take the space. [an interview with arwen nicks]

arwen

On the power of stories, the importance of space and the surprises that can come from simply slowing down.

“I hit a wall.”

“You hit a wall?”

“I hit a huge fucking wall.” Arwen props herself up on her forearms, briskly shaking her bangs from her eyes.

“Wait,” I interject. I’m curled up on my stomach, comfortably cohabitating upon her plaid dog blanket, chin in my palms. “A position just opened up for you right?” I ask. “Didn’t things just seemingly fall into place?”

“Well…” she grins. “First I stopped.”

“Because of that whole wall thing?”

“Right. The wall. I mean, I hit it pretty hard.” Arwen pauses, thoughtfully picking stray dog hairs from the blanket. “So I stopped.” Her bangs freely fall into her face again. This time, she leaves them there. “But yeah,” she grins through them, “then it all opened up.”

“I mean, my way into radio was really non-linear,” she begins. “Which, I guess that’s kind of my way into everything. I don’t have your normal, formal education. Like, I didn’t graduate college. I have been to seven or so colleges at this point, and I’ve taken a lot of classes…” She smiles, “but I’ve also left a lot of times.”

She kicks off her shoes and joins me mid stomach-sprawl. Despite it being the near-end of summer, around the near-end of the day, at the near-end of the workweek, we appear to have the park to ourselves. Over the course of our hours-long chat, a rogue Frisbee sails overhead. An occasional angry jogger passes. A chubby, off-leash dog runs over for a cuddle.

“I was living in Seattle. And I was obsessed with public radio. I mean,” Arwen shrugs, “I’ve been obsessed with public radio for as long as I can remember. This was back in 2008. And I’d been living in Seattle for four or five years.” She laughs, “I was part of the ‘PIKE-PINE Mafia’ when that existed. I was a pizza delivery girl. I made coffee at Bauhaus. We were just part of this nightlife, customer-service culture, where all of us involved just constantly traded things. You know?” She tucks her bangs back, smiling. “You give someone a free coffee, or deliver them a discounted pizza, and later that night they hook you up with free drinks at the bar. That sort of thing.”

“And I got a call from my friend Sean, who was complaining about needing an intern at his production company down in LA,” she explains. “About how he was so slammed he didn’t even have time to interview people, etc. And he said ‘I just wish you lived here, and you could do it.’” Arwen tucks her bangs back. “And I realized then and there, that if I didn’t do this, then I was going to be sitting on the same barstool for the rest of my life. That I HAD to do something. And,” she continues, “look I love learning. But I HATE school. I hate the way formal education is set up. It just doesn’t work with me. And,” she pauses, “it took me a long time to realize that, and be okay with hating it.”

Arwen likely celebrated over some kind of coffee-pizza combo, bid adieu to her Seattle pals, and hit the road due South. With one of her besties riding shotgun, the gals turned Operation New Start into a road trip worth remembering. “I had just broken up with my boyfriend, I had some travel plans already in place,” Arwen grins, ““We just went for it.”

She had barely parked her car behind her Aunt’s pool house, before the whole plan went to shit. “My friend’s company totally folded!” Arwen grins while she shrugs. “Like, six days after I got there, it went under.”

“So, I had no idea what to do. I had no ‘Plan B,” ya know?”

She continues, “I kind of just hung out at my Aunt’s place with my dick in my hands. Just staring at it. Like, ‘where did I get a dick from?’ No fucking idea.” Arwen grins. “Everything was confusing and I had no idea what to do.”

Several weeks later, Arwen’s path randomly crossed with a producer for NPR’s Marketplace. Rather, while sipping shandies at some “weird LA event,” her godsister overheard him speak and charged over to Arwen to announce “THERE IS SOMEONE HERE WHO WORKS FOR NPR.”

