This was originally shared at the 2016 Chicago Women’s Funny Festival, my first foray into being officially funny. It was as horrible-wonderful as it sounds.
The decision to shit on the highway or shit in your pants — we’ve all been there.
Well… I’ve been there.
I jog-walked past small town Michigan homes in beat to my Musicals playlist — nothing more motivating to cardio to than Jets and Sharks crouched in staggered lines, snap-fighting.
Suddenly though, I felt sensations in danger areas.
You know when you flush and the water starts to rise, how you illogically ready your hands as if you can catch the liquid and throw it back in the bowl?
How you plead to the God you don’t believe in, to the cat who died when you were seven, to your prom date, to Richard Simmons, to anyone and anything?
“Please, please, please, no, no, no. I’ll be good. I’ll start flossing. I’ll learn what a serving size is. I’ll stop crossing the street to avoid Greenpeace people.”
I squinted down the road to measure — distance versus intestinal-urgency.
Not going to make it.
I had a decision — the decision to shit on the highway or shit in my pants.
Which is how, just beyond the fragrant evergreens I hoped shielded me from discerning eyes, I wound up a squatting, bare-assed thirty-three year old.
After a “what is my life,” I sank down and let go.
Literally and metaphorically.
Let go of my bowels. Let go of what’if’ing and caring.
It was the best shit I’ve ever had.
There is a lesson here.
Or so I tell myself to minimize shame.
The takeaway being — Let go.
If something unpleasant is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do, the sooner you accept and release, the sooner it’ll come and more importantly, it’ll go.
My Highway Shit got me thinking —
What else was I lugging around?
What else could I let go?
What have I let go?
How and what and why do others let go?
By typical tools of measurement, I’ve had a good, good life —
Montessori through Boston College.
Fulfilling career and marriage.
Awards, press, passport stamps.
Free First Class upgrades.
An 808 credit score.
My name announced on-air during the WBEZ pledge drive.
No one likes a person who has it all.
So let me assure you — there are spilled tears, regretful choices, and stretch marks, and you make way more money than I do.
The suitcase of shit from which I can choose what to let go barely zips shut.
I stood beaming at the bottom of my friend’s stairs in the half-man/half-woman costume Mom had sewn, ready to trick or treat.
The beret, man’s slacks, button-down shirt, and tie, we had gotten at the thrift store.
Same for the earrings, loafers, and high-heels.
The woman’s blouse and skirt were of random material from Mom’s fabric drawer.
My shoulder-length hair was down on one side and hidden in a bun beneath the beret on the other.
My female face had bright red lips and blue eye shadow, my male face a painted-on mustache; neither Mom nor I knew how to apply makeup so I looked more clown-like than lady-like.
It was perfect.
I felt creative and proud.
Maureen and her new friends from her new school stood at the top of the stairs, staring down at me, giggling.
The types of giggles you giggled when an adult was near and you couldn’t be full-on mean but you wanted to make clear — there’s you and there’s us.
Standing at the bottom of those stairs, I felt social rejection for the first time.
I felt discomfort with — hate for, even? — myself for the first time.
My smile faded and I crossed my arms and lowered my head.
Stupid mom and her stupid fabric drawer.
Stupid me and my stupid creativity.
A year later, the 202 bus dropped me off in front of the Robert Crown Center.
It smelled of gymnastics equipment and nacho “cheese.”
In ugly brown rentals, I clopped my way to the Saturday morning open-skate.
It took me a few times around the rink to gain the confidence to go a bit faster, to lift my eyes a bit from the ice, to bob a bit to the Bell Biv Devoe crackling through the speakers.
I amassed courage to lean into the turns, bending a knee and straightening the other leg as I dipped down.
That was my move, the move that made me feel light and pretty.
It was a move that made me forget how much it sucked to be a sixth-grade girl in a new school, especially a large, biracial, gap-toothed, relatively poor sixth-grade girl with a hairy-legged mom.
This day my dips were even more freeing as I wore my new turquoise skirt for the first time.
It was shorter and brighter than my usual attire.
But the already-pilling TJ Maxx clearance-rack item with the sewn-in matching panty inexplicably had beckoned in the store.
And so I pushed and pulled and dipped around the outer edges of the rink in my new turquoise skirt.
