I wish I would’ve written a blog post about this thing I’m calling hick mindfulness, rural folks’ ability to sit with their thoughts & come out the other side with something better to say, to do. I saw it in my father growing up, emphasis put not on the things done, but rather value stemming from what was witnessed. He was a truck-driver before satellite radio & podcasts; he is a deer hunter, spending long cold morns trying not to shiver up in the treestand; he is a fisherman, a believer in the stillness of the water. He would come back more alert, more engaged with whatever the rest of his day held--projects around the house, playing with me. Those activities contributed to his even demeanor, his avoidance of some problems I’ve had--overtaken by extreme emotions, attention not on observing the world but rather on the story of self I play in my mind, easily imbalanced groundedness. In the way I’m utilizing a daily mindfulness meditation practice to learn how to be present, accepting of both joy & stress, suffering & triumph, I believe he learned it from sitting still, alone, doing his hickish duties & hobbies, similar to my grandfather quietly whistling to himself on the tractor in my memory. As Sam Harris reminds us, the process is the life & it’d be really great to be present for it.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my neediness, how it both relates to my bipolar disorder--a fear of abandonment is common in bipolar folks--& separates itself as just a nagging human quirk. When I was a child, my parents had to put a limit on how many times a day I asked, “Are you okay?” or “Are you mad at me?” In my marriage, much of my bipolar behavior understandably scared the shit out of DS, but undoubtedly she knew I loved her: I told her several dozen times a day. This would relate to the boundary issues & impulse control problems related to bipolar disorder, such as my hypersexuality & my attention-seeking behaviors. I feel haunted by this fear of being forgotten & often, I overcorrect to the point of driving people away.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about how much language matters. We see it all over our culture--in response to Black Lives Matter, when discussing big topics like politics & religion, in the spin of the day’s headlines--language being used, both purposefully & ignorantly, to twist & deflect, to undermine or to willfully continue to not understand the problem or situation at hand. In mental health, it is so important to protect the words we have--diagnosis, symptoms, treatment--while also respecting the efforts to even better pinpoint what’s happening. I am thinking of a meme’d tweet that says stuff like “stop saying OCD when you mean organized” & “stop saying bipolar when you mean moody.” While I am all for playful, experimental uses of language, I am also against lazy conflation & unhelpful correlations. Let’s say it the best we can, so we can get it right in practice.
TIPS FROM THERAPY
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about tips I’ve learned in therapy that help me in my everyday life. Like the five-senses grounding technique, where you cycle through each of the senses, naming something you can see, something you can taste, etc. as many times as needed until you’re back grounded in your body. Like thinking errors, how important it is to recognize irrational and unreasonable thought patterns; for me, it is catastrophizing & self-fulfilling prophecy that do a number on my psychology. Like the importance of having a schedule / routine, how creating a structure to live within, especially when one is not working or is COVID-bound, both to occupy time productively & support the arising needs. Like asking yourself important questions when the blood boils or shivers, how I ask myself, in the face of obsession or a mood swing, before it gets bad, I ask myself, “Will this matter in a year?” If not, I let it go (or try!).
PHYSICAL HARM PARANOIA
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my paranoid tendency to expect physical harm. Even though I’ve suffered very little physical harm in my life, since my early teen years, I’ve walked around tense, constantly anticipating an attack or a whack. I imagine mobs coming to my door to take me away. I imagine robbers leaping from bushes to stab me for my wallet. I imagine the slightest argument escalating into physical violence. But why? Where does irrational thinking become delusion? It is no wonder that, in the past, since I was physically on edge constantly, my readied responses were often aggressive & over-the-top; my situation had already been escalating, my reaction mounted, regardless of the actual catalyst.
In a few different episodes of You Made It Weird this year, Pete Holmes reminded us of a common mindfulness metaphor, the necessity of finding good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. As someone with bipolar disorder that often presents in aggressive manners, I have learned that this mantra is extra relevant to my day-to-day living. Whatever I allow into my brain holds the possibility of bursting back out, out-of-context & irrationally, tangled in a mess of psychosis. Thus, this year, especially the past six months, I’ve been acutely aware of what I allow into my brain, much like a dieter monitors what is eaten.
