achievements great & small

I’m working on re-calibrating my current definition of “enough,” specifically as it applies to my own expectations of myself. On paper, I’m living a life that would make my younger self jump up and down with glee; I work full-time for a professional Shakespeare company, and I still have time almost every week to spend among sea creatures. My two favorite things are the backbone of my adult life, and my Nice Voice thinks that’s plenty good enough for right now.

Cruel Voice, that bitch, thinks otherwise. If I start to feel too proud of a performance or too excited about holding a ball python, she likes to lean over into my ear, and hiss, “Is this it? Is this all you wanted? Were your dreams so small?”

NOT. HELPFUL.

She gets to me, Cruel Voice does. I’m proud of myself for having worked hard to make a lot of my childhood dreams come true. Now that I’m living inside of them, though, it’s difficult to feel like they’re enough. I’m used to having a dream and to having a scheme. If I stay stuck inside these childhood dreams forever, that feels like I’ve failed. But if I leave behind these dreams, that also feels like a failure. The latter feels like giving up.

Feeling “good enough” sometimes feels like a treacherous trap to me. Being content sounds like the first step down a path that leads to complacency and laziness. As a creator and as a performer, there’s always a self-imposed pressure that I should be doing more, that I should be more visible, and that I should ultimately be famous. Not actively pursuing a more high-profile career in my field makes me feel downright irresponsible sometimes.

How can I allow myself to come home after a long day of teaching Shakespeare camp, and unwind with an old episode of Parks & Recreation and a good beer when what I should be doing is taking more classes, hunting down auditions, polishing my resume, becoming thinner, becoming more desirable, becoming better than myself?

Hustle, hustle, hustle!

I’M TIRED. I WANT TO SIT DOWN, AND HAVE A DRINK OF WATER.

So, here’s my new thing, and I hope it sticks around for at least a little while. Yeah, I’m probably never going to be famous. But I’ve still done cool things of which I’m really proud. If I never “achieve” anything again (which I logically know is pretty unlikely, but again: Cruel Voice), I hope I’ve already lived a lot of life that can be “enough.”

And, so, here at the beginning of my 28th year on Earth, a brief list of my most impressive accomplishments:

– I won a writing contest in kindergarten for a book I wrote and illustrated about my pet turtle, Earl.

– I once baked a pie with a lattice crust, and I made the crust myself.

– In my sophomore year of high school, I won the most medals of anyone else in my school at the State German Convention. I crushed it in Poetry Recitation and Vocab Bee, among others.

– In a game of Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I became a Cylon at the very beginning of the game, and I sabotaged the hell out of the Humans with no one the wiser. My friend Dan even said before the last turn of the game: “I trust Dani with my life.” FOOL! (Sorry, Dan. I love you.)

– At Mellow Mushroom trivia night in college, I once led my team to a victory in a tense tiebreaker thanks to my intense knowledge of the Academy Awards.

– I do a pretty sweet rendition of “Crazy Train” at karaoke.

– In the second grade, I entered an essay contest for Mothers’ Day about how great my Mom was. I forgot to tell my Mom that I entered, so it was an extra exciting surprise for her when she got the phone call that I’d won.

– I met a whale.

– At the first track meet of the season one year, I jumped 5’0″ in the high jump for the first time, and it was incredible. For a few seconds, I flew. And my Dad was really impressed and proud.

– At a talk back after The Taming of the Shrew last year, I gave a really kickass answer to a question about my approach to Kate’s final speech.

– I’m a pretty good friend.

Whatever happens next, I’ll never not have done those things. Small and large, silly and serious, I’m sincerely proud of all the things listed above. I don’t think it’s vain to give ourselves moments and even hours from time to time to sit back and bask in how awesome we are. I will probably never win an Academy Award or be on Broadway or talk to Conan about my experience performing on SNL. And, honestly, sometimes those realizations make me really, deeply disappointed.

But, hey. That pie was pretty damn delicious, and I ate it alongside some of my favorite humans in the world. As a wise Muppet once said, “That’s good enough for me.”

on manta rays, helping out, and seeing your own sunshine

My birthday’s coming up, so I’m having a pretty reflective and contemplative week. How did I get here? Where am I going next? Have I done enough at this stage of my life? What would enough even look like? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and that generally fills me with a lot of anxiety.

Ultimately, though, things feel pretty okay today. I struggled with adjusting to a new medication this week, but I’m also about to go into my favorite part of my work year. Starting on Monday, I get to teach amazing, nerdy teenagers about Shakespeare, and work towards providing them with the opportunity to speak the truth regarding their own emotions and experiences. And if I’m going to do that well, I’ve got to kind of step up and “fake it ’til I make it.” These students mean the world to me, and dammit, I’m going to do whatever I can to give them four weeks of poetry and awesome.

Finding opportunities to step outside of my own head and heart in order to really give my attention and consideration to another creature helps ease my depression and anxiety immensely. I’ve talked a little bit about this before, but I volunteer every Friday morning at the aquarium. I get up at 6 am, fill my travel mug with coffee, and pin my volunteer name badge to my official aquarium sweatshirt. I’m never not proud to wear anything associated with the aquarium.

Being at the aquarium before it opens provides me a ton of time to experience the perfect quiet I’ve been craving so hard lately. The very first task I perform on Friday mornings is collecting water samples from several habitats. One of those habitats is the little touch pool that resides within our largest exhibit.

When I’m volunteering, it matters to me that I fulfill all of my responsibilities in a timely fashion, and that I make myself as available to help out as possible. But also… I mean, it’s not my job. So, there’s not really any pressure on me. So much of the worry that usually fills my brain when I’m at work is absent. I can move at my own pace. If I want to stop in front of a beautiful pool filled with tropical fish and go through a sun salutation, that doesn’t feel like a big deal.

So, I have my own special little aquarium ritual. When I get to the touch pool, I set everything down that isn’t my mug of coffee. I tuck up into a little corner of a window looking into the larger exhibit, and I just look up. I breathe purposefully, and invite my heart to loosen up and let go of the rest of the week, good and bad.

For five minutes, I sit in a silence that I don’t experience anywhere else in my daily routines. For five minutes on Friday mornings, I sip coffee, and watch the fish. I consider the grace and power of a Manta ray and the swiftness of a shark. I allow myself to feel small, but also connected to a world that is momentarily without some of the horrors and nightmares that accompany human existence. I am here, and Manta rays are here, and it is an honor to share a planet with them.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Walt Whitman lately, and in particular with “O Me! O Life!” I printed out a copy, and tacked it up behind my desk at work, and I try to read it out loud every time I see it. If you’re not familiar, here it is:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

I won’t be able to volunteer at the aquarium for the next four weeks. I’ll miss it very much, but I’ll be too busy with my students. Instead of peace and quiet, I’ll be operating on a crazed, sustained enthusiasm to keep the energy up during class and rehearsal. I can’t wait. There will be so much good amid these days, because I’ll be sharing it. Because I’ll have to be outside of myself and my fears in order to best take care of my students.

Being outside of myself also means I’ll have a moment here or there to see myself. To really look at the me that’s able to shine when I don’t have the time to retreat into my spine, and let the goblins take over. On a good day, I’ll acknowledge that I’m looking at who I really am.

I’m almost 28. On Fridays, I make salads for turtles, and during the summer, I direct teenagers in one of Shakespeare’s play. And I do a lot of things the rest of the year, and I’ll keep doing them. Yeah, sometimes my results will be not just poor, but abysmal. I’ll be sad a lot, and my nightmares will recur.