Arwen brushes her bangs back again. “So I ran over there, and demanded that he give me his email address.” She grins. “And then I harassed him via email for three months, until he finally met me for coffee. From there, he introduced me over email to a couple of people in public radio—one of whom was my first boss in the industry, Aimee Machado.” Arwen laughs, “She called everyone—no matter what their gender—‘chica.’”

“So she called me one day while I was at the beach. And she was like, ‘hey chica, this is Amy. Can you start tomorrow?’ And I was like…’start doing what…?’ Arwen laughs. “She was super busy and they needed an intern. So she told me to come in, and she said ‘we’ll see if you like us, and if we like you, and we’ll go from there.’ Which,” Arwen grins, “is the line I’ve said to every single person I’ve hired, ever since.”

This time it’s my turn to readjust. I flip onto my back, hands folded behind my head. Arwen continues to pick dog hair from the blanket. Pausing for the occasional and necessary bang swoop. “And that was it. That was eight years ago.” She continues, “I went through some heavy fucking shit in LA. After two years down there, I moved back to Seattle. Was going through some heavy fucking shit again. And then I got a job at KUOW. My old boss in LA had been at some conference with the head of the station, and they wound up calling me, inviting me in for a tour, and then hiring me.” She adds, “I went from intern, to fill-in producer, to fulltime producer. I worked there for three years.”

“The thing is,” she sits up, explaining, “In radio, it almost never matters.” She laughs. “You almost always have no audience. Like, none of my friends listen to my show. No one gives a shit about what I do. People don’t care about radio the way I care about it. I do it because I love it. You know?” Arwen pauses. “I didn’t get into it because I needed an audience. I got into it because I love making it.”

“I mean, it’s great company. And I think radio or podcasts are perfect for introverts. It’s social interaction without actually having anything taken away from you. You get to listen until you’re done listening. And it’s not rude to press pause or turn it down or walk away.” Arwen grins. “You can’t do that in proper conversation. For me,” she continues, “radio in general, as an alternative to music, can sometimes be nice because often music makes me feel all my emotions. And sometimes, when I’m listening to someone else’s story, I get to feel all my emotions, but think that I’m feeling their emotions. Which,” she grins, “is an easier way to process fucking living sometimes.

Arwen continues, “But after a few years at KUOW, I dunno. I think I started to move away from daily news production, towards more personal interviews.”

“The thing everyone says in news production is to ‘get under the headline’ and you know, figure out why this person cares about whatever it is they’re talking about.” Arwen shrugs, twirling a piece of hair behind her ear. “But at the end of the day, news media is just a fucking machine. They care about what fits, and where it fits, and deadlines, all those things.”

She crosses her legs in front of her, explaining. “I remember once, interviewing this guy who was a lawyer for this girl, a cheerleader, in Texas. There was a guy on her high school basketball team who had raped her. At a party.” Arwen pauses. “And he’d been suspended from the team for a few days, but not from school. And it was this really convoluted case, just super fucked up. And something happened where no one let this cheerleader know that this guy would be let back on the team…So she’s up there, court-side, doing her cheers…and the guy who FUCKING RAPED her walks out.”

Arwen tilts her head at me. Her bangs swoop again. “She’s just up there. Doing her thing. And when he comes out, she doesn’t cheer for him. Granted, she doesn’t ‘boo’ him. She just doesn’t cheer for him. She doesn’t do anything. She’s just a woman who was raped by this fucking piece of shit human being, who didn’t raise her pom poms when he ran out for the crowds.” Arwen pauses. “And she got expelled. And she got expelled because she wouldn’t apologize for it.”

“And, I found the case for it, and pitched it as a story to the show. I ended up finding the lawyer, and talking to him for hours and hours about this town, and this case, and why he does these pro-bono cases, and how many times things like this happen, and how he doesn’t understand why more people aren’t championing for women.” Arwen grins. “He was just this old Texas boy! You know? Who was one of the best feminists I’d ever talked to. And he didn’t even know it.”

