In the Absence of Striving
I have been striving my whole life. I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t. It has always been my nature. The first thing I clearly remember striving for was the coveted title of Student of the Week in Kindergarten. I always got bad marks in conduct, because I talked a lot and was smart, most unbecoming of a little girl in 1986. I chose a week where I decided I would be on my very best behavior. I didn’t speak unless spoken to. I sat with my hands folded on my desk. I stayed quiet when the lights were out. I obediently pretended to nap. I sounded out all the words I was asked to — house, cat, garden, yard — even though I was already reading at an eighth grade level. I ate my lunch without protest, even though I hated the soggy tuna fish in my Monkees lunchbox. I gave the right answers but not so many that I seemed bossy. My teacher announced towards the end of class that day that I had earned the coveted Student of the Week. I was so proud and happy. I had really accomplished something. I knew my mother would be pleased with me, and more importantly my grandmother, who would let me get a sundae at Friendly’s or buy me a Barbie. It isn’t lost on me that I was rewarded for not using my voice.
I started doing odd jobs when I was 12 — babysitting, helping my mom’s boss make copies at the real estate office. The day I turned sixteen, my mother marched her ass down to Baskin Robbins and came home with an apron and a schedule for me. There was never any question that I was to work, and work hard. It did not matter in my house that I was carrying a full honors schedule or was also doing school plays and an after school magnet program. It didn’t matter I had good grades and more than did my share. I was to work. So work I did, 3–4 nights a week. When a back injury meant that I no longer could bend and scoop ice cream, my mother insisted I get another job, so I applied to the pizza place next to the Baskin Robbins. I worked for two insanely demanding Greek owners, and did that until I went to college. There were days I missed school because I was sick, and yet she made me so petrified of losing my job that I’d show up with flu, sinus infections, strep, you name it. Meanwhile, I would arrive home from school to find a chores list waiting for me, hastily scribbled by my mother on the back of an opened envelope. I was to do The List in its entirety. Most days, I came home from school or rehearsal completely exhausted. The last thing on earth I ever felt like doing was polishing our shoddy furniture with Pledge or vacuuming for the 5th time that week. Sometimes I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and so I would fall asleep without doing them. Sometimes I would get it all done, and my mother would arrive home and immediately decide it wasn’t good enough or done to her satisfaction, and she would berate me for my laziness. I never felt like I was doing enough. If I just did enough, if I just worked a little harder, it would all fall into place. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me.
This work ethic would both serve me incredibly well and also cause real and lasting damage to my psyche. You name it, I went after it: Vice President of student Council, President of the Drama Society, Honor Roll, lead in the school play. I didn’t always get it, but I always tried for it. I was smart but I was terrible at math, and also a bit of a loudmouth and a loose cannon, so as a girl those things were major barriers. But my pure stick-to-it-iveness and grit got me through. People didn’t always like me, but I think they respected me because I was so determined. Even now, leafing through yearbooks, I see notes from people I know damn well didn’t like me saying “I know you will do great things”. When those great things weren’t happening, I fell into despair. Had I sent myself down an impossible path to prove my family wrong? To prove my old friends wrong? To smite the people who told me I was “crazy” and “unstable”? To shove it in the face of teachers who told me I didn’t apply myself, when really my home life was terrible and they just didn’t notice? Who was I doing this for?
Over the past several years, my career has shown signs of traction, but I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I watched people I cut my teeth with in theater ascend to levels of success I could have only dreamed of. I kept my head down, working 14 hour days between day job and theater. I went to grad school full time with a full time job, and nearly broke in the process. And still, I have been berating myself for not working hard enough. If only I could have the time to tap into their level of genius. If only I didn’t have this full time job. If only I’d gone to Yale. If only I was more of a climber, pouring myself into taxis at 2 am drunk from an opening night party I networked my way into and getting up at 6 am to write like a Real Artist. I know all of this is a fallacy, and yet, day in and day out I would tell myself the reason doors kept closing in my face is because I was not good enough. I am too loud. I take up too much space. I am opinionated. I am passionate about my beliefs and analytical at the same time. I am smart but prone to outburst when I feel like I see something so clearly and no one else does. I also give a lot of myself to people. A friend just told me she thinks I waste a lot of time being kind to people who don’t deserve my kindness. And maybe that’s true. I always wanted people to like me, deep down. More importantly, I wanted to be a good person, and not the secret monster my mother told me I was. More than that — I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be heard. I had a shelf of unproduced plays. I knew it wasn’t because I wasn’t a good writer. So I kept striving. Kept blaming myself. Kept reaching, even though I had my heart broken again and again and again until it became a pulsing knot of scar tissue.
How quickly things have changed. Over the past several weeks, a pandemic has rendered my entire career obsolete basically overnight. Hollywood — a place I was just starting to dance and dine with — is closed down until further notice. My pilot draft taunts me. What is the point of any of this? There are no deadlines when there is no production. There is nothing to apply to — all festivals and competitions are on hold. There is no one to do my plays or produce my TV shows. There is only the collective holding of breath of an entire community of artists with no job.
I would be lying if I said a small part of me wasn’t relieved. It took something major to finally hit the brakes on my crazy life. This is NOT what I meant when I said I needed a break. But here we are. No more 14 hour days, no more gritting my teeth through season announcement after season announcement without my name in it. No more “I was honored to be a finalist” on Facebook while secretly mourning. No more striving. Right now, there is nothing to strive for except staying sane. I realize I have been given an extraordinary opportunity. I have to learn to write for myself again. I have to re-learn the art of boredom, of stillness, of uncertainty without panic. I have to learn to be a person I don’t know how to be, which is a person okay with nothing happening. It is strange, but yesterday I felt my shoulders drop for the first time. I took a calm, peaceful nap in the middle of the day and I did basic things like clean and cook. I sit down and read a book without my brain going a mile a minute. I am carrying water and chopping wood. I am no longer striving for anything but to make my day to day life bearable and meaningful. I don’t have to be the little girl with her hands folded in her lap, waiting for someone to validate her. Through lots of therapy and hard work, I’ve built the structure to be okay, to be still. Now I have to live in it, and trust that it will hold.