I was there, Robert Hass had become the newly appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. I realize that poetry isn’t that much of a big deal to most people, and pretty much nobody knows what the hell a Poet Laureate actually is (I sure as hell didn’t until I became one of his students), but for me, attending Robert Hass’s English 131: Modern American Poetry was the entrance point to the most profound period of my college years.
Aside from tons of reading, one of my first assignments in Professor Hass’s class was to actually write a poem. Yikes! I had read loads of poetry before taking his class, but I had never really written any. At least nothing that I would ever dare to show anyone. Now I was to not only write a poem, but share it with one of the most renowned poets of his generation. This both terrified and exhilarated me to varying degrees. One of the reasons I had initially become interested in poetry was because I found it intimidating, and I wanted to be able to understand it — to somehow conquer it, or at least conquer my fear it. Now I was actually supposed to write something that I barely had a grasp on. I had no idea what I was going to write or even how to approach it, but somehow when I sat down at my computer, almost as if by magic, the words just poured out of me. I wrote and I wrote and the words flowed as if I were possessed. It was if I was channeling the spirit of some unseen poet, because the words and ideas coming out of me were fully formed and thoroughly self assured. It was more like I was taking dictation that writing an original poem. It was an absolute rush.
The day the assignment was due I handed my poem in with the rest of the class, excited, yet nervous to see what professor Hass would have to say about it. The class met twice a week and after that first week was over students started getting their poems back at the end of class. I waited with eager anticipation for my poem to be returned to me. A week went by. And then another. Still, no poem. Sure, there were a lot of students in the class, but what the hell? Why hadn’t my poem been given back to me? I was beginning to grow anxious and frustrated with waiting. After the third week or so without getting my poem back I nervously approached Professor Hass at the end of class and inquired as to when I could expect to receive mine.
“I’m sorry, what is your name again?” he asked.
“Thomas,” I said. “Thomas Morrison.”
“Oh! Yes,” he replied with a pensive smile on his face. “Say, do you have some time before your next class to talk about your poem?”
What?!? I was terrified. Why on earth would he want to talk to me about my poem? Could it really be that bad?
“Um…sure,” I cautiously replied.
“Great, let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
And with that he took me to a cafe on Telegraph avenue, sat me down with a cup of coffee, and started to dissect my poem. He went over it line by line and talked about the language, my choice of certain words, the subject matter, my use of repetition, asked why I had made certain choices, and made suggestions here and there on how I might improve it. And then he dropped a bomb…
“Have you read Howl?,” he asked.
“Um…” I was embarrassed to tell him that not only had I not read it, but I had never actually heard of it.
“Oh, my! You absolutely must read it! Allen Ginsberg was a huge fan of Walt Whitman (earlier had I told him how much I loved Song of Myself); Whitman’s poetry had a great impact on his writing. He even evokes him in a wonderful poem called A Supermarket in California. You should read that one as well.”
I scribbled these titles in my notebook and sheepishly told him that I had never actually read anything by Allen Ginsberg. My experience with poetry mainly consisted of the works of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and the other “Moderns” before taking his class.
“Ginsberg’s poetry is naked, vulgar, beautiful and honest. There’s a sort of rough-and-tumble elegance about his work that I see in your poem as well. Your poem isn’t perfect, to be sure,” he continued, “but it is raw, and turgid (he actually used the word turgid!) and has an earnestness and blunt honesty that I’ve rarely seen in a first year poetry student.”
I was floored. Not only did he like my work, but he actually compared it to one of his favorite poets.
“Hopefully you’ll continue writing,” he went on, “it would be a real shame if this was the only poem you ever wrote. You know, we have a wonderful writing program here. You should consider submitting to one of the poetry writing workshops next semester. In fact, I’ve got someone in mind that I think would be perfect for you.” I was absolutely floored.
Soon thereafter, Professor Hass introduced me to his colleague, Thom Gunn (who at that time was the “big man on campus” as far as poetry was concerned), and saw to it that I was admitted into Gunn’s exclusive poetry writing workshop the following semester. Professor Hass had his own poetry writing workshop, but it was only open to graduate students, so I gladly took my place in Thom Gunn’s class along with 14 other hand-picked students. And amazingly, not only did professor Hass make sure that I continued to develop my craft with Thom Gunn, but he invited me to come to his own office any time to share whatever I was working on. I was beside myself with gratitude.
