Bertha's List: February Edition
I love actors.
I love that we spend half our time on stage and the other half trying to get back on it. I love that we’re drawn to the kind of work that terrifies us. I love that we choose to embody characters that challenge us and are comfortable with the possibility of making complete fools of ourselves in the process. I love that we can have drawn out debates over method and technique for hours on end. I love those actors who steep themselves in “Method” and those who rebel against it. I love the actor’s terminology what with all their actions, beats, and objectives. I love the inferred reverence in the word “Craft” and how it implies a discipline that once understood grants entrance into a very exclusive group. I love rehearsals that leave you a complete wreck: you feel like a phony, a fake, a pretender. I love the magical moments when the room goes eerily still and all that remains is your scene partner. I love when a moment works, it clicks, it soars. I spent my Valentine month head-over-heels in love.
A woman at one of my Buddhism study meetings once said that if you feel like your life hasn’t changed just take one look where you were five years ago. Well, I didn’t need to go that far to see change. A simple look at last year’s February showed me growth on a personal level. I’d exorcised some inner demons to make room for the person I wanted to be in the future. I made peace with the relationships of my past and the closure allowed me to accept their love as well as their lessons. One morning, as I strutted down 42nd Street, headphones blasting something cheerful and Pop-ish, I was momentarily blinded by the beauty of the city and I thought “This is it.” I was a working actor living in the city of my dreams walking to my first Off-Broadway dress rehearsal. I was living the life I’d imagined.
Of course, I’m painting for you only the rose-colored version of the story. I’m omitting all the sacrifices, both big and small, that have led to this point not because they don’t matter but a warrior who boasts to the world of their struggles bears too onerous an armor to fight deftly. Like the genius Karl Lagerfeld says “Please don't say I work hard. Nobody is forced to do this job… If it's too much, do something else... Suddenly, they become artists. They are too weak. Too fragile. Non. We have to be tough. We cannot talk about our suffering. People buy dresses to be happy, not to hear about somebody who suffered over a piece of taffeta. Me, I like to make an effort. I like nothing better than concrete reality…but it is my job to make that earth more pleasant.” Or in the more concise words of a lesser-known genius, Mr. Phillip M. Church “Great actors make it look easy, light, soufflé-light.” I see this part as the third act of the magic trick, The Prestige; to make it look easy, light.
It may be because I find it so discouraging when someone talks of how hard it is to make it in this business that I find the thought limiting, uninspiring, and worthless. Given that if you look up the word “easy” in the dictionary you certainly won’t find “surviving in a high-cost living city” or “tax season for the self-employed” as its definition. Then again neither will you find “being alive” because hey, guess what, as long as you are there will always be obstacles. What you might find, however, are people willing to help you. Your cast-mate will take you out for hot chocolate and strudel with a side of guidance. The playwright will mask your insecurities with their poetic words. Your director will reassure you of his original casting choice and mend your broken ego. Your stage manager will make sure you hit your mark and help you find your lost head. So yes, it isn’t “easy” but nothing worth achieving ever is. At the end of the day once that curtain goes up and you’re crushed under waves of applause who remembers your school of hard knocks graduation, anyway? For in this moment you are infinite. Strangers tell you you’re marvelous and in your margarita-stupor you believe them. You are surrounded by your friends, some of which flew thousands of miles to celebrate your Opening Night, and you dance till your tired boogie shoes cry out for a taxi home. The word “struggle” is the foreign language you have forgotten and don’t wish to re-learn.
Usually my newsletters are about a crisis averted and while that may make for a more interesting read it doesn’t always make for a happy writer. So I’m glad this month I get to share with you my unbridled joy in having achieved one of my long-time goals. I know this phase won’t last forever. I know that after every high there is a low. This does not make me a pessimist, this makes me an actor; so I also know that the story is not finished yet and I have always believed in happy endings. That’s another thing I love about actors: “we are the dreamers of dreams… of the world for ever, it seems.”
Bertha's List: January Edition
They say the first two years in New York are the hardest.
In my case the proverbial “they” are almost always right. I spent the better half of my time desperately grasping for a sense of home and I often came up short. After a whole year of not booking a single acting job I began to doubt not only my talent but my determination. Every unanswered audition chipped away at my confidence and I started to wonder if the path I’d chosen was what I was meant to do. But after my last trip to Miami it seemed like the adjustment period was coming to an end. I was adapting, expanding, settling into the synchronized routine of my days.
I found joy in getting up early for Sunday breakfast when I could settle in the quiet comfort of a cup of coffee and an issue of New York Magazine. Uninterrupted hours of bliss. I relished my frequent visits to the library, walking out onto the city streets with a tote full of words and dreaming up little fantasies. Just as much as I treasured my time with friends I also valued my time alone. It was a good feeling to sit in a café by myself and be completely at ease.
I signed up for New York Cares, a volunteer organization, in the hopes of giving back to the city that had already given me so much. I was also hoping to grow some roots. What better way to balance the egotistical nature of a career as an actor than to spend the afternoons reading to five year-olds or helping someone study for their citizenship exam? And hey, meeting a cute, brown-eyed, altruistic Aquarius along the way wouldn’t hurt either. Clearly my intentions for volunteering weren’t entirely selfless. But I never did get to meet that cute Aquarius or have the chance to bathe shelter puppies or dance with grandpa for his senior prom because it is the well-known secret that life will give you exactly what you want the minute you stop looking for it.
