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.