But I am here. Manta rays are here. Turtles are here. Teenage humans are here, and are just beginning to crawl into their own skins and decide what they want that skin to look like. And it is an unfathomable honor to be a part of their lives, and to do whatever I can to help them grow and learn to see themselves for the rock stars that I see whenever I watch them.

You are here. I don’t think anyone’s skin ever fits right 100% of the time, no matter how old we get. Some days the crotch rides up a little bit, and sometimes you just didn’t wear the right bra, and sometimes you notice a rip in your ass that might have been there for days or even years, and why the hell didn’t someone just tell you about it?

We all have the opportunity every day to feed a turtle, or to gently pull aside a friend and let them know that there’s a big hole in their pants. So, let’s do it. Let’s give ourselves a break to step out into the sun, and help someone else. If you have the chance to find a weekly volunteer gig, I can’t recommend it enough, both because it’s a lot of fun, and because I think it’s a wonderful means of helping soothe an anxious brain. Share your awesome.

I first heard “O Me! O Life!” recited by the late Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society, my very favorite movie of all time. So, I’m going to let Professor Keating take us out on this one.

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

random renaissance reptiles

The Renaissance Festival is where I found myself and where I lost myself.

There. That’s the dorkiest sentence I’ve ever written.

The foundation of my heart and identity is wrapped up in the turkey leg scented, sun scorched, dusty and gravelly hills of a place out of time. Most of my happiest and saddest stories begin and end at the RenFest.

Usually, my personal stories of pain, twisted up in a self-deprecating, performative fashion that I hope will make you laugh, are my main form of social currency. If I can get the ridiculous and horrible things about me out in front, then no one else has the opportunity to discover them and form an opinion about me worse than the one I already have about myself.

This is all to say that I went to the Renaissance Festival today as a patron. I had a wonderful time, watching and cheering on great friends, eating delicious scones, and even petting bunnies. But at the end of the day, I’m still sunburnt and sad.

There have been countless times over the past decade that I’ve felt the desire to sit down and bleed all over my keyboard, spilling out my ye olde guts. But I don’t think that would solve my sadness over this beautiful place. I’m starting to think that some of the genesis of those early wounds is due to my inability to safe guard my own heart.

As a damsel, I felt that I had to be in distress for anyone to notice me. So, I tumbled and yelled all the way down every chance I had. And then I spent years and years ripping off the bandages and bleeding all over again, so that no one had a chance to forget about me.

I don’t know. I feel sad and I feel quiet. I have a lot of stories to tell about the Renaissance Festival, but I’m not ready to tell most of them. So, here’s a little one. One that has a cute little button on it, which is all I have in me today. Here goes.

I was 20 years old, and I was sobbing. The day had barely even started. We’d made it through all the shenanigans of the Front Gate, and now the Festival was open to the public. The sun was shining, and I was wearing tights and a muffin hat, and I was crying my eyes out.

Saturdays, am I right?

It wasn’t really in character for me to be seen bawling in front of patrons, so I ducked behind the fences that separated the staff and actors of the Festival from the guests. This is where you’d see someone decked out in full Elizabethan regalia, but still desperately trying to get signal on their iPhone. This is where the cast members bonded; sharing stories of their day, and making plans to go get Mexican food together at the end of the day. This is where we became friends.

Sometimes this is where we fell in love.

I didn’t especially want to be seen by anyone backstage that morning, but luck wasn’t on my side. One of the stage show performers happened upon my sweaty, damp, doublet-ed self, and took pity on me.

“Hey,” he said. “There’s a tortoise in the back of my girlfriend’s truck. Do you want to see it?”

The random, out of nowhere specificity of this offer almost made me forget all my troubles. And yes. Yes, I really wanted to see that tortoise.

Looking back, I think it was probably a gopher tortoise or something similar, given its size. I don’t know why it was in the back of a pick-up truck that hot morning, just out of sight of vendors selling broadswords and deep fried mushrooms. But there he was. Just sort of shuffling along.

At that point, I didn’t really know why I was there either. The current purpose of my Renaissance existence was so far removed from why I had come to the Festival in the first place that I barely recognized myself. Just sort of shuffling along in the gravel, kicking up dust and tears.

I looked for a while at that tortoise. I thanked my Fairy Travelling RenFest Performer Godfather. I refilled my tankard with Gatorade. I walked backwards in time, and plastered a smile on my ruined face.

Sometimes you still have a job to do even when all you want is to curl up and die. Sometimes there’s a tortoise around who can boost your spirits a little, and sometimes there isn’t.

These days at the Renaissance Festival, there’s a little booth devoted to rescued reptiles. Today, amid the cacophony of already familiar scents, sights, tastes, touches, and heart trembles, there was once again a tortoise. This time a perfect, little pancake tortoise, shuffling around in the water.

Life is weird, and life is random, and sometimes the only thing that can get you through a very specific Renaissance Festival-related version of post-traumatic stress disorder is the sight of a little shelled reptile just trying to make its own way in this bizarre world.

Just like I was on that day almost eight years ago, I’m still sad, even though looking at the tortoise made me pretty happy. Honestly, I don’t know what my point is here. I think it’s that, eight years after that first tortoise sighting, I’m still willing to tread what feels like very treacherous ground for me. The allure of a tortoise pulls stronger on me than the fear of my phantoms does, and I think I’m proud of myself for that.

I got all those initial wounds off of which I couldn’t stop ripping bandages by falling down. But I still have blood to spill because I keep getting back up.

When you can’t run, walk. When you can’t walk, crawl. And when you can’t even crawl, shuffle.

 

The reptile pictured for this post is an iguana named Phil. I was very taken by his hat. 

please no talking or texting (for real, i’m begging you)

Going to the movies is my favorite thing in the world. From the time I was a little kid seeing Beauty & the Beast with my mom all the way through going to see Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 for the second time yesterday afternoon, nothing feels more exhilarating to me than going to the movies.

I don’t mean just watching a movie. Sure, I deeply appreciate the convenience of pouring a glass of Cabernet with my jammies on while I hunt for something to watch on Netflix or HBONow. But watching something in my own living room will never compete with the experience of being inside a movie theatre. From the sticky, poorly lit dollar theatre back in my hometown to the cool, independent theatre around the corner from me now, I’ve never met a movie theatre I didn’t instantly revere.

A movie is the product of an amazing alchemy of technology and art, and it’s a miracle every time a movie happens. There’s not a better smell in the world than buttery popcorn, and there’s no better flavor combination in the world than hot, crunchy, salty popcorn paired with a cold, icy Cherry Coke. Even as so much of the world changes, for the better and for the worse, the core of the movie-going experience remains the same. You get your snacks, you sit in the darkness, and you escape.

Going to the movies makes me feel connected to my friends. I love being the person who researches show times, and sets up the Facebook event to make sure everyone knows about when and where we’re going on opening night. Going to the movies also makes me feel connected to a wider world of like-minded people. I’ll never forget being 11 going on 12, and standing in line outside of the big, beautiful, purple Regal 24, waiting for an early screening of Attack of the Clones. I’d never been around adult nerds before. Tween-me glimpsed for the first time into a world that would eventually become my home.

Going to the movies makes me feel safe. I’m naturally a talker and a performer, and sometimes my big, fat mouth and desire to connect to other humans by sharing all my deepest, darkest secrets wears me out. At the movies, no one’s looking at me. No one is listening to me. At the movies, I am small, and my vulnerability is hidden in the dark and the silver. If I cry from opening credits to closing credits through Spike Jones’ adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, no one has to see me or judge me.