On a cold Wednesday morning I rushed out of one EPA (Equity Principal Audition) to make it to another. I walked for a few blocks and when I couldn’t find the theatre I thought about turning back and going to work early. But I figured since I was already so far out of the way might as well make the last two blocks. I fell in love with the theatre as soon as I stepped into the “cranky” elevator. Something about the way it creaked and moaned its way up to the fourth floor which I found endearing. I hear ya’, buddy, I’m tired too. There was almost no wait time and I made it to work before noon. It was a good day. As luck would have it I got called back for both auditions. After two years of stagnancy I suddenly had two callbacks. Karma must have confused my return address. I left the callbacks feeling nothing but happy to finally have the validation that only a director’s appreciation can supply. We actors eat that stuff right up. I left the audition room and made a conscious effort to forget it as quickly as possible. Letting go doesn’t come natural to me but I’ve found that it’s a much easier way to live when not attached to results. The callback was satisfaction enough and after a busy day all I really wanted was to snuggle up on my couch with a French movie. The following morning the phone rang. We would like to offer you the role of… I nearly screamed. To think I almost turned back to work instead.
A copy of an Equity card, which I once printed out from the Internet and covered with Wite-Out to re-write my name over it, had been part of my vision board since January 2011. Fast-forward to January 2013 and I sat at a rehearsal table signing my very own AEA contract. It was surreal. After our first week of rehearsal I got my first Union paycheck. I was being paid to do that which I would have gladly done for free. Some time has passed since that first rehearsal and the elevator and I are better acquainted. Let’s just say, I no longer freak out when it takes me to the basement instead of where I meant to go.
In retrospect I see how I needed those two years of lessons more than I needed two years of success. Life would be much easier with 20/20 hindsight. Those two years grounded me. They tested me. They humbled me. They gave me the time to find my footing and figure out the kind of person I want to be. But most importantly they taught me that if you’re lucky enough to get paid to do what you love, if you have at least two friends you can count on to bring you chicken soup, if you have special people that will celebrate your small triumphs with unlimited brunch mimosas, if you have found The One (whether it’s the perfect pair of jeans or the perfect mate), if you can find peace where you are right now (not ten minutes ago or two years from now), if you carry your home in your heart, if family is not just a word but a promise, then you got it all. And baby, can you really wish for more?
Bertha's List: December Edition
I believe in second chances.
Maybe that’s why I associate the end of the year with the hope that the trials suffered will give birth to a new dawn. The New Year will certainly bring its own set of mistakes, such is life, but the hope is that we can apply what we learned in the old one for the betterment of the new one. My last horoscope read- “The challenge of 2012 was personal growth. This is the last in a three-year phase of self-development and reinvention through hard lessons.” I took that to mean that if 2012 was the year for sowing, 2013 will be for reaping. But before I skip along to "Auld Lang Syne" I should start with the most magical of holidays: Christmas.
By some crazy airline miracle made in Delta heaven my sister found me a cheap ticket which would eventually lead to an elaborate plan to surprise my Mom on Christmas Eve by showing up on her doorstep. Her emotional reaction, captured and immortalized in a Facebook video, was the best present we could possibly give her. Some presents, usually the best ones, you just can’t wrap. My sister threw an impressive party for Nochebuena, mixing our Cuban traditions with our adopted American sensibilities. Bing Crosby’s soft voice crooned in the living room, salsa/merengue played in the backyard, everybody played dominoes and kissed under the mistletoe. It was a Miami Christmas and the best I’ve ever had. Of course the holidays would not be complete without a little family drama. Turns out a certain outsider didn’t know that when she hurt one of our own she messed with the pride of lionesses we become when protecting our cubs. My family is blunt, rambunctious and we talk over each other’s sentences but what we lack in social niceties we make up for in fierce loyalty. After she cowered away, much to her chagrin, all that upheaval managed was to wind our pack closer together. We made bonds that night that will tie us even when memory no longer serves us.
I was greeted Christmas morning with the smell of fresh-out-the-oven Knaus Berry Farm cinnamon rolls. I don’t know if my baby sister was vying for the Hostess of the Year blue ribbon award but it was a real welcome home treat. That night my cousins took me to a showing of “Les Misérables” and it felt like the beginning of a new tradition: a tradition where we go to the movies on Christmas night and I talk my brother-in-law’s ear off during Hugh Jackman’s solo. Or some other traditions like blasting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and prancing around the living room in our jammies. Or playing musical chairs to José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” Or playing Taboo till the wee hours and eating cold pizza. Or lying under the tree looking at the lights, serenaded by a two-year-old’s sweet rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Like something straight out of an old, black and white, feel-good holiday movie my family Christmas was exactly that perfect.
On the day of my departure my Mom made me the most delicious lunch. As I chewed my last bites of arroz blanco y frijoles colorados I thought about having to go back to my empty apartment (sans Mom’s cooking) and I was pleasantly surprised. The sadness that usually accompanied my three hour return flight to New York (more often than not turning into a weeklong sulk) just wasn’t there. For the first time I was actually looking forward to go (dare I say it!) home. Yes, I did have some fun upcoming events that could have been the culprit for my unexpected excitement. I was really looking forward to my trip to Boston and celebrating New Year’s Eve with my “urban family.” But it also felt like something else. I felt…sated.
