I used to be a cheerleader. I’d dreamed of being one for as long as I could remember, but definitely no later than at 10 when I started reading Sweet Valley High. It was everything I loved in the world – gymnastics, yelling, moving in unison, and getting to dress like a superhero in a cute, brightly colored outfit.
When I finally became one at 12, I made it onto the squad by a hair, and it was going to be months of arduous training before the superheroness, and the glamour. I sucked at learning cheers. Every new one was an exercise in embarrassment, as I was always one of the last on the squad to get it. “Remember these lines; do this choreography; clap, and SMILE!” Other, better cheerleaders helped take me over and over the moves that everyone else had gotten, and were practicing in a different section of the gym.
But eventually, it all came together. Hundreds of hours of practice and agonizing laps around the school field, and many more hours of selling M&Ms and stationery to raise money for uniforms, and the dream was complete: I was clad in blue and white, and later blue and gold, and I got to yell and do cartwheels and splits for six years of middle and high school.
And then, just like that, now thousands of hours later, it was finished. Done. Gone. Pursuing it in college didn’t mesh with my depression and overall existential crisis, and by the time I pulled myself out of that, I was in my twenties, and the only way of revisiting cheerleading called to mind Rachel Greene in a hallway with a fat lip, yearning for Tate Donovan to come take pity on her, and who amongst us needs that.
So I went on to pursue acting. Something else I’d always wanted to do, another goal that seems glamorous on the surface, even at the humble level of community theater, because the end goal, if you want it, once you get there, is amazing. Being on stage, in costume, playing another character, moving not in unison, but in sync with others, was its own kind of rush. Not exactly like cheerleading, but not exactly unlike it either.
Back before I had the balls to audition for plays, but yearned to be a part of the theater program at Nassau Community College, I was in the audience at one of the greatest productions I to this day have seen: “Merrily We Roll Along.” And I will never forget listening to one of the principal actresses say, “We haven’t even got past the first weekend of shows, and I’m already sick of this play.” At the time, I thought she sounded like such an ingrate. How could she be sick of being a part of something so amazing?
When I was acting myself, I finally, sort of, got it. Rehearsals are tedious, and if a play wasn’t really my cup of tea, sometimes I found myself going through the motions, as though I was being forced to do something. The plays I loved, I couldn’t get enough of. In particular, I got to be a big part of one of the best plays I’ve ever read: “Cut Me Down.” That was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
After that and other theatrical highs, I found myself rehearsing for and performing in a stretch of plays that I really didn’t like at all. The highs were fewer and farther between, until eventually there were no highs at all. So I stopped.
So I used to be an actress.
“Used to be, used to be…” Benjamin Bratt repeated with disgust, in an episode of “Modern Family.” He went on to say that there was no sadder phrase in the English language than that. No more depressing notion than what we are today, is comprised of the negative space to what we used to be.
I used to be a student, full of promise. Then it became too much for me, and I dropped out of college in my junior year, leading to how I used to be a waitress after life didn’t pan out quite how I expected it to.
Today I became a waitress again. And it is humbling. I am almost 36 years old, living with my parents again, and am now serving chicken fingers to strangers, just like I did when I failed at college, before going on to succeed at college, only to fail at figuring out how to make a desk job work for me, in the grand scheme of things.
But the thing is? Today felt freaking GREAT. I love waitressing. Despite all my well-documented rants on everything that can be maddening about the job, it is one that I love doing. And maybe of all my “used to bes,” this is the least auspicious one of all to pull back into the present of what is. The most disappointing. Maybe this is the climax of my own living cautionary tale.
However, strip all that away, and what I’m left with is that today, for the first time in years, I went to work and felt alive, like I was good at something again. And maybe for now, that is enough, because that is a start. To experience the opposite of stagnation. To take one little used to be and be reminded, to remind myself, that sometimes it’s rather glorious to take away the “used to.” Because now I can stop focusing all of the ostensible carrion of my past, and just be.
And see what comes next.