Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Different Ones


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree,
it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ― Albert Einstein



When I was a little kid, my sister Autumn and I used to watch reruns of The Twilight Zone and yes, I am aware of the fact that it is not exactly suitable viewing for children under 7 years of age but hey - it was the 70s and kids could watch 20 uninterrupted hours of harmful TV and nobody cared.  Mine and Autumn's young, anxious, paranoid minds soaked up every episode of The Twilight Zone, and we were thrilled to discover that Rod Serling had more fantastic terrors in store for us with his other creepier and more disturbing show - Night Gallery.  Even the opening credits of that show scared the bejeezus out of me and Autumn.  There was an eyeball, and some sort of alien, and some groovy and menacing picture frames.  We probably had 22 years of nightmares just from watching the opening of that show, and we loved every minute of it.  


In 1971, when I was a strange and serious first-grader, Autumn and I watched an episode of Night Gallery called "The Different Ones."  The story is a continuation of the themes in the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder," and it centers on a couple who are struggling with the decision to send their adult son, who was born horribly deformed, to a different planet because his appearance is so ghastly.  They want their son to have a normal life among the people who live on this faraway planet, but they are agonized at the idea of sending him so far away.  At the end of the episode, they decide it's the only way to give him a chance at a better life, and when he steps off the space ship on the other planet, he is thrilled to be greeted by an entire population of people who are deformed in the exact same way he is.  


To this day, that's the closest I can come to describing how it felt the first time I met a bunch of nuns.    


From my earliest stages of awareness, I knew I was weird.  I wasn't like the kids at school, who played and acted silly and behaved normally.  I liked sitting quietly and reading, and I preferred to be by myself.  My maternal grandparents were like me - soft spoken and pathologically shy - and they also liked to sit quietly and read.  Other than them, I never knew anybody else like me.  Everyone in my immediate family were bubbly, dramatic extroverts, and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me.  Nobody else could, either. I was always being looked at with furrowed brows and being told to speak up, stand up straight and be more bubbly and interesting.  At age 7 I would go to Michael Barton's house to hang out and he'd yell at me "WHO goes to somebody's house and READS?????  Put that book DOWN, you weirdo!!! I invited you over here to play BARBIES and watch LANA TURNER movies on TV, and by God that is what we are going to DO!!!!!"


As I got older I gravitated towards the nerds and the rebels in school, thinking that maybe I'd fit in with them.  After a few years, though, I had to admit that I just wasn't cool enough to be a rebel and - although my IQ qualified me to be in the Gifted program - I wasn't smart enough to fit in with the nerds due to my abysmal and complete lack of math and chess skills. (To this day, as I am hurtling down the edge of my late 40's, I have never, ever won a game of chess.  To obtain nerd credentials, one must have mad chess skills.  It's mandatory. I have none.)  


After high school I figured, ok, maybe I'm creative.  That's why I'm a weirdo.  Maybe the arts are my home planet.  I took up acting, thinking that would be the place where everyone was deformed in the same way I was.  By the time I graduated from NYU with a completely useless degree in acting, I realized I'd made a mistake.  I wasn't anything like other actors.  I loved the actual acting part, but I didn't get all excited about my "craft" and work on my "instrument" and when people started talking about plays and movies and other actors, I glazed over and my mind turned to static.  I kept acting for a long time because, really, I didn't know what else to do.  What could be weirder than acting?  What planet was weirder than that?


When I got to my early 30's, though, I had to face the fact that I was a colossal failure at acting.  I mean - I pursued it for 16 years and never even got an agent.  That's pretty hilarious and horrific all at the same time.  I did so many plays and sketch shows and had a lot of fun, but who was I kidding?  I wasn't an actor.  I tried writing, then singing, and even standup comedy, but everywhere I went, I was just an outsider playing a part and as we've learned from my so-called acting "career," I wasn't a very good actor.


While I was pursuing acting I took a secretarial job at an ad agency "just to pay the bills" and 22 years later I was still working in advertising.  I knew from day one I would never fit in with what job descriptions politely call a "fast-paced environment" and which translates in reality to "sheer, unbridled insanity."  Some people thrive in that bloodthirsty, chaotic environment and I, of course, did not.  Try to imagine taking your house cat to Grand Central Station on a leash, wearing a sweater, and that's pretty much me in the world of advertising.  


Up until age 33, when I finally raised the white flag of surrender and gave up acting, I was operating on two incorrect interpretations of the two phrases that had guided my entire life:


1.  "No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light." -  Luke 8:16-21


and 


2.    Never give up your dreams.  Nothing is impossible.


Phrase number one is something that resonated loudly within me as I sat next to my sainted Grandmother Zelda Jane Turner on a pew at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church at around the age of 6.  Preacher Mathis read these words from the Bible and I thought my light meant my personality and my talents.  I thought it meant that my shyness and lack of self confidence kept me from being sparkly and bubbly, and I needed to change myself so my light would shine.  At that age, teachers were encouraging me to be more outgoing and show off my artistic skills, and even though the idea of being a showoff was about the worst thing I could imagine, after hearing the words of Luke I decided to at least try.


