Monday, May 18, 2015

She's Back

Sassy Little Randi

When I was four years old, I was often described as "sassy." I was outgoing, funny, interested in talking to everyone around me (absolutely zero stranger danger). At my oldest brother's high school basketball games, it was expected that I would run out into the court during time outs, clad in a cheerleading costume my crafty grandmother made for me, and dance to the band's rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown." I expected everyone in that gym to love me, and they did.

Now, at age 39, I finally feel like that little girl again. Some things happened that pushed that little girl down. Things my dad did to me in particular, horrible things, combined with the general trauma of growing up in a house ruled by a violent narcissist who relied on the unpredictable (and illegal) world of being a small-town bookie as means of supporting his family.

But those bad times are not what this post is about. This post is about the joy of finally being myself 100% of the time after 35 long years.

I was silent on this blog for a long time. I've compared my recent lifestyle shift/mid-life crisis in birth terms before. And I've just survived a really dark period - hours of pushing, if you will - followed by an incredibly wonderful period - my sweet, naked baby on my chest.

It seemed, for a while, that I would not be able to follow through with my plans. Money, lack of benefits - these were and are very valid concerns. I cried a lot, feeling in my heart that this seemingly insane mixture of storytelling, teaching, and birth support was exactly what I was supposed to do with my life, but would never be an acceptable path for a mother of two.

But one day, I just let it go. I stopped worrying, and I started putting as much energy - physical, emotional, mental - into my goals as possible. And the result was instantaneous and powerful.

Throughout April and May, I was completely engrained in my new lifestyle. I got a work-from-home job as as consultant with an online company that manages pregnancy and parenting apps. It's fairly flexible, challenging, and fun, and is a great backbone for my other projects. One of my doula clients gave birth, and I was reminded, again, of how gratifying it is to support a woman and her birth partner as she crosses the bridge into parenthood (all of my clients, so far, have been first time moms). I also had the absolute honor of working with a local high school to coach student storytellers and help produce my area's first high school story slam. The bravery those kids displayed as they got on a stage (for the first time, for many of them) and bared their souls in front of strangers was awe-inspiring.

Every day was different. I felt busy, alive, vibrant, busy, excited, optimistic, busy, and strangely peaceful. I was running all over town to fulfill obligations, fighting Derby traffic, my phone buzzing frequently, and in my heart, I felt absolute peace. That's when I knew I was on the right path.

The two months of joy culminated with a trip to New York City to perform part of my Grand Slam winning story in the Moth Ball, the Moth organization's annual (and fabulous) fundraiser. To say I was honored to be asked to go is a blatant and vile understatement. I couldn't believe it was happening - from the moment I got the email invitation to the minute I landed back in Louisville International Airport. I'm still scouring through photographic evidence to make sure it wasn't all a dream.

The trip to NYC was the real proof that I'm finally the brave, confident, people-loving person I once was. I had no fear on this trip. For a person who's lived with anxiety for most of my life, that's an unbelievable thing to admit. No detail - from my kids' well-being back at home to making friends at the show to getting around town with my luggage - made me sweat.

And NYC welcomed me back with open arms. My flights into the area were easy. I stepped out of Newark Airport right as my shuttle bus pulled up. My shuttle bus deposited me at Port Authority, where I easily remembered the trail to the subway. As soon as I swiped my newly-purchased Metro Card (on the first try, like a real New Yorker), the train pulled up. I transferred from the A train to the F train and, again, it pulled up the moment I arrived. If you've never spent any significant amount of time in New York, you may not realize what a miracle it is for so many modes of transportation to cooperate so nicely.

The Moth put us up in the adorable Ludlow Hotel. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to NYC. It's stylish and in a great, not-quite-as-touristy neighborhood. Plus it comes with a decent breakfast special - actually good food and not some sad buffet.

