The Beauty of Stories

What’s your favorite smell? And why?

Oooh, yeah, great question. So my dad loves to put things in his pockets, he’s notoriously known for just putting things in his pockets. That also means food. Sometimes he’ll pull out a cashew from his pocket, and we’ll all just be like “oh, yeah, that makes sense, he took it with him.” Sometimes he will take bacon with him, which happened one time when I was in middle school. It was turkey bacon – my family likes turkey bacon, we don’t do real bacon, we just don’t like the flavor. So Dad put this bacon in his pocket, went out to do yard work, forgot about the bacon stack, and then put his clothes in the laundry. His clothes eventually made it into the dryer, where my gym clothes were. So for all of middle school, I smelled like a baked ham. The bacon smell just filled up the dryer and all of our clothes smelled him bacon. We’d be in gym class and all the kids would whisper “where is that smell coming from?” and I would be like “that’s weird, I don’t know.” And it was always me. Somehow it’s a really comforting smell and it makes me laugh, too. Not a lot of comforting things can also make you laugh, but this is both of those things – the smell of turkey bacon in gym class.

Did you ever attract unwanted attention?

So like from dogs or people?

Yeah.

Definitely kids. But I was popular enough in middle school that I could be looking around with everyone else and be like “yeah, someone does smell like a honey-baked ham, that’s so bizzare.” Someone should have deduced at some point that it was me, because no matter where I went, it smelled like bacon, and it never came off. We would wash our clothes multiple times and it just never left.

That’s really impressive.

Thank you. Yeah, it kinda just stayed.

I think it’s a cool thing to ask because I don’t think people always think about things like that.

I started asking friends what’s their favorite sound. I think that’s a cool one too. I like smell though, because we don’t often pay attention to smells.

What is your favorite sound?

Bare feet on anything. I have so much time before being a mom, but I love little kid feet especially. It’s a really fun sound. When little kids are first learning to walk, they don’t wear shoes or socks, usually. You hear these feet just trying. That also means that I love bare feet on anything. Grassy surfaces has a distinct sound, and hardwood floors and tile floors. It sounds like family, it sounds like comfort, and it sounds like natural love.

That’s really cool! I’m trying to think about how to word this question, but what would you say is your sense of family? What would you consider your family?

To me, family are the people you want to run to in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and everything in between. People say “yeah, they’re always there for me” and they list things like “when I was stranded” or “really sad” and things like that which are these lows. I love to be like “oh, yeah, they’re my family and I love them because…” basically anything really mundane. Family should be people you can be around and want to be around all the time. But that’s hard. Because sometimes you love people so much and there’s different people for different situations and different feelings. So I know not to go to certain family – and when I say family I’m including friends because there is no distinction between true friends and family. There are people I’ll go to if I need emotional support, or if I need to build a bonfire on a beach, or if I need to pick a lock, or if I need a good, strong hug. They’re all different people. It’s tricky because within a family, you’re supposed to have the role of parent and sibling. Usually when we talk about family, we are talking about sibling-like family. We say things like “he’s like my family because we’re best friends. He’s basically a brother.” Nobody says “he’s my family because he’s basically a parent.” That’s not a pretty normal thing. I think the parent role is tricky and it’s really fluid and there’s something really beautiful about families where you get to play the parent role for your parents. That can come sooner or later, but hopefully it happens. Hopefully you live long enough to get to see your parents the way that they see you. Where you and your parents switch roles. I hope everyone gets to play the parent role in their family for their parents at some point. I think that’s really important to me and something I’ve had to learn this year, where I’ve had t make medical decisions for my mom and I’ve had to stay up rubbing her back with her and I sing the songs to her that she sung to me and I’m a lot more tone deaf than she is so it’s not great. It’s been – it feels like a good end to our relationship, to know what it feels like to be a parent to your own parent. Yeah? Okay We  did it! We got through eventually.  I don’t know if there was a point in any of that.

No there’s always a point. That’s the point of Humans!

Oh, that’s true. You’re right.

It’s interesting though because earlier you were talking about how we have different people for different things, and I was talking about this to one of my friends earlier this semester. For example, when we pick someone to be our significant other, suddenly we expect that person –

To be everything?

