|Christmas Island Frigatebird|
Young artists, particularly Asian-American ones, occasional write to me for career advice. And I typically ignore them because I don't have time to be a life coach! I'm busy thinking about other things, like war and famine and Channing Tatum! But I eventually cave in and write back because I start to feel guilty for not being a humanitarian. You see, I personally know people who actually go to homeless shelters and feed the hungry. Seriously! And I've told them, "I'd like to go with you guys to the homeless shelter one day...and drop you off and pick you up when you're done!"
However, I'd like to demonstrate that I have at least some humanitarian tendencies by publicly sharing one of those young-artist e-mails and my response to her—because this exchange is pretty representative of the online conversations I have and this post can act as a handy preemptive reply to future e-mails and this would be like killing a dozen Christmas Island Frigatebirds with one stone. (Forgive the environmentally inappropriate simile.) (Please Note: This is likely the first use of phrase "environmentally inappropriate simile" in recorded history.)
So, I'd like to share with you an e-mail from a young woman. In her message, she makes reference to a character in my play, The Theory of Everything. The character, Lana, is trying to avoid facing her parents by wandering around Las Vegas aimlessly after being kicked out of law school because of poor grades, leaving her saddled with debt and dumped by her unsupportive boyfriend.
To understand the young woman's e-mail fully, it might be helpful to read a key monologue that Lana delivers to the audience in Act Two:
When I was eight-years-old, I read somewhere about a particular tribe in Africa. The moment a woman in the tribe decides to have a child, she meditates until the very unique song of the child somehow comes to her in her mind. She then teaches that song to the man who will be the father of the child. When they have sex to conceive the child, part of that time is spent singing the child's song. And when the woman is pregnant, she teaches the song to everyone else in the village, and this song remains with the child throughout his or her life. When the child is hurt, when the child does something great, when the child goes through a rite of passage, when the child is on his or her deathbed, the child is sung this song.
At eight, I thought: "Cool! I should have my own song!"
And the song that I chose for myself was Helen Reddy’s "I Am Woman."
Of course my parents rolled their eyes when I declared this, but, in the end, they had to admit that this song of power and pride was fitting for me because, at such a young age, I appeared to be a lot smarter than my brother, I already had a couple of chess tournament trophies on my bookshelf, I was in special "gifted and talented" classes at school, and I had already written a paper deconstructing the sociopolitical, Marxist undertones in Dr. Suess' The Cat in the Hat.
But "I Am Woman" is a song that becomes increasingly harder to live up to as you grow older. Because people begin to expect things of you. They expect grandiose goals, big achievements, huge success. They expect you to be strong. They expect you to be invincible. They expect that you can do anything.
Then, when you don't live up to people's ridiculous Helen-Reddy-expectations of you, you begin to worry: "Oh, my God, maybe my song isn't 'I Am Woman.' Maybe it's Beck's 'Loser.' Or AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell.' Or anything by Meat Loaf."
And I get to thinking that maybe I don't have a song. Never did. And it's uncomfortable and scary in all that silence.
So, naturally, my next thought is: "Well...maybe Meat Loaf isn't so bad after all."
Here, then, is the e-mail from that young woman. I've redacted certain sections of her e-mail to help mask her identity, as well as edited it for clarity:
I'm a twenty-year-old Asian American college student.... My college put on a play reading of The Theory of Everything last fall and I played Lana. Never before have I related to a character as much as I did to Lana! Her struggles were my struggles: [how] her Asian heritage pushed her to excel, the pressure she put on herself to meet her parents and boyfriend's expectations, the inability to find passion in her studies, feeling completely lost after the future she thought she [was] going to have became an illusion, and then [being] tossed back to square one...in debt. Good news is that I'm not in that much debt yet, but the rest describes my situation right now pretty well. (Except for the boyfriend part.... I still need to get one before I can get dumped). This semester I was accepted to [REDACTED] school with the condition that I keep up my spring semester grades. I've been working since high school to get into [REDACTED] school, so keeping up spring grades should be a piece of cake compared to the labor I put in for more than two years. Yet I felt no motivation at all to leap over this final hurdle. Instead I just felt depressed, extremely worn out, and have no desire to study any further. I couldn't find any interest in what I was studying while others were ecstatic to finish off strong and start [REDACTED] courses next fall. As you can imagine, spring grades weren't so hot. I'm scared that a rejection letter is coming. I find myself thinking about Lana a lot. I wonder how she's doing. What would she be doing now? Pursuing another career that she's passionate about? Or working a desk job to pay off her debt? Is she happy? Depressed? Regretful? Did she ever find the greatness she felt she was destined for? If not, did she cope? And how? Was she able to find a path that made her happy, even if it's not the greatness she imagined? Could she look back at her failure now and laugh? Do you think Lana's doing well, Prince?
And this was my reply to her:
Interesting questions you pose. I think, with the luxury of hindsight, Lana realized, no matter how much she feared getting kicked out of law school, there was a very real part of her that manipulated circumstances so that exact thing would eventually happen. It's as if she put on a good show—for her family, her boyfriend, her friends—but her authentic self (that part of her that is untouched by the opinions of others) wouldn't allow her to go on any longer. Her time in law school, however, did serve its purpose—she needed to "buy time" before she grew into a strong sense of herself. Many people do that, buy time. The same way you can't skip from kindergarten to college, you can't go from the life you're trapped in to the life you're meant to live within the snap of a finger. It takes time. It takes detours. Honor the time. Honor the detours. But eventually they will no longer serve you. There's a great quote from Gerald G. May's The Awakened Heart:
"The natural human spirit is irrepressibly radical; it wants the unattainable, yearns for the impractical, is willing to risk the improper. But as we conform ourselves to the practicalities and proprieties of efficiency, we restrict the space between desire and control; we confine our intention to an ever-decreasing range of possibilities. The choices we make—and therefore the way we feel about ourselves—are determined less by what we long for and more by what is controllable and acceptable to the world around us. After enough of this, we lose our passion. We forget who we are."
I think Lana eventually remembered who she was. Subconsciously at first; consciously later. And that's what we're all moving towards. Increased consciousness.
So there. A dozen Christmas Island Frigatebirds dead.