I was walking laps at Railroad Park last weekend when I realized that I was bored. I want to continue walking, I reasoned, but not in an aimless circle. So I whipped out my phone, Googled Urban Standard, and used my phone’s GPS to navigate, on foot, to the coffee shop, which was just twenty minutes away. This is much better, I complimented myself on the idea as I veered away from my usual route. It’s goal-oriented exercise, AND it feels more like an adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, taking in new sights while I explored about and using my camera to snap shots along the way.. capturing images of moving trains, decrepit buildings, old signs, and etc. I made it to the coffee shop but chose to, instead of entering it, continue trekking onward. I stepped into an antiques shop on First Avenue North and moseyed around inside. I left with an old Chevy pin in my palm and, as I began heading back toward the park, I felt a vibration in my back jean pocket.
“Not feeling up to getting out of the house tonight, but have an ARC Stories ticket. You want it?”
Dude.. I was JUST thinking about purchasing a ticket this morning! I marveled inwardly at the insightful benevolence of the universe. The only reason I hadn’t purchased a ticket was because the theme of this storytelling event is sports — “Go, Fight, Win!” — and, other than skateboarding, I’m not big on those.
“If you’re certain you’re not going to use it,” I responded, “I’d love to have it!”
She emailed the ticket to me and, with fun and interesting plans for the evening taking shape, I felt a surge of happy anticipation. It’ll be good to get out of the house tonight, I decided.
I drove home to check on the dogs (oh yeah, plural — I have a puppy now; Silo!), shower, and eat supper, and then I returned to downtown Birmingham in my heroic little Neon. I’m amazed and grateful that it’s still trucking along. The check engine light lit up three days ago; for the time being, I’m gently ignoring it, waiting for a more favorable set of circumstances where I’m not as pressed for time and won’t feel super bummed to spend a sizable portion of the day having my car looked at and worked on.
When I pulled up at Avon theater that Saturday night, I felt good. On the rare occasions that I do go out in the evening, it’s usually with my best friend at my side or a friend who’s visiting from out-of-town tagging along. It felt oddly liberating to be walking down a dimly-lit street alone, surrounded by strangers; picking up on the scent of their cologne, perfume, alcohol, sweat, and fried foods, and catching isolated bits of their conversations and laughs and arguments.
I temporarily increased the brightness of my phone’s display and presented my e-ticket at the door. After scanning my phone, the attendant motioned for me to enter the building with a distracted smile and a backward toss of her head.
I ducked my head a little and made myself as small as possible as I squeezed in-between crowds of friends and family. I found a seat three rows from the front and settled onto it, hugging my knees to my chest with one hand and holding the program for the evening in my left hand. Seven people would be relating stories – personally experienced, real-life stories – that centered, in some way, around sports. As my eyes scanned over names and links to social media, I stopped at the name Bob Byrd.
“MY FAAAAVORITE!!” I exhaled,thrilled. Bob Byrd was, simply put, the best storyteller; an adorable, middle-aged, round bellied and openly gay gentleman from Tuscaloosa. He wore wide-rimmed glasses and had the most fantastic storytelling voice — his pitch, inflection, and charisma all working together to secure the listener’s attention. The first story I’d ever heard him relate, a beautifully sad one, had brought me to tears; the second and third stories had made me laugh to the point of tears. I couldn’t wait to hear him speaking on the stage again.
Ten minutes after I had settled into my seat, the host for the evening tapped the mic and the crowded, noisy room fell respectfully quiet. Storyteller after storyteller ascended the stage, and each person’s tale was interesting. But Bob’s was the best.
I cheered as he strode over to the podium, and then my attention was riveted, for the next ten minutes, on the tone of his voice, his word choices, his hand gestures, and his facial expressions. He shared an experience that had taken place during his short-lived career as a swimmer, when he’d gone on a cruise. He had paid for a snorkeling excursion, and this little side adventure hadn’t gone quite as well as he’d hoped for.
“I wear a size ten SHOE,” he explained, “and I was the LAST in line to obtain a pair of FLIPPERS. My OPTIONS were size 8, and size 12.” He tried to struggle into the pair of 8’s, he shared, but with no luck; he had to go with the 12’s.