She leans back, still seated, her arms propped behind her. “And the next day in the news meeting, they asked me ‘so is there anything there?’ And I said no. Because it wasn’t news! It wasn’t news in the way that it’s supposed to be. And that broke my fucking heart.”

“Look,” she continues, “there are so many pieces I’ve worked on where they’re like ‘well what’s the POLICY!? What’s the policy change? How are people going to vote on this?’” She shrugs. “Blah blah blah. And yes, I think that’s really really important, and people need to stay informed on these things, and vote, and all of that. But,” she shrugs, “I think it’s just as important to listen to the pro-bono Texan lawyer talk about this girl who’s exhausted, and just being shit on by her entire town, because she stood up for herself.” Arwen looks at me. “You know? I think it’s pretty fucking important to highlight that too.”

“You know,” I chime in, “when I first started interviewing people, I was scoping stories for this giant tech company to basically ‘play up their humanistic side’… and I will never forget the minute I hit a similar wall as you.”

I roll back onto my stomach, head in my hands. “This whole crew of street musicians were coming together in this ‘first-ever’ digital orchestra. And the whole thing was filmed and edited and went viral, etc etc yada blah blah. So I sat down for conversations with the director, the producers, the conductor, and some of the musicians themselves.”

Arwen sits listening. Nods eagerly as I continue.

“Anyways, I talked with this woman who played the musical saw. She calls herself ‘The Saw Lady,’ and just for some warm-up backstory to how she got involved with this project, she tells me a bit about her life.”

I pause, dropping my head to the ground.

“Dude. This fucking woman. Long story short, she emigrated as a young child, and spent her entire life as a ballerina dancer. Like—pro ballerina. That was her life, and ALL of her energy and drive and desires were funneled into getting this esteemed position in one of the country’s top ballets.” I pause. “And one day, she’s crossing the street in New York City, and she gets hit by a car. And loses her leg. And that’s that.”

Arwen shakes her head.

“So, she talks about how she wanted to die. About how that was the end of all of it for her. Once her dreams were literally run over, she couldn’t bring herself to care about anything again. And then her parents took her to a concert. This was months and months into her very painful recovery.” I pause. “As she put it, she ‘wallowed through the darkest pit of despair.’ And at this concert, she looked up to see a musician playing the musical saw. And she said that was the first time since the accident that she ‘felt something stirring in her.’ That suddenly, she knew she wanted to live. And that afternoon she went and bought herself a saw, and has been playing it ever since.”

I look up from the ground. A posse of high schoolers chatter by. We watch them pass in silence, before I continue.

“But,” I shrug, “the article had nothing to do with any of that.”

“Of course not,” Arwen grins.

“And really,” I continue, “From our hours-long conversation, I maybe used one measly quote of hers.” Arwen grins at me. “And you know, the quote was something like ‘Man oh man! Good thing for technology! What a treat!’ or some stupid shit like that.”

We both burst into laughter.

“I mean really,” I add, “that’s when I was like ‘wait…what the fuck is going on here?’ And don’t get me wrong, I know I need these types of gigs. I understand marketing writing. I’m able to remove myself from the corporate grind of ‘BUY THIS USE THIS NEED THIS WANT THIS’… but after that I took a step back and asked myself ‘what are the stories that get me going? And what would happen if I started that on my own, and didn’t have to upsell or increase views or give a fuck about click rates… let alone could bypass that whole back-and-forth dance with editors?’

Arwen smiles. “Well here we are.”

I gaze around the once-again-empty park. “Here we are.”

“People are fucking amazing,” she states. “And like, I wanna talk about the woman with the fucking saw. I wanna spend the rest of my fucking life talking about the woman with the fucking saw.”

Arwen grins. “Just so people will know that this person exists! And you know, I’m not trying to push any kind of opinion either. My goal is not to promote this ‘we’re all gonna make it kids!’” She cracks up, “Don’t worry everyone! We’re alllll going to find our saw to play!’”