Yeah!

Oh, I talk about this all the time! Yeah, and it’s unfair to people! That’s why I’ve always said this – the distinction between my significant other and best friend, or friends, is nothing. I think that’s weird to some people. I treat my “Sig-Off” exactly the same as I treat any friend. People expect your boyfriend to be the listening ear, the good hug, the shoulder to cry on, the celebration guy, and I think that’s unfair and weird. You shouldn’t strip your friends of all their other roles and put it on someone new. When I date someone, I’m going to be like “yeah, I love you, but your hugs are literally not as good as Danny Rosenberg’s hugs. They’re never going to be better than his hugs!” And I think that sometimes the “Sig-Off” can get nervous because of that. Because when you love someone you want to be everything to them and I think one of the biggest parts about learning to love someone well is recognizing that you can’t be everything for them. You have to share that with their best friends and family and…just anyone.

Yeah,, because I feel like it ends up putting too much strain on the relationship, honestly, if you start trying to expect them to do everything. So I know you like to ask other people this question, but when in your life have you felt most free?

Hm..this is hard because I don’t tend to feel constrained a lot. I really want to give you different answers. We’re going to start with one. This past summer, the guy who I think of as a second dad to me – he was my dance teacher for a bit. I formally danced for a bit when I was little, but I actually danced in high school, so he was my teacher and coach. He’s one of my favorite people and an alum of William and Mary – he graduated fifteen years ago. So he met his boyfriend here even though his boyfriend didn’t go here – there’s a really cute story about how they met. They dated for two years of college and then graduated. They had been together for a while by the time Palmer proposed to Chad, and that was when I was working at Starfish – so two summers ago. This past summer, they were like “we’re getting married in Massachusetts. This is a very loose term, but Provincetown, MA is kind of the gay center of the world. It was the most fun thing for me because they asked me to be their flower girl. I had just turned twenty-one and I thought “am I too old for this?” but I wasn’t. So I did it and it was really freeing. Everyone was just so excited for their wedding and you would just walk around this small town where half the people are drag queen performers or drag kings and the other half are just people who are really compassionate and accepting. They’re there because they want inclusivity, because you don’t go there if you hold a chip on your shoulder at all. As I was walking around the town and down the aisle tossing petals it just felt like a very supportive community. It was really magical. It was wonderful to be there at a place where everyone went for inclusivity because they care a lot. You felt like you were in this small town where everyone was friends with each other and no one had to hide parts of themselves, which was really special and beautiful.

My other freest time involves my best friends, Danny – Boy Danny – and Alexis, my roommate of all four years whom I met here. Today is actually the anniversary of the day I accepted her proposal to be roommates. We texted each other at the same time about it, which was great! It was real tender. The three of us have this tradition where at some point between Blowout and leaving for the semester, we go to the beach at night, which you’re probably not supposed to do, and build a bonfire, which you’re also definitely not supposed to do. It’s funny because Danny is like a Boy Scout but he’s also a little kooky. So sometimes he’ll say something like “I didn’t bring any fire-starters, guess we’ll just have to figure something out!” He definitely does it intentionally, because it’s a challenge, in a way. I remember stripping headphones in the dark and touching the wires to a battery until we got a spark and putting tissue paper there, which was how we built a fire. They’re people who inspire me to do dangerous things but  I also know they’ve got my back on it. I feel very fearless when I’m around my best friends. Sometimes we skinny dip and the water is weirdly cold because we also do this during Fall Blowout. But we still go in the water, sometimes it’s just me, usually it’s me and Boy Danny, Alexis is like “you guys go ahead, I’m going to hold your wallets.” When I’m with them I feel so free. Usually Danny brings his ukulele, he’s a musical genius, so he’ll be like “Name a song! Oh sure, I can probably play that” and just strums it out on his uke while we sing along, very badly. That’s a very William and Mary experience that I don’t think I would’ve found anywhere else and will find anywhere else. There’s a freedom that comes from the deep trust and adventure with best friends.

Wow, that’s so cool. I really want to build a bonfire!

