Laurel Kirtz: An Oberlin Enigma
ANNA POLACEK // DECEMBER 14, 2018
The following is an excerpt from a long-form piece written by contributing writer Anna Polacek’s for (her/their) literary journalism class, edited down for The Grape.
Soon after I hung up the phone, I got an email from Laurel containing a five-page document titled “Timeline of Laurel Kirtz’s Life.” The document consisted of an extensive bullet point list of all the significant moments that happened throughout each year that Laurel has been alive. I combed through the information, searching for anything that would reveal something exceptional about her. She was born on December 14th, 1974, in Oberlin, Ohio with a Sagittarius Sun & Moon with Virgo rising. In 1984, she had her spiritual awakening: “tarot already underway, bought 1st astro book, read about reincarnation.” In 1989, Laurel moved away to the East coast to attend boarding school. During this time she “became a pothead,” took LSD for the first time, attended many raves, and lost her virginity. In 1993, she moved to Boston, where she went to Emerson College to study writing and publishing, and also to take classes at Mass Art. She lived with Kathleen, a stripper and art student, and Haas and Benny, her “rave buddies.” She worked as a housecleaner and declutterer and co-founded a nonprofit called What's-Up Magazine. In 1998-99, she began her career in performance art as a baton twirler and spoken word artist and had a 2 year long period of celibacy. In 2000, George Bush was elected, and she enacted her survivalist agenda to prep for societies crumbling. She attended Coach University for Life Coaching. 2010 was titled “The Year My Shit Hit the Fan.” She underwent a job-turnover, a breakup, and the beginning of a legal battle with Wells Fargo over her home foreclosure. In 2015, Laurel moved home to Oberlin, Ohio.
My obsession with Laurel began early on in the semester at a dominatrix-themed birthday party for someone I hardly knew. After ascending a narrow staircase to enter the second-floor apartment, we were greeted by a full room of 18-22 year-olds wearing risque garb. Provocative art hung from the ceiling, glitter littered the floor, and European house music blasted from the professional sound system.
Sometime around 1 AM the music stopped and a circle formed around seemingly no one. Just when I thought the party was over a new song began, and Laurel, a forty-year-old woman sporting a unitard, dramatic eye makeup, and two batons entered the circle. She was clearly much older than us, yet her face was so young and with her wavy feathered bangs, she may have stopped aging altogether in 1992. She proceeded to do a dance performance so amazing that I have struggled with accurately describing it every time I attempt to. But for the sake of my reader, I will try.
It started out with little body movement, focused solely on the nonstop twirling of the batons in her hands. Gradually, bouncing side-steps and hip movements were incorporated. She threw up the baton, catching it and continuing to twirl as if she had been holding it the entire time. The crowd cheered, now completely captivated. She effortlessly moved with the music while twirling her batons like nothing I had ever seen before. She was there, performing in front of us. But it seemed almost as though she wasn’t performing for us. She truly looked lost in the moment, unconcerned with the number of eyes following her. Her own eyes were wide open, yet she didn’t appear to be looking at anything in particular, instead focusing solely on her body immersed in the music. A woman 20 years our senior wearing minimal clothing is not something most of us would expect to see at a college party. But one thing's for sure: I gladly accepted her invigorating presence.
Laurel first appeared in my life with her astrology column for this newspaper. Before she even spoke in that first Grape meeting, I knew there was something more to her than most people possess. She carries herself assuredly. She expresses her thoughts without fear of approval even if the topic she is delivering on is the legitimacy of astrological methodology. She also parties hard. Without appearing botched like many of the young people around her, I’ve periodically seen her woven into the college nightlife scene. Like her dancing, she is graceful, rhythmic and poised, yet still enthusiastic in everything she does.
My idea of Laurel before I began writing this profile was the quirky lady who wrote horoscopes for The Grape. She was wacky and eccentric and whatever she said in those meetings was probably not on par with the superior thinking of us barely post-teenaged college students. She was seen at college parties. She was the perfect zany character to write a profile on, and it would be comical and witty.
This outlook is widely held among many Oberlin students who discount her livelihood as a frivolous hobby. Deep down, I felt this way when I watched her baton performance, when I introduced myself, and when we set up the interview. I had a superiority complex that functioned as a defense mechanism to how nervous I truly felt. I thought that cool demeanor would alleviate my intimidation about Laurel’s eccentricities.
After scheduling an interview, we met in an enormous room on the second floor of Wilder with a fireplace and a massive wrap around couch. She entered the room with a balled up linen sheet in one hand and two slices of pizza sandwiched together in the other. The sheet is for a dance performance she is helping out with after the interview. The pizza she found somewhere on the first floor.
