A long time ago, when I first started working, I had a bully for a boss. He wasn’t the last bully I would have for a boss, so he served a useful function in that respect.
He thought his job was to belittle everything I did. And he took his sacred responsibly seriously. I was very young. I was just learning my craft. I didn’t have a firm grip on it. I needed somebody to teach me. I also didn’t know that if you flash a bully some spine they collapse immediately, because they’re cowards.
I didn’t show the bully my spine. I absorbed his criticism. He picked me apart, quite patiently, quite methodically. Day after day. Month after month. Eighteen months he hammered my deficiencies home. The only thing he taught me, a fledgling, was how to despise him.
I cried a lot. Every day as I got ready for work I would cry. It was part of my routine, like showering, and putting on makeup. I would stand in the kitchen and cry. I had to steel myself to be in the same room with the bully. I couldn’t leave my job. I loved it and I needed it. Plus, I don’t tend to quit. Not the way I was raised. Not who I am. I have what Boris Pasternak calls the cursed capacity for suffering. I may not be the best or the first, but I will be the last person standing, if it kills me.
I was dispensing morning tears one day when the golfer came in and put his arms around me. “You know,” he said. “Sometimes the only thing you can change about a situation is your attitude towards it.”
The golfer is my father.
My father said many things to me over the years, it was, in fact, his job to say things to me, but those are the words I think about most.
He’s not an educated man, but he knows suffering. He was alternately bed-ridden and hospitalized for the first five years of his life. He should be dead.
He decided, after surviving scarlet fever and rheumatic fever and double pneumonia—twice—that he would never be sick again, ever. Not even for a day. And he never was. He decided to be happy—and there were some severe obstacles to that happening, too. And yet he is.
He probably doesn’t know it, but his philosophy falls squarely into the stuff that the Buddha also aced: Shit happens, suck it up. The only reason we suffer is because we want things to be other than what they are.
I was having dinner with a photographer friend a few days ago and he said that he came to welcome the pain dished up by his two divorces because it gave him a new prism through which to examine poetry and art. He also said it made him better at taking pictures and he was grateful for that.
I decided in light of what he said, to re-examine what my father had told me, because although I’ve remembered it, there’s a galaxy’s breadth between hearing something and knowing it. I think it’s particularly hard for storytellers to accept what actually is, as opposed to what could be. It’s so easy to take a fanciful spin into ‘what if?’ That’s how the storyteller’s brain gets a workout.
I know that if I were showrunner of my plotline right now I would totally tweak it. Not the husband leaving part, because I see that he gave me a gift. The clarity of pain is country miles better than the moldy blanket of depression. But in my alternative universe I would have the money to buy my apartment. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed and lonely and terrified of what the future holds. Oh yeah, and just because I’m making this shit up, can I also have a cute guy with a lazy smile, a quick wit, and a spanking tight transversus abdominis who knows how I take my tea?
Okay, so that last bit was too much. I get that. He doesn’t need to know how I take my tea.
But as some bloke whom I’m too lazy to Google—although I think it was Ibsen—said, life is the business of fighting the trolls in heart and mind.
It is my job to accept that I wake up alone. I have to make my own tea. I have become more than Facebook friends with fear and uncertainty. I have to accept that my apartment, my home for eleven years, will likely and soon belong to somebody else. That I will, in all probability, have to absent myself from my dear friends, neighbors and even my slovenly, piratical band of drinking buddies in Park Slope.
That’s all I can do. Every day until reality is a little different. And even if reality is never different, to accept that as well.
But there’s another aspect to what my dad said. You take my situation and kaleidoscope it and then kaleidoscope it some more. You throw my deepest, dearest wish into it, shake it up, and the picture becomes a little different
All I have wanted, since I was about eleven years old scribbling out hilariously derivative children’s adventure stories in pencil on fat rolls of A4, was to write. I was so timid about this wish, I felt so undeserving of it, that I didn’t even have the courage to say it out loud to another human being until I was well into my thirties. And even then I only said it because a writer friend asked me point blank.
I wanted to write.
And not just to write, but to be consumed by writing. To be subsumed by it. To get lost in it. To have the hours that I write glide by like minutes.
To have something to say, and to be able to say it to my satisfaction.
That’s all I have ever wanted.
And here, now, my perverted fairy godmothers—fear, heartbreak, and utter despair—have united to grant me my wish. They waved their wands and incanted it into being.
By that metric my life is, now, and finally, a success.