Sunday, February 17, 2013

Unconditional Love

"I hope the new Pope will allow priests to marry," I commented to my husband Max after hearing that Pope Benedict had resigned. "The Catholic church really needs to change."   "I don't know about that," Max replied, "But there is nothing in the bible that says that priests have to be celibate - Jesus probably wasn't."  That statement felt like a sucker punch to the gut.  "What?  How can you say that?"  I asked more out of surprise than wanting to jump under the dining room table to avoid a lightening bolt for my husband's blasphemy.   "He was a man, a man who hung around with a wide variety of people.   Why would God send him to earth and not allow him to experience everything human and that one is pretty basic,"  he paused looking at me, "C'mon, don't tell me you had never considered that."   My eyes started to well up with tears because I had never really thought of Jesus as a man, he was someone I used to run to as a child for protection.   He would comfort me in the middle of the night when I had nightmares.   He was someone I could talk to in my room when I had a quiet moment and was lonely (which wasn't often in an Irish Catholic house with five children).    I felt like he had my back as a kid and he would talk to me in my dreams.   He was more than a guy, he was my Jesus.   He was the literal Savior who would take the time to make me feel better when I had the nightmares about the giant crushing all the houses in my neighborhood and my sister Sharon and I running as fast was we could to get away from him. Then there was the nightmare with Frankenstein who would crash down to earth from the sky and would try to get me.   I would open my eyes, my face and pajamas covered with sweat and I would ask Jesus to help me.  He would comfort me and my heart will start to go back to normal.  I would dream about him walking with me at Fort Myers Beach or just sitting next to me.    

I thought about those times as tears rolled down my face as Max and I talked and I was taken aback by the emotion that I was feeling.   Yes, I had considered that Jesus had a wife and I knew of Gnostic texts that talked about that.  In September 2012, there was even  the recent discovery of an Ancient Greek text in which Jesus is quoted as mentioning his wife, Mary.   That honestly was not what was upsetting me.   It was that after about the age of nine, Jesus became for me someone to fear more than someone to love - that realization at age 49 really made me very, very sad.   I had told a someone, I really don't remember who, about my dreams of Jesus and how he would comfort me when I was upset at night.   I was told that if you dreamt of Jesus and there was light behind him, it meant that you were going to die and that Jesus was taking you up to heaven where  you would never see your parents or family again, until they died and went up to heaven too.   I loved my family and didn't want to leave them.   Why would my friend Jesus take me away from them?  This was also around the time when as a nine year old,  you learned more about the gory details of Jesus' death, the suffering, the crown of thorns, the spear to the side and the stations of the cross.   My friend who I envisioned with light brown hair and blue eyes with flowing robes, was being tortured for standing up for what he believed in.  This poor man on the cross was the guy that I ran to for help and he helped me without thinking of himself.   He'd smile at me and I felt better.  Instead of his angelic face, I finally noticed him with the crown of thorns, bloodied with nails in his hands and feet.  My friend was a victim of evil people who didn't understand him, who didn't believe in him.  He didn't have the power to stop it when he was alive and my nine year old brain couldn't comprehend why God, his father allowed such a thing.   He felt abandoned at the hour of his death after all he had done for mankind which is one of the most basic human fears.  My heart broke for him, but worse, I just couldn't feel close to him anymore, it hurt too much.  I guess I could have asked him about it and not felt so guilty but I could not shake the new images of him suffering enough to ask.   The dynamic changed and I was afraid of him. 

I guess growing up Catholic, you get a lot of mixed messages.   The Virgin Mother is the epitome of the perfect woman and yet she would not be able to be a priest in today's Catholic Church because a bunch of guys in the Vatican have decided that women can't serve that way.    You have this really high bar to live up to with the Virgin Mother and if you want to be a mother, you'll have to have sex which seems very unholy.   After all, we were told that Jesus and Mary led their entire lives celibate - so even thinking about sex automatically makes you unfit to be a religious leader in the Catholic Church.   So as you move through the sacraments of the Catholic Church, starting with Baptism which you get as a baby and have no say in.  Then you have your First Communion in which you take the body of Christ in the form of a host wafer (again another image that is hard for a nine year old to fathom).  There is the First Confession in which you go into a small dark confessional and tell this unseen priest what you've done which for me was usually the same - fighting with my brothers and sisters, not always listening to my parents and the occasional lie about who had finished the last of the Farm Stores chocolate marshmallow ice cream.   Sometimes I would confess to sins I hadn't committed yet (like not doing my homework and fibbing about the last of the Halloween Candy) to get absolution before I did it - sort of like banking some sinful credit.   I know that God could see what I was doing but I avoided looking at Jesus on the cross as I left the confessional because he had died for the sins that I kept on doing and that did not make me a very good person - it just made me feel more guilty. 