Long after the ball dropped and the confetti was swept off 42nd Street, I sat with friends reminiscing about our past year. Two thousand and twelve was the year I chopped off my hair like a rebel and turned 27 like a big girl. It marked the year of my baby cousin’s birth and my sister’s anniversary of wedded bliss. It was the year my Mom found love and I got my own heart broken. It was the year my career hit a plateau, I got denied acceptance into The Actor’s Studio, and had the worst audition of my life. On April 25 I was diagnosed with low-grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma and on June 18 I had the successful surgery that pronounced me cancer-free. On May 23 I began chanting and on August 29 I had my first Buddhist intro class. On September 23, after nearly ten years, I went back to Cuba and found the redemption I sought. October marked one year of newsletters and coming into my own as a writer, published two articles for an online magazine. In two thousand and twelve I visited Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment, ate macarons in front of Tiffany’s, fell in love with the New York Public Library, met Sir Paul McCartney and Woody Harrelson, had drinks on a rooftop overlooking the Freedom Tower and got to see Obama elected for a second term.
Inexplicably I burst into tears. I say inexplicably because I couldn’t understand why I was crying in the middle of a perfectly normal conversation in my friend’s perfectly normal Brooklyn apartment. Nothing bad had happened recently, no major life changes- so why had I turned on the water works and why was I having a breakdown??? Only till weeks later, after reading Kelly Cutrone’s If You Have to Cry, Go Outside, did I realize that I wasn’t having a breakdown, I was having a breakthrough. My body physicalized what my soul already knew and my mind still hadn’t processed- I was becoming a grown-up. So I start this New Year, this promising year of change, with the hope to keep making mistakes. Big ones. Colossal. If not, how will I ever keep evolving? And if all else fails, there’s always next year. I hear there’s always room there for second chances.
Bertha's List: November Edition
Once upon a Brooklyn time there lived four friends who were very different in personalities but were all alike in heart: the lawyer, the nymph, the prude, and the writer. Together they embarked on a journey called Living in New York in Your Twenties in which all kinds of hilarity ensued. It would forever change their stories. Their burdens, in harmony with their triumphs, were shared over many uncorked bottles of wines and Sunday night re-runs of Sex and the City. By the end of a blink-and-you-miss-it year they grew to be confidants, partners in crime, a familiar face amidst a sea of eight million strangers. But because all things must come to an end a career opportunity came knocking that led one of the foursome full circle back to where they all had their start: sunny Home, Florida.
As an actress I knew that I would always go where the work was and for me the Great White Way was mecca. So without hesitation I picked up my over-sized winter coat and off I went, Broadway bound, feeling somehow privileged to be one of the chosen few whom Coelho so lovingly refers to in his books as “warriors as light”- the few who bravely follow their dreams. Eventually, though, that sense of privilege turned to snobbery and from my high horse I judged anyone whom I deemed too weak to fight for what they wanted. It was almost imperceptible the way in which I equated success with living in “mecca”. I thought only in New York could one really “make it.” After all, if you can make it here… My friend’s parting news, however, made me see how wrong I was. In my narrow geographical judgment I wasn’t being fair to him or the other countless friends who chose to pursue passions not unlike my own right in our hometown. I wasn’t being fair to their great quality of work or their perennial dedication to the same art whose love we both profess. They are the ones shaping the minds of future generations, pushing the boundaries of experimental theatre, exposing their community to relevant issues. These friends are masters in their own right worthy of respect and no coordinates on a map can change that.
For me moving to New York was as much about chasing my ambition as it was about chasing my happiness. But how could a city hold the key to happiness? The answer was- it couldn’t. The answer is we carry our baggage wherever we go and only until we master ourselves can we learn that happiness is always an inside job regardless if it’s in Miami, Paris, Havana or Barcelona.
At his farewell dinner we talked about all the things worth going back home for- family, grandma’s cooking, pastelitos, and the familiarity that comes with knowing a place like the back of your hand. I thought how easy the purchase of a one-way ticket would be, homeward bound. “So, how about you, when are you moving back?” The question brought me out of my reverie and I saw the mischievous twinkle in his eye, witness to my many whining moments of home-sickness. But the twinge of melancholy I’ve come to associate with home never came and I had to wonder if it was because I no longer saw my life there or if I’d finally found my groove here.
The following day I had to leave a friend’s party for her precious one-year-old to meet another friend across town for her birthday celebration as well. I rushed to the train as fast as my heels allowed, trailing behind me the pink balloon I’d grabbed on an act of whimsy on my way out. As I made haste towards the beautiful Lincoln Center I thought about the friends I would soon meet up with; the same friends that once sat around shooting the breeze till four o’ clock in the morning eating Spam sandwiches and breaking out into the Friends theme song “I’ll Be There for You.” Those crazy liberals who were glued to the TV on November 6 watching history being made a second time around. How loud we screamed in victory! How many “Meanwhile in Florida…” jokes we cracked! I also thought about the early audition I had the next morning and how against all the ups and downs there’s still nothing I’d rather do instead because if interest is any indication talking about the craft three hours can go by in three minutes. In short, I thought about my life here and how “at the end of the day” it is exactly the life I’ve created for myself. It may be a small life filled with simple pleasures but it is definitely a charmed one.