She pulls herself back up to a seated position, facing me directly. “But just THIS person exists. This is a story that exists. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your fucking life, or force inspiration on you. I’m trying to facilitate the fact that this story exists. And it’s a fucking privilege to be able to do that. And I feel really lucky to be able to do that. I’m finally at a point with my career, to have that moment that you had, and I get to be like ‘WE’RE TALING ABOUT THE FUCKING LADY WITH HER FUCKING SAW. THIS IS THE SHOW THIS WEEK.’”

But before Arwen found herself at that ‘point with her career,’ she had to slow her roll. Pull the plug. Hit the breaks. Well actually, hit ‘the wall.’

“Public radio is a labor of love. I mean truly,” Arwen explains. “And I realized there was no love in the news room. That’s what it felt like.” She pauses. “I was so fucking worn out. And it felt like my job was getting less and less creative. I felt like I was just fighting to just make stuff still. You know? And when I was able to make stuff, it just didn’t matter.”

“And then I got invited to go to this writer’s retreat.” Arwen tucks her bangs back, grinning. “I mean, it took months before I said yes. I was convinced they were like, trying to get me to do a story, or that they thought I was someone else. But I finally said okay, and stopped everything and went out there.”

“Woah woah hold on hold on wait hold the door oh god stop for a second.” I sit up. “A writer’s retreat?

“Yeah dude. You should fucking apply. It’s called Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat. And it’s out on Whidbey Island. And it’s fucking incredible.” Arwen continues, “I went out there for five days—this was just this last summer… and those five days changed my life.” She pauses. “Like, it was the first time in my life I’d ever been taken care of. My meals were made for me. And I had one obligation, and that was to be at the farmhouse for dinner at five. With a bunch of other awesome ladies. Who were also writing. I mean,” she grins, “the whole library is just female authors.”

“I just peed,” I mutter. “On your blanket. All over it. Um.. sorry,”

“Dude it’s a dog blanket. It’s fine.”

She continues. “But yeah. I am so grateful for them. And for that chance to clear my head. Like, I spent my whole life thinking I was terrible at napping. When really?” Arwen grins. “I was just stressed out. And then being there, and being like, well I had some breakfast, and I wrote a bit…guess I’m going to take a nap and just hang out until dinner.

She grins. “Being able to do that, and just relax and breathe? I’d never had that before.”

“I didn’t bring my computer,” she explains, “I just brought some pens and paper, and just wrote. And the really cool part was they weren’t like ‘come share what you wrote around the fire.’ I mean, some people did, which was great. There were Pulitzer Prize-winning authors there, and I’m like ‘uhhh…I work in radio?’ That was also really weird.” Arwen tucks her bangs, tilting her head at me. “To have that be cool at a table. To have these women be like ‘what do you do? Oh my god that’s awesome! Tell me about the interviews that you’re working on.’ Which you know, at any other function in my normal life, people are like ‘oh…Okay…Weird.’”

She grins again. “But yeah, I just realized that I was so tired and so unhappy and I just wanted to write and I wanted to be happy, and I just wanted to MAKE stuff. And I called my Dad. Well, first I tried to call my girlfriend to be like ‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW…I’M EATING FIGS ‘N’ SHIT OFF OF TREES.’ But she was busy. So I called my Dad.”

Arwen pauses. “And, he’s the best person in the world. We have this relationship where I love my Dad so much, and he loves me so much, and I’m constantly looking for his approval, but he’s never disapproved of anything I’ve ever done. He’s always been my number one champion. But,” she smiles, “I still have this idea that I’m going to call him and he’ll be like ‘oooohhh I just don’t know about that.’ Which,” Arwen cracks up, “he’s NEVER said to me! So I don’t know why that still surprises me.”

“So I called him and said ‘I think I need to quit my job. And just write. And I have no money saved up. And I don’t know what I’m going to do. And this feels like a really stupid thing for someone who just turned 31 to do. But I think I have to do it and maybe I’ll go back to waiting tables or something but I just don’t feel like I have a soul anymore.’”

