Monday, March 31, 2014

Do you know what it's like to be a short/white/straight chick with funny toes?


When I was sixteen I remember waking up from a vivid dream with sweat pooling in the palms of my hands and a questioning fear that I couldn't shake for nearly a year.  You see within this dream I was in a relationship with another girl, a girl I knew, not a close friend, but a friend none-the-less and...in the dream, I was very much in love.  And as I awoke from this dream I couldn't help but question if this was revealing something about myself that I hadn't otherwise known.

The year was 1997, and although I'm quite certain I knew about homosexuality, I don't believe I had any personal encounters with it, yet. Sure, there were a few characters who were suspicious candidates for the profile but it wasn't a time when teenagers felt comfortable about "coming out." So, there really wasn't anyone I felt comfortable talking with about this new fear.  At least there was some comfort in knowing one thing...I was most definitely attracted to boys (or A boy) as I had carried on a crush for one boy, in particular, for nearly 3 years. But I'd never kissed a boy, nor had I had any kind of romantic relationship of any kind. So what does a young girl do with a dream like this? (I'm certain if the Internet had developed google to the point of what it is today I would have found some answers online...) But, since that didn't exist, I did the only thing I could think of doing, which was to privately and secretively explore these feelings.  I only had one class with the girl so I made the most of what I could.  And when we broke into groups to discuss something I made sure to join her group and sit especially close. I even remember inviting her to tag along with my friends to the movies once or twice. I tried so hard to conjure up the feelings I had had in the dream, I was almost forcing them...but I couldn't replicate anything. I tried to find the attraction for nearly a year...I wanted to be sure, I didn't want to deny myself this understanding. But in the end, I found myself more attracted to any boy in her vicinity than I had ever felt in her presence. And when a boy finally kissed me a year later, all thoughts of liking girls romantically fled my mind entirely.  It was only a dream, nothing more.

I didn't choose to be straight. Nor did I choose to be short or white or born with the weirdest toes on the planet. These aren't choices one can make before coming into the world. Much like the title character Brahman/i (in the new co-production by About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising directed by Andrew Volkoff) didn't choose to be born a Hijra (a South Asian term for hermaphrodite or intersexed).

In my adult years I have become more than comfortable with the LGBT movement, I have been a friend, an ally and an advocate. Heck, my son road on a float in the Chicago Pride Parade with me when he was only 8 months old! As an actress, I've played a fair number of lesbian roles and kissed more than a handful of women on stage and in scene studies.  In college I even performed in a play about a hermaphrodite. But I have never before felt that I could completely understand what it must be like to live everyday in the mind of someone who doesn't fall within the social norms of "heterosexuality." And the truth is, I probably never will completely know what that is like. After all...I'm straight. But I will say this...nothing has helped me dissect the idea of what it might feel like to be in the head of someone who falls outside of those norms more than the preview performance I saw this afternoon of Brahman/i.

Staged like a stand-up comedy act Brahman/i takes the audience on a journey growing up as an Indian/American hijra. Aditi Brennan Kapil's sharp and witty script uses comedy, mythology and history as a mechanism to make the unfamiliar and potentially uncomfortable material accessible to all. Kapil could have easily taken this story and staged it into a normal two act play, but because she chose the vehicle of stand-up comedy, we were able to hear how Brahman/i (played with tour de force passion and charisma by Fawazi Mizra) processed through the events of a confusing life in a reflective and comedic way.

It's quite amazing and a bit overwhelming to even imagine growing up and identifying with both genders.  But for Brahman/i that is the reality of the situation. And because Brahman/i relates to both genders, both male and female audience members can relate to Brahman/i's story.

From the moment we are born people start placing us into categories and as we grow those categories begin to expand: male/female, white/not white, Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Atheist, gay/straight, single/married, parent/non-parent, young/old, fat/skinny, short/tall, meat-eater/vegetarian/vegan, rich/poor, Republican/Democrat, corporate sell-out/grunge granola hippy etc, etc. By adulthood we typically make choices that further place us into categories that define who we are as individuals. These categories give us a place of belonging, a community of common understanding...but they are also what separates us as humans.

Imagine someone asking you to choose between being a mother and being a daughter, or between having eyesight or functioning legs. Two things that are inherently part of you that have helped define who you are and how you live, but now you must choose to live without one of them. You can choose to be a mother but in doing so you disown your parents, or you can remain a daughter but you must abandon your children. You can choose your vision but your legs will be cut off, or you can choose your legs but your eyes will be blinded. This must be what it feels like for intersexed/hermaphrodite/hijra people who are asked to choose a gender.  And why must they choose? So that we can place them in a respective category? Why must we have categories at all?  Why can't we all be supportive bass players for one another the way the character "J" (played beautifully by Damian Conrad) is for Brahman/i...playing a relaxing tune while we hydrate our vocal cords...the vocal cords that we need to use and stretch and strain to allow others to hear and understand what it's like to be uniquely ourselves.  Let's face it...we don't all fit into the same exact categorized boxes, no one knows what it's like to be exactly you.  No one. So why must we hide behind these categories that don't truly define who we are? The only thing we all share in common is that we are human...and the only way we can truly connect is if we LISTEN and SUPPORT and EMPATHIZE with one another.

I've often thought about how I would respond if one of my children felt comfortable sharing with me a dream like I had had in high school. It's certainly not something I'm afraid of hearing, but knowing how to respond is a completely different story.  I'm not quite sure what I'd say entirely, but, what I do know is, I will never ask my child to make a choice. Because I will choose to be that supportive bass player, I will choose to support and love my children for who they are, not what categories society has placed them in.