When the light blinked red I turned to cross the street and was momentarily stunned. On the corner of 64th and West End Ave burned the most glorious setting sun, tucked away between two skyscrapers and in the stillness of the lulled traffic the City stretched out for miles: a Manhattan Stonehenge. It was my New York’s way of saying “I’m not done with you yet.” In the middle of the street I let the balloon float up with my reply. Not just yet.
Bertha's List: October Edition
October marks the one year anniversary of Bertha’s List.
What started out as a simple bullet-point rundown meant to keep my loved ones in the loop about my life in New York eventually became an inner contemplation on what I'd lost, gained, and learned at the end of each month. Somewhere along the way the format shifted into a lyrical narrative in which even the most mundane of tasks, like a subway commute, was sentimentalized. It all felt too Chicken Soup for the Soul. But suddenly the readers were responding and the email replies poured in. Although they were all worded differently the gist was the same: how much they enjoyed reading these monthly newsletters, how inspiring they were. They related to the heartbreaks just as much as victories. That’s when I realized that the true purpose of the List wasn’t about networking or the “business of acting” or gloating about every professional success. What people were really interested in was the human experience. My human experience. And all the nuances and insecurities that go along with it. The willingness to emotionally undress myself was, of course, primarily egotistical but all exhibitionist tendencies aside, I think people were fascinated because they saw themselves in the stories. One person’s journey is everybody’s journey. So in a way I spoke of a universal truth, of their human experience.
The admiration, however, for both the stories and the writing, felt undeserving. While it was immensely flattering being compared to some of my favorite authors I couldn’t delude myself. I was an actress, not a writer. Or was I? Only after four whole years of a University acting career did I think of myself as an actress and not until the very last production did I assert myself as one. Could writing be the same? Was it something that I could try on for size? Kind of like trying on a pixie haircut before gaining that assumed confidence only a girl who has rocked it all her life has? Or maybe writing, however artless or rudimentary, is only good if it’s honest; even if it’s bad. Spurred on by my friends I’m now considering submitting my stuff to a newspaper. Who knows, I might even get a column à la Carrie Bradshaw. After all, if an actor is one who acts what is a writer but one who writes? The idea is as thrilling as it is terrifying. Hmm, I think I’ll give it 3 more years.
October also marked a less anticipated anniversary: my 27th birthday. As one who has always made way too big a deal about them I was surprised to find that this year not only was I not awaiting it, I had altogether forgotten it. I hated to admit, even to myself, that the idea of spending it alone, with no special guy to surprise me with dinner for 100 of my closest friends, made it feel less like a birthday and more like another year passing by. Making a fuss over birthdays is cute when you’re 7 years old but at 27 you’re more than OK with chugging your complimentary drink and considering the whole thing over with. It wasn’t the getting older part that had me bummed (I have a feeling my 30’s are the best yet to come!) but I think it came down to the idea that for 26 years my Mom had been the one to make birthdays special. For over two decades she never failed to celebrate a single one. And now I had to make my own plans without a single clue as to what I wanted to do. Single, being the operative word. It was so anticlimactic.
As the day rolled around, I decided I’d be much happier on my couch with a chick flick and a pint of my two boyfriends, Ben and Jerry. But lucky for me I have friends that refuse to let me be a sad cliché so a couple of Molly’s Cupcakes and a scary midnight movie later I moved past my quarter-ish life crisis and did what any single, fabulous girl does on her special day, I made my own damn special plans. I Yelped a delicious Cuban restaurant where the waiters made way around an impromptu dance floor for our salsa-dancing crew, and the rest of the patrons who followed our example. I sweated enough azúcar to make Celia proud. After I had my squeal-in-delight-fireworks cake and ate it too, we sashayed downtown to Beauty Bar. A place where the music was retro and the boys were avant-garde. On our way there we stopped at a palm reader’s shop just for fun and after hackling down the price the psychic began the reading. After the usual “You have a long life” and “you’ve been hurt in your past relationship” jargon I was ready to write her off as another fluke. Seriously, that’s what you got? Hurt in my past relationship? Who hasn’t? I was ready to ask for my palm back when she said I was a very spiritual person (OK, she really had me pegged wrong) but then she said - “You’re looking for your soul mate and though you haven’t found him yet, you will. Give it time. You heal slowly.” And I’m thinking well of course she has to tell you he’s out there, she’s a "psychic" what is she going to say: You’ll never find him, game over? But even if I could dismiss all the silly soul mate talk I couldn’t pretend her words didn’t ring true. We finally walked to Beauty Bar and I danced with a random stranger whom, out of spite, I was ready to kiss into a one-night stand. But I couldn’t do it. Or rather I wouldn’t do it. Those stupid $30 bucks were right- I do heal slowly.
So with no prospect soul mate in sight I took my other better halves to the next best thing- Artichoke Pizza. A place where the pizza was greasy and the boys were gay. Was tonight a mockery of my non-existent dating life? I don’t think anyone has ever laughed harder than we did standing under a traffic light. Earlier that week I’d received an email denying my acceptance to the Actor’s Studio and although it was something I’d been wanting for months I still couldn’t have wished for a better birthday. I had other wonderful things to celebrate that night, like a friend’s new apartment or another's recent job promotion. I realized how much of my personal happiness largely depends on the happiness of those I love. My happiness is not always mine own.
