Nothing to Hide (A Magic Show)

I’m not sure who else leaves a magic show willing to marry a guy who doesn’t know her name and who’s just played mind tricks on her for an hour, but that’s what happened to me yesterday. My affections leaned toward Helder, the smaller guy from Portugal, although Derek was more overtly funny. Maybe it was Helder’s red glasses or his incredible, expressive face or the way, when he was handing out cards for audience participation (though he wasn’t offering to me), and I said, “I want one,” he winked and said two magical words that everyone loves to hear: of course.

Yes, my heart went aflutter over their sleight-of-hand manipulations, illusions and the way they seamlessly wove comedy into the magic show without being too phony, precious or contrived. I liked how Helder and Derek’s rags-to-riches stories—two stories that became one—are incorporated right into the show, and how that’s exactly their point: life is really just series of happenstance. Everything we do and everyone we see, every yes and every no somehow lead us all to this. To right here, right now.

I went to the show with my boarding school friends, Melissa and Vanessa, and it was my idea but I didn’t feel too much pressure because I was backed by a great review from The New York Times. The review’s titled, “Playing With a Full Deck, and Your Head” and although a person can’t believe everything she reads in The Times, I consider it one of the more reliable news sources. (Reliable is sometimes what you want to hear.)

But The Times didn’t lie, and “Nothing to Hide” absolutely plays with your head. I mean….if you let it, but not everyone does, not everyone can, not everyone wants to. Director Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D. for those of you racking your brains) says, “There seem to be two ways to watch live magic performances: Either you try to figure out the method and must know how it’s done, or you simply enjoy it for what it’s worth and give in to the mystery of it all.” (from Playbill.)

I can be gullible, but I don’t consider mysef a total pushover. I challenge rules and protocol and depending on the day I question a lot of what I see, but when an experience makes me feel something all bets are off. Between the  laughs, gasps, and smirks, “Nothing to Hide” made me feel things.

Vanessa and I hooted and laughed our asses off, while Melissa kept a keen eye on the scene. She saw “sleeve magic” and wrists and fingers that seemed to have extra joints and reachability, and while she thought it was cool enough, she wasn’t wowed though I think she appreciated it for what it is: a show.

Any way you slice it: I loved that magic show. I shook hands with and thanked the performers in the post-show receiving line, then walked away but went back to have my card signed, then back a-gain, with Vanessa, for a picture.


There’s a humility and gentleness to “Nothing to Hide.” Derek and Helder talk about how unusual it is in the days of IMAX, iPad, special effects and constant stimulation to even conceive of getting a group of people to spend both their money and time being tricked by two guys on a stage with a few decks of cards. But is it that we’re tricked or that we’re transported, because who can’t use a little escape from reality? The value of an hour-long, midtown vacation is greater in a time when it’s so easy to Google, “How did he do that?” and more often than not to be rewarded with a YouTube video showing exactly how the deal/trick/deception goes down.

Helder and Derek capitalize on our (human) shortcomings in their performance. They ask us, “Is this enough?” and even as they give us more and more proof we’re questioning not only what we’re seeing (or not seeing), but also why enough is never enough. They rile us up so that we’re shouting “No!” even as they’re doing everything they can to build our trust. The joke’s on us. Enough is never enough, even, as Derek said, “When your mind’s been blown out your ass.”

And then we laugh. Or most of us do…

The New York Times review starts with the author looking at the card he got during the show and kept as a memento—in his case, the five of hearts. As I reread the review this morning I had to run to my purse and pull out my playbill to confirm the name of the card stuck inside: the five of hearts.


The five of hearts in the review and in my purse is obviously not part of Helder and Derek’s magic schtick, though the show was full of coincidences just like this. The kinds of things that make a person wonder, “What are the chances?” The kind of things that make you wonder, and isn’t that what the modern world lacks: Wonder, that beautiful marriage of admiration and surprise.

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.” –Ray Bradbury

Despite the fact that half the audience is shaking their heads and looking for the deception in every trick, Derek reminds us that we go to magic shows to remember that we “live in a world beyond what we know.” His goal as a magician is that his performances encourage people to “ask themselves deeper questions,” and I’d say he can consider himself a success.