Desperate for the light and pretty to continue, I wore the skirt to school on Monday.
As I walked to lunch, I passed Jeff and Mike.
You know Jeff and Mike; the cute bad-boys.
In my new turquoise skirt, perhaps today would be different.
I turned to face them, a tentative smile.
“Nice skirt, Fatty.”
They broke out in middle-school laughter.
You know middle-school laughter; the kind that crumbles your soul as you muster everything you can muster to show how strong you are.
I turned right, to the restroom, instead of left to the cafeteria.
A “What were you thinking?!” pounding heart, tears, I peeled off the short, bright, already-pilling skirt and put on my gym-uniform shorts.
I never wore the skirt again.
Remember when you were asked to draw a horse as a kid, you’d quietly draw a horse?
You didn’t break out in hives.
You didn’t wonder who was going to judge your horse and then of course you.
You didn’t whine, “But I’m not an artist…”
You drew a motherfucking ugly horse and it was beautiful and you were proud.
But then Turquoise Skirt.
My voice lost its volume.
I wanted to be not-me.
I strove to blend, or even at times, to be invisible.
The only time I’ve ripped a tab from a flyer.
I waited till Mom was gone to dial the flyer number and set up a time to meet.
I’m not sure if I was scared that I’d be murdered or that the stranger would steal Mom’s typewriter, but when the buzzer buzzed, I bounded down two flights of stairs to ensure we met in the hallway rather than in our apartment.
The petite black woman with crew-cut hair was Charlie Brown’s teacher as I stared at the gigantic plastic container she held.
Eventually, she stopped talking; I gave her cash, she gave me the bottle.
I raced upstairs as much as a 200-something pound high-schooler can race upstairs, to embark on what was certain to be the straight and sure path to friends, boyfriend, normalcy.
The Herbalife did not make me lose ninety pounds before school the next morning.
Within a week, I had tossed the rest down the garbage chute.
But while the pills ended, the itch in my own skin intensified.
Lest you believe that all the pages for me to let go occurred in the early chapters of my life, let me assure you, my bury my face in my hands stench as an adult is pungent.
You remember how I shat on the highway?
Once, someone dropped off a Thank You jar of soup on my doorstep.
It was good, but the whole time I was eating it, till I had consumed the last drop, I was thinking, “It’d be better on something.”
Turns out mole is a sauce not a soup and is meant to be put on something.
Once, four kids from my volunteer program slept over at my house.
At brunch the next morning, as the nine year old ate french toast with his syrup’y fingers, I thoughtlessly and loudly tsked, “Marcus! Use your fork and knife!”
Just as I had shrunk when Maureen giggled at the top of the stairs, so shrunk Marcus.
The other kids laughed at him.
He wouldn’t look at me for the rest of the day.
Once, I opened a show, in front of a sold-out theater of 750, driving an improv scene with talk of stirrups and pap smears, based off the audience suggestion “gynecologist;” my scene work would’ve been on point save for the fact that the suggestion was “optometrist.”
Once, Mom and I accidentally crashed a Christmas dinner for the homeless; bonus — we left without paying.
Then there’s the rejection.
An organization that gives out grants to awesome people doing awesome things and is called the Awesome Foundation?
Um, I run heart-tugging adult recitals and life-changing adult summer camps, and I’m pretty awesome!
Of course I’ll get the money!
A witty, big-hearted guy from guitar-class who makes me feel giddy and mushy and beautiful?
Of course I can pour out my feelings and be vulnerable with him, as he’ll never suddenly stop responding to emails and calls, never to be heard from again!
Writing on a train?!
I’m an English major who grew up on trains, both the public transportation variety and overnight variety, as Mom doesn’t have a car and hates flying.
Of course I’ll get an Amtrak Residency!
A pinch-myself “is this place real?” converted toy-factory where I can live and work, and where over eight years I’ll grow my business, meet Husband, host our wedding rehearsal dinner?
Of course I’ll live there forever, or at least, I’ll decide when I want to leave!
A serendipitous new friendship with an Awesome Foundation trustee who personally told me he’s desperate to grant me money and that I should apply again?
Of course I’ll get the money (this time)!
