Maybe you’ve heard this one before. How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.
Back in February I was talking to my counselor about the future. It used to be that committing to anything more than a few months in advance was challenging for me. It seems naive somehow, revealing your intentions to a fickle and arbitrarily malicious world. In eight months I’m going to go on vacation is dangerously vulnerable. If I put that on the calendar, someone’s going to get cancer or my house is going to burn down. I don’t like it but those are the rules. That’s life as I know it. I have receipts. Don’t get me wrong- I’ve always allowed myself aspirations as long as I remained sufficiently cynical about achieving them and never got too specific about when they might happen. This has all been generally manageable (I vacation rarely or spontaneously) but for mental health and marital/adult life reasons it’s not terribly sustainable. So, I’ve been working on it and earlier this year, I felt bold, and I looked across at my longtime counselor and I said I was ready. Buoyed by taking the first real vacation that required actual advanced planning I’ve gone on in ever last December, I had this whole 2020 masterplan worked out. I was going to do so many amazing things. And we high-fived (we didn’t high-five) and I decided that part of 2020 Erik’s Bold Masterplan was to take a break from regular counseling for a couple of months. Me and the world had an understanding. I was going to put things on my calendar (not too many, and all of them tentative of course I’m not a daredevil) and the world wasn’t going to give me house fire cancer. it was good and it was growth and I felt like a real grown up.
Enter Covid-19 stage left.
Yeah, that’s my fault everybody. I’m sorry. I made a plan.
I joke about this a little bit because I don’t have other viable coping mechanisms. My many amazing things for 2020 are insignificant shit things compared to the toll in life and community this unprecedented pandemic has wrought. Nothing I’ve ever wanted or could ever want is worth people dying. I’m so scared and angry and hurt at all this *flails arms, screams* that I just feel numb. I am, like a lot of the world, simply paralyzed.
Life- my life certainly but definitely not exclusively- is basically a tragicomic chaos buffet. You get your tray and you stand in line and sometimes you get chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs and sometimes you lose your job or someone you love too much finds the meth again. You cross your fingers for overcooked green beans but you know diabetic organ failure is coming out of the kitchen sooner or later. And the worst stuff is always the stuff you never even imagined. I was ready for slimy canned peaches or broken wine bottle soup or suicidal text messages or any number of calamities but I was not ready for Plague, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and his sidekick Proud Public Ignorance. Right after I got married a life insurance salesman asked me “BUT WHAT IF YOU GET DECAPITATED?” That was on my radar. I leave the house and I make sure I have my keys, my wallet, my phone, and my head still attached because I don’t want to be caught off guard. But this?
So what’s the plan now? I’m an adult man with multiple couches (they’re all from IKEA but they count, okay?) and equity in bank-owned things and at least three or four people that I’ve convinced that I have my shit together. I’m not willing to regress back to being scared of calendars.
The good news is that I’m really good in a crisis. Like plenty of totally well-adjusted maniac people, my brain operates best in a state of adrenalized panic. Like a moth born from a dysfunctional family flame, I am drawn to a vaguely sketched out metaphor for emergencies that I should really fix in the second draft. I’m thinking something something PTSD joke? Don’t worry folks. I can fix it in revisions! I can fix it all in revisions. *crazy man laugh turning to desperate hug-me arms* But I digress.
Anyway, I look in my trusty tool box and I’ve got bad jokes, good at crazy fucksplosions, running for far too long, and this. Writing. And that really seems like it should be the answer for me, right? I should be able to write my way to peace and the future and fixing that metaphor joke bit in the last paragraph.
(That metaphor joke bit isn’t going to be fixed in revision. There is no revision. The revision is a lie.)
Being creative- as a lot of creative people can absolutely tell you- is quite difficult right now. Some people can do it better than other people and even I’ve had days where it just came together but I can’t plan on work (writing is work) to give me solace right now. What I can do is go deeper, really set the way back memory time machine to the reasons and skills that led me to putting words together in fancy sentences (that’s what we, The Writers, call it). This journey of self-reflection leads me to two core concepts that insert jokey metaphor that’s maybe something about house foundations or concrete or something that I should maybe Google and what do you mean you don’t think I’m actually going to do that and this is just another joke bit? I’m not that predictable.
Two things: Vulnerability and empathy. They’re why I write. They’re what I look for in every story and my plan is to cling to them like a drowning man in a scary calendar sea lousy with Covid-19 sharks.
