So I’m reading poetry in a public library, and I guess the thing is, I’m so happy I could choke.
Today, I took a personal day, for a wrenched back that has thoughtfully agreed to recede, and right now the air is conditioned and the couch real comfortable and already two interesting race-related arguments have broken out.
The bulk of 2013, I spent falling out of love with New York City. Hard. The way you can only do with anyone who has really, truly meant something to you, when one day you have to stand up and swallow deep and admit to yourself the sight of them makes you want to puke. What did it was a creeping sensation that I had somehow seen everything.
The first few years you live here, it seems like every day you encounter a part of the world you’d never imagined existed. Each new subway stop brings with it the awesome feeling that you are a pioneer, recording for all history a new collection of parks and playgrounds and bridge overpasses that will one day serve as an essential stopping point in the world’s most important story. Then, after a series of gray dismal Sundays, you look around and realize it’s all just stores that are exactly the same.
It didn’t help that I had been letting substances get the best of me for the better part of a decade. Those twelve months certainly represented a nadir in letting my life and work and relationships come to rot. For a long time (too long), there wasn’t a friend I didn’t forget or a job I didn’t tell to fuck off, because, after all, who needs stability or smiles when you are only ever one text away from retreating to a pot-saturated prison?
The past six months, I’ve gotten what I hope is way more of a handle on that side of things. I haven’t talked about it much—mainly because I didn’t want to jinx myself. But also because it’s the not the sort of thing you can really work into those fleeting “HOW are you” conversations. That’s not knocking them. As much as I (everybody?) would like it to be true, if we ever actually tried to let all our best and scariest and most important feelings out every single second, we’d die from exertion before the end of the first week. It’s not some prize to be made consistently sad by that fact, even if I am (too) proud I strive to exist more in those spaces.
The tipping point was last fall, when I had a real important adult conversation with my mother. She is the best and responsible for everything good about me, but we are also so different spiritually and intellectually that I can’t help but sometimes feel like a total alien around her. “I’m sorry I’m such a failure,” I said. For the first time. I’m sure you know the feeling. I had moved here eight ugh years ago with high hopes and huge grins and all the vast potential various stand-in principals had spent my life swearing I had. Surely it was only a matter of time before the world opened for me, like a walnut, and shared the sweet fleshy center it was my own sacred right to receive.
Naturally, it didn’t work out that way.
Instead I spent my time blowing opportunities and wounding people and butting my head against walls I could not believe weren’t letting me breeze through. That’s maybe the arrogance we all have at those ages, but part of what hurt so bad was that I had for so long been such an awful example of it. I had allowed myself to be puffed up and ground down and knocked out, and the only way I could try express that to her was to say: “I wish I could have been the son you deserve.”
That might be the sort of thought you say only to deify yourself, but it’s certainly not at all the way I meant it. Just an acknowledgment that my whole mission in life had been to buy her a real live house, an admission that I had come to terms with the fact that that was probably never going to happen. To her credit, she seemed shocked.
"What are you talking about," she said. Sweet woman. "I have four kids and you’re the only one who doesn’t still need to ask me for money." True, if not as true as I’d like it. "You live in New York and do all those comedy shows." Of course, through no fault of her own she has absolutely no idea what that’s like. Then she said something that has stuck with me through all the after months.
"You have to give yourself credit for the things you do."
Boom. That was it. Like a buglight, right? The dumb and simple answer that has always been staring you in the face, if you weren’t too much of a self-absorbed idiot to see it. Credit. For the things you do. Not for what you could do, or would have done. But for what you’re doing right now. Not big things, like achieving your dreams. But little things, like meeting someone’s eyes, or paying the goddamn rent on time.
"You have to remember that stuff to appreciate where you came from."
For everyone the answer will vary, but mine is maybe the dark—certainly not the darkest—side of the shade. I grew up in dog ditches and trailer parks. Halves of houses split with other families who were also trying to worm their way into better public schools. Places where I did not have a bedroom ‘til after puberty and the only male figures were shitty sisters’ husbands, who often lacked teeth and more often lacked backbone.
It’s not a plea for sympathy or understanding (even when it is), just a recognition that it is a complete statistical anomaly that I made it here and something that I and you are completely stupid for not feeling grateful for at every instant. In my life, I have met the best list of the world’s most interesting people. I have worked with and around movie stars and comedic institutions and websites that almost every urbanite in the country has heard of.
By all rights, I should have turned out a backwoods gap-brain with awful hygiene and worse ideas, but instead I free-floated my way into the world’s best educational institutions. My father was an ex-con drifter who died sleeping on couches, and I have loved and been loved by the daughters of famous comedians and museum directors and dead-eyed Dick Cheney looking millionaires. Once, I was in a room at a beautiful house, on the best night, with all my friends in the world, and it stayed eight o’clock for sixteen hours. You can look it up, if you were there (Drugs aren’t all bad).
I live in a city where on one train ride I can see a baby spit and an old man shit and someone save a complete stranger’s life, if only by not looking away when they ask for change. Today, I woke up early and had coffee in my bed and bought some books I can’t afford. Later I will get to stand up in front of a crowd of peers and make them laugh with silly solemn voices. It is a fault of our design that we ever allow ourselves to not feel how wonderful that is.
You don’t have to come from circumstances—and how can you feel bad about a world that has Achewood—to recognize that you spent most of your life stuffed in schoolrooms with people who you would not spit at if they were on fire, if only because they seemed to have a broken capacity to recognize they were burning. The world could have crushed you into a coward or a creep or even just a guy who is totally okay with 60 hours of Staples and a car on which he can choose between six colors (and there is nothing wrong with that). But instead it turned you into YOU. You, with all your ponderous magnificence. YOU, who does things every hour that nobody else in the world could do. YOU, who, even if we have only met for a second, I and everyone else loves indescribably much.
Earlier some prick on a periwinkle scooter yelled at me for taking a step into the bike lane. He pushed me as he went past. Then he stopped, for half a second. I just stared at him and smiled. He flinched; and I could suddenly see every little thing he had ever been afraid of. My heart ached. Of course I still wanted to hurt him.
Instead, I just told him to have a nice day.
You guys. We spend so much of our lives wrapped up in darkness. We start as babies and basically never stop. We don’t have what we want, or enough of what we get. We think everyone is brighter, and braver, and breaking off conversations only to go laugh at everything we are. The funniest joke in the world is it’s exactly the opposite. No matter who—or how big a shithead—you are, to somebody (lots of people), you’re an example of everything that’s right in existence. Sometimes I like to try to step back from talking circles and imagine it’s just a gathered shape of a whole bunch of people who can’t find the right moment to tell everyone else how amazing they are.
Those are the thoughts I want to keep encouraging. Lately it’s been working. Right now, I’m in the midst of what seems like a big creative renaissance. I don’t know what shifted but it feels like something about my process finally clicked. I’m taking steps to be better, to everyone, if only because I want to try and be the sort of person they deserve to meet. It’s not easy, and there’s always that voice in the back of your head that wants to tell you it won’t last. That you’re not worth it. That it’s already been too long.
But who cares? The bottom will drop out and break you many times in the years to come. The shadow can, and will, come back, whenever you least expect it. It’s a fact of life, and one we should not forget. Or fight.
But we’ll also be damned if we ever allow ourselves to stop remembering—
It only exists on account of all the light.