Updated: Dec 2, 2022
2020 was a strange year–I think we can all admit that. Most of us faced things we never thought we would. Take me for example. I decided, that year, that I was going to become a nun. Not just any nun–the kind that speaks an average of 50 words a day (not counting the rosary) and if you look at a man it had better be because he’s handing you the body of Christ.
I came to this decision after months of not performing stand up comedy. Yes, there were Zoom comedy shows, but it wasn’t the same. I thought I had found my purpose by bringing laughter to people, but I took the lock down as a sign that I was wrong and that I was needed somewhere else.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it wasn’t just purpose I was searching for–I needed validation. I hadn’t yet learned to separate the two. I received validation, but not the internal kind that allowed me to say to myself, “everything is going to be okay because you’re moving towards your true self.” I was receiving external validation. Even though some people were confused by my desire to give up everything and live in a convent, they were supportive. And those voices of support and admiration began to drown out the voice inside of me that said, “This will not fulfill you.”
The pandemic made me believe I had lost comedy completely and I needed something else to fill that void. I never behaved this dramatically when a man broke my heart. Maybe because I’ve always known that if a man leaves, I will survive. But I had never experienced being stripped of my creativity. I didn’t know how to survive it, so instead I hid from it. I couldn’t be sad about something that just wasn’t meant to be, right?
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about my religious discernment: I met incredibly kind people, I learned how to be silent while swimming through a technology-driven world, and I found out that many religious sisters have a really good sense of humor. I wondered if that’s something that came with being certain about their place in the world. Maybe, because these nuns knew where they were meant to be, they were able to shed some of the anxiety that comes with a constant search for purpose, and open themselves up to how hilarious life can be.
At the time, religious life seemed like a good choice, a sensible choice. Maybe because I would be dedicating my life to helping others. Or maybe because I just needed my life to be dedicated to something–I needed it to have meaning. Whatever the reasons were, in the end I realized that I wasn’t willing to erase my imperfections to appease some ancient institution run by men. I decided that if God wants me to serve him it’s going to be through jokes about how imperfect I am–that’s what is real and that is what I truly believe will help people.
I see comedy as a healing tool. I like taking my own mess and creating something that others can relate to. Like teaching. Most days it was a disaster, whether a child was throwing a clipboard at me or an administrator was wasting my planning time with “trainings” that had nothing to do with my job. I wrote jokes about these situations as a way to give others permission to laugh at messes, and I began to feel a stronger motivation to do that than what I had spent years studying–education.
It took me a while to find my way back to comedy. As much as I loved it, I was scared to open myself up to it again. I was used to letting things go and not looking back for fear of regret or to avoid feelings of missing out on something.
When I moved home to Portland after living in Los Angeles for seven years, so many thoughts plagued me: I’m in a new city and no one knows me–what if I never get booked? I can’t write new jokes–it’s too much work. And my favorite: What if I get everything I want? Fear of success, I’ve learned, is very real. Acknowledging that success is entirely possible requires extreme vulnerability and the acceptance of probable rejection.
I waited tables and started writing during the day to keep the itch of performing at bay. I used the excuse that I couldn’t do stand-up because my job was in the evenings and I wouldn’t be able to perform because of my work schedule. Then a friend pointed out that those “reasons” were just thoughts. The job I happened to have was not the thing holding me back from performing–I was. When I realized this and started listening to the desires of my authentic self, things started to shift. I was offered a sales job and my evenings opened up, which of course is peak comedy time. This was my chance to go back. I did, but not without some reflection so I could piece together why instead of sticking with the thing that brought me the most joy, I developed a habit of gravitating towards things that always resulted in me feeling lost and empty.
I tried teaching, because it’s considered a noble profession while also fitting into the normal category that I tried for years to force myself into. I went to graduate school, got a job with steady pay and benefits, and then spent every day trying to convince myself that I was happy doing what I was doing. How could I not be? I was helping children. People applaud those who help children.
I tried relationships, but they just made me lose myself in someone else’s identity while I put my dreams on hold. I would force things because I thought marriage was something I had to achieve in order to lead a happy life, but would end up hurting someone or feeling hurt myself. When a relationship ended, I felt like I had failed somehow and wondered why it seemed to work for everyone except me. I was convinced there was something wrong with me.
