I Will Always Love You

My younger sister, Betsy, just left to head back to Washington, DC. She came to visit me in Chattanooga for the weekend to celebrate her 37th birthday. It’s crazy when your younger sibling turns 37. Not only do I keep thinking I’m 37, I feel more like 27. Funny how the mind needs to be convinced that the body is not what it once was. I wake up with cricks in my neck, not from a night out of dancing, but from sitting on the couch in a slightly different manner than my usual lounge posture.

With my husband out of town for the week and a freezer full of pre-made dinners, I had plenty of time on my hands to prepare for her arrival. She’s been living alone since the beginning of the pandemic, and while she is the strong one in the family, I know it’s been really hard on her, if for no other reason than she often feels like she has to be the strong one. Being that I’m the middle child, I often had no problem flailing my emotions about, making it very clear I needed attention. I have since grown out of it, for the most part, but I still have my moments.

I was 28 years old before I realized that being a MIDDLE child meant I had a YOUNGER sister… meaning I wasn’t just a middle child, I was a big sister, with some one to look after other than myself. It was groundbreaking. We’ve been close ever since.

I set my intentions ahead of time, I had recently read the Art of Gathering and I learned that a good gathering isn’t just about the decor or the food, but about the intention you have for the gathering and how well you carry it out. My intention for her time at my house was to create a space for her to feel celebrated, but more so, loved and special; knowing this helped me think through what might make Betsy feel that way.

Since she lives a busy life in DC, she doesn’t often have time to do the things she’d like to do: cook, decorate, take a bath. Living alone means she’d probably even more so like to be on the receiving end of someone cooking for her, someone decorating her space, and… well, the bath she can do on her own.

I spent the week preparing for her arrival, from making the decorations and hanging them, to making the cake and the cake topper…

Though Josh and I have been living in Chattanooga since November, we have to yet to find a kitchen table we like… partly because Josh keeps saying he is going to make one, but we going on month four of that not happening, so I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I went down to Wal-Mart and grabbed a cheap folding table to cover up. We used it once and spent the rest of the time eating at the kitchen counter or on the couch. I guess it’s true that decor is a mere addition, take it or leave it, compared to the over all purpose of the gathering and being together.

The day she flew in she had already spent an extra three hours in the DC airport due to delayed flights. She was getting in much later than planned and I knew she’d be tired, not just from the flight, but the work week she had just come off of. I wouldn’t be able to fix her energy levels, but I could certainly make her feel welcome, and hopefully get her laughing after a long day.

I dressed for the occasion and awkwardly waited for her to come down the escalator in the Chattanooga Airport…

After waiting a while, enduring stares and little girls saying “Mommy, look” while pointing at me, Betsy finally started to come down the escalator. As soon as I saw her I began playing the Sisters song from White Christmas, you know how it goes…

And in no time, though tired from travel, delayed flights and a DC work week, she laughed out loud as I continued to sing and act out the song until she reached me.

“Welcome to your birthday weekend!” I yelled, and proceeded to keep playing and singing the song until we reached the car. I may have overdone it a little, but I’m still a middle child, sometimes I can’t help myself.

When she got in the car I had snacks and an itinerary for the weekend, letting her know she didn’t have to think about or plan a thing, it was all taken care of, all she had to do was enjoy it.

I’m not sharing all this to say “look at all I did!” (Maaaaybe the middle child part is saying that), I’m sharing it to say, it took me 38 years to do something like this for someone who’s been a part of my life all 38 years. It was long overdue and I’m grateful I was allowed the space in time to make it happen for her. I’m sharing it to say, I realized it’s never too late to make someone feel loved and special.

I played Hanson when we walked in the door, our childhood obsession. With the house decorated at each corner, she’d let out a little scream as she’d see something new. I had snacks at the ready while I finished making dinner.

After dinner she took a bath, an often daily ritual for her until pipes in her apartment burst and she hadn’t been able to take a bath for weeks. We joked about how anxious she must be since she’s only been able to take a shower, “yea,” she laughed, “sometimes I take two baths a day!” I suppose that’s what happens when you live and work in Washington, DC… you take two baths a day, not just to relax but to wash all the politics off!