A well-received performance the first year, a huge network of people who’ll buy tickets, the increase in cast diversity with my non-whiteness, my husband as a fellow castmate making for a cute Best Friend & Best Friend storyline, a never before revealed narrative that I shared, in tears, with the decision-makers?
Of course I’ll be re-selected to the Listen To Your Mother show!
Close friends with whom you laugh and cry and transform into a young adult?
Of course we’ll be friends forever and they’ll never suddenly stop talking to you and disappear from your life!
And on and on and on.
If there was a musical soundtrack to my life today, an alternate version of Fiddler on the Roof’s ballad Tradition would be on repeat — Rejection, rejection! Rejection.
Ran into Tom at the cafe this morning.
He said he saw a recent article about you.
I reminded him that you had applied to Excelerate a few years back.
He said if he would have known more about you and Mac & Cheese he would have done an interview.
Good to hear you’re on his radar — even if Excelerate wasn’t the right fit.
First reaction: Oh yeah, another thing that rejected me.
Second reaction: I’m glad that didn’t work out. What was I thinking?
Third reaction: Your frickin’ loss, Tom. That’s right you should’ve motherfucking interviewed me. I would’ve been an amazing addition to your motherfucking program. Motherfucker.
Luckily, I’m over it.
Sometimes the way we let go is ridiculously petty.
Have you ever unfriended someone on Facebook so that you could experience “Ha ha, that’ll show you!”
Stupid, right? Immature. Illogical.
But damn. It feels good.
Sometimes how we react to support is as an ungrateful jackass.
I’ve had various people say to me some version of don’t worry, be happy—
“New opportunities to make new memories. Hoping you warm up to it sooner rather than later.”
“Space is just that. Space. It’s what you put into it that matters.”
“Fear not. Change is good.”
All lovely and supportive sentiments.
And each one felt like a dagger and I wanted to punch you in your face.
“STOP TELLING ME TO KEEP PLUGGING ALONG AND EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.”
Though I incessantly tell everyone to keep plugging along and that everything will be ok.
My trademarked tagline is Life of Yes℠.
Someone called me the accessible version of Oprah.
Believe in yourself and all will be right!
What did I want people to say?
Re-reading, I discovered words that made me feel better —
“I hear your frustration … this process is pretty painful while you’re going through it.”
“Proud of y’all for making sweet lemonade out of a shitty situation.”
I felt understood.
That it was ok to feel the feelings I was feeling.
Permission to be unreasonable and negative and defeatist was what I wanted.
Permission to sit in my shit.
A gal once cried in my Life of Yes℠ Workshop.
When I checked in with her, the response was “It’s too much.”
Funny stories of cobbling together a blissful life and learning from mistakes and focusing on what you have instead of what you lack in hopes that others are inspired to live fuller lives is too much?!
Being a happy, positive person who wants to help others be happy, positive people is too much?!
Sometimes it is too much.
I get it now.
I apologize Lady Who Cried; I’m sorry I judged your feelings.
They were completely valid and yours, and not for me to question.
Smart man Louis CK says, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
I once asked Mom to write her life story in 100 words or less —
“I was born in Chicago, 1951. With one look at my genitals, my parents decided they couldn’t welcome me. I was a second girl, not the boy they thought they wanted.
I survived my first 55 years with books, nature, a few friends, and a daughter to mother.
During menopause, I asked: “Is this all there is?” Slowly, I re-discovered my spirit and found my voice. I am still cracking open, burning dross, turning and tuning.
Now, in council with other “grandmothers”, I work to welcome women to sacred adulthood and to restore women to the center of public decision-making.”
Mom pressed almost all my buttons.
She could’ve only pressed harder had she emailed it to seventy-three people and put all them in the cc field, guaranteeing an onslaught of Reply All misuse.
One of the traits I struggle with with Mom is her inability to let go.
I am not minimizing her experience, or anyone who has had “a thing” happen to them.
But man… move on.
Fifty-five years of surviving?!
I cringe in my “if you don’t like something, change it” cape.
What a waste of so many years.
And how sad that makes me to say that about my mother’s existence.
She still references incidents from forever ago as reasons why.
She still has venom in her voice when recollecting 2011, 1983, 1961.
She has not let go.
If my eyes fill when I picture Maureen at the top of the stairs, have I let go?