It was at this time I turned to God and his angels who were more amorphous and open to interpretation.  You had the stories in the bible of God's voice and the picture of him on the Sistine Chapel, but he didn't have the human qualities that could make you feel bad for him, after all, he's God.  He is omnipotent.   His angels are his emissaries and they can appear in human or angelic form.  I was not aware of their suffering so they seemed to be entities that I could ask for help without the guilt.   Jesus had been hurt so much by humans and who was I to ask him for anything especially something as seemingly small as helping me feel less alone, but my God - that's what he does - that's what he excels at and I just turned my back on that because I was afraid.   Why did I believe that seeing Jesus in my dreams was a bad thing?    I guess when you're nine, you don't reason those things out too well.   You run from trouble and things that make you feel uncomfortable and sad, and sadly for me at that time, it was Jesus. 

When I met Max, he had long hair and tattoos.   I felt an instant chemistry with him that I had not felt with any of my previous boyfriends.   He was sweet and kind and I knew after a few months of dating that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.   While we were still dating, he grew a beard for a part in a children's production of A Midsummer's Night Dream.  I don't think it really occurred to me that he had a savior quality about him until we were out and a little boy saw him, ran up and said, "Hi there, Jesus!!  Hey Mom, look it's Jesus at the mall.  He is everywhere!"  Max smiled sweetly and said hello while a mortified mother wisked her well meaning child away.   It was nice to see that childlike belief, one that I used to have when Jesus was someone I ran too instead of away from.   But I never saw that connection - Max with beard was still Max.   I had met him clean shaven, so I was not trying to work out any weird hang-ups.   He looked more like Kenneth Branagh with a beard then the Son of God. 

When I got pregnant with Amber, I felt a real connection to the Virgin Mother although our ways of getting pregnant were vastly different.   When I held Amber for the first time, I thought that this is how Mary felt when she held her son, that sense of love that is universal and timeless.   I felt really close to Mary because I could finally identify with her although I knew that I was probably not raising the direct son or daughter of God, I was still raising God's children which is still a huge responsibility.  When I was pregnant with Daniel I was very happy.  The pregnancy was going along well until I had to get the alpha fetoprotein (AFP) test which I felt at the time was taken too early and it came back a little low.  My mid-wife saw the score and suggested that there might be something wrong with the baby and that I needed an amniocentesis for further screening.  If that came back with a problem, then I might have to consider terminating the pregnancy.   Now, granted, I'm a liberal and I support a woman's right to choose, but that choice was not for me.  I also knew that the risks in getting an Amnio done which could harm the baby.   I prayed and asked the Virgin Mother for help.   I meditated and she came to me, much like you see her in the paintings, with long dark hair and blue and white robes.  She took my hand and we went inside my body where I saw my baby who looked healthy and perfectly fine.  I would risk the baby with an Amnio, she told me, but if I wanted another blood test, then to go ahead and get one.  She told me not to worry, that all was well and that the baby would continue to grow normally.  She smiled and looked luminous.  She then turned into a wall of roses and disappeared.  I opened my eyes and felt calm for the first time in weeks.  I called the doctor's office and asked for another AFP test which came back normal.    Daniel was born as a perfectly beautiful child and I knew that angels attended his birth.   I held him and thanked Mary for her help.    I didn't even think to ask Jesus for assistance which looking back I regret but I know he sent his mother because at that point in time I needed a woman's touch.   

So now here I was in the year 2013, contemplating my failed relationship with Jesus.  I sat at the kitchen table with all these suppressed feelings coming to the surface - how much I missed my friend, who became a savior who then became a victim of human nature.   To this day, I have a heard time going to church and looking at the altar and seeing him outstretched in the cross, looking down, sad, broken and bloodied.   I know that we have to remember that he died for our sins, but I also want to remember the guy who made the loaves and fishes feed thousands of people, the man who John the Baptist baptized.   The man who could walk on water.   The man who was bad ass enough to throw the money lenders out of the temple.  The man who wanted to make the world a better place.    It took a few days for me to realize that maybe while I didn't turn to him for help, he was guiding my life in ways I didn't realize.  I've worked in non-profits for most of my adult life, with children who have been abused, abandoned and neglected.  I've worked in global health to help women have healthy babies or to educate people on how to stop AIDS in developing countries.  Now I work with adults with developmental disabilities.   I thought of one of my favorite quotes in the bible, Matthew 25, when Matthew describes the importance of being of service to others:  "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."   

