New York Film Festival

Death, Grief, and Community

A friend of mine died this week. And I'm really struggling with what to say about it.

It's not the first time I've experienced the death of a peer/someone my own age. And I didn't know him especially well; we worked together at the New York Film Festival, and I liked him a lot as a person, but it's not like I had known him from childhood. But his passing makes me very sad, and I don't know what to do with this grief.

There are two things I'm primarily thinking about. One is the impostor syndrome, and how I keep feeling like I don't deserve to feel this way about his passing, even though I intellectually know that's absolute bullshit. The other is how beautiful the community that comes together after a senseless death like this can be.

That first point, where I'm concerned about how worthy I am to be concerned, is pretty self-involved, I know. Not only am I entitled to my feelings, but I did know him, I was touched by his presence, and I feel his absence in my life. I know that there are other people who feel it much more strongly, and I'm doing my best to be there for them without overwhelming them with my own desire to help or intruding on their private spaces. But it's a sad thing that happened, and I am allowed to feel sad and share that sadness. And I am allowed to think about how that sadness and his absence affect me.

In the nerdiest possible way, my thoughts on that particular topic keep coming back to this scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation:

I intellectually get all of that. But I almost didn't go to the memorial service yesterday because I was worried that I didn't deserve to be there with people who knew him better and loved him more than I did. Ridiculous, of course. And I did go, and not only am I glad that I did, but I saw that the room was absolutely packed with people who had cared about him, and his family was comforted by how many people care.

There were so many people there. I already knew that he's a wonderful, kind, considerate person, but in the auditorium where the service was being held, not only was every chair filled, but all of the extra chairs that had been put out were also filled, and there were people lining the walkways so standing room was also filled. When people joke in that only-half-joking way about wanting to fake their own death to see how many people come to their funeral, this service was exactly what they want to happen. This community was huge.

I couldn't possibly speak for everyone there, but I know that I took comfort from how many of us were there feeling sad together. It absolutely sucked that we were there, but at least we all felt shitty together.

There isn't any kind of lesson to be learned from this. I don't believe that peoples' deaths and the things that we do after them are there to ~guide me on my path~ or anything. (Even I'm not that self-involved.) But this is my experience surrounding it, and I wanted to get it down in writing.

I want to end this by saying a little bit about him. His name is Noah Witke. He was 25. He was a liaison for the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and I knew him from his work with the theater team volunteers at the New York Film Festival. He was one of the friendliest staff members. Not to say that anyone who is a staff member for NYFF isn't friendly, but he's the kind of guy who, no matter how busy he was, would make time to stop by you as you're working, ask how you're doing, and really mean the question. He would remember people. He graduated from Julliard in drama, which is just ridiculously impressive. (For those of you who don't know, Julliard only accepts 18 people every year.) He was intensely curious about the world. When I was on shift at NYFF at the end of Yom Kippur, he's the staff member who was there as I left to go get food, and when I told him where I was going and why, he got super into the mini discussion we had about the holiday, and Judaism, and what it means for us before I ran off to actually eat. And then later that evening, he asked me what I had gotten, and got legitimately excited by the fact that I, too, was the kind of person who would get a pint of ice cream just because I could. He was caring, full of life and joy, and there are few people who deserved this less than him. People are sharing photos and stories of him here, and I think these stories capture who he was as a person better than a description ever could.

Anyway. I'm not sure what else to say. But I'm going to miss him. And this sucks.

Fasting on Yom Kippur - "It's the holiest day of the year." - Sarah Pfefferman, Transparent

This past week was Yom Kippur. It's the Jewish day of atonement, and the end of the Days of Awe. That's that week in between Rosh Hashanah, our new year, and Yom Kippur, when the Book of Life is open. We're supposed to think about the people we've hurt over the past year so we can atone for it, and then our names will be written into the Book of Life for the next year to come, and it is closed and finalized at the end of Yom Kippur. And while most of this time is generally joyous, celebrating the sweetness of life and the excitement of a new year, we're supposed to fast on Yom Kippur itself, to reflect on who we are and what we've done.

I'm a pretty bad Jew. I've never fasted on Yom Kippur. At least not before this year.

Honestly, I'm not sure I could tell you exactly why I chose to fast this time. It's not like anything in particular happened to make me understand that fasting would actually have meaning for me this time around. I've been connecting more and more to my Judaism and my faith/spirituality, but that's been an ongoing process for a couple of years now, I didn't start fasting when I started that. It was just a few days before Yom Kippur, and I realized that I was going to do it.

