Reflecting on 30 years
Newsletter Archive | April 2019
Hello fellow aging humans,
It’s my 31st birthday. After a four month period of hibernation, between the time I closed my dance studio last fall and my spring tour this year, I feel like the cherry blossoms I saw in Tokyo last week: ready to share and be seen after a quiet period of death and growth over the winter. I’m fresh home from one of the most memorable international work trips of my life and I’m feeling high on inspiration from new experiences and airplane movies. Last year I was compelled to self-reflectively pontificate on my birthday, fueled by nearly the exact same circumstances. If you take anything from this journal entry, take this: never underestimate the power of a well-chosen airplane movie.
The last couple of years, while I have achieved nearly everything I have ever dreamed of for my life, I have been emotionally struggling. I have been feeling trapped, overwhelmed, depressed, and without love. (Oh, I know: poor me! Oppressed by my own success! Ew….no, that’s not what this blog is about). In response to my misery (and to external circumstances that forced me to reconcile with the fact that what I was doing wasn’t working), I made great efforts to change my life last year, to recover my joy, and to grow the few relationships that matter to me. Here I sit now, on the other side of a dark period and many revelations, finally feeling free and happy again! I died to myself, simplified my life, revisited my past identities, and opened my vision for other possible futures. Now I feel reborn.
A tidal wave of understanding comes to me when I remember a moment I shared with a few others two years ago (at the height of my misery) on my 29th birthday at the dance studio during an eye-gazing workshop a newer student roped me into attending. (I told her I have an extreme distaste for nearly all new-agey things but she assured me it wasn’t like that. Ha! I learned my lesson that day. When folks say it’s not new-agey: don’t believe them. It probably is.) The final exercise of the class was that everyone should stare at me for a couple of minutes while I soaked in their witnessing. A new dance student of mine offered an affirmation that I am a wonderful and inspiring person. I visibly bristled and deflected. The workshop host asked me why I started to appear uncomfortable. I said, “well, I feel uncomfortable with the praise I just received because it came from someone who doesn’t know me (with all due respect to that person) so it’s just another projection onto me rather than a true witnessing.” Then I involuntarily began to cry. Someone asked why I was crying. I surprised myself by stating very plainly:
“the people who love me don’t know me, and the people who know me don’t love me.”
In that moment I had accidentally revealed to others, and to myself, the central problem of my life. I felt admired and respected by people I knew peripherally but not loved or appreciated by the people who I shared my raw self with...or was it that I hadn’t been sharing my raw self with anyone? All the close relationships in my life were fueled by individual agendas related to dance and career. Without dance, I really had no community. For many people I think the dance studio is a perfect place to find community. For me though, dance is my joy, but it is primarily my work. My life had very little dimension or richness outside of work, which created a very one-dimensional sense of self (...and the conditions for this hilariously sad situation where I broke down crying about my deep loneliness in a forced-vulnerability-tactics-using eye-gazing workshop with people who are simply interested in learning some bellydance).
When I was an ambitious, unestablished young person I was primarily focused on carving out a stable life for myself. I got a degree, a husband, a house, a dance studio. Career mattered to me more than anything else. Creating formal structures around me eased my existential anxiety...for a time. Then the structures I created started to feel like prisons. My loyalty, commitment, follow-through, and discipline had taken me very far in life but I reached a point where those well-developed aspects of my personality were crowding out the other aspects of myself. I lost my irreverence, patience, compassion, gentleness, and ease. Hence, “the people who know me don’t love me.” I was not very easy to love. I was overwhelmed, burdened with too many responsibilities and work-based relationships, and entirely missing the point. After five years of studio directing, I gave up on my childhood aspiration to run a dance studio (despite my compulsive need to see things through to their ends). I found this change terrifying because it was the death of a huge portion of my identity and I had forgotten all other ideas of how my life could be. I had to readjust my priorities, my identity, and my vision for my future.
As part of my journey toward contentedness and a more well-rounded self, I’ve found some mascots to aspire to: Fred Armisen, Bill Murray, Colette, Elsie Fisher, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and my childhood self. Now, here is the bizarre part where I skip over all the amazing life-affirming experiences I had on tour and cut to the airplane movies I watched...
Before I left town for my six week tour I listened to a comedian named Pete Holmes interview another comedian, Fred Armisen, on his podcast You Made It Weird. Pete admitted to being drained and resentful about certain aspects of his show business life. In stark contrast, Fred Armisen spoke with enthusiasm and gratitude about the many projects he is involved in. While I related to Pete’s resentment and fatigue, I felt inspired by Fred’s optimistic perspective on his life. Armisen is incredibly successful, so he should be enamored with his own life but in my experience the more successful people get the more bitter they seem to get as well. Perhaps Fred has a bit of a case of workaholicism or wasn’t telling the whole truth but I learned from him in that interview how inspiring and powerful it is to hear an attitude of humility and gratitude from someone I admire.
