My friend Siamak and I were talking on the phone today about improv and writing and first dates. We were considering that there’s a lot we have inside ourselves that only gets offered up in the presence of somebody we trust. Bright things that get shared more freely in a situation where someone else (teammate, lover, friend, anyone) is trusted. There are ways we soften, and things we share, when we feel trust. And most of it is better than what we offer when we feel scared or untrusting.
After a long rich time of talking without a hitch, I said, “I think either of us could have this conversation with anyone, even someone we didn’t know.”
“This conversation?” He said laughing, “This conversation? This one?”
“Well, I mean that we have all the same things inside ourselves. It’s just who we choose to show them to. But we could bring all the same stuff out around any stranger.”
“That’s true,” he said. “But it’s a matter of trust. Having trust lets us feel safe to reveal deeper things.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking how that’s okay, and natural. “But then, here’s what I’ve been thinking lately, too. What about wanting to share the best of yourself with anyone, and in any situation, even if you don’t know you can trust them yet?
“That can be done, for sure,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah. Treat everyone like they’re trustworthy up front,” he said. “Sometimes all people need is to be reminded that they are.”
In getting ready for this show, Dan and I have been playing around with different ideas for hosting, and trying to find out our on-stage groove with each other, without having been on stage together before. A couple weeks ago, we were sitting in George’s eating ice cream (me with a child scoop of sugar-free berry with crispy rainbow sprinkles, and him a whole geological situation of 5 flavors—including a blue one—atop a nutella/strawberry crepe). We finally settled on the idea of just being ourselves and being glad to see people (thank you Jesus), and trust we’ll find our style going forward. But this was not before several attempts at trying to improvise improvising . . . like, trying to pretend we were there on stage with people all around us and with clever and flattering things to say about them and one another. During this time, the notion of “witty banter” came up, and stopped me in my tracks. The two words invoke a kind of terror in me that results in the absolute denial of any awareness what-so-ever of their meaning. Like, I don’t even know what those words mean . . . can’t . . . sit in ice cream shop any longer . . . need escape . . . curse rainstorm, no umbrella!! . . .
For me, the fear of bantering wittily is related to the central mystery of my life. Which is simply that my intelligence is not always available to me. Sometimes I feel inspired . . . like I have inside of me what a moment may call for, in the way of attention, or ideas, or humor, or honest reflection, or love. On stage or off. And then sometimes, I cannot talk. I become still and quiet and can’t think of anything I want to contribute, or else I think too hard and become tongue-tied and contrived and tangled up and uncomfortable, and I am not funny or generous or of any good to anyone at all.
Lately I’ve understood that this difference can be attributed to my own perception of my company. If I feel loved and accepted–by friends or fellow players–I feel relaxed and unguarded, which grants me access to anything I am. But when I feel like I am being judged negatively (whether I really am or not) I lose access to my own resources . . . thoughts, knowledge, instincts, joys, responses disappear. My own impulses seem to get bolted down and hidden away from me under a kind of protective cover.
I don’t say this to be gloomy. It’s just something I’ve had to heal in my life, and looking into it has been a rich source of creative material. I’ve come to pay close attention to how people can retain or recover easy access to their creative imaginations and spontaneous intelligence; that inner resource that lets us respond honestly and participate fully in any situation. I take this as a subject in my life, in relationships and collaborations, and in work as a performer and teacher. I covered one wall of my classroom in San Francisco with this quote:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and since there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, or how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”
But there I was with one of my best friends, asking me to exercise some spontaneous smart-ass or sassery over ice cream, and I couldn’t. Because I was thinking too hard, and not relaxing and playing, so . . . I had nothing to say. And I realized in that moment that it was because I felt like he judged me. Maybe I imagined that, because he’s someone I admire. Or maybe it’s because we’ve had some bumpy times in the past, and some of the bruises from the ride haven’t fully healed yet and I am guarded. In any case, it was apparent that I didn’t trust him enough right then to play freely. Which made me sad. But being honest about it seemed like a good step toward building the trust we both want.
“I can’t seem to play with you. I don’t feel relaxed enough.”
“Because I feel like you judge me. That’s hard to say. I’m sorry.”
Dan thought about this in his way. There are often short pauses while he blinks and looks straight at the thing. Feels it, finds what he thinks about it, finds the words that do some justice to the thought (if only we all took this care). While he thinks, I think about people I’ve known who have made me their judge, and how much I hated it. How alone it made us both around each other. And how there was nothing I could do to free them from that feeling, because I did not have the power they were imbuing me with. They’d have to do it themselves, and it always looked really hard.