I pause my dog-hair picking to gaze at her.

Arwen continues, “and he was like ‘that sounds dark. You should quit your job.’ And I was like ‘really?’ and he was like ‘you should write. You’ve always been made to write and to make stuff.’

“Fuck yeah DAD,” I whisper under my breath.

“Right?” Arwen laughs. “My Dad was like, ‘what the hell did you think I was going to tell you? You said your soul is dying! You’re 31! Do what you want!’

“Thanks Dad,” I mimic hanging up an invisible phone.

“Yeah cool thanks Dad, click.” Arwen grins.

She crosses her legs in front of her, hands in her lap, before continuing. “But you know it’s one of those things where maybe you’re wrestling with the biggest decisions you have to make, and you realize you don’t need anyone’s approval to do it.” She grins. “I mean, that is the hardest thing in the world. You’re the only one who needs to give yourself permission to do shit. And usually, you don’t. But if you’re looking for permission so that your soul doesn’t die?” Arwen shrugs, laughing. “Then that’s probably okay. You know?”

She continues. “So yeah. I came back from Hedgebrook and put in my notice. And I thought I’d take a part-time job there, or work in a bookstore, or do something else entirely…” Arwen pauses. “And then the news director, who’s this fucking incredible woman, who works the local NPR-affiliate station KPLU called me out of the blue, and was like ‘hey we want to make a show, and we’re wondering if you would come talk to us about it.’”

I cock my eyebrows at Arwen. She smiles through her bangs. “And I kind of just thought that they wanted to pick my brain. I didn’t realize that they, you know, wanted to date. Like I thought we were hanging out as friends. But they wanted to date. A formal date. And like, a coffee turned into five hours of intense conversation.”

“Coffee turned into drinks and dancing?” I chime in.

She laughs. “Exactly. And the next thing I knew, I had said yes to running and launching a show. This was October of last year.”

Grinning, I stretch my legs out in front of me. “So what’s your show about?”

“People.” She beams.

“It’s called Sound Effect. And it’s ‘a tour of ideas inspired by the place that we live.’” Arwen brushes her hair from her forehead. “ But like, it’s a show about people. And it’s regional. So we do stories from Spokane and Yakima, etc. Basically we choose a theme, and then use that theme to find stories about people.”

“Like I interviewed a woman today, for an episode with the theme ‘Silver Linings.’ And she is losing her hearing. She has a disease called NF2, which is a disease where tumors grow on your nervous system. So they can grow on your spine, in your brain. She’s already lost some vision. And she’s lost some of her hearing too.” Arwen continues, “she’s got some tumors on the bottom of her spine right now. She’s 37. And she watched her mom die—when she was the age she is now – of the same thing. It’s hereditary. But back then they didn’t know what to do, so her mom died of a drug interaction. But we interviewed her because there’s a tumor that’s affecting her hearing. And if they remove it, the rest of her hearing goes. And her hearing is already incredibly compromised.”

Arwen pauses, “But rather than like freak out and take what she describes as ‘drastic measures’ to try and save part of her hearing, she’s like ‘I want this tumor out. I want to be done with this chapter of my life. And I’m going to spend the next three months hearing everything I can.’ So she started a GoFundMe page, so she can go to her favorite concerts. And she has a bucket list of all the things she wants to hear. Stuff like, the way the ocean hits the beach in California.”

Arwen catches my jaw-drop from her peripheral. “Yeah. I definitely cried in the interview when I was talking to her today.”

“So sure. The theme is ‘Silver Linings,’ and we’ll talk about those things, Arwen uncrosses her legs, mirroring my seated pointed-toes pose. “But it’s just people experiencing things. And a way to talk to them about that.” She pauses, “Like my whole goal with making radio is just to remind whoever’s listening that there are other human beings in the world. You know? That there’s someone else who has a story and has an emotion, and maybe that’s the someone else sitting on the bus next to you, or in the car in front of you who just cut you off, who maybe you can be a little nicer to, because really where are we going?” She bursts into laughter. “No but really. Where the fuck are we all going? It’s FINE. Just chill out. We’re all here trying to fucking figure it all out.”

