Since the age of 17, I have often found myself living in Virginia Woolf’s world. I am drawn back to one of her novels in particular. “The Waves” was first introduced to me in my senior year of high school. I’ve read it more than a few times since; each time Woolf’s novel reveals something new to me. It’s as if I read a different story each time I pick it up. I recently had the honor of attending a musical based on the novel and I don’t say this often, but it changed me.
I excelled in my English classes without really putting in much effort. Because of this, I was often bored. I passed my homework in late all the time, but still managed straight A’s. My English teacher had a rule that you could pass in homework up until test day, but 10 points would be taken off. Even late, I never scored below 90 on my homework. I have a memory of trying to complete essay questions the night before the test for “A Tale of Two Cities”: I had 5 chapters to complete; all chapters had at least 5 essay questions. We lost power at home that night. I ended up completing the homework using a vintage kerosene lamp. You’d think I would have learned my lesson, but it only seemed fitting to be using the kind of light that the characters in the book would have used. As difficult as it was to be attempting to write essays and read in that light, it’s a memory that still brings a smile to my face.
I needed a bigger challenge, and someone recognized that in me.
My senior year, I was given the choice to either read the Bible or “The Waves”. I choose Woolf. My God, what a challenge that was for a 17-year-old, but it was one I gladly accepted. I’m a determined person and if I’m struggling with something, it just makes me want to conquer it even more. I spent a good amount of my time going through that novel, writing so many notes and questions in the margins that I could barely read the text anymore.
I struggled through the whole book. There were times when I read pages and chapters repeatedly to try to make sense of it all. I sometimes considered giving up, but what really kept me going was that it was beautiful. Even if I didn’t truly understand what I had just read, I knew those words were pieced together in such a way that they created the most stunning prose I had ever read. This remains true to this day.
This novel came along at a time in my life when I desperately needed someone to tell me that there was beauty in life. I was in the darkest place possible and I could see no way out.
Senior year is typically an exciting time for students, but for me, it was a time when life as I knew it was falling apart. My parents’ tumultuous relationship was ending. I had known and struggled for years with the knowledge that my dad was having an affair. That year, I was struggling even more than usual. I couldn’t look at my father, starting to hate that he was making me keep this lie. Yes, he knew that I knew. He never once addressed it with me. Instead he ignored it and let his child keep a secret from her own mother. I knew if I opened my mouth, my whole family would fall apart, and I’d be breaking my mother’s heart. Honestly, I’m not sure how I survived this time of my life. I’m emotional, remember? This was torture.
Luckily, I had family who saw what was happening to me. They saw the dark path I was heading down and stepped in. It was the beginning of my parents’ divorce. The start of my world crashing down around me.
While other kids were applying for college, I was just trying to get out of bed. College seemed like a faraway dream at the time; no one was there to guide me along because their lives were falling apart as well. And even if my parents weren’t involved in a nasty divorce, we all know I wasn’t allowed to apply to anywhere that I really wanted to go, because if I went to NYU, I may “meet a boy and never come home again.” Not my words, of course.
I couldn’t see much of what life had to offer me but I could lose myself and the real world in Woolf’s words. I knew it would be the distraction I needed, but what I didn’t know was how much it would help me.
“There was a star riding through clouds one night, & I said to the star, ‘Consume me‘.”
When I read this sentence more than 20 years ago, at one of the worst times of my life, I felt it in my core. I wanted nothing more than anything to consume me. All I could feel was despair. I wanted it all to stop.
Much of this novel focuses on identity: how the character view themselves, how the world views them, and how they view one another. At a time when I felt my whole identity was being lost, this novel found me. My family breaking up was devastating for me; so much of me was based on my family. I always preferred being with them, being my complete and total self. As an introvert, people can and do exhaust me, but my family never did.