First he said some kind things about admiring me back, making an attempt to remind me that he is someone I can feel relaxed around because he likes and accepts me too. And then he stopped all that, and said, “But you know, more than that . . . it shouldn’t matter what I think. Or anybody. I feel like, if I’m judging you, fuck me. You’re awesome regardless. That’s what I really want for you. To feel free, regardless of perception.”
This is what I want for me, too, of course . . . and for anybody. But we all gauge and adapt and withhold depending on present company to a certain reasonable extent. It’s true that trust needs to be earned, and that those who are trustworthy will get to see our wild best. But the idea of having access to my best in any situation, regardless of others’ (perceived) esteem, is exciting and real and what I’ve been working towards for a long time. Hearing Dan say it out loud was a kind of gift, and it stuck with me into the next day when I was sliding into a cab downtown, running late to teach in Hyde Park.
When I got in and said thanks, the driver didn’t respond, but just made a scary big-eyed face at me in the rear-view mirror and shouted: “Where!” I told him and we drove in silence, until that 1970’s R&B song Always and Forever came on the radio, and the guy slowly, but steadily transformed. He started singing along to it in the most beautiful, warm buttery radio voice. I listened for a while, and soon was overcome by the wish to sing with him. To contribute my nosy little white girl’s voice to a song that it was very much not written for. But I didn’t want to offend him, or interrupt his own pleasure of singing, and I continued to avoid rear-view mirror eye-contact . . . but I really wanted to sing.
Riding in silence I became aware of this being a time when my concern for someone’s opinion of me was playing a big part in how I was proceeding. How my imagination of a stranger’s judgment would likely keep me from joining him in song. I thought about the necessity of gauging others’ responses and tailoring behavior appropriately in certain situations, and then about how other times, it’s better to do it Martha Graham style. And then I started to sing. And it sounded really good. Like, me and this gentleman crooner cab driver sounded really good together. And as we drove along harmonizing, a thought came like they do sometimes, kind of preceding an event, like it was my own idea: “What if I finally learned this lesson right now? What if this cab ride is a turning point, and forever after I know something that I didn’t know before about the goodness of playing freely in a moment, regardless of what anyone thinks? And what if this is the best lesson of my life?” And then we made eye contact, and Ola smiled. And he turned down the radio and started talking to me.
“You know. It’s good.” He said, like he trusted me, like we’d been talking forever, “We think that the way we love other people is by hiding parts of ourselves that don’t please them. By shrinking, by changing what we are to fit what we think they expect. We make ourselves smaller to please, to be loved. But this is the opposite of loving. When we hold back, we aren’t loving. We aren’t giving everything. We should give the people that we love everything we are. This is how we honor them.”
It was like singing with him had unlocked the lock. Writing this now, I think about Siamak’s comment about the magic of treating people like they’re trustworthy, up front. This man changed from a growly face-maker into a person who seemed wide-awake and clear and shining. Almost angelic. And he went on, smiling, talking for a long time without ANY prompting from me, about the fact that being honestly ourselves and being considerate of others, are not only NOT mutually exclusive, but are the very same. He said that the only decent way to love anyone or any moment is to offer everything and let go of their response. Don’t control anyone by withholding or contriving. “Be who you are. That is how you honor what you cherish. In your family, relationship, work. Don’t hide. Honor what you have by giving it your full self.” Then he talked about his girlfriend, and how we wanted the same thing for her/from her. He said he tells her often, “I am too lucky. I KNOW what I have with you. And I will not ruin this by hiding. I will be myself for you, and I want you to do the same. Be ALL of it. Clumsy, hurt, imperfect. Your brilliance. Because she is . . . bigger than me sometimes! More brilliant! But I LOVE her, you know? For all of that. No one is perfect. But love contains everything . . . So. I say. Give everything the chance to love you. No matter how many times you been hurt before. Keep giving the world chances to love you. That’s how you love.”
When we arrived at the Lab School, I was breathless and washed-through. I talked for the first time since he started talking and asked him his name, and he said Ola. He seemed to be getting quieter again while I paid, and more like his earlier, distant self. I thanked him, and told him everything he’d said was everything I needed to hear. Told him it was a huge gift. He looked far away now and distracted. “Yes, yes. Thank you. You’re welcome.”
I told Dan this story, and thanked him for his part in it. He suggested I post it here. So, here’s the story. : )