She grins, continuing. “So the show is about people who live here. People that you might not realize you’re standing next to but you are. And they’re awesome. It’s the same thing you do, you know? Everyone’s got a story.”

She continues, “I just want to sit with the stories for a while, you know? And there are stories that will stick with me, and will stay with me for forever. But it’s also pretty easy to tell what I’m going through in my life, by what I’m producing.”

Arwen explains, “when I decided to stop drinking, I produced all these segments on addiction and recovery. When I was figuring out that I am gay as the day is long, I was doing all these queer politics interviews.” She pauses, “I’ve lost many people in my life, so when I’ve struggled with death, a lot of the stuff I end up producing is pretty fucking dark. But I don’t think that’s bad. In fact, it’s a therapy of sorts.”

“I found a woman who—before she was 30 years old,” Arwen laughs, “okay this is going to make us both feel terrible about ourselves, but this woman had discovered three new planets.”

I mock flip a table. Pretend to get up and leave.

“No but not only that,” she continues, she discovered a new way to DISCOVER new planets. She’s AMAZING. And she’s also hilarious and brilliant and a stellar babe. Like, her twitter handle is @HubbaHubble.”

“INSTA girl crush.” I mutter.

“No shit dude.”

“So we brought her in and we were like “what does it fucking feel like to discover a NEW WORLD?’ Like, what does it feel like?!” Arwen pauses, “and her story wound up being so much more than that. Like it was about being a woman in science, and how hard that is. And the constant doubt that you have for yourself. And like, apologizing for discovering a new planet, and then being like FUCK THIS, I’m not going to apologize for discovering a NEW PLANET!?!?’”

“Oh my fucking god.”

“Yeah!” Arwen exclaims. “But like, what did it feel like? She said she was at a concert, checking her email like ‘IS this real? DID I do it? Can I TAKE MY PLACE IN HISTORY? And, you know,” Arwen beams, “the answer was yes!”

“What are the stories that you love the most?” I ask. “Like, what makes a person’s story THE story to you?”

She thinks for a minute. “I like stories that matter to the person telling them. Something that’s really frustrating is when someone has a really amazing story and they can’t tell it. You know? And I think one of the reasons that happens is…maybe it just doesn’t matter to them?” Arwen shrugs. “Like maybe the story that you think is so amazing doesn’t fucking matter to them. Maybe they would rather be talking about yogurt. Who fucking knows.”

“But the stories that I want are the stories that the person cares about telling. Like this woman I talked to today with NF2? She throws no shame at having this disease. Like, she doesn’t care talking about that. But you get her talking about music and the concerts she’s excited to see, and how excited she is to go with her girlfriend to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado? Like…” Arwen smiles, “it was amazing. I was crying. It was beautiful.”

I lean back, hugging my knees to my chest. “Interviewing people…” I state, “it’s like a fast-track to tapping into how or where a person finds meaning. That’s what it is. And their story could be about nothing. But if it’s a nothing that someone cares about, than it’s a something.”

She grins. “It’s pretty fucking great. You know, I was talking to my friend the other day. And she’s just decided to move and go be a badass at grad school,” Arwen reaches for her toes, stretching “she’s so impressive and wonderful. And she was saying to me ‘I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, I don’t deserve this. Why am I so lucky?’” Arwen reaches for the sky now, still stretching.

“And I was like ‘look, I don’t want your life! Like, YOU love it. It’s YOURS. But I don’t want it. And you don’t want my life. I’ll love my life.’” Arwen gazes through her bangs at me. “And I was like ‘not everyone wants what you want. So it makes sense that you GOT it. Your entire life has been building up to this. And it’s okay! Happiness isn’t a fucking commodity. It’s not a limited resource.’”