Yeah, he’s literally like “okay, your tools are the items in my car, and – go!” So in my free time I basically just google how to start fires. I feel like I should learn how to do those better because during the battery stuff, I really thought we were going to die. I was like “we’re going to get electrocuted. This is how it ends!” Danny’s also a brilliant photographer so he has his flash, so I was like “can we try the flash on something and see if fire starts, you know if it’s really intense?” It’s cool.

I love creating things. I think that’s another freedom.  It’s the fact that the human mind is capable of infinite thought. When you have a creative idea or a creative outlet, you are at your most free. Eduardo Galeano, who is my favorite poet/writer/speaker has a poem about prisoners of war in Uruguay. He has this line that’s like “the only thing keeping them alive is the fact that they can scratch on the wall and know that someone can try to picture what they’re doing.” You know what I mean? Just because of the sound and knowing that there is another human there. He also says that “the walls are the publishers of the poor.” I love street art and grafitti. I love creating, any sort of act of creating, like holy fuck, sorry, but that is just freeing, the freest thing a human can do.

What would you say is your favorite kind of creating, right now?

This is a very loose term of creativity. So Boy Danny and I, sometimes we play games with egg. We buy eggs – it’s okay because we donate to food pantries later to compensate for wasting food, I still feel really guilty about it a lot. We get these eggs and I’ll just get a text from him that’s like “meet me outside in ten minutes, you don’t have to wear shoes.” We’ll then go to Matoaka or a field and we will play egg tag, where the rules are made up in the moment and you can’t see where you’re throwing so you just have to blindly alternate throws. It’s really fun. We’ve been crafting “beggsball”, which is baseball but with eggs. We’re going to do it before the year ends. And you get so messy. The way we start each game, no matter what game it is, is by facing your opponent. Then you take an egg and you put it right on top of their head and count to three and smash it. The egg drips over you and you go to your respective sides and then the game begins. I love creating things that are unconventional and messy, because I think we fear messes too much in life. It’s the same thing with summer rain. Summer rain isn’t something I create. But why do people run indoors when it rains in the summer? You’re not going to get hurt, you’re not in danger, it’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s nourishing when you sit out in it. So I love creating things with eggs; all the games we play with our eggs.  We always come home and are disgusting. And of course, it doesn’t end right there. We have to have deep life chats while we look at the stars. So then by the time I go home the egg is crusty and it just flakes off. I want to believe it’s good for your hair but that’s just what I tell myself. I’m like “oh, it’s a treatment.” So his car has a lot of egg in it now. So I love creating things that are messy.

I’m also a big believer in the creative spirit behind movement. I get all my feathers ruffled when someone says they can’t dance because that’s inherently not true. I’m the Ratatouille of dancing, where he’s like “anyone can cook!” I think anyone can dance and that’s a true fact. As long as there is something that you’re in control of moving, it is dance. So when I worked at Starfish, I did a lot of dance therapy. It was basically  asking them to show me how they felt in a movement. It takes people a while to warm up to it, because they throw their hands up and they’re like “I can’t do it.” And I respond “that! That was a movement!” Then we expand on it, and it becomes something else. It’s really fun to interact that way. Probably one of the most consistent lifelong creative things for me that is still true today is creating movement, because it’s just the most inherent way in which a person can express themselves. Even if you look at babies, when they don’t know how  to speak yet, they move and they indicate how they feel. When you’re in a tantrum, you don’t think “okay, I’m going to place my right arm here and my left arm here!” You do it.  So I wish that everyone considered themselves choreographers or movement creators. I wish that people actually took the time out of every day to summarize how they’re feeling after the whole day in a 3-count movement. I think it’s very therapeutic and it gives you something you’re proud of when you feel like you’ve been able to express yourself.

That’s really cool! I’ve never heard someone refer to dance as creating movement before and that’s such a cool idea.