The following week I bought myself a birthday present, a beautiful set of prayer beads for my Buddhist practice. Spiritual much? $30 more bucks say the first $30 were once again right on the money. Later I got to thinking that if indeed the psychic was right and I was still healing then there’s no better medicine than a Friday night at the ballet, Saturday afternoons at the library, and a Sunday hurricane party/sleepover spent painting every crevice of a new apartment, making dinner, making plans, running in the rain for free mimosas, carving jack o’ lanterns, arguing, making up, sharing blankets and hot cocoa and laughing till your sides hurt. Time may heal everything but good friends are the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. And for the “slow healers” and dreamers alike, thank you for inspiring me and allowing me to do the same for you.
Bertha's List: September Edition
Cruising past the night lights of El Malecón in the backseat of my Dad’s 1988 Russian Lada I said to my younger sister “What I love most about rivers is: you can’t step in the same river twice.” It was bit of lyric I’d sang along with Pocahontas a thousand times before; before I fully understood the language it was sung in or grasped its deeper meaning. At the end of September, after months of anticipation and planning, I hopped on a 45 minute plane ride back to my motherland. It had been eight years since I’d last seen Cuba. Or its people. Or my family. I had some catching up to do.
I visited my childhood home and, like everything else on the island, it was a memory suspended in time. Nothing had changed and yet nothing was the same. There was a time when through my childish eyes the park across the street seemed an impassible forest, now it was a block’s width at best. The neighborhood’s square, the place of so many nooks for hide-and-go-seek games, was now merely two broken benches and a cracked Jose Marti statue. Everything was smaller than I remembered. Even the looming ruins of Cine Santos Suarez, a once majestic Art Deco movie theater. A crumbling proscenium stage, standing proudly on the corner of San Benigno, was all that remained of the first theater I attended when one afternoon my step-dad took me to a showing of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk. I stood transfixed by the lone piece of wall thinking how much like the Cuban spirit it prevailed. How through all the erosion, perjuries, and demolition its resilience was much the reason for its decayed beauty. I also thought about the slow 26 year progression of brick and mortar that has constructed who I am today. That fragmented wall, more like a mirror, was a reflection of how far I’ve come and the patience I need as the rest unfolds.
I went to my grandparents’ house. I walked the same hallways I’d walked when I was one. And five. And twelve. And nineteen. I sat on the same front porch rocking chair my grandma used to sit on when she told us ghost stories. I splashed around barefoot in a torrential downpour. In the same way as when I was six. And ten. And fifteen. I dug my naked heels in the mud, the same earth that witnessed my birth and my grandfather’s last steps. Their absence was palpable. I visited their graves seeking the closure I didn’t have in having suffered their deaths from 90 miles away. So I paid homage to their memory the only way I knew how, I dusted off the debris from the tomb and placed fresh flowers in the clay vase. Kneeling before their remains I found the catharsis I sought and soon the rain wasn’t the only deluge. From deep within rose a determined voice “Pay homage instead with your life. Keep your ambitions but remember your humble beginnings and promise to stay grateful.” I thought it was an inner voice but now I think it was my grandmother’s sage voice speaking through my own. For one as secular as I, it was the most spiritual I’d allowed myself to be. I understood that pain, like life, is a cycle and after the rain the sun is sure to follow. As much as we cried that day we laughed twice as hard. There was music to be played, rum to be had, and new memories to be made.
On the last night my Dad opened his finest bottle of scotch and there we sat in his colonial style eat-in kitchen, where as a kid I used to play “chef,” now two adults, whiskey in hand, making amends for the years of neglect. It was a time for healing, for atonement, for renewing the inextricable bonds that bind me to my treasure. Like Santiago the shepherd boy, I too needed to go back to the beginning to find my “chest of gold” but my treasure was the proverbial river that led me back to my family, my roots, my self.
Bertha's List: August Edition
Life will keep handing you the same lesson and only until you’ve learned it will it proceed to give you a new one.
It was a very smart book where I read that but I also wish that more like a textbook it came with a back page of all the answers because when it comes to matters of the heart I would benefit more from a Dating for Dummies manual. In life, as in love, I disregard all the rules. I always jump head first, both feet in. In love, as in life, I disregard all the caution signs without the slightest hesitation. I don’t factor in that the older we get the more guarded we ought to be- not because we lack the impulse to jump but because there’s so much more to lose after the fall.
It was this same both-feet-in mentality that brought me to New York without even so much as a weekend visit. Movies like One Fine Day, When Harry Met Sally, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s romanticized my belief that the Big Apple was where I belonged. And then came a little HBO show which would alter the course of my life forever. From the first Sex and the City episode I was sold- hook, line and sinker. I couldn’t wait to decorate my Upper East Side apartment, walk the West Village clad in dainty Manolo Blahniks and find my very own Mr. Big (whom, if I was lucky enough, would be only half the trouble and twice as handsome!). After watching the first movie I left the theatre quoting Jennifer Hudson’s character: I’m moving to New York to fall in love! It was the cheesiest, most poetic thing I ever heard and it made my heart pitter-patter. The excitement, however, was short-lived. No sooner did I step off the plane on a freezing January day that I had half a mind to turn right back around.