She shrugs. “Like we have to stop thinking that ‘once we get it, it’s going to be taken away.’ I mean why? So that, what—there can be balance in the world? That’s not how it works. There is more than enough misery and joy to go around for ALL of us.

I burst out laughing. “A never-ending supply—à la carte style. Take what you want!”

“Yeah,” Arwen grins. She tucks her bangs back. Chews on her lip for a moment.

“But being at Hedgebrook, at that writer’s retreat, I think what happened in that moment is I gave myself the space to say yes to myself. And,” she continues, “in a way that’s like…really hard for me to do. To just be like ‘okay I’m gonna try this thing.”

She looks at me. “You know?”

“There are few moments in my life where I’ve done exactly that. And they’re all those moments. Where I’ve been like okay I’m going to trust that I’m not the worst.” Arwen grins. “That’s basically what it is. And if I can trust that I’m not the worst for a moment—just one moment—then I can get to the next stone in this fucking pond that I’m trying to cross.”

Arwen flicks another dog hair from the blanket beneath us. “And everything does feel that crazy and fragile to me sometimes,” she shrugs. “Like it does feel like trying to cross a pond on stones. But it’s awesome. And I like it. When I trusted that I wasn’t the worst, and I moved down to LA and finagled my way into my dream job. And when I trusted that I wasn’t the worst and left LA, without a job, and moved to Seattle and didn’t know what I was going to do…” She pauses again. “When I was like okay I’m going to TRUST that I will work this out. I’m going to give myself the space and be like, maybe I’m not the worst. And maybe I can do this. And maybe what happens next is okay. Whatever it is.”

She smiles at me. “And something awesome happened next. And I am a really lucky son of a bitch. I’ve had some really good fortune handed to me, and I feel really grateful for it. And I’m also an incredibly privileged white lady, so it’s not like my life has been hard. Like I had a hard childhood, but not the hardest. I’ve had really good fortune. And my fortune only gets better when I seem to trust myself more.”

She folds her legs again, hands on her knees. “And I don’t want that to come across like ‘I worked hard and pulled myself up by my bootstraps.’ Like, NO dude. I was standing already. I’ve lived with a net. But emotionally? When it comes to me progressing creatively?” Arwen grins. “That’s when it’s all about letting go and maybe not hating myself. And being like okay I’m gonna try. And then awesome things happened. I left LA and then I came here, after the greatest heartbreak I’d ever had in my life. And got an even better job, doing something even cooler.” Arwen shrugs again, “and then I left that job, and got an even better job, doing something even cooler.”

We both pause. Before us, a small crowd is gathering. Clad in Elizabethan garb, their caps, corsets and exaggerated collars lead to one dreaded conclusion. It’s almost time for “Shakespeare in the Park.”

Arwen continues. “I guess put another way, self-empathy, if that makes sense.” She leans back. “I remember listening to something. On Being or something. They were talking about this study that was done, where they had people do this experiment where they used their own name, when they thought about themselves.” She pauses, “so, your internal monologue is running all the time, right? ‘Oh I gotta do this and I gotta do that, and this too, and oh god, get it together, etc.’ But then you third-person it. Like, instead of ‘I need to do this,’ it’s ‘Arwen needs to do this.’ ‘And they found that after people had done that for a week, they were so much kinder to themselves.” My jaw drops again. She continues, “It forces you to see yourself as a person.” Arwen exclaims, “in a way you’re so not used to!”

“You kinda just blew my fucking mind.”

“Right?” she laughs. And I started to do that. And to just be kind to myself. And remember I was a little girl once. That was just confused. And just…like, fucking be nice. You know?”

“’Arwen really needs to eat dinner.’ Not ‘oh I’m fucking hungry again, godamnit.’ But to have empathy for myself. ‘Oh. She’s hungry. You need to feed her.’ Like, if you were to look at yourself as if you were your friend. I think that changes things. And I think I’ve really tried to do that more and more in the last couple of years.” She grins through her bangs. “Be a little nicer. Not be so hard about stupid things. It’s almost as if our internal monologue is this list of mistakes that me made. You know?”