“And so we all went off into the water together,” he continued, “and each of us had this little apparatus to hold onto. It was connected to a motor of sorts. You could press the button on the LEFT to move slowly, the button on the RIGHT to move quickly, or you could mash down BOTH buttons at the same time to go very, VERY fast.”
The group applied snorkeling masks and went from wading in the water to softly pressing the “slow” button. Bob followed suit.
“Here,” he continued, “I’ll mention that I did NOT shave my face prior to going on this cruise, because I didn’t anticipate a need to do so. I was mistaken.”
Facial hair, he went on to explain, interferes with the mask “air-locking”, so Bob discovered that, each time he stuck his head underneath the surface, ocean water would begin seeping into his mask, quickly interrupting his breathing. He’d return to the surface, remove his mask, dry his face as best he could, and then reapply it with as much pressure as possible. The suction just wasn’t there.
“Meanwhile, the rest of the group was getting ahead of me, but not by a lot,” he said. “The real kicker came when one of my flippers slipped off of my foot.”
He was, at this point, in 4-foot deep water, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. He submerged his body under the water and retrieved the flipper from the ocean floor, reapplied it to his foot, and then swam onward, trying to catch up with the group.. but every few minutes, he’d have to remove his mask, shake the water out, and reapply it, all the while holding onto this motorized apparatus.
“Then,” his voice dropped nearly an octave and he took on a grave expression, “both flippers slipped from my feet. And this time, I found myself in 30-foot deep water.”
The crowd gasped.
“I didn’t even see the POINT in the things, the flippers,” he brushed the annoying nature of them off like a mosquito, “but by THIS point, I was VERY far behind the rest of my group. I remembered what the instructor had said at the very beginning of our journey; push this button to go slow, this button to go fast, and both buttons at the same time to go VERY fast. So I did that. I pressed both buttons.” He paused, turning his head so that his gaze went in all directions of the room. “And as I took off, cutting through the water at precisely one million miles per hour, I left my swimming trunks floating behind me.”
The crowd erupted into laughter, and I laughed until I cried as Bob related the rest of the story: the flipper-owner demanding, in broken English, $20 for the missing flippers; Bob explaining that he had no cash on him; the cops being called to the scene and demanding that Bob reimburse the flipper owner, and an elderly woman stepping off of the cruise ship, hobbling over and paying the $20 on Bob’s behalf: “As long as you promise to keep yourself covered for the rest of this trip,” she demanded, eyeing his beach towel.
I left the storytelling event feeling happy. As I began walking back over to the lot where I’d parked my car, I noticed an object extending from a shadowy area within the cut of a building; a body, all curled up, lying on the ground. It looked like a young man, wearing old tennis shoes, dark denim jeans, and a hoodie, with the hood pulled over his head. I continued walking, feeling surprised and sad, and instantly remembered the $20 bill tucked into my back pocket. My mom had sent it, and two other twenties, to me for my birthday, to help pay for the new puppy. I had planned on buying a few iced coffees or Chipotle burritos with the money, but the idea of doing so didn’t sound fun or appetizing anymore.
Without thinking about it anymore, I backtracked, weaving my way through and against the tide of people flowing down the sidewalk, and then I stepped into the darkness, where the man was lying down. I bent down and whispered: “Sir? Are you awake?”
He didn’t respond.
I paused, feeling very awkward. Then, I tried again. “Sir? If you’re awake, I have something for you.. I’d like to give you a twenty.”
I waited, but he still didn’t stir. I started to worry; was he just asleep? Or conscious, but scared to talk to me? Was he okay?
“Sir — are you okay?”
I thought about touching his foot — gently nudging it a little — but I was afraid that doing so might startle him; he could be armed, honestly, I warned myself. I could just leave the twenty on the ground beside him, I considered, but it might blow away, or someone else might take it. I sighed.
People had been passing by, and I felt like I was just outside of their vision. Occasionally, a person would glance in, a little worriedly, and then continue on their way. At this juncture (where I was feeling clueless and depressed), one woman peeked her head in and said: “Oh sweetie, he’s fine. He always sleeps here.”
