Today is my 31st birthday.
As a kid, I hated it being sandwiched between Winter Holidays. My Mom went to great lengths to separate my “Christmas presents” from “Birthday presents” so I didn’t feel jipped. Mostly everyone else forgot I had a birthday.
Finally, I took matters into my own hands to make sure people would remember my birthday. I’d party-plan epic adventures, like organizing 20 friends to play laser tag at Q-ZAR in Rohnert Park, California. I’d hand out epic driving directions to my city friends on the last day before Winter break (this was almost pre-email):
My birthdays are no longer like that. They changed forever when I turned 27. My mother and I had been repairing our relationship since I’d come out as gay (I’ve written it in this previous story). We celebrated Christmas together in San Francisco that year, and I gave her a copy of 50 Shades of Gray. She thought it was a thriller:
We laughed a lot that Christmas. I flew back to Chicago to celebrate my 27th birthday, feeling like it would be fresh start. I stayed up the night beforehand, cleaning every inch of my apartment, taking a bath, and turning off my phone before I went to bed, so I could sleep in.
So I was the last person to hear the next morning that my mom had died suddenly in the night, within an hour of my actual birth time.
It began with shock. Shock and confusion confounded by hundreds of people wishing me happy birthday on Facebook as I arranged a flight to the funeral.
I flew back to San Francisco in a daze, got drunk on the Southwest flight on cheap whisky. I cried until I landed, and then froze the pain inside me. My family was a wreck, it fell on me to plan everything, corral relatives from all over the country, write her Obituary, and plan her funeral.
My family went to the funeral plot her Catholic church espoused. An overstressed nun with balding hair casually showed us the place where my father, a Jew, could be buried. Not next to my mother, no, but near a water spigot with a view of the highway. I told that Nun hell no, and fired the funeral home. I picked a plot in a non-denominational cemetery tucked away in the hills of Marin County.
We met with the 30-year old priest of my mom’s Church who interviewed us to preside over her funeral. He walked in to meet my sister, Dad, and I wearing a Santa Claus hat and a shirt that said “Go Lakers!” It wasn’t long before he mentioned how “young she’d been, at only 50 years old” and how “his parents were still alive.” We passed on Father Christmas. And my Dad contacted the priest who had married my parents 30 1/2 years prior and convinced him to come out of retirement to preside over the services.
As I was pouring over psalms and hymns for the program, I came across a CD in a drawer at my parent’s house. It was entitled “Song for Mom” (click link to play the song). There’s no lyrics to it. I’d written the song on my 26th birthday as a present for her. Exactly one year before she died.
I sang “On Eagles Wings” at her funeral. I played her song. I performed her Eulogy (well I actually improvised it cause in my rush) I’d left what I’d prepared at home. I stoically greeted patients of hers from all over the country, who’d flown in to be with her, thanking me like I’d been their doctor of 30 years. I accepted condolences until I was sorry to have to feel sorry.
When I saw my mom in her casket at the wake, she looked like an over-make-up’ed, body-snatched version of the effervescent person who’d just celebrated Christmas with me. She looked disfigured because they had performed a full autopsy on her to determine cause of death. We found out much later that she had overdosed on the blood-thinning medicine she prescribed for herself. I cried when I saw her but not much.
I flew back to Chicago and within a week was performing in plays, back to work, and moving as fast as I could. Back to work. To friends. I felt melancholy. I didn’t feel grief.
I started planning exotic escapes. I deserved that trip to Maya Talum. That yoga retreat in California. Only my boss refused me any time off once I came back to work. And I’d come back to work far too quickly. So I started drinking. And going to bars. And going. And going. Until I hit rock bottom and had a panic attack. I was numb, I was manic, and I was going insane. Thankfully, I have strong survival instincts, and I booked a massage with my massage therapist, who was also my real therapist at the time, a man named Kurt Hill.
I can’t describe what voodoo body work Kurt performed that day; he was opening my chest (my heart chakra?). It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Afterwards, he told me that if I experienced any fear, not to run away from it, but to let it consume me and…kill me.
I went home dazed and almost immediately fell asleep. And I dreamed of a lion.
Have you ever been chased by something in a dream…clowns, wolves, killer geese? I dreamed I was in the camera room at my job I no longer loved. The lion was behind the camera, looking fierce as hell. I backed away slowly; I shut the door; I watched as the lion opened it with its opposable thumbs, just like the raptors in Jurassic Park. I turned to run…and then I lucidly remembered, in the dream, to let it kill me. I turned and fed the lion my arms, and I remember it actually hurt. I fed it my head, and it actually hurt. And I was about to feed it my gut when I woke up, screaming.
