Dear Uncle Frank
Your Aunt Air is about to have a really busy week in her big-girl job. No rest for the weather, I'm afraid. So whilst I'm dreading pipe-freezes and sump backups, I'll also be fantasizing about being a fancy writer in real life. Here's how I remind myself I'm on the right track:
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 in 1998. I was 15. Annoying. With all that hair. And I was 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 Saratoga Race Track having no hope that you'd actually care.
You did love betting on the ponies. I loved awkwardly looking for affirmation in great-uncles.
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 sunroom, 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 than getting mail when you’re 34.
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. Sometimes it's a little note or a quick email talking about the day. Sometimes it’s a whole book. I just hope they feel what I felt getting those letters from you: unique and wanted and worth at least forty-seven cents.
Here's the cool thing about your letters: they haven't left my side since I got them. 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. But significantly less creepy.
The closest I've ever come to losing them was when my apartment in Colorado Springs burned down when I was twenty-four.
Well, not "down" per se, but it was pretty charred, and I’m melodramatic.
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 the wet and melted plastic frames 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. How selfish of you to get cancer. Those letters are more than a message, they're alive with you. They pulse with the spirit of you. 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 people and things that we love. We all have quarter-life crises, mine just happened to start over losing your letters.
Weeks 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-crack to get it in gear when you need to. 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 family-sized bottle of cheap red wine, turned on The Tutors, and fell asleep. Half an hour later, someone was pounding on my door to tell me the whole building was on fire. Yo, God don't play.)
A couple months after the fire, sitting in my new living room, I finally had the stuff that survived shipped from the cleaner. I slowly started unpacking in between business trips and 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 - unbelievable synchronicity notwithstanding - and, as you probably guessed by this long winded story....there were your letters!
I’m, like, gagging on symbolism over here.
One of your letters is grey and wrinkled from heat and fire hose 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.
I was so astounded by finding the letters (and thought I might be losing my mind) that I actually called the cleaning company and asked where they were found. The frames melted, but the letters were found across the room, apparently, sort of laying on a box.
One would think this would be a sign from the Baby Jesus, but it took me almost a decade after that fire to pick up what you were putting down in your letters: that I should write.
And like your letters, 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.
Related aside: 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!
In related news, I’m knee deep in writing the book as we speak. It’s weird. And way harder than I thought it would be. But you told me I would do it.
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 the hard things in these pages and how we will all get through them. It's my most valuable and sharpest tool, and I'm learning 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.
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 in writing, and more than a lifetime’s worth in my short and beautiful life so far, and it feels more than a bit like swallowing a sleeve of saltine crackers on a hot day with no water. Saltines and bile and humble pie.
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 have to say to sound relevant. We'll get through this.) is something altogether 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. Then I 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. But before I go...when I write that book, I’m calling 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.
Aight (another thing kids say), gotta run. DeFazio's waits for no man. I miss you most of all, Scarecrow.