Film Review: Eighth Grade

I’m no film expert or critic. I’m not exactly in the position to preach anything about the cinematic experience, about what makes something artistically “good” or “bad” – although I’ve done that before and will most likely do it again (refer to my Stealing Beauty movie review from many moons ago). Instead of trying to get all the right words out, I’d rather delve into how Bo Burnham’s directing debut actually gave me an anxiety attack, #triggered me, if you will. Please spare me the eye-rolls and hear me out.

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The film centers around Kayla Day, a present-day insecure, stuttering, social media- addicted, and unavoidably lovable eighth grader walking through her last week of middle school. The subdued fire inside her that she fights to make seen is one of the many personality traits I connected to from the beginning, recalling all the time I also spent alone trying to enhance my personality and prepare for the performance of everyday life. The embarrassment and disappointment Kayla feels when class superlatives are announced and she’s labeled “Most Quiet” strikes a harsh chord for anyone who’s ever been deeply misunderstood. I remember being told that I was “mysterious” in high school. I remember feeling like I was easy to forget in contrast to the look-at-me personalities who dominated the stage at all times with ease. Like Kayla, I wanted the attention too, and knew I could own it when the timing was right – but anxiety forced me into a shell. In the confines of my room, on stage during dance recitals, in front of the camera when no one was looking, and in the safe embrace of my journals, I came alive.

Kayla’s overwhelming urge to be seen and liked, the to-do lists and talking points written on sticky notes throughout her bedroom and bathroom, the YouTube Channel used as an outlet to transform into her “better” and more confident self, poignantly shed light on all the ways people with anxiety incessantly try to improve, even from as early a stage as puberty. The powerful reality of this portrayal is truly a testament to Elsie Fisher’s acting chops. She fully embodies the sense of urgency and desperation throughout, which makes the viewer impatient for her moment in the sun too.

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I shed one tear of many when Kayla courageously chooses to sing karaoke in front of her classmates instead of bail from a pool party hosted by a fellow and more popular eighth grader. This particular character’s lack of empathy, and her blinding desire to be cool shoved me into memories I had blocked out for many years. All of a sudden, I was reminded of every time I had been inhumanely judged and treated like less for being myself. For instance, that time in eighth grade one of my earliest friends from elementary school refused to sign my yearbook in front of two of the “coolest” guys in middle school because, at that point, she had grown too popular to be seen acknowledging me. I was “weird” and she was “normal”. That was that. I swallowed my pride and walked away. I believe that was the day I realized what it meant to be a sociopath, blatantly devoid of empathy, and that I would always be different (Is that too harsh an insult for a thirteen-year-old girl? Oh well!). With that being said, I was blown away by Kayla’s ability to stand up and sing in front of her judgmental classmates, even though she knew they could eat her alive. Miraculously, we watch as her classmates actually smile along and get hypnotized by her enigmatic light for that one song – the first of many moments when she lets herself be seen. The scene is truly a testament to the power of conquering your fears, a skill we develop and reap the benefits from at any age.

As the movie plays out, we watch Kayla develop her own version of confidence. She finds a way to finally talk to her crush during a school shooting emergency drill, meets up with her new high school friends at the mall, and eventually speaks up for herself when one of the high school boys forces himself on her. Though it takes her a while to say ‘no’ to him, the self-assuredness in her voice when she does is enough for him to stop. It’s a heartbreaking moment in the movie to watch, because anyone who suffers from anxiety empathizes with the mental juggling she has to get through all at once: wanting to appease this older guy, fearing for her social life that he’ll talk shit about her to the new friends she desperately wants to keep, and, most important of all, the part of her that is deeply uncomfortable and wants to tell him to back off. The fact that this scene is drawn out for so long conveys the reality and horror of what can unfold when you’re battling with too many inner voices at the same time. I’ve been there, and I know countless others have too.

Eventually, after all of this, we get to a scene where Kayla and her dad burn a shoebox full of memories she had saved in the 6th grade for her 8th grade self. This is the moment that triggered my own anxiety in such a way that had me crying and unsettled for a couple of hours after we left the theater. As Kayla burns her past belongings, a symbolic act of self-destruction in which she burns away her past and a lot of her present self in the process, she asks her dad if he is ever saddened by her existence. His reaction, his desperate need to nurture a deeply embedded sense of insignificance, is perfect.

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He reminds Kayla that everything she had accomplished, all of the genuine kindness and creativity inside her, was hers alone – traits he watched her develop in awe without his guidance. Regardless of how little she saw in herself, he would always be her biggest fan. This hit me hard. I often looked for this reassurance in my parents growing up too. I carried the guilt of feeling like a disappointment, like if I could just be better, if I could just be more extraordinary, everyone in my life would be happier. It often plagues me that so many people carry the weight of this pain, a version of self-criticism that can lead to more pressing mental health issues down the line. As I left the theater, I realized that I was still a version of my middle school self: insecure, afraid, and full of guilt at times. It made me realize that we never stop evolving and that’s why Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade stands the test of time. It’s about being human, wanting to be seen, and fighting the good fight.