Those first few months were the hardest. Instead of an Upper East Side apartment I got a roommate in Astoria, there was nothing dainty about my snow boots trudging against the slush and Mr. Big was replaced by nightly pints of chocolate chip cookie dough and unlimited Netflix streaming. I was miserable, lonely, and terribly homesick. This was not going as planned. When did Meg Ryan ever have to wait an hour for the Q train in the cold? Why wasn't Nora Ephron stepping in to direct my life, set to the tunes of an Ella Fitzgerald song? Where was Michael Patrick King with the re-writes for snappy, witty dialogue? And where were my damn Manolos?!? Shouldn’t those be mandatory welcoming gifts at the airport gate? In an attempt to reconcile my fantasy with my reality I re-watched this one episode: “Anchors Away.” During one of Carrie’s single bouts she starts dating Manhattan- taking herself to the movies and feeling totally enamored with the City. This lasts all of five minutes before she gets locked out of a museum, rained on, yelled at by a restaurant manager and cheated out of a cab- “I realized I’d been kidding myself. New York and I didn’t have the perfect relationship. It was dismissive, abusive, and it made me feel desperate.” In the span of 30 minutes the episode perfectly captured what I’ve now come to know is everybody’s love/hate relationship with New York at one point or another. Turns out, I wasn’t the only alien.
Yet no winter lasts forever so when summer finally came around I went to see Shakespeare in the Park. Sitting under the stars at the Delacourte Theatre, listening to words large enough to fill my whole being- that was the day I fell in love with New York. And because life has a sardonic sense of humor, it gave me just what I’d wanted. Exactly one year later, I was to find myself sitting in the same theatre next to a man whom I was falling for. The irony was not lost on me. We had first bonded over our knowledge of mythological creatures or rather my lack thereof (so dragons never really existed, right?). Pretty soon my days were filled with sweet anticipation and my nights were something straight out of a movie- one to make all the You’ve Got Mail's of the world pale in comparison. Suddenly I saw New York with different eyes. Everything was poetry, everything brimmed with possibility, everything was illuminated. But as I sat on that small theatre seat, my head so tenderly resting on his shoulder, a quiet inner voice whispered “You want different things.” It was an unwanted voice I tried silencing once before but one I could no longer ignore. I wanted more than he was ready to give. It was as simple and complex as that and I knew it wasn’t enough for me. The sharp twinge in my stomach was a surprise. Just when I’d realized the magnitude of my feelings it was time to let him go.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote- “This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” Well, on paper that’s very pretty and all but no amount of nice words can ease up the heaviness that can settle in your bones and carry you around like a second skin. So I did what any normal girl who watches too many chick flicks would do: spent a weekend watching tear-jerkers, ate a year’s worth of chocolate, and listened to a hell of a lot of Robyn. Oh, the joys of unrequited love; the beautiful tragedy of it all! But one should be so fortunate to have friends who snap you out of your funk by blasting “Dancing on My Own” and make you dance around the living room, singing at the top of your lungs. Why shouldn’t it be a celebration? If it taught you something, if it made you happier for having known it, then it should be a celebration.
A week later during an hour-long phone conversation a wise friend said: “Honey, you are love. So stop looking for it.” Something clicked. It was like balm to a smarting wound because it was a reminder that love conquers all but first it’s meant to conquer you. Despite all the aches and disappointments, we must be willing to let it change us for the better because too often we are the cause of our own growing pains. Too often we place the blame on the outside without first looking in. We are so quick to change others and not so keen on fixing ourselves. All relationships, romantic or otherwise, are mirror images of how much we ourselves are willing to give. In wanting so badly to have him move at my pace, I made a mess of things. In wanting so badly to change New York into a movie fantasy, I made myself the outsider. There certainly will be crappy days when museums or people will be closed, but you are also guaranteed spectacular nights standing on a rooftop counting skyscrapers or meeting Sir Paul McCartney after a play premiere.
So I learned there are no good or bad experiences, just lessons to be had. Life can be absolutely charming if that’s what you make of it. I learned that the easiest way to be unhappy is to expect people to love you the way you want to be loved. But in spite of that we also deserve a “Big,” passionate, all-consuming, core-shaking type of love and settling for anything less is not worth it. At any given time we can choose to be the victims of our feelings or the writers of our stories. I chose to be the author. And I didn’t need Ms. Ephron to spell it out for me. It’s ok to love him- “So love him.” It’s ok to miss him- “So miss him. Send him some love and light every time you think about him, and then drop it.” Maybe that Gilbert chick was on to something. Indeed our hearts have the ability to radiate past the melancholy, reaching farther than the absence. After all, we are Love.
Bertha's List: July Edition
Inertia. The dictionary defines it as a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.
I define it as my current career status. I’ve come to a point where I’m starting to wonder if my lack of acting work is due to life constantly getting in the way (why hello there, monthly doctor visits) or if this stagnant state is indeed becoming a choice; a choice to work only on quality, paying projects. One way to be cast in these "quality, paying projects" is to be Meryl Streep’s daughter. But on the off chance that you’re not lucky enough to be Mamie Gummer, you can always do what the rest of us non-Equity actors do: sit and wait to be seen at EPAs (that’s Equity Principal Auditions, for all you non-theater folks).
