In the spring of 1999 during my “Philosophy of the Bible” class in high school, I met the man who would prove to be the best and most influential teacher of my life. Every day there would be a new quote on the blackboard intended to provoke conversation and thought, and they did. The books we read, the discussions we had served a greater purpose than expanding our knowledge of literature. He asked his students to move beyond their comfort zones, to think outside of the confines of our young lives and move towards that which scared us. Like everything else the class intended to make us take a hard look at our young lives--who we were and who we were becoming. He asked us to be real during a time in our lives when authenticity was not rewarded. I think it’s safe to say that most students who had the privilege of taking his class found him and the class to be hugely influential in their lives. Recently, after digging through a box labeled “IMPORTANT” that sat int the corner of my basement, I found a manila envelope addressed to me in my own writing. I opened it up and there in front of me were eight cream colored pages with prompts at the top and my girly scribbles underneath--an assignment we’d worked on throughout the course of the semester. These pages I had written in his class, handed over to him on the last day and received in the mail one year after graduating. As I began reading them fourteen years later, all I could think was, “I was meant to find these now.”
The last prompt reads, “This entry will be a guide to your future. As you think about it write about the fears you have, paths you want to avoid, paths you want to take. Write about your hopes and dreams. Give yourself the best advice you can.”
In 1999, days before I graduated from high school, I wrote:
“Throughout all these writings my hopes and dreams have remained the same. Since I was a little girl, I have known exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Theatre. I have always hoped that I would make it to New York City, a place I have felt an incredible pull towards--the energy, the lights, the constant motion and the excitement...What scares me most is the fear of settling. But I also fear myself. I believe that I know what I’m capable of but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to share it with the world. I hope I make it to New York, I hope I spend my life on the stage doing what I love the most. The best advice I can give myself is to live my dreams.”
Reading this, it struck me how close I was to disappointing the girl who wrote that fourteen years ago. I suspect the girl back then knew that future me would would run the risk of inadvertently give up her dreams. As much as I hoped it wouldn’t be the case, it’s true that life very easily gets in the way of dreams as you get older, that goals shift and change and alter according to real world demands, and that it’s very easy to let the dreams of your youth sit in a box labeled “IMPORTANT” in your basement.
Part of the reason I let mine sit for so long was fear. Fear of taking anything less than a perfectly calculated risk, of falling flat on my face, of my dreams being anything more than pleasant places to retreat to when life got tough. Part of the reason was fear. And part of the reason was vulnerability. I don’t like being vulnerable. And in all my efforts to avoid vulnerability, I’ve broken connections, I’ve built walls and I’ve done my damndest to avoid hurt and failure. Some part of my mind screamed that to be vulnerable meant to lose strength, and I wanted to avoid that at all cost.
Then I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. I’d never heard of her before, had no idea who she was, but as I listened to her speak about the people in her research who she found lived vulnerable, whole-hearted, connected lives, I found myself nodding emphatically and frantically scribbling her words on the back of a receipt.
“...they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.”
“the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees...”
“This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee...to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive.”
I was struck to my core. My life up to that point, had been an experiment in control, and I looked toward security as reassurance of happiness whilst seeking a career that was anything but secure. Theatre often felt very much like un-requited love, I loved it so passionately, so deeply but was constantly unsure if it loved me back. I never got a definitive answer if theatre would love me as I loved it, and I see now I never will. But to give up that love, that is as much a part of me as anything else, would be to live an in-authentic life. There will never be guarantees in the career I’ve chosen, it will likely never love me the way I do it, and accepting that as truth is necessary in order to pursue it.
All the things that I thought symbolized security in life--an advanced degree, marriage, age--proved to be nothing more than words, empty of the control and security I desperately sought to soothe me from the pain of tiptoeing away from my dreams. I wasn’t unhappy, but I most certainly was stuck and I got the distinct feeling that I wasn’t quite living, at least the way 18 year-old me imagined I would be by this point.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Six months ago my teachers began appearing. I should have known it would take an army to wake my ass up, but somewhere between a shame and vulnerability researcher, a professional musician, my high school teacher, my 18 year old self, and a gaggle of loving friends, I have drummed up the courage to make what feels like an impossibly necessary leap.
A week from now I’ll make one of the hopes I had at age 18, a reality. I’ll be the newest addition to the sea of artists in New York City and I’ve never been more exhilarated or terrified.
Saying it here makes news I’ve kept quiet for so long, public and makes me accountable.
I won’t lie, there’s a part of me that’s scared that I’ll be forced to pack back up and head home, tail tucked between my legs in defeat and I know that’s part of the reason I’ve avoided a move I’ve wanted to make for many years. It’s not as though I think I’m going to be a Broadway star, or find sudden success and fame. In fact, I very much expect that I won’t. Frankly, with the state of Broadway today, it’s not what I seek in the first place.
What I do seek is a constantly creative environment full of people with purpose and ambition, scraping by in an often ruthless city, in pursuit of their dreams. I expect to up my game in the face of such competition and be inspired to work hard, and to make myself a better artist and person. I expect to be exposed to new ideas in art, theatre and performance and to try, and then to fail. To try again and then to fail again. To learn how to try better, and as Beckett said, to fail better. I expect to make art with artists I respect greatly, to experiment and collaborate and have the honor of working with a phenomenal group of people I get to call friends. I expect to be terrified and lonely and homesick and wonder if making a move of this magnitude at this point in my life was utterly moronic. But I also expect to take the train into the city and as I cross the river and see the Manhattan skyline ahead of me, feel my heart swell in anticipation of possibility.
18 year-old me knew well enough that fear would be a major factor in demolishing my dreams. 18 year-old me hoped that as I got older I’d get more, and not less, daring. This week, I listen to my teachers, and I dream greatly, dare greatly and head toward a city that has been in my heart for many years. I head toward a dream that I’ve had since I was four years old. And I head toward a life that is terrifying and exhilarating, but most definitely the one I want to live.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
--Teddy Roosevelt, 1910
(All quotes taken from Brene Brown's TED talk on vulnerability and her book, Daring Greatly. Read it. It's amazing.)