Friday, February 25, 2011

My God

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I was raised by smart, strong-minded folks who took me to a Roman Catholic Church with baggies of Cheerios when I was a girl. Told me to sit tight and listen. I would. I remember watching my father charismatically project the Old and New Testaments from the lectern, his slight Boston accent peeking through his diction.  I remember the veteran in the parking lot who sold Tootsie Rolls for $1 after mass. I remember running across the parking lot to the parish hall for free fruit punch and glazed doughnuts.  When the public schools went to shit in my town, I remember my parents gathering all the money they could to enroll my three siblings and I in a small Catholic grade School. Twenty years later, I cannot help but believe that God is out there or in here or everywhere and I just need to look a little harder.

This past Christmas Eve, I went to church with my family. It was the first mass I had attended since the previous Christmas Eve. I went for tradition and I went in hope of finding peace and/or truth. Within the privacy of my pressed palms, I did find peace, but never much truth. Instead I felt like an impostor, an outsider, silently refusing to accept the common Catholic vows extended and reminded to me by the robed priest on his decorated altar. At the last minute, I even decided to stay seated beside my Jewish husband during Communion, which caused my sister to cast strange looks upon me as she climbed over my knees to reach the aisle.

The little truth I did find was in the brief moment of Peace (the part of mass when everyone in the congregation is instructed to turn toward one another with extended hands and say, "Peace be with you.") When this happened on Christmas Eve, everyone in the church suddenly awoke from their nearly sleeping states and began to look around them. Fathers began kissing the foreheads and cheeks of their daughters, children sillily shook the hands of other children, and elders gently clasped hands with other elders. But then, as quickly as the energy entered the church, it escaped. The entire congregation returned their bodies to stiff solitude, looking to the man on the altar for his next instruction to sit, stand, kneel or pray. 

That spark is all I care to study and experience. My God is that fading spark, those invisible strings, that human connection that ties us all together. For what, if not human connection, is more invasive and more vital to humans than air? I fear I live in a world of belligerently selfish zombies where fried food, hallucinogenic drugs and cheap alcohol are taking the place of real relationships. Glazed eyes, drowning livers, and hardening hearts are steering the barely living into ditches of dazed existences leaving me surrounded by holes. My moments pile and topple around me, filling my heart with memories of emotions that feel more real than buildings, armies and screaming teapots. And I know that if everyone could clearly see the moments that become their lives, which in turn become their human contribution to the atmosphere's emotional layer (which is perhaps the most holey of all layers), everyone would all feel an incredible obligation to wake up and contribute to the human race rather than continue to separate themselves from it.  

For thousands of years people have been classifying themselves through religion, occupation, family name, nationality, race and/or political stance. With our intelligent feelings, we want to understand our life and we often start by trying to understand and organize our personal traits. I believe this is all quite natural. Or at least, I hope it is, for as you can see I write memoir essays and would classify myself as a continuously curious self-classifier. In fact, I've attempted to know myself so much that I can no longer attempt classification because I know that it is all irrelevant unless I know the context, who my company is. For instance, in some company, I can be a boisterous comedian while in other company, I am a shy, shifty-eyed social diver. I don’t know where this urge comes from to simplify everything. To say who I am, how I am, or what I am. To put my poor personality quirks into categorized boxes like medical records or doughnuts. But I know that it is part of what makes me human. I went to church as a kid. That information goes in the box labeled FAITH. Many people had folks who took them to a Catholic Church as well, while many others were brought to a Mosque, Temple or to Grandmas for a weekly Sunday brunch. Everyone is on their own quest to know who their god is, if they want to believe in the presence of a higher power, and it is no one's place to convert anyone who is not looking to be converted. Besides your God is not my God and my God is most certainly not your God. This discussion isn't even something to be right about. It’s all so subjective. My God is made up of invisible ribbons. You can't tell me that isn't true. It's what I believe. And anyone’s accusations that someone is worshiping the "wrong" god is in need of a deep exploration of his or her own prejudices.

These days, I am rarely inside Roman Catholic Churches and yet I feel beholden to my parents for dressing me in those precious girly dresses and patent leather shoes, giving me bags of cereal and telling me to sit tight and listen. I did. I won’t forget. Maybe one day I’ll regret these hippy dippy religious bullshit words from my twenties, but for now and in this company, a hippy dippy bullshitter is how I want to classify myself. 