(Thank god I managed to give away my shift at my day job. Sure, it's about denying yourself the pleasure of food to think about what you've done, but I don't think whatever higher power there is meant for us to do that while working in a restaurant.)

I went about my day almost as normal. I slept in way later than I normally would, but I still volunteered at the New York Film Festival that evening, and I didn't go to services or anything. That didn't stop me from reflecting pretty much all day, though. And there were two things I was particularly thinking about.

One is that I never realized just how much my schedule and my life revolves around food. Not just my day job, but when I started to plan my day and I had to deliberately leave out a lunch break. Or when I thought I might be early to the NYFF, so I figured "I'll head down there, and if I'm too early, I'll just stop by Starbucks" before I remembered "no, I won't." When I started to run low on energy and I figured I'd just get a snack. And then at the festival, realizing that I would have to decide at 6pm between seeing a movie and breaking the fast. (Good thing for me that 6pm movie was also showing the next day at 9pm, so I just saw it then! Before I found that out, I was really, legitimately struggling with the decision.)

But more importantly, I was thinking about the people I've hurt and disrespected. And I realized that I haven't hurt that many other people. In fact, I go way out of my way to make sure I don't hurt others, and everybody likes me. I'm sure there are people I've hurt that I don't realize, but I'm also sure that they all know me and they know I didn't mean to hurt them.

The person I have disrespected is myself. Yes, I know, that's pretty self-serving for a holiday about atonement towards others, but by going so far out of my way to make sure the people around me are happy, I've put my own self at less of a priority. As if I'm not as important as my peers. I'm happy to help my friends where I can, but I also have to start looking out for myself more. I have to start demanding the things that I want, because if I don't, I'm not going to get them. And that's probably going to make me come off as a bit of a "bitch." But I have to stop caring about that, too. Besides, like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have said, bitches get stuff done. And I have a lot of stuff to do.

I have lost out on too many things that I've wanted this year so the people around me could like me more and I would hurt them less.

I then broke the fast by going to Indie Food and Wine in Lincoln Center, getting a soup, two sandwiches, as well as popcorn and lemonade from the concessions stand at the Walter Reade theater... and then I went to Gourmet Garage, bought a pint of Ben and Jerry's, and split it with a couple of other NYFF volunteers. Because it's also possible to get what I want AND make the people around me happy.

Is all of this the point of Yom Kippur? I don't know. Probs not. But it's the spiritual experience that I had, so it's valid, too.

Avoiding Burnout

If you had told me a year ago that I would come close to burning out, I never would've believed you. I would be coming straight out of NYFF 2015 having seen a bunch of the movies that would come to compete in Oscar season, hella inspired, and wanting to tell all of the stories and explore all of the human condition.

I've worked a lot since then. Both as an actor, and at my day job just to keep myself stable.

Now, in all fairness to me, I've been doing pretty well for myself. Over the summer, I was the lead in three student shorts, I was cast in two features, I did a play, I went through a solid portion of the post-production process for my own short film, and I started work on my new solo show. I'm literally living the dream, and it's pretty awesome.

In fact, I was so happy with the work I had been doing that I didn't realize that, between all of that, working at my day job, and trying to have some kind of a social life, I was burning out until I got on the plane to go on vacation, and my whole body lit up at the prospect of just being on holiday.

Oh yeah, a couple of weeks ago, I went to London! There is a massive blog post coming up about everything I did, the love I feel in and for that city, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I'm wearing my new Slytherin necklace now and everything. It's pretty badass. I also went to Edinburgh. I had never been there before. It's so beautiful I can't stand it. And I ate haggis. I'm pretty brave.

Now, part of all that is just me and how much I love to travel. But it was such a change to wake up in a hostel room at 7am after maybe five hours of sleep and instantly be awake and excited for the rest of the day instead of oversleeping if I try to make myself have any less than seven and a half hours.

I'm not really sure what the answer is here. I still do the work now that I'm back in the US, and I love doing the work, and it makes me happy. Maybe it's just that it's that much easier to be excited while on vacation because you know you only have a week to do everything so you want to soak it all in while you can, and it's a totally normal thing.

It does help me remember how lucky I am, though, that I can be an actress and still travel the world, it helps me remember how important my discipline is while working at home, and it makes me especially excited to go to Peru later this month! So there's still all of that.