I’ve had some rough years. It might surprise people to learn that this last year was one of the roughest. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? My first novel came out, I did a ton of comedy, I started new comedy rooms, I traveled. On paper, it sounds like a bang up year. And also on Facebook, always on Facebook, it is a bang up year always. But here on the blog, my friends, we can be real with one another.
Firstly, a note about Facebook. Self-pity sucks and you see a lot of it on FB. Even if I wasn’t a comic and an author, I’d try not to be too self-indulgent with the woe-is-me posts. But I am a comic and an author, and I am constantly selling. Selling books, selling shows, selling myself as a fun go-getter. It’s not hard. I am a fun go-getter. Facebook is a wonderful social tool for keeping in touch with old friends, and it’s a sales tool. It is a sales tool for everyone. They are selling you on their perception of the world, on how they want to be perceived, and if nothing else, on what they think is interesting. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation, but I always find it curious when people find the supposed success of others on Facebook a source of sadness. Facebook walls are like display windows at Pottery Barn – everything you see is for sale. Do not compare your actual living space to the artifice.
In any case, while I am a fun go-getter, I am a lot of other things, too. Like a lot of comedians, the Swamp of Sadness is well known territory for me. It had been creeping in around the edges for awhile, but then it reached Artax-drowning levels last winter. (These are Neverending Story references, in case you’re wondering.) Here was the tipping point. October of 2014, I was hanging out with my ex-husband. Our divorce took a very long time to become final, but the court date was about six weeks out at the time. He had bought a bear-shaped container of honey and mentioned that it made him sad and/or nostalgic to buy it, because I have always loved honey bears.
And that is when I had a very, very terrible thought. Why are we even getting divorced, I thought. If you like me enough to become vagely sort of sad when purchasing a honey bear.
That, my friends, is where my sense of self-worth actually stood in October of 2014. The thought had come along in a lighthearted, joking manner, but when I saw it, and absorbed it, anxiety settled in. Settled in deeply. I realized I had been separated for two years but had failed to improve as a person in some fundamental ways, ways that very much needed fixing. This is when things started to go off the rails. I’d been separated for two years. By all appearances, my life had dramatically improved in that time. I’d sold a novel. I’d created a new life for myself. This was thanks in large part to the massive influx of support that came my way after my ex left. New and wonderful friends taught me a new and wonderful way to live, family and old friends gave me love and support galore. All of it was needed and appreciated and wildly helpful.
But I was also running on adrenaline. And when that adrenaline ran out, I appeared to be doing great. So much so that people didn’t really believe me when I told them otherwise. I told people close to me I was struggling. One replied, “But the great thing about you is, I never have to worry about you.” It was a sincere compliment, but it only served to reinforce a feeling of isolation.
I decided to go to a counselor. He gave me a diagnosis of, “Being a girl got you hurt.” And honestly, that really did work for me. Still does. So I thought, Cool, I’ll work on embracing my femininity. But every time I went there I’d have some happy news to report of what I thought was progress and he’d shoot it down. The message I received was, “Being a girl got you hurt. That’s your attempt at trying to be a girl? You’re not very good at it.” And you know, it really got to the point where I wanted to punch that son of a bitch in the mouth.
Although I was struggling and depressed, I am nothing if not a fun go-getter, so I decided to fix my problem another way and spent six weeks in Charleston, writing. I got a ton of writing done, made several wonderful friends, and did a six week strength training class. And you know what? The strength gains I made in that class were insane. It occurred to me, you can’t gain this much muscle and strength without a lot of testosterone. I am who I am. And thinking those things really made me want to go back and punch that counselor in the mouth.
It was during this time in Charleston that I discovered Conor McGregor, my in-some-ways spirit animal. Conor’s absolute self-belief and joie de vivre were a tonic for my soul when I desperately needed one. Because let us be honest here – I cried a lot when I was in Charleston. Like, a lot. I felt alone and broken and left behind, my current self did not compare favorably with where I felt I should be in life. Now, I was still doing a lot better than I had been back in October of 2014. I was in the process of healing. It’s just that these things take time.