Peace be with you.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


After a local music show, my friends and I stand outside the club, crunching our shoulders in the cold and saying good-byes with high fives when a muscly meathead with a cigarette wedged within his mouth speedily swaggers by. Behind him, hobbling on high heels, a young woman hounds him. “Oh shit, you gonna do it?” She asks. “That’s my boy’s girl.” He says over his shoulder before descending upon two forty-something adults macking on one another. The meathead attacks, verbally, shouting, “Are you fuckin’ him? You fuckin’ him? You’re my boy’s girl and you’re fuckin’ him!” Yanked from the privacy of their plastered states, the man, a scrawny leather faced guy, backs away from the woman, a chub with black mascara smeared in circles beneath her eyes. Without waiting for any sort of response, for this performance was clearly all he wanted, the accuser turns and begins swaggering away. Then suddenly, behind him, his “boy’s girl” attacks the “oh shit, you gonna do it” girl, causing both sloshed sluts to crash clumsily to the cement. Then all four belligerent boneheads are rolling around on the sidewalk, bumping into parking meters and slurring nervous nonsense. Then the doors to the club open and three security guards rush out and pull apart the fight. My friends and I watch, stepping back slightly toward the curb. The security guards appear to know the man with the leather face and with the fury of fully extended arms, they scold him like a child. “Go home, Kenny! GO. HOME.” Once all four fighters are finally gone, the guards are blazing with the same self-importance that the swaggering meathead had.  Like somehow this all mattered: this drunken brawl outside a crappy club.

I currently cannot help but feel that life and the living of it is not much more than simply passing time surviving until our predestined deaths. It is a drab one-sided discussion, a temporary clarity that will soon fog with the fleeting distractions of laughter, trivial traffic aggravations and trips to the grocery store, but for now all I can see are bodies. Legs, livers, ears, eyes, mouths, genitalia and belly buttons, nipples, necks, toenails and knees, ankles and elbows. In one foreign city, there are protests, bodies screaming for citizen rights, cursing political leaders on cardboard and running from police brutality. In another foreign city, suicide bombers are blowing up the bodies of innocent bystanders. And in American cities, drive by gang shootings are terminating teenage bodies while heart disease murders everyone else. Rows of ribs, lined shoulders and hairlines, eyebrows and thumbs, cuticles and tongues. 

In the middle of my world, my body stands with the narrow end of a hollow cone up to my eye, pointing it up and out. Giraffish ankles stand atop the long crooked bones of my flat feet and toes and my reddened elephant skin knees swing my calves and shins forward and back while I walk and I run. Hidden beneath my underwear, I have my pink doughy thighs, a bristly black lap, a fleshy stomach and two little white wine water balloon breasts. A shallow shelf of shoulder bones is mounted below my rounded shoulder tops, while on my sides, long strong arms lead to fingers built for piano playing, but left, instead, to the typing of stories and thoughts onto computer keys. A slender neck with a pin-top freckle on its middle holds my head, which is covered with dark wavy hair and a pale pink face where my lips are like a peach colored pullout couch for my soft squishy tongue and pearly round teeth.  My body's skeleton of calcium and marrow matter is made like other bodies and my thin pale skin is freckled by the same sun, yet I am still myself unique. I may appear not much different from anyone else, but to me I am familiar and therefore complexly distinct.

My friends, Mark and Amy, my husband, Scott, and I recently moved into an apartment in a two-family house, taking the place of a quiet old woman and her cat. On our move-in day last week, the downstairs tenant, a single mother of a twelve-year old boy, meets us all in the back stairway to say, "Ahhh… so this is why he made me sign a four month lease." Referring to the landlord and his decision to allow us, four young adults, to move into the two-bedroom apartment above her. I’ve never felt so unwelcome. Even after she practically declares that our move into her territory will lead to the demise of her happiness, the four of us remain unrequitedly respectful. "I'd like the parking spot that Analee used because I'm the oldest." She says, dividing her from us like the big kid on the kickball field, spouting out made up rules and uneven team lineups. We, all still very excited to move into our new place, agree.

On our first trash day, two days after moving in, she comes up to our kitchen door. She doesn’t knock, but stares down at Penny, our dog, who barks at her scowling face through the door's glass. The barking brings me out of my bedroom, where I am dressing, and I grab Penny by the collar and tell her to be quiet. When I unlock and open the door, I say a friendly hello. "Do you live here now too?" She asks with a sharp smirk. "I met you the other day." I tell her. “I’m Rachel.” "Oh" she says, avoiding apologies, "I didn't recognize you." "I just took a shower." I explain, shuffling my bangs to convince her. The trash barrel needs to go out, she tells me. “We’ll take it out.” I tell her. “It needs to go out tonight and it's almost dark.” She says. Is the trash truck coming in the middle of the night? I wonder. Couldn’t this wait? We have to leave for rehearsal in ten minutes and my hair is still wet. Scott takes over, telling her we are going to do it later that night and that she can put her trash in the barrel and that we'd take it all out when we got home later. “But the trash needs to go out Monday night.” She repeats. Scott surrenders to their inability to communicate clearly and goes to the basement to fetch the woman her barrel.