Sometimes, when I feel like I’m failing at therapy, medication, and even yoga, going to the movies is my last resource to steal a few hours of respite from my depression.

This is what I wish I had the time to say to people when they start talking or texting during the movies.

When I overhear whispers during a movie, my blood boils immediately. My stomach constricts, and my head aches. Outside of injustice and prejudice, nothing infuriates me more than someone not observing proper cinema etiquette.

It’s something around which I just can’t wrap my brain. Going to the movies is expensive. Why are you paying so much money just to talk or text through the whole thing? Why are you here?

Also, it’s against the rules. You’re told that all over the place. The screen very politely tells you not to do it before the previews even begin, and there’s usually a display in the lobby that features Yellow M&M imploring you not to do it. If we can’t all rally behind Yellow M&M, what are we even doing? Why are you here?

It’s obviously disruptive and upsetting to the people around you. What did I do to you that you feel so entitled to mess with my joy over being here? How does it not make you feel at least a little guilty to knowingly break a rule that exists to make sure everyone around you has a good time? Why are you here?

PLEASE. SHUT. UP.

Here’s why I’m here.

Sometimes the anticipation of a movie is what keeps me going in a really literal way. This movie is getting me through more than you know. When I feel devoid of hope, which is not infrequent, watching Chris Pratt train velociraptors or Baby Groot dance to ELO or young Chiron swim in the moonlight provides me with enough endorphins and wonder to want to wake up in the morning. Movies are hope and marvel and magic, and watching them on a big screen quiets down my goblins.

I feel pathetic typing this all out. But it’s the truth.

I’m trying to calm down about this. Just like there’s no reason for any stranger in the theatre to know that all of this mental peril is wracking my brain, there’s no reason for me to know why someone else might feel compelled to check their phone or whisper to their friend. Yesterday during Guardians, a group of teenage girls sat down beside my boyfriend and I. I immediately hated them, assuming the worst. Sure enough, they would turn and whisper to each other during the movie, and it drove me crazy every time.

But, I mean, I get it. That movie is awesome. Baby Groot is the cutest thing that’s ever happened. Reacting to it all makes sense. So, I tried to breathe and focus on myself. What do I gain from shushing excited, teenage girls?

If you’re checking your phone during the movie because maybe you’re on a preciously-earned date night with your spouse, and you want to make sure the babysitter is okay, I’m sorry for leaning forward, and asking you to put it away. I know I sound edgy and kind of bitchy. I’m working on it.

When I say “Ssh,” I mean, “Hey there, fellow Earthling. Getting to experience the moment that A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… comes onscreen during absolute silence makes me want to still be alive, so it would mean a lot to me if you would stop talking to your friend. I know that’s weird, but it’s just kind of where I am right now. I really hope you have so much fun at this movie. Namaste.”

But if I take the time to say all of that, I become what I hate.

I’ll never stop going to the movies, and I’ll probably never stop occasionally shushing people. The weightless feeling of excitement that a good movie gives me is worth everything. So, I’m willing to compromise. Just leave your phone on silent, and maybe take it out to the lobby if something important comes up? If you know you’re a chatterbox, maybe sit in the back of the theatre? I’m already sitting as close to the screen as I possibly can to minimize the chance that someone texting won’t be in front of me, terrorizing my experience with their blue glow.

And if we could especially get our collective nonsense together before opening night of The Last Jedi, I would just be the happiest dork the multiplex has ever seen.

Let’s respect each other’s move-going journey. Please take all your trash to the receptacles at the rear of the theatre. Please silence your cell phones now.

Most importantly, enjoy the movie.

chasing tortoises (and courage) in camden town

At the Camden Town tube station,  a helpful sign promised me that the ZSL London Zoo was somewhere to my right. Three different streets jutted out in a right-ish direction from the station, though, and I still didn’t understand how to figure out which street I was on in London. Which right was the right one?

I was in a right sorry state that sunny Tuesday afternoon. The day before had been my Parisian disaster, the climax of which had been chasing child pickpockets throughout the Metro, and then fighting and crying with my mom outside of Notre Dame. I didn’t even get a good chocolate croissant.

Paris was supposed to be for my mom. I’d been planning my London adventure for months when my dad asked me if it would be okay for him to surprise my mom at Christmas by buying her a plane ticket to accompany me. My mom is my favorite person in the world, so I agreed immediately and with lots of enthusiasm.

I knew that this trip would probably be my mom’s only opportunity to visit Europe, and I wanted it to be extraordinary. She’d taken French all throughout high school, which is where she was first inspired for my name. My mom (referred to in the rest of this piece as “Kittenfish”) and her classmates all chose a French name for their class. Four girls total, including Kittenfish, picked “Danielle,” so they were all asked to pick an accompanying middle name to distinguish themselves. Kittenfish went with “Danielle Elise.”

Hi, I’m Danielle Elise. My mom gave me everything, from my name onward. I wanted to give her Paris. Once the dates for London were all set, I dove into research to see if a daytrip to Paris would be possible. I found an encouraging Huffington Post article, and went ahead to book two Eurostar tickets from London to Paris. We were going to go everywhere Kittenfish had ever dreamed of going. Just as I thought I deserved a perfect experience in the city of my dreams, London, I knew that Kittenfish deserved an ideal afternoon in Paris.

Our first few days in London should have been warning signs. Jet lag and anxiety defeated me completely for the first two days in a new country. Even without a language barrier, I didn’t know how to do anything, and exploded with panic the second we set foot into Gatwick Airport. My mom suggested that we just ask someone for help. Asking for help makes me feel like a failure, and so I descended deeper and deeper into my rage over things not going the way I’d always imagined. A voice in my head screamed at me, “Please stop this! You are ruining things for Kittenfish! You are being completely fucking crazy. Dani, I am BEGGING you to stop.”

On day three, I finally looked upon Shakespeare’s Globe for the first time and ate an elephant-shaped biscuit from Borough Market, and my heart and stomach loosened a little. I apologized to my mom, and she was super gracious and sweet and supportive. We agreed to start over, and act like those first days hadn’t even happened. We even laughed together about the shitty pizza we ate for dinner on our first night in Camden.

My mom is the best person in the world, and my little brother and I will both fight you about it. My mom is sunshine and generosity incarnate. Her shiny ponytail poking out through her ever present white ball cap always signals that things are going to get a little bit better. She’s funny, and works so hard to ensure everyone else is comfortable and having a good time. I love her more than anything in the world, and I was consumed by guilt that I was ruining this trip for her. I knew ultimately that the logistics of the trip weren’t a big deal to Kittenfish. We could have seen nothing famous or breathtaking in Europe, and my mom would have still been over the moon to be on a trip with me.

After Paris, we returned to Camden defeated and full of cheap Eurostar train wine. That night, back in our rooms, my mom pulled the tiny mattress off of her bed, and came to sleep on the floor of my room. I had another week left to explore London, but Kittenfish was flying back to the States early the next morning. Feeling like I had ruined my mom’s one chance in Paris on top of the knowledge that she was leaving the next day is about the worst feeling I have ever had in my life. I’m crying right now while I write about it.

At 5:30 am the next day, Kittenfish and I boarded the bus and then the train to get her back to Victoria Station. Kittenfish wasn’t angry about Paris, just worried and sad about me. She has spent so much time being worried and sad about me. We hugged one more time, and then my mom crossed over the barrier to begin her journey back home.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in the same country as my mother, and I was completely lost. I wanted to die.