I looked up at her, cast a final look at the boy, and then got up to leave. She walked alongside me, and I took a good look at her. She was wearing a dingy, loose-fitting dress and had an eccentric vibe about her. She smiled at me, very genuinely, showing all of her front teeth.
“I feel bad,” I told her. “I just wanted to give him a twenty.”
“Ahhhh, he’ll be alright,” she assured me with a wink. We reached the end of the pavement. I was going to be crossing the intersection. She was going to take a right.
“He’ll be awake in a few hours,” she whispered gently, patting me on the back and then disappearing. I rushed to my car, locked the door, and cried.
I called Vernon – the home renovations guy – out to the house again, a few days after this experience.
I heard him pull up in his truck and opened the front door. “Heyyyyy, Vernon!” I sang out cheerfully.
He trekked up the steep driveway with a smile. “So why did you call me out today, Jace? What are you thinking now?”
I told him that I’d decided to knock down the wall separating the kitchen and the dining room (to give the illusion that the kitchen is more spacious than it actually is) and that, after doing so and painting the living room walls gray, I’d be ready to move forward with pulling up the laminate and tile and refinishing the concrete existing underneath.
To make a long story short, he spent nearly two hours at the house that evening, talking me out of it. All of it. Again.
We sat down, across from each other, at the Dr. Pepper Table.
“Tell me about your family,” he asked suddenly.
I settled down onto the black stool and eyed him quizzically. “I.. don’t understand the question. What about my family?”
“Just, anything. Your mom and dad; tell me about them.”
I was totally lacking in direction. What did he want to know? Where was I supposed to begin?
“Well,” I began slowly, expecting him to interrupt me right away because I was answering incorrectly, “my dad is a truck driver and my mom is a stay-at-home wife.”
“Has your dad always been a truck driver?”
“Nope; he was a Publix bakery manager for about twenty five years. He moved my mom from Florida to a rural town in Tennessee about four years ago and decided to really countrify himself. Grew his curly hair out, started wearing overalls, bought a bunch of country artists’ CDs.. the guy’s FROM Ohio, by the way.”
“Then,” I continued, feeling more comfortable, “after managing a dollar store for about two years, he decided, out of the blue, that he wanted to be a truck driver. He got his license, starting doing it, and he loves it.” I shook my head. “He’s free-spirited, adventurous, loves to travel.. I’m really happy for him. He’s enjoying the job.”
Vernon seemed satisfied. “And your mom; she stays home?”
“Yes. She’s sickly. Weak immune system. No hobbies, no diversions, no friends. She’s pretty reclusive. She has four dogs and drives to my grandma’s house a few times a week; they chit chat, she visits with the stray dogs in the neighborhood, and they go to church and have Bible studies together.” I paused. “She’s very conservative and probably thinks I’m going to hell on multiple levels; for being gay, agnostic, listening to rock and roll..” my voice trailed off, and I smiled playfully. Vernon laughed even harder.
“Okay. Any siblings?”
“I had one. Bobby. He died four years ago; beat brain cancer but then vomited during a seizure and choked to death.” I felt myself tensing up, old anger returning.
“So,” Vernon leaned forward here, resting his elbows onto the table and looking at me more closely, “you told me earlier that you cook your dinner, go upstairs, and eat in bed with your German Shepherd.”
“And you just got another dog.. last week?”
“Yes.. a German Shepherd puppy. He’s adorrrrrrable!”
“Okay. So, to recap: you stay home, you have dogs, you’re battling depression and you’re socially anxious. Which of your parents do you feel you’re the most like?”
I looked straight back at him. “Wow. I’m turning into my mother.” We both chuckled.
“And I know you love both of your parents,” Vernon clarified quickly, “and they’re both wonderful people.. but personality-wise and lifestyle-wise, who would you want to be the most like?”