She thanked me for everything and turned in early. I knew she was tired, but there almost seemed to be a sadness about her, not a heavy sadness, just a sense I had that she couldn’t fully express excitement. Times before I may have asked what was wrong, but this time I had a feeling she just needed to be where she was at, and I didn’t need to take any of it personally, wondering if she expected more or if I got the right kind of cheese. It wasn’t about me and so I let her go to bed, telling her I’d have homemade cinnamon rolls ready by 9am.

On the day of Betsy’s birthday I woke up early to prepare breakfast. Hot yoga was scheduled for 10am so I figured she’d be up much earlier to have time to drink coffee and eat. At 9:20am I still didn’t hear any stirring upstairs so I started to text her. Just before I hit send I heard her bedroom door open and her slowly walking toward the stairs, “ow, ow, ow,” she said, “I think I need help.” I ran over to the stairs, “what the heck happened?” She was slowly trying to maneuver her way down and began laughing when she couldn’t make it.

“It might be from sitting all day, but just before I went to bed last night, I felt a pinched nerve and I couldn’t go to sleep, I just laid there in the happy baby position.” We both started laughing. “What do you need?” I asked, “want to get back in bed and I’ll bring you coffee?”

“I think just water,” she said, “I’m going to take a bath and see if that helps.” I was pretty sure her taking a bath meant we were going to miss yoga, but she managed to make it in-and-out in time for us to go, stretching her hamstrings out before getting in the car, “ow, ow, ow.”

“Welcome to your late thirties!” I said.

After yoga we went and got smoothies, returned home and Betsy decided to take another bath. We both laid down for a nap, her having been up late with a pinched nerve and me having been up early making cinnamon rolls. Wow, I thought to myself, baths and nap time, we really are getting older.

I took her to get a pedicure at 1:30, during which she fell asleep and upon returning home again she took nap number two, after which she took bath number three. I guess that’s how she celebrates her birthday, I thought, lots of baths! To each their own.

After all the baths and naps, we got dressed up and went out to dinner downtown. We talked about previous birthdays, what our family looks like now and if she had an ideal man, what would he be like. “I don’t really have a type,” she said, “I’ve dated a South African, an Israeli, and a 50 year old. I’m open to any type of person, I only have two requirements: that he be emotionally intelligent AND available, and that we share the same spiritual beliefs. I’ve loved people who haven’t shared my beliefs, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s just too hard on the relationship to differ on your core beliefs.”

We were home by 9:30 pm and dressed for bed shortly there after. I had her blow out her birthday candles, being too tired and full, she passed on having a piece of cake. She opened the present I made her, a corgi birthday crown in honor of our family corgi (who she is obsessed with), Benny Boy.

After she went up to bed I sat on the couch with my own piece of cake and small glass of champagne. Josh called to say goodnight and we talked for a while. I told him I knew Betsy was glad to be here, I knew she was enjoying it, but it didn’t feel like she was. I wasn’t getting this excited reaction I would assume one would get when they’ve done everything I did.

Josh reminded me that sometimes people just need a safe place to be themselves no matter how they are feeling. “She might not be able to express it right now,” Josh said, “but you know she loves being there.” “I know,” I said, “I guess in some selfish way, I just want to feel it!” I knew doing things for her wasn’t about getting a specific reaction from her, and that if it were, I’d end up transferring my disappointment onto her, creating an uncomfortable environment to be in, all because I wanted more recognition. “Let her be where she is at and keep loving her there,” Josh said, “you’re so good at that.”

The next morning I had a Dollywood mug with her name on it and a Dolly Parton card sitting by the coffee maker. I wanted to set the tone for the day that this was it… the day we go to Dollywood!

Now that I live in Tennessee, Dollywood is my happy place. I’ve been three times since moving here four months ago- that’s about how many times I went to Hollywood living in Southern California for eight years! The week before Betsy’s visit I went to Dollywood for Passholder’s day (Yes, getting a season pass was one of the first things I did as a Tennessean), and unbeknownst to everyone, DOLLY PARTON WAS ACTUALLY THERE! She waved at me when she saw one of my homemade Dolly crowns and I momentarily forgot to keep breathing.

Before coming, Betsy had said the one thing she for sure wanted to do was go to Dollywood. Piece of cake.

