They say that you should surround yourself with those you aspire toward. Not only does that potentially create connections in a professional context, but in life in general, being exposed to something or someone great can aspire you to work to get to their level.
There’s also the good ol’ fashioned shame factor.
I’ve never been much of a decorator. Whether out of innate minimalism or just laziness, ornamenting my space has never really appealed to me. When I moved into my first apartment for grad school, my mom very thoughtfully packed me some holiday decorations from home. I don’t think they ever saw the outside of the cabinet that I stored them in. After all, they would just sit out there to take up space and do nothing useful until I put them away again – what was the sense? As for putting things up on the walls, I have never seen empty wall space as something with any need to be filled. It’s a wall, it’s doing its job, just leave it be.
But my new roommate (who is actually an old friend) is a former scenic designer and props person who now works for a theatrical lighting company. They have art deco posters. They have copper lighting fixtures. They have furniture that isn’t made out of plastic.
I’ve maybe gone on a home improvement binge over the past few weeks.
To be fair, it isn’t 100% shame. Another thing that I’ve heard said is that every story is about someone either arriving to or leaving town. It shakes things up. I’ve experienced the sense of a fresh start every time that I’ve moved into a new living space myself. Having someone new moving in has felt similar, even though I haven’t gone anywhere. Largely, each time has been a combination of cleaning out what I don’t need and improving the state of what I do have, whether it be via upgrading or adding a new element or mere re-arranging.
(Let me tell you, few things have made me feel more civilized than getting a cheap-ass bedskirt. It almost makes me feel like as much of a Real Adult as rotating/flipping my mattress on schedule does.)
I’ve not lived a life anywhere near as transient as many others, who have been much more uprooted whether by choice or circumstance. But after having spent my high school years bouncing back and forth between my separated parents, and my undergraduate years split between school-year dorms (which changed every year) and summertime home, and the following years chasing internships up and down the East coast, I was not feeling very settled by the time I hit graduate school.
But during the summer between my second and third years, I stayed in New Haven, making it the first time that I have lived in one place for the course of a full year in a decade. Not only that, but it was the first time that I’d ever lived in a place that was my own (as much as a rental can be), not something set up for me by someone else, not a room in someone else’s house where I used things that someone else had bought.
And for the first time in my life, I nested.
I re-organized my kitchen. I bought myself a nice set of dishes, the kind that I’d always wanted to get “someday.” Granted, it would take me another four years until I finally hosted guests for dinner and used the dang things, but it was the thought that counted. Now, if I wanted to, I could.
When I moved into my apartment in New York, all of the stories I’d heard (and schedule conflicts that I’d accommodated) told of frequent apartment searches and moving. Even when I jumped straight into a two-year lease, I think that I didn’t trust it. Any furniture I had was intended to be easily carried up and down stairs. Hell, for the first year, I was still sleeping on the inflatable mattress that I’d used for my entire time in grad school. (It was only supposed to be a temporary measure back then, but after moving everything else up a five-floor walk-up, you look at your graduation date and think, “You know what? I can deal.”) Not a single item hung on the walls.
But eventually, I began to settle in. It started slowly, mainly with the bed when my back couldn’t take it anymore. But it really picked up over the past year. And even though I still have a lot of plastic furniture because I’m intimidated by both spending money and the effort of getting large items off of ye olde list of Craig, I feel like I’ve finally started to claim this place as my own, rather than simply being a person who live inside of it. It’s home, and it’s mine.
As of the beginning of last weekend, that would have been basically all that I had to say on the subject. By the time I reached the end of last weekend, I had a lot more to say and have been trying to work through it since then.
Last week, a comedian did a skit that some people loved and some people hated. Most (though not all) of the people who found it incredibly funny were of a certain demographic. Most (though not all) of the people who found it hurtful and counter-productive were of another demographic – and they spoke up about it. Yes, it was Tina Fey, and I don’t feel that I have anything additional to contribute to the discussion of the skit itself. But what I did observe and feel worth noting was how much I appreciated white friends who had loved the skit discussing how they had listened to the pain and objections expressed by others and how they were actively trying to be mindful of a perspective that was not their own, that had not even occurred to them before someone had spoken up. That did not mean that their experience was invalidated; they were merely being conscious of the fact that their experience did not take precedence.
Having thoughtful and conscientious friends can put one in a bit of a bubble.
Because of course, as the night doth follow the day, so be the backlash followed by the backlash to the backlash.
But here was the thing: the people who gathered in a post to gleefully mock those who had objected to the speech? Accusing them of being divisive and destructive? Even speculating, with who knows what level of jest, that the outrage was some sort of alt-right false flag operation? They were all people whom I’d guess would call themselves liberals. Not only that, but they were either theatre-associated or associated with theatre people. And to a one, they were all white.