My family, the biggest part of me, was gone. My parents were getting divorced. My brother was leaving for the Army. My grandmother, the matriarch of our family, passed away. Our dog, whom we got when I was 8, had to be put down, and most of my friendships started to fade away. I didn’t know who I was anymore or where to even begin looking. My own preconceived notions of my identity were being ripped from me.
The characters in this novel became my confidants. They were feeling similar things, being lost and afraid while trying to find out who they were without one another.
I desperately needed to find out who I was without the family I once knew. Yes, I still had a family, but try to explain that to a 17-year-old kid who is watching everyone around her destroy the perfect world she knew. I was angry. I was felt like I was slowly drowning. In my eyes, I was alone. I couldn’t see that things would, one day, get better. Different, but better.
Obviously, I made it through this time of my life, though I’m not sure how. I finished the novel as well which, at the time, felt like such a huge accomplishment.
What I didn’t realize about this novel was that it would rejoin me over and over again in life. Each time, it would be exactly what I needed in a completely different way. I owe Ms. Woolf a huge thank you.
Fast forward to now and let’s leave Woolf’s side for a few paragraphs.
We all know I deal with anxiety more often than I care to admit. I often use music to control awful thoughts that lurk in my mind and to get through many of my panic attacks. Raúl Esparza’s voice has made my life easier, time and time again. If you don’t know who he is then, I’m sorry, we just can’t be friends (kidding, but you should go to YouTube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.).
Here’s where I don’t know if words will do me justice: his voice. His voice is so raw, so emotive that it hits every part of me. I can feel it in my heart, my soul, my mind; it can consume my mind. His voice, his performances are overwhelming. They captivate me in such a way that even mid-panic attack, they distract me. Listening to him sing brings me peace. He has so much talent, but even more heart.
The cast recording of “Tick, Tick, Boom” has been a lifesaver.
His performance of “Hallelujah” helped to get me on the plane to London this past April.
I think you all get it now. I adore him as a performer, always have.
Yet, I’ve never seen him live. Timing never worked out for me.
Raúl was announced as the creative consultant for the musical adaptation of “The Waves” that would be performed at the Powerhouse Theater at Vassar College (seriously, this is crazy, right? Favorite performer, favorite novel.). I bought tickets for opening night. Then I realized there was a Q&A with the cast and crew at the Tuesday night performance, so I had to buy tickets for that as well. When pondering what I was going to do in Poughkeepsie, NY over the weekend, Saturday night tickets just magically appeared (miracles, I tell ya!). I still had no idea if Raúl Esparza would even be there, but did I mention this is one of my favorite novels?
Then, maybe a month after I (obsessively) bought tickets to 3 performances, the cast was announced. Raúl was to play Bernard, 1 of 2 characters that I have always related to. Bernard is the writer, the person who always has a notebook with him to write down phrases and ideas. As he grows older, he starts to question if he’ll ever write that great novel, if he’s really as a gifted as he and others thought him to be when he was young. Hello, Bernard, my old friend, you and I would have tons to talk about these days.
I will admit that I fan-girled in my kitchen when I read the cast announcement. I was alone and had no one to share my joy. I sent my husband a text and luckily, he gets me (or at least humors me) so he let me fan-girl and was excited for me (or he, at least, played along. God love him.).
While I was excited for this performance, I wasn’t quite sure how “The Waves” was going to translate as a musical. I prayed that I would like it. I never expected to love it so much that I would be grateful to be the crazy woman who bought tickets for 3 performances.
My mom and I had front row for the opening night.
Let me reiterate that I have anxiety before we go into this next part.
I bought a dress that is a style I love, but not one I would normally wear. It was black, formfitting, mid-calf length and low-cut – very 1960’s bombshell. I had nude nylons with black seams running up the back and magenta-colored 4-inch heels. When I tried this on at home, I was in love with the outfit. Out in public, I was so uncomfortable. I was aware of every lump or bump on my body, my hands and arms covering my mid-section as I walked from my car to the theater. I wanted to keep pulling at the top of the dress, thinking that it exposed more than I normally allowed. My mother kept telling me I looked great and although she’s not one to lie to me, I still felt more vulnerable and exposed than ever.
