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Monday, May 19, 2014

To Love is to be Vulnerable


Vulnerability. For those in the Christian faith, being vulnerable is touted as a virtue. "We need to be vulnerable with each other." I remember one time in youth group, my youth leader used the word so many times that I couldn't focus on anything else except how strange the word started to sound.

I'm not sure when I stopped wanting to be vulnerable. Stopped wearing my heart on my sleeve and buttoned up my lip. In ages past, everyone knew everything about me and I was quick to raise my hand, share a testimony, offer my opinion. It was a sort of cathartic release to air my dirty laundry - a throwback to stepping into a confessional and verbally vomiting on the priest.

Perhaps it was one too many secrets told in private that ended up getting shared with the general population. Maybe it was a feeling of always being just a little different than everyone else - a little too outspoken, a little too socially awkward, a lot too unfashionable in my clothing and my opinions. There was always a sense of being slightly on the outside looking in, despite the fact that I was a student leader in my youth group and always a social butterfly in my group of friends. Yet, even though there were other homeschoolers in the "popular" circle at youth group, I somehow still didn't quite fit. There was something within me that longed for more. While everyone was nibbling at the buffet table, I wanted to see the full menu.

But this isn't about the strangely-overly-confident-yet-weirdly-insecure-and-needy-for-approval girl I (am) was in high school. It's about the innate desire we, as human beings, long to have with those around us, yet so often fail to achieve because we, as human beings, are helplessly imperfect and flawed. But, before I go any further, let's actually define our terms.

vul·ner·a·ble
ˈvəln(ə)rəbəl/
adjective
adjective: vulnerable
  1. susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.
    "we were in a vulnerable position"
    • (of a person) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.
      "employees must be better trained in how to deal with vulnerable young people"
Origin
early 17th century: from late Latin vulnerabilis, from Latin vulnerare ‘to wound,’ fromvulnus ‘wound.’

Yikes. That does not sound pleasant. Actually, this sounds like something that should be avoided at all costs. Who wants to actively and willingly place themselves in a position that is susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm? In almost every type of definition, be it military, social, cognitive, or environmental, vulnerability is seen as a weakness, something to be avoided.

So why is it touted as such a lofty goal when it comes to human relationships? In Brene Brown's TedX talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," she says,
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." And, most importantly, to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place that says, "I'm enough," then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.
What are the things we feel vulnerable about? Our weight, our looks, our qualifications, our education, how many sexual partners we've had, how few sexual partners we've had, our jobs, our childhood, our family, our faith, our everything. And behind all of it is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being different. Fear of not being good enough.

And how badly do I want to make my life look so beautiful, so enviable really. Isn't my life nice? Isn't it perfect? Don't you wish you had nothing to hide, like me? But, we all have something (many things) to hide. My closet is as full of skeletons as the next person. And then it turns into revealing all so that no one can hold any of my secrets over me. "Why should I care if you told my secret to the whole world? I already did it." But, the problem is, they still  judge me for it. And I know they do. So what is my defense mechanism? Try to even out the scale by piling more "good deeds" on the other side? Do I try to unearth other's darker secrets to make myself feel better? And where does it end? At what point do our hearts stop beating life and start beating self-hate, self-loathing, shame, bitterness, fear?

What is the solution? Do I just let it all hang out there? (For anyone who's read my blog...I let a good bit of it hang out there.) But, is there a point where we become too vulnerable? And how much are we really taking care of other people if we reveal more than they're capable of handling?

The famous Dr. Seuss quote, "Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind," has become a bit of a mantra to me. But, the problem arises when those who mind do matter; whether it's because you're rising to a position of influence in the public spotlight, or maybe it's just because you're (I'm) so damn concerned about having the whole world like you (me). So what then? How do we embrace vulnerability, transparency without exposing ourselves to brokenness and pain? Like so many things in my life, I'm always seeking the balance point.

When I was 15 I started learning how to play the violin. One of the very first lessons involved the proper way to hold the instrument between my chin and shoulder ("Suspension without extra tension) and how to hold the bow. "Find the balance point," instructed my teacher. "It's not where you think it is." The bow is weighted unevenly, so the balance point is where the bow is held, close to the bottom where most of its weight is. "Let the bow float in your hand. Don't grip it, just guide it where you want it to go."

Oh how I love these lessons in life. Sometimes the balance point is not where we think it is. So what is this balance point of vulnerability? Of allowing another human being to see our nerves exposed, raw and red?

Grace.

Compassion.

Love.

Service.