The day after I got back from Charleston I found out that Simon & Schuster had decided to reject the two novels I’d submitted to them. I’d had a decent amount of low lying anxiety about those books, so I wasn’t surprised. I learned this news at an Underwear Comedy Party Show, a show where comics perform in their undies. I got an email from my agent, absorbed the bad news, got on stage, and did really well, actually. Driving home, however, I felt devastated. I remember hearing God tell me, “Your next book must be Ezra.” I didn’t doubt Him, but rejection at that moment in time was just what the doctor ordered – if you wanted a sadness relapse! (And yes, sometimes somebody talks to me. It’s rare but it happens and the voice is never wrong and I believe it’s God, to summarize the experience.)
The next day I was hit with a pretty massive depression, centered on my house. I was still living in the house I’d shared with Evan for ten years. I called my mom and told her what was going on. She told me to move. I told her it wasn’t that easy. She said, “Well, I’ve given you the solution.” In what felt like a genuine miracle, a buyer immediately appeared out of the woodwork. So I moved. It’s three words, “So I moved,” but it was months of work. That house and shed were loaded with ten years of memories and crap. It was hard. But maybe not in the way you’d expect. Evan’s stuff wasn’t emotionally triggering for me at all, which was kind of great. But the older stuff was hard. The things of childhood, especially things from my grandparents, that was hard. The sheer amount of work was hard.
When I finally moved I learned something very important–those golden years of friendship in Clemson were rare and wonderful, and while I treasured them at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how unique that experience was. I became very isolated in Greenville. However, I’d continued to heal, getting stronger all the time, and I was able to turn that isolation into writing. Ruthless came out, I got a manager, I wrote the screenplay adaptation, I went to LA, thinking all kinds of great things were going to happen, and they totally didn’t.
I left LA feeling that Ezra was the only thing I had in the whole wide world. Finally, I surrendered and did what God had told me to do on Feb 13th of 2015 – work on freaking Ezra. I’d essentially been procrastinating since 2010, only working on it intermittently and halfheartedly. I’d put it off because I dreaded how terrible it would be to truly fix the book, and it was exactly as bad as I expected. For weeks I worked for several hours a day and made no progress. It was brutal.
By the end of December, I’d gotten a handle on Ezra, and started to feel a lot better. January 12th, I sent Ezra to my agent. Even though she said she wouldn’t be able to read it until the end of the week, I received notes from her that same day. It was close to midnight when I got the email. It was several paragraphs long, but it had one message – You did it. It is the best letter I’ve ever received. I cried while I read it. And that is where I stand today, a year to the day after Simon & Schuster rejected those other books, a year to the day that I knew I needed to make Ezra my next book.
I am left with a feeling of tremendous gratitude. Although the last fourteen months have been emotionally and spiritually difficult, they have been necessary. Growth and change can be painful, and I am totally okay with that. Life is so short, I hate to lose any more of it to stagnation. I have a wonderful life and I have been blessed with an incredible amount of freedom. Although my work isn’t always easy, I am passionate about the work that I do. I believe I am doing the things God made me to do, and in that I am remarkably fortunate. All of that said, super hoping the next period of growth and change is marked by happiness–and I believe that it will.
Abraham Polonsky has been on my mind lately. A lot. So much so it’s kind of weird.
Polonsky was one of the great gifts of my education at USC Film School. He taught a class called Content & Consciousness, but the class was really, “Come Absorb Hollywood History.” Polonsky was a pioneering writer and director. You know the look of film noir, with the one key light and the sharp contrasting shadows? You have Polonsky to thank for that. Polonsky inspired generations of filmmakers after him, including Scorcese, who made a documentary about the man.
Just like his signature lighting, Polonsky was a study in contrasts. A tough guy from the Bronx, he taught himself French by reading Proust with a French to English guide by his side. His heroes were like himself, bruisers with brains. A great hero who served in the OSS during WWII, Polonsky later became a blacklisted screenwriter. He loved to tell the story about how he was grilled before the House UnAmerican Activities kangaroo court. One senator asked questions pertaining to Polonsky’s secret service in WWII. Polonsky, knowing better than the senator that such information was still classified, refused to answer. A man appeared from the wings, whispered in the senator’s ear to tell him he was an idiot and needed to shut up, and the senator angrily declared that Polonsky was the most dangerous man in America. Polonsky loved it.
