On the night before Halloween, my last night visiting my family at my childhood home before finally, after more than a month, returning to my own apartment in New York City for long enough to justify unpacking my suitcase, I had a lot to get done. And so I picked up a folder of paperwork to sort through and spent about a half-hour sitting on my bedroom floor and staring at the wall in blank despair. Realizing that this was accomplishing nothing, I very deliberately flopped flat onto my face and fell asleep drooling onto the carpet.
I suppose you could say that the process of returning to regular life has had its challenges.
I’d thought that I’d pushed through the worst of during the prior week, when I’d spent a twenty-four hour period maniacally re-obsessing over the entertainment of my college days in a self-aware but completely unironic attempt to find comfort in the familiar, winding myself up into an increasing tizzy until my brain at last rocketed into outer space, passing beyond the realm of reality’s grounding pull to that weightless expanse with no secure anchor. That evening was a memorial service that, as unhappy as I was that it was necessary, I had been grateful that my schedule would allow me to attend. From my friends on the internet, I crowdsourced a chorus of echoes that yes, I should go to the memorial service. My lovely friends encouraged me and assured me that I would feel better for having attended, which then made me feel bad for having led people to assume that it was the person’s untimely death that was giving me so much angst and not just my own solipsistic doubts about the objective existence of reality.
(Side note: this is called anxiety. Specifically, anxiety manifested as depersonalization and derealization episodes. If you feel yourself experiencing this, it is a condition, not you, and it can be addressed.)
The memorial service did make me feel better, if not for the expected reasons. It was a service for a theatre man, largely for the theatre community. As such, the service was naturally followed by a reception with a lot of, for lack of a less gauche term, schmoozing. And I am, if anything, a natural schmoozer. With a cup of red wine in one hand and some brie on multi-grain bread in the other, I felt myself coming back to life as I cruised the room – not on auto-pilot, no, but able to fall back on habit, able to do something that came easy to me.
Honestly, “schmooze” makes it sound a lot tackier than the reality of the situation. In the theatre industry, unless you are one of the rare birds that works as part of a resident company, much of one’s life consists of forming close professional and personal relationships with people over the course of a month to maybe, for those on one of those few long-running shows, a year and then being uprooted to start a new project in a different place – maybe across town, maybe across the country. Staying in touch with people you like as an adult can be difficult enough to fit in around everyday responsibilities even when everyone is working on a relatively similar 40-hours-per-week schedule. When you regularly work 54-hour, six-day weeks and don’t necessarily have the same day off (and also live in New York City, where public transportation means that it can take you over an hour to go to a friend’s apartment 10 miles away — if the MTA happens not to be breaking down), socializing beyond those with whom you’re currently working in the same physical location can become quite the arduous task.
(Which isn’t to say “boo hoo, boo hoo.” It’s a trade-off, of course. But just because a negative trade-off is accepted doesn’t magically make it be not negative.)
As a result, when there’s an occasion for a mass gathering – whether it be an opening or a rally or, you know, a memorial service – one takes advantage of being present with others and being able to reconnect. Sure, that might mean “please remember that I exist so that I come to mind when there’s an appropriate job opening,” but even that desire to pay for rent and groceries has some element of “I want us to be in the same room together.” Or at least “I wouldn’t mind being in the same room together.”
Trust me, after a certain volume of experience, one encounters those who don’t meet that standard.
But it also didn’t feel inappropriate for the celebration of Michael Friedman’s life and the shared grief at his death to have a post-show reception. “Even after,” I remarked to a colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a while, “he’s still bringing people together.”
That was something that struck me about the service. While naturally there were performances of his songs and mourning for all of his music that we would never hear, what people talked of most was how he made them feel. Not with his artistic creations. Just with himself: watching him, talking with him, being with him. It was inspiring to hear people articulate how they could be so deeply moved by simply knowing a person.
Something that I’d been struggling with since returning from my travels was the end of the freedom of accountability from anyone. The last week of my trip had been completely solo, and for an intensely introverted person such as myself, the experience of being accountable only to myself and my own time – and in a foreign country, no less, where I didn’t know the language, so no one could speak to me, even if they wanted to — was a beautiful thing. In the words of every “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?” description, being alone “recharged” me. But despite the energizing implications of the word “recharge,” it also calmed me. The muscle underneath my right shoulderblade that had been twitching for nearly a year loosened up, and I’m pretty sure that the overall height of my shoulders dropped by about half an inch due to lost tension. Maybe the “What careers should you consider?” computer quiz that we took in my junior year of high school was on the right track when it recommended that I should look into working at a funeral home.