I see it in two ways; it is important to note the intensity level of the media & also the amount consumed. In the last few years, I have learned to avoid violent movies & video games, as they tend to feed fantasies & nightmares about possible danger & tragic outcomes. I’m also in a habit-changing phase to reexamine activities that make me feel guilty because of their relationship to violence & immorality, such as porn & fast food. Instead, I am focusing on engaging with stuff that propels the spirit forward, be it my mindfulness practice, my new exercise routine, or my daily reading & writing schedule.
In many ways, it is about avoiding unnecessary stressors. Like focusing on good conversation rather than obsessing over my phone, or like showing gratitude instead of bottling up bad feelings, I am learning to lean towards the positive. In my younger days, I signed all of my correspondences with “Stay stoked, Tyler,” which was less of an affirmation of positivity, but a regular reminder, both to myself & the recipient, to try to stay burning bright; as Matt Hart said, “Stay alive & stay light for as long as you can.” Here are twenty morsels of creation that helped me shine a tad bit bright this trip around the sun:
Weakness is the Brand by Maria Bamford
“You don't have to be that good at being a therapist to make a ton of money. I've been paying this one woman -- online therapy, two-hundred bucks a month. She just texted me: "Christine, of course you're stressed. You just had a baby."... And it was helpful!”
MB’s stand-up doesn’t just utilize mental illness as a schtick, but rather, it harnesses such hardships as the fuel that propels the performance on-stage. As MB notes in this special, the combo of medication, therapy, & personal growth have left her with less direct lessons & anecdotes from being one of the psychologically troubled; still, this hour takes a step forward in embodying the mental health journey in our current culture. The best example of this is her story about going to a funeral of a friend who committed suicide & hearing someone call the person selfish. Everyone is allowed in on a joke not everyone is in on.
End Times Fun by Marc Maron
“You never know when someone's gonna dump some shit in your head that's gonna ruin your life.”
I watched this special with my friends JH & CM right before the Covid put some brakes on the world. What a weird predictive force this special ended up being! MM is aging quite nicely, both growing into his curmudgeonly self & growing wiser in terms of being more contemplative & less reactive. Still, MM speaks for the “What the fuck!” moments in all of us, watching people bramble in & out of stores without masks, helpless daily to a president who chooses division on unifying truth & a society, which is in fact us, that seems hellbent on killing us, be it through global warming, societal upheaval, or all this junk we shove down our throats. When MM sits on the stool, you owe it to your inner turmoil to listen.
David Bazan at Tinker Coffee Company
“It’s hard to be / hard to be / it’s hard to be / a decent human being.”
One of the first & most soul-brightening things of 2020 was my 2019 Christmas present from DS: tickets to see one of my heroes David Bazan live. I’ve seen him a couple times before, both solo & with Pedro the Lion, & I think this was my favorite, a performance I’ve been living off of for the past eleven months. He’d play a few songs & then do some chatting with the host, back & forth till the night wore off. His young son was there just hanging out. DB could be seen both before & after the show just waltzing around the warehouse. I lied when I said “performance” earlier; really, what DB does, & what I strive to do in all my work, is generously & vulnerably allow the world to gaze upon you as your humblest self, be it in song, in conversation, or in mere being.
Bad Dad Brewing
When I moved back here to the middle of elsewhere, I was worried about a separation from fresh-ingredient restaurants (most of the eating places in my county are frozen / GFS places) & good local craft beer (drinking less these days, I want to make my brews count). Bad Dad Brewing filled a big hole in that regard, providing a safe (big converted warehouse space) & delicious (made-from-scratch pizza) option around here. I’m particularly fond of Sundays, when you can snag two pizzas & a pitcher of beer for thirty bucks.