I had a few hours to kill before I could officially check in, so I took a stroll around the Lower East Side and East Village. There could have been no more fitting place for my revisit to NYC to begin. From the moment I moved to New York in 1998, this was the area where I spent the most time. I began working with WOW Cafe Theater - a feminist, anarchist theater collective - on E. 4th Street right away. I wrote, directed, and produced two plays there, in addition to acting and doing tech work for countless other shows. I was also a frequent visitor to the LES treasure, Bluestockings Bookstore, a feminist enclave that served as the library for my political awakening, as well as a meeting ground for fellow activists.

I got a slice of pizza (required) and walked past my old window on E. 6th Street where Dave proposed to me in 2004.

Me and the ring, which once belonged to my mother-in-law. 

As the young folks say, I was having all the feelings. I felt like no time at all had passed, then I'd remember that actually over a decade had passed, and I now have kids, and I don't live here anymore, and it was, in an inadequate word, weird.

It was also required that I become a curmudgeon about how much my old neighborhood had changed. I was appalled by some of the precious and over-priced new restaurants and stores. I was heartbroken about the loss of some of my old haunts (like B&H Dairy, the first kosher restaurant I ever entered, where I asked the guy behind the counter if their split-pea soup had ham in it - d'oh!). I couldn't believe how little trash there was curling round my legs in the breeze. 

After checking in, I luxuriated in a shower, during which nobody banged on my door or yelled "Mom" repeatedly. I hung out for an hour, just going over my story and reveling in my alone-ness. I was so happy about it that I even took a picture.

Ah, this is the life!
And then it was time. I got gussied up in a cute dress, and even wore makeup! I looked pretty damned cute. But, because I'm an idiot and I assumed everyone in the world would snap my photo and share it with me, I didn't take any pictures of myself. Well, that's not entirely true, I took one dark selfie at the end of the night, around 2 in the morning. 

Wow. That's 3 selfies in a row. I think it's time to change my last name to Kardashian.
The fellow Grandslampions (as our Moth guru, Jen, called us) were fantastic people. I bonded with them immediately and strongly, as if we'd gone to summer camp together. When storytellers get together, there is no small talk. I can't tell you a single thing about how any of their flights were or what the weather's like where they live; but I know intimate details of their lives and their guiding philosophies on the world. 

The venue was beautiful, and Ophira Eisenberg, the host of the event and NPR celebrity, had the audacity to be down to earth and totally approachable. We did our sound check, learned the quirks of the microphone, then settled in to attempt to calm our nerves before the show.

The food was great, the bar was open (but off limits to me and my fellow performers until after our performances), and the room began to fill with people you think you recognize but can't stare at long enough to figure it out. I was grateful the former New Yorker in me insisted I wear flats, because I was on my feet a lot. 

And before we knew it, it was time to perform.

Unlike the regular Moth, where the house lights are so low you can't make out a single face, I could see everyone in that audience, but especially Louis C.K. - the honoree of the night. I had to keep putting it out of my mind that he would be there, because I'm such a huge fan of his work. But smack in the middle of my performance, I made eye contact with him, and he was looking at me in that way that showed me he really heard me and he cared about what I had to say, and for a second I almost forgot what to say next. But then that confidence resurfaced, and I finished my piece and allowed myself to feel thrilled and joyful that I got to perform on such prestigious a stage.
Super Blurry Shot of Louis C.K.

I ran offstage and lined up for my Manhattan (the perfect drink for a Kentucky girl in the city). Just then, my phone buzzed. It was my dear friend from college, Lisa, telling me she was there.

Tickets to this event were insanely steep. It is a fundraiser, after all. So I didn't expect to see any of my friends in the audience, least of all my friend who lives in the San Francisco area. But Lisa had flown in for a visit, and she joined our other college friends Sara and Jessica, who are New Yorkers, to watch the show.

The tears I'd been holding back started to flow. I couldn't believe they would come. I felt so loved, so happy, I almost felt like there was no way my emotions could stay contained in my body.