“My dad,” I said, no hesitation. “I love my mother. She’s one of the most compassionate and sensitive souls I’ve ever known. Beautiful on the inside AND outside. Talented, too.. as a kid, she used to write stories and illustrate them. She’s gifted. Great interior decorator.. has a good eye for things; lots of potential, just doesn’t use it. I want to live like my dad lives,” I repeated. “He’s confident, adventurous, carefree, and brave. He is seriously fearless; sometimes, foolishly so. He treats everyone the same, which I respect, and he’s open-minded. He also believes in himself enough to pursue what he wants.. I mean, he switched careers at the age of 60. That was gutsy. I, by comparison, have such a complex when it comes to self-worth and gauging my own abilities.”
Vernon listened to all of this quietly and then nodded. “Yeah.. you need to get out of the house, girl.” He held my gaze. “You keep calling me out here, wanting to change stuff in your house. I can see that you are itching to make changes, but it has nothing to do with this house.” He paused before continuing. “On the outside, you look like a girl who’s got her shit together; great job, a house with equity in it, cool, funky haircut, two piercing on that one ear, all that..”
I laughed at him.
“But what’s it like in here?” He was tapping his shirt now, indicating the area of skin that covered his heart.
I was sitting at the table again later that evening, Vernon long gone in his pickup truck, and I was looking to my left – taking in the tiny, galley-style kitchen – and then I was gazing forward, into the open, vaulted dining room. I was thinking about the changes Vernon had been talking about; the internal ones. I was remembering the stranger curled up on the concrete near Avon theater, and I asked myself: “Why are you feeling so down?”
I don’t know.
“You’ve got this house, this healthy body, this curious mind.. and Vernon’s right; you’ve got a great job and you LOVE it. You’ve got a comfy, safe place to sleep, healthy food to eat, two stupid dogs to love, a running car to get around in.. it could be so much worse, Jace. The life you live? You’re lucky. And you don’t appreciate it.”
“I DO appreciate it,” I argued, feeling defensive. “I do! But I still can’t help feeling like I’d just rather not be here.”
He was on my mind, so I called my dad the next day, wanting to catch up. We talk once a month, on average.
“I’m on a route to Virginia,” dad’s voice bellowed into the phone, sounding happy. “Maybe I’ll pass through Birmingham!”
I laughed, both of us knowing that Birmingham’s nowhere near Virginia. “Maybe so, Padre! Hit me up and we’ll grab a coffee.”
He was quiet for a minute.
“I talked to Christopher yesterday,” he mentioned. “Man I love that guy. It sounds like he’s happy.. like things are going well with that girl, and with the band.”
I swallowed. “Yeah! He’s good. I haven’t spoken with him in a few weeks; just can’t handle it right now. But I’m truly happy he’s doing well. I always want him to be happy.”
“Things are going to get better, sweetie,” Padre said suddenly, and I thought I heard his voice cracking a little. “I know it. You’re going to find the right person. The right guy.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled a little; mom and dad, still wishing their daughter wasn’t gay.
I still haven’t dated a girl, I shrugged to myself, so maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m bisexual.. or, more likely, asexual. Who knows; who cares. Finding a person and fusing their life with mine won’t make me happy, anyways, I decided. Per experience, it’s actually more likely to make me unhappy.
“I know that, sometimes, you wake up and wish that you just weren’t here,” he continued, “and I’ve been there.. but trust me: if you weren’t here, you would miss it.” He paused. “Well.. I guess that’s kinda impossible, isn’t it?”
We laughed, talked for another minute, and said goodbye.
And the ups and downs continue, as ever. I have good days and bad days, like everyone else, and I’ve discovered a few tricks that help me manage (aka stay on top of) my depression. They help me wait it out and get through the low points. Sharing these tips and tricks below in hopes that someone else will find them useful, and please feel free to share your own tips and tricks in a comment on this post.
- Keep busy. Without regard to how you’re feeling (and this takes practice and discipline), choose to be proactive. Assign tasks to yourself, take on projects, and set goals. By doing so, you’ll boost your own morale.
- Seek out good atmospheres. For some people, it’s being at home, but for me, it’s the exact opposite. I feel best when I’m at the cafe or the park, and I know that about myself, so when I’m feeling down, even if I don’t feel like changing into real clothes and venturing out, I make myself.