I asked my wife last night while I was lying in bed gripped by dread and uncertainty (like you do, #2020) if I’m Too Much? It’s something I worry about a lot. Do I talk too much? Am I too intense? Do I gesticulate my bony man paws too forcefully? I chatter when I’m nervous. And gesticulate. I’m always fucking gesticulating. I was a pretty quiet kid for a lot of my youth. I remember being afraid of speaking up too much because of what uncomfortable home drama I might accidentally vomit out. I felt like I was a dam holding back an ocean of feelings all the time and if I let anything through the dam would be washed away and suddenly I’d be telling the bus driver what that ambulance was all about in front of my house and a hundred other truths kids aren’t supposed to know or say or live with but I did because hey hey clap your hands for the childhood family trauma show. I felt a lot. I still feel a lot. Maybe too much. No one gives you the tools to measure these things but I’m pretty sure I have mid 90s McDonalds Super Size Me feelings. As I got older I needed a release for all of that Too Much and one release I found was writing about it. In a story (or blog post), no one can see you gesticulate (I AM GESTICULATING SO HARD RIGHT NOW AND YOU CAN’T JUDGE ME) and Too Much is often rewarded with approval. So, I was this weird kid that was sometimes rigidly self-repressed and sometimes Too Much and when I was Too Much people got uncomfortable and offered fake laugh excuses to leave and that felt Real Bad. But if I wrote a story or a poem or something I could just unleash that Too Much and teachers gave me extra credit. Sometimes they said I was brave which, and I am overdosing on the digressions here, but can we take a moment to reflect on how fucked up it is that me (a man in particular) being Too Emotional is upsetting but if I make it into a product other people can buy it’s socially acceptable?
Anyway. Thusward and undigressed, this was the genesis of a lifelong passion and a spiffy maladaptive coping mechanism. I invested a lot of years to learning how to communicate feelings outside of fiction. My first girlfriend one time when I was flustered asked me, “do you want to write it down?” and that pretty clearly defined my college years. Our relationship was largely built on emails and in-person I was curiously mute or when I was able to say something it was the wrong thing. It wasn’t what I really felt. It was something mangled and anxious and silly. I taught myself to be a present emotive person like a robot might and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But now I need to self-monitor for Too Much again. My wife said I’m direct by the way. I speak my mind. She’s diplomatic. I probably overshare too much. Invite me to your house party and you too can hear stories about burnt heroin spoons and the still Too Much pain I have set aside for special occasions!
And there’s the other thing, the other foundational thing at the core of my desire to write: empathy. A lot of people have done things I don’t like to me or others or my dog. In my Too Much autoclave it turns to white-hot anger. Some motherfucker abandoned my dog before I rescued him. What kind of hellbeast monster person would leave a little dog to die on the streets of Bakersfield, California? Bakersfield is undeniably the worst place in California and my dog is the sweetest dog in the universe. I’m capable of hating that person but I don’t want to. Or actually, if I’m being honest, I can’t. It’s one of those ha ha ha oh right the trauma side effects of having the people that are supposed to be ones you love and trust being the ones that neglect and hurt you; you learn to excuse them because the alternative is being the kind of hellbeast monster person that hates the people that are supposed to be the ones that you love and trust. If I carried around all the rage my Too Much autoclave is capable of producing, I’d be overwhelmed by it. So some of the storytelling has always been to come up with reasons why. That motherfucker that abandoned my dog surely had a preponderance of bad choices and terrible circumstances. Maybe it was a dumb kid that wasn’t allowed to have a dog and had to choose between letting him go or being homeless. Maybe there was an accident and he wasn’t supposed to be abandoned. There are better versions of the story that make better people. A lot of why I write is to give those better versions of the story a chance. I need empathy. I need to understand why people do wrong things sometimes (or even always). I can’t hate anyone, not completely, because if I hate anyone I’m not sure I wouldn’t slip into hating everyone. Maybe I cover it well (ha!) but I can be an awfully cynical person that struggles to not expect the worst. The world is already a cruel arbitrary place. I need people on my side.
Bringing it back to around to a circuitous point: I write so I have permission to be vulnerable. I want to be vulnerable. I want to be seen and understood. I imagine we all do. And I write so I can see the possibility in other people. I write to remind myself how to be empathetic. So, while I might not be able to write my 2020 plans back or write away the pandemic, I think the solution is what it’s always been for me, if I can just get the jokes and cynicism out of the way:
Hey everyone. I’m scared and I’m trying my best every damn day. I think you are too. I don’t know if we’re going to be okay. I don’t know what okay means exactly. But I know I’m here and so are you and that means something to me at least. I’m going to tell you who I am when I can and I’m going to listen with patience and empathy and all the stupid sincere love I’ve got. The tragicomic chaos buffet has to have your favorite food sooner or later, right?
That’s my plan.
With love and butt stuff jokes,