I was laying in bed drinking my coffee when I heard a knock on my door. Betsy popped her head in, “I LOVE MY MUG!” she said and she scurried over to sit on the end of my bed. We sat there talking for hours, there she is, I thought to myself, not because she expressed something I wanted to hear, but because she was finally expressing herself, talking, asking questions, laughing, the Betsy I know when she’s not weighted down by work, family drama, or living alone.

Had I made a comment like “oh you finally decided to show up,” or “nice to see you finally being expressive,” I think it would have killed the moment. A comment like that would have shamed her for simply being tired or worn out from life, making her feel unsafe to feel however she feels. Unnecessary commentary is what I am learning to discern, and I knew making a comment about her suddenly seeming lively would have made her feel bad about the days prior; something she didn’t need to feel bad about because there was nothing wrong with the days prior.

We drove two hours to Dollywood and spent the rest of the day there feeling like kids all over again. We both wore our crowns that donned our favorite things, hers, a corgi and mine, Dolly.

We drove the two hours back to Chattanooga listening to Dolly Parton’s America Podcast the whole way. Betsy had not only officially caught the Dolly bug, but she had finally felt rested and able to enjoy herself. “Next time I’m gonna take a vacation before my vacation so I don’t feel so tired on the vacation,” she said. We laughed and I was relieved I never made an issue of what I perceived to be her lack of enthusiasm. We had another day and a half together, relaxed and fully enjoying each other’s company.

By the time I took her to the airport she started crying, “I had such a good time,” she said, “I don’t really want to leave.” I made some stupid comment I read off of Pinterest in response, “Oh, don’t cry cause it’s over, smile cause it happened.” It kinda makes me gag now, especially when she responded while still crying, “well, I can do both.”

I laughed, “yes, you can.” She was right. And that’s what makes her the strong one, not an avoidance of emotion, but realizing she can be sad and grateful at the same time. She can be tired and lonely and worn out AND still enjoy herself and every opportunity she is given. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that life is a mix; a mix of emotions, not always compartmentalized by seasons, but often times experienced simultaneously.

Perhaps Betsy wanted her birthday to happen at a different time, when she felt more rested and had more time to enjoy it, but life just happens, without asking if we are ready, rested, or prepared. She turned 37 when she did, and I could either meet her there and love her, or I could complain that she wasn’t acting as happy as I’d like her to be.

When I returned home she left a note on her bed, thanking me for the whole weekend, for every thought and detail that didn’t go unnoticed. “I will never forget this weekend,” she said, “you made ME feel loved and special

I will always love you!”

The Work of Forgiveness

So there’s this passage in the Bible…

Okay, wait, before I go there, let me first say… I am no Biblical scholar nor even an aggressive reader of Scripture, but having grown up in the church, spending time both loving and hating it, I have a few cliff notes that have stuck with me along the way. (There’s a pun in there somewhere because my grandad’s name was Cliff and he certainly served us earfuls of Bible verses, but until I can figure it out, onward!)

Without googling the verse so I can give you exacts and impress someone without much scripture I can recall by google, I’m just gonna go with go with what I can recall by memory and see how well that goes (or even how well some of it has stuck over the years). I don’t know chapters and numbers, but I know there are a lot stories in which Jesus and his disciples are hanging out and going over the basics of being a good human. The disciples are his closest friends and they commit their lives to doing whatever it takes for Jesus and His message of Love to be known by all (they don’t always do the best job of standing by His side, but, you know, He’s Jesus, so he gets it and He still loves them).

In this one particular story, the boys are talking about some of Jesus’ teachings, which, really, if you look at them, are radical, not just for back then, but for now… LOVE YOUR ENEMY? FORGIVE PEOPLE WHO’VE WRONGED YOU!? Naturally, one of the disciples wants Jesus to expound on some stuff, “soooo… about this forgiveness thing” (I’m paraphrasing, incase that needed to be stated), “like how many times are we supposed to forgive someone, maybe seven times?”

Jesus answered his question with a math equation “not just seven times, seventy times seven,” and seeing as math was never my strong suit, I always dismissed His answer. Some large number is what I chalked it up to. When I got a little older and would again hear this passage, I decided to figure it out. I pulled out my TI-83 calculator… 490. Okay, maybe He meant for us to forgive so many times that it’s too hard to keep track. Throw in different translations of scripture, some of which Jesus says to forgive 77 times, and I never got a clear understanding, only that I was suppose to forgive a lot!