And for every scar that lingers- every story from our past of which we're ashamed- every gory detail we try to mask- such a small part of our lives- there should be a bow's length of displays of our gentleness, our graciousness, our gratitude that "to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."

Like most matters of the human heart, vulnerability is not simple, and it certainly is not easy. But, in the ever-wise words of C.S. Lewis, "Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully 'round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But, in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable."

So, when did I stop wanting to be invulnerable? When did I want to let the joy bubble up and drown out all the fear and regret? Well....sometime between dawn and dusk; the space between starting this post a month ago and ending it today; the moment between inhale and exhale; the semi-conscious realm between waking and sleeping.

To love is to be vulnerable.

I love.

I am vulnerable.

I am grateful to feel this alive.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Religion often gets in the way of God." -Bono

Throughout my 30 years of believing in a higher power—in the Great Creator, the Intelligent Designer....hell, the All-Powerful-Oz—I have never more strongly felt like perhaps the traditional religiosity that has been put before me to follow all my life is merely an empty shell of what true Christianity is.

For many years, I have become increasingly turned off by the hypocrisy and condemnation I have found in organized religion. "I don't want to be judged, so why would I go to church?" I crave Truth, but I crave it with Love. I yearn for Passion, but I yearn for it with Discernment. I desire Justice, but I desire it with Grace. And as I look back on the different places I have lived and the churches I have chosen to attend while there, I start to see a pattern -

New Community

The Jesus Fellowship

Church!

New Life

Churches that meet in empty lots on the South Side of Pittsburgh, the worship leader bedecked with piercings, tattoos, grace, compassion, and service; churches that set up a booth in Park Slope in Brooklyn for community outreach during a street fair...not one pamphlet in sight, but a member who quietly, gently counsels an abused woman who comes for help; churches where people show up in their best next to people whose best is a ratty pair of jeans and flannel; churches that are small and intimate and only spend 30 minutes in worship before rushing out into the community to serve...to love...to care for the fatherless and the widow.

And my heart was filled to bursting because, so often, I was the one who needed counsel, grace, love, compassion. I needed to know that even though my life was falling down around me, even though the decisions I was making were becoming increasingly toxic, even though my lifestyle looked nothing like the Bible-Quizzing-Youth-Group-Leader-Sunday-School-Champ girl I used to be, that there was still room at God's all-encompassing table for me, that I could approach the Throne of Grace despite being dirty and beaten, that I could still come broken without fear of condemnation.

And then I came home.

It's interesting to me that people's idea of Christianity is so often wrapped up in "keeping each other accountable," when the reality so often means using that phrase to feel more righteous...to continue to propagate the lie that there is a sin scale and your sin is so much worse than mine so I have a right to call you out on it and help you to be more Christ-like... more like me.

And the reality is that we get so caught up in who's doing what and jargon and theology that we forget that the paramount mission of Christ was to create a bridge for us to God.
"Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease."

Why do we forget that he did not come to heal the well, but the sick? When did it become a requirement that in order to go to church, you have to be "fixed?" Are we that uncomfortable with confronting the sin nature in ourselves, that we will turn someone away because they remind us of our own propensity for evil?

I have a love/hate relationship with the word "Progressive." I love the actual definition of the word:
Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; as progressive motion or course; opposed to retrograde.
As a church, we need to move forward, proceed onward, advance, progress in our course. We need to embrace our current culture and look for ways to renew it and not be afraid of it. However, I hate how the societal implications of the word marginalize those who proclaim it as feisty liberal upstarts who want to destroy the status quo. If anything, perhaps being progressive only means to get back to our roots.
Progressives believe that if we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will degenerate. -What it Means to be Progressive: A Manifesto
This sounds very much like what a Man said over 2,000 years ago, to love your neighbor as yourself. I want the Christianity of Nelson Mandela, Bono, Pope Francis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to be part of an organization who follows the example of Him for whom we're named. I want to have the humility and strength to reach across brokenness with love, heal anger with grace, and embrace the sinner with compassion.

Because at the end of the day, are we not all made in the Image of God? Did Christ not die for all for the forgiveness of sin?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Remnants of Grief

It came on like a wave driving home at eleven o'clock last night. Listening to "Murder She Wrote" station on Pandora....the hypnotic beats of reggae streaming from the speakers,


 and the tears came altogether unexpected and unbidden. Like a torrent of unknown remnants of grief that will never completely go away, my body shook with the intensity of it.