Crying the entire time, I made my way back to Camden Town. My feet and legs ached from our walking all over Paris, and my shoulders stung with the awful sunburn I’d picked up as my only souvenir. I was worn out from barely sleeping, and from sobbing so much. I stopped for a mocha and a croissant, because fuck you, Paris, at a Costa. Back in my room, I sipped my warm chocolate coffee, and thought about what to do next.

Kittenfish wouldn’t have wanted me to spend the day all alone in the dorm, beating myself up over the past week. So, I decided to rally. I shoved the rest of that croissant in my face, and headed back out into the world. I was committed to finding the zoo. To having a story of animals and of triumph that I could tell Kittenfish all about when we reunited.

So, I made it back to Camden station, and took the first of the those three possible right turns. I walked for a few miles before it became clear that I was nowhere near the zoo. I started to feel frustrated, but not yet deterred. Kittenfish’ voice rang in my head: “Let’s just go ask for help!”

So, for the first time that trip, I asked someone for help. There was a bagel shop on my way back to the station: Bowery Bagel Bakery. The sign outside the shop touted New York-style bakers made by New Yorkers. The promise of something vaguely American comforted me, and also bagels are delicious. I walked inside, and ordered a bagel with cream cheese. Full of jitters, I mustered up the courage to ask my newfound bagel hero if he knew where the zoo was.

He didn’t! But whatever! I asked someone for help! And now I had a bagel!

I felt invincible. I’d asked a foreign stranger for help, and I hadn’t exploded in an inferno of shame and fire. I’d done something that I knew would make Kittenfish proud.

AND NOW I HAD A BAGEL.

Slurping down iced coffee, I marched back to the Camden Town station, and picked the next street that sort of went to the right. I passed by pharmacies and grocery shops and even a Burger King. I made it all the way to a different tube station before I realized that, once again, I was nowhere near the zoo. I had, however, walked by a pretty square. Bagel in hand, I walked through a cloud of gnats, and parked myself on a nice bench. Surrounded by flowers, I removed my bagel from its little brown bag, and took the time to really savour it. I was in fucking London, and I had a fucking bagel. Everything was okay.

Belly full of New York-style carbs, I retraced my steps to Camden Town station. There was just one more possible right turn. This was it.

After a while, there it was: Regent’s Park. It was beautiful and enormous, and it had a big helpful map right as I walked in. I finally had a concrete idea of which way to go to make it to the zoo. People were throwing frisbees and jogging through the park, and I was about to see some animals.

The girl tearing tickets at the zoo was so nice. We chatted a little bit about how excited I was, and the fact that I volunteer at the aquarium back home. And before I knew it, I was finally inside the ZSL London Zoo. As if to reward me for my determination, the first sign I encountered directed me to the Penguin Beach. To the left.

The ZSL London Zoo did not disappoint my boundless capacity for creature-induced excitement. I saw a giant anteater for the first time, and it blew my mind. The Land of the Lions exhibit is gorgeous. Even their bug exhibit is fascinating. And especially important to the fragile state of my heart: the Galapagos tortoises. The largest tortoise species in the world.

Her name was Polly, and I was smitten immediately. Scorched and sleepy and barely hanging on, I sat down on the dusty ground right in front of the tortoises’ yard, and stared. I’d made it. I’d wanted to see a Galapagos tortoise on this random Tuesday in London, and I’d done it. I’d done it with help and with a positive attitude even in the face of obstacles. I’d done it the Kittenfish way. I wished she was there with me.

After a good half hour with Polly, my adventure for the afternoon neared its end. Before exiting, I stopped at the zoo’s cafe for a giant slice of pizza and an apple. For my dessert, I treated myself to a little gingerbread biscuit in the shape of a tortoise. I sent a picture of it to Kittenfish, so that she’d know I was okay as soon as she was back home.

I won’t pretend that the rest of my London trip was all sunshine and tortoise biscuits. I had at least one more doozy of a meltdown over an absence of doughnuts at the British Library. But the lessons of Kittenfish, and even Polly the tortoise, helped me navigate the rest of my time abroad. Stopping at a Whole Foods on the way back to the other side of the Camden station, I picked up some aloe vera and some spring rolls, and took a deep breath. Slow and steady.

thank you, carrie

Throughout the winter of 2016, my brain had the capacity to obsess over exactly two things: mental health and Star Wars. In late November, I was unable to anticipate anything that wasn’t either opening night of Rogue One or my first appointment with a psychiatrist.

Here was the timeline.

On Wednesday November 30, I performed my essay “Hope is the Thing with Lightsabers” for the first time at a Star Wars-themed live lit show. It was awesome.

On Thursday December 8, I performed stand-up comedy in character as R2-D2, roasting other SW characters. It was awesome.

On Monday December 12, I saw a psychiatrist for the first time since college, and she delivered me a tentative diagnosis of Bipolar II. It was less than awesome.

On Thursday December 16, Rogue One came out. IT WAS AWESOME.

And on December 27, Carrie Fisher died, and nothing was awesome.

I know that I am preaching to the fan choir when I protest how much Carrie Fisher, and by extension Princess Leia, means to me. Of course, of course, of course, Princess Leia is a feminist icon. In that role, Carrie Fisher flipped the archetype of the damsel-in-distress on its ass. Princess Leia was a new kind of heroine for little girls to adore and idolize, and we will never not appreciate her for that.

Carrie Fisher was also the first familiar face that I could put to mental illness. When I was in college, before I was ready to really investigate what might be wrong with me, my mother gifted me Carrie’s book Wishful Drinking. That book proceeded to blow my mind like it was Alderaan.

In the first place, it never occurred to me that a “crazy” person could also be a person whom I admired. A person who was good. All I knew of “crazy” people was what I had seen on Law & Order. I just knew characters who didn’t take their meds, and then committed horrific crimes as a result. That’s what I thought mental illness was.

In Chapter 8 of Wishful Drinking, Carrie reveals that she spent time in a mental hospital. She writes, “My diagnosis was manic-depression. I think today they call it bipolar– so you might say I swing both ways.”

A few lines later: “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather– independently of whatever’s going on in your life.”

That wasn’t something that I had to imagine. That was something that I had been experiencing since I became a teenager. That was something that felt like it was growing stronger and more in control of me every single day.

Two thoughts occurred to me as I read that chapter.

1) Am I bipolar?
And:
2) Do I have something in common with Princess Leia?

That second thought made the first thought infinitely easier to swallow. That second thought helped me through my first college counselor abruptly telling me, “Well, you’re depressed,” which scared me away from seeking help for another two semesters. The idea that maybe I was a little bit like Princess Leia helped me through that time I almost seriously considered swallowing too many NyQuil capsules before music class, and instead walked into the wellness center, whereupon my new counselor immediately called the registrar to get me excused from class that week.

The thought of strong, fierce, funny, beautiful Princess Leia got me through being handed a piece of paper that read “Bipolar II Disorder” on December 12, 2016. She was with me when I swallowed my first pill the next morning, and felt like I wanted to die from shame.

Here’s the second thing I really got out of Wishful Drinking. Carrie Fisher is ridiculously hilarious. She is also a brilliant writer. She is phenomenal in so many ways that have nothing to do with Princess Leia. Like so many Star Wars-obsessed kids, I grew up only seeing Carrie as Leia. I knew nothing of her work as a writer. When I read Wishful Drinking for the first time, I was pursuing my degree in Creative Writing, focusing on Creative Nonfiction. I wanted to become a funny writer who was able to mine the depths of her soul for comedy.

I wanted to be Carrie. I still want to be Carrie. I want to wear my mental illness on my sleeve with courage and bravado and humor and vulnerability.