You can find plenty of blogs (as can I, so please don’t feel the need to send them to me) with Bible scholars breaking down this scripture and helping us understand the symbolic meaning of these numbers (somehow they represent God’s eternal forgiveness extended to us). As someone who has had scripture thrown at her as pad answers and bandaids with no real meaning for how they were helpful to her personally, I’m not here to break down scripture to be used as a blanket formula for all.

These days, I tread lightly when it comes to referencing the Bible, mostly because I’ve seen the ways people use it to back up they own views (most of which are political), and while I claim the same God as the Christian Faith, the God I know is very different from the one seen on Fox News and CNN. God is in both and neither camp at the same time, and way less political than everyone thinks (also less religious but that’s for another day).

So this is a “personal understanding” story more so than a dissecting of what the Bible means. It’s my coming of age to understanding just one of the many passages I’ve read or heard since childhood, and 38 years later finally saying “ohhhhh, I think I get it.”

While I don’t know much, I know that holding onto anger hurts me way more than the person I’m angry at. I’ve let anger eat me alive before, stuffing it deep down and reaching for anything else to distract me from the pain caused by someone else. In more recent years I’ve felt the healthiest I’ve ever been, having let go of past hurts and choosing to forgive both myself and others for things done wrong.

There’s this one situation that often revisits my mind, I feel anger start to bubble up as soon as I think about it. I feel how it felt all over again to be hurt by this one person, almost annoyed that I forgave them because it feels so good (in the moment) to be angry at them. I can see why we hang onto anger, it’s so much easier, it feels a lot better to feel justified in our anger than to “let go,” “move on,” or “forgive.” Laaaaame. Where’s my pitchfork!?

I’ve forgiven this person so many times, in my head, in my heart, in my journal. I’ve “let go and let God,” I’ve “chosen Joy,” I’ve forgiven at least 76 times, perhaps having only one time left in me. I was talking to my mom about it who has become quite a place of refuge for me in our later years of life… this was not always the case when I was growing up. I relayed that I felt something must be wrong with me if I can’t seem to forgive them, “it still comes up,” I told her, “and when it does, I still feel angry! Do I not mean it when I say I’ve forgiven them? Why won’t the feeling go away?”

As my mother started to reference this 70×7 passage, I could feel my eyes rolling in the back of my head, here we go, I thought, and I interrupted her… “but I’ve done that! As much as I understand forgiveness, I’ve forgiven them! And yet I randomly still think about it, and I still get mad, and I feel like I have to start all over and forgive them again!”

“That’s the beautiful and hard thing about it,” my mom said, “70×7 means you keep making the choice to forgive, no matter how many times it comes back up. It’s not that you didn’t forgive them before, it’s that you have to remind yourself, again and again, that you already chose to forgive them.” My eye roll settled a little and I noticed my heart react as she kept talking, “life is too hard for us to go undisturbed by things that have hurt us. Feeling the hurt doesn’t make you weak in emotion or in faith, it makes you human.”

Perhaps you’ve been well aware of this for a long time, which is awesome if you have, I’m sure it does wonders for mental health, but it was the first time I realized that forgiveness isn’t a one-time job. The harm may have been done once, but the damage it can cause can last a long time, if not a lifetime. The work is not to get to a place of no longer feeling it, the work is the constant choosing to forgive no matter how many times it comes up and I feel it.

I’ll admit, this both freed me and depressed me. I want the easy one-and-done “I no longer feel it” kind of experience. The trouble is, you’ll wait your whole life for it to feel done, for the pain to no longer be an issue. While I do think you can absolutely be less affected by the pain, and live a beautiful healthy life, I think life will always catch us off guard. You never know what might trigger the memory of a past hurt, no matter how long it’s been.

So it’s depressing to me, or maybe exhausting, to think I may have to keep forgiving for a long time. But it’s freeing to realize something isn’t wrong with me just because a past hurt rears its head and still affects me.