The next morning, I woke up, quit my job, and decided to move to New York City. The day after that decision, my one-man show, Sparkle Hour, got into the NY Fringe festival. By the end of the week, I had locked in an apartment in Williamsburg — an apartment that allowed dogs! — rooming with my best friend Aaron. And then Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of The Annoyance Theatre, asked me to open up a training center for them in Brooklyn, which eventually became a theatre.
Experiencing the pain I was repressing was the catalyst for changing my life. Losing my mom gave me the gumption to move to NY. So many opportunities and new relationships and an awesome theatre have blossomed from it.
Ever since my mom died, my birthday has been a time for me to reflect. So today, I’m taking a look at where I am right now at 31:
After three years of building a theatre, it didn’t pay off in the way I expected for myself. I had dreamed that I could both create a theatre and be a performer there at the same time. I’ve learned that people tend to see you in one dimension; they want a clear story of who you are that aligns with what they see you do. So in September, I stepped down and passed on the reigns and declared myself as a full-time performer and artist.
Three months later, it scares me to say it, but it feels like I’m in a limbo similar to the one after my mom passed away . I’m feeling melancholy and at a loss. I think being the guy in charge of a theatre had been a solid shelf to hang my ego on. Now, when I introduce myself to others, I tend to accommodate by saying, “You see, I recently ran a theatre, but now I’m working as an artist, imagineer, entrepreneur, performer, and teacher…” Kill me now.
The truth is though that I’ve always been afraid to say I was just an artist. There was something desperate, disreputable, hopeless, dreamy, and lost about it. The connotation was that I didn’t have my life solidly together but was drifting on air, aimless. My relatives who worked in manufacturing and insurance jobs wondered at Thanksgiving dinner why I was studying theatre. Would I burn out from the strain of such an uncertain lifestyle? What was my ‘career plan’ and how I was supporting myself? I felt shame at the idea of working as a waiter or bartender or tour guide, even though I probably would have made more money than what I did: building and running acting schools and theaters. These pursuits consumed my focus and took my energy away from performing. But I took a sense of pride in making money ‘so close to my chosen field.’ Why, I worked in the glamorous world of arts administration, just one step shy of my dreams of being a full-time artist!
Now, I’ve finally faced my fear head-on. And I have lots of time ever since to worry about that decision! I wake up guilty sometimes, nothing definitive on my plate the entire day. I manically check my email every ten minutes, pretending I’m still receiving the same volume I used to get running a theatre. I’m waiting for someone to need me for something. Wanting to feel useful. I’m making money by offering my own independent improv classes and pitching myself to businesses and theaters as a teacher; and I’m having success at it. Each self-employment success refills my self-esteem, but I’m like a jug with a hole at the bottom, always dripping out self-confidence. I’ve got my hand in many different creative pies right now: creating a novel based on these posts on Medium, writing a musical about live-action-role-playing, producing a web-series called The Fussy Gay, updating and remounting my one-man show Sparkle Hour, releasing a podcast called Sparklecast that I recorded over the last year where I interviewed people who “exemplify their inner sparkle.” A least I know my brand: Sparkle! But having all the time in the world to do a million projects whenever I can motivate myself to do so feels like having no time at all. Jobless and free, I feel spread thinner than ever. It’s a telling fault of my neuroses: that idle time exhausts me more than working in a basement theatre all day. Having no immediate deadlines and no direct payoff for any of my pursuits is a looming black hole of possibility. And behind it is the the fear that I’ll give up, once again, and settle for sidelining my dream.
But, today, I’m 31, and I can declare what I want:
I want to stop being afraid of being in uncharted territory. I want to wake up the fire I felt when I first moved to NY or when I was a kid and had nothing but learning ahead of me — when everything seemed hot and ready to catch. When I woke up hungry but not feeling hopeless. When I treated the world as fascinating and burgeoning with possibilities. When I planned epic adventures 50 miles away in upstate California to play laser tag on my birthday because Why Not?
Being in limbo is not something I need to escape from. Living with uncertainty is the key to happiness — so say the Buddhists, right? Not knowing what comes next is what makes one feel alive and gives each day importance. It’s a shame that I equate struggling with shame. Because I also know that when I get what I want, the satisfaction is transient — I always want more. Maybe I can let go of hating being afraid and let that lion kill me, again and again.
So, I’m 31, and unashamed to say I’m in weird spot in life. I acknowledge it and let it fuel me to create as much as I can. I am grateful for the artistic community at The Annoyance that challenges me and makes me laugh. I want to learn to find more patience, self-love, and joy in playing life lightly — even ‘wasting’ time doing nothing. To embrace all this newness without worrying about how it will pay off in the future.
So bye, bye to 2016 and age 30!