I’ve yapped about this app by Sam Harris plenty on this here blog this year. Still, it obviously had to be on the list. In terms of managing my disorder--keeping symptoms in check, staying productive through the stress, & recovering from episodes--my new mindfulness practice has literally saved my sanity, & quite possibly my life, this year, & just to be clear, Waking Up is my mindfulness practice. Its daily meditation is the ten-minute break I take each day to re-ground myself, often two or three times over. Its conversations with mindfulness teachers & neuroscience scholars allows me to better understand the mind I’m often battling to stay balanced. That moment when I open my eyes after a session is often the most joyous part of my day, when I see clearly my body, my mind, whatever is myself, as simply more objects mixed in the world, ready to go. What a relief!
You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes
“Like, a lot of this is me putting this stuff out there to let a counsel look at it, like a group of strangers look at it, and just be like ‘is this that strange?”
In my battle for balance, I sometimes erase quiet & true solitude with any & all opportunity for the company of another; thus, I’ve had to stay mindful this year of not just turning on podcasts as background noise, something to keep me company when I should probably be practicing being alone. Podcasts first became interesting to me because it was one of the first spaces in my life where I heard men talk about their feelings, their interests, & their journeys honestly & openly; obviously I appreciate those same efforts by folks with other gender identities, but as a man from the Midwest, it was a shocking & necessary example of male vulnerability & progress. This is all to say that PH settles all those criteria with engaging conversations about how we laugh, why we love, & what we believe. As a podcaster myself, I feel granted permission to be goofy, a little off-kilter in pursuit of connection & understanding, thanks to PH.
The Bill Simmons Podcast
“Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve something that happened with one of my teams.”
Not everything has to be in dogged pursuit of mindfulness & peace; much of that journey can exist in pleasure, in entertainment, or in contentment. Sports has always been that gateway get-away for me & BS has long been my pilot. I appreciate folks who are opinionated without being an asshole, who are knowledgeable without being a show-off. Like with You Made It Weird, in his own way, BS holds out his allegiances & models his thought-processes in a vulnerable, connective way. I escape into his episodes as a way to think of something beyond my own journey, the hallucinatory effect of fandom.
Sacred Smoke Herbals
A big change this year for me was swapping a self-medicating relationship with weed for the high-free world of CBD. My buddy JL introduced me to Sacred Smoke Herbals, a small woman-owned operation that offers that perfect top-quality / affordable combo of plant magick. Between the anxiety of having a mental illness, the chronic pain of my bad bones, & the late night tussle with slumber, my days possess spots of time that require some relief. I’m thankful for CBD’s ability to boost me legally without the distraction of the head high. These days I am rolling with either Lifter (for the needed pick-me-up) or Moon Dust (for the necessary calm down).
The New One by Mike Birbiglia & J. Hope Stein
“Writing is always a process of trial and error, but this was writing about my own errors, so the errors felt compounded, like I was re-living my own mistakes and failing at that too.”
MB is one of my favorite artists because of how he allows his work to snowball beyond bounds. Where most comedians would write & record a stand-up special & then move on to the next one, MB gets carried by curiosity, wondering what can be built further out of this special. It is like a house; additions & pole barns & landscaping & basketball hoops are added instead of just selling the house & moving on to build a new house. I got to see his special, The New One, live & I’ve watched it several times, often alongside new parents, but here, MB has brought in his wife, the poet J. Hope Stein, to add connective tissue through her poems, relating to the stories MB has already told. These new ligaments allow the beams to grow stronger & the joints to become tighter.
Diagram 20th Anniversary tarot deck
“I am afraid I have poisonous thoughts.” - Jack Hereford
Diagram magazine has long been one of my favorite literary journals, existing mostly as a online journal for twenty years now, but always with a few merch surprises up its sleeve, like the 10th anniversary playing card deck or the disc golf discs. This time, they’ve truly outdone themselves, honoring the two-decade run with a tarot deck set, featuring new pieces by past contributors, including personal favorites like Sean Lovelace, Amber Sparks, & Ross Gay. I’m no tarot head, but I just had to snag a copy. I’m thankful I did because it has already become a source of inspiration, begging, “How do I make the next creation even more timely & interesting than the last?”
The Nightgown by Taisia Kitaiskaia
“He watches / a virgin exit the church. Her beauty is a single / Plump word squealing in between the pews, / Leaving behind a sticky streak, marmalade or dew.”