- Don’t push everyone away. Stay in touch with people. Talk about how you’re feeling; sadness and depression aren’t signs of weakness or cowardice. Admitting and confronting them is proof of strength and courage.
- Stay healthy. When I wake up feeling bad, my tendency is to not eat, with the goal of losing more weight and – thereby – fictitiously gaining a better sense of ‘control’ over myself and life in general. And while occasional fasting can be good for your body, denying your body of fuel on a regular basis and forgoing exercise for entire days spent in bed is unhealthy. Keep eating, and keep exercising. Your body needs food and your soul needs sunshine, fresh air, and movement.
- Love the little things. Whether it’s playing your favorite song on repeat, scheduling enough time for you to watch your favorite Netflix show, taking yourself on a date to Chipotle or curling up with your oversized German Shepherd, enjoy your favorite parts of life. Dwell on how much you’d miss those things if you weren’t here.
- Make plans to be here. This one is huge. I went as far as asking my manager, last week, if I could go ahead and schedule my vacation days for 2017, because when I can pull up a calendar – something tangible – and see that a class I’ll be teaching is scheduled for these dates, a road trip I’m mapping out is scheduled for that weekend, and a gig is scheduled on that evening, it enables me to concretely imagine seeing myself still being here – alive, well, and in the flesh – that far into the future, and that helps me feel more grounded. Less invisible. It’s comforting, reassuring, and inspiring. Inspiring as in: If I’m here right now and I’ll still be here then, what will I be able to accomplish in the meantime?
Last story for today: The Talent Show.
A few months ago, I noticed a friend post about an upcoming event: Birmingham’s Got Potential. A fun talent show with proceeds benefiting Special Session at Camp McDowell. I marked that I was going with a smile, imagining watching, as a spectator, from the audience, and thinking of how Bobby would have loved going to a summer camp.
As the weeks rolled by, I continued to see posts from this same friend (who was the event coordinator), asking for more participants. “Whatever your talent is — making a bed, blowing bubbles, reciting the alphabet backwards — we want to see and hear it!”
I felt like this call to action meant that there weren’t enough participants to substantiate the event, so I went ahead and submitted my name as a potential contestant. In the description field of the electronic admission form, I put: “Run-of-the-mill singer songwriter.” Aka, only choose me if you’re desperate.
A week later, I got a response via email: “Jace Yarbrough, thank you for signing up to participate! We look forward to having you..”
I groaned out loud. What have I gotten myself into?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy performing; I perform at least twice a month; once at Saturn’s open mic, and again at an ongoing gig I have at The Coal Yard, a local restaurant/bar with a family-friendly atmosphere. But performing in a talent show downtown seemed a little intimidating and outside of my comfort zone. My first thought, after reading the email: cancel immediately. My second: don’t be a jerk.
My slot, the email detailed, would be six minutes long. I’ll do one song, I decided. I leafed through my repertoire of originals and decided to go with Paradise — a sad number I’d written last year during the divorce. I emailed my friend (the coordinator), since he’d requested song titles in advance of the show.
“Hey! I’ll be performing an original called Paradise,” my email began, “but I wanted to give you a heads up that it has a few ‘bad’ words in it. Are curse words permissible at this event?”
He replied the day OF the show. “I’m sorry, don’t know how I missed this; we’re trying to keep things family-friendly. Anyway you can sub out the naughty words with ‘fudge,’ ‘itch,’ etc?”
I thought it over, and decided it would be easier to just do another song.
The song I’d wanted to do, from the very beginning, was one I’d only studio recorded. I’ve never performed it live, because – for some reason – I’ve just never had the guts to. And I knew that this was the right time to debut it.
I ran through the song twice on my bed yesterday afternoon, and then stuck my guitar, capo, and pick back into the case. “We’ll see how it goes!” I announced uneasily (to no one other than myself).
