On Thursday night, I sat in a magic-filled basement room surrounded by powerful and beautiful women as words flowed freely out of the tip of my pen, scrawling across the pages of my journal as if my hand were being controlled by some otherworldly force. Candles flickered on the table before me, the brick walls were positively covered with lanterns, and I had just been asked a strange yet important question: "What is something you have done for thousands of years?"
This activity is a part of an incredible class called The Underground taught by burlesque star and all-around-goddess Veronica Varlow, and its intent was to help us identify our life's purpose, the foundation on which all of our dreams are built. I have done similar meditative journeys and guided journaling sessions with Veronica before, but never has an answer come so quickly and clearly to me as it did that night.
When we began the exercise, I was sure I knew what the answer would be. Which is why I was completely thrown when the words that leaped out at me out of my subconscious were not "actor" or "writer" or "artist" or even "fortune teller", but rather "Big Sister." Big sister? Immediately that brought forth images of mentorship and service positions, of being a therapist or an advice columnist, doling out sage wisdom to the women of the world. As these visions of potential futures danced in my head, I felt my insides shrivel and my heart begin pounding against my ribcage, like a prisoner hurling themselves against the bars of a prison, crying out, "No, that is not my life! What about me? What about what I want?"
You see, I am far too self-centered to devote myself to a life of serving others. I have to be; it's a matter of self-preservation. I love helping people, especially young women, and guiding them through life's ups and downs...to an extent. I will offer my advice and my wisdom, but if it is ignored or the problem drags on with no progress, I find myself growing frustrated and weary of the situation. I don't have the patience to calmly talk someone through their fifteenth breakdown over the same subject, and I feel empty and lifeless when I do not spend liberal amounts of my time focusing on the things that feed my own soul. And what feeds my soul is creating art. So how was it that the purpose that spoke so strongly to me related to my relationship with others?
As I sat there, poking at the concept of Big Sister and trying to discern what it could possibly mean, I remembered a conversation I'd had with my own sister a few months back. We had been discussing our favorite books, and she said to me, "You know, East has always been one of my favorites because I remember you reading it to me when I was little. And that was just so special to me." I was floored. I have vague recollections of reading to her when she was young, but as far as I can remember it was a dictatorial storytime that involved me snapping at her to sit still while I force-fed her chapters of my favorite books, despite the fact that she was not old enough to understand many of them. I had no idea that it had had any affect on her, much less a positive one.
But in a strange way, it made sense. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, being a big sister often is not about delivering sage advice or putting your siblings' wellbeing above your own. A lot of the time it is about believing that you know best, vying for the spotlight, and leading by example, for good or for ill. And, yes, it is often about telling stories, whether it's reading aloud from a fantasy novel or talking about your own life. I shared the books I loved with my sister because I was determined that their magic should be a part of her life as soon as possible, just as I shared my stories of dealing with bullies in the hopes that she would learn to discount the opinions of others sooner than I did (okay, sometimes sage advice comes with the territory). I actively worked to shape her world, convinced that my way was the best way and that the sooner she learned that, the less likely she was to waste time muddling through life and making all those childish mistakes. That was, of course, entirely wrong, as life is far too messy and mistakes will be made whether or not we have an older sibling to look up to. But my sister is now a remarkable, confident, outspoken young woman who is far more savvy and self-assured than I was at her age, so perhaps my clumsy attempts at empowerment had some effect, however small.
As all these thoughts raced through my head, my hand kept writing steadily, and I considered how this revelation shaped the way I approached the world. It's true that many of the projects I am working on or want to work on aim to shape the way my audience views the world. It is also true that much of my intended audience is young women, although I certainly hope my work will be accessible to a wide range of people. I care deeply about empowering people and counteracting the negative models that society gives us for how we should approach the various aspects of our life. Is that not born from a desire to treat every person who is fumbling through life as my younger sibling and guide them toward the happiness and peace that I envision for them?
In my journal, I wrote the words, "I am the Big Sister, reading bedtime stories to the world."
And that's really what it comes down to. Projects and people may come and go, life may throw some curveballs my way, but whenever I find myself questioning my purpose, I can return to that page in my journal and to that night, writing by the red glow of the lanterns, and ground myself in the knowledge that my deepest desire is to use the power of storytelling to share my experience and knowledge with those who are in need of guidance. I can approach the roles I play and the shows I write through that lens, carefully discerning what message I wish to put out into the world and what example I wish to set (or warn against). I cannot take on the problems of others, but I can share my words and hope they reach the people who need them.
This is the foundation upon which my dreams are built. This is my purpose. And, if you need me, I will happily be your big sister. I hope you like listening to stories, because I have plenty.