What I'm Thankful For

Many Thanksgivings ago-- or it was perhaps Christmas, or just a summer morning on Cape Cod, all I know is that we were sitting around as a family at my grandparents' table; it's hard to remember what's what since so many days of my life feel like Thanksgiving-- my father told a story. He'd gone to a private school in New Jersey (this fact itself was always remarkable to me, since he raised three public school kids and it was impossible to imagine his life there), and when he got engaged to my mother, moved to Hoboken to renovate a house. One day in New York he ran into a man who was disheveled and schizophrenic. Because of his schizophrenia, he was homeless. My father immediately recognized him as one of his rich friends from his private elementary school and, right there on the spot, invited him to live in the house with my parents.

The friend, being mentally ill, struggled on a daily basis there. He would yell at them and give my mom a hard time, and while they were on their honeymoon he stole all of their wedding presents.

My dad told this story dramatically, with my mom chiming it at intervals with details about specific breakdowns, until we got to the moment of the clear moral of the story. I was certain it would be "don't invite strangers to live with you," but instead my dad leaned across the table, looking in turn at his three kids and his two nieces, and said: "you never know when you might be homeless." He paused for a long time. "You could be homeless, kids. You think you can't, but you could."

This was just one of the many ways my parents practiced compassion and gratitude. They were nice to everyone and everything. They would take us to animal shelters to rescue dogs. They made us say "thank you" to a palpably awkward degree-- my dad would not drive through a tollbooth without making us thank the attendant. His best friend, it seemed to me when I was nine, was a middle-aged exhausted waitress at Friendly's. My dad's compassion and gratitude is loud and deliberate but just as genuine as my mom's, which was a much simpler equation of the fact that she just loves everyone on the face of the earth equally.

I'm more like my dad. I am annoyingly expressive. I struggle against my own ambition, which is a form of greed. I'm greedy for my own experiences and I strive to prove to myself that every day is better than the next in every way. Of course, that almost never works out, but I shoot for it every day. Being ambitious like that can be very distracting-- it can be hard to remember that even my worst day would be a day someone would hope for. So my gratitude is something I practice like a prayer, and compassion is something I try to actively identify in others when I see it, so that I can emulate it. What I didn't realize is that empathy is not something you can win and frame; it has to be constantly renewed, planned for; it must be planted in the fall, when everything begins to die, like a flower bulb and left to bloom in its own time. You've got to let your gratitude stay alive underground during the hard winters and let it break out in the good summers.

But I digress badly. I'm writing tonight because a few months ago my improv company, Sea Tea, was approached to teach an improv class to the homeless of Hartford. These great people write a newspaper called "Beat of the Street," and that newspaper has blossomed into an entire Center for Creative Learning. The students (homeless, formerly homeless, and the unlabeled) had requested improv as an arts activity and as skills training, and so they came to Sea Tea.

We've taught eight classes and all of them were fantastic. We rotated through our team, letting everyone teach (everyone wanted to, even though it was a volunteer gig), adjusting our curriculum to the needs of our students, who had to come and go from case workers, their kids, and potential housing meetings. When they had to come late or leave early for things like that it was impossible to be mad. In the first five minutes of my first class, one of our students, Anne, picked up her phone during warm-ups and found out she had been accepted for a place to live. I was just happy to see it. These students are hilarious and cool and I try to be as funny as they are. The cool thing is that the classes were so small that the teacher/student boundaries were pointless, and it was more like they joined a professional improv team for an afternoon, playing with us instead of for us. Playing like that actually made the classes much easier to teach because in improv everyone must start on an equal playing field anyway.

The students were awesome people and I never would have been able to guess that any of them was homeless-- some were young single moms living in shelters, some were older guys who had great clothes and hilarious laughs. They knew a strange amount of Stevie Wonder songs. I don't want to launch into some heartwarming tale about a scene they did that made me cry, or revealed something about homelessness I didn't know. Mostly we did improv-- we played silly games, made each other laugh. They did scenes about smoking pot, clingy girlfriends, and annoying Jehovah's witnesses. Just like every other improv class I've ever taught. But that's disingenuous too-- it wasn't like every class I've ever taught, not in the "we are the world" way. We're not all just the same. Some of us have gotten really lucky, and some very unlucky. Some of us make bad choices that have no consequences and some make bad choices that have terrible consequences. That's a kind of luck itself. We all run some red lights by accident.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday the 26th) we're doing a show with Sea Tea Improv and our students-- since there were so few consistent students (the homeless are busier than any group I've ever worked with) and we're not sure who will show up, we're just going to mix all together. We barely have a plan but I know it's going to work. It's a fundraiser for Beat of the Street, specifically for hot drinks and staffing costs. Coffee for all: that's a cause I can get behind. My dad would agree.

I'm excited because improv is all about empathy. It requires it. You must listen to whatever your partner is putting out there, no matter what happens. You must make your partner look good, whoever they are, or your scene will fall apart. The whole team will be there and we want to see at least fifty people in the audience. If you live in Connecticut, please come. It's important. Make our partners look good. The best reason to come: make people feel like a million bucks by laughing at their jokes. It's the best feeling in the world and I want to make sure these guys have that experience.

Is this a shameless plug for a show? Yup. Is this the corniest thing I've ever written? Likely. But I'm not really worried about that tonight. What you, my readers, think of me is not a real problem in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I'd like you to like me, but that's ambition distracting me from what is more important. What's important is that it's fucking cold outside (you said it yourself, today, if you live in the northeast), and that you likely got to go home to your fireplace, your blankets, your space heater, or your family. Of course it's a shameless plug. What I would be more ashamed of is not plugging it.

Come to Charter Oak Cultural Center at 7:30 tomorrow night. I promise it won't be too heartwarming-- mostly, it'll be hilarious. Plant a bulb of gratitude for your own life that might bloom at some other unexpected time. Help somebody else who might not be doing so great right now. Support a program where they get to screw around and be silly and be listened to.

Because the moral of the story, no matter what happens at the show, is that anyone could be homeless. And what am I thankful for this year? That I have people in my life who remind me of that all the time. That I have people in my life who give me opportunities to be good and do good. That I get to meet so many cool people through doing improv with them. That I have to work at gratitude, because that means I always get to discover it anew. That I have a place to sleep tonight. Sometimes it is that simple.

Happy holidays and see you at the show.

-- Julia

PS I apologize to my many non-local readers. I'm dedicated to my community and sometimes that manifests in a hyper-local way. Feel free to transfer any feelings of goodwill to the (undoubtedly) similar circumstances wherever you live.