“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”
—Agnes de Mille
I am a planner. I haven’t always been a planner, at least not in the way I am now, but even in the nascent years of adulthood (ah, my early to mid 20’s!), I often had trouble adjusting in the moment to change or to shattered expectations. When I would wrap my mind around a process, a sequence, or a schedule, unexpected changes would literally throw a wrench into my mental gears and I would momentarily short circuit. The new information would act like unfamiliar logic — and my mind go through stages of confusion, denial, and despair.
Recently, as I delve deep into my MFA Acting studies, I’ve begun to realize where that short-circuit response may have come from.
When I was a kid and a teenager, there were often forms of instability in my life — things which, at the time, I did not recognize as instability. Although “the only constant is change,” there are many studies which show that the developing child requires a certain amount of consistency. The world is vast and wide to adults; to children, it is a place of infinite multitudes. The adults in our world introduce us to a set of rules and boundaries that, ideally, are simply the conventions which keep us from leaping into the unknown while we are still unable to fend for ourselves.
My parents separated when I was five months old and I lived with my single mother for the next five years. We lived in a two-bedroom house, and I have distinct memories of sleeping in my own room, and sleeping in my mom’s queen bed, and sleeping in my twin bed in the living room. The latter two memories come from the period of time (I think) when my mom rented out our second bedroom to a woman and her teenage son. I think the woman was a friend of mom’s who was having trouble finding a place, and also I think the extra income was either necessary or very useful. At any rate, for a little bit, we were a boarding house of sorts.
My mom and my sister’s dad met when I was 5, and my sister Julie was born just two months before my seventh birthday. A few months later, in the summer of 1990, my mom, Julie’s dad, Julie, and I moved to Modesto, CA. The week we moved was also the last time I saw or heard from my dad for the next 10 years.
We moved into a two-bedroom in Modesto, into a house which my mom and Julie’s dad painted yellow, and where we were all happy for a bit. I had my own room, and when Julie got big enough, we shared the queen bed in my room — now our room. A year or so later, when Julie was three, her dad’s other daughter came to live with us. She was six, and had been in foster care in New Jersey, because her mom was struggling with some personal issues and couldn’t care for her. This new family member shifted the balance of our household in a big way. My sister and I were no longer inseparable — the three of us would form alliances, and break them. Different two-against-one battles would break out, or all three of us would get along fine, or none of us wanted much to do with the others. Ten-year-old me began to hoard moments to myself, away from the little ones.
Sometime between Julie’s half-sister moving in with us and when she eventually moved back to New Jersey for the long haul, Julie’s dad suffered an on-the-job injury that required surgery and immediately meant he couldn’t work for a few months while he regained use. His disability pay wasn’t enough to cover the cost of living, and my mom, ever-resourceful, began creating three-dimensional fabric heart sculptures that she took all over town to sell. Doctor’s offices, law offices, anywhere there was a waiting room, neighborhoods — she went out daily selling her wares. She also advertised herself as The Cleaning Fairy and got a few once-a-week gigs cleaning a couple of houses and a hair salon just a few blocks from us.
One day, while cleaning the salon, Mom stood up and accidentally bashed her head into an open cabinet door. To this day, I believe that head injury jarred loose the memories of childhood trauma that she had repeatedly repressed over the years. Within weeks of that injury, she began developing physical symptoms like chronic pain, extreme fatigue, hot/cold flashes, dizzy spells, shortness of breath — and within a year of her injury, after countless frustrating doctor visits in which she was often made to feel as though she was inventing symptoms, she was finally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome.
The relationship between Julie’s dad and Mom began to struggle under the strain of coping with the needs of three very different kids, and their respective responses to each other’s major wellness issues, and then Mom’s subsequent ongoing health problems. On top of that, as the repressed trauma surfaced for Mom and she began to try and talk to her family about it, she was met with resistance that her sensitive soul felt deeply.
Meanwhile I was adjusting to the sudden shift in my world — the adults no longer were the capable, infallible creatures they once seemed to be, and there were many times when I was frustrated at the tension in our home. I began to build psychological walls around myself, reflexively. This all occurred as I was reaching puberty, and although I talked to my mom about it enough to get pads when I needed them, I kept more and more to myself when at home. Also around about this time (from about age 11 onwards), I began showing clear signs of depression and anxiety, although I had no idea at the time that what was wrong with me was something diagnosable and treatable.
I swallowed over 30 Tylenol when I was 13 because I wanted to disappear and death seemed like the best answer. I told no one for a long time. I didn’t tell my mom for over a decade.
Mom and Julie’s dad split up for a year’s trial period. Then they got back together, and all seemed like it would be fine, but after a few months, it was clear that the relationship wasn’t working. They ended it amicably at the time. He left for San Jose, where his work was, and the three of us (Mom, Julie, me) moved one street over, to a much smaller house, a two-bedroom duplex that we sometimes called “the box.” At this point, I was 15, just starting my junior year of high school.
The landlord’s son lived in the duplex across from us (it is a two duplex mini-complex), and was the property manager. He also was schizophrenic, which was sometimes expressed in these outbursts of shouting he would have. One night a few months after we moved in, I was awake late doing homework and I heard him shouting. At first I thought it was just another episode, but within ten minutes, there was a pounding at our door. A fireman was on the other side — the older woman who lived in our building had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette and her bedroom (luckily, on the other side of her unit, not on the wall we shared with her) was on fire. The shouts had been our property manager trying to put out the fire and also warn us.
Our neighbor died from smoke inhalation.
I had been cast in the chorus of Hello Dolly at school, but dropped out after that happened — I was already having a difficult time focusing on schoolwork, but I never once stepped back and looked at the large picture. I just kept telling myself that I was a terrible procrastinator and that I was bringing it all on myself by coming home and “zoning out” instead of working. After our neighbor died, I doubled down on my self-distraction. I was lucky though: I didn’t stop doing schoolwork entirely, and even my last-minute efforts still amounted to good work by most people’s standards. My smarts and creative energy would not be fully suppressed by my procrastination tactics.
Despite my own efforts to get my teachers to confirm that I was, in fact, not a good student, and did not deserve good things (depression often manifested in a deep self-loathing and a massive impostor syndrome), I managed to graduate with a 3.67 GPA, and I was accepted to four out of the five colleges I applied to. I meant to go to SFSU, but housing was an issue, so I chose to start at Stan State in the fall of 2000. The plan was to be an English major, graduate, and get a teaching credential.
Then I discovered theatre.
The unknown terrified me for years. The unknown in myself and others, the unknown of time and space — this was directly tied to a fear of failing, a fear not knowing how to cope, of not being equipped, of not being enough.
Theatre has been an ongoing place of therapy, a place where I can leap time and time again into the dark, into the unknown, without fear of repercussion. There have been directors/teachers who have not inspired fearlessness in me — but the majority of the artists that I have gotten to work with and study from have been like Sherpas, expertly guiding me into the vast expanses of the unknown.
Throughout my life, there were instabilities small and large that fed (or perhaps even created) a deep-seated fear in me. A fear that turned me into a spaz when things went off the rails, and then later turned me into a planner who, although open to many things, would like to have the chance to arrive at the precipice with the essential gear.
The more I train and work and explore theatre, the more I know that I am enough. I am the essential gear. I can leap into the dark.