I had prepared a set of questions leading up to the interview, but things began more casually than I expected. She had a costume idea for a Halloween party we were both attending to tell me about. She would dress up as a professor, and she would butt into conversations at the party and be like “Hey, what are you guys talking about? Oh yeah, well I’ll tell you.” I was going to be Ennis Del Mar from Brokeback Mountain. She hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain.
Eventually I found an opening in the conversation to start asking my questions. We began with the basics. She is an active presence on campus. Her involvements are the reason I know about her in the first place. She helps out with Big Parade, student dance performances, and used to throw a series of parties called Dance Nite. On top of her active involvements with campus publications and organizations, the Dance Nite parties are another reason she has infiltrated the student social scene. When Laurel moved home in 2015, she was disappointed with how little people who live in town interact with students.
Growing up, Laurel had a close relationship with the college. She was comfortable walking around Mudd as a young kid, spinning in the womb chairs. But after she moved to the East Coast in the 9th grade, the town-gown divide only increased. She blames it on the College. “They shunned the townies. They were like ‘we can control our students but we can’t control you and therefore this element of uncertainty we’re going to remove.’ And that’s when they closed the Ratskeller down and made the ‘Sco less accessible to outsiders.”
She told me about how, as a “townie,” it feels weird going into the college’s zones now. The college has become a bubble outsiders feel uncomfortable crossing. But for Laurel, it’s easy to ignore. She’s like, “Whatever dudes. I want to be in your face. Deal with it.” She thinks she stands out more “because there aren’t allowed to be more of me interacting with you guys. I think I bowl right through what it is that’s supposed to be separating us. I love breaking rules that are stupid.” Laurel effortlessly breaks boundaries that might make you or me slightly uncomfortable. She’s a 40 year old woman who parties with college students, she’s a self-ascribed astrologist, and baton-twirling performer. She doesn’t really care how we feel about it.
In her twenties, Laurel got into the club and rave dance music scene of the 90’s. “You could say when I became a club kid and raver, I went out dancing at clubs 1-3 times a week.” This is where she really learned how to gain confidence. She faked it till she made it. “I would get on the dance floor and pretend I was a badass when really I was scared to death.” And eventually she became a good dancer. “Ignore your fears,” she told me. “Even when you’re hands are shaking, and it’s so noticeable that you’re scared, just pretend like your hands aren’t.”
She doesn’t worry about whether or not she’s saying the right thing. She just begins talking, and she talks for a long time. Whether or not it flows together doesn’t really matter because in the end she would complete her thought and it was extremely articulate and poignant.
“I fuck up all the time on stage, man. I have made so many mistakes baton twirling. I have hit people, I have made the baton go behind something so I can’t even get it anymore, I’ve hit myself, I’ve fallen off stage, I’ve had wardrobe malfunctions. I just keep going and people lose their minds.” Everyone hates to see someone who’s not confident, she tells me. Showing humility, or making mistakes, is better for everyone. “Because imperfection, and having confidence in imperfection, makes everyone feel better.”
When Laurel was 30 years old and living in Boston, she bought a Victorian mansion with a loan from the bank. But she couldn’t afford it, she told me. Banks were giving away easy loans and she lost her home to foreclosure like many other when the housing bubble burst. It destroyed her. She was suicidal. “I couldn’t even go into the myriad details that slowly drove me to bits. I essentially died because everything got washed away. All my hopes, desire, my will to live. I got taken down a notch. I got cut out at the knees.”
“I think what I’m trying to say is after that happened, and the fact that I survived, turned me into a different Laurel.” Now, she’s a much more grounded Laurel. It’s a good thing, she said, because she was too idealistic. “I had a superhero complex. I thought that I could do anything. Which is not about confidence. It’s about realism.”
Watching Laurel dance at the party above Ottica was so striking because I craved her confidence. Her physical ease was equally mesmerizing and astonishing amidst a crowd of college students who spend the majority of their time concerned with themselves. The social culture at Oberlin has an obsession with image. When I’m feeling more grounded, I might describe it as a soul-crushing hyper-awareness. It consists of a constant consciousness of how you are presenting to the world. Those of us who have fallen into this trap pay such close attention to our own image that the only time we are paying attention to other peoples images is when we are comparing them to our own.
Sitting across from her in an enormous room on that huge wrap-around couch, I realized she may have gotten her confidence from something else. “So you think that full self-assuredness just comes with age?” I asked. “Yeah I guess,” she said. “The longer you live your life, the more life you have to reflect on. So things seem less and less significant over time. Even if they’re sort of exactly the same. Like, you get a job, and you’ll get a job when you’re twenty and you’ll be like, ‘Oh my god!’ and it happens when you’re forty and you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, ok… cool.’ Everything always changes with the context of time.”