2017: A Reflection on the three events that changed me the most last year.
The election, falling in love, and teaching Shakespeare.
The First: The 2016 election
I was raised in an unusually diverse atmosphere. My mother was a hippie and her other hippie friends/paramours were black, white, Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, etc. We were a part of a cult that lived communally so we spent a great deal of time around one another. There was a lot of mutual love and acceptance and as a result of this upbringing, I’ve always seen people as people. Not that I thought all people were the same, but I did believe that all people were equally deserving of not being judged by their covers.
In addition to this mindset, I’ve also been painfully naive for most of my life. This was a good thing in that no matter how many heartbreaks I suffered I never fell prey to pessimism and chose, on a regular basis, to assume the best of people. The negative side lay in my regular failure to see danger until it was sitting in my lap.
These two combined traits collided with the events of the past 10-15 years and necessitated a shift in my rose colored perspective of the world, and the mother of all wake up calls arrived on November 9th, 2016.
For many of us, the outcome of the election was a nightmare, and though as the numbers rolled in I could see the inevitable hairy end, the blow was still devastating. What compounded the election’s devastating impact for me was that people I knew, respected, and remembered with fondness revealed themselves to be unapologetic in their support of our 45th president and his policies. These weren’t nameless, faceless bigots in an notoriously bigoted town, these were people of faith in New York. People I served the vulnerable alongside. People I looked up to. People I went to for examples of how to love.
A friend once told me that if I become disillusioned, then that means that I had illusions, so…silver lining, I suppose. I saw them for who they really were. The election didn’t change them, it put their views under a spotlight. They have always been people who would support a candidate who is a known and admitted manipulator of facts and ideals and who proudly conducts business without compassion or integrity. They’ve always been people who would support a candidate who frequently expresses ungodly disdain for anyone who isn’t white, wealthy, male, straight, or able-bodied as long as he was against abortion, LGBTQ rights, and acceptance of Muslim immigrants.
This disillusionment hurt…it still does. I tried to approach the whole thing with grace and humility — I failed. I still fail. However, in the midst of that failing, I matured a bit. I learned that heroes will disappoint in ways that feel like betrayal. I learned to stop focusing on them and to let that disappointment fuel me into doing the most I can do to help. I learned to stop looking for heroes. It’s hard though. Having a hero feels good.
The Second: I fell in love.
Unexpected love…unrequited love. I tried my best to raze what my heart built and to move past him. One day, as I was hard at work at this a little voice said:
Voice: Hey. So…you’re trying to push your feelings away again?
Shaun: Yeah. I don’t want to get hurt.
Voice: Is it working?
Shaun: (Pause). No.
Voice: Well, why don’t we try something different this time? Why don’t you just embrace it?
Shaun: Embrace it….what do you mean? That sounds like torture.
Voice: Well, they’re your feelings, not his. It’s your love. You get to own it. What you feel makes you who you are. You’re a person who loves. You get to own that. You don’t have to push it away because he doesn’t want it…you get to keep it. Ok, it hurts, but it’s going to hurt either way. You may as well revel in it. It’s good to be one who loves. It’s good to love. You’re ok.
Now, this sounded crazy to me and years of solitude and fierce independence left me with no idea how to do this. However, I conceded that my usual way wasn’t working and I was willing to try a new thing.
As I was pondering this newness, I was reminded of a scene in Adaptation, one of my favorite films, in which Charlie reminds his twin brother Donald about a girl Donald loved unrequitedly when they both were younger. Charlie was confused as to why Donald was so happy after she rejected him, and Donald replied that, “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want…(how she felt about me) was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you…”
When I first saw the film long ago, I thought that exchange was there to highlight Donald’s simplicity and naiveté. I see it differently now. Charlie was a survivor, but Donald had found a way to LIVE in the midst of survival. It made him pliable, joyful, and resilient. So, at the urging of that still small voice I threw caution to the wind and decided to be a Donald.
Now, I’m in no way implying that in every case of unrequited love and rejection that this is the way to go. This is a new recipe….I’m only just trying it out, folks. The empirical research will end when I’m dead. I’m also not implying that this decision gave me the right to ignore the dude’s wishes or feelings once he made his feelings known. I’ve been in situations before where I politely refused a guy’s advances only to have my words ignored and the pursuit continued. I hated that, and…you know…do unto others and all that.
What my decision did do was give me the freedom to find a way to love him that felt safe, real, and sweet, and to enjoy the things about him that made me love him in the first place without needing to possess those things or being held prisoner by them. It allowed me to let him go.
Sometimes I fucked up. Sometimes I needed distance, and sometimes it was ok to be close. In the end, my heart grew and I learned how to be ok with being a hopeless romantic, with being vulnerable, with hearing “no” and not interpreting it as a judgement or an attack. In embracing my love for this man I learned how to properly love us both. Good times. (If you popped out of the womb somehow already knowing all of this, you’re an extraordinary human. For real. Love is hard, yo.)
The Third: I discovered I love teaching Shakespeare.
An opportunity arose to teach Shakespeare to elementary school kids and I jumped on it. I’ve been wanting to work more with children for a while so when a theatre company I love was seeking two teaching artists to take over their Shakespeare class at a primary school in Brooklyn I felt it was meant to be. My co-teacher and I had five incredible girls in our charge. They were between the ages of eight and ten and two of the five girls were painfully shy. I was fascinated by them. They were imaginative, inventive, and earnest and they put their all into whatever we asked them to do. We’d give them speeches to learn, the following week they had them memorized.
My favorite part of all, was seeing the shyer students come out of their shell. One of our students, I’ll call her “Sophia,” was so shy at the beginning I could barely hear her speak. By the end, she was expressive and full of joy and energy. During our final performance, I was backstage with Sophia and “Jessie” and they were shaking with nerves. I was actually a little concerned for them they were so anxious. I took them gently by the arms and said, “You know, I get nervous, too. All the time. Sometimes, the realization that I have no idea what’s going to happen when I step on the stage terrifies me. I’m afraid I won’t be good, and that the audience will see how scared I am and hate me. Trust me, I get scared, too.” Their eyes widened.
“You do?!” they asked, incredulously.
“Yep. I do, and then I step out onto the stage and try to have fun and the fear kind of disappears…I don’t know where it goes. Also, the audience is on your side and I’ll be right here the whole time.”
“Ok,” Jessie said. The girls were still buzzing, but their resolve had hardened.
All five of those warrior princesses went out on that stage and nailed it. They didn’t hold back. They didn’t shortchange themselves or the audience. They gave it their all and I was so proud of them I could have burst into a puddle on the floor.
I feel quite spoiled, actually. I hope to do it again, and I know that my future students won’t necessarily be this enthusiastic or easy. Those kids made me want to cry from their sweetness on the regular, and no matter how exhausted I was, and I was often exhausted, I was always excited to see them.
I wonder if a person that young can comprehend how much gratitude they can inspire. I will always be grateful for those girls. I will always wonder how they’re doing. I will always think they’re amazing.
What this class did for me aside from tugging at my heart was two things, it renewed my love for acting and revealed to me how much I love Shakespeare. I spent much of my early career being intimidated by his works and I’m glad. A lot of other people are intimidated by them too, and if I’m blessed to continue to teaching, understanding that fear will help me be more compassionate and more articulate to my students who share that fear.
So, this year has shown me where I’ve grown and some of the places where more growth is needed. I ended 2017 full of gratitude, awareness, and love. Who could ask for anything more?
Be well beauties. Be generous. Be patient with yourself. 2018 is yours.