In Wishful Drinking, Carrie writes, “There are a couple of reasons why I take comfort in being able to put all this in my own vernacular and present it to you. For one thing, because then I’m not completely alone with it. And for another, it gives me a sense of being in control of the craziness. Now this is a delusion, but it’s my delusion and I’m sticking with it. It’s sort of like I have problems but problems don’t have me.”

I write this blog because it makes me feel less alone. I write this blog because it helps me work through all the things racing through my brain. I write this blog because I want to entertain and make people laugh. I write this blog because I want to tell the truth about myself. I write this blog because I don’t want to feel like my illness is keeping me hidden away in the shadows.

Last year I attended Star Wars Celebration Europe in London, and I was fortunate enough to make it into the last Celebration panel that Carrie would ever attend. The memory of sharing a room with her, albeit a gigantic, gaping one that was crammed with thousands of other sweaty, hyper nerds, will always fill me with gratitude. I am so grateful that Carrie Fisher shared her whole story with us.

I hope she knew how many of us she helped. How many of us she probably saved.

At that Star Wars live lit show on November 30 2016, I read my essay about what Star Wars has meant to me throughout my life. I wrote about Leia and Rey. I tiptoed around it a little bit, but I also tried to put into words for the first time that Star Wars is a thing that helps quiet my thoughts of suicide.

When the show was over, I had a few young women approach me. One of them told me, “Hey. Same.”

And I felt less alone.

Last week I made breakfast, put on my BB-8/Mickey Mouse ears, and settled in to watch the livestream of Star Wars Celebration Orlando from my living room. Despite being alone, I couldn’t help but cheer out loud and clap as various Star Wars icons took the stage for the “40 Years of Star Wars” panel.

As the panel wrapped up, George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy spoke about Carrie. Carrie’s daughter Billie Lourd came onstage next to speak about her mother. And finally a curtain drew back to reveal John Williams himself. After the applause for him died down, he began to conduct an orchestra in “Princess Leia’s Theme.” If you missed it, it’s beautiful, and you can see it here.

Carrie Fisher was once my only hope. She was the first crazy person I knew, and so I clung to her, desperate to conflate my own identity with hers. What I realize now, though, is that the real power of Carrie’s honesty is that it opened a door for me. Behind that door was a willingness to consider that something serious might be up with me, and then a willingness to seek out help.

Now I have a therapist, and I have a psychiatrist, and I have a network of friends with whom I feel safe in sharing even my darker feelings and fears. I have this blog. I have a lot of avenues of hope. On a good day, I have hope and confidence that I can live out my life in a way that I think would make Carrie proud. I will be open and loud and funny and honest. I will remember that I am not alone out there, and I will remember the power in the discovery of a familiar, friendly face being truthful about their pain.

In the Author’s Note of Wishful Drinking, Carrie writes, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”

Hey, Carrie. Same.

moar coffee pics, plz

Yesterday on the #2 bus, two older dudes sitting behind me started talking about social media.

“I don’t get it. People make all these posts, and it’s like… who gives a shit?”

All the typical curmudgeonly points were hit. I hung on their every word, hoping to overhear a particularly dumb morsel of opinion that I could later turn into a really good joke. But then, things got personal, and a crusade was born.

“Like, you made a pot of coffee. Who gives a shit?”

Naturally, I whipped out my smart phone, and made a Facebook post about this comment. I WILL FIGHT YOU WITH THE WEAPON YOU MOST HATE, OLD DUDES ON THE BUS.

Here’s why that particular comment made me so annoyed. I give all the shits when one of my friends posts a picture of their coffee on Facebook or Instagram. Maybe that makes me a silly, materialistic Millenial, whatever. But I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I like that other peoples’ pictures of coffee are so readily available in the palm of my hand.

And, so, a list of all the reasons I sincerely care about your Instagram pictures of your coffee:
1. For me, getting up to make my own coffee, or taking a walk to my favorite neighborhood coffeeshop and bakery, or even plotting out my bus ride to work so that I have enough time to hit up Starbucks or Caribou before starting my day… these are all 100% acts of self-care and self-love. The feeling of a warm cup in my hand on a chilly day or the refreshment that comes with a good cold brew on a hot day are little indulgences that remind me that there is at least a small, caffeinated bit of me that doesn’t hate the rest of me. Nice Me is willing to go the extra mile, sometimes literally, in pursuit of 12 oz. of Pick-Me-Up.

When someone dear to me posts a picture of their morning coffee, I’m really happy, because I get to witness my friends taking care of themselves in a small way. Clicking “Like” on someone’s coffee post is an Internet high-five. “Hell yeah, iced vanilla latte! You go get ’em, tiger!”

Waking up on time to enjoy a cup of coffee means that I haven’t given up. And I hope it means that you haven’t given up either, because I think you’re amazing.

2. The origin of my coffee appreciation is deeply rooted in friendship. One of my best friends from college worked part-time at a Starbucks while we were also working together part-time at the aquarium. Becca lived close enough to me that she would come and pick me up on days for which we were both scheduled. Almost every single day, she stopped first at her Starbucks store. I didn’t like coffee, so she would bring me a hot chocolate.

One fateful day in December, Becca brought me my favorite holiday drink of all time: a peppermint hot chocolate. She apologized when she handed it to me.

“The barista misheard me, and put a shot of espresso in this. I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

Skeptical, but unwilling to discard the product of my friend’s supreme thoughtfulness and generosity, I sipped the hot chocolate.

You know the Halloween episode of Rocko’s Modern Life where Filburt eats a piece of candy for the first time? This was basically that, but with a chocolate coffee holiday monstrosity.

Becca brought me a peppermint mocha throughout the rest of that season, and the rest is history.

Eventually, Becca and I moved to different parts of town, but she would still come and pick me up on aquarium mornings. We upgraded to a fancier coffee shop. Sometimes Becca’s new boyfriend joined us, and it was a great opportunity to get to know this person who loves my friend. These are the best morning memories I have.

Becca moved to Boston with her boyfriend almost a year ago, and I miss her every day. Even before coffee mornings, we’d been getting breakfast together since college when we were both in the same early morning “Shakespeare and the Folktale” class. When I drink coffee, no matter where I am, I think about Becca. I think about a friend who stuck by me through some of the darkest periods of my depression. I think about a friend who waited with me outside in New York City in January at 8 am to procure rush tickets for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. If Becca posts a picture of coffee on Facebook, you bet your ass I’m going to click “Love” on that.

3. WE HAVEN’T EVEN TALKED ABOUT COFFEE MUGS YET.

This past November, two of my favorite people on Earth got married in Savannah, GA. Guys, it was so awesome. All the groomsmen and their significant others, the photographer, and myself and my boyfriend were put up in a beach house on Tybee Island, where we spent the pre-ceremony weekend eating snacks and playing board games. Friendship heaven.

On the morning of the wedding, I woke up in the beach house to the groom and his Best Man cooking breakfast and making coffee for everyone. I’m not sure there’s a better smell to start a day than that of coffee and bacon being prepared. I felt almost overwhelmed at the joy I experienced in watching these two friends make breakfast together at the start of what was going to be an amazing day.

The ceremony, which I had the privilege of officiating, was gorgeous, of course. Afterwards, we retreated to the groom’s mother’s home, and got ready to dig into the breakfast food reception. As favors, the couple had assembled a variety of random coffee mugs. We each chose our favorite mug to take home. After a heated bout of Rock-Paper-Scissors with my friend, Chris, I wrapped my hands around my now treasured Hardee’s Rise-n-Shine mug.