Since a job offer has yet to materialize from said auditions every time I’m confronted with the inevitable question “So what have you been doing lately?” all I can muster is a meek- “Um, life?” Because when it comes to cocktail conversation no one’s really interested in the long-winded, behind-the-scenes answer: “Oh, I’ve been doing tons! Updating my website, mailing out new postcards, tuning audition monologues, attending agent workshops, stalking…ahem…I mean following directors on Twitter, submitting my resume to every single breakdown that even remotely matches my type, researching acting classes…” Blah, blah, blah, the list can go on for hours but when encountering people who don’t “talk shop” you better make it snappy before their eyes glaze over and they give you that dreaded just-another-unemployed-actor look. We live in an instant gratification society and Results is the name of the game so go talk someone else’s ear off, kid.
I was recently watching You’ve Got Mail for the thirty thousand billionth time (90’s rom-coms are my thing, don’t judge me!) when I recognized the nasty-tempered cashier girl with the stereotypically-thick Hispanic accent as none other than Sara Ramirez. Again for the non-actyschmacty folks, she plays Dr. Callie Torres on Grey’s Anatomy. A TV star who I had pegged as an overnight success and here she was in a smaller than small role way back in 1998! That’s quite a long time! I got to thinking, it takes years of dedicated work to become an overnight success but that’s the part no one tells you about. It has little to do with talent (Sara’s got it in spades) but everything to do with perseverance. For while the hare saw the race, the tortoise saw the marathon. And this turtle often needs reminding of her bigger picture.
Something I strive for in my chanting is the ability to release. Generally as a human being and specifically as an actor, Letting Go is one of those big letter words that we all wish to achieve and few actually attain. It’s right up there with Self-Awareness and a Quiet Mind. Buddhism has taught me more about the craft of acting than any class on the subject: being present in the here and now, accepting people and circumstances as they are and not as I wish them to be and letting go of all that is superfluous and detrimental. To talk of Buddhism is to talk about life is to talk about acting. A rose by any other name… But before I go all Deepak Chopra on you I'll plainly state my point: I find that life is much kinder when you master the ability to release. When like the Taoist river you don't push against the rock in the middle but rather flow around it. I find that rather than stare at my phone willing it to ring I am happier doing other things like picking up shells at Coney Island, barbecuing with friends at Prospect Park, celebrating birthdays on Brooklyn rooftops, silently singing along in a Broadway theatre, having “Sex and the City” marathon weekends or enjoying a book or three on my commute. These moments keep me grounded in what’s really important. And just when you least expect it you’ll finally get a voicemail from the cosmos asking you to put yourself on tape with the sides from that earlier audition and would you please be so kind to email it before the end of the week to email@example.com.
Whenever I catch myself moping about something I failed to cross off my eternal to do list, or as I like to call it The Master Plan To Having It All, I simply remember how my time would be much better spent on a date with my "hubby"…New York! Because the beauty of dating a city like Gotham is that even when you feel stuck, everything else is moving. The trick is knowing whether it's an oncoming cab about to run you over. Things may not move at the pace you wish but they're surely moving at the pace it’s intended. You are not stuck. You are not "unchanged". You are choosing to remain still.
So for all you dreamers and schemers who will one day pay the bills with your art I leave you with this blessing: May you know enough struggle to keep you honest and enough success to keep you running.
Bertha's List: June Edition
I am of the belief that in this shiny world of ours nobody owes each other anything.
Without friendly smiles or words of comfort the Earth would still turn on its axis, the sun would still rise in the morning and the tree would still grow in the forest. Unbound by any physical or metaphysical laws it then stands to reason that whatever we choose to do for others springs forth from the purest source within our souls, the single most beautiful word ever uttered by mankind and the greatest of its achievements: Love. It is our driving force. Although many might disagree, after all greed, power, and ego are quite the strong contenders, I know twice as many more cock-eyed optimists who like me see the inherent benevolence in people; not because they have to but because they choose to. They choose to love and in the attempt they make themselves vulnerable to their own downfall but still they give, they try, they risk, they sacrifice. They believe in a love powerful enough to move mountains- literal and allegorical- a love so urgent, so deep, so big, so ready to burst that the physical body cannot contain it. A love not fettered to romantic love alone but all-encompassing. For there is love so dark and hidden that it becomes a sickness, a venom for which no antidote exists. Love is terrible, irrational, and mercilessly asks for total surrender.
There’s a story in my favorite book (“Eleven Minutes” by Paulo Coelho) which has stayed with me since I first read it… A woman and a colorful bird fall in love but the woman terrified that the bird might leave her traps him in a gilded cage. Years pass and as the woman loses interest the bird loses his glossy feathers. Eventually the bird dies and the woman grows sad and when thinking of him only remembers him in flight but never the cage. She realizes that what she loved most about the bird was his freedom… When we leave this life we take nothing with us, not even our bodies. All we have are the memories. All we can do is love those birds openly hoping that they will accept it because you can’t wrench open that which wishes to remain closed and you can’t hold on to that which doesn’t want to be had. If it's all an illusion you can't cage them anyway. But love them anyway, and get hurt anyway, and love again anyway- even harder next time and for no reason other than to love. Because maybe if you’re really lucky they’ll love you back. Not because they have to but because they choose to.