Hearing about Michel’s impact on people, however, was aspirational. Imagine, being a person like that! To have such a positive effect on people’s existences! And while of course Michael was an extremely singular individual, what he did as a friend and brother did not require being an athlete or a genius or some other characteristic determined in the lottery of birth. To be good, to be loving, to lift people up in your interactions with them – those were things that could be developed and were within reach.
Of course, as evidenced by the first paragraph, this didn’t solve everything for me.
Even now, I can’t tell if the experience of that memorial service tempered, albeit briefly, or further inflamed the rabid bite that had attacked me suddenly in my travels and been festering since: the conviction that all art is bullshit.
(This thing is a problem when you: 1) work in the arts, and 2) aren’t paid enough money, 3) for something that you don’t have to be doing.)
I mean, I’ve long been of the conviction that art is not inherently worth taking so seriously. This is, I should qualify, different from the capital-t “The”” capital-a “Arts,” in my mind. The Arts are, of course, an important cultural means for developing good humans, which as a result contributes to having a good society. And I’m not talking about didactic art teaching proper lessons (though art is an effective teaching tool), but of the practice of art, as creator or consumer, being a method of developing self-honesty, empathy, critical thinking, and communication. To say nothing of the value of bringing delight and beauty into people’s lives. Hell, I’m even a supporter of bad art, in the same way that I’m a supporter of “useless” research: sometimes you need the space to have the misses in order to be able to have the hits.
At the same time, if you don’t get a scene just right, the fact is that nobody is going to die. I mean, unless you’re working for Cirque de Soleil and being off by an inch actually does mean that someone might literally die. But I’m talking about not having the money to get the prop that is precisely the correct era, not having a lighting cue land with exactly the right timing, not having a transition run perfectly seamlessly. Of course one wants to respect both the artists and the audience by doing the best work possible. At the moment, however, that humanity begins to be the price paid – when the body-harming sleep deprivation starts, when the anger and abuse boil over, when the spirits of those involved are diminished – it seems proper to remember that what is being performed is not open-heart surgery with someone’s life directly and immediately in our hands.
It turns out that too much hiking solo up mountains and lurking around Buddhist temples wormed something into my brain. I’ve long been what one might call a positive nihilist (i.e., nothing inherently means anything existentially speaking, so it is both our power and responsibility to give and determine meaning), so maybe it was where I’ve been heading all along. As I wandered down stone pathways accompanied only by the sounds of the wind and distant chanting, I found myself feeling wearied at the thought of spending so much time and worldly money on… what? What were we pretending to understand or presuming to try to understand? Doing this, doing that, adding on, adding on, adding on… It all seemed so unnecessary.
I was able to largely put this to the side when my life consisted of solitary exploring, but this increasingly troubled me as I returned to Real Life, the life that revolves around the art that people do.
Granted, it is normal for me that the approach of a first rehearsal brings with it the anxiety of the unknown, even after all these years. In a normal state, however, that manifests itself as merely a hyper-energetic neuroticism, like that first day is an approaching freight train that I’m driven to climbing up the walls in an effort to avoid being crushed. Normal, too, is a certain measure of avoidance. (Note to reader: just answer those emails even if it’s been “too long,” you’ll feel a lot better and you know it.) But this time, it was as if the walls were gone, and rather than being successfully avoided, the push just sent me tumbling into a void.
And that was how I, a thirty-something professional, ended up face-down on the floor, inhaling the pink synthetic fibers of the rug that had been picked out for me when I didn’t even know the words for colors.
First rehearsals come; first rehearsals go. The immediate crisis is over. Like with the memorial service, upon finding myself actually in the situation, familiarity bred competence. And having some sort of sure footing allowed me to feel more human, rather than merely a well-dressed fleshbag full of screaming. The present situation is not one that I can merely deal with, but one that I’m grateful for and honestly, one that I am sure that I will enjoy. I know where I’m going with this. I just can’t say that I know where my path will take me once my current itinerary runs out. Maybe I’ll just continue in the same direction, and maybe it will be with purpose or maybe it will be out of ease of habit.
Or maybe I’ll finally succumb to that voice that has for years whispered into my ear: run away, run away, run away.
I’m not sure from what. I certainly don’t know towards where.
I went away, and I’m not sure if I returned with something more or if I left something behind.