Throughout my twenties I was not often able to inhabit that space. I was in a mode of survival, anxiety, practicality, overwhelm, and self-preservation a lot of the time. Completely overextended with unrealistic expectations of myself and others. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for that time because I really had too much on my plate and I simply needed more experience to gain a wider perspective. On the plane to Asia, I read a story about gaining perspective in one of my new favorite books, Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga:
A villager lived in a small house with his wife, mother-in-law, six children, a cow, and some chickens. It was driving him crazy. So he went to the village rabbi and asked for help. The rabbi said that he could solve the problem: he advised the man to buy a goat. Overjoyed, the man immediately went out and bought a goat. Now he had a wife, mother-in-law, six children, a cow, some chickens, and a goat. The house was even more chaotic than before. The villager returned to the rabbi and described the increased chaos. Once again the rabbi said that he could solve the problem. He told the man to sell the goat. Suddenly all he had in his small house were his wife, mother-in-law, six children, a cow, and some chickens. Things were positively peaceful without the goat.
This story tells me that when my life gets stressful: I should mentally sell the goat (that I had the wisdom or luck not to actually acquire) and appreciate the current situation for what it is: goatless, if nothing else. The goat could be cancer or the death of a loved one. So sell that damn goat and get on with enjoying life as it is. I need to spend more time being grateful for my work, even when it is draining or goes unappreciated. Parts of my job are challenging but I choose it. Bringing my enthusiasm to the classroom and stage is the only option.
If I’m unable to inhabit an attitude of joy and gratitude at work: I need to change my situation, my perspective, or both. I should keep my emotional well-being in check enough that I don’t bust out into tears at inappropriate times, get angry with people asking for discounts because I am struggling to pay bills, or mistake my colleagues for personal friends (except in rare special cases). That being said, we have to be able to reveal our struggles somewhere, of course. Sometimes a tendency toward anxiety and depression is just a feature of someone’s personality that you have to accept and work with. When you are someone’s roommate or partner, you are going to see all aspects of their personality, not just the ones they decide to reveal on a podcast for folks who are in the same industry. I feel ready to turn the Fred Armisen switch in my brain, I sold my goat and I’m ready to relish my work life.
The first movie I watched on my series of long plane rides was The Bill Murray Stories, which my friend Blair recommended to me. The documentary follows accounts of people who have had unexpectedly shared memorable moments of their lives with actor Bill Murray. Murray appears to wander the streets of wherever he’s staying, open to the possibility of sharing visceral experiences with unknown people he meets. Because of these tales, Bill Murray embodies radical presence, lack of pretense, openness, and an improv philosophy of “yes and.” I like it. I think I’m starting to get it. No one is going to make my life fun for me. If I want novelty, adventure, connection, and laughter, I have to seek it out. I have to bring it and lead with it.
As part of my identity crisis and ego-recovery over the winter I decided to put myself in a brand new situation. I took an 8 week beginner-level improv comedy course. I wanted to feel like a total beginner, I wanted to meet new people, I wanted to learn how to enjoy life, I wanted to learn how to relate to others in a way that doesn’t shut them down, I wanted to take myself less seriously, I wanted to challenge myself to fail and be ok with that. I was inspired to become reacquainted with the person I was as a young child: a total goofball. The course was nerve-wracking, illuminating, fun, and rewarding. Halfway in, one of my classmates, Jill, revealed to me that, for her, improv is a spiritual experience. I totally understand what she means and I agree. That spiritual philosophy of presence, connection, and irreverence is what Bill Murray symbolizes for those who idolize him. I’m determined to try and bring my inner Bill Murray with me when I leave the house or hotel, now.
Another film I watched was Colette, the story of a 19th-century French woman who ghost wrote her husband’s novels without receiving credit until the end of her life. It’s the story of a girl growing into a woman, within the boundaries that society has drawn for her, to eventually discover that she is powerful, and that more freedom and actualization is available to her if she is willing to leave the comfort of her well-kept position to grasp it. In the beginning of the movie I identified with Colette, imagining myself as the young ambitious, but self-doubting, girl who marries an older man, which helps her leave her humble home in search of something more. Similar to the way these kinds of movies usually go, her husband, Willy, turns out to be a total immature dick and she outgrows him. For much of the story Colette stays with Willy even though he is a bastard. She likes the comfort of being attached to him, in a world where only so much of life’s experiences are available to women without men. She doesn’t feel sure of herself and her husband’s belief in her gives her the feeling of competence that she has a hard time recognizing in herself. His love gives her a spring-board and something to ease her fear...until it doesn’t.