I think it’s kind of funny because in philosophy we have a term for God, “The Unmoved Mover.” It’s basically that no one can move Him but He can move the rest of us. I didn’t grow up in a house that does theology so I don’t have religion. I don’t really know these things in my core. But I think it’s funny because I want to believe that “The Unmoved Mover,” just because it’s such an ancient idea, was meant to create movers who can move. Just inherently, at our core, I think we’re meant to move, we’re not meant to be still. This is why I get so frustrated in class – I can’t sit still. I have to take a lap. You can usually find me running a lap around Blair in the middle of class because I think movement helps to process things.

So not just from yesterday (One Last Thing) but from conversations I’ve had with you before, I know there was a period in your life where you were really struggling with your physical self. How did that affect your relationship with dance and your ability to create movement?

Oh, that’s a lot. That’s a big journey. We’re going to try to encompass it. So there was a lot happening in terms of the shell that houses my spirit. That’s what I refer to my body as. It was a lot weaker than my spirit. As a result, I was like “well, fuck, my spirit is weaker.” So I would do movement for the sake of impressing or the sake of competing because I was a competitive dancer, in my freshman year as well. I loved it. My coach, Palmer, would always say “if this isn’t healthy for you, you shouldn’t do it.” But I told myself I could do it and that everything was fine. I knew I needed something that I wasn’t getting and I tried therapy. A therapist told me once,  “this is never going to work for you, because you can see through the bullshit.” And I was all like “how can you say therapy is bullshit, I’m trying!” And she just responded by saying it can be bullshit and it’s all about how you interpret it. Sometimes it’s telling yourself a really nice lie until you get to a place where you  can form a new truth. So she basically just told me therapy wasn’t going to work for me. So then I was like “where do I go now?” So that was when I turned to people and storytelling. I decided that I wanted to live more outside my head because inside my head was rough. I thought that if I could live outside my head, I could collect new ideas and feel new things. Eventually, that would have to fill up all the space and push out some of the bad. That was when I started working in a hospital. I would pick up these weird hours like 2am because that’s when people are most lonely and need someone to hear their story. Or I would go to train stations on cold nights and bring coffee for the homeless people. I’d sit and just ask for their truths. Because a lot of times people get written off if they are perceived as not being grounded in reality. But just because what they’re saying isn’t grounded in reality doesn’t make it any less true to them. Imagine a world where people walk by you not hearing your truths. Imagine how empty would that leave you. I heard some wacky stories about purple penguins and some were more fun. But at the hospital, one night a guy came in and he had broken his hip. His daughter had dropped him off because he was around ninety. He just wanted to talk to someone because his wife had passed. So I was sitting with him and eventually he told me this cool story about his best friend, who was also his wife. It was all about how you need to go on a road trips and adventures with your best friends and you need to not bring your phone. If you do bring your phone, you can only respond to people who reach out to you. Don’t initiate, don’t try to be in a place different from where you are. You can answer people to tell them that you’re safe, but don’t ask them “hey, how’s it going?” Don’t reach out, let people reach to you. He said that all you need to pack is a swimsuit, something you don’t mind getting dirty, and something you feel so stunning in. Take those three things, pack them in a car, and go anywhere. My best friend, who’s going into the army as a field artillery officer, and I did that a few times. She is remarkable in every way. She’s the most tender-hearted badass woman. She is my person for that, and so is Boy Danny. Eventually, I just accumulated all these stories and all these thoughts that there wasn’t room anymore to hold onto these really stubborn, hateful things that I felt about myself. It’s unconventional, but I think people and stories are a form of therapy.  Through people’s stories, I was able to realize that I had so much more to experience that I needed to stop lowkey killing myself. Not in a hopeful or inspirational way, because I heard a lot of heartbreak. But I still wanted it. I still wanted to feel it all. I think the goal to life is intensity in any form on the spectrum. I hope people feel intense heartbreak and then learn empathy from it. I just hope it doesn’t break people; that’s always my fear. I think people should experience these deep, intense emotions in any way. Then that’s a full life. That’s a life well-lived. Then, when I came to Starfish and I started doing dance therapy, I would ask someone “why aren’t you moving? Why aren’t you trying?” And he’d be like “oh, I don’t like my body, it doesn’t move like this.” And then I would have all these reasons why that wasn’t real. So then I was like “shit, why am I not saying this to myself?” Because if you hear something enough you start to believe it which is a lot of how I believe mental illness perpetuates, especially in abusive and trauma situations. So we always tried to replace the bad perpetuating thoughts with good ones. My kids would eventually turn to each other and say things like, “hey, your body is beautiful because it’s trying!” and stuff like that where I would be amazed that my words were on someone else. I was around it enough that it felt naturally to allow myself to hit a reset button.