I totally misinterpreted phrase number 2 - about never giving up your dreams - to mean that if you have a dream, you should pursue it even in the face of massive discouragement and even if all four engines of your dream blow out while you're trying to valiantly fly it over the earth, you should ride the charred, ruined carcass of your dream right down to the ground and burn to a crisp with it. (I also applied this to the 4,978 unrequited crushes I had in my life, but that's a whole other encyclopedia volume that my therapist will be happy to send you as a PDF.)


It wasn't until AFTER I had spent my thirties and forties slowly crawling out of the life I had artificially constructed around myself in order to pass as a normal person that I realize how I had misinterpreted the two main, driving, phrases of wisdom that had gotten me into this mess.  


It started with defining my values and putting God as my #1 value, and realizing that my pretending NOT to be religious or spiritual was just a coping mechanism so that people wouldn't think I was weird and boys wouldn't run away from me.  That realization started me on a path of discarding the masks I'd been wearing most of my life.  I discarded my hip, socially acceptable "Agnostic" mask and said "Hey everybody - I GO TO CHURCH!  I love God!  So sue me!!!" and I set about finding my Authentic Self - the Self that I was before I assembled a set of artificial armor and masks to get along in the big bad world.


After years of deconstructing the person I was pretending to be, and after years of reconnecting with the faith I'd had as a child and studying scripture, I also realized I had that light under the bushel thing totally wrong.  The light that I wasn't supposed to be hiding from the world wasn't my talents and personality - it was my faith.  My life wasn't working because I had hidden the thing that was most important to me, the Light of God in my heart.  When I stopped hiding it, my life got better.  Much better.


In spite of realizing that my life's mission wasn't to get in everyone's face and blind their eyes with the light of how talented, interesting and bubbly I am, I still felt some guilt about giving up acting - a dream I'd had for so many years.  I felt like I was being really, finally true to my Life Truth number 1, but that I'd betrayed my Life Truth number 2.


Then I remembered something my Mom had told me years ago when she went back to school for her degree in Psychology.  She said that when she started looking into it, and seeing if she could get financial aid and be accepted to the degree program, doors just started flinging open.  She'd tried all kinds of other career paths before that one, and doors slammed in her face.  This one, she said, was easy and so she knew it was meant to be.


I've had so many doors slammed in my face it's a wonder I didn't need more than one nose job.  Until my Mom's words came back to me it never occurred to me that those slammed doors meant I was on the wrong path.  My life felt difficult and fraught with terror and disappointment, and yet I had kept soldiering on through the muck - bloody but unbowed - like a Confederate soldier.  God had a plan for me, and He was trying to make me see that I HAD to give up my dreams of being an actress, writer, performer, and musician because they weren't the right dreams for my Authentic Self.  They were the dreams of the artificial Claudette who was trying so desperately to be "normal."


I was in high school when I met my first bunch of nuns.  My friend Warren had two adorable nieces who attended St. Mary's Catholic School in my hometown, and one day he said "Hey they need chaperones at St. Mary's for field trips and dances and stuff.  Do you want to do that with me?"  Even though I was in my "partying rebel"(?) phase of pretending to be normal, I said sure because underneath, I was still good old Churchy Claudette.  


Now, I'm not sure if all you folks out there in Yankeeland know this, but with the exception of Louisiana, there are hardly any Catholics in the deep south.  According to a recent survey, Georgia and Alabama are among the six US states with the least number of Catholics in the entire US. As a result of this scarcity most people in Georgia have never encountered an actual living, breathing nun in their entire lives, and probably never will. When I was a teenager in Georgia I never thought I actually would.  I had wanted to be a nun ever since I was a kid and I saw "The Nun's Story" on TV but after telling a few people about it and receiving either laughter or urgent requests to get therapy asap I decided it was just a stupid fantasy that should be hidden and never spoken of again.


And then, when Warren and I went to St. Mary's for our first chaperone gig, there they were - Nuns.  I was amazed by them.  They were not the black-shrouded, wimple-encased, psychotic, child-abusing suppressed lesbians that I had always been told they were.  They were young, modern, normal, Post- Vatican-2 guitar-Mass nuns with light blue knee-length skirts, short veils and large ever-present smiles on their peaceful faces.  The Sisters who ran St. Mary's school in those days were from the Daughters of Charity in Emmittsburg, Maryland, and as I got to know them at field trips and school dances I was struck by the fact that at least outwardly - they were the happiest people I'd ever met.  They talked in positive ways about positive things and, most intriguingly, their demeanor reminded me of my own secret personality - the one I had hidden under big permed hair and 2 pounds of Duran-Duran inspired makeup.  They were soft-spoken and shy and they talked about nerdy things and made wry jokes.  Their posture and eye contact was terrible like mine always has been, and they weren't assertive or bubbly, like I'm not.  