By reflecting on my major life-decisions, I discovered what they each have in common. Teaching, religious discernment, and romantic relationships all provided opportunities for external validation, whether it was from friends, family, or socially constructed norms I observed on television and social media. When I felt too stressed or scared to listen to my own voice (the one spoken by my authentic self) I would dive deeper into those things hoping to land somewhere that made me feel safe, somewhere that gave me peace. But comedy gives me something those other things don’t. It assures my gut that I’m finally listening to it and in return my authentic self is finding its place in the spotlight. It’s amazing how that act keeps the need for external validation very low on my priority list.
I don’t think I’ll remain single forever, but right now the relationship I’m most focused on is the one I have with comedy. Even if it’s just an open mic, I go up on stage about five nights a week. When I wake up in the morning, I write. When I have space in my day after work, I write. If I think of a joke as I get ready for bed, I write it down before letting my head hit the pillow. When I email a booker, I know there’s a possibility that I will face rejection. When I submit to comedy festivals, I know I might not get in. But I also know that if I don’t try these things, I will remain stagnant and then I’ll never know what could be.
I’m currently living at home in Oregon, surrounded by farms, mile long roads without sidewalks, and a backyard with a barn and wooded area where my cats can play and hopefully not get stuck in a tree. And even though I’m just miles away from where I attended high school (the place where my life revolved around sports), I’m now intentionally surrounding myself with humans who have similar goals and dreams. But living in the zip code where I grew up means running into people who unintentionally challenge the life I’ve chosen for myself.
One evening after the gym, I walked into a restaurant bar to write and eat back the calories I had just burned. Quickly discovering the restaurant did not have WIFI, I took my order to go. As I was leaving, someone gently grabbed my arm. It was the mom of my former high school classmate, John. He was the most athletic kid in high school and even competed in the Olympics.
“Oh hi!” I said. “How are you? Hey, didn’t John just get married?”
“Yeah, finally,” said John’s mom. “Even though diving held him back a couple of years.”
“Diving? You mean that time he went to the Olympics?” Apparently in some families, even reaching that caliber of athletics doesn’t trump having a ring on the correct finger.
She ignored my question and proceeded to tell me that her daughter had been married for 10 years and their youngest, unmarried son is, according to his mother, “just doing his thing”. I assume this was her way of saying he’s single without actually having to say it. I wanted to run away, but thought that might come off as rude, so I just blurted out, “Well I’m not married. I’m living at home and doing stand-up comedy.”
“Well, that’s okay.”
“Yeah, I know.” And I really did.
I no longer look for external validation to justify my life choices. It’s true: I’m 36 and single, and I’m sure in some cultures they’d probably send my worthless body adrift on some handmade raft where the vultures could feast on my remains. Which I’m guessing is still less painful than hearing someone describe their children’s marriages as if they are their own personal accomplishments.
If you get anything from this essay, I hope it’s this: If your authentic self tells you to raise a family and that gives you peace and joy, go for it. That is a beautiful thing. But if it tells you to do something that’s outside what your environment and society tells you is normal, then please explore it because it could lead you to something you never thought possible.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I would write in whatever diner I happened to drive by when I felt the urge to write. One night, as I wrote next to a plate of scrambled eggs, a man who looked down on his luck walked in. He was nervous. He saw me and asked the hostess if he could sit on the other side of the restaurant because he didn’t want to bother me. I said “You’re not bothering me. You can sit up here.” We ended up talking for a while. He told me how he was recovering from a meth addiction and owed it all to a church–one that is known for leaning heavily on the conservative side. I extended my congratulations to him and proceeded to share about comedy and how much I loved it.
As I was getting ready to leave, he decided to share some wisdom with me. He said, “The most important thing you can do with your life is be a wife and a mother.” I gave him a pass. Seeing that he was a recovering meth addict and heavily influenced by a conservative, religious organization, I took what he said with a grain of salt. I said, “I think my path might be a little different.” I felt comforted by those words as they came out of my mouth, because something inside of me assured me it was the truth. I handed him a few dollars, wished him luck on his next adventure, and left. I had a show to get to.