No more music pulsing through the cab of Strider. I could no longer bear to hear anything else but the sound of my rasping sobs. And like a mantra, I kept repeating, "Nonna. Nonna. Nonna." How is it that I can function like a normal human being most days of the year, but now, so near the anniversary of her death, I am reduced to a hopeless mess?

Two years.

Two years ago I was taking shots of rum every night just to calm my wracking cough and to calm my frayed nerves. Two years ago I was grabbing handfuls of minutes for sleep - on the immaculately maintained oriental carpet in the upstairs living room....on the 55-year-old sofa downstairs.....on the reclining chair....in my arms resting on top of the kitchen table made by my Nonno's hands so many years ago. Between the shifts of rotating Nonna with my father and uncles so she wouldn't get bed sores, the moments of choking back the bile and tears when changing her diaper, and the hours of desperation praying by her bedside, I lost all knowledge of the world outside 172 Marrano Drive. Occasionally  the outside world tried to demand my attention: new landlords looking for a signed lease to an apartment in Brooklyn, an employer needing me to work remotely, friends and family checking in. To all of them I had the same reply, Later. Not Now. No. I'll call you back. What I really wanted to say was, Fuck off! Don't you know my world is ending?

During those last days, memories of Nonna failed to solidify and I was left with only the feeling, the sense of her in my life over the last 26 years. Nonna in the kitchen. Nonna sitting on the front porch. Nonna in the garden. Nonna's laugh. Nonna cleaning. Nonna singing. Nonna keeping the equilibrium in the family.

Her passing was like a thread coming loose on a hem that continues to unravel over time until the whole garment is undone. In some ways, it has brought everyone closer together. In others, the difference is palpable. In all ways, I still wrestle with the seeming meaninglessness of it all.

Tomorrow we will celebrate my father's birthday with somber hearts.....as we will for the rest of his life. And the mystery is this: life and death so closely intertwined that one cannot exist without the other....at least not in this world.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ghosts of the Theater

Since being back on stage again, I've been reminded of all the little traditions and weird superstitions that go along with the theater. Little traditions and weird superstitions that were first instilled in me by my director at Waynesburg, Eddie. For all his occasional constant creepiness, I really do miss his opening night speech about being artists and how strictly he adhered to theater superstitions that aren't taken as seriously at the Academy. There have been many times when someone has walked whistling across the stage and I cringe inwardly and have to fight against screaming out, "No whistling on-stage!!!!"

So, since I've had to refrain from dumping my nerdy superstitions on my fellow non-aware thespians, I will do it here. These are some of the best, the worst, and the funniest traditions and superstitions that I hold near and dear to my heart. Enjoy!


