When I was eight years old, my father quietly slipped away one night in July. He had ducked out of his life by way of his heart, and it's no small irony that the heart is the great focal point of my teachings now, on and off the mat.
He passed away and left my mother, my sister, and me stranded in Pennsauken, New Jersey. What were we to do besides remodel our kitchen and spend a lot of money fixing up our house before deciding we wanted nothing more to do with this, with any of it?
So we agreed to leave it all behind and move to Santa Monica, California. By “we,” I mean my 34-year-old mother, because when you are eight and your sister is five, your mother gets to be the decision maker. She gets to be the we.
We are starting over, we'd say, when people asked why we had moved from New Jersey.
In Santa Monica, I made friends for life in my acting classes. As my teacher would talk about maps or math, I'd write I looooooooove acting on my notebooks.
A year later, we moved back to New Jersey, and my energy and enthusiasm was nowhere to be found. I was now in 8th grade, possibly the worst grade ever, and everything that had made my life worth living was suddenly 3,000 miles away. Here I was in a place with seasons and regional accents and cheesesteaks and obsessions with Philly sports teams.
Years later, I lived in New York City and studied at New York University. I thought about acting a lot and considered trying it in New York, but thought it would be smarter to get a “good” education as an English major.
I was very sick in my final years in New York, starving myself, abusing laxatives, and freezing—all of the time with big, dilated pupils and purple fingernails. I hated the city as much as I loved it. Actually, I think I hated it more because I felt swallowed and alone and, honestly, a little crazy. (Maybe because I never ate?!)
Here is a fact: Not eating makes you a little crazy. And very cold.
So I left New York to go back to California at age 21 to feel safe. My mom and sister had moved back to California. You may start to see a theme here with all the moving. Not sure yet what that theme is exactly.
I started hosting, then waitressing, at The Newsroom Cafe in West Hollywood, where I stayed for 13 years. I had no clue what I wanted to do with myself. I had gained weight, not enough to not be thin, but enough that I did not look like I was dying. That would change over the years. I would go up and down.
I didn’t know what I wanted, so I went to acting school. This one was different than my earlier affair with acting. This was a serious, and I mean serious, two-year Meisner Technique Program.
After the training ended, I was 23 or 24. When people would ask me what I did as I took their order for veggie burgers or chicken pot pies, I would say I am an actor, and do you want anything to drink with that?
Most people assumed I was an actress. It’s part of the territory of waitressing in L.A., I suppose. I wasn’t doing much about this acting business except charming people who came in and making them laugh and hoping that one would stop and say, “There you are! I have been waiting for you! Come with me, and I am going to make you a star!”
This. Never. Happened.
What also never happened was that I never really tried to work as an actress. I had a commercial agent and went on the random audition, but here is the thing: I don’t think I ever wanted to be an actor.
I think I knew this early on but was so scared because if I did not want to act, then what would I say when people asked me what I did and what did I want?
And then a decade passed.
My commercial agent dropped me because I never booked. They never sent me out, and I never really wanted it so I don’t blame them.
I took a deep sigh in and exhaled: I am done.
I changed my mind. About who I was. About what I wanted to do with my life.
I started writing again. I created a blog. I read poetry again like it mattered. (I believe it does. I stand by that fact.)
And I changed my life.
I went to a very Hollywoody party last Saturday. (You know, the kind of party where everyone is an actor, making a movie, selling a movie, or writing a movie.) There, I realized the freedom I'd given myself. Not because I wasn’t in the cesspool of insecurity and competition and heartache anymore, although that does feel really good, but because I can say No, I am not an actress. I used to be.
So what if I never booked a job? I used to be an actress. I did! I loved it, and I certainly acted, although I lied to others and myself by saying I wanted a career out of it. I was so scared for a long time to give up that identity because it was all I had.
Who would I be if I said I wasn’t an actor?
Would I be “just” a waitress?
That thought used to make me want to hide in shame. I look back now and can see I am the same Jen now as I was then.
I could never visualize myself on a movie set. True story. I just couldn’t do it. That should have been my red flag, but I pretended for years that if I could just get a break, then I'd book a job.
The truth is, if I could just be honest and change my mind about who I was, or even about the fact that I had no idea who I was, then I would get a big break.
I did, and I did. I changed my mind, and here I am doing very well at something I love and making money and living my bliss.
Is my life perfect?
No. It’s a little messy and disorganized and over-caffeinated, and I love it.
Do I miss acting? Yes! I’m a ham who loves performing and telling jokes and stories and laughing and being different people. But it’s OK. I tell stories in my writing, and I laugh with my friends, and I tell jokes in my classes. I get my fill.
I am no longer scared to say who I am or what I want or that I don’t know what the heck I want.
Or that I waitressed at the same cafe for 13 years after being a scholar at NYU and majoring in English because I was too stuck and terrified to move in any direction.
You can change your mind at any moment.