All this time, I was helping Jesus and didn't even realize it.   I knew I was trying to live a  good life, but it was not until now that I made the connection.   He's been around me the whole time, guiding me - allowing me to follow in his path without saying a word.   God, my guardian angels and Mary helped lead me to that wonderful conclusion.  So on those days when the bank account is low and we're just barely getting by on $10 a day before payday, I have to realize that it's all for a higher purpose.   I've always seen the world in a vastly different way than others and tried to see the good in everyone even when it's not always worked out in my favor.   But you can't stop trying to do your best, to help people, to be compassionate.   That's what my friend Jesus has taught me.  I know he's standing behind me as I write this and I'm not afraid.   He has loved me unconditionally all this time.   It's taken me forty years, Jesus, to realize this, but I'm so glad we're back together again.    

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tina Fey, Liz Lemon, The OTC and Me

I got misty eyed last Thursday night when my friend Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) decided it was time to move onto the next phase in her life.   She'd been producing this comedy show for seven years and knew it was time for something new.   She's a new mom - in fact she had just adopted two eight year olds and recently got married to a man she's been seeing for a couple of years - so those major life changes in such a short period of time were mind blowing.   The effects of trying to produce a weekly comedy show with egotistical actors like Tracy and Jenna were tough enough, but now with two kids, it seemed that she needed more - from her life and herself.    But being the martyr she is, she was going to shoulder on and take care of everyone else because that what female producers do - we take care of people.   We make the other actors look good, we make sure they have enough to eat, we work on things after our kids have gone to bed with their stuffies having sweet dreams because our dream is sitting there in front of us  barely in reach sometimes and so often at the mercy of other people.   We go to our day jobs which are important - sure, but a little bit of us wonders, "Man what if I could write or perform full time and make a living at it - what if this regular job safety net was gone - could I do it?"   Then the cold reality of the light of day hits and you tell yourself - it's better to strike a balance because in both worlds - your actors and your children depend on you to have the answers and to keep going.   So the dream gets pushed aside to after-hours when it's affordable.   

The ironic thing for me watching 30 Rock was that I have what Liz Lemon spent seven years trying to get - a husband who loves me for all my quirks and two kids who are pretty remarkable so that should complete me.  Yet the idea of producing a show on a network even one as dysfunctional as the fictional NBC would seem like a dream come true.  Even though I've spent the bulk of my professional career working in non-profits and in my own way saving the world - I've always thought I would make a good producer because I've also had to put up with a parade of crazy actors, theater owners, and people who come to see our shows over my seven years at the OTC Comedy Troupe.   Like Liz, I've had actors do outrageous things like call an audience member an "Asian Bitch" because he thought he was being funny and couldn't understand that he had crossed a line.  I had an actress not show up for shows until we were half way through the performance and still expected to go on.   I had another woman who did stand-up arrive to rehearsals late, leave early so she could perform at the open mike at the Punchline Comedy Club.  She would also promote her projects to the audience while I was paying her to do my shows.   The advantage to just being their director and not their mother was when it was obvious that these actors were not going to change their egotistical ways, I could fire them which I did.   That might not seem very maternal but for the good of the "comedy" family, they had to go.  

I could understand why Tina Fey decided that after seven seasons she was done with 30 Rock.   According to an article in Rolling Stone, she was trying to balance raising two children -  one a seven year old and one whose 18 months old.  Those sleepless nights were taking their toll - she was just wiped out at the end of the day.  I can understand that - I went back to doing improv when Daniel was about a year old and I was working full time.   Trying to maintain your identity doing what you love and yet the people that you love need you too- sometimes the guilt can really get to you - and you feel like you're trying to scale a very slippery slope.  Add to it the fact that women in comedy have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously, and it's not wonder why we're sucking down chocolate and junk food like cheesy blasters just to cope.  

