It's summer, which for me has been shifting to a bit of a slower pace (hence fewer posts here on the blog). It's meant visits from dear out-of-town travelers, indulging in new books, and spending as much time out in the sunshine as I can get.
For many people, including myself, summer also often means family gatherings, high school reunions, and generally seeing folks that you may not have seen in awhile. While it can be good to catch up, if you're like me, it can also be a bit jarring. I work throughout the year on a handful of artistic projects, spend a lot of time journaling and talking out what I feel my purpose is, and seek the company of people who are interested in supporting me in these ways, both personal and creative.
For me, seeking out a chosen creative family with whom I feel incredibly close to and supported by has made a huge difference for me. These are the people I can discuss the recent joys and challenges of working on a new play with, and are also the people with whom I can tell silly stories to and share a good meal with. Some are in the same city I am and others are thousands of miles away. Wherever they are, I am so grateful to have found my tribe.
But sometimes when I'm back with family or old friends, whom society (and biology) tells us are supposed to be our true tribe, I can often feel out of place, like I don't belong. I can feel like a Visitor. While I hear other people measure their year in marriages, babies, house closings, and new jobs, I begin to feel that the work I felt so proud of on my own is now so small in comparison. It can be hard to tell someone that I went for an Equity audition but didn't get it, and have them understand why it's one of things I feel proudest of this year. It's difficult to articulate why writing a few pages of stream of consciousness in my journal for seven days in a row is such a huge personal victory for me. Even if I work up the courage to share these experiences, people often just don't understand how much these things mean to me, or they just respond with "Wow, that's great." Then the conversation moves on. The list of questions changes depending on what's going on in your life at the moment, but generally follows the same course.
"So, are you seeing someone?"
"Have you gotten a new job?"
"Are you thinking about kids yet?"
Without my community around me in these moments, I begin to believe that maybe I don't have as many people in my life who really want to get to know me, as I truly am. Sometimes it feels like family or old friends want to reinforce their ideas of the "me" I was as a teenager or the "me" they think that I am or wish I would be. These moments can be full of shame, sadness, and a general sense of becoming un-anchored. It can hurt to feel that people we are supposed to be closest to are the ones who can seem the most uninterested in what we're doing. It can be very painful to hear the wave of congratulations over a new baby and have your own news that you are starting an internship in your field be met with "But is it paid?"
From one creative to another, I am here to tell you that you must remember your community in these moments. You must remember your own voice, quiet as it might be, that whispers to you "What you are doing matters." Surrounded by expectant mothers, we must remember that we too are nurturing our own ideas and projects inside of us that are just as meaningful. Surrounded by those who are celebrating an engagement, we must take a moment to honor our own commitment to ourselves, our art, and our creative community. Surrounded by people who judge success by new flat screen televisions and cars in the driveway, we must remember that prosperity is not a competition and that our lives are abundant regardless of the presence (or lack thereof) of these status symbols.
Why do I keep writing about these issues, encouraging us to stand strong in our own unique story? For the simple reason that I still need to hear it. My tribe still needs to hear it. And it's important for people who love us to know how to show us how much they care by asking about what matters to us. When you don't necessarily hit all the milestones that society tells us are crucial to belonging (marriage, children, buying a house), it becomes critical to have people in your life ask you questions that show you they care about the path you are walking, no matter how similar or different it is to the one they're on. It's also important to be one of those people for the family or friends in your life that you might not talk to often. Being curious and open to someone's unique experience lets them know, I see you. I want to see and hear some of the things that really matter to you.
One strategy I've tried more recently is to answer the old questions with new answers that redirect the conversation. In the past, when people have asked me about a day job I haven't liked, I will answer back with "Yup, I'm still there. But what I have really been enjoying working on is a new play I'm writing." If they don't throw you the ball at the start, take charge and own your experience anyway.
If at the end of the family reunion (or barbecue or vacation), you come away feeling worse for wear, be gentle with yourself. Having been rough with myself many, many times, here's a few ideas of ways to bounce back from a "social hangover":
1. Make a list of your biggest supporters within your creative circle. These do not have to just be people that you work with in the theatre, or dance class, or your writing group. Some of my biggest creative cheerleaders are dear friends I've met at my administrative day jobs. Kindred spirits hide everywhere.
2. After you make your list, call someone on it. Make an in-person (or Skype) date to get together and swap stories of your latest projects and funny stories.
3. Read through these artistic Core Principles: http://www.artistsu.org/tools-and-tactics/#.Va0P8kUaRR0 Look at this list and print our a copy for your bathroom mirror, your office, and your wallet. Remember that they're all true, even if when it doesn't feel like it.
4. Go out and buy some colored pencils and a sketch pad. Or schedule an audition. Go take a dance class. Put yourself smack in the middle of a creative physical space and let yourself be soothed by the very art that you love. You'd think this would be a go-to tool for a creative person, but it's amazing how often we forget about this strategy.
5. Consider taking a break from social media for a bit, especially Facebook. When you're feeling vulnerable, logging on to social media can be the equivalent of rubbing salt in the wound. While Facebook allows you to catch up on social news in one fell swoop, it also allows you to endlessly saturate yourself with others' successes and victories (with not many of the backstories of failure and hard work), which can be painful if you are going through a rough patch. Do yourself a favor and monitor what you allow in, at least until you are feeling a bit stronger.
Creative souls are sensitive, which is both an enormous gift that allows us to tell all kinds of stories, and a quality that can make even something like a family dinner painful. It is crucial to take the time to remind ourselves and each other that the work we do matters, the soul searching we engage in is important, and that we, as artists and human beings, are valued.
If you need even more food for thought on not letting others define who you are, read this beautiful blog post by Kate Marple over at the Perpetual Visitors Theatre Company.