These days, just an inch of heartwarming storytelling can carry us for miles and miles. If we've learned anything over the last year, it's the importance of sticking together as we process this thing called life—and remembering that we were never meant to do it alone. The book Hungry Hearts, edited by Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, echoes this sentiment, as a collection of personal essays written by select speakers of Together Live, an event that brought wise and entertaining storytellers to audiences across the country. Through their raw and artfully written stories, the authors of this collection share wisdom on timeless themes such as love, loss, transformation, and grief—(and who couldn't use some extra insight there?). For as long as we human beings have been roaming the earth, there have been stories. And the stories of Hungry Hearts ask us to dig deep with incredible reward as they inspire us with learning, healing, and compassion.
In the excerpt below, an essay by Cameron Esposito, enjoy a taste of how this book stokes deep appreciation for the tenderness of our humanity using refreshing authenticity and heartfelt humor. To read the other essays, purchase your own copy here.
"On the Horrors of Fitting In" by Cameron Esposito
I was out walking the Silver Lake Reservoir, a blacktop-rimmed body of water on the east side of Los Angeles known for its jogging paths and celebrity sightings, in my usual fashion—alone, earbudded, and playing one song on repeat—when I ran into my longtime friend Emily. We hadn't connected in years, but she paused her run to ask how I was doing, and I said, "I'm trying to get into running. Can I run with you sometime?" Before that popped out of my mouth, I hadn't for one second been trying to get into running. I was, however, 10 months into the separation that would eventually become a divorce and had reached the zenith of my lifelong need to be apart. For maybe the first time in my adult life, I was ready to engage.
Emily and I met in Chicago. We didn't do exactly the same thing—I'm a standup comic, and she worked in the adjacent world of musical improv. Emily occasionally did standup too, but it wasn't make-or-break for her the way it was for me. She had other things to pin her future on—like work at the famed Second City theater or with her own musical improv touring company.
I had done improv during and after college, but by the time I met Emily, I had no interest in group warmups, audienceless rehearsals, or post-show drunken recaps of our best collective moments. I felt so much shame—from a childhood of not quite fitting with gender norms and time I spent closeted at Catholic school—and the only way I could function was by screaming (well, eloquently speaking) my truth uninterrupted, mic in hand. Improv is all teamwork and creating agreed-upon, cooperative art. I wanted none of that. My whole being ached to break free in soliloquy. So I switched to standup and there found space to speak. What I lost was a space to belong.
My trade doesn't breed a strong co-worker mentality. We start out competing with one another for the best jokes at open mics, but at that level, there's a social element to standup. At least there seemed to be for the straight-dude comics around me. I always felt a bit like someone's younger sister who's been trying to break into the Boys Only clubhouse. Later, when I started doing well enough to headline shows, travel, create work for TV, etc., even that vague camaraderie was lost. Everyone else was out headlining their own shows, too. I started my career looking for space and as success, or at least survival, came into focus, the adrenaline faded, the challenge dulled, the need to express my deepest pain mellowed. All I was left with was space.
To deal with the anxiety brought on by staying so apart, so outwardly unaffected, I spent large chunks of each day out walking. New to a city where I didn't know anyone, with a full weekend of shows ahead and a job that starts at 8 p.m., I'd walk my days away, occasionally visiting the shoe repair place in my neighborhood after returning home to have my soles replaced before continuing to lope along blocks and blocks of Los Angeles solo. I had tons of acquaintances, but there wasn't really anyone I knew in my town, either.
So when Emily texted me to follow up on our conversation, I suggested a time and place to meet the following day and set my trail-dusty not-running sneakers next to my bed for early morning ease. The first time we ran together, I made it about 50 steps before having to walk. Previously, this is the sort of moment that would make me want to leave town, move home with my parents, and never be seen in these parts again. It is my preference to appear composed, masterful, fucking good at the thing I'm doing, and instead, here I was, red-faced and panting. Still, I stayed. In fact, we made a plan to meet up at the same time the following week.
Despite my slowing her down, Emily stayed with me. We didn't talk. We ran. We walked. We ran some more. I let her see my heaving-chest-bad-at-this crumbling mess of a self, not just that one day but for weeks. Each week we met and I asked to stop and gasped and made it just a few steps farther. Months later, I made it the full 2 miles around the Reservoir. Even by then I wasn't fast or fluid or gazelle-like, and 2 miles wasn't the marathon I'd set my mind to running after our first conversation, but it was a goal slowly achieved with someone.