On our drive up to Greenfield for dinner, I tell my roommates that this is what racism must feel like (on a supremely smaller scale). They laugh, but I mean it. We, young adults, move into this high-class neighborhood and instead of being welcomed with fruitcake and smiles, we are shunned, despised unnecessarily for our age. I feel like we're being blamed for this woman’s divorce. Like we’re the reason she has to pay rent instead of a monthly mortgage payment. 

The woman from downstairs is unfamiliar to me. A stranger leaving me contradictory sticky notes on the door to the basement. A stranger shutting her shades from the world around it, enclosing herself with blinds and cotton curtains so that no one can see that she knows vulnerability. Upstairs, Amy’s pretty positive Bill from across the street has already seen her boobs several times, but she just laughs about how awkward he was when she introduced herself to him at the end of our driveway. 

(click on the photo to read)

It is difficult to feel remorse or any sort of emotion toward crowds or individual persons with unfamiliar faces because, I think, the soul is only visible when it is inside some sort of familiarity, causing the real struggle to be not judging strangers, not assuming others are meatheads, sluts or young irresponsible tenants who will probably scream profanities at dawn; vomit cheap beer on the front porch; host techno dance parties on Monday nights and invite drunken hobos to live in the entryway on cold and rainy nights. It is difficult to look past unfamiliar flesh, fingernails, eyeballs, noses and ears, hairstyles, legs and feet to something closer to souls. 

Scott suggests we have the woman and her son over for dinner. Amy and I refuse. “I don’t want to make her dinner just so that she can criticize my or Rachel’s cooking.” Amy says. “And I don’t want to spend an awkward evening with the woman.”  I say. “Yeah and her son creeps me out. He'll probably try to kill us.” Yet Scott is probably right. Having the woman over for dinner could reduce her judgments by making us familiar to her. However, it might also ripen her discrimination, giving her more material to hate us. Why do they have an anchor on the wall, a deer skull in a pretty serving bowl and a Muhammad Ali poster over the stove that reads, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”? What weirdos they are with their action figures posed on secondhand spice racks, comic books stacked behind the toilet bowl and was that Darth Vader climbing up the back of the knife block? Yes. 
But must familiarity be present to feel compassion or connection? Is it necessary in order for one to look at tragedy and actually see it? To look at a pile of naked skin and see souls. To look at a woman’s body and see a mother of three with green glassy eyes, endearingly crooked teeth, and a remarkable talent for making the neighborhood children laugh. To look at a man’s body and see the local pub's storyteller, an expert builder and a lover of many. To look at the body of a child and see an eight-year-old girl with dirty blond hair, fantastic cursive writing and a fear of loud sounds. What if the world were as small as many say it is after accidental meetings with old friends in unexpected places? Oh my, what a small world. Would the lady downstairs have given us a chance to show her how responsible and respectful we are? Would I not have immediately hated those drunken sidewalk fighters? I doubt it.

I sometimes feel damaged by my inability to think of life in simple terms. To look at white bread and not see its artificial coloring and forty count ingredient list. I can only wonder what it might be like to live without unending observations and assumptions about the meaning or lack of meaning in people, life and reproduction. To see Earth differently from an ant farm in a universe of giants. 

I have recently given up caffeine. Beautiful black cups of coffee and steamy chai tea lattes are the prime suspects to the recent murder of my clear skin, it seems, and until I can prove otherwise, caffeine is locked up in a cupboard. I say this because I believe this withdrawal is partially to blame for my recent lack of hope in humanity. It is also the dead of February and the ice and snow are conspiring, convincing me that spring and summer are just figments of my busy imagination. Tired and frozen, my body is learning how to generate organic optimism and until I catch up with this fleeing feeling, I am pounding computer keys like the nose of a mouse in a maze. 

I am not heartless, just unfamiliar to and from it all. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hungry for Help

Tonight I tripped into the most horrifically devastating, pitiful and yet self-empowering conclusion: the complimentary encouragement of others, while incredibly wonderful and, in my case, needed like breath and water, is deviously disguised inside a coating of doubtlessness, as if compliments were laws and facts that could somehow mold my future.   