The routine examines issues like how altered context influences meaning, and how preconception changes experiences even as they continue to evolve. Sometimes, as in this show, it’s hard to keep up with the shifts and changes. One minute you know something you didn’t know but if you’d known it then you wouldn’t have thought what you did but now you do….so.

A friend of mine was married to—and subsequently divorced from—a man who grew up in a funhouse. It was the kind of place that promises visitors the opportunity to experience an alternate energy field, distorted perceptions, and the peculiar behavior of gravity. This House of Mystery sounds like a fun place to pass an hour, but live there? Yeah, my friend hadn’t though about what it would be like to be married to a guy who grew up with distorted perceptions, wobbly floors and daily anomalies as his norm.

Distorted perceptions. It feels both judgey and assuming to even say it, because it implies “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I think it’s bad-mannered for one person to tell another that what he sees isn’t what he sees, and even more to presume you know how another person feels. But in a world riddled with airbrushing, lip-synching and Ponzi-scheming we’re just not sure who or what to trust even (or especially) when we see it with out own eyes. Ever have a bad dream that sticks with you all day?

In a lot of cases we’ve forgotten how to trust our guts, and we don’t even know how to really trust ourselves. My world these days has been complicated, but I’m pretty solid on trusting myself. I might even say that’s one of my skills, though it took a good girlfriend to point it out to me a few years ago, “Jaime Stathis knows how to take care of herself,” she said right to Jaime Stathis. It was funny, but it also made me think and feel.

I think that trusting yourself and taking care of yourself are dependent on each other, but if a person only has one half of the equation that’s okay. Stick with it and the other will come. I’m in this spot in life where I’m doing what I need to because I want to but also because I have to. There’s need, want and have all in one sentence, except that makes it seem much tidier than it is.

Walking away is always a choice, but it’s not one that’s on my menu. On the other hand, trust in each present moment is the daily special and what will undoubtedly get us through this. The other things that will get us through are love and support, both of/with each other and from the outside. I could’ve done without the family hate mail of the last week, but I’m here to tell the truth not to win people over. You either see things through a similar lens or you’re looking through the big end of the telescope. I’m not invested in making anyone see my point of view, and it’s not for lack of caring it’s just that my fryer is full of different fish.

The Village Voice write-up of Nothing to Hide says that, “They want to make magic that means something—magic that, like art or poetry, relates to the real world.” So simple, so complicated, and what most creative people want. My writing is real; it’s not magic and it’s not even close. There’s no trickery and nothing fancy. In fact, I try to lay it out as simply as possible. I’m not trying to deceive, I just describe my experiences in detail.

One part of my family doesn’t like my truth-telling, and I received a blunt suggestion to write about happy times with my grandmother, which I’ve done plenty of, but in the process of caring for her I’ve learned some things that indicate she wasn’t as happy as she let on. In a sense: she tricked us. I know it stings, but it’s important to remember that her tricks weren’t nefarious—they were simply about self-preservation. I can only imagine how exhausting it was to expend so much energy making people believe she was happy and carefree, while at night she drew on her bedsheets and tucked garbage into closets.

She’s old and I think it’s time she get some respite from the exhausting job of pretending, and with me does. She cries, tells me she’s mixed up, and then she asks me not to tell anyone. In a way I’m going against her confidence, but I know she’s not suffering further by my telling of the truth. I think if she could wrap her head around it she’d be happy that I’m trying to alleviate suffering for others by writing about the too-common struggle of being afraid to show the world yourself unmasked.

A few years ago I saw a therapist who said that none of us should feel we have to “explain ourselves like crazy.” It took me awhile to get it, and in some cases I’m still a work-in-progress. I’m not here doing magic for the 50% of my audience that thinks I’m selfish or a jerk or a liar. I’m not here to make friends, or win over relatives or convince nonbelievers of anything: I’m just here to tell the truth as I see it. I’m not going to try to explain myself to a cousin who said, “Don’t bother answering me. I don’t care what you think.” {insert door slamming sound}

I don’t know exactly how many people from that section of my family are angry about what I’ve written, but I understand that they’re more comfortable when others see things from their perspective and that they believe there’s safety in numbers.