Compared with Willy, I can see plainly that I managed to choose my partner very well for being so young. Despite that fact, it is a fun exercise (to say the least) to be committed to someone between the tumultuous ages of 20 and 31. The last few years of this stretch I have struggled with my own internalized patriarchy and the way it shows up in my relationship. I have been realizing the bullshit I swallowed as a young girl, related to my belief that I must do certain things or be a certain way because of my gender and I’ve been pretty angry about how those ideas have invaded my life and personal choices. In my rage, I created an avatar in my husband of patriarchal oppression. I allowed him to become the symbol of the ways I felt tricked and restricted by society’s determinations for women. I was angry that he had 13 more years than me to learn about himself and his place in the world before our relationship started (I still have not even reached the age he was when we first met). Over the last few years I have been growing up and changing my worldview, and my marriage has felt, at times, like a tight pair of socks. Very supportive but I bet it would feel pretty great to take them off and let my toes wiggle a bit! Mostly I blamed him for me not being able to express myself, for me not knowing myself, and for me not feeling sure of myself. I imagined that he was a predatory unevolved Willy because it gave me someone to blame rather than taking responsibility for the fact that I am the one who imposes limitations on my life. I can challenge myself to take personal agency, to become the person I want to be, and I can challenge him to accept that.
As if the complete opposite to Colette’s Willy, who is actively trying to mold her into a pliable fantasy prop wife in order to achieve his own pleasures and stardom off the back of her hard work, my husband has never wanted me to be anything other than the most authentic version of myself AND for me to be recognized for that. I am the tight socks that I need to take off. My partner doesn’t much care whether I’m wearing socks or not because he is too busy gardening, cooking, playing music, and trying his best to be content with life. Colette had to leave her shitty husband to grow into her true self. Seeing her story makes it very obvious to me that I am not in that situation. My relationship with my partner of 11 years is one of the only relationships in my life where the other person doesn’t have an agenda for what they’d like to gain from it. It’s really tough to do the work of truly loving someone. But he shows me what that work, and what real love, looks like. Rather than taking it in, I was taking it for granted. Who doesn’t love a scapegoat, though, am I right? It’s so much more fun to blame your feelings on someone else than deal with their own twisted buried roots.
Another airplane movie I watched was Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade about a junior high aged girl named Elsie Fisher. Despite the fact that she makes YouTube tutorials on “how to be yourself” and related adorable topics she really knows nothing about, Elsie struggles to be comfortable around kids at her school (like most of us did at that age). It is a simple, heartbreaking, relatable, and encouraging story. Watching it, I felt the anxiety Elsie feels everyday and I viscerally remember that uncertainty at her age. The movie inspired me to look back at my school yearbooks. While I was also very insecure and uncomfortable in eighth grade, I was perceived very differently by my peers than Elsie. I was a cheerleader and voted into the class superlatives as “Best Personality” (later, in highschool I was voted three times as “Most Respected,” “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Most Likely to Become Famous.”) Yeah, I was THAT girl. The girl who, in the movie, is the popular one who (due to a combination of obliviousness and insecurity) silently offers no hand to the awkward Elsie who is extending herself in vulnerable bravery to try and make friends. My sister (a sensitive soul who used to hate me for being a brazen, attention-seeking, over-achiever) would even tell you that I have managed to grow up into a much more gentle, complex, and relatable person than my teen 80s-highschool-movie-villain past self. But some aspects of “that girl” have followed me into adulthood...until now.
I have never really taken responsibility for the fact that I can be intimidating. (I think “Most Respected” is actually highschool language for “Intimidating.”) In fact, I have always resented that label. I resent the comments from others I have gotten all my life: “I used to think you were a total bitch until I actually got to know you.” It has bothered me when others have felt tentative and uncomfortable around me. Instead of making an effort to solve the discomfort, I would usually just let it hang in the air, out of rebellion against the idea that it should be my responsibility to make others feel comfortable (contrary to my societal conditioning as a woman). I feel cheated when people prefer to label me in a way that absolves them of their own response to me before they’ve even given me a chance. Watching this movie (alongside other real-life circumstances) has shifted my stance.
I realize now that it is my responsibility to help others feel safe, encouraged, and comfortable around me. Otherwise I select for only a certain type of person in my life: confident (sometimes oblivious or manipulative) people who already relate to me on a surface level. Otherwise I don’t invite gentler people into my life, or people who look, act, and feel differently than me. I want kind people in my life. I want a diverse social circle. I recognize that my psychological comfort in my own skin (or whatever room I happen to be in) is a privilege. I haven’t realized, from my privileged position, how much others may have been extending themselves around me. I haven’t respected the fact that for many people it would be difficult to interject, disagree, speak their mind, feel included, relate, or feel safe around me.
