What I Learned in 2008

>My parents were in New York this year for my 30th birthday. After two AMOK shows in Harlem we walked probably two miles along 125th Street from Madison Avenue all the way over to Broadway. It could have been a few blocks past Broadway. It was dark, there were hundreds of people out. I was cranky, hungry and dirty with glitter and circus grime. We ended up, about 15 of us, at a Cuban diner, late-ish, practically closing the place. Over dinner, Jennifer asked Jenny and I to talk about what plans, what resolutions, we might have for the coming year–it’s Jenny’s birthday too on 9/21; I could not ask for a more inspiring birthday twin.

I wasn’t prepared to talk extemporaneously about my plans. I didn’t have any. At that point, about 8 weeks into full-speed circus mode, I barely had time to plan a good breakfast, never mind reflect on the past year and the one ahead–and turning 30–this thing that everyone was asking me about. Jenny spoke eloquently about having attended a wedding and finding herself out of place, about being reminded of who you are, who you are not. We all nodded our heads; I felt humbled by the exactness, the clarity of her story. When it was my turn, I went on a few minutes about trying to live in the moment–whatever that means–and I wasn’t exactly happy with the way it all came out. I knew that I was feeling so many other things, having so many other important, meaningful realizations, but that I felt unable to articulate the details at that time.

It’s been a few months, and I think I’ve figured it out.

At Thanksgiving this year, we were asked to write down something we were thankful for on a strip of paper, and put it in a bowl. Everyone’s papers were passed around, one thankful-for-thing was pulled out, read aloud anonymously, and the bowl was passed along. Here is what I wrote: “I am thankful for the realization that I am the only one who should define my career.”

Somewhere along the way, 2008 taught me that what I want from the world, what I want from my life, is really nothing more than community. In my early 20s, I felt a pressure, partly from myself, partly from the outside world, to become a certain kind of writer. The benchmarks for this kind of writer are, I thought: a story about you in the New York Times Magazine, perhaps a scathing review, a glowing review, a mention that you are “one to watch.” A member of the 20 under 20. Or the 30 under 30. (Is there a 40 under 40? Probably not.) I thought that this was the kind of writer I needed to be, even wanted to be. I picked up random books at the Barnes & Noble, read a few pages–clearly I was more “talented” than these writers. Clearly, I had more skills with language and more interest in making art than this schlocky waste of trees. Right?

Okay, sort of. Maybe.

Something has shifted in me. Reviews would be nice. Press would be nice. Magazine covers would be a fun experience. (But do writers end up magazine covers anyway? Are reviews actually nice?) I realized somewhere that the only thing conventional publishing had to offer me is money. Money and perhaps a certain trajectory–and, of course, none of it is guaranteed. My interest in the “book” world has waned. I’m less interested in doing the work that it takes to get published. I’m less interested in doing any kind of work that’s not fulfilling. And that kind of work is not fulfilling.

What is fulfilling: Writing. Sitting at home, alone with the words and the screen and the voices in my head. Sharing my work with the artists that make up my community. My circus community, my friends, my peers, other artists whose work I have learned from, explored, been slayed by. Should a book deal come sliding under my door tomorrow morning, you bet I’m signing it. But the enchantment of publishing has worn off for me. The idea that things come from it has worn off. Yes, they do–many things can come from it.

But then, what else is fulfilling: The work I’ve delved into in the last two or three years. Bringing vital, community-building theater, all for free, with queer visibility, to the people of New York City. Sharing in the amazing, taste-bud-exploding bounty of the earth with the joyful, the ornery, the elderly, the children, the people of all cultures and races, with farmers and farmer’s daughters. To be squeezed into shape by the seasons, watching flakes drop out of the sky one at a time until the branches are covered and the world is quiet and white. To watch children, third graders, fifth grades, talk about a painting that they’ve never seen before, something complex and wonderful, and say to the teacher “I feel like I love this picture because it has in it everything that I feel every day.”

The other idea here, the one that has just occurred to me is this: I am grateful. My writing has slowed–mostly due to lack of bandwidth, and partly due to the current project, which is long, extremely difficult, and often (I think) beyond my creative powers, as if my eyes were bigger than my stomach. None of this means that I am not writing, or won’t write, or have given it up. It only means that I find myself so honored and grateful and empowered by the work that I am doing, that the writing sometimes too introspective, too contained, too idiosyncratic. The only times I am pulled toward it, are the times that I feel the need to hold myself closer, to hide the flame from the wind. As it were. Those moments still happen, of course. (One is happening now!)

As I write this, I am flying north from Charlotte to New York City, on my way home from being in Tennessee for a few days, visiting family, feeling bored and loved, feeling happy and fed. I wrote this in an email on the flight down — and it sums up how I’m feeling now, too:

I wonder if people — People with a capital P, the gyrating human mass — are somehow bettered for having been offered this perspective. This morning, on CNN, I heard that at 8:00am there were already more than 1900 planes in the air above the United States. What sort of amazing release would that collective sigh create if all 20,000 or so people looked out their windows at the play of sunlight on the clouds? I wonder if we’d fall out of the sky. Or lift right on up through the layers into space itself. Beyond, toward the horizon, the sky fades from a darker blue into a thin strip of bright lightness. Beyond that is the ocean. I can’t see it, but I trust that it’s there.

Another thing I am thinking of–people on the ground should write messages on rooftops to people in the air. “Hang in there.” “Good Luck.” “We Believe in You.”

Happy 2009!

2 Comments on “What I Learned in 2008”

  1. rob says:

    >After reading this post, I think I have even more of a bromance crush on you.Oh, wait. Do you have to be Straight to have a bromance?By the way, the word verification for this post is: tophogetop hog? mmm hmmm.

  2. your mom says:

    >The thing that makes you a writer and keeps me from being one is that you “trust” that the ocean is there; I “fear” that the ocean is there. Keep at it. You’re too gifted to stop.

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