***This is intended to be a response (not a review) to the play Brahman/i playing now at Silk Road Rising through April 27th in collaboration with About Face Theatre.  If you are in the Chicago area I urge you to see it...it is illuminating, hilarious and beautifully done. For more info click here

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A newborn's cry

I could hear the newborns anguished cries from the moment I got to the top of the escalator and entered my local Target.  I had no idea where the babe was in the store but I knew one thing for sure, the baby was very new. It's a sound you don't mistake, the sound of new vocal chords clashing together in desperation calling attention to anyone with ears to elicit aid in their discomfort.

I was on a quick mission: berries, bananas, avocados, ice cream....done.

But just as I was checking out the sounds of the newborn got louder as a frantic new mother pulled her cart into the aisle next to mine. "We've just got to get out of here" I heard her say.

My eyes were glued on the panicked mother. She glanced my way and clearly noticed the bump peeking out from my stained winter coat.  Her eyes met mine and I flashed a sympathetic smile, knowing it wouldn't help. She reached into her cart and that's when I saw the little pink slipper feet, stiff and kicking with such ferocity. A baby girl.

Although I needed to leave and my check-out was complete, I found myself desperate to stay and watch this little one...so instead of heading to the exit, I decided to grab a decaf tea at the in-store Starbucks, which also gained me a perfect spying ground. The new mother reached into the cart and unbuckled her newborn from the constrains of her carseat and brought the sweet doe eyed baby girl to her chest.

Instant relief. The dark haired baby girl's cries stopped the moment her tummy met her mother's chest.

And that is when my water works began. I was so confused. I've never been an emotional person. I've always laughed at my friends who tear up during Folger's commercials or award speeches. I'm not that kind of girl. But here I was waiting in line at the Target Starbucks weeping just from watching a small interaction between a newborn and her mother.  What is going on?

Yes, I'm pregnant. Yes, I have increased hormones...but this was just bizarre. I'm an actor and I tend to work from the inside out to form emotions on stage. I often understand the reason for the emotion before I even emote...but here, in this instance I found myself desperately wiping tear after tear off my face trying to conceal this unknown burst of emotion.

I turned away, hid my face in my scarf and tried to collect myself before anyone noticed.  But at the same time I was trying to detect what it was that was making me feel so much.

My mind jumped around...Maybe I was just so touched by the baby's needs being met and by the mother/daughter relationship that I will soon be experiencing....but yet I also felt sad somehow, this couldn't be all of it. Then I remembered taking Gunnar to Target when he was just a few days old and nursing him in the fitting room, maybe these were memory tears, longing for that physical bond only babies share with their mothers. Or maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking about how this baby girl was probably one a week old and how a college friend of mine would never experience that kind of bond with her recently stillborn baby girl.  Though I think these tears were caused by a mix of all of these things I think the lingering sadness I was feeling belonged to the latter.

When I was pregnant with Gunnar I avoided thoughts and stories of stillbirths all together. I couldn't deal with that kind of sadness. Who could? Babies aren't supposed to die. Babies are supposed to be gifts of joy and love. There is so much preparation and anticipation that revolves around the 9 month wait for each little bundle. The thought of all that work, all that excitement and preparation of family change to come crashing to a halt by the tragedy of stillbirth is beyond heartbreaking.

How does one bury a life that hasn't even been given the chance to begin?

How does one decide to pack away the cribs, the carseats and the diapers?

How does one explain to their daughter who was so anxiously awaiting to become a big sister, that she will remain (at least for the time being) an only child?

How?

I don't know. And I hope I never know.  But the truth is it exists, it happens. I know because as soon as I started sharing my friend's story with others, suddenly I started hearing similar stories. It's a reality I think we should all begin to take more seriously. These pains aren't just unused receiving blankets we should pack away in a closet because its too sad to think or talk about. These are the kinds of stories that need to be shared with others because it makes up who we are. I teach my students that in sharing our stories and stories of others we learn to empathize, we learn compassion and little by little with compassion and empathy we can begin to heal the human race.

In my evening class tonight I was calling up students one by one to discuss their midterm grades. I took a deep breath before I called up a young woman who has only come to 5 of 12 classes and hasn't turned in a single piece of work. I explained I was on the verge of dropping her from my class but suddenly thought to ask "Is there something I should know about that's been preventing you from doing well and getting to class?" Her eyes filled with shame and tears as she looked down at her feet "Can we talk about it privately after class?" Later in my office I learned that she had gone into a state of shock and deep depression upon seeing her unborn fetus on the table after having an abortion at the beginning of the semester. And that recently she discovered she was pregnant again..."I'm going to keep this baby. I've been traumatized. No one should see their dead baby on a table. I'm choosing life this time. And I realize that means I need to be more responsible." I offered her the opportunity to stay in my class on the condition that she complete the missed assignments and start making an effort to get to class and communicate with me better. She thanked me and agreed to the terms and gave me a hug.  "Congratulations!" I added as she left the room. And for the second time today my eyes began to fill with water as I imagined this terrified young 19 year old girl with a newborn in 8 months time.

Life is so fragile. We need to be reminded of that. We need to be reminded by crying infants in Target how precious our lives are and how often we take them for granted. We take our lives for granted by forgetting to be kind and compassionate. I almost missed my chance today to offer such compassion. If I hadn't asked my student how she was doing, I could have unknowingly labeled my student as a failure by dropping her from my class.

As I sit here typing I can feel the tiny fragile feet of a growing baby girl gently grazing the walls of my uterus. This baby girl's life is yet to be paved but she awaits loving arms of a mama who, this week, has learned more about how miraculous and precious life can be...and though it seems impossible, I will cherish every cry if I'm so fortunate to hear hers.