Searching for gold with an ax and six dwarf brothers and later for the affections of Snow White in the creased curve of her red lips, Dopey and I are self-consciously the same. For so long, I see I, consciously as well as unconsciously, have wiggled my words into situations and conversations with the secret desperate hope that compliments would cover me in return. Mostly, I have clung to a twisted optimism that those I know and respect in the theater world would somehow steer me like a gang of tug boats, pulling my fat barge of an ass to the right dock. I'd send emails looking for advice, hoping compliments would be sprinkled into their returning messages like salt in a pot of spinach soup. Waiting for someone to outright say that my present employment bagging the groceries of strangers in a big scary city would one day be rewarded with something redeeming or at least something resembling promise. 

I should have listened to my mother. "We are born alone and we die alone."  She's said. Within the thin skin walls of our different bodies, we humans are all working toward our own self-pride and worth in this world. ...This entirely obvious realization has thrown me into a hole that literally feels six feet deep. Like I'm buried and layers of heavy sorrow stand on my skin, flattening the bones of my chest cavity, pushing my heart so deeply down that I feel it between the steps of my spine, and like maggots are crawling through the cracks beneath my fingernails, into my nostrils and over my earlobes to infest and ingest my intestines. I am lifeless, too stuck inside this stillness to move or scream. 

An actress, a writer, a person, I've grown dependent on the glances, castings, compliments and general commentary of others when it pertains to me, most particularly when it is by those I admire. And now, just now, I understand how unpredictable and even trivial it can all be later, or in this instance, now. This is the most vomit inducing life lesson I have ever attempted to swallow. We all want to be good at something. Most of us want to be damn near the best at our something and when our stars do not align, but spread into messy supernovas, we become discouraged and compliments become as necessary as practice. 

"If you can't remember if you wore that outfit two days ago, what makes you think anyone else will remember?"  My mother's way of telling me that the world does not revolve around me and my button down cardigans. Those whom I respect and wait for compliments from are not thinking about me. They have their own lives and careers to think about. Their own outfits to contemplate and coordinate. They are busy compiling the thoughts they think others have of them, others they respect, to wonder what little old me, a former student from years ago, is up to. And if they happened to be wondering about the progress of my life, their thoughts probably would not stray far from whether I am still hopelessly infatuated with their solidified confidences. 

Many people have heroes, but we all cannot expect to be saved in a dramatically cinematic flying sequence where we are plucked from a tumultuous train on a dead end career track, carried into the sky past swaying city skyscrapers and confused flocks of fat pigeons to a studio where we are starring in our own sitcoms where Diane Keaton is playing our aforementioned mothers.  Teachers and theater directors wear the tights and capes in my vocation fantasies where my inexhaustible imagination plays me weeping, thanking them all for their email responses full of flatteries and job offers in a Best-Actress Oscar speech. But tonight, I write this to remember how many of me there are. That these teachers have their own heroes to chase, children to support, tenure to obtain, their own careers to plan. They have hundreds of papers to grade, shows to direct, syllabi to type. They have their own imagined award speeches to write. 

This is like a hunk of steak that is too big and tough for me to chew through, but because it is already wedged between my teeth and cheeks, I must now spit it all out onto this white cloth napkin page. The celebrities of my life will not, can not and should not pave me a path to success. They have already given me the water, the shovel and the stones. The rest is up to me. It is time to be confident. There is no more room for awkward apologies and creepy shifting eyes. I must grab my whimsical life by its ear cartilage and pull myself to where I want to be. "Help is not on the way" my yoga teacher told my class last night while in a pose that stretched my hamstrings like gummy bacon. Compliments will not pay my wages. Sure they seem more valuable than my little sister's engagement ring, but they are mostly as intangible and as worthless as sympathy. Graciously receive them all, compliments, and store them for the days of hail storms and snake bites, but do not rely on them to hold your head up. The strength of your neck comes not from others but from the good nourishment you feed it. Do not wait for compliments and helping hands like scheduled buses and teeth cleaning appointments. They are as delicious as lemon frosting and my aunt's peanut butter balls, but compliments are not medicine. They are vitamins and they have brought me far enough. They have kept me writing, sincerely they have kept the keyboard under my fingertips. They have kept me auditioning when rejections for roles seem more plentiful than fruit flies on a bowl of peaches and blackened bananas in summertime. But now it is time to break from this self-induced confinement of uncertainty. It's time for me to stand tall and alone like a single birch tree in a field. 

I fear these previous pages are all just further attempts of my mind to manipulate my fingers into pressing for the compliments I still dreadfully crave. I would tell you that this was all unintentional, but I just don't know if it is.