Today, I met my fifth grade pen pal. And by that, I do not mean a pen pal I had when I was in fifth grade. Instead, I mean an actual kid currently in the fifth grade: a 10 year old named Stephanie who lives in Los Angeles. Over the course of this school year we have been pen pals - meaning we send each other letters, like, through the MAIL. Strange, I know - real letters coming through the mail other than bills and those wasteful ads for KFC and that discount furniture store you’ve never actually seen although they promise it exists. Anyways, up until this point we hadn’t met in person. We were randomly partnered via the SAG Foundation’s BookPals program and over the past several months we have exchanged notes and drawings and jokes. We have discussed our favorite activities, books, and pets. You know, stuff you talk about with a ten year old. Any ten year old.
Meeting in person, however, I got to see the perfection in our pairing. I got to see this little girl in all her brilliance - I got to see her personality and I got to peak into her soul. (It’s not as creepy as you may be thinking - we all do it even if we don’t realize it). It was quite interesting to connect with this girl for many reasons but mostly because, well, Stephanie is actually a lot like I was as a child: shy, sensitive, soulful and bright - with alert, knowing eyes and a very big heart. When you meet her you meet a child - but she doesn’t quite seem like a child. This little girl is very much an old and observant soul. And I instantly recognized that in her.
The meet and greet took place at her elementary school’s auditorium. After we were initially introduced, Stephanie and I sat down on a bench to chat. We were surrounded by 30 other kids and nearly as many adults. Loud music blasted in the background and everyone seemed to overcompensate by screaming over the sound of it. The scent of pizza and cupcakes and other junk foods filled the air. A man in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume was running around giving everyone high-fives. There were tissue-paper flowers, professional photos being taken, temporary tattoos getting sprayed onto skin. It was a shit show. Yet despite the carnival going on around us, Stephanie and I were able to spend an hour and a half getting to know each other a bit.
We chatted about various topics. At one point she mentioned that her birthday was next week. I asked her what she was going to do. She said she wasn’t sure. I asked her if she was going to have a party and she said no. She told me that she got invited to a lot of parties but didn’t always go to them. I asked her why and she looked down at the ground. There was a hint of shame and a second of uncertainty as she looked around at all the shouting children and then back up at me. I saw in her eyes and felt in her silence that she didn’t really like being around all of the other kids, that the noise was overwhelming. I also didn’t know if something had happened at one of these parties. But either way, I told her how I remembered when I was younger that it was difficult to be around a lot of people and that sometimes I just needed things to be quiet. And that sometimes I just needed to be alone. And that it was more than ok. Her eyes opened wide in recognition. Over the next several minutes as we watched what was unfolding around us, I kept catching Stephanie smiling at me. I knew she was sitting on her excitement - I could see that she had an incredible enthusiastic fire within her. One that she was scared to let out. I knew that fire. And I knew she was happy to be seen by me - a relative stranger yet someone who understood her without knowing much about her. Because, well, I had been her.
We chatted about animals and how we can talk to them. She told me that she often asks her dog to choose her outfits for school and that she hopes to have her own animal adoption facility when she’s older. She told me a lot of things. Her tone was quiet but her inner spirit was vibrant. We talked about the upcoming talent show and why she wasn’t performing. She blushed and said that she was shy. I told her that I understood and that someday being shy but alert and observing the world in the way that she does will make her very powerful. Because she will have seen things that others didn’t and couldn’t and they would need her to share what she had learned. She nodded at me and brightened as if I’d reassured her of something she knew deep down. Her next question was surprising but was my favorite part of the day. She asked, “what do you listen to more: your head or your heart?” Whether this was a question her teacher had posed to her earlier that morning or not - it didn’t matter. The way she asked it and our subsequent discussion of the topic blew my mind. And I learned a lot from her - from this girl who was barely 11 years old. A girl who was excited but scared to start middle school and to “grow up,” as she put it.
Overall, there were so many things I wanted to tell her. So many things I had discovered through my own turbulent adolescence and my twenties - dealing with being an emotionally sensitive, aware, enthusiastic, smart and fiery female in a world that is less than friendly at times. In a world that seems so backwards - where your worth is often based on superficiality over depth - where your physical appearance is valued higher than your intelligence. A world where you feel like an alien because most people your age aren’t talking about or caring about real things. A world where the noise can be so loud that you think you need to numb yourself with whatever substance or fantasy you can get your hands on… or in her case, a world where you sometimes need to stay home from birthday parties.
I didn’t tell her much because I knew she had to learn on her own. Just as I did. I also realized that I didn’t know her particular fears or traumas or what would happen to her. We may be similar but we are not the same. And what the hell do I know! Life is just personal perception and if I shared with her my perceptions, if I shared with her all that I have learned - it might have scared her at her age. And as I have mentioned before, I have come to realize that you can’t rip the butterfly out of the cocoon. You just have to give that task over to time.
Before we parted ways, she asked if she could keep my address once she moved on from the fifth grade. I told her I’d be so very happy if she did. And I really hope she does. Because middle school, junior high, and high school are some pretty uncomfortable times. LIFE is composed of some pretty uncomfortable times! I wished that I had had someone other than my family or contemporaries to lean on, someone who understood me at that age. Someone who spoke the same language - a language that I instinctively always knew even if I rarely heard it spoken. Someone who would have told me that what I was feeling and thinking was valid and necessary even if it wasn’t always popular. There are so many things I want to share with her - with girls like her - I mean, I could write an entire book on it. And well, I guess I am doing that right now. My book is coming together in pieces and is falling into place slowly and in perfect time.