Upon a recent visit to my alma mater, when I saw Father Bob, the man who didn’t select me to be an Orientation Leader in 1999, the white-hot hate with which I stared at him as he forked his salad was alarming.
It did not feel as if I had let go.
What does letting go mean?
To let go doesn’t mean to forget.
To let go means to accept, to embrace, and to rebalance power.
This doesn’t equal be happy that you’ve had moments you’d rather have not had.
Don’t be joyful about the sexual assault.
That your dad passed away.
Accept – acknowledge it happened.
Embrace – unapologetically feel the feelings. Unfriend someone. Irrationally hate your wife.
Rebalance – transform it into a source of light.
Accept – Jeff and Mike said a douchebag “fatty” comment.
Embrace – I hate my mom for sending me to this new school and ruining my life. I hope Jeff and Mike step on a beehive and get stung by a thousand bees and end up like Macauly Caulkin in the movie My Girl.
Rebalance – when I have writer’s block, I think of Jeff and Mike, and my fingers type furiously.
The trendy thing to say today is “Zero fucks given.”
Of course you care when someone mistakes you for a man, of course you’re devastated when your dog is hit by a car.
But then, gradually, give zero fucks.
Instead of past pain being something that makes you shrink, let it be something that makes you stand tall.
Let it fuel your music, your 5Ks, your poetry.
Let it lift others by speaking about it, writing about it, holding hands of those dealing with it.
Let it lift you because you survived it, overcame it, transformed it.
In preparation for a wedding in Florida, pre-teen me decided to make a big change; no more bangs!
So obviously I cut them off cause that’s what you do when you no longer want something, you remove it.
My wisdom left a half-moon bald spot on top of my head.
Another life lesson —
Instead of trying to remove something that no longer serves you, let it become a part of you; let it grow and reshape and make you even more beautiful than you were.
While the immediate reaction to reliving Turquoise Skirt is tears, upon stepping back, the follow-up reaction is “But I’m ok. I’m still here. Look how people viewed me then and view me now – a loner versus a connector, bland versus infectious. Look at the journey I’ve jog-walked.”
One I’m proud to have traveled.
One, I dare say, I’d rather have traveled?
Of course in the moment, when you’re being stood up, when you’re watching your house burn, when you get the cancer diagnosis, you don’t say, “Yes! This is great! More please!”
But after accept/embrace/rebalance, you’re glad you let your bangs grow out.
My suitcase of shit makes me appreciative, stronger, empathetic.
How kismet that a friend recently sent an article, “The Best Part Of Life Is Realizing Why It’s Better That Things Didn’t Work Out”.
My half man/half woman costume.
My unrequited love for Guitar Boy.
My hairy-legged mom.
It all makes up this complex, imperfect being whom no longer wants to blend or be invisible.
I’m the kid who taught myself to ride a bike, one hand on the handlebars and one hand on the brick wall of our building.
I’m the fourth-grader who went to the school’s carnival and after winning not one, not two, but three cakes in the Cake Walk, was banned from said Cake Walk.
I’m the author who shared a “What I did Over Summer Vacation” essay in front of the class, recounting how I had stayed in a beachfront Florida condom with my family.
I’m the high-school senior who hid in the Community Service Club office during lunch to call the Northwestern boy I worked with and shakingly read from a script I had penned, “How to Ask Paul to Prom.”
I’m the afraid of heights adult who keeps adding to the tally of Number of Mountains on Which I’ve Climbed (and Cried).
I’m the woman who saw “Deadline to apply to the 2016 Chicago Women’s Funny Festival is tomorrow, noon!”, thought “Well that sounds horrible and like something I should never do,” and then applied.
Striving for invisibility is no way to journey through life.
I preach — “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It’s easy for me to spotlight that life bump because the outcome is known and is kickass.
I’ve let the hell go of “Saya, I need you to pack your things and leave.”
I’m not sure if eviction, risky business changes, and rejection upon rejection will fall into the Best Thing Ever! category. TBD.
So I need the end to this chapter —
Preferably an end that I can wrap up with a nice bow and say, “See? Shitting on the highway and sharing it with strangers at the 2016 Chicago Women’s Funny Festival was the best decision I’ve ever made. It landed me a book deal.”
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