A Season for Sweat and Silence
Two years ago this week, feeling exhausted and dispirited, I announced an indefinite hiatus from Facebook and other social media.
(In the late aughts and early teens, we called it a “flounce” - it was widely agreed that the only graceful departures from public spaces were those done without notice. To announce pointedly that one was leaving was to beg for attention, which as we all learned in junior high school, is the basest and most unforgivable of nearly universal behaviors).
I came back on March 19, 2020, as the pandemic began to disrupt all our lives. My kids were beginning what would be over a year of remote learning (an oxymoron, in hindsight), and I was working overtime at a store besieged by the panicked and the bemused. I remembered that I had been there for my students when the planes went into the towers, and I thought — hubris never sleeps — that even in my current state I would have some helpful words of perspective and comfort. One likes to feel needed!
Then the quarrels began to happen. George Floyd; the BLM movement, the riots, the backlash; the masks; the vaccines; the different interpretations of science; the election; January 6; the mandates and the resistance to them. And I thought that what we needed was a bracing sermon on our shared humanness, and that my readers on all sides could use a cheerful, winsome reminder that we should tolerate and appreciate those whose views are diametrically opposed to our own. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Don’t yuck other people’s yum! Another verse of kumbaya!
I’m an old-school liberal: free minds, free markets, free exchange of ideas, free movement of humans across borders, and near-absolute autonomy over one’s own flesh. All of that liberty and individualism, softened by good manners and affection.
As the saying goes, I misread the room. My words were less comforting than tone-deaf, and more and more, it seemed that my writing was merely a reflection of my own all-encompassing trauma rather than genuinely helpful insight. Horrified by conflict and animus, and shaken by the exasperation of friends who told me they needed me to stand up and fight rather than speak of good-humored tolerance to all, I retreated into personal narrative. I couldn’t pretend to hold views I didn’t hold, and I couldn’t bear that my real views were seen as so… pathetically unsuited to the moment. I could not and would not fight. I would not and could not let anger go anywhere but inward.
So I turned to navel-gazing and story-telling, but at least, no one could tell me I was wrong about my memories. Inward I went, on Facebook and Substack, and soon even I grew tired of my own self-involvement. Folks started unsubscribing, and rightly so.
There’s an old saying, attributed (depending on who you’re talking to) to Chassidic rabbis or Buddhist monks: “He who sees and does not act has not yet truly seen.”
Well, I see, and I’m clearly not acting, so I suppose I haven’t really seen, and who needs to read yet another long and rambling tale about why my WASPy upbringing and my mental illness conspire to make me a charming raconteur on my best days, but a hopeless and unreliable ally in the battle that everyone says must be waged?
So, I work. I like working. No, I love working. I punch in to my shifts at the store as early as they’ll let me, take the shortest breaks I can, leave as late as permitted. I ask for longer routes to drive for Rinse — the laundry delivery service that occupies three to four nights a week. Some of this is about making money; every minute adds up, every additional stop means extra mileage and the potential for another tip.
Most of it is about making myself useful. When I can bring home groceries for my lovely wife, when I can make sure my daughter has braces and birthday presents, when I can take my son to a basketball game? I feel valuable. My words aren’t useful, but my hands are — my hands make money, even if it’s barely above minimum wage. My back is strong; my stamina is excellent for my age, and I’ve grown pretty deft with a box-cutter, and with the slinging of 70-pound bags of wet towels.
A little of it is about expiating guilt. Until the world decides I am ready to be restored — and it will never decide that — I will push myself as hard as I can. Sweat doesn’t pay the debt, but it services the interest.
My favorite days are the ones that start at 4AM and end at midnight. The high from exhaustion is a near facsimile to the high I got from teaching.
I have done so much therapy and so much men’s work — I HAVE GONE ON DRUMMING RETREATS IN THE MOUNTAINS — all designed to help me find value in who I am, and not merely in what I do. “You are not a human doing,” my old teacher said; “you are a human being. You will never find peace until you accept yourself as you are.” I smiled and told him that I had given up on peace, but I accepted his analysis. Peace isn’t my story, and all the meds and CBT and DBT and EMDR and hypnosis and psychedelics and men’s work cannot make it otherwise.
That last paragraph reads like self-destructive bullshit. Perhaps it is. What I do know is this: this is not a season to be a writer under my own name. My most deeply-held convictions do not mesh with those of my loved ones, and to speak them aloud causes a division I cannot bear. My involvement with my own past is obsessive and unhelpful to those who need me.
I remain available as a ghostwriter, telling other people’s stories, writing in other people’s voices. That I can bear. (And if you have a project with which I can help, drop me a note!)
I will leave this Substack up, but I do not imagine I will return to it or its like. Thank you so much for your support over the years.
I love my wife, I love my children, I love my mother, my siblings, my family, my friends, and my co-workers. I love the ranch. I know I can serve them each best in dignified, devoted, penitent silence.