But his stories that meant the most to me were the ones about his wife, Sylvia Marrow. They were married for 56 years before she passed away in ’93. She was the kid sister of his best friend and perceived as a pest until suddenly he realized she’d become a beautiful young woman. One day they decided to get married and did so promptly at local courthouse – no muss, no fuss. While Polonsky was writing great films like Body and Soul, Sylvia was pursuing her own artistry as a ballerina. She later added archeology to the mix, studying Native American ruins in Central America.
Polonsky said that the happiest times in his life were following her through the jungle.
I loved that image, and the fact these two wonderfully vibrant, dynamic people created a life of adventure together. He talked a lot about her in the classroom. So much so it felt as if she was still alive. Polonsky and I were very different politically and religiously. He came from Jewish-Russian stock, but was a proud atheist. That said, he talked movingly about the conversation he had with Sylvia on her death bed. He told her that we are all made of star matter and to the stars we would one day return, and that at some point in the future he would find her there and they would be reunited. Polonsky died in October of ’99 at age 88, not long after I graduated college. I hope he and Sylvia have had the reunion he hoped for.
Once upon a time, Britney Spears made a really terrible movie at Summit Entertainment. It had Dan Aykroyd in it. On the plus side, it had a good title. Crossroads.
A couple of weeks ago, it hit me that I was at a crossroads myself. Like a lot of realizations, it arrived in slow motion, long after I should have realized it. Semi-recently, I moved to Greenville. Prior to that, a lot of my best friends moved to Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, you name it. Other friends found themselves with new babies or in new relationships, marriages, or jobs. Change was afoot.
I am a big fan of change and very anti-stagnation. So with every friend who found themselves embarking on a new adventure, I rooted them on and wished them well. My beloved C.S. Lewis once observed, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” I love my friends, and was happy for all the good change that had come their way, so I didn’t quite notice until late the game that we’d hit the end of an era.
Of course, I too am culpable. Comedy and career took up massive amounts of my time and that certainly played a role. But I am less interested in the post mortem than I am in an examination of how awesome it was while it lasted. The parties we had! The characters! The best sitcom writers in America could not have invented Brenden or Dinger. From the lake days at the cabin to the Halloween parties, these were glorious occasions, with glorious people. Let it never be said that we didn’t know how to celebrate. It was truly the tie that bound us together. It was a beautiful friend family I had in Clemson.
To me, it is notable that nothing has rushed in to fill the gap. They say nature abhors a vacuum, but the vacuum has only sucked harder (she says eloquently) as time as gone on. If you know me at all, you know how I’m given to look to Providence in all situations. The quiet has been useful. My writing goals for the fall are only borderline achievable at best, so it is good that I am where I am. I’m in prep mode. For what, who knows? Hopefully something good, something fun and adventurous.
All the same, I won’t lie. I miss the calls for everybody to rally at Nick’s because someone had a rough day. I miss chatting with Chris McCune while running into twenty other people I know and love. I miss seeing Alrinthea pull into my driveway, making a surprise visit. I miss regular Coffee Club with Bo and Debbie. I miss my people. Even Darren.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu
Everybody is gone or going.
Not literally everybody, of course. But it feels that way. For me, 2012 and 2013 represent a high water mark of connectedness. In 2012, my family of Clemson friends was very intact and a good thing, too, because that’s when I needed them the most. So many people were there for me. One of the friends I relied on most heavily, Dinger, left for New Hampshire in 2013. Another one of those friends, Brenden, is about to move to Denver. His wife, Kate, instantly became one of my favorite people. My traveling compadres Alrinthea and Lisa, moved to Greenville and Chattanooga, respectively. Odd though it may seem to those on the outside, my frequent breakfast buddy Evan is on to new adventures, too. Sean went to Charlotte. The list goes on.
In 2013, I met a whole new crew of friends, the comedians. On the plus side, I enjoyed them thoroughly while they were here, but they’ve fled, too. Justin Thompson, Camilo Potes, Nick Shaheen, and Charlie Grey. All taken by Atlanta, as though it were a giant monster in the night, stealing away with the comedy children I’d come to love so much. When I learned Charlie was moving to Atlanta, I mourned the loss of him. Not just because I will miss Charlie, but because I will miss the era that is now ending. It was sad to lose Justin, Camilo, and Nick. I miss them all. But the loss of Charlie feels like a tipping point.