  1. No Whistling On Stage. This is extremely bad luck and bodes no goods-ville for the production. The superstition dates back to the old days of theater when the sets were still operated by men up in the rigging who would control the fly system. At the time, the counterweights used to "fly" components of the set (curtains, lights, scenery, etc.) between scenes were normally sandbags. Since the crew couldn't yell at each other during a show, they would use various whistling codes to queue when to release varies ropes and pulleys, normally resulting in the dropping of a sandbag. If an unfortunate passer by was walking across the stage and whistling a random ditty, the fly crew could mistakenly interpret it as a queue and release a sandbag on top of the unsuspecting bloke. Lights out for that poor fellow.
  2. Never, Never, NEVER, Say The Word Macbeth Inside A Theater. Always to be referred to as "The Scottish Play" within theater walls and, to the more superstitious, everywhere else as well. Seasoned actors know not to utter the word of one of Shakespeare's bloodier tragedies. The reason? Plain and simply, it's cursed. So many strange and terrible events have surrounded the production of this show in theater history, including tales that one actor died in a fight scene when one of the prop daggers was replaced with a real one. If anyone ever, by accident or not, utters the taboo name, one must perform a "cleansing ritual." My favorite? Running outside, spinning around three times, spitting, and shouting "If we shadows have offended!" from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here are a few other reasons why some (me) believe the tragedy is cursed:
    1. The spells cast by the three witches in one of the scenes are real curses Shakespeare "borrowed" from an actual coven of witches who were so offended when they found out, they cursed the play.
    2. The character H---- was not originally in the script and including her will intensify the curse.
    3.  There are a plethora of intricate fight scenes that are cause for accidents with or without a curse.
    4. It is a financially draining production which could be the reason why many theaters went belly up after its production.
    5. Shakespeare himself cursed the play so none but he would ever direct it. 
  3. Never Wish An Actor "Good Luck." It's always "Break A Leg." Mostly because, again, theater people are superstitious, so if you say "good luck" you're just tempting the fate gods to rain bad luck down upon you. Another understanding is in the definition of bowing, placing one foot behind the other to "break" the line of the legs. To "Break Legs" would insinuate to have such a good show and the audience applauds so long, that one is required to take many bows. 
  4. Always Leave On A "Ghost Light." Practically speaking, this started for safety. If anyone has ever tried to navigate across a stage in the pitch black, it's near impossible not to hurt yourself. There is no way to get your bearings, no wall to run your hand along, just wide open space. Leaving a light (normally set downstage center) lit for the late night passer by is just plain courtesy. However, the story that Eddie always told us that I believe to my core is that we leave a light on so that the Spirits of the Theater can come and perform for each other long after the last cast and crew member has left the theater. Every play and musical has an energy to it and after the show closes, the spirits of that show remain and reenact it on their own. There's also the belief that when a great actor of a particular theater passes on, his or her spirit comes back as a benevolent force for that stage. 
    Every theater has its own ghost story. Here are a few:
    1.  The Palace Theater in London never sells two seats in the balcony as they are always reserved for the theater ghosts.
    2. While rehearsals are underway at the famous Drury Lane Theater in England, it is considered good luck to see the Man In Grey.   
    3. Just the other night, one of the actors in Fiddler was talking about how he was there late at night and the lights kept flickering for not reason accompanied by strange noises. He finally had too much and decided to leave. As he was leaving he said out loud, "Ok, I get the point, I'm leaving now"  only to get to his car and realize he left his cell phone inside. Upon entering the theater again, one of the light bulbs (that was off) exploded and rained glass over his head. He grabbed his phone and left. 
  5. The Final Bow. I'm not sure how many people do this if Eddie and I are the only ones. The truth is that I adopted this tradition from him way back during my freshmen year after playing Agnes in the heart-wrenching three-woman show Agnes of God.
    On closing night at the end of the show, after all the lights are off (except the Ghost Light of course), after everyone has left, the last clap applauded, the costumes hung away, the last bow taken, there is one final bow. One Final Bow on a darkened stage to an empty audience. Bow Stage Left. Bow Stage Right. Bow Center Stage. And then right in the middle of that stage, in the very center, turn around and Bow Upstage, back towards the seats. It is a ritual of saying thank you - to everyone involved in the production - but mostly to the Spirits. A thank you for allowing me to partake in my character and share the joys and sorrows. It is the final touch to put the show to bed.
    Back in my Waynesburg days, it was a bonding moment for me and Eddie, a moment to thank the Spirits together and then sit on the top step and talk about all the highs and lows of the show. After West Side Story my senior year, it was a moment to say a tearful goodbye. 
It's hard to have this moment at the Academy since we strike the set immediately after our final performance. There's so much bustle that the Final Bow usually has to wait until the set is taken down and there are only remnants of the energy that lingers in the drapes, in the seats, in the curtains, in the very walls. 

There's something very noble and beautiful about The Stage. And it's for all the little reasons above and so much more that I am so grateful to be able to participate in such an age-old tradition. Tradition. Tradition! Without tradition, our lives would be as shake as....A Fiddler On The Roof!

And on that note....

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Take My World Apart

I used to listen to this song on repeat when I was in high school. This morning I was brought to tears listening to the Christian station driving into work. Obviously, my Pandora has been set to my David Crowder station all day, and World's Apart just came on. I couldn't help but put the volume up a few notches and sing along to a few lines  all of it (my boss is out this week).
I was just as struck to the heart by these lyrics as I used to be (emphasis mine):

"I look beyond the empty cross
forgetting what my life has cost
and wipe away the crimson stains
and dull the nails that still remain.
More and more I need you now,
I owe you more each passing hour.

The battle between grace and pride
I gave up not so long ago.
So steal my heart and take the pain
and wash the feet and cleanse my pride
take the selfish, take the weak,
and all the things I cannot hide.
Take the beauty, take my tears
this sin-soaked heart and make it yours.
Take my world all apart
take it now, take it now!

And serve the ones that I despise
speak the words I can't deny
watch the world I used to love
fall to dust and thrown away.
I look beyond the empty cross
forgetting what my life has cost.
So wipe away the crimson stains
and dull the nails that still remain.
So, steal my  heart and take the pain,
take the selfish, take the weak,
and all the things I cannot hide,
take the beauty, take my tears,
take my world apart. 
Take my world apart. 
I pray, I pray, I pray.

Take My. World. Apart."

Words to be meditated upon.