The Humor Stick
Dear Uncle Frank,
"A humor stick always has one sharp end. Keep that end facing yourself when you poke."
You wrote those words to me in a letter 18 years ago this month. I was 15, annoying, with all that hair, and writing for the first time ever. I had shyly given you a short story to read one summer. I mean, you were "the" writer in the family, and I wanted to know what you thought. I seem to remember that I shoved it, sweatily, in your hand as you were leaving The Track (the Saratoga Race Track, for those who don't refer to things as the things they are), having no hope that you'd actually care.
You read the story, and wrote me a letter. You actually wrote me two letters, about a month apart, after taking a few of my stories home with you later in the summer. You typed up your letters at home in your sun room, signed them in pen, then mailed them to me. There's nothing better than mail when you're 15! Who am I kidding, there's still nothing better. Getting those letters really felt special to me. So special, that as much as I can now, I try to write letters to my people too. Even if it's a little note, or a quick email talking about the day. I hope they feel what I felt getting those letters from you: unique and wanted and worth 47 cents.
Here's the cool thing about your letters: they haven't left my side in 18 years. I don't know why, but no matter how far from writing I've gone, they keep calling to me like the drums in Jumanji.
The closest I've ever come to losing them (and true depression thinking I had lost them), was when my apartment in Colorado Springs burned down when I was 25. <Well, not "down" per se, but it was pretty charred, and being dramatic makes for a better story...> When I was allowed to go back in to see the damage, your letters were the first thing I looked for and the only thing I didn't see hanging on the wall. There was just a pile of wet and melted plastic on the floor, and with it, I believed, the one possession I truly valued.
I know we all romanticize that one person in our families that we think really gets us, and for me, that was you. You died just two years after you wrote to me, and those letters are more than a message...they're alive. They talk to me and ground me. I can feel them behind me when I sit in my favorite chair and fall asleep drooling on my computer instead of writing. They're a topic of conversation, and more than once I think I've actually talked to them. Losing them was the crispy burnt straw that broke this camel's back. It really hit me hard that we can actually lose the things we love. We all have quarter-life crises, mine just happened to be over your letters.
Weeks after the fire turned into months, and I moved on, literally. I moved back to New York and bought a house.
(Small aside: God sometimes kicks you right in the ass. The night of the fire, I had asked for help making the decision in whether to move from my beloved Colorado to my beloved Upstate New York. Instead of listening to my gut, and doing research, I plopped on the couch with a bottle of wine, turned on The Tutors, and fell asleep. Half an hour later, someone pounded on my door to tell me the whole building was on fire. Yo, God don't play.)
A couple months after the fire, I finally had the stuff that survived shipped from the cleaner, and slowly started unpacking in between business trips. Sometime that summer, I was looking in a few books that had char marks, thinking how crazy the year had been. I flipped open a coffee table book about Colorado, and, as you probably guessed....there were your letters! The symbolism is so dripping from this story that it's actually making a mess.
One of your letters is grey and wrinkled from heat and firehose water. The other is pristine. The wrinkled one is my favorite, surely for some kind of deep reason like how we're all a little fire-worn, or something I don't have the bandwidth to analyze tonight. The frames melted, but the letters were found across the room, apparently (I was so astounded, that I called and asked) sort of laying on a box.
One would think this would be a sign from the Baby Jesus, but it's taken me a full 7 years from that fire to pick up what you were putting down: that I should write. And like your letter, I've had to lose myself, become a little broken, and find myself again in a really weird place before putting Humpty back together again.
Humpty is my stage name.
You told me in your first letter that I was considered a writer, and the next step was to become a published writer. I remember reading that and saying, "Yeah, no problem. Sike." (It was the 90's...sike was a thing.)
Well, guess what? The next step has happened.
Sort of. You weren't overly specific. Thankfully.
I don't know what it feels like to have published a book, or to have international acclaim and a speaking tour. Well, not yet, anyway. But that's not what you told me the next step was, so get off my back. I did the things you said I should: I used my paintbrush, leaned into my truth, and always keep a pad and pen near me. And it got me published on a really fancy website! Pretty cool!
I do all the things you told me to. Above all else, I do my very best to keep the humor stick pointed at myself when I poke. Humor is how I can talk about these hard things and how we will all get through them. It's my most valuable and sharp tool, and I'm learning each week to hone it further to make sure the point hits accurately. Thank you for that piece of advice most of all, I remember that every single day.
Now, the only thing you didn't mention in your very prophetic letters is how to deal with rejection. I've had a bit of that this week, and it feels more than a bit like swallowing a sleeve of saltine crackers on a hot day with no water.
I know that people talk about getting mowed down creatively, and getting back up, and doing it all over again, and being better for it. I totally believe that to be true...in theory. Doing it IRL (that's "in real life", it's a thing the kids say, that I now say to sound relevant. We'll get through this.) is something all together different. I'm pretty sure you would tell me to be brave, and that inspiration doesn't give a hoot about success. That is, if you had ever said the word "hoot" a day in your life.
Now that I think about it, I think you left rejection out of your letters intentionally. It's none of my business if I get rejected. My only job is to do what inspiration tells me to, and to give what I feel. Hopefully it's words and not money. Then leave room for the hope to be seen. Who doesn't want to be really seen?
So that's why I'm writing you back. I wanted to thank you for seeing me, and because of that, I'm brave enough to invite everyone else to see me too.
Oh also to become famous and make lots of money and retire at 37 and travel the world. I have small, reasonable goals and expectations.
Well, I have to go wash my sheets, because that's what I do when I procrastinate this blog. But before I go...I'm going to write a book one day, and I'm going to call it The Humor Stick, and I'm going to dedicate it to you.
Then I'm going to do Oprah hands and yell, "WE DID IT!" at your letters.
Dibs. Called it.
Aight (another thing kids say), gotta run. DeFazio's waits for no man. I miss you most of all, Scarecrow, and please don't haunt me with Margaret because she thinks it's funny. It's not, no matter what she says.