When it came time to end my chaperoning months, I was very sad to leave those nuns behind.  I told myself, though, that my knowing them was just a temporary detour on the path to pursuing my acting dreams and that I had to forge ahead and forget I ever wanted to be a nun.  Being a nun was culturally unacceptable and I was supposed to try to be accepted and normal.  


One of the things we nun and monk types hear over and over from well-meaning people is "Oh, it's so sad to see you going into a Religious Community.  It seems like such a WASTE!"  For those of us who are truly called to it, the only waste we see in our lives is all those wasted years, wearing mask after mask, trying to be normal when we were supposed to be here, doing this.  We aren't hiding anything under bushels any more.  The light of our faith shines for everyone to see, and our talents and gifts are used in the service of our top priority - God - so they bring us much more joy.


I've forgiven myself for not following the call to the religious life much earlier - right out of high school or college - because I honestly didn't know any better.  I thought the goals I set for myself would help me by changing me into something better and more exciting than my weird hidden self was.  If I'd had the opportunity to take a Meyers-Briggs or Enneagram personality test way back when, I would have known what actual personality type I am and I could have set myself on the correct path.  I just had no idea.  I prayed and prayed for guidance about my life all those years and heard nothing, and God was shouting at me and saying "HELLLLOOO!!!!" and then smacking his forehead and going "Oy vey.  This one is as deaf as a boot."


Dr. Wayne Dyer has a revision to that maxim of "Pursue your dreams no matter what"  He says "Pursue your dream - if it feels natural."  What he means by this is - a 4 foot tall tubby guy can dream of being a linebacker, but he isn't meant to be one because of his physical limitations so he should pursue another dream - something that feels more natural.  


If I could give any advice to young people, I'd say - read some great books like "What Color is Your Parachute," "Please Understand Me" and "Discovering Your Personality Type" and figure out who you actually are - then find people who are like you, and do what they are doing.  



After I did all the tedious tests in those books and did some research to find people like myself, I finally set out on the long-awaited journey to my home planet.  It took me 15 years to get out of debt, get myself sorted out and get here, but I did it. The dream seemed impossible at first but because it felt natural, I achieved it.  The Sisters and Brothers I've met in these short months of the Religious life seem very different from me on the surface, but we are actually exactly the same on a very profound level.  They, at last, are weird in the same way I am weird.  Yes, we can all achieve the impossible, but only if we are on the right path.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Phil

Written Feb. 2014

When I was in college I was a typical 1980’s arrogant jerk (pause for everyone to ask “So - what has changed?”)  I went from a small college in my hometown to the theatre program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and I thought, with my typical smugness, that I was going to rocket to Broadway stardom even before I finished my first semester.  I was a poor kid on scholarships who was working my way through an expensive education through sheer force of will, and I was determined not to blow it.  

One of my classmates, whose name escapes me now because I’m getting older and I have cobwebs in my head, was dating a guy who was in another branch of NYU, or “Studio,” as we called them.  We were in Circle in the Square studio, and what’s-her-name’s boyfriend was in Stella Adler studio.  My classmate, I think, who was dating this guy…might have been named Miranda.  Miranda was a sweet girl with an angelic face and curly blonde hair.  She was very earnest and wholesome and I couldn’t figure out why she was dating her loser boyfriend.  From my lofty ivory tower of all-business, all-work, no-goofing off college life, I thought Miranda’s boyfriend was a slacker.  His name was Phil and he wore Birkinstocks and Dashiki shirts even in the dead of winter.  He was part of a large demographic of college students in the late 1980’s who were trying to be neo-hippie-rasta-surf-posers, and I would just roll my eyes whenever I saw him and think “Put down the bong, dude, and stop rebelling so idiotically against your parents’ wealth.”

He always seemed to be happy and stoned.  Even now I picture him walking around with a lit bong in his hand although that seems impossible since I only saw him in public spaces where bongs wouldn’t be allowed.  I think the bong I’m remembering is an implied bong.  His tightly squinted eyes, his red face and his eternal phlegmy chuckle evoked the image of lit marijuana whenever he entered the room.  There was always a smell of patchouli and cannabis surrounding him.  He was a gentle, funny pothead and I felt like a mean person for judging him and having thoughts like “Poor stupid Phil.  He is NEVER going to graduate, much less become a successful actor, if he just floats around stoned all the time.”

Years later I was at the premiere of a film called Boogie Nights, at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles and about 1/3 of the way into the movie I thought to myself “WHOA.  Wait a minute.  That’s Phil.”

The guy I knew at NYU in the  late 80’s was Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and I saw just now on the web that he was found dead in his apartment this afternoon at the age of 46.  

I don’t know whether I hated the fact that Phil was a pothead because my father was an addict, and I get mad when I see people who are high all the time, or whether I hated the fact that Phil had talent, intelligence and potential that he was destroying by keeping himself in a haze.  

Phil realized his potential and for a long time I was really happy to see how successful he became, but he died young after leaving rehab for heroin a year ago. I think I’m still mad.  Even with all he did accomplish, just think of how much more he could have done if addiction hadn’t interfered with his talent and his life.