I wasn't new to being an athlete. In a feat of white suburbanism, I played on about eight million sports teams growing up, everything from golf to tennis to soccer, basketball, volleyball, softball, and I swam. After swim practice, I'd shower off, toss on a jersey, and ride my bike to a softball game, each day a sort of triathlon, which worked for me. I've always loved a goal, and the directness of sports made sense to me. Even if I wasn't terribly talented, the games and seasons were finite. I never had any illusion about playing in the WNBA or swimming in the Olympics. I was good enough to get through tryouts, good enough to blend in—playing on a team meant that I was fitting in. That I was good enough, period.
And I took ballet for eight years of my childhood—from age 2 to 11—and with that came goals never achieved. The impossible-to-wriggle-into pink tights. The swimsuit-outside-the-water leotards. The lean femininity and emphasis on grace. The hyper-attention paid to each detail of my tiny kid body. Maybe this is where my wanting to leave the group began—I felt body-patrolled, gender-patrolled, outside the norm, and never enough. Rather than continue to stick it out in dance class, I opted instead to leave altogether.
My sister, Allyson, took dance, too. When we lived in the same city, Allyson routinely invited me along to the classes she'd take. The collective feeling of team sports didn't transfer to the adult version of fitness—I didn't want to be noticed trying to do something I wasn't good at; it's one thing to be an energetic, gung-ho little kid playing with a team and have your effort noticed. By my adulthood, I felt I was supposed to be good at everything I tried.
So I always declined, except for a brief stretch when I felt brave enough to try a popular yoga studio my sister recommended because it was known for this one very calm, inclusive queer teacher. I then dated and broke up with that calm, inclusive queer teacher which made classes there a lot less calm, and I stopped going. From then on, few things brought greater horror into my heart than the idea of group fitness, which has no season but an emphasis on constant self-improvement and maintenance. More comfortable commenting on culture than joining the tide, I preferred to not compete with the ever-fit. In fact, my list of biggest horrors goes: systemic societal injustice, bugs that fly, group fitness.
Which is why, when I had the urge to text my friend Tatiana a few months ago, it indicated a massive shift on my part. It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I was pondering her weekly habit of attending a 90-minute hip-hop aerobics dance class every Sunday at 10 a.m. because I thought maybe, just maybe, I'd meet her there. I didn't want to meet her there; I was experiencing a post-divorce willingness to try new things brought on by sadness that had become too big and isolation that had become too extreme. I didn't feel an influx of confidence so much as a push of desperation. I was desperate enough to do the nearly impossible thing that is asking to be included. My running with Emily had been a baby step, but now, I wanted to take a bigger one and go to an actual G.D. aerobics class.
"Are you going tomorrow?"
I hit send and stared at my phone. I hoped Tatiana would never respond. Or that she'd respond, "Absolutely not. The studio where it's held fell directly into the center of the Earth. No one was hurt. The Earth just opened and pulled it in." And that I, in turn, would get to think, "Wow. I was willing to try something I might be bad at but was prevented from doing so by an act of the cosmos. I guess I will stick with things I know I am good at like standup comedy and walking long distances while listening to an audiobook and avoiding eye contact with strangers." Imagine my disappointment when Tatiana's name flashed on my screen alongside a warm, all-caps "YEP! Wanna meet me there?" It wasn't the first time she'd asked me to attend with her, but it was the first time when I thought, fuck it. "Yes," I typed, before throwing my phone across the room but onto a pillow because I don't have phone-smashing money.
And so, 38 years old, having not been to a dance class in over 25 years, I set my alarm, threw on some basketball shorts that I hoped would work for class, and went to meet Tatiana. I stretched, I moved around, I sweated my ass off. I went that week and every Sunday for the following month. I told my friend Kelli I'd been going, and she asked to come along, loved it, and invited me to the queer and body-positive aerobics class she attends, which then I, in turn, went to as well. And from there I got invited to a roller-skating party and a series of barre classes and a beginner ballet intensive and an afternoon clubbing session in a darkened warehouse space that sounds way more Euphoria than it was. I said yes to all of it.
And finally, I felt some relief. I'm not a trained dancer, I fell roller skating, and I may never run a marathon. I am not always cool, and not everything in my life is easy or taken at a distance. I cry every time the flag is presented at a sporting event. I love following the rules, and I love Celine Dion. And despite my continued preference for standup over improv, I play well with others. I am more than an observer, and I gave up dancing like no one was watching because I prefer making direct eye contact with my friends and smiling my head off during dance class.
The fear that the people around me will notice me, will see me participating and shame me for it, I am throwing that away. I'm no longer choosing to position myself outside of life. And sure, most evenings I am still the show. But on weekends and in the mornings, I'm one of the crowd, part of the group, finding space without isolation. And it feels good.
Cameron Esposito is a Los Angeles–based standup comic, actor, and writer.