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Sunsets and Writing Tips

There’s something about 8:00pm that always calms my spirit — the gentle setting of the sun, the quiet comfort in knowing that neighbors and friends have returned from work and can let go. It’s in this moment when day and night touch, when their separate sounds and colors come together, that something tugs at my soul. This is when I feel most inspired.

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Lately, as I focus on writing constantly, I’ve begun to pick up on tricks that keep my writer’s block at bay. Much like a particular time of the day can make me feel creative, settings have contributed to my writing as well. About three weeks ago, I moved in with my boyfriend. I realized I couldn’t rest until our room felt like it was mine too. I hung paintings, put up photos, and opened boxes containing all the books that were special to me. It made the air in the room lighter immediately, and provided me a space to want to be creative. All of a sudden, I wasn’t decorating to make our room look like a Pinterest board, I was setting up shop. Now, every time I write, whether it be in our room or our living room, I know that my surroundings are fueling me. I know sharing a space with books, artwork, outdoor views, plants, candles, sunsets, etc., entices the creativity right out of me.

Another trick I’ve recently discovered is to revisit earlier works. Currently, I’ve been working on a project in which I sift through old journals and pull out salvageable entries. I take things I’ve written in the past and retype them onto a new document in chronological order. If you’ve caught on to the fact that this sounds like I’m writing a memoir, you’d be correct! The key, I’ve noticed, is not to just copy and paste things you’ve already written. You have to give yourself time to reflect, edit, and even add new insights to ideas you’ve already had — a  trick that’ll sprout more inspiration in the process.

As I piece together this new memoir project, I realize that I wasted too much time thinking I was out of fuel when really it was all around me. It was hidden in journals I had tossed aside as unworthy of my time or in essays and short stories I had written years ago. An art professor once taught me that a painting is never truly finished, that you can revisit and improve upon it forever if you wish, which was exactly the kind of advice that used to piss me off when all I wanted was to complete something. Now, I’m focusing all of my energy into contributing to, reworking, and improving all of these old “paintings”, and I’m totally obsessed. I’m writing like I used to when I was eighteen — nonstop, unfiltered, and bursting with energy. Looking through all the times I wrote to get through major chapters in my life made me fall back in love with writing again. Only this time, the dedication and attention to detail is a little more adult and refined (I hope). I definitely encourage taking the time to reflect on older projects if you haven’t written in a while and you’re not sure where to begin. At the very least, it’ll get your juices flowing.

Whether it’s a sunset, a desk with all your favorite knickknacks on it, an album, or even revisiting something you’ve already written, it helps to uncover the things that trigger your creativity. Once you get a routine going, it’s likely you won’t want to stop. I definitely don’t.

 

 

Listen to Yourself: On Achieving Self-Discipline

“The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.”

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When was the last time you sat in silence and felt yourself slip into nothing? Do you ever tune out the noise around you and pay attention to what happens next? If the answer is ‘yes’ and you’ve allowed yourself moments to stall out, this cryptic message taken from a fortune cookie might stir something inside you.

The more I write, the more the yin and yang of human existence comes up as a theme. It almost writes itself. It’s no surprise, as you can probably tell by my latest blog posts, that I’ve been struggling to find my place in the world after completing my education. It was all too cozy being intertwined in structured collegiate strings – classes, professors, friends, clubs, all keeping my mind and soul active. As I walked across the stage during graduation I felt the strings snap and release their hold on me. It took feeling the diploma in my hand, celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime achievement with my family and friends, and simultaneously suffering the grief brought on from losing the safest chapter of my life for me to understand life’s dark sense of humor. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

Slowly after this shift, I began to look to myself for guidance. The discipline came to me in “the emptiness of everything” — from the moments when I had let my life become cyclical, structureless, and empty. By that I mean, clarity would find its way to me when I was stuck.

When I was a freshman in college, I developed a hip fracture from a combination of dancing for 10+ years of my life and gaining a drastic amount of weight too quickly. I had to drop out of school for a semester to live at home and keep the weight off my legs. Though this could have easily been the worst time in my life, the solitude and quiet gave me time to get to know myself again, to let my mind wander, and to make plans for a better future. It was in those few months that I dedicated time to this blog, wrote poetry every day, painted again for the first time in years, took care of my body, and got accepted into Salem State University where I would eventually complete my education.

