The winter of my content
I shaved the beard off this morning.
It was a pretty good one, as far as my own history with facial hair goes: a coarse ruff that spread across the hollows of my cheeks with a red- dish tinge, a disconcerting spot of gray on my chin.
I let it go longer than any other beard I have ever worn, long enough that the spaces at the parentheses on either side of my mouth, the bald patches on my jawline filled in somewhat. My mustache of rusted wheat grew long enough to curl over my upper lip. And under my chin the hair darkened to a deep brown, the color of roasted coffee.
I’ll admit it made me feel like a badass, like a longshoreman or a lumberjack, but the inherent scruffiness of it all eventually became too much for a sharpie like me, all wild and wooly. Plus it was itching me like a bastard.
It is likely you never saw me parading around town in my fancy new beard — not through any fault of your own, but because, as of the latter part of last year, I have been suffering from exposure fatigue. I have been laying low.
I published my first book just as the calendar turned to 2011, the fulfillment of a dream I’ve held since I was very, very young. It was both more and less of what I thought it would be. I traveled the country doing readings and signings: New Orleans, New York, St. Louis,
High Point, encountering long-lost friends and winning over a slew of new ones. It was intoxicating, particularly at the beginning, to bring life to my stories, to affix my practiced signature to title pages, to speak about my work to interviewers, readers and others who toil in the written word; to sell some books and chip away at the debt I accrued to get the thing done. I learned a lot about publishing, a little bit about business and marketing.
And while I didn’t exactly set the world of creative nonfiction aflame, my little effort did manage to hustle its way into some noteworthy collections and lists.
But contrary to my preconceptions, the book did not solve even a single one of my many, many problems. I felt more or less exactly the same as I did before the book was published. Not that I felt so terrible — most of the time, in fact, I felt pretty damn good. But as the Earth tilted away from the sun once again, I felt the need to create some real change in my life. The beard was part of that.
I moved here in 2000 with my wife and baby boy, forsaking a wild existence in New Orleans for something… more. It took me a while to find my bearings. I remember that first winter, the coldest one I had seen since I left Long Island as a teenager. My writing career had stalled out, my income a fraction of what it was when I was slinging drinks in the Garden District, my relationship suffering from the challenges that come with massive change and new babies, yes, and also the baggage I had lugged with me inside my head: frustration, isolation, deviation from the norm.
With apologies to the Bard, it was my own winter of discontent.
Hard work was the way forward, I reasoned, and after plugging away for a few years I landed the kind of job I always wanted — this one. And so it went: work, achievement, attainment running in a loop that made the years melt away like the snows after that first winter; I barely noticed them until they were gone.
This year, I’m trying something different, fretting less about my public self and tending the fires closer to home.
To that end I’ve scaled back my social obligations save for the ones that involve the close friends I’ve made here, with covered dishes and juice boxes for the kids. My professional obligations remain the same, though with fewer book-related appearances, and I’m skewing my writing away from the fracas of political noise to pursue stories about the people around me, the trials they endure, the redemption they seek. And I hold my family close, because in the end it is they, and not anything I’ve written or seen or done, that make a difference in my life.
When I took the beard off this morning it came away in pieces, shorn with the electric clippers I keep in my bathroom cabinet, and when it was done I recognized the face in the mirror, the same one I used to admire in the glass behind the bar such a long time ago. The bristles collected like coppery grass clippings on the counter around the bathroom sink. And when I brushed them away, it was like they were never there.