It was almost a parody of itself, and yet no one seemed to see it. A very small, very limited group of people were talking big words about how “those people” were dividing “us.” When I dared to ask one person who was engaging with me who exactly “us” referred to, the answer I received was “Oh my god. The left.” Over and over, it was lamented how terrible it was that people were “attacking” an “ally.”
And that was at the crux of it, really. Not the fact that they’d had a different reaction to a performance than many people (including me) did. As a friend of mine has so aptly stated it, we all arrive to view things shaped by our own circumstances, both external and internal, which can lead even the most intelligent and sensitive of people to experience the same thing in vastly different ways. It was that when confronted with a different view, the reaction had been not just to dismiss it with mean-spiritedness from a more privileged position, but to claim ownership of an entire movement/ideology. In that view, someone expressing a critique was to blame for “dividing” the group – rather than the divider being one who refused to listen and pushed away the one presenting the critique.
What was being said was that someone on “the left” who felt a certain way was merely living in someone else’s home. Or, alternately, there was the presumption that everyone was receiving shelter while the reality was that some were being shut out, rendering those “others” invisible.
What was being said, quite explicitly, was that someone who had been brought to their current place by pain, and dared to speak that pain, was merely an interloper whose grievances were less important than the comfort of a so-called ally.
With friends like these…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not viewing folks like this as Enemy. As an obstacle? Certainly. I’m not even one of the people in most immediate danger, by whatever combination of their selves and their circumstances, and I still have had the urgency shoved into my face.
It was early this year as I was working on a show in Hell’s Kitchen that I went to meet the rest of my work friends for a drink after a long day of tech. Being stage management, I showed up at the agreed-upon bar after the others – it was a new Western-themed place where some of us had caught dinner earlier that week.
When I walked in, you could feel the negative charge to the atmosphere. My friends were clustered together very tightly at their table. The place was extremely crowded, mostly by preppily-dressed white men who were all clearly there as a group.
Yes, the bar in Hell’s Kitchen near the theatre district was full of those who would be considered part of the so-called “alt-right” – i.e., a bunch of MRA white supremacists.
And the thought rose in protest: “Not in my house!”
We ended up leaving, although not before overhearing multitudinous offensive statements about women and/or foreigners, loudly singing a round of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” out of spite (though we doubt that we were heard, let along appreciated), being threatened for looking at them funny, and having a large man get into one of my friend’s face and demand to know if he was “a Democrat, a Republican, or an American.” (And for me, not before spotting the inevitable East Asian guy hanging out with them. Disinvited from the BBQ table forever, dude.) The last thing I remember happening in there was feeling someone grab my arm and drag me outside with the rest of my friends. Which was a good thing, because I was starting to go to the headspace where I just see red, and in hindsight, that was probably the closest I’ve ever been to getting into a bar fight.
We took refuge in a gay bar nearby for the rest of the night. Later that week, I put on my cowboy boots and went back to the bar seeking answers. Management wasn’t in at the time, but the bartender on duty took my information and seemed genuinely upset on my behalf. The manager called me later that day, and we bonded over our shared upstate roots as he asserted that his bar in no way supported such movements and should not have allowed such a hostile atmosphere to develop. He wondered if people were taking the bar’s aesthetic theme as an endorsement of a specific political alignment – and if the result of the presidential election was a driver behind people thinking that that might be the case.
In his words, I could hear his thoughts: how could this happen in my house?
It’s been said that a house divided cannot stand. But the idea of “division” is something that may require greater compassion and critical thought, as well as less self-centering. For those of us who have had the privilege of being able to choose to ignore the damage done to others, it may seem all too easy to have our eyes on a so-called “higher goal.” But who has determined what that goal is? What right is there to demand silence and submission from others in the name of “unity”? Is the real source of division those who are suffering or those who then declare such suffering to be a “distraction”? When a parent – i.e., the individual with more power – kicks a child out of the house for being gay, which is the person who has broken up the home?
And then there are those who should be kicked out. Nazis, for example, can go right to the curb, down into the gutter. And anyone who feels like apologizing for or excusing them can go right along with them. For they are those who would demand (or allow) the submission and degradation and extinction of others in the house – that is division.
All of this I’ve written at various points while in my newly redecorated living room, on my bed by the light of the pink salt lamp that I finally for a bulb for after buying it while on tour in Boston a year and a half ago, and riding the subway that contains one of the broadest spectra of humanity that I am blessed to experience on a near daily basis.
Right now, I’m feeling grateful to be home.