When that trigger happens, I don’t have to add to it by assuming I must not being doing as well as I thought, or I didn’t really let it go or forgive… I can acknowledge it for what it is- a trigger, a reminder, a reaction, and I can do what I need to remind myself I am currently okay; and I can once again chose to forgive, to not let it dictate how I live my life or treat other people.

I realized I’ve been doing the work this whole time, forgiving time and time again, or at least reminding myself that that’s what I’ve chosen… forgiveness. Sometimes I need to remind myself I’ve chosen to forgive myself, and sometimes it’s someone else. Maybe one day I won’t need to, maybe one day I won’t even think about it… maybe, maybe not. All I know is, evidence of a healthy life is not one that is undisturbed by past or present hurts. Evidence of a healthy life is feeling all that life has to offer, even when it disturbs us, finding the balance between neither avoiding the pain nor being consumed by it.

I’ll admit, sometimes I still need to hide under the covers and not be so “on,” and sometimes I need to just suck it up and get a move on. There’s no blanket formulas, every day is different, and I’m learning more and more to choose to show up in that day… just as I am… forgiven and able to forgive.

Stand Your Sacred Ground

Joining a yoga class in Southern Tennessee looks a lot different than Southern California. For starters, bread. It’s often the topic of conversation in my Tennessee class, everyone salivating while in side plank. Apparently there’s a bakery in town called “The Bread Basket” that not only serves up amazing bread, but decadent pastries. Our teacher listed out each one she tried over the weekend, the cheesecake brownie not being her favorite, but it was in front of her so she ate it anyway.

“My husband does that,” a middle aged woman called out as we switched from right side plank to left, “I don’t get it, how can you eat something you hate?”

“Hate is a strong word,” Joe, a middle aged man transplanted from Chicago, yelled out from the other side of the room, “No one said they hated it, just that it wasn’t the best… but I agree, if it was just sitting there in from of me, I’d eat it too.” Most of the class agreed, and the teacher stood her ground as well, not just in side plank but in the cheesecake brownie, “if it’s just sitting there looking at you, you can’t not eat it.”

“So JJ,” Joe says, addressing me since I’m the newest person to the studio, “you’ll start to notice the only thing we talk about here is food.” I laughed, “Oh I did notice,” I said, “and I love it. In California all they eat is tree bark!” The whole class laughed and I remember thinking that felt better than most of the stretches I’d just done.

“You’re right!” Joe yelled as he pointed at me, “out there on the west coast, I went a few years ago, beautiful resort, all they served us was twigs and berries, I was like ‘where’s all the food? You call this a buffet?'” I laughed at Joe’s very obvious Chicago accent that he says “has gotten better” since living in the South. “The best class of all is next,” Joe says as he rolls up his mat, “my favorite class… lunch!”

The ladies all agreed, one mentioning she was trying to avoid Taco Bell and may have to swing by Zaxby’s instead. “See ya later, California,” Joe said to me as we walked to our cars, “see ya, Chicago!”

When class ended I thought about how funny it was to intermittently talk about bread and cheesecake brownies the entire time. That would never happen in a California yoga class, I thought to myself, and I laughed as I mimicked the conversation the whole drive home.

I love that my Tennessee yoga class is an older group of people who are trying to take care of their bodies, but can’t quite bring themselves to give up bread. As Joe says, “it’s a classic!” I hid the fact that I was gluten-free so as not to elicit any groans or typical questions like “what’s a gluten anyway?” I do enjoy finding really good gluten-free bread, but it’s just never going to sound as good as the more simply put “bread.” Joe’s right, it’s a classic.

To be honest, I thought my transition from California to Tennessee would be a lot harder. I miss the ocean and still feel it tugging at my heart from time to time, but knowing I have planned visits keeps me sane this far inland. Outside of that (no ocean), I really love it here. It’s more simple and laid back. The people are kind and not trying to compete with each other. The pressure I always felt to do more, be more, make more has gotten quieter. It’s not that I don’t feel it at all, but I feel it much less, and certainly not on a daily basis.

This past weekend I got to perform in a comedy club for the first time since COVID cleared my calendar two years ago. I was excited to get to perform in my new town, but also nervous because even though I now call Chattanooga “my town,” I’m the new kid on the block. Deep down, I didn’t yet feel the right to call it my town, but also deep down was the desire for the neighbors to welcome me in and affirm I’m home.

