People keep asking me when I’m going to write about the Plague, and I keep saying “Never.” But I don’t suppose you can live through a thing like this and be a writer and not write on it, even if you do it sideways.
This was going to be the year I made money. We’d decided to move to NYC in January. My wife gave notice at work, we gave notice to our landlord in Boston, and I put my nose to the grindstone. Got hired by the Census. Re-upped as an art handler / delivery driver. Studied and perfected a new history tour on Harvard to add to my tour guide repertoire.
These were all part-time but combined – if I hustled as I meant to – I’d be raking in more money come March than I had in recent memory.
By March 15 all those jobs were gone.
I remember overhearing my mother say, when I was four or five, “John never says anything unless it’s very smart or very funny.” Somehow, I internalized that; I have such anxiety in social situations, sitting quiet – apps running in my brain, siphoning the things to say – until I feel I know my place in the conversation. Some nights I don’t say much. I wonder if it’s this urge to stay useful: only saying something with a purpose.
I’ve lived too much of my life that way, prioritizing Achievement, living by what I accomplish. I guess in this Instagram world a lot of us are like that?
So, finding myself suddenly jobless, I got busy not making money.
The list that follows is not a brag but a demonstration of the feverish drive I felt, having nothing to keep busy, and desperate to hold on to some sense of worth, to keep from going mad.
In March we made a dance song about Not Wearing Pants.
In April we made a web series about learning to work from home, together. We made 12 episodes; 1 every week for 3 months: writing, filming, acting and editing.
I finished a full-length play commission by late May, for SpeakEasy Stage.
I wrote a new ½ hour Comedy Pilot: BLOOD FROM A STONE.
Then I wrote another: THE MANNY.
Then I wrote a spec script for WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.
I submitted my work to over 115 writing opportunities, contests, agents, managers.
I’m lucky to have been a freelancer long enough that my motivation is built in.
That, and my equating accomplishment with worth.
If accomplishment is worth, then Zero Accomplishment = Zero Value.
I’m not saying I agree with this, I’m saying it’s how I’m wired, you see? At a certain point, it becomes its own madness.
An acquaintance asked me if what I do about writer’s block. Don’t have it – not the way people talk about, not crushing blockage. Sometimes I feel I have life block, which is writer’s block but for living.
You see, in all this hustle it became incredibly easy to dissociate from what was going on in the world.
My therapist asked me who I was catching up with, now the Pandemic and Zoom made schedules and distance meaningless.
No one. I wasn’t talking to anyone. It would be easy to say my pandemic was lonely but the truth is my life has been. I’ve spent so much of life equating my own value with achievement that I was never much of a good friend, a good brother. I valued work over friendship, utility over connection.
In August, we moved. Oh yes, because we’d already committed ourselves to moving. We were either going to look for a new home and jobs in Boston – a city we didn’t want to be – or in New York. Pandemic be damned, we moved.
Even now I want to give you the list, the good things I did with my time. (I wrote and published short humor. I wrote my first feature screenplay. I discovered home-made lo-fi animation….)
But I was flailing. The newness of the move wore off. October and November were hard.
Not having a job, not having an income for 5+ months, no longer having insurance (which meant no longer having therapy), STILL not being able to go out, all merged with shorter days into something I can’t describe. I was sadder than I can remember being in over 7 years. I was ideating suicide. Which – lucky for me – is NOT particularly achievement-oriented; what I mean is that I’ll have short sharp daydreams – not with intention, just little images flashing: on a walk when a car gets too close, I see it driving through me; on a jog past the cold river, I see myself falling into it.
These moments help me breathe better, which I don’t think is their evolutionary cause.
Was my lack of activity finally allowing a deeper experience of the pandemic to get up in me? Was it my 40th birthday approaching, and weighing my accomplishments, my place in life, against expectations of my 4th decade?
I don’t know but it was dark and hard and awful. Just awful.
I wake up 2 – 3 hours before my wife each day and there was a week when I spent that entire time crying in the den, in the dark, before the sun rose. Every day. If you’d asked, I couldn’t say what I was sad about. There was no thing, no cause. Just ever-present sorrow.
An article led to a wormhole that eventually flipped a light switch on:
I don’t have to value myself by what I accomplish, by material or external ideas of success.
I can value other things if I practice.
And so, the last six weeks of the year, I’ve practiced shifting in my values.
Every day I’ve practiced a conscious valuing of my health – mental and physical – and prioritizing that. I’ve consciously valued my relationships – with my wife, family, friends – and tried to carve out time to dedicate to those when, in previous moments, I’d too often let a text or email slip by because “I had work to do.”
It’s not fast work. We were alone on Christmas; we Zoomed with Family. My wife got many texts from friends and family all day. I got, I think, two. A reminder of how long and how often I have failed to prioritize friendships.
The day I started writing this I started ideating again. I felt full, in an awful way. That scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, when the money’s gone and Potter’s turned him down and George yells at his family and kicks over his desk in the corner and feels such immediate shame – that moment: rage, fear, trapped, shame. I feel like that every day.
But it’s good work to be doing. Essential, even. The project itself is joy; not dependent on how many people view it or if it gets me a job.
This has all coalesced in a nice way with Holiday movies. Because good holiday movies reassert that the most important achievement is our value to one another: not what we can do for one another, not what we can buy or give.
But how we make one another feel.
I guess if you look at much of the news this year, there are a lot of people and a lot of systems that value accomplishment and financial success over people and relationships. But there were also lovely things. Ways the people came together. Communities and strangers, families and friends, valuing one another just for being.
This has not been particularly funny and – I don’t imagine – very intelligent article. I feel sheepish and dumb coming to these conclusions only now at my age.
But I have been so very sad. And I know you have, too.
And I didn’t want to write about COVID. But there are other pandemics that plague us.
In the New Year, may you be healthy in body, mind, and heart. May your days be filled with connection. May your screen be full of faces, your schedule empty of obligations and full of opportunity, and may your throat be full of meaningless laughter and love.