I arrived at Good People Brewing Company around 7 yesterday evening. It was my first time visiting the place since they’d made major renovations on it a year and a half prior. I navigated all the way to the back of the brewery, where a door led you outside; here, there was a stage and seating area and a billion zillion people already present. I set my guitar down onto the stage, located a fellow musician friend in the audience, and we sat side by side, drinking seasonal beers while performer after performer took the stage. The raspberry ale I’d ordered took the edge off of my nerves, and made my anxiety a little less crippling. A few of the talent show participants were Special Session Camp attendees; one of them, a girl named Journey, was wheeled to a spot just in front of the stage. She sang “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, an audio track playing in the background. I cried freely during her performance and then stood with the rest of the audience after the track ended, giving her a standing ovation. She better win first place, I thought to myself.
About an hour and fifteen minutes in, I looked down at my phone and referenced the list of performers my friend had emailed to me. According to this list, four other names came before mine, so when the MC called out my name and people began clapping, I couldn’t believe that it was my turn to take the stage. Mentally- and emotionally-speaking, I was grossly unprepared. My friend turned to me and smiled, clapping excitedly, and I said “shit.”
I jumped onto the stage, heart racing, the audience still clapping. After retrieving my guitar and pick from the case, I settled down onto the edge of a chair and looked out, for the first time, at the crowd of people. There were probably 150 pairs of eyes on me, and they made me feel faint.
“Wow,” I breathed into the microphone, my voice echoing. “I thought I’d have at least another 30 minutes or million years to prepare myself to get up here. So..” I paused, awkwardly. “I’m going to talk for about 25-40 seconds and then I’ll start singing. When I was a KID,” I began, fumbling with the pick in my right hand, “I was very preoccupied with the idea of having a talent. I wanted to be talented so badly. I can recall throwing a ball into the air and catching it, and asking my mom — ‘mom, was that a talent?’ I also remember running out into the front yard, performing a simple, unimpressive somersault, and then calling out behind me — ‘mom, did you see that? Was THAT a talent?'” I smiled. “She always indulged me — yeah, sure. That was a talent. Then, when I turned 14, I wanted to pick up the guitar. My mom said that she wasn’t going to pay for a guitar AND guitar lessons and that I’d have to teach myself. I told her that I could do it, and it felt so good,” I whispered, “to be able to finally develop a talent — one I didn’t realize I had.”
I cleared my throat.
“My mom lives in a rural town in Tennessee, so she isn’t here tonight, but she texted me an hour ago, asking if I was nervous. OF COURSE I’M NERVOUS, I responded. I feel like vomiting and running away. ‘Just relax and enjoy it,’ she advised, and that’s what I’m going to try to do now.”
The crowd erupted into supportive cheers.
“So this original song,” I concluded, “is called 90s Rock, and I wrote it to describe how I wish someone will view me someday.. as being cool.” Laughs.
I performed the song publicly, for the first time ever, and I really, honestly enjoyed it.
When I stood up to leave the stage, I was shocked to see the crowd standing and applauding.
I hurried to my seat, my friend gushing. The girl beside him leaned over, her eyes wide. “I own a recording studio!” she announced. “WE NEED to record that! I want to BUY that song from you!”
I laughed nervously and tuned into the panel of judges, who were commenting on my performance. “Surely,” one of them began, “this wasn’t your FIRST time performing publicly?”
The MC addressed me from the stage: “Jace — was this your first time?”
“No,” I responded, “but this was my first time performing THAT song.”
I stayed and watched the rest of the participants (including my friend, who gave an INCREDIBLE performance, singing and dancing to the song Superstitious and serenading the audience), and then I grabbed my guitar, slipped on my jacket, and tried to leave as quickly as possible. My social anxiety was flaring up major.
About six people stopped me on the way out, and they were all very complimentary, but I wanted to leave before anyone else said anything, especially the girl with the recording studio.
I made it out onto the street and took a deep breath. I felt happy.
I don’t get why you didn’t stick around, I accused myself. It’s not really being sociable if you go to events, do your thing, and then dip without talking to people.
It’s progress, I answered and then tuned out.
PS: You can listen to the studio version of 90s Rock here, if you’d like.
PPS: In case you’re wondering, Journey DID win first place. 🙂