I don’t want to be an island surrounded by yes-men. I want people to challenge me and to hold me accountable to a higher standard. I want to banter and be ridiculous with people who feel safe enough to take a risk. If that’s what I want, I obviously need to change my presentation so that folks get to know how approachable I am sooner. Some days I’m not up for it and would rather be quiet and decide not to care what the people around me think of that (sorry, most uber drivers...). If I want to make connections, though, I realize I can’t be a quiet uber passenger. I have to muster up the enthusiasm to prioritize the comfort of others. It’s a big responsibility for anyone who tends toward introversion, but I believe I am up to it.
Inspired by RBG, a documentary I watched about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I want to learn to express genuine friendliness toward people who believe differently than me. I don’t want to let ideological differences degrade my respect for others. That is very difficult to do but RBG appears to do it! The last couple of years, I have allowed political differences to divide me from my family. I have become so angry in response to their support of Trump, opposition to trans rights, racism, and unexamined Christian dogma that lately I barely speak to them. I feel angry and sad when I think about their belief systems. I want to change that. I want to be able to compartmentalize my appreciation for other aspects of their personality and our relationship. I am inspired by RBG to be softer, to not respond in self-defeating anger, and to maintain my ability to respect people I disagree with. She has came up against so much opposition and hateration, but she mostly keeps her calm, gentle composure. (This RBG approach is not a prescription for everyone or for you. This is a prescription from me to me.)
Most of my life I’ve been walking around the world as a person who has had very little acquaintanceship with rejection. During that time I think people were able to sense the entitlement and perceived invincibility I subconsciously carried. I’m happy I’ve had some heartbreaks the last couple years because I think it has taken that stink off of me. My failures have made me more relatable and approachable. I’m learning how to deal with opposition and rejection. I’m learning there is always going to be one hater in the room. (I don’t know why they bother to show up, but damn they sure do, don’t they?) I’m learning not to respond to that person’s attitude at the expense of everyone else who is happily present. I’m learning that it’s best to attribute the most generous assumptions to people’s intentions, if for no other reason than to protect myself from unnecessary pain. People are unable to appreciate or love because of many possible reasons: perhaps due to their own trauma, addictions, depression, envy, fear, ignorance, lack of experience, or need for survival. Even knowing that, it still hurts, but it makes me more resilient.
I can see rejection, opposition, betrayals, and failures as balancing forces to keep in check any feelings of invincibility that might creep back in to my ego. I’m learning to be wary of my feelings of invincibility. You know what I’m talking about...those nights when you are just really feeling yourself! I’m learning those moments are when you are liable to hurt yourself or somebody else. (Like the moment in my Guangzhou hotel room this month when I nearly gave myself a black eye with my own knee while dancing. Or the time in college I clocked myself in the head on a metal pole while dancing my way home at night in the rain...I was just really feeling myself!) Relish your joy and victories but be conscientious.
After looking back at my yearbooks I remember that running a dance studio wasn’t my dream all along. I was interested in many things. Throughout my childhood and teens I was recognized by my teachers and peers for being intelligent, funny, a good debater, leader, singer, theatrical actor, dancer, artist, and writer. I used to compose short stories, poetry, and songs. I ended up a professional bellydancer because my path kept opening up in that direction. It wasn’t something I put on a vision board without any other ideas for how to use my creative drive or intelligence.
Bellydance is a niche where I flourish. One reason why I continue to love it here is there is SO much more to bellydance than the movement. I can study music, culture, and history. I can be a perpetual student here. I feel that I am a more talented bellydancer than I show people. The parts of me I show you are the curated, composed parts. I’m excited about a future where I learn how to show you the rawness I haven’t had the confidence or self-awareness to bring to the stage yet. I still have a lot of growing to do here, but if I ever stop being able to bring my essence to bellydance, then I’ll die to myself again and step into another stream of my diverse potential.
I know myself and I have developed my ability to express my thoughts and feelings in many ways. I might be a hilarious, book-writing musician one day. Whatever I do, I will do with joy, humility, gratitude, patience, compassion, integrity, and goofiness.
I am 31 years old, with some failures and successes behind me, and I’m finally ready to start enjoying my life.
Thanks for having the patience to read to the end. I hope you find this interesting and relatable. If you’d like to respond directly to me, please email email@example.com. My response time is a little long but I would be happy to hear from you.