Junk food can help because both Tina and I have had to stomach our share of overt of sexism in comedy.  I remember being in the improv group Mental Floss back in Miami in the late 1980's where half the cast was women and the other half were men and still the attitude was that women would not make up a big part of the show.   In improv, you have set the pieces or games and put in the people to perform in them — so it doesn't matter if it's a man and a woman or two men or two women in the scenes because you make up the action as you go along with a relationship which can be husband and wife, co-workers, puppies -- just about anything.  Yet in groups like Mental Floss, the women would be lucky to get four pieces to the 16 pieces that the guys were doing.   Her experience with the legendary Second City was similar, "We were making up the show ourselves. How could there not be enough parts? Where was the 'Yes, and?' If everyone had something to contribute, there would be enough. The insulting implication, of course, was that the women wouldn’t have any ideas.”  Yeah, I've been at the condescending end of that equation and it pisses me off — it's so arrogant and yet in comedy it's so pervasive - the cards are stacked against us which is why I finally said, "Screw this, I'm starting my own company," which I have twice — once in Miami and currently in Atlanta.  

But even being in charge doesn't guarantee that things will be smooth sailing for me or the other women in the group.  I've had guys come into the OTC Comedy Troupe thinking they could weasel their way in, take over and force me out.   Big mistake - because if you want to really take down a funny woman, you'll have to try harder then being underhanded, because we'll see it before you can act on it - call it women's inituition but we generally have a pretty good feel for who is going to work well and who is going to be an asshole.   I've had guys leave the group because I would not let them do sketches on pedophiles, incest or make fun of the handicapped.  They think it's edgy and I know it's just in bad taste and borders on bullying - but because I won't let them do it makes me "a fascist."  Apparently I just don't know what's funny and those topics should be fair game.   True comedy does not come from putting down people who can't defend themselves or making fun of taboo subjects.  My attitude is that if you don't like it, start your own company and perform for the prepubescents who might laugh but won't have the theatrical or corporate dollars to book you.   

So it's on those days when I've had to sit in an empty rehearsal hall 20 minutes after rehearsal was supposed to start and wondered why I put up with it.   What is it about doing comedy and improv that compels me to sit in a freezing back room in an old church with no heat and breaker that trips when you plug in the heater to wait for a bunch of actors to sheepishly meander in?  Why do I care so much?   I've wanted to any number of times to say - "That's it, we're done - workshop is over - next time show up on time.   Good God, is that too much to ask!?"  I've wanted to melt down like Liz Lemon any number of times, but I know it's not worth it.  So I swallow my pride and welcome them in because maybe we all need to laugh.  We start to goof around and then it all makes sense, laughter makes those shitty life moments bearable.   Those web shows that we used to do at the coffee shop that made people smile when they had a lousy day - that's worth it.   Reaching out to a lonely teen and making them laugh in their room while they watch us on YouTube doing a sketch like drunk menopausal Barbie and having them leave a grateful comment on your channel - that's worth it.   Watching seven seasons 30 Rock that my kids and laughing together - those things are priceless.  Laughter has it's own wonderful power and it's a currency I trade in - dammit, it's what makes me who I am even when I think I can walk away - it's not long before I come running back with my hands in the air wearing a silly hat.   Me, Liz, Tina, Ellen - we're silly people who want to make the world better place by getting people to forget their troubles for a few minutes - because if you can genuinely laugh at yourself, you can't hate and you can't hurt.   You can go further with a strength you never thought you had.  Maybe that's why men and women don't see comedy the same way - for us it's a way to heal  - not a way to dominate or inflict pain like the Three Stooges - call it a girl thing.  If that means a guy might not find my kind of comedy funny then I'm okay with that.  
So as the sun sets on 30 Rock, I want to thank Tina Fey for us showing women that you can be funny, strong, silly and a hot mess at the same time.  I always laugh hardest when I realize what a total dumb ass I'm being.  I also know that after spending all that time taking care of other people, you need to take a break and try something new.    As I look at my work with The OTC Comedy Troupe, I understand the importance of new chapters.  While I love performing live, I'd like to move us into developing a series for the internet or a cable channel so our work can live beyond the footlights.   One of the sweetest last images you see of Liz on 30 Rock is with her two kids sitting on director's chairs laughing at the show she's producing.  God, I can relate.  My kids used to love to come and watch the web show - they were my laugh track.   I'm starting to write my own show and develop characters that grow week to week rather than ones that last just a few minutes in an improv sketch.  I'm hoping it will have a successful run even if there are bumps in the road which I know there will be.  But you have to take chances and you have to try something new because staying in the same place will just stagnate you.  I know as long as I have people around who will laugh with me I'll be okay.  I'm probably going to fail a few times before I get it right - that's the scary part.   But that's how you learn and that's what defines you.   Thank you Tina Fey for not being afraid to show me that.