In Thom Gunn’s poetry writing workshop I was introduced to the fine art of humility. While the poem that I had written for Robert Hass had effortlessly flowed out of me, I found that I was struggling to re-capture that original inspiration that struck me the first time. The first poem that I turned in to the class was a juvenile exercise in forced earnestness laid bare for the world to see. Not only was it not good, it was actually laughably bad. Robert Hass had been confident in my abilities, but I discovered I had much to learn. Most of the other students in the class had been writing poetry for years, so over the next few months I was able to learn volumes from them as we workshopped our poems. Some of the things I wrote were met with approval, some with polite disdain, but every word I wrote was being carefully considered by fifteen other people, and that was everything.
The following semester Professor Hass had another poetry writing workshop, and this time it was open to underclassmen. I had learned a great deal in Professor Gunn’s class, but there was no guarantee that I would be admitted into professor Hass’s class. During the interim he had been appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, so now he was the “big man on campus” and everyone wanted to be in his class. Even his Emily Dickinson seminar, which usually had a number of seats to spare, was jam-packed that semester, so competition to be in his writing class was fierce. I had written a poem for a submission that I felt was pretty good, but I was fairly anxious nonetheless. Fortunately for me, Professor Hass had taken a genuine liking to me and later told me that I need not have worried; “Of course you were going to be in my class,” he gleamed, “I was saving a spot for you all along.”
Holy Shit! God Damn! The motherfucking Poet Laureate of the United States was saving a seat just for me!!! I had never experienced such elation, such a feeling of overwhelming joy, acceptance and belonging as I did in that moment. That semester, and for the following years that I was at U.C. Berkeley, Robert Hass continued to see to it that I developed my craft. He invited me to participate in his writing class for two consecutive semesters and encouraged to come by his office whenever I wanted to talk about anything that I was working on or just to shoot the shit. Somehow he had seen something in me that I hadn’t even known was there, and he helped me shape and polish it, and inspired me not only to write poetry, but to embrace a more more “poetic” life.
During the time I was in his poetry writing workshop I was also enrolled in his Emily Dickinson seminar — another small class with only fifteen students. For this class, as in all of his poetry classes, every so often he would have his students memorize a poem to be recited in front of the class. It was his position that poetry was a living, breathing thing, and was meant to be read, or in this case recited, aloud. The other students all did their due diligence and memorized and recited poems in front of the class each week, but they all recited them like they were reading the day’s stock market report, or some lifeless insurance brochure. Some students recited their poems with weak, trembling voices, others with cold, matter of fact terseness. Nobody, however, seemed to get the idea that this was poetry! It was meant to be melodic, lyrical, moving, exciting, powerful — not dry, weak, timid, cold and boring. So I decided that when it came time to recite my first poem in front of the class it was going to be done with feeling and emotion. The only trouble was, I was horrible at memorizing. The only thing that I’d ever been able to remember with any degree of success were song lyrics.
Wait! That’s it! Song lyrics! It suddenly occurred to me that poems, especially poems that rhyme, are essentially just songs without the music! So I decided to merely add music to mine and sing it like a song in order to remember it. With a bit of tinkering I was able to come up with a wonderful little melody that sounded like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and proceeded to memorize Emily Dickinson’s poem #348 (I Would Not Paint a Picture) by singing it over the course of the next few days before I was due to recite it in class. When the day finally came, I was determined to deliver a powerful and heartfelt recitation, not some dry, stammering imitation of a poem as most of the other students had done. The problem was, however, that try as I might, I just couldn’t remember it without singing it. So, when it was finally my turn to stand before Professor Hass and my fourteen fellow classmates, I took a deep breath, focused on a tree outside one of the classroom windows (to drown out all distractions), and erupted in song with a big, bellowing voice more suited for the stage than a small classroom. I sang Emily Dickinson’s poem with feeling, emotion, and confidence, and as I finished, I looked over to Professor Hass to see him grinning from ear to ear, beaming with delight as the room erupted in applause.
* * *
Smash cut to the year 2012. My wife and I are standing in a long line at a Barns & Noble in Pasadena, waiting for Robert Hass to sign his new book, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural Wold. He had given a reading that evening, and I was eager to see him once again him and introduce him to my wife. Since I had last seen him, I had attended graduate school in Boston, moved to Los Angeles and gotten married, while he had continued to teach at Berkely, write poetry, and win the Pulitzer Prize. Years had gone by since I had last been in touch with him (life has a funny way of doing that), but I was certain that he’d instantly remember me and remember all the time we had spent together at U.C. Berkeley discussing poetry, having a laugh in a bar, or talking about the future on his office balcony while we smoked cigarettes.