I had the honor of being classmates with several incredible poets while at the University of Texas-Austin for my MFA in poetry, TK among them. She has created a truly unique voice situated at the intersection of surrealism, folklore, & translation. It’s no secret I like poems to unnerve me a little. These poems do just that, insisting on exploration over explanation, hilarity over clarity. I don’t just mean “hahahaha,” but more like “wow, okay, that just happened”--antelopes feeding on beauty, drunks toasting the speaker’s foolishness, “giraffes, [c]hewing the moon’s soft yogurt with blind lips.”As I’ve been editing my own next poetry manuscript, this collection has reminded me of the power of going on one’s nerve, as O’Hara recommended.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“A poem is a gesture toward home.”
I see JB exploring many of the same concerns in these new poems as I hope to in my current work--poem as container for an ever-evolving vision of the self. He is inventive, creating a new form, the duplex, combining the sonnet, ghazal, & the blues. He is precise, tapping out piece by piece, line by line, a vision of the full poem requiring truly giving over to the poem as a full-loop experience. He is open to possibility, utilizing line breaks as a way to make contradictions, revelations, & characterizations. This collection feels less like a book & more like a giant moment, teeming with a poetic commitment that feels really fresh.
A Treatise on Stars by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge
“Consciousness embodies it by acting self-referentially, not dualistically as in seeing, not seeing.”
Once in Dean Young’s workshop, he asked us to bring in a poem by a poet we highly admire but that would surprise the class as an influence; back then, I offered Anne Carson as said poet, but now, I would present Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. As I’m becoming familiar with her work, after discovering her in the Hick Poetics anthology a few years ago, I’m evermore in awe of the space, both of the page & of the intellect, that her poems insist on filling. This new book speaks with a meditative tongue, but thinks in a prayerful direction. Wandering deeper & deeper into the connection between us & whatever is out there, from the grass to the farthest galaxies, these poems model another option in wonderment.
Schitt’s Creek / Longmire
“I’m incapable of faking sincerity.” - Stevie / “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” - Sheriff Longmire
Like with the Bill Simmons podcast, the mind requires moments to exist in a contented pleasure that creative, spiritual, & intellectual avenues don’t offer. This is where television usually comes in for me. With most television, I use it as mild accompaniment to mundane household tasks--doing dishes, folding laundry, cleaning--but certain shows shift right into a necessary form of attention. With Schitt’s Creek, I found some comfort in the face of my wife leaving, a comedic pick-yourself-back-up story too absurd to be true, but also somehow too heartfelt to not connect with. For spurts of the year, I’d find myself in late night hours, unable to stop crying, unable to find rest, turn to the Rose family & their community as my own playful distraction. With Longmire, it was a recent trip with my dad, him & I closing out days with this contemporary western drama. Over-the-top, it was rubbery enough to not bother the sensitive tendencies of my mind, but there was also a real humanity to the show that book-ended my own feelings of the day. The best television for me always toes the line between absurdity & sincerity.
Show Pony by Orville Peck
“You and I bide our time / And I miss summertime.”
This EP crashed into my life like a glittery meteorite. Burrowing out of the influence of grand country characters of yesteryear like Dolly & Elvis, OP has created here songs that have a deep, deep core to them below the glamour. This argument that he’s not country because he’s a gay Canadian or because of the glitz is just ridiculous. These six songs connect to the contemporary country music I love that is inclusive of both the past & the future, acknowledging influence (such as a cover of “Fancy” & a duet with Shania Twain) while also breaking new ground (such as representing LGBTQ+ country kiddos). For a fella that doesn’t show his face or use his own name, Orville Peck sure seems to be a great example of making the art you want to make, presenting oneself as truly as desired.
Long Violent History by Tyler Childers
“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened / It’s happening again right in front of our eyes.”
This is another album that honors its legacy while making true strides forward. His message that he released accompanying the album sums up this dichotomy well, calling for a better application of southern values to supposedly (as in “how is this not just the default yet”) progressive issues like racial justice. As a piece of art, I’m amazed by this album’s commitment to vulnerability. First, we get eight instrumental fiddle tracks, with TC himself doing some sawing, an admittedly new endeavor for him; to end it, the title track presents a liberal southern white man’s perspective of the current Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Breonna Taylor & George Floyd killings. We should all hope to be so able to push aside our ego to pursue our values & our talents as far as they’ll take us.