When I drink from my Hardee’s mug, I remember that wedding. I remember being witness to the various forms of love between all of my friends that weekend. I remember waking up to my friends making coffee.
Everything about a good cup of coffee gives me comfort. Coffee is something I love that so far is only associated with positive moments of my life. Sometimes I judge myself for what I worry is an inherent materialism surrounding acts of self-care. “It shouldn’t take a lavender-scented candle or a soft stuffed animal or a peppermint mocha to make me feel better.”

But those things do make me feel better. If something makes one of my friends feel better, I want them to have that thing. So, I’m endeavoring to allow myself the little, material pleasures that shed some sunshine on my day.

I will never roll my eyes at you for posting a picture of your coffee to Facebook. Coffee’s great, and I’m glad that you have it. Because you’re great, and I’m glad that I have you.

#CoffeeFilter

Rise and shine.

“let the sun shine in”

Every Friday morning, I volunteer at the aquarium. There’s a little, under-the-weather pancake tortoise currently hanging out in the treatment room where I collect water samples. Besides his habitat, there’s a little sign that reads, “Medication: Sunshine.”

I would kill for that prescription.

Right now I take one, decent-sized pill every morning. I have no idea if it’s doing anything to me, good or bad. I’ve been on some dosage of this particular medication since the middle of December, so it’s been a minute. The last time I saw the psychiatrist in person, I let her know that I didn’t really know how to assess the potential progress of the medication.

She asked me, “Well, what are your instincts telling you about how to go forward?”

Holy shit, I wanted to screech and jump out of a fucking window. WHAT ARE MY INSTINCTS. YOU ARE A DOCTOR AND THIS IS THE SCARIEST THING WITH WHICH I HAVE EVER DEALT AND I. DON’T. KNOW. ANYTHING.

I feel horribly guilty most of the time, because I think I’m wasting the time of everyone in my life, including my health care professionals, so I said, “Oh, I think it’s okay.” If I’m a lost cause, what’s the point in taking time out of the psychiatrist’s busy afternoon, you know?

It did feel okay for a minute. My depression at least felt like a different shade of blue for a few weeks. But the past two weeks feel more familiar to me. The past two weeks have been decidedly a pretty grim black-blue. A still ocean that just promises a threat of being dragged down and down and down.

So, I don’t know anymore. I just want something to work.

The idea of not being here anymore is on my brain a lot. The past two times that I’ve thought so much about this prospect were the two previous times that I’ve been on some kind of medication. I know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I know I’m on a big wacky mental health adventure right now, and that I’ll need to try a lot of different combinations of things to determine what’s right for me BUT ALSO. These past experiences kept me really, really wary of psychiatry for a long time.

It scares me how logical not being here anymore has started to seem. I think of Kyle Kinane’s bit on Whiskey Icarus: “I don’t like this today. 40 years of this?”

Clearly, it’s funnier in context.

I don’t like this today. Imagining 40 years of this is absolutely a challenge sometimes.

I did like other things today, though. So far my day has been full of sweet potato beignets with a good friend, iced coffee, good live theatre with the promise of more on the way, and sunshine. Those things made me feel a little better. That tortoise’s doctor might be on to something.

When I want to mentally illustrate my depression, I imagine that I’m down in a dark, dark basement. There are old, mildewed boxes hiding in every shadowy corner, and each one is full of my secrets, my shames, my terrors, my furies, my nightmares, my demons. The things that one day I have to finally face and acknowledge before this journey can continue.

There’s a door in my depression basement. One day, after I’ve sorted through every last box, after I’ve decided that I’m ready and worthy, I get to open the door. On the other side of the door is a beautiful, sunny field. It’s covered in flowers and friendly dogs. There’s a nice hammock, and next to the hammock is a huge stack of the books I still haven’t gotten around to reading. There’s a picnic basket, and the weather is perfect. I’d really like to go there someday.

Maybe I’m not on the right medication for me right now. My instincts tell me to take time to pause and breathe, and to listen to what my brain and heart are telling me, and then to be honest with my doctors about what I hear.

That pancake tortoise didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did I. We just are. We just need a little extra sunshine sometimes, because it contributes to making us well. It’s not our fault that we need help. I know that in my soul, even if I don’t always believe it.

I’m all about a good musical anthem to propel me through rough times. Fortunately, there is no shortage of good song lyrics about sunshine.

you are my sunshine, my only sunshine

just waiting for this storm to pass me by, and that’s the sound of sunshine coming down

let the sun shine in, the sun shine in

good day sunshine

here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and i say

It’s all right. I think I’ll be all right

adventures in self-care, vol 1.

Yesterday I took myself out on a date.

Nice Voice waltzed into the room out of nowhere, all dashing and electric.

“Darling!” She cried. “Put on something nice. I’m going to take you out for an afternoon on the town!”

When Nice Voice rolls into town, she’s pretty hard to resist. She’s just so… well, nice. She’s encouraging, she knows what I like, and she works around the other parts of my day to day life that I value. She always knows exactly what I need, and she doesn’t judge me for it.

As the cliche goes, she’s my own best friend.

Right in the middle of my Friday, in between my morning volunteer gig and my evening yoga class, I hopped on the bus, and whisked myself away to one of my favorite places.
I arrived at the cinema about forty minutes early. I didn’t want my popcorn to get entirely eaten before the movie even started, so I just sat in the lobby for a bit.

It was so comfortable. I scrunched myself deeper down into my soft hoodie like a little sleepy owl, and let myself close my eyes. Of course, the air smelled like popcorn. Popcorn is the best smell. Popcorn signals the beginning of an adventure. Popcorn means that I’m about to be taken away.

“Isn’t this nice?” sighed Nice Voice. “You should do this more often.”

Ten minutes went by, and I couldn’t contain myself anymore. I practically bounded up to the ticket/concession counter.

“Hi! Could I please have one ticket to Kong: Skull Island, one small popcorn, and one Cherry Coke?”

The theatre was completely empty. I was at a little, independent theatre, so there was no “20” to invade the stillness of the room. No Maria Menounos to take away from the quiet and the darkness. I cram popcorn into my face, I sip my sugary drink, I breathe in the emptiness. I love this. I love being alone in a movie theatre. I suck in all the joy floating through the air around me. For once, I am not impatient. I could be alone in this movie theatre, full of anticipation and soda, for the rest of time.

It was a really bad week. I didn’t fall or slip into the depression pit so much as I fucking flung myself back down there in a fury of self-hatred.

But I knew that all I had to do was make it to this exact moment on Friday. I got lucky. When the week started to veer off course into dark, treacherous territory, I held it together just long enough to concoct a plan.

It’s hard to visualize self-care from the bottom of the depression pit. At the lowest moments of my week, I didn’t think I deserved anything good to happen to me ever again. It was especially ludicrous to imagine that I might be the one to give myself the gift of a thing that makes me happy.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cruel Voice screamed in my face. “In what universe do you think you’ve done anything to earn the right to go to the movies on your own? You’re a failure, and failures don’t get treats. Idiot. Bitch. Disappointment.”

Her words re-opened the same old wounds as always, but I knew I could handle the abuse. I had already given Nice Voice the destruct codes for Cruel Voice on Monday. Before leaping down into the pit, I handed her a folder composed of showtimes and bus routes and other necessary logistical information that might have been too hard to obtain within the throes of self-hate.

“I’ll see you on the other side, ” I told her.

Nice Voice crashed through the door on Friday morning, squashing Cruel Voice against the wall with the door as she did so.