Names were named, “What does so-and-so think?” at the time of the interrogation, but my mother and I didn’t have those answers. Some of the people who thought I was “wrong” kept it to themselves, and some who believe in me hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I wasn’t keeping score like this is game of tic-tac-toe.

This is so not about a score; it’s about being human. One way to feel completely human is to laugh and connect, and after a day of laughs and tricks with old girlfriends I came home to a package from someone I think of as an uncle although he’s Mimi’s cousin. Jimmy’s son Michael was close like a son to my grandfather, but he died in 9/11 in his civilian clothes after he boarded Engine 33 at his East Village firehouse although he was off-duty.

Jimmy and I’ve become closer in the past few years, and although he has a big family of his own, he always finds the time to send me notes of encouragement and care packages with books, hats, candy and scratch-off tickets. My family is big on scratch-offs. In the early days of my blog he wrote to me almost every time I posted to support me and cheer me on. After I eulogized my grandfather Jimmy’s wife Barbara grabbed me in the church vestibule and told me that I’m “Our family’s version of Anne Lamott.” She she said it as if this was a good thing and not something to be afraid of, and it was absolutely one of the best writing compliments I’ve ever received.

Jimmy’s package contained a beautiful note where he said how much he loves his cousin (Mimi) and how my blog post was “one of the most loving and moving pieces of literature” he’s ever read. {These are generous folks…} He also enclosed a book by Maureen Corrigan “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books.” Jimmy knows this is a book I’d love, but it also happens that the author lived in the same building where Jimmy was raised which is exactly two blocks from where I sit now.

But Jimmy’s P.S. was the best: 

I knew Frank McCourt before he wrote Angela’s Ashes and he got some reaction from his family— don’t let it upset you.

Thanks, Jimmy. Case closed. Tonight I’m going to lose myself in a book. And maybe a little magic.

“Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.”

Last week a video went around of Ash Beckham’s TEDx talk about how she responds to kids who want to know if she’s a boy or if she’s a girl. She explains that it’s confusing because her hair is short and she wears boys’ clothes, but that she is, in fact, a girl. She breaks it down: “You know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies? I’m more of a comfy jammies kind of girl….”

If you missed that video, here it is: Coming Out of Your Closet.

Ash’s talk wasn’t about gender, pink dresses, or jammies. It wasn’t even about homophobia or about coming out of “the” closet. It’s about the fact that we all have closets, but “We are bigger than our closets and a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”

She says that a closet is really just a hard conversation, and that we can’t compare our “hard” with anyone else’s. “Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.” In my case right now, hard is taking care of my grandmother who suffers from both hoarding and dementia, and for some people hard is the fact that I’m talking about it.

My honesty’s been met with minimal resistance, though I know that vulnerability and honesty make some people uncomfortable. But I also know this: other people’s discomfort has nothing to do with me. I’ve done a lot of work learning how to accept and own my truth, and though it was hard I’m coasting down the other side of a life spent minimizing my truth for the sake of other people’s happiness, which is basically an Acela train to frustration and unhappiness. That way of living does nothing to foster authentic connection between people.

Over the years I’ve also learned a few things about truth in writing, with my favorite being that “The more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes.” {That’s me quoting myself. I wrote that when I was just starting to become a braver writer, and the blog post it came from is here: WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES.

Laura Munson (a writing mentor and role model of mine) is a courageous writer who wrote a book about her marriage falling apart and her reaction to it. Before she had a book she published an essay in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and you can read that here: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.”

Laura told me (as she will anyone who asks her) that a person can write about anything if she writes with compassion. It’s true. I wrote with compassion about my experiences taking care of and cleaning up after my grandmother, and I was rewarded with an overwhelmingly positive response. People wrote to me and said, “Me too.” They wrote and asked, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” “When can I come?” and “How can I help?” I didn’t have any good answers except that asking for help is scary, it makes us vulnerable, and we worry about meeting resistance.