I worked Thursday, Friday and Saturday writing, editing, crafting and reciting my 10 minute set. Three days of work, all for ten minutes.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to be received by the crowd, no “unknown” comedian ever really is. That’s currently what I’m called in the entertainment industry, “unknown,” whether for writing or comedy or art, it’s always the same response to any submission I turn in… “being an unknown, we can’t risk not having a guaranteed audience.” My favorite was from a publisher who said, “your writing is strong and stories are relatable, but being an unknown, I’m not sure who would care to read your work.”

Yea. That one stung a little.

So in order to become known, you can’t be an unknown? Did we all not start somewhere? I hear older comedians or even musicians complain about how easy kids have it these days to make it big, “we didn’t have social media,” they say, “we had to do real work out on the road.” Though social media has given comedians and musicians an easier platform, it’s also given everyone an easier platform, making the market so saturated that the standard to be noticed is a minimum of 300,000 followers (and that’s for an “unknown”).

With people scrolling and swiping through content so fast, it’s less about talent and more about statistics– most of those stats being your social media following and what you can already bring to the table aside from your talent.

But! I was given a shot this weekend. Without having a huge following in this particular area, The Comedy Catch in downtown Chattanooga took a chance on me. Okay, they actually had me audition, but it was in front of a live audience, in the hopes of getting booked as a headliner in the future. That’s good enough for me and all the chance I need!

I’m not sure how to describe it other than I felt like I had finally found my people. The crowd was electric! And as I navigated through my transition to Tennessee, growing up Southern Baptist and surviving middle school, it seemed the audience had been through it all as they keeled over in laughter; almost making me forget what I was going to say next because I was caught so off guard by the volume of their laughter. The show went so well the club asked me to stay and perform for the late show which I was not originally scheduled for.

While that sounds like a dream, I almost said no because I had not mentally processed performing twice in one night. I get anxious easily and I was feeling so good after the first show that the thought of performing again made me nervous… again. Plus what if I didn’t do as well? I wanted to end on a high note.

It’s funny how I can complain about not being given a shot and then as soon as I get one, I realize how late it is and how much more comfortable my bed sounds. Josh encouraged me to stay for the second show, “I really think you’d kill it twice,” he said. I nervously agreed, and he was right- I realize unknowns probably aren’t supposed to say this, but I killed… twice.

I was flying high on adrenaline Saturday night and well into Sunday evening. But so it goes with entertainment that by Monday I was starting back over, submitting footage to clubs, asking to get booked, only to be met with the same term, “unknown.” The higher you ride on the adrenaline, the harder the fall when you come crashing back down to reality. Even now I feel like a total basket case, the paranoid kind that Green Day sang about in the 90s: “Do you have the time to listen to me whine, about nothing and everything all at once?” My mind playing tricks on me… I killed, right?

I had to remind myself that just because I worked up the nerve to perform two back to back sets (and kill both of them), it didn’t mean every club in America needed to line up to book me, though sometimes it feels like they should. I pulled out my journal this morning and noticed a quote I had written in it last year by Brene Brown, “Don’t shrink back. Don’t puff up. Stand your scared ground.”

“Yep,” I said out loud, responding as if Brene had just said it to me, “I didn’t shrink back this weekend, I showed up! And then I think I puffed up.” Which is why I was feeling so discouraged, it was the puff deflating, reminding me I still have work to do. “Now to live in the tension of the two,” I said, “neither shrinking or puffing.” I took a deep breath and laid on my sacred ground that is the bed, “I just gotta keep plugging away.”

I checked my email and received two more rejections. “Don’t shrink back,” I whispered.

And now, on with day…

Stand your sacred ground.

———————–

*As a Tennessee resident, I’m trying to book shows here, so if you live in the Nashville area and would possibly like to see me perform live, please consider emailing Zanies Nashville at boxoffice@zanies.com and request JJ Barrows as a comedian. Clubs only book who people want to see, which more often than not translates to… “knowns.”

**Or if you have a club or theater anywhere in your area, please consider emailing them and requesting JJ Barrows as a comedian. The audience holds way more power than the comedian does.

***Should I hear from Zanies or any club in your area, I promise not to puff up!

Mother May I?