I often look back at this time and use it as fuel when life feels uninspiring again. I remember the yin and yang and that I am solely responsible for pulling myself out of the hole, for bringing passion back into my routine. We tend to move so quickly all the time, always set to autopilot at work and in our relationships. It’s easy to lose yourself if you’re not paying attention to the voices and urges inside you. I had to learn that the hard way. I now make time for myself a priority.

When I graduated I let the ensuing emptiness consume me by neglecting the things I loved to do most of all. I stopped writing and felt the strain of that on my entire body. Nothing was expected of me anymore, no schedules were put in place to keep me in line. It was on me.

I’m writing this because I wish it had been available to me around the time my life shifted drastically and I couldn’t keep up. I’m writing this to remind everyone that “the greatest medicine” in life is you. It’s remembering to read, write, think, sit with yourself and feed your intellect, even if no one is expecting that of you.

It’s ironic how much we hate going to classes, dread doing a homework assignment, and can’t stand being graded constantly throughout the majority of our lives, but feel dependent on it all when it’s gone. Most people won’t admit it, but the void is there.

Long story short, sometimes a fortune cookie from last night’s take-out can lead to an epiphany — but only if you give yourself the time necessary to reflect. Though I don’t have anything figured out yet and feel stuck quite often, I am steadily emerging from the fog. Adulthood is intimidating and isolating, but it won’t overpower you if you fight back. Listen to yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

A Guy and a Gal in Galway (Part 2)

A vibrant tale about a couples’ first adventure abroad in a city where the Guinness flows like water and the locals are as friendly as the sheep

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The second leg of our journey begins in the heart of Galway’s city center (or centre) with freshly poured beers in hand, watching from the patio of a popular bar as men of different origins, muscle masses, and ABV contents compete for the eternal glory of hanging on a metal bar for the longest amount of time. This may sound trivial, but I assure you, it was treated like a world-class prize.

To make things more clear, a Galway local had the ingenious idea of setting up a tall pull-up bar in the middle of the city, luring people in with the promise that they’d win momentary glory for being the One who can hang on the longest. Completely enthralled by this epic display of drunk competitiveness, Rich and I watched the game ensue. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to watch the hero with the longest time display his hanging talent, but we did watch the others try in vain to surpass his feat – which, if I remember correctly, was a whopping 1 minute and 40 seconds. We spent the majority of that night laughing, completely in awe of this seemingly primitive sport. We toasted to the brave players’ valiant efforts and their many embarrassing failures. We watched as the night and the drunkenness progressed. Eventually, the game lured a large crowd of onlookers.

The longer we cheered the event on, the more we noticed that guys were merely stumbling out of bars and feeling inclined to show themselves off. Young jacked bachelors stepped up to the podium feeling all too good about themselves. Their group of friends would crowd around them to cheer them on, often one of them would be inches away from the hanging man, getting him going like a coach during a heated boxing match. We filmed some of these encounters, only because they were too priceless not to – heavy breathing, intense hand motions, lingering eye contact, and all. It was almost sensual.

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Though Rich and I found ourselves in countless bars, one in particular left a mark. From the moment we landed in Galway, we searched for the places that were recommended and frequented by locals, The Crane Bar being the most suggested of the bunch. After a long day of exploring, we made our way over, pushing the red door to find ourselves in a modest, dimly lit, and unembellished bar. There were less than a dozen other people inside. We sat at the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness. Hold on, let me rephrase, the best Guinness my lips have ever touched. If only it tasted this much like velvet sunshine back home.

We sat and smiled at the people sitting next to us, cozied up to one another and truly indulged in that all over body high specific to a quality vacation. Across from us a traditional Irish band set up their instruments. We heard the Bodhran first, an Irish handheld drum, whose soft beat cued the fiddle in. Then came the voice, the ethereal voice of a woman who projected loss, love, and centuries of history so tenderly it brought tears to my eyes. I looked over at Rich who shared my reaction. The bar fell silent apart from the echoing melodies of their music and the voices of those around us who sang along. We had been transported in time, taken into a world we were strangers to – soaking in the poetry bred into the very core of these humble and fierce people. It was so moving we didn’t have words to say when it was over. I left feeling full and deeply in tune, as though we were at the right place at the right time.

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At the risk of dragging this post on for too long, I want to conclude our Galway tale with the image of Rich and I hightailing down the steep hills of Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, on bikes we had rented for two hours. Picture the abundant green pastures of Hobbiton. Throw in some cows, horses, seals, farm houses, countless walls of stone, and you’ll have a pretty solid idea of what we were in for. In other words, biking through the island trails was like stepping into a lush and fantastical Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Instead of following a particular path, we kept finding our own way. Speeding down a hill overlooking the ocean, we stopped to take a photo of a family who returned the favor for us as well. Across from us, behind a stone wall and white rusted fence, lived a couple of wild horses who seemed to beckon us over. We made our way to say ‘hello’, tentatively, attempting to be gracious visitors in their sacred land. Within minutes, the horses had stuck their heads out over the fence to greet us. One of them flirted with Rich so clearly that the other grew jealous and turned away. Eventually he returned and I caressed his head gently in understanding. We had both been temporarily replaced.