“Come on,” she whispered to me. “You’re okay. Let’s get out of here.”
A solo outing to see Kong: Skull Island turned out to be exactly what I needed. First of all, the movie was totally awesome. I got to look at Tom Hiddleston’s perfect face, listen to a kickass soundtrack of 70’s rock, and be completely awed by a solid new entry into one of my favorite film genres: The hubris of Man going toe to toe with a rampaging, giant animal-monster.

But more important than the movie itself was the reminder that I am capable of being nice to myself. Sure, I had to plan it out ahead of time. I had to wait for it. But it was entirely for me. Self-care shouldn’t be a luxury. I was lucky this week that I had the money and the time to take myself out for a movie and a popcorn. Some weeks that isn’t an option. Some weeks Nice Voice has to get a little more creative, and look up a recipe for how to make a microwaved peanut butter brownie in a mug using ingredients that are already in the pantry.

The ending of Kong: Skull Island is accompanied by the sound of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” It goes,

We’ll meet again
Don’t know where
Don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

Nice Voice probably isn’t home to stay. She and I might be in for a lifetime of comings and goings. Sometimes I can’t force myself to get up and open the door, even though I know she’s waiting on the other side with popcorn and Cherry Coke and compassion. Sometimes, I fear, she gets tired too, and has to take a break from me to recharge her batteries.

But, so far, she’s never been gone for good. And she’s here right now, and she gives me hope. The sun was out and shining yesterday, and I am smiling, and monster movies are awesome, and I am not a failure.

We’ll meet again.

a love letter for a monster

My Netflix show right now is Penny Dreadful. I’m a few episodes into the third season, and I’m already sad that my time with my new spooky pals is so close to the end. I’ve always loved a good ensemble series; it makes me so happy to be the spectator to fictional friend groups. From the relatively mundane to the actually monstrous, I really dig pretending that I’m hanging out with a close gang of television buds. I’m also super into monsters, so Penny Dreadful is the jammiest of my jams right now.

It’s nice to have a show that I’m into, because I’m pretty down right now. I’m really paranoid these days; a good, productive day must be signalling the beginning of mania, and one crummy day must mean the start of a depressive episode. I am constantly on the lookout for which phase of bipolar I’m experiencing, unable to fathom that I’m capable of having a normal mood anymore. This week feels a lot like depression. I feel despair, I feel hopeless, I feel inferior, I feel apathetic. I don’t understand the point of living.

I have no real personal drive right now, so a good Netflix binge is about the only thing for which I can muster up some enthusiasm when I’m alone in my apartment. I make myself get out into the world for work, for rehearsal, for yoga; places where people will see me, places where I fear my absence will make people categorize me as weak or lazy. But I know my monster mates in London won’t ever judge me.

Penny Dreadful is an interesting show with which to be obsessed while constantly considering the state of one’s mental health. When the show has a rare quiet moment in between horrors, there’s an eerie languid calm that settles. I’ve caught this mood dripping down into my own bones when I get up to do something in between episodes. I like to imagine I’m as devastatingly beautiful and interesting in my sadness as Vanessa Ives is when she strides down the chilly streets of London. It’s hard to feel particularly elegant as I wander my apartment, draped in a fleece Wall-E blanket and absentmindedly feasting on Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food. But I try.

Vanessa’s adventures in therapy this season certainly feel familiar. Watching Vanessa sit down in Dr. Patti LuPone’s office immediately feels me with anxiety. I know that the other vampiric shoe is probably going to drop soon, but so far Patti is a good therapist and it seems like Vanessa is doing all right. I have a lot of hope for Vanessa. Vanessa is definitely the character with whom I most want to relate. If I ever officially deem myself too burdensome to my own loved ones, I hope to forge my solitary path with as much grace and class as Vanessa Ives. But I know who I really am in the Penny Dreadful universe. I lack Vanessa’s faith. I lack the hope for myself that I hold for Vanessa.

No, at my core, I think of myself as a poetic observer and chronicler of the world who does not deem herself worthy to be a part of that world. My Penny Dreadful avatar is John Clare. Frankenstein’s Monster.

John Clare tries hard to be a good person, unfortunate penchant for murder notwithstanding. He is a hopeless and insecure romantic. He refuses to accept that someone could exist who might truly love him for who he is. At the same time, though, John Clare acknowledges goodness and beauty in the world, even if those qualities will never belong to him. He appreciates so much of the potential of humanity while seeing himself only as a monster. I get it.

I am eager to romanticize my illness. To glean poetry from my sick brain. Seeing myself in John Clare makes me sad, but also a little peaceful. Likening myself to a tragic, poetic monster is so much more literary and glamorous than being a person who takes a pill every morning to stabilize her moods. I would rather be a monster than an ill human. I want my relationship with death and darkness to feel less abnormal. I imagine that it’s typical for monsters to consider death the way I sometimes do. My therapist says that most people don’t think about death the way I do.

I would walk with you, John Clare. We could stuff our hands into the pockets of our coats and haunt the streets together. I could microwave you Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food in my apartment, while we share our favorite poems. You’ll read to me from Wordsworth, and I’ll blow your undead mind with Whitman. Maybe, as monsters and friends, we could find complete freedom from the desire to exist and fit within the wider world.

Forgive my candor, dear monster. I, too, long for beauty and for peace. When season three ends, I will miss you; your copper eyes and the Shakespearean quality of your speech. I will miss the affection that I hold for you, which I have sometimes been able to reflect back on myself.

I hope things end well for you, John Clare, but alas. We all know that show runner John Logan is the real monster here, and I fully expect you to meet a tragic and probably grisly end.

For whatever time we might have left together, then, may we find hope and serenity in the words of your poetic namesake:

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

charting a course

The first song I ever heard that I just knew was about me was, weirdly enough, from the Treasure Planet soundtrack.

I am a question to the world
Not an answer to be heard
Or a moment that’s held in your arms
And what do you think you’d ever say?
I won’t listen anyway
You don’t know me
And I’ll never be what you want me to be

SUCH DISNEYFIED ANGST. It didn’t matter that I first heard Johnny Rzeniks’s “I’m Still Here” on the Treasure Planet episode of the super sunshine-y Disney Channel show Movie Surfers; it was the first song that spoke to my real, dark, honest truth, though I sure couldn’t have told you why. I’m not positive I can explain it now, but I’m going to give it a shot. Sometimes I vainly like to see my life as a far dorkier adaptation of Almost Famous, and “I’m Still Here” was the record under my bed that set me free.

And what do you think you’d understand?
I’m a boy, no, I’m a man
You can’t take me and throw me away
And how can you learn what’s never shown?
Yeah, you stand here on your own
They don’t know me
‘Cause I’m not here

What’s most fascinating to me about the memory of my deep “I’m Still Here” passion is realizing how much I’ve apparently always been obsessed with identity coupled with the fear that I’m not actually real or present to the people I love. I was 12 when Treasure Planet came out. Nothing was wrong with me on paper. I was a comfy, well-taken-care-of little tween with parents who bought me plenty of Star Wars books and Beanie Babies, and best friends who pretended to be knights and Harry Potter characters with me on the weekends.

Apparently, mood disorders commonly first present themselves in pubescence. As I’ve said before, I feel a lot like “The Girl Who Cried Bipolar Disorder.” When my childhood comes up during therapy sessions, I can see my counselor putting pieces together of my depression jigsaw puzzle. I feel like I’m lying about the extent of my youthful despair, and therefore hurting the people that always loved me and took care of me at that age. If I started being depressed that early, was I just an ungrateful brat who failed them and their love? Sometimes I would rather not be here at all than feel like a lifelong disappointment to my family and friends.