As we sat down, I started to stiffen up. The stage was small. It was only about a foot in front in me and maybe a foot or two off the ground. I was already aware that the entire audience could look at the back of my head (and not that they would, but no one ever said anxiety made sense). I go through this often at shows. My mind wanders to what everyone behind me is doing: are they looking at me? Laughing for whatever reason? Judging me? There’s always a big part of me that just wants to disappear and not be noticed. This night I was wearing an outfit that people notice and every nerve ending in my body was suddenly overly aware of this.
The stage setup was not helping my thoughts. My favorite performer, a man I admire for so many reasons, someone who is the epitome of talent, would be a foot in front of me, probably at eye level at some point. I would have paid anything to will myself invisible. I didn’t want him to even get an inkling that I was dying inside (I was!). My self-esteem was plummeting; my anxiety was winning. It felt like the room was closing in on me. My mom was growing concerned beside me.
This couldn’t be happening. Not now. I needed/wanted to take in every aspect of this musical and if my anxiety took over, I may not even be able to stay inside the theater.
Then the lights went down, the cast was on stage, standing in a row and the opening song commenced. I focused solely on his voice. I didn’t even look at the stage at first. I needed just that voice. It did the job. I could feel myself relaxing. My breathing was returning to normal. I was coming back to myself. Everything would be just as it should be.
The musical was phenomenal. Not only did it make Virginia Woolf accessible and understandable to everyone (and still using her own words), but I’m positive the novel will, once again, be different for me. I’m looking forward to another reading of it now. What will it bring to me this time around?
I’ve seen a good amount of theater productions in my life; this was 1 of 3 that has changed me. I am not the same person I was before I saw this musical. Just as the novel came along at a time that I needed it, so did this musical. Both times, I was caught by surprise.
My reaction to the character of Rhoda really caught me off guard. Rhoda, the girl who always felt like the outsider, is the other character I can relate with on a very high level. She brought up emotions within me that I had forgotten about. I don’t usually feel like I fit in. Anywhere. I struggle to be seen while still wanting to be invisible most of the time. Rhoda reduced me to an emotional blob that night. I recognized the woman I was and the woman I long to be. Spoiler alert: Rhoda doesn’t get her chance to shine the way she wants.
We all know that this year has been a year of growth and change for me and this is what the story of “The Waves” is; every character learning who they are together and apart. I’m finally stripping away all the things everyone thought I should be and getting down to who I am.
After the production, I met Raúl. I was able to tell him just how much he has helped me. It was something I never expected that I would be able to vocalize to him.
I cried that night.
Not a full-blown sobbing, cleanse your soul cry, but tears were present. I cried because seeing that novel come to life before my eyes was so much more than I ever expected it would be. I cried because I managed to stop a panic attack with the same approach I use to stop them most times, but this time that voice was live and in front of me. I cried because I was able to tell someone how their work affects me. I cried because that opening night was exactly what I needed it to be and so much more.
I returned on Saturday night and realized I needed to memorize every moment of it. I wanted to always remember these performances and the feelings they evoke within me. I wanted to be able to dig in and relive those emotions whenever I needed them in my life. I vowed that night to watch the performance and listen to every part of me: the tears on my cheeks, the smile on my face, the tingle of my skin, the spark in my mind, the love and peace within my heart.
Novels move me.
Music moves me.
Talent moves me.
Theater moves me.
I’m emotional. Sometimes it hurts. And sometimes, it fills me with so much joy and insight that I’m grateful for every single emotion that falls from my eyes. My emotions give me the ability to write. They give me the ability to empathize. They give me the ability to be moved by so many different things. I wouldn’t want to change that, ever.
And I truly appreciate the creators who can help me work through my emotions: the ones who carry me through panic attacks, who give me new worlds when mine is not easy, who help me to see that I’m not alone. Art allows me to understand that there are others like me.