Of course, I haven’t lost any of these people for good. Even if they’re no longer in my town doesn’t mean they’re no longer my friend. I still see all of these people, some of them pretty regularly. But it is not the same. Dr. Seuss says, “Don’t be sad that it’s over, smile because it happened.” I am struggling to follow Dr. Seuss’s advice. For a long time, I was eager for change. I wanted a new job, a new life. And then I got that new life. And I liked it a lot. Loved it, in fact. And suddenly, I am not so eager for change. Change is a lot harder when you’re letting go of something that was good.
For a lot of people reading this blog, this next part may sound strange, because it’s not about a person – it’s about a horse. In October, I met a black Thoroughbred gelding I dubbed Johnny. I’ve ridden horses my entire life. I started showing at age three. I’ve been fortunate enough to work at some elite level barns, took care of and rode horses who had been short-listed for the Olympics. I’ve owned and ridden some great horses, but Johnny was my favorite. He is an exceedingly special horse. He was exceedingly special to me. When I met him, he was for sale and he eventually sold to someone else. He sold to someone else because I failed to sell the books I’d spent months working on. They may yet sell somewhere else, but the influx of money I was hoping to receive is not coming anytime soon. The failure of those books to sell was a significant disappointment. This might sound odd, but my main sense of loss is tied up in losing out on Johnny.
In early January, I learned Mama Cat, my oldest pet, has cancer. She’s still hanging in there. She has very suddenly gone deaf and she gave up bathing herself, but her appetite is still good. Even so, I know the end that is inevitable for us all is much closer for her than it is for most. Mama Cat entered my life in 1999, when I was still in college. She was feral. Evan and I trapped her because we saw she was pregnant. She really domesticated quite nicely and she wound up having Little Bastard. She is a sweet, patient, tolerant cat. She is also symbolic of another era.
When I went out to Charleston to write, I did exactly that. It was a very productive trip in a lot of ways. Coming back has been hard. I instantly realized I needed to get out of this house that I’ve lived in for ten years now. Hindsight is 20/2o and I find myself looking back over some of my decisions of the last two years and thinking perhaps I made some mistakes. Evan and I engaged in what was essentially a slow motion divorce. Some aspects of that method were definitely beneficial, working out logistics on the other side of emotion is a good idea. But on the flip side, I still have an attic full of memorabilia that needs to be gone through. I see now the benefit of ripping the band-aid off and taking care of everything quickly, of getting it done and over with. In the slow motion divorce, you deal with it again and again. And again. And again.
It’s not that I wish I was still married. Truth is, every time Evan and I see each other it becomes increasingly bizarre to us we were ever married in the first place. The nice thing is we can laugh about it. When we were married, there were so many things left unsaid, so many personality traits stifled. Now that we are free to be wholly ourselves around one another, it’s kind like, “How did that happen?” I’d like to think we’re both pretty decent people, and as such we make pretty decent friends. In this, I am incredibly fortunate. And yet, despite all of this intellectual knowledge, this peaceable resolution, divorce still sucks. It is painful. The feeling of rejection runs deep. Believe it or not, this segues back to the horse. Johnny, it seemed to me, liked me. I get that there are a lot of people who like me, who even love me. But as I said before, Johnny was special. I have trust issues, and there were so many times that that horse, had he been a normal Thoroughbred, would have behaved badly. Instead, he was good and brave, which made me good and brave. It’s not supposed to go that way, you know. The rider is supposed to create confidence in the horse, not the other way around. In the end, everything that the rejection of divorce does, working with Johnny did the opposite of that. And all of a sudden I find myself surrounded by artifacts of that rejection, including this house. So now, I too am going. Not far away, but I am going.
Everybody is going or gone.
There have been times in this process where I handled things really well, where I was strong and felt the living peace of faith. Now is not one of those times. This has been a time of mourning, weeping, throwing things away, it has been a time to die, to tear down, to give up. I don’t like it and I don’t want it. I hate feeling weak. It is my least favorite feeling in the world. It brings out all the worst in me. But this is where I am, whether I like it or not. And change is coming, it is almost here. I know there will be times of planting, building, laughing, dancing. A time of rebirth. There is a season for every activity under Heaven.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NIV)