My daughter attends a performing arts school where she majors in theater. She basically spends half her day in arts classes and half her day in academics, and her major class is the only class she has every day. Her “theater cohort” began together as freshman, and they will stay together through their senior year. She spends more time with these students and their teacher than she does anyone else except immediate family. They are her people — even when they are arguing, competing, annoying one another, and all the other things.
Today, Curly Girl read part of their assigned reading from the day’s lesson to me on the way home from school. It was about acting “from the inside out,” and talked about how the best actors aren’t the ones who put on a perfect mask and perform a role — even if they do so quite well. The best actors are the ones who bring their full selves to the art — who dig deep into their own person, with all their faults and brokenness and dreams and disappointments and joys and offer those things into the character they are playing. After all, the reading said, every role you play is your body, your voice, your life speaking — and the more vulnerably and honestly you do that…the better at your craft you will be.
“That right there!” I exclaimed, as I navigated onto the interstate and the inevitable stop-and-go traffic, “That’s not just acting! That’s being human!” She laughed, and then, with all the wicked timing that makes her so good at dry comedy on stage, she said, “You’re going to blog about this, aren’t you?”
I helped lead a conference last week for work — a hotel-based event with intense speakers and people flying in from all over the country and heavy topics. Lots of logistics. Lots of interpersonal heavy lifting.
This was not my first such rodeo. My entire career has largely been “up front,” in some form or fashion — whether speaking or writing or coordinating, I’ve never really been unseen as a professional. But holy cow…this time it felt different. I tried to suss out why — and at some point it dawned on me that it was, in fact, my first such rodeo post-pandemic, post-chemotherapy, post-March 2020 and everything after.
I could feel it in my bones — the hesitation, the second-guessing, the “Did I remember to do …?” or “Am I sure this the right way to…?” Several times, I found myself wanting to find the most lovely of masks, cover up my entire rusty and anxious being with it, and lead from a place of safety. Of (even if false) security. Of a projected version of me that felt much more likely to succeed than the sweaty panicky me.
I had a story I wanted to tell. It’s a story I’ve told before, and it comes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier — where Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Sam Wilson (Falcon) are running and they pass one another saying, “On your left,” and it becomes a bit of a joke in that movie…but as the Avengers story continues and, eventually, the Endgame is made obvious, “On your left,” becomes a promise — “I’ve got you. On your left. You’re not alone.”
I can’t tell it without crying. And, so, sometimes I choose not to tell it, even when I want to. But Saturday morning, as we were ending the conference, it seemed the only word that would do in the particular moment we were in. And sure, I guess you had to be there, but maybe you can imagine the twin convictions I had that the promise, “On your left” needed to be offered in the moment, and, that I could not do so without choking up, so there would be no mask. No retreating. No perfection. Just me — broken and weary and unsure, but also certain that everyone else in the room was also those things, and “on your left,” seemed the words that needed to be said.
(I also read my favorite Psalm, 121, and it mirrors “On your left,” quite well if you ask me and maybe that is helpful information for you churchy types who read this blog.)
I am more convinced every day that somewhere between the pandemic, TikTok, mass anxiety around violence and politics and whatever else is swirling in your life or mine, we’ve been stripped of our capacity for living our lives from the inside out.
Because y’all? Our insides are just too damn scary right now. Behind our keyboards is safer. From within our tribes is more secure. On our designated right or left side of the aisle makes us feel like we belong. Our insides are exhausted from an endless barrage of national and global crises, never mind our own personal ones, and the thought of sharing exactly how messed up we are from the constant assault of it all is really more than any of us can take most days. “Back to normal,” even if an illusion, feels more comfortable. Like my rescue Dolly’s kennel — she could use a larger one, for sure, but she likes the one she has, and so please do not remind her that her tail is sticking out of the bars, she does not care, and will stay right where she is ma’am, thanks.
And in the middle of all of this, a theater teacher at a public magnet high school is teaching my child to practice her art with her heart wide open, with her insides leading the way.
We have to stop hiding, y’all. We have to stop pretending that a four bedroom three bathroom house in the right neighborhood means much of anything at all. We have to stop thinking our flush bank account makes us special. We have to stop assuaging our own insecurity with an attempt at outer perfection that is not only futile, but utterly exhausting.
And also we have stop believing the lies our own doubts tell us. Y’all, we’re all just a mess. And we have to stop trying to be anything but who we are — we have to stop pretending we’re waffles if we’re really cauliflower.
Bring your full self to this life. Even if you cry in a hotel ballroom on a Saturday morning in front of 45 people, most of whom you don’t know all that well.
You’re you. And in you is something the world needs.