But there is one thing I want to share. For Stephanie and I don’t know, maybe for you. The you that is reading this. Whoever you are. If you’re still reading this. :)
I’ve realized lately how sometimes when you are young it seems like your natural gifts are your weaknesses. Because they make you feel different. Because people make fun of you for them. Because people feel threatened by them. But these qualities that set you apart are also what make you significant. Not better or more special than anyone else but significant. Because you were born with them and YOU are the ONLY ONE that was born with your particular combination of traits. They are the special parts of you that will matter. Everyone has their own qualities - their own gifts - even if they keep them hidden under layers of acceptable wrapping paper and appropriate bows. You may feel the tendency to deny these gifts because you’re the first you - and you are scared to stand out - because you are scared of what you don’t know or what you haven’t seen before. But what is so interesting to me is that these seeming weaknesses will one day be the things that you love about yourself and the things that other people love about you.
Because those things are the reasons why you’re here.
At least in my experience. There are oodles of examples I can find but here are some relevant instances discovered through my own personal pain. Enjoy my pain! Ok, I’m joking.
But seriously, here are some anecdotes:
* When I was 9 years old, I remember watching Michael Jackson’s Black or White video on MTV - right when it came out. It was really cool and innovative at that time. Seriously. It was long, it was visually interesting and it was, well, weird. In all the best of ways. I was at my friend’s house right after the premiere and after watching the video for the second time, I expressed to her with all the excitement I was feeling just how amazing I thought it was. “Wasn’t it amazing? How did they DO that?” She smirked and ran into the other room. Seconds later, she returned with her older brother. He asked me how I liked the video. Confused by why he was asking, I told him I loved it. The siblings couldn’t contain their laughter and he blurted out, “I know, isn’t it AMAZING! It’s so AMAZING, Erika. Right?” Apparently, my word choice was a bit advanced for this pair. At the time it hurt and caused me to hide. I didn’t yet know that people feel uncomfortable when they think you’re trying to be smarter than them. And people get uncomfortable when you say things they don’t understand. They may get uncomfortable when you express genuine interest and excitement. Because that genuine interest and excitement - that LIGHT- reminds them of their darkness and their own fears of standing out and of being ALIVE. I know I’ve tried to squash it in others when I get too scared. And now? I know it is that same intelligence which got me a B+ average in school despite rarely studying. It is that same interest and enthusiasm which echoes out to my friends and family members encouraging them to accept and champion their own natural proclivities. And it’s the same intelligence and enthusiasm which provides me with the ability to reach out and connect with you here.
* When I was in high school, a couple of my friends used to make fun of me by calling me “ultra sense” and comparing me to ultra thin maxi pads. They would laugh, roll their eyes and often tell me that my sensitivity and my tendency to look below the surface at things was annoying. To feel things deeply and intensely was an inconvenience and was weird. Many years later, after covering up my intensity and after denying myself for so long, it is now this same depth that has been so very central to my life as an artist and what also has made me a trusted and good friend. If I was still as close with these girls, I am sure they would agree.
* When I was in my early twenties, I was involved with a friend and love interest of sorts, who had very similar interests and career aspirations. One day when I couldn’t reply to one of his misogynistic manipulations fast and articulate enough (because I was too stunned and in “love” with him) he scoffed at me, “well, clearly YOU’RE not a writer.” At the time we probably fought it out, although part of me gave in to his words. But today it’s funny. Because “clearly” what he said is not true. Over the years, I have written for myself, for other people, for pay, for free and for fun. I don’t know what he meant by a “writer“ - since all identifications are just categories that we choose ourselves and I have no window into his brain - but if it means anything, I do “write” every day. And I know that I have communicated with and touched others through the written word. So I guess that makes me something of a writer.
*A vocal coach/acting teacher trying to assert his dominance and secure my flow of tuition money, once told me with authority that I’d never be “successful” or “taken seriously as an actor” with a voice like mine. And that I needed his help and training. That I wasn’t good enough as I was. Even though I didn’t want to - even though my initial reaction was “fuck you, dude” - I still believed him. I didn’t continue his classes but this guy had to know what he was talking about, right? And so his words played on repeat in my brain every time I attempted to do a scene, every time I had an audition. Years later, it’s all very laughable. Years later, I have realized that there really is no authority. (But that’s another topic altogether). It is quite funny though. Because I don’t know what being “taken seriously” means but it sounds boring and rigid and restrictive so… no thanks! I do, however, make a pretty substantial living today… as an actress… primarily using my voice. Being “successful” of course, is relative. But I’d like to think I am.
So then, what am I trying to say here? Well… basically? No one knows what the hell they’re talking about!!! All you can do is trust that you were manufactured in the invisible factory of the cosmos as you were supposed to be manufactured. That you are not a lemon or an irregular fit. That you were born exactly how you were supposed to be born. And that you were and are very much on purpose. And so is everyone else, whether they believe it or not.
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