So now, with the way you are and where you are in life, would you say that you’re content with the way things are or do you feel like there is so much more that is uncertain?

I’m really scared all the time that I’m going to lose my deep empathy for people, because I think that’s one of  the core characteristics of who I am. And I’ve seen it from working with my kids. Trauma can really tear down your empathy. That’s probably my biggest fear. Especially because my mom is in her last stage of cancer. I’m very, very, very scared that when she passes I’m going to be so frustrated with people who are having fun and are happy that I’m going to be the Grinch and my heart will shrink seven sizes or whatever and I’ll lose my ability to empathize. I’m at peace with the fact that I think I’ve learned a lot about how to care for people and how to say “I love you” in different ways. If I were to die tomorrow, I feel like my last breath would still be one where I could say “yeah, I did it.” That’s a really great feeling. But I think that as people we’re so fluid and ever-changing that I would never want to be in a place of full contentment. I want to be uncomfortable all the time because that means there’s still something else to do. I want to feel like there’s still someone else that I have to talk to and something more to do, like I have to tell them this or that. I want some sense of future urgency and longing and discomfort. I’m not content, but I am grateful for the journey. One of my life’s purposes is to find the best ways to care for people and I think I’ve done that up until now, but tomorrow there’s going to be a new opportunity to find another way. So it’s this bit of unrest with knowing that we’re fluid and ever-changing and anticipating the fear. I think we can’t let fear drive the bus – Erik Garrison has this great quote where he says “don’t let fear drive the bus, you drive the bus but strap fear in” or something like that. I’m sure that’s completely wrong but I think fear needs to come along with you on the journey because it forces you to constantly be thinking and feeling. With my mom, I’m so afraid of losing my empathy, but my fear is sitting there and constantly reminding me to express my feelings, call my friends, go to the hospital to check on her which ensures that the empathy is still present, to make sure that it doesn’t diminish and gradually fizzle out. So I think we should never be wholly content. We should always have a little fear in our hearts all the time. I think that it drives us to – not improve because I hate that word since people picture success conventionally, but to dive in deeper into the things that we care about.

It’s cool to hear someone say that because there’s such a negative outlook that people have about fear. That it’s always something that brings you down or holds you back. It’s really interesting to hear someone put it as a motivator.

Yeah, my mom always used to say “feel the fear and do it anyways.” If you’re not doing something that is even a little motivated by fear, you’re not doing it from your heart.

A lot of times, when you’re feeling most vulnerable is also when you’re having your greatest growth. I guess that’s the whole idea of stepping outside of your comfort zone.

I try to never stay in my comfort zone. I’m not sure if I have one. Which can be tricky, because you crave comfort, as people. Recently, I made a friend who I just met but we fell fast into a feeling of kindred spirit-ship. We love living outside our comfort zones. He took a year off to work in Vietnam from the ground up. He didn’t have any social support, did not know the language, he didn’t have an institution that was helping him teach – just a set of classrooms which were really just like campsites. So yeah, cool guy. Recently, he was like “it’s raining. Meet me outside at our corner in five minutes.” And I was like “great, I can do that.” So he comes in the rain, he’s smiling, and he’s just holding these mugs of hot coffee. We brought hammocks and blankets. We set up these hammocks on the beach. It was cold rain. We cuddled up in our blankets and just talked for hours. He was like “the goal is that one of us is going to tap out before we get hypothermia.” He tapped out first. We were out there for at least two hours and it was so cold and so uncomfortable but there was so much more to that interaction than comfort. I actually think the discomfort contributed to how vulnerable we were willing to be. I don’t think anyone’s comfort zone is naturally being cold and wet,  but I think you should find a way to blend something that comforts you, like a good, good friend, with these scarier, fear-based things outside your comfort zone.

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