I’ve waited for most of my life for permission. For what? Everything. As a child it was permission to stay up late, permission to go outside and play, permission to order a coke instead of water.

As a high schooler it was permission to stay out late, permission to quit piano lessons, permission to drive my parents’ car.

In college there was more freedom, which always creates a little chaos in the beginning; trying to figure out your newfound freedom, finally liberated from the rules of home! But there was still permission needed: permission to take a course not in my major of choice and still get credit, permission to turn in an assignment late, permission to be let into the secret sorority of sisterhood that was going to define my college experience.

I got into the sorority, granted full access to lifelong sisterhood and camaraderie! But my junior year of college when I couldn’t keep up with the payments, I no longer had permission to stay in the sorority, shortening the length of “lifelong” to the end of the month when the next payment was due.

Post college, freedom abounds. Sure, there’s things like rent and groceries you’ll have to figure out how to pay for, which may limit some of your choices, but you’re young and optimistic and “there’s always a way!” Until you move back home, back under their house, their rules. Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time before you’re back on your own again!

The second time I moved out of my parents house, I found a nice little place… in rehab. Rehab made my parents house seem like Woodstock (or Coachella, depending on your age); it was day in and day out need for permission. Permission to use the phone, permission to walk on the treadmill when you didn’t have permission to walk outside, permission to go to the bathroom. I healed a lot in rehab, but I also absorbed more of the mindset that other people knew better than me. I mean, really, can I trust the fact that my bladder is telling me to go, or should I wait for someone to let me know it’s okay?

Aside from the rules of growing up, secret societies and rehab facilities, the greatest permission I’ve felt I needed since first popping onto the scene of life, probably sounds the silliest, but runs the deepest: the permission to exist.

I’m not exactly sure who it is I’ve always felt I needed permission from to just be myself, but the suspicion that I couldn’t has been around for as long as I’ve been shaving my arms, which is the 6th grade when the other kids started calling me Tween Wolf.

Post college and rehab and Portland, Oregon where I did a small stint as a flight attendant before getting fired, I finally gave myself permission to stop trying to find the right career and finally do what I always loved: art.

Though I had given myself permission, when I started working as an artist I felt like I still needed permission to even be a part of the art scene, to even call myself an artist. Permission from myself seemed liberating, but certainly not legitimate, especially because there was this confusing thing to figure out that most artists don’t think about when they deicide to paint for a living: business.

I needed to sell art, but I also needed to struggle as all the great artists do. I needed to make money to be taken seriously by clients and consumers, but I needed to be poor to be taken seriously by artists. The best thing an artist can have when first starting out is friends, who support them and encourage them and remind them that they matter when the world tells them they don’t. The worst thing an artist can have when first starting out is friends, because what friends want is a deal.

While I sell my art sometimes, I get requests for my art all the time, and more often than not, if it’s a friend or a relative, or a friend of a relative, they ask for the “friends and family discount.” If they don’t ask, they simply don’t respond once I give them an honest price point for what my work costs. Prior to getting married I didn’t date enough to get ghosted by men and understand how it really felt, but once I became an artist, I grew to know the feeling all too well.

While the art scene was hard to feel a part of, it was a doggie daycare compared to the comedy scene. Who would have thought that of all the professions in all the world, comedy would be one of the most difficult to be a part of? There’s not really a school for it or a degree for it, you either “got it” or you don’t. On top of which, if you got it, you better be willing to play small for the sake of respecting seniority and knowing you need to stay on the bottom for a while before the powers that be (which is more often than not, a middle aged white man) even considers letting you near the top.

Much like with art, there is a dance with comedy; you have to be funny enough to win the crowd, but not too funny so as to rub the other comics the wrong way, especially the ones who can book you for more shows, those are the guys whose egos you have to look out for. As a woman you have to be grateful for every opportunity, all the time, making sure you credit the men for being the ones who gave you a shot. Every time you rightfully earn a bigger opportunity than a man, you have to accept the fact that it’s only because you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry that is trying to diversify, and certainly not because you are actually funny enough to hang out with, let alone surpass, the big guys.

And whether it’s been surfing or writing or trying to be taken seriously in fantasy football (which honestly didn’t go so well and I can accept my weaknesses in that area), so many feelings have revolved around permission and feeling like I just don’t have it.