After graduating Berkley I kicked around aimlessly for a while, then on a whim, moved to Germany with a girlfriend for a bit of adventure. After a couple of years of working in bars and traveling through Europe we decided to move back to the States and apply to graduate school. One Saturday night while my girlfriend was at work I drank a bottle of wine and became nostalgic for my time a Berkeley, so I decided to reach out to my old mentor, Robert Hass, and ask him if he would write me a letter of recommendation for grad schools. The trouble was, this was way back when the internet was still in its infancy, so I couldn’t just do a quick web search and find his contact information. Somehow (to this day I honestly have no idea how I did this) I was able to obtain his personal home phone number, so with a bottle of cheap Italian wine in my gut I picked up the phone and drunk dialed my old professor.
“Yes? Who’s this?”
“Thomas… Thomas Morrison. I was a student of.."
“Thomas! How are you! It’s great to hear your voice!”
Holy shit! He remembers me!
“Um, I’m great! I hope I’m not disturbing you…”
And with that I went on to explain that I was calling from Germany, where I had been living for the past couple of years, but I was coming back to apply to grad schools and hoped he would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation.
“Of course! Just come by any time during my posted office hours when you’re back! It’ll be great to see you!”
A couple of months later I was back in California and living in Oakland, just minutes a way from Berkeley, so one day I decided to go and pay my old professor a visit. As I walked through the gates onto Sproul Plaza a wave of nostalgia passed over me. I had spent some of the best, most meaningful moments of my life on this campus and it felt wonderful to be back. However, as I made my way to the English Department building where Professor Hass’s office was located I began to get nervous. He had meant so much to me during the time that I was there I was honestly afraid I might start crying when I saw him. Nerves be damned, I climbed the stairs to the third floor where his office was located, reached out a tentative hand, and knocked on his door. When it opened, Professor Hass looked at me with a quizzical expression for the briefest of moments, then a huge smile spread across his face and he boomed,
“Thomas! Oh my! How wonderful it is to see you!”
Then he reached his arms out and pulled me in for a warm, heartfelt hug. I didn’t cry as I had feared, but my hands were trembling a bit with emotion and my voice cracked when I first began to speak.
That afternoon we talked for hours. We talked about the times we had spent together, writing, poetry, my time in Germany, my future studies, etc. He recalled with fondness the time I had painted cue cards with illustrations that I held up at the beginning of of each stanza as I read Emily Dickinson’s poem #869, Because the Bee may Blameless Hum, and told me he still had my paintings. He intimated that he was hopeful that I would apply to the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Program as well as regular graduate schools, and I told him that I would consider it, but I was leaning more towards a regular English Lit program. Eventually the day wore on, he promised to write me a glowing letter of recommendation that would be on file at the University, then he hugged me one last time and we said goodbye. That was the last time I had seen him until the night of his reading in Pasadena.
So, back to us in line. I had, of course told my wife everything about Robert Hass before this evening, so she knew how eager I was to see him once again. “What if he doesn’t remember me?” I joked.
“Yeah, right!” quipped my wife and we both had a laugh.
I grew nervous as we approached the signing table. It had been years since Robert Hass had and I spoken, and there were hundreds of people here, all wanting to talk to him. I was worried that I’d have too much to say and not enough time with all the other people impatiently waiting for their turn to have their books signed. As the line moved I entertained thoughts of my old professor warmly embracing me and inviting me and my wife out to dinner after the signing. Or perhaps out for drinks! This and a thousand other thoughts went trough my mind as we slowly approached the signing table.
When it was finally my turn I nervously held out my book and grinned from ear to ear, waiting for that moment of recognition when my old professor would realize who I am.
I continued to stare and smile.
Staring at me without a hint of recognition, he glanced back and forth at me and my wife for what seemed like years and kindly said,
“Hi there. Thank you so much for coming. Who would you like this made out to? Or would you just prefer a signature?”
“Thomas!,” I blurted! I’m Thomas Morrison! I was your student at U.C. Berkeley! This is my wife, Sloane!”
I was nearly hysterical,
“Oh,” he replied, “how nice to see you.” (I could tell that he had no idea who I was. ) Would you like me to make it out to both of you then? I’m sorry, what were your names again?
Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m fucking Thomas!!! I’m the one who sang a fucking Emily Dickinson poem in your class! I’m the one you took out for coffee and compared to motherfucking Ginsberg after reading my very first poem! I’m Thomas! I’m the one you you went out drinking with at the Bison Brewing Company after class from time to time! I’m the one who saved an empty pack of your cigarettes after we had drinks at that bar on Shattuck because I was so fucking enamored with you! Thomas! Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m the one who drunk dialed you from Germany! I’m the one you hugged in your office, like I wish you would be doing right now! I’m Thomas! I’m Thomas! I’m Thomas!!!
This and a thousand other things raced through my reeling mind as I placed the book on the table and simply replied,
“I’m Thomas. And this is my wife, Sloane. With and ‘E’.”
There’s a Grandmother somewhere.
And she looks exactly like she does in the movies: warm, white-haired, big-bosomed, and comforting. If quilts were clothes, she’d be wearing it. She’s mixing cookie dough in one hand and steeping tea in the other. She’s old, but not too old, with a voice that flows through your house like a melody. And you never want to let her go. That Grandmother is somewhere.
I just don’t know her.
Life makes choices for us. I didn’t choose to be born in Seattle. Just like my parents didn’t choose to be born in the Midwest. But they did choose to leave it, in pursuit of opportunity. But the side effect of moving away included leaving their hometown, their siblings, and their parents. It put over 1,000 miles between my grandparents and I.
And that might as well have been an ocean.
It wasn’t the kind of ocean filled with white caps or rocking fishing boats. It was simply the kind of ocean that keeps two people apart. It exists, steadily, wind whispering on the waves, while you live your life. My grandmothers carried on with their lives, more richly engaged in the lives of the family who remained in town - which, of course, is no one’s fault. It’s not as if we had a falling out. Holiday visits simply ended as their health precluded it. Phone calls felt more and more obligatory as I was a tween. There was love, of course there was love, but for the most part, we lived without each other.
I often wonder how other people feel about their Grandmothers. Is she like the trope I have in my head? When you hug her, do you disappear into her sweater? Does she smell like a bakery? Is her laugh like the coo of a dove? When you think of her, do you think of love?
When I remember my own grandmothers, shouldn’t I immediately think of unconditional, ancestral, endless love? Shouldn’t it be effortless? Shouldn’t it be innate? I feel like I’m betraying a sacred thing, a golden relationship. But when I’m honest with myself - really honest - when I think of them, I don’t think of the love first.
If not love, what do I think of?
My father’s mother was stoic, stalwart. She was strong and soft-spoken, steady and still. She loved history and genealogy, which feel pretty unimportant to me as an 11 year old dingus. She suffered a stroke that nearly paralyzed her - leaving her left half weakened. She could walk, but was unable to use her left arm. But that stroke didn’t take her down - she lived for almost twenty years after it. But I never knew her any differently. We had to be careful with her, help her get up from her chair, and walk slowly with her. If we hugged, it was a half hug, because of her weakened arm. She never seemed a physically affectionate woman, so she probably didn’t mind, anyhow.
My mother’s mother was a delicate Polish bird. We were opposites - I was a loud, brash, witty, and obese little kid. She was sweet, fragile, and respectful. A perfectionist, she preferred to do it herself rather than teach you how. She had high standards - she’d (politely?) judge and comment on your choice of clothing. She would cut her food up into tiny pieces, nibbling away slowly. She enjoyed tradition and was a long-time Catholic. She could walk, but she had a significant hump, which shamefully - as a child - embarrassed me. I know she loved me, because she would tell I had perfect fingers to play piano - “long and slender”. I knew this to be a lie, because I had sausage fingers. It was a lie of love.
When I think of them, I think of those things - the complexity of their personhood. Their flaws, their strengths, their physical weaknesses, their history. I think of our deep differences. I think of the courage it took for them to bury their husbands. I think of how they were impacted by their time. I think of how I am too. I think of how they’ll never really know who I am. I think of how I’ll never know all the women they were. I think that even though we were decades and oceans apart, their blood will always run through mine.
There is a Grandmother, somewhere, in a dream. But she’s not mine.
Mine are better. Deeply and wholly real. Yes, I love them. But I respect them more.
Those two words, I don’t know when I’ll ever hear it.
Such meaning brings about a tear, just imaging what that may feel like.
Stop reading this, and take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine:
Swimming Pools, Roller Coasters, Movie Theaters, Concerts, Shopping, Camping.
Performing, Game Nights, Traveling, Bar-be-ques, Birthday Parties, Dating.
Kissing, Holding Hands, Whispering Into Ears, Hugging Tightly.
Breathing, Smiling, Laughing, Crying, Happy….--Together.