There was dancing, so much dancing. Great conversations. Amazing costumes at which I openly stared. An after party at the home of a celebrated New York storyteller whose work I've used with my students for years. People telling me how much they liked my story and wanting to hear more. New York City alive and hopping at 1am on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. It was thrilling.

The next day, I met up with some of the storytellers for more soul-baring and breakfast. I had a hard time thinking about how I might never see them again. It sounds extreme, I know, but it's true. It was like the most beautiful, emotional, group one-night-stand in history.

Later, I walked along the High Line which was still being constructed as we were fleeing NYC. I had a beer on the open air deck with my college friends and sampled only-in-NYC-food, like my Japanese/Mexican fusion spicy tuna taco. We had dinner at a cute restaurant, then headed to a West Village gay bar to watch my incredible friend, Lillian Bustle, perform in a burlesque show.

Middle of the Day Drinking with College Buddies - Just Like Old Times

Lillian Bustle is not her real name, I know you're shocked to find out, but I'll just call her Lillian anyway. Lillian was my best friend in NYC. I met her when I cast her as myself in a play (narcissism, much?). We used to sit around and talk about the parts of our body we hated the most. Like it was a game. "Oh, God, my upper arms are disgusting. I wish they made more light-weight long sleeve shirts for the summer." "Oh, but have you seen my thighs? I can't wear shorts without them riding up in the middle and making some sort of v pointing at my lady parts." 

Now Lillian performs her fantastic burlesque and even gave a Tedx Talk to show that sexiness, happiness, and healthiness come in all sizes. I'm so proud of her I could burst.

The show was everything I missed about my edgy NYC life. Two beautiful drag queens opened the show, one of whom became my soul mate after I accosted her and praised her for covering a song from The Last Five Years. The burlesque performers were creative and funny and edgy and, of course, sexy. But my favorite was Lillian. She surpassed my expectations of her, and that's saying a lot.

Glamour Personified
I got to reconnect with some wonderful people. I made the best friends of my life in college and the NYC years right after - and seeing so many of them in one trip was soothing to my soul. I love Louisville and our lives here, but, like many people, I find it hard to form those strong connections I used to have. But I'm working on it - I'm working on it.

My Friends are Pretty

The next day, I spent a long time just walking around my old West Village neighborhood and down into Tribeca. I needed to see One World Trade Center from where I witnessed the towers falling. Yeah, I know it's a downer, but that day is burned in my memory, and I hoped that seeing the new building from that same perspective would be healing, somehow. And it was.
I love it.
I walked the path from my Houston Street apartment to 1WTC, the path I was supposed to walk to the unemployment office for my appointment that morning of 9/11, but slept through like the aimless twenty-something I was. I wandered to the reflecting pools of the memorial, closing my eyes to remember the towers that were there, and the fountain that stood between the two where I sometimes ate my lunch. I grew appalled at the tourists smiling and even making duck faces for selfies in front of it. I wanted to shake them and tell them what it was like that day - the acrid smell and the people coated in dust and the knowledge that people were dying and there was nothing we could do. But I just walked away and met some friends for breakfast.

By the time I needed to board my shuttle bus, my shins were splintered and my feet blistered. My heart was sore from all the joy and memories. I was craving the smell of my babies' heads like an addict. I was ready to go, but absolutely in disbelief that, when I woke up the next day, NYC would be so far away.

And now, here I am, back in my living room in Louisville. Outside, I see lush greenery and hear frantic Spring birds chirping. I'll pick up my daughter from school today to take her to her dress rehearsal for her dance recital. I'll breastfeed my son before bed. I'll make dinner and fold laundry and try to figure out a way to tweak our budget to accommodate all the spending I did while away.

But like my new friend and fellow storyteller Neshama Franklin said in her out-of-this-world piece, and I'm paraphrasing, we are all like Russian nesting dolls. Underneath the mom that you see today, I have layers and layers of lives I've lived, experiences that might surprise you. And all those layers are now working as one as I move forward to forge my new life.

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