I'm a woman in love with it all! I’m a woman in love with words. Words, words, words that I need like the air in my lungs. I’m a woman in love with this City- its bustling subways, its tall skyscrapers, its mercurial weather, its empty park benches, its Sunday brunches, its blaring sirens, its tulip-lined streets, its outside markets, its chokingly hot days finding relief into chokingly balmy nights. I’m a woman in love with her art- its highest highs and its lowest lows and how the two can interchange within a span of mere seconds. It is agony and it is ecstasy. It is masochism. But I’d choose no better way to spend my days than in extremis. I want to experience everything in great gulping doses. I don’t wish for satisfaction. I wish for life! Messy, complicated, scary life. But above all these I’m a woman in love with those birds without whom my life would hold no meaning. The birds that throughout my entire sickness, from diagnosis to recovery, showered me with so much love. It is a testament to their unwavering support and kindness that I never once felt alone, despite the fact that many of them were 1,288 miles away. Thank you for every single card, flower, call, text, Facebook message, email, letter, care package, Skype session, visit, plane ticket, taxi ride, train ride, low-fat calorie ice cream pint, hug, kiss, water glass, Kleenex tissue, Shake Shack caramel shake, lentil soup, Grey’s Anatomy marathon, furry paw, and 4 hour long conversation. You make my life worth it. So thank you. Thank you for loving me back. Not because you have to but because you choose to.
Bertha's List: May Edition
I once read that giving up is the easiest thing one can do but to hold it together when everyone else would understand if you fell apart, that’s true strength.
It’s been one too many times when confronted by life’s defining moments I’ve found it too easy to fall apart- my inner strength found lacking. But I’m jumping ahead, let us rewind to the beginning of April. It seemed as if everything was falling into place. I’d applied to audition for The Actor’s Studio (the actual studio-not the school), I was called in by a casting director I’d been wanting to work with, I’d upgraded to an iPhone (something of an accomplishment for a VHS-owner like me), and I’d even gotten an online article published through my "survival job". I’d started dating again thanks to the needed push of a friend and suddenly my social calendar was fuller than a Hell’s Kitchen Sunday brunch. I was living the single-gal-in-the-City dream, one to make Ms. Bradshaw proud. And then my world topsy turvied.
On an impossibly beautiful morning, I walk in to my maxillofacialist’s office to pick up the biopsy for what I thought was a benign mucocele on the inside of my cheek. I’m asked to sit down and the doctor starts spouting foreign words like “extraction,” “low-grade,” “slow-growing,” “mucoepidermoid carcinoma” and just like in the movies I leave my body and everything is drowned out by a sharp ringing in my ears. Irrationally my mind races to Harry Potter and all the characters I’ve come to know and love. I think of all they taught me about valor and guile and how courageously they stood in the face of death for the sake of something greater than themselves. And I feel so weak, so small, so very insignificant. I finally bid my dry tongue to move and all I can manage to say is “But I don’t smoke.” This couldn’t really be happening to me. This was not my life. Two aspirins and many, many tears later I wake up. With the light of a new day comes the stark reality: I am an uninsured, single woman, and the hospital bills are quickly adding up. I fall into the pits of despair and it’s in that dark place where I meet myself. I’ve been here before. It’s one of those defining moments again. I sincerely consider turning back. Going home to my family would be the easiest choice; that nagging voice reminding me what an uphill battle it has been ever since setting foot outside that plane exactly one year and four months ago. Aside from the guaranteed disappointments of the acting business simply staying in New York was hard enough. Surely this was reason enough to give up. Surely people would understand the great tragedy of it all and sympathize with my woe-is-me situation; call me brave for it even! But of all the million things I doubt here’s the one thing I truly believe, you can fool everyone around you, and fool them well, but when you look in the mirror there’s the one who can’t be fooled. For a while you might even believe the lie yourself but eventually all you’ll see is the excuse. So leaving was not an option. I knew that this had less to do with strength and more to do with resilience bordering on stubbornness. It would take a whole lot more than the “little C” to send me running for the hills. Yeah, that’s right I called it ‘little’!
In the midst of so much uncertainty staying positive was the single hardest thing to do and yet that was the only advice people kept offering. One day browsing through Facebook I clicked on a link of Tina Turner chanting a Buddhist mantra- “Nam Myoho Rengue Kyo.” Something about the sounds or the rhythm stuck with me and for reasons I can’t explain I started imitating her in my head. Whenever negative thoughts came unbidden I would repeat the mantra fervently, almost obsessively, and my mind would be still. Completely intrigued by the effect this created in me I started to research it and in turn practice it. If I could not generate positive thoughts I could at least keep the negative ones at bay. As a self-proclaimed Atheist I was hesitant about the words I found in my research. Words like “faith,” “prayer,” “spirituality” are something I’ve always avoided like the plague. Dogma doesn’t sit well with me. I also resist the idea of turning to religion as a way to cope with some catastrophe in my life. But the older I get the less black and white that idea becomes. Claiming to know there is a higher being and claiming to know there is not are both very definite, even limiting, beliefs. So maybe I'm not an Atheist. Maybe I'm a closeted Buddhist. Or maybe not. Who knows. Maybe what carries me through is the “faith” I have in myself and in every single human being who wake up each morning to choose their own destiny. So for reasons still unbeknownst to me I chant. I chant and I find peace within myself. I chant to keep my sanity and to know that come surgery day everything will be OK. Better than OK. I will redefine myself yet again and be stronger for it. I'll even have a little scar to prove it. Not on my forehead for everyone's acknowledgment but inside myself as a small reminder that courage takes on many different forms. There are those who without a moment’s hesitation sacrifice everything for love. There are those whose sacrifice is to carry on without that love. And then there are those who like the Phoenix allow themselves to burn and from their ashes find the strength to rise again.