Yes… --I know, it’s hard. Hard to imagine such a far-off distant instance.
I don’t know what to feel regarding this normalization of this new norm. I would like to say I’ve been okay so far, which is usually my go-to response whenever I catch up with a friend, though sometimes my deep lows catch up with my somewhat high highs. I’m not the first person I’m sure who has expressed this notion. I apologize if this comes across too negative, as my patience has been going up and down with each passing day, so I’m doing my best in keeping my head held high.
Earlier in the year, my friend Liz recommended that I write down my feelings into a diary, a book, whatever; just so I could feel better. Ironically, she recommended this so that my confidence would improve whenever I performed on stage, yet it has been a bit of a Godsend in getting through this nightmare. I would write poetry, thoughts, script/play/dialogue/monologue piece ideas, etc. It’s not completely filled, and sometimes I’m sad that it’s not even close to midway, or that I’m not as productive as my mind imagines I should be. Some days I just don’t feel like writing, sometimes I just want to curl up in a ball, listen to my playlists and hide. But lately, I’ve noticed my interest in writing has been more frequent than in the past. Sometimes I have to stop whatever I am doing, and quickly write it down, so whenever I go to work, I carry a satchel with me: containing my water bottle, a charger, pens/pencils, white-out and my book. I’ve never felt so comfortable being so vulnerable in sharing my inner thoughts.
Self-reflection during covid has had me learn so much, I’ve now come to terms with the open wound I’ve neglected to heal all these years. It is no secret how much I keep to myself, doing my own thing, staying under the radar, and when I do choose to appear, it’s usually for a good reason. I realize now the pre-Covid Andy overworked himself with all these gigs/projects/performances to drown out all that raw inner hurt. Based on a work in progress, I know now that I can learn to be a better man than what I was yesterday, for myself, for my family, for my friends, and for perhaps...that special someone/partner/friend I hope to meet someday. I see post-Covid Andy, or even now-Andy, opening up, trying, attempting, …--dating. I see him confident with what he wants, I see him making no self-sacrifices just to measure up to another’s ideals, I see him being okay with rejection so that he can quickly move on and live a life that brings him happiness. I feel he is ready to open his heart to that special somebody, to take a leap, even when he hides in his shell. The difficult part is in taking that chance, and it has to be said: that fear, that emotion is very real, it’s valid, and I completely understand it. It’s scary, yes, but what is life worth even living without a little risk? These days, you go outside without a mask and it’s a risk. I believe in not having regrets. I don’t want to be old 50/60 years down the line and regret the chances I didn’t take or letting that someone slip through my fingers. I’ve missed out on so much growing up, I cannot afford to miss out on anymore. Admittingly, all this self-recovery has been quite a homecoming to this person I’ve always known was always there; it was just a question whether I had the courage to allow him entrance to this... “Now”.
I’ve talked with some close friends; we seem to share this mutual fear of losing everything we’ve taken so long, so many chances at building towards. Our old lives come crashing down because of a virus, so we retreat, we feel so helpless, at times we feel so alone, and we’re not sure of anything anymore, except for that one pillow we can count on flooding our tears with. It’s taken a bit of time, but I’ve come to accept my old habits, beliefs, my old life has extinguished. The life pre-Covid is long gone and burned away, but from those ashes, comes a strength, a deep inner-enhancement long overdue in it’s arrival. It will happen for all of us, it will most certainly happen for you so please embrace it, take the reins and don’t look back.
Understand this, take this with you: You don’t have to smile in front of me if you don’t feel like it, you don’t have to pretend all is okay just to keep up with a facade of positivity. Take it from somebody who knows how to keep their emotions close and is constantly working on opening them up: I know what you feel, I can see it in your eyes (zoom hides nothing), I feel your hurts too, and I have no solutions or answers to cure you of your problems. What I can provide is somebody you can openly vent with: your anger, sadness, frustration, stress, happiness, excitement, enthusiasm let it all out because I feel them too. Life has been placed on a “hopefully'' temporary pause, we’re making due with what we have, and it certainly helps that soon Biden and Kamala will remove that malignant orange tumor from the White House. The most important thing now is that we are alive, we are staying healthy, and that we are all important in this universe… Never Forget That!
I truly do look forward to being able to greet you again, like it all used to be before: in person. What truly a homecoming that will be. I never thought I would miss just merely hugging another human being, to miss being in their presence without worry, to share experiences without cloth or glass. I don't know what I will feel or think, when that particular Today, Comes At Last.