Friends wrote and called to make sure I’m okay, to offer respite, and to commend me for both my willingness to do this hard work and my grit in talking about it. Some readers forwarded my post to friends and family who work with the elderly as nurses and therapists, and then those people reached out and offered their support. Some of these people were strangers until suddenly they weren’t, and I wept with gratitude for those hands and hearts extended in my direction. It was intense, but it felt good to allow people in to my world. I was validated and shored up by people who might not even know me if they passed me on the street.

Other folks were less thrilled. Some asked my mother if she’s mad at me for flinging open our closet doors, but she wasn’t. My mother is the person most worried about the contents of my memoir-in-progress, yet when she’s been questioned about my two recent blog posts she did something incredible: she defended me. My mother acknowledged that she’d be the first person to call me out if I’d written anything that wasn’t true, but that I’d written only the truth and that she was proud. If you know my mother you know that she adores me but doesn’t let me get away with much.

There’s a built in liability befriending a writer (in particular a nonfiction writer), but for some people there’s an overlap that is not a choice, and that’s with family. A family member called my mother to express his anger over my sharing of our family’s stories. He couldn’t believe that my mother wasn’t mad and was even more dumbfounded that she wasn’t trying to stop me. Some of the stories I told are old ones but I told them not as a rant, but as reference points to my present situation. My present situation caring for my grandmother and the ensuing story does not happen to be this angry person’s story. As far as I can see his hand has not stretched out in my direction.

I listened patiently as my mother recounted the hard conversation she had where I was pummeled for telling the truth, a truth that is also hers. She’s glad I’m telling the story because she knows how lonely it can be inside a closet, but for my mother there was an additional element to the hard conversation and her hackles went up: someone was attacking her baby.

I’ve hit the pause button on my life to help my family of three, and although I wouldn’t have it any other way it’s not without sacrifice. Unfortunately the angry family member failed to recognize either my benevolence or my hard work. He made my grandmother’s story about him and criticized my content for one reason: my truth made him uncomfortable.

My mother brought up as an analogy Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning tragicomic memoir (um…thanks, mom….) that is basically required reading for Irish-American New Yorkers. Of course he’d read it, but didn’t see the connection, and said to my mother, “That’s different; that book is about his family.” My mother said, “Yes. And?….”

He responded, “The difference is that Jaime is writing about my family.”

Oh. My. God.

“It’s her family too,” my mother said, because after that what else is there?

In Angela’s Ashes McCourt wrote, “Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.” Certainly there were plenty of people who opposed his truth telling, but it didn’t stop the book from being crazy successful and widely received by those who also believe that closets are no place to live. McCourt had fairly late in life success, but taught writing and gave his students the best advice: that they are their own best material.

Our stories do not exist alone, and they intersect with the stories of the people whose lives coexist with ours either as a result of biology or through choice. In my recent “brave post” I mention my mother minimally (it’s really a story about my grandmother) and the only thing that could be considered a slight toward my mother is when I mention that I summon the courage she lacks. But what I said is true and she knows it. Any shame she might have for not being strong enough to do this on her own pales in comparison to her gratitude for my strength to put into motion a plan where there previously existed only a downward spiral. My mother has never been in denial about my grandmother’s illnesses, she just wasn’t able to step back and see the way through (and eventually out of) it.

Even if my mother denied my truth, would that make my observations of my experience off limits? (If you say yes you can private message me and so we can talk about it. Or we can talk about it here. Your call.) It’s just like what Ash Beckham says about hard: we can’t compare our hard to someone else’s hard just as we can’t compare our truth to someone else’s. It just depends on which side of the fence you’re on, and I happen to be on the dirty side.

I like the dirty side of the fence just as much as I abhor living in a closet. I know that mental illness can be an uphill battle, and I also know that not talking about mental illness doesn’t make it go away. I’ve done some research in books and in real life (too much, probably), and I’m 100% certain that not talking about it makes it worse. Silence can be deadly. If you don’t believe me ask anyone who’s lost someone to suicide, depression, addiction, or a combination. Ask someone if silence helped when they worried about whether a loved one was going to use or while they waited for someone to show up alive after they’d disappeared. In silence.

After my blog post last week a few people shared an article with me that was published in Slate. The title is “Nobody Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is an Addict.” It’s amazing. Please read it.