As I attempt to conclude this piece, endless moments flood my mind begging to be documented too, like racing through the streets at midnight with new friends, shedding tears over a play about gay marriage being legalized in Ireland, raging to 80s music in an underground club, standing over the edge at the Cliffs of Moher, and the list goes on…

Looking back, I can say we made the best of a week spent in green paradise and there isn’t a moment I would change – except maybe forgetting my wallet on the way to the airport, but that’s neither here nor there. Most importantly however, I’ll cherish the wonder of exploring with my best friend and how fiercely bonded I felt to Rich when it was time to go, suffering from the post-traveling melancholia together.

It’s during these moments of beholding new sights, shaking hands with strangers, and feeling utterly minuscule within your surroundings, that life feels wonderful again – full of promise like it did when you’re a child and the world is infinite. I vow to never stop chasing this feeling in my lifetime.

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*Ireland’s eighth amendment was repealed! Did you hear that? Repealed! If you’re interested in learning more, check out the link below and watch the video capturing the moment thousands of Irish women discovered they regained ownership of their bodies. It’s breathtaking.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ireland-abortion-referendum-live-updates-repeal-eighth-amendment-vote-latest-poll-a8366691.html

 

 

Still A Work in Progress

Last night I picked at the dry skin on my bottom lip and stared at the ceiling for hours until eventually, around four in the morning, my eyelids felt heavy. My mind was frantically planning an emergency escape from the absolute dry spell of inspiration and adventure that my current life had become.

Oftentimes, when I’ve reached the deep end of a low point in my life, I experience  random bursts of inspiration. They seem to come to me from an outside source, usually before bed, and they beg to be the fuel for something productive. Sadly, they often go unused and unfulfilled. During last night’s episode in particular, I found myself watching a TEDx Talk by Caroline McHugh called “The art of being yourself”. It was through this that a couple of things became clear to me.

To start, I’ve wasted too much time comparing myself to and appeasing others. McHugh attributes this habit in particular with a female-driven desire to be liked and appreciated. As a child, I never cared what people thought of me and it made me seem bizarre to other kids, especially to other young girls. In fifth grade while my “normal” female classmates were learning to straighten their hair and passing notes to the cute boys in class, I was designing identification cards for my three best friends as official entry into our magical world. We were young witches in a Harry Potter-based universe one week and ghost hunters trying to break into the haunted house behind the gym the next. I remember mustering the courage to ask the one boy I had a crush on if he liked me back and he laughed in my face. “No. You’re weird,” was the response I got before he sprinted back to his herd of cool boys. I shrugged and walked back to my friends unscathed. We had adventures to continue and the rest of our lives to fantasize about. Sure, it would’ve been nice if dreamboat Nick liked me back, but his opinion held no power over my confidence. I’ve been searching for that strength inside myself ever since. (P.S. Nick has since added me on Facebook and flirted his way into my messenger.)

My fixation on what others were thinking of me or what others were doing with their lives only held me back. Instead of allowing myself the time necessary to focus and think about who I wanted to become, I filled my time with Youtube videos of other people making their dreams come true. I soaked up the lives of the fictional TV and film characters that I adored and envisioned seeking out the same adventures and success. I’d often say things like “I could easily do what she’s doing!” or, after a random surge of inspiration, attack my parents with lists of ideas and dreams I hoped to accomplish to which they would nod and reply “It all sounds great Mariana. I want to see you do it.” I don’t regret soaking up all the inspiration, but I do regret not giving the same attention to myself that I gave/give to the people I admire. I realized that I need to build a relationship of admiration with myself to start making real strides.

Self-discipline is a bitch. I’ve been struggling with it my entire life, but more as a postgraduate than ever. Someone recently told me that talent is only 30% of what we can each rely on. The rest is how much work and dedication we are willing to put in every day to bring whatever dream we choose to fruition. I had been failing at this miserably, blaming bad luck and fate for how stagnant my life had become. The truth was right in front of me and I knew it all along. I was the one thing stopping me from moving forward.

So, what now?

As the title of this post would suggest, my path to pushing my limits and “making my dreams come true” is still a work in progress. I plan to make this blog my guinea pig, a place where I can track my creative productivity. I strongly suggest anyone who feels road-blocked or lost to watch Caroline McHugh’s Tedx Talk. She reminds us that we each have something powerful and unique to bring to the world. The first and most crucial step is to see it.