And I want a moment to be real
Wanna touch things I don’t feel
Wanna hold on and feel I belong
And how can the world want me to change?
They’re the ones that stay the same
They don’t know me , ’cause I’m not here

I’ve very rarely felt truly “here.” From as far back as I can remember, I have been the safest in the fantastical worlds of books and movies. The character archetype to which I’ve always most connected is the Dreamer. The Wanderer. The Craver of Something New. The One with the Not So Secret Need to be Special. I saw myself in starry-eyed, young wonderers turned heroes, like Jim Hawkins.

I know, I know. It’s the biggest cliche: Me, alone in my bedroom, surrounded by my stuffed dolphins and Tim Burton movie posters, cranking the Treasure Planet soundtrack, sighing, “No one understands me. Nobody even knows who I am. I won’t be what society wants me to be, man.” The Treasure Planet soundtrack was my Dylan.

They can’t tell me who to be
‘Cause I’m not what they see
Yeah, the world is still sleeping while I keep on dreaming for me
And their words are just whispers and lies that I’ll never believe

I can’t speak for those who love me and know me best, but I imagine that they see a me who is probably really cool. They see someone that makes them laugh, who excitedly organizes opening night movie excursions, who gets tipsy at parties and talk way too much about the difference between seals and sea lions, and so on. Logically, I know that none of these people would lie to me.

“But,” whispers Cruel Voice. “I mean, what if they are?”

What if the more content, happier me that might get crafted by the therapy and mood stabilizers is the lie? What if I’m meant to stay a yearning Dreamer, albeit a sad one? If I suddenly like myself, will I stop wandering or wondering? My friends don’t want me to change, but they want me to be happy, and what if that’s the same thing?

The diagnosis makes me want to isolate myself. I want to set sail on my own for some solo adventures in self-exploration and figuring out the right dosages and crying a lot when something goes wrong, and I don’t want anyone to have to see. I want to stand among the stars for days at a time until I learn the truth about who I’m supposed to be. I want to keep away from everyone I love until I can burst into their lives again, triumphant and laden with treasures unfathomable.

If I were really brave, if I were really strong, I think, I would take that leap. I would jump off the dock and swim towards the horizon, confident that people don’t just forget forever a person they love. I would. I really would. I want to, even.

But I’m still here.

 

the show goes ever on and on: a nerd’s case for the oscars

In keeping with my resolution to spend time among things that made me really happy before I started to doubt and dislike myself, I’m really stoked about the Oscars this year. When I was a kid, staying awake to watch the Academy Awards was one of my favorite nights of the year. By middle school, I was waking up early to commandeer my family’s basement as my Red Carpet Coverage Headquarters. When Monsters, Inc. was up for Best Animated Feature, I put a bowtie on my stuffed Mike Wazowski and took him as my date.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint why I enjoy award show, and the Oscars especially, so much. On paper, the Oscars represent and celebrate a lot of things I typically loathe. For example:

The treatment of female actors on the red carpet like well-groomed show ponies.

The circle-jerk-like insistence on the strength and bravery it takes for well-off Hollywood actors to slip into the lives of humans who are are actually struggling and finding courage in the face of daily adversity.

The dominance of the white, straight, cis male narrative.

And on and on and on.

So, why do I watch? Why do I care?

The first time I had deep, rabid, and personal stakes in the Oscars was when The Fellowship of the Ring was nominated for Best Picture (among others). Holy Battle of Five Armies, it meant so much to me that Fellowship be declared the best movie of the year.

Seeing Fellowship for the first time was an awakening for me. I had read The Hobbit in 5th grade, fresh off my Narnia days, and liked it a lot. I started The Lord of the Rings in middle school, but found myself struggling with it. Reading in 6th grade was devoted to programs like Accelerated Reader, which rewarded a student’s ability to read a lot of books in a relatively short amount of time. I couldn’t get through LotR fast enough to earn the points I needed. I turned to the delicious and relatively more bite-sized fantasy morsels of Brian Jacques and Tamora Pierce instead.

In 7th grade, I went with a big group of friends to the Mall of Georgia to see Fellowship. I was excited, of course, but in what I consider a normal, even healthy way. I had no idea what was lurking in the dark, waiting for me.

If John Williams’ opening title theme for Star Wars jolts off the screen jump-to-lightspeed style to punch you in the face, then the opening notes of Howard Shore’s epic LotR score creep, if not slither, out of the darkness to envelop you in smoke and blood and eternity. Coupled with Cate Blanchett’s delivery of the Prologue, I was transfixed from the very beginning.

Fellowship was the realest movie I had ever seen. It didn’t matter that the characters were Hobbits and Dwarves and Elves; I felt that I could physically reach out and brush my fingertips against their pain, their joy, their defeat, their triumphs, their despair, and their hope.

A lot of stories had already meant a lot of things to me by the time I was twelve years old, but the film version of Fellowship presented a new flavor of my appreciation– confidence. I loved this work of art, and I was 100% right about doing so. I couldn’t possibly be objective about Fellowship. It was incredible, and that was a fact.

It mattered a lot to me that everyone in the world agree with me about the brilliance in Fellowship. I knew it wouldn’t make me– a lifelong gawky, hopelessly devout bookworm with dumb hair– cool or pretty or popular, but it would make me right.

“Go ahead! Make fun of me! I liked the Best Movie of the Year, and I liked it before you, and that makes me better than you.”

You know, ’cause twelve year old jocks have a lot invested in the Academy Awards.

When Fellowship lost to A Beautiful Mind, I was fucking outraged. I went on the morning announcements at school the next day, and delivered a blistering rant about the injustice of the whole thing. To this day, I still kind of hate Russell Crowe. His failure to carry a tune in Les Miserables sustains me.

Why did this matter to me so much? I’m always tempted to roll my eyes and scoff at particularly rowdy and excited sports fans on the eve of a Big Game, but that just makes me a geeky hypocrite.

“Pssh. It’s not like you’re on the team. Why do you care so much about the outcome?”

It’s because the really good narratives of fellowship that speak to us, be they of team sports or ensemble-driven films, do make us feel like we’re part of the victory. What we care about and what we stand for is what’s actually at stake. Security and pride in our identity is the trophy we crave.

I wanted, even needed, Fellowship of the Ring to be recognized as the Best Picture of 2001, because it represented what matters most to me: loyalty, teamwork, and courage onscreen, as well as passion, determination, and even more teamwork offscreen.

It matters for more reasons than I can eloquently state that different kinds of movies featuring different kinds of heroes and different kinds of narratives get attention. For better or for worse, the Academy Awards provide some of that attention. Smarter people have written thoughtfully about this topic better than I can, and you should hear what they have to say. As a geeky tween, seeing Fellowship of the Ring garner attention and accolades made me feel validated and seen, in a weird transitive way.

This Sunday night, I’m going to grab some snacks and head over to a friend’s apartment to watch the Oscars. I’m going to swoon over the beautiful dresses on display, cry during the In Memoriam segment, tap my toes through all the performances of the Best Song nominees, and really listen to all the acceptance speeches. Whether it be a narrative to which I can personally relate or not, I want to hear what these stories and these films meant to all the diverse people who made them. I still want to believe in the power of movies.

The Oscars need to do better. There are twelve year olds out there, staying up past their bedtime on a school night and clutching their stuffed animals to their hearts in wonder. They should all have the opportunity to see their stories and their dreams represented and validated.

in case you care, dani’s pick for best picture this year: in fairness, i’ve only seen six of the nine nominees, but i’m pulling for you, moonlight.