So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be seen, especially at a time when I feel so visible. Beyond the obvious being-out-there with my project, I’m also staying at my parents’ house in Dallas and I cannot go to the grocery store without running into someone I know. Yet I’m also about to enter a time when I will go to a place where practically no one knows me, which is as far opposite from my current reality as it gets. The leap to London is like a leap to a parallel universe, albeit an exciting one.
The odd thing is I really fell in love with London long before I ever saw the city. Yes, it was not even love at first sight, it was love at sight unseen. As a young girl, I was charmed by old English stories and fascinated by the bizarre Britishness of it all long before I knew it existed as an actual place and not just a setting for quaint movies and books.
Then I really and truly fell hard when I visited for the first time in summer 2008. (Albeit, quite disappointed in some ways. Nothing will destroy your illusion of England like realizing there is nary a girl wearing a petticoat to be found and in fact several of them are drunk and spewing some truly vile language at a deafening volume.) But even loving it, I still didn’t think of it as a place I could actually live. I didn’t think of London much in the years between 2008 and 2014. One of my dear friends from college went to grad school over there and I continually swore I’d make the trip across the pond.
When I finally made it back to London, it wasn’t to see Jess, but to figure out if I could actually live in London. The idea was and wasn’t mine; my best friend, who is often far more bold, told me the only way I’d know was by going and seeing for myself, and asked when we were leaving. It’d be a girls’ trip, she said! If I loved it, great! If I hated it, whatever- we were still there together! Then her mom and sister decided to tag along. Amazing! And when they left, I had a friend in the city who would show me around from a local’s viewpoint. Lovely! Amazing! Everything was coming up roses….big English roses! And finally, I would see this glorious city again!
Skip forward to: me, alone, in London for more than half my trip. Like utterly alone. To keep the explanation simple of how I had so many plans and people and then suddenly none, I will say there were mitigating circumstances: a make-or-break career moment; family obligations; and yes, even a death.
So there I was, in a foreign city with no plans and no one, reeling from the brush with tragedy and loss and aching with loneliness. The next 4 days could’ve easily been miserable. But you know what? They weren’t. Were there moments of horribleness? Of course. And I fought feelings of isolation and aloneness and a pity that I knew was stupid but couldn’t quite shake.
But I also felt….lucky. I may have been lonely and sad and even heartbroken in ways, but I was alive — alive and well in one of the greatest cities in the world. So I spent the days wandering London on my own and treasured every beautiful and painful moment. It wasn’t the trip I had planned but so what? I met people I would’ve never met, saw things I wouldn’t have seen, did things I wouldn’t have done. Even the worst moments held gifts. Somewhere within that strange achey confusion mixed with gratitude, I made the decision- I could live here. In fact, I wanted to. I absolutely could do this. I could do anything!
Of course as I rode the tube home my last evening in town, I found myself fighting to hold back tears. So many things had been happening and there were so many feelings and now I was going to be that girl who cried about them in a train car like an idiot! I did my best to stop it, tried to shore up the dam but it was no use– there I was, silently sobbing in the crowded carriage.
I tried to hide it. I knew British people weren’t exactly inclined to talk to strangers. Their way was not that of Southern Hospitality. It was more of a way based in wordlessly agreeing to not acknowledge one another, as engaging in conversation with someone might be bothersome to them– eyes to yourself! Plus (and I truly thought this) I must’ve looked like some sort of fool to a nation of people who responded to threats of dropping bombs with the catchphrase “keep calm and carry on.”
But by the time I got off at my stop, I’d spent a good fifteen minutes holding hands with two English women who spoke soothing words of comfort to me, though I had not been able to explain what was wrong through my ugly tears. Where would I start? What would I say? It didn’t matter. They found a way to help without an explanation. I let their kindness wash over me like a London rain, which as far as I could tell was not as bad or as frequent as everyone said it was. Neither, it seemed, was the isolation in this city. People showed me compassion when I needed it most.
As I count down the days to my return to that city, I often feel like I did last summer: alone and confused and uncertain. Sometimes I even feel like I did that night- like I really want to cry but oh god, I don’t want anyone to see. But I also feel excited…and curious…. and alive. so utterly, gloriously alive.
In a lot of ways the project I am going to London to do is about being seen. We all want to be seen and acknowledged and recognized– to know we exist and are important and that we count for something. Theatre has always been a mirror for society and I can only hope this play will live up to that and reflect back experiences unseen, stories unheard.
I’m glad that when I made the decision to leap to London, I’d see it in its good and its bad. I’m glad that I’m currently taking a crash course in visibility. It seems to me I’ve spent the past several weeks practicing what it means to let myself be seen, so I can go and tell these girls with all honesty that I would never ask them to do something I haven’t done myself. I have been very exposed in a lot of ways– fully revealed for my true self. Being seen can be very scary but it is also one of the greatest things in the world. In my own life, the most powerful moments of human connection (and wonderful acts of kindness) have come from one person seeing another. Sometimes I am being seen, and sometimes I am doing the seeing. Either way, the feeling is the same: the emotional rawness of one person asking a question, whether or not it is articulated; the other responding with the positive affirmation that ‘yes, I see you. I see you for exactly who you are at this moment, whether it is ugly, pretty, or something else. I see it all and I will not look away. I see you, and I will not look away.”
So many people have given me this gift recently. Of looking at me and saying, “Yes I see you and I support you.” It’s such a profound experience…..to be seen and accepted.
I am so excited to be part of this project. I am so excited to see people, and to have people see me. I am excited for London and what life might hold for me there. I am even excited for research and revisions and late nights in the theatre. I know that not everything will be beautiful; in fact, many of the things I see and experience, especially in terms of stories shared, will probably hurt. But I choose to look at them. I am so grateful for the people who have not turned their eyes away from others even when it was uncomfortable. It’s an honor to follow in their footsteps.
The best part about seeing (and being seen) is the level of truth it brings to your life. When we chase happiness, we also invite the possibility for sorrow. It’s okay to acknowledge that and recognize it for what it is, which is part of the whole of life, which deals in a whole slew of feelings, not just the good ones. You can’t truly love unless you love all of another person; you can’t truly be loved if you are only loved for parts of yourself. The wholeness of life comes from seeing both the good and the bad and then, with wide open eyes, choosing both. Life is most real and rewarding when you dwell in that space of an open heart and vulnerability, when you can offer your love to someone at their best and someone at their worst and even to a silly American girl crying on the tube. Like most things, the risk to make this connection is great… but I promise you this: the reward is greater.