The two Cuttin’ Grass albums by Sturgill Simpson
“You could have told me you didn't care about me / You could have told me you was the cheating kind / I'd be out on the town running around / Seeing what else I could find / Instead of sitting here without you / And with you on my mind”
I must have a thing for country artists who push their own boundaries, often just for the heck of it. SS is the current shining example of a musician who follows the pattern of his own wind. What started as an outlaw country trajectory added in psychedelic rock & jam-band vibes before blistering into last year’s Sound & Fury, an industrial rock record that coincided with an anime film. Now SS has hopped deep back to his roots, turning his first four records’ worth of material in two bluegrass albums. There’s this misconception that country boys can’t like non-country things, that somehow it invalidates our country card. SS has proven that not only do those forays into other matter matter, but in fact, it makes our hillbilly side even stronger.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt / “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers / “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill / “Where To Start” by Bully
Here are four songs from four strong 2020 albums. I stuck them here together for two reasons: practically, I wanted them to fit on the list & artistically, they all exude an angst that covered 2020 with its dust. “Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt is where I hide whatever hope I have left for my love with my ex-wife DS. “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers is where I let loose the frustration I feel for how she left. “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill is where I let loose the frustration of what this year’s done to me. “Where To Start” by Bully is where I learn to live with the rubble of my current predicament. I’m always down for a rowdy, catchy song played entirely on heart strings.
Justin Townes Earle
“LE, LS / GS, GT / Don't mean one damn thing to me / Just get me something that will get me where I'm going / Like that pretty little thing riding by in a champagne Corolla.”
I wanted to take a moment here at the end to honor two of my favorite musicians who passed away this year. Clearly taken too soon, JTE’s death is a reminder of how anyone can struggle, how struggles loop in & out. I’ve grown as a JTE fan since his death, finding remarkable wisdom in his pop-rock-tinged blues. Whether quiet or raucous, the best JTE tunes burn because of his understanding of the dilemma of living: one must keep going until they don’t. My favorite JTE tracks since his passing have been “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla,” & “15-25.”
“Then as God is my witness / I'm getting back into show business / I'm gonna open up a nightclub called "The Tree of Forgiveness" / And forgive everybody ever done me any harm”
JP understood the cosmic joke, that everything is at least a little ridiculous & thus life should be approached accordingly. His songs open up the possibilities of what can be in a folk song. I’ll stand by the fact that The Tree of Forgiveness is the best album ever made by someone over the age of 70. The expansive journey of his career should give all of us artists inspiration to just keep going, just keep making. My favorite JP tracks since his passing have been “When I Get to Heaven,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” & “Lake Marie.”
Good gracious, aren’t end-of-the-year lists annoying? I repeat this sentiment I have heard elsewhere, both feeling it & rejecting it, at least for this purpose. I must insist on giving props to the makers--of things, of art, of moments--that, to not be hyperbolic at all, changed my life this year, or at least, prevented a negative change as I dealt with 2019’s collection of transitions--accepting myself as someone with a major psychological disorder, leaving Austin / moving back home to Indiana, & learning how to be a homemaker. The people I respected most in my formative years modeled an enthusiasm for stokedness, be it my dad psyched for another hunting season with his buddies, or my favorite literary folks blogging away about what they were reading, or the just-a-tad-bit older dudes in this area playing their rowdy songs & singing along to their friends’ bands with unabashed joy.
This list, though certainly incomplete & flawed, showcases a balance between the comfort of home & last-spark of time in the big city. I am feeling thankful for “my spots” in Austin that provided me good tunes (& other arts), good booze (& other things to toss down my gullet), & good times (& other variations of moments); as I told a friend today, Austin really was an amazing place to finish out my 20’s. But back here now, I am thankful for the local businesses & makers & their persistence, staying open & keeping on with the small town vibes, how the history of this place continues to pulse & expand. I cannot help but laugh at the people who think of this place as “the middle of nowhere.”