“Also,” she continues, “I started imagining I was watching ‘my movie.’” Arwen smiles, shrugging at me, “this is how I think about things. Think about an artist you really admire. And imagine you’re watching the biography of their life. Like, everything they do is blowing you the fuck away. Like, oh my god, you can’t believe they’re doing those things, or that stuff, or wow they lived in the woods for a year, or holy shit every Saturday they spent an hour reading the paper.” She explains, “everything they do is so impressive. Because you love that person. You admire them.”

Arwen grins again. “So when I think about the decisions in my life, I think of someone watching my movie. Someone who admires me. Someone who is going to think this is awesome. And that’s going to give me permission to do it.”

I’m still hugging my legs, resting my chin on my knees. “Say for example,” she continues, “You’re such a fucking procrastinator. You’ve never been able to get a story done before the night before it’s due.” Arwen shrugs. “If you’re watching a movie about a writer that you admire… and someone comes on and is like, ‘their process is so amazing because they didn’t do anything until like eight hours before, and then they just KNOCKED IT OUT.”

Now I’m chewing on my lip.

“Like, what if that’s what you’re doing? What if it’s not ‘you’re procrastinating?’ What if ‘your process is just that awesome?’”

She continues, “So, I’m just trying to be kind to myself in that way. And give myself that space. And distance myself enough to where I can be kind to myself. For me,” Arwen grins, “that’s a good thing. I think that I struggled with a lot of stuff as a kid. I was so busy trying to get to different points, or feed myself, or figure things out, or find fucking love, or whatever, that my natural state is to just GO. And to not like myself very much. And to never trust that anyone else likes me.”

“So,” she grins. “Getting behind that, and being like ‘but Arwen, why didn’t you think that anyone could love you? That is so sad…and trying to reframe it in a way that’s more empathetic.”

Hamlet has officially commenced. Costumed actors leap and gesture dramatically before us. Suddenly, we’re not alone anymore. Suddenly, we’re two more spectators to a show neither of us wanted to be at in the first place.

We glance at each other, silently agreeing that it’s time to get the fuck out of there.

“I know you know this,” she adds, “but when you get to a point with someone in an interview, where they’re being vulnerable, and they’ve opened up…And there is just this…” Arwen pauses, smiling to herself, “they start to move a little bit. You watch their body move. You watch their eyes move. And you can see that there’s something coming up for them. There’s something coming up they they’re realizing while they’re talking to you. And it’s scary.”

Gertrude, Hamlet’s status-hungry mother steps into the spotlight.

Arwen sweeps her hair to the side, “because the world is fucking scary. And then you ask them what it is that they’re so afraid of, and what comes next from that question is the most amazing thing in the world. Because if someone is willing to be that vulnerable with you, and tell you what they’re honestly afraid of?” Arwen stares at me. “It’s incredible.”

“And look,” she adds, “I believe that people are innately good. Sure. I was raised Buddhist. That’s part of the fiber of my being. But I also believe that people are innately assholes.”

Claudius joins the center-stage clusterfuck. Everyone—typical fucking Shakespeare—is yelling.

Arwen continues, “We’re selfish. We’re trying to survive. We’re trying to do these things. We want to feel successful. We want to feel serotonin. We hate pain. So whatever that is, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or sex or exercise or getting someone to tell you their story, we’re all looking for that next thing.”

“But I get to have these moments often, where my faith in humanity is restored. You know?” She grins through her bangs. “And it’s fucking incredible. That will take me through the next moment where I see some asshole kick his dog in the park or something.” Arwen pauses. “And for me, I have always kind of felt that everyone had a story and that I really wanted to hear it.”

She shrugs. Behind her, Prince Hamlet shakes a fist at the sky.

“Maybe radio came along because really, where else was I going to go?”

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