Sure it’s hard for people to ask how it’s going with my grandmother, but the brave ones do, and many tell me about their struggles. One friend wrote about her fear of talking about her family’s mental illness and thanked me for my honesty. She said, “I hope someone is bringing you dinner,” which is just as good as someone actually doing it and the perfect antidote to the stones being thrown by people who aren’t offering anything but fear dressed in a thin veil of judgment.

I’m not wavering on my position to tell the truth nor have I even considered backpedaling out of it. Here’s why: for all the people who aren’t hearing what I have to say there’s a hundred who are, and that number has the potential to grow exponentially as one says to another, “Read this; It might help.”

I’m not delusional in thinking the sharing of my story can change the world, but I know that real change happens one person at a time and that I’ve helped more than a few. One said that enabling is a “lonely place to live,” and another told me about her experience with family mental illness and “trying to minimizing the consequences of her behavior and picking up the pieces of her actions.”

What we’re saying to each other is “We’re in this together; I’ve got your back,” and this more than counterbalances the haters. Dr. Brené Brown says, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”

Brené Brown’s been on my hotlist for a couple of years, and in her now famous TED talk on shame she said this:

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

She also said,

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive….“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

If that’s not gorgeous i don’t know what is.

Closet’s are not as safe as people think. Sounds, words and thoughts can creep in there, and those dark places aren’t as hermetically sealed from the light as the closet-dwellers believe them to be. I don’t know what makes people think closets are safe. It could be shame, guilt or some other emotion masquerading as anger.

Denial is the first stage of grief, and it’s followed by anger. We circle through denial, anger, bargaining and depression until we eventually reach the blissful place of acceptance. Sometimes a person gets to acceptance then takes another lap through the list because life isn’t always (or ever) as easy as having a checklist. The path to acceptance isn’t always (or ever) linear.

Truth challenges. It stretches. It pushes limits of comfort and safety. I know that some family members aren’t angry, but are instead sad about what I’ve written about my grandmother. It is sad, but sadness can’t erase reality. You know what helps? Yeah: empathy.

My mother and I are in this together and we’re in deep. The best part—because I’m a silver-lining kind of girl—is that my mother and I are cooperating and working together in a way we never have before. We’re living under one roof and barely fighting because we have something bigger to deal with than the pettier stuff that’s ruled us for too long. The woman who’s been most afraid of my truth is actually embracing it, and that’s a beautiful thing in the midst of a messy situation. But here’s the thing: I wish it wasn’t necessary for my mother to defend me.

There’s a very good chance that the (closet-living) people who need to be reading this aren’t. Maybe they’ve written me off, maybe they don’t care, or maybe my presence hasn’t even reached their closets’ radar. I have no control over that, just as they have no control over what I write. I also have no control over any debriefings my mother might receive over my actions, but if anyone has a problem with me it would behoove them to talk to me about it directly otherwise it just might get my Irish up.

The “angry relative” interrogated my mother, and asked her if I’d interviewed my grandmother and then wrote about what she’d told me in confidence. It was nothing like that. My grandmother and I have conversations like we’ve always had, and like a lot of the best conversations they happen spontaneously. My grandmother’s concept of time and reality is altered now, but occasionally she’s able to really be in the present and I cherish those moments.

Maybe it was sitting in a kitchen where generations of our family’s women have prepped and cooked meals. Maybe the cup of tea steaming in front of her triggered something. Maybe the act of peeling of an orange sparked a memory. It’s impossible to know what triggers my grandmother’s reminiscing at this point, though I know that when she’s ready to talk I’m ready to listen.

We value our time together, and when it’s just the two of us she opens up more than in a group because in a group she tends to space out. It could be because she can’t hear everything or because she can’t keep up with the pace. When it’s just the two of us in a quiet room talking directly to each other our hearts engage with each other’s more specifically.

Our conversations and sharing make her happy, and the other night after our good, honest talk she made up a little song and sang it to me, “I’m so happy I could dance all night.” We danced a little then I helped her into some cozy pajamas, because it’s life’s simple acts that are the most challenging to her these days. I poured her a glass of milk, got her into her recliner with a blanket and turned on the television. My Mimi is definitely a comfy jammies kind of girl.