To be clear, no one said I don’t have permission, I’m not blaming a specific industry or group or sex, necessarily, I’m admitting my own mental strongholds. In therapy it’s called processing, unfortunately in a blog it’s just called complaining. But I’m not here to complain, despite what it may sound like. I’m simply strapped for cash on the therapy front and just need to sort through some thoughts so they don’t stay stuck in my head and dictate how I live my life.

I didn’t have some huge breakthrough today, other than realizing when I visualize permission, I do often visualize it coming from a man. I don’t know why. From early childhood we’re taught to play “Mother May I?” not “Father Can I?,” so where does this need for a man’s permission stem from? Maybe I’ll save that one for someone who’s at least licensed in therapy. And it doesn’t mean “down with men,” it might mean that just maybe I have some blindspots around the notion of permission, and the person who’s been holding me back the most isn’t actually a man, but me.

And mixed in with my false sense of permission and lack of feeling like I can belong, I’m also aware of my privilege. I know that’s a buzz word these days, “privilege,” but not for no reason.

I have to admit, for someone who still feels like they are flailing in life, it feels awkward and uncomfortable to call myself privileged, I find myself wanting to be defensive. But maybe if I were a little more willing to check what the defensiveness was about instead of just function out of it, I might find clarity, or perhaps a peace that passes understanding all of it. 

When I step back and look from a wider lens, I can see how in some ways, if not many ways, yes, I am privileged. The thing about privilege is that it’s not an all-in-one package deal. Privilege in some areas doesn’t mean you come fully equipped with self confidence, and the ability to walk through any door you please; it doesn’t even come with the feeling of belonging.

Privilege is interesting because while it’s supposed to, it actually doesn’t guarantee success or status or that people will even like you. Privilege has helped many people do a lot of things, and it has also not helped at all, clumping you in its category with all the others, “Privileged.” And after all those years of trying to say something, trying to matter, trying to be accepted, by who? Who knows, who even cares! You realize, especially now, no one wants to listen to someone who’s been afforded privilege. 

And so what else can you do, but make fun of yourself so it stings less when someone else does.

I realized a while back that in order for me to believe that other people’s voices matter, I have to also believe that mine does; it seems counter-intuitive to the service over self mindset, applicable in many situations, but not all. How you treat people externally is a direct response from how you feel internally. When I have seasons of hard work and confidence in my own craft, I am not threatened or jealous by another friend, or even frenemy’s, success… I celebrate it. I want that to be my norm, a celebration of people for who they are and how far they’ve come.

I want to own my privilege and my struggle, dismissing neither, using the former for good and the ladder to raise awareness. While it’s easy to say things like “you are only as stuck as you choose to be,” a great pin for a Pinterest board, and I don’t disagree, sometimes choosing isn’t all that simple. Sometimes there are factors beyond our control and our choosing, like mental illness, disease, poverty and addiction.

The other day I heard a woman say, “my dog chose me” when asked where she found her furry friend. Other than being slightly annoying, it was a beautiful sentiment, but I wondered if we treat people with the same sort of grandiose cuteness in regards to mental health, “I didn’t choose my illness, it chose me.” Would we believe them? This coming from someone who is happiest when she’s sad and confused when she’s happy, not sure if she has permission to be happy when she’s been diagnosed depressed.

These days I genuinely have more good days than bad, which I’m incredibly grateful for. I’ve mastered no life hacks, but I’m working on giving myself permission to be myself, regardless of the day or degree of its goodness.

I booked my first comedy show in my new city for this weekend and while I am excited to perform, the panic has officially set in. I’ve missed performing during the pandemic, but I did not miss the anxiety coupled with it, especially as someone who has no trouble finding something to be anxious about. The tendency to self-sabotage is strong with this one.

I’ll spend the next couple of days convincing myself that I’m good enough, smart enough and doggoneit, people like me!

And then hopefully by Saturday I will have annoyed my own reflection so much with my daily affirmations that I’ll have to get out of the house and verbally process somewhere else… like the stage I’ve been given permission to take. In this case, I would be the only one stopping me from doing so.

I’ll let you know if I get in my own way or if I kindly give myself permission to show up… the verdict’s still out.