Derick Van Milford.

On this day 26 years ago we lost someone truly special. Derick, the world is less without you in it.

When I was 20 years old I moved in with a couple of friends I’d made at a party on Monument Avenue. I’d gone with a friend of mine who was my sister’s boss, and I remember feeling nervous and scared because I didn’t know anyone there. No worries though because everyone at the gathering was friendly, outgoing, and raucously funny. Most of them were gay and all of them were drinking. It was a fabulous time. I started talking with Graham, found out it was his and his boyfriend David’s apartment, and they needed a roommate. I jumped at the chance since I’d recently moved back home after a truly awful breakup.

The next week I moved in the few things I owned and explored where I’d be living. I noticed a framed snapshot of David on their mantle and was overjoyed to also recognize a good friend, Derick Van Milford. Derick and I had gone to high school together. He always called himself “Van” Milford but to this day I don’t know if that was his name or an affectation. It suited him though. He was wonderful, totally gregarious, friendly, over the top funny and charming. He was also the star of most of our high school productions, the official ones, as well as the non-official ones he persuaded the school higher-ups to allow him to perform. He was two grades ahead of me and I loved him, not only for his humor and grace but because I envied his courage. He was fearless, loud, and popular. Everything I wanted to be. Holding the photograph and smiling to myself, I casually mentioned to David that I knew Derick and asked about his whereabouts. “He’s a good friend. But he died last year. Car accident.”

I was stunned. I actually remember a sharp pain entering my heart right then like a stab. Imagine the soaring hope of being connected with an old friend you adore followed by the frightening crash of learning you’ll never see him again all in the same moment. I got spots in front of my eyes and felt faint. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. That someone so vibrant, vital, and with so much energy and passion for their art would be snatched away like that.

Back in high school I loved theater and movies and wanted more than anything to be an actress. Just one problem. I was painfully shy and suffered from severe social anxiety. Just the thought of speaking aloud in front of a group of people made me want to puke. Or stab myself in the eye. Or puke. We performed the musical Carnival in my sophomore year, and I hid in the chorus as always. It was only when Derick, who was acting as Assistant Director to our Theater teacher Miss Sanchez, announced he needed someone to play a puppet in a key scene with him, that I saw my chance. Here was my opportunity! I could play a major character, an actual speaking role with lines. And those lines could be spoken BEHIND A WALL. I’d never be seen. It was ideal.

Except it wasn’t. In practice I failed time and again. And each time I stumbled I feared replacement. If you’ve ever acted in live theater you know projection to the back of the room is important. Now imagine doing that behind a puppet theater. Now imagine doing it with severe social anxiety. What the hell had I gotten myself into? I was flummoxed. No matter what I did I wasn’t loud enough. I wasn’t boisterous enough. My opera singing wasn’t up to par. The character was supposed to be an opera singer who sings REALLY badly but who thinks she sings great. I was accomplishing neither. Instead of being a cartoon, my character came off as a half-ass robot.

Thankfully Derick possessed major amounts of patience as well as talent. As the other puppet in the scene of course he was flawless. After hours and hours of practice under his direction I began to notice slight changes in my voice. I got louder. My voice got more rounds and edges to it. It got fuller. And under his direction I really learned to let go. I allowed myself to make mistakes in the opera singing and then to amplify them times ten. To let go of the fear of not being perfect that always prevented me from speaking up. To really belt it out and to do it badly. On purpose. To say fuck it and just go for it.

Acting with him was something I’ll never ever forget. We played off each other’s lines so well the audience was howling. It was and is the best role I ever had, not just because we made the audience laugh, but because he taught me it’s okay to speak up even if it makes you look like an ass. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact it’s a good thing. It’s only by biting the bullet and actually TRYING that you find out what works and what doesn’t. In teaching me to be a puppet, he also taught me to find my life’s voice. Now? You can’t shut me up if you tried. And for that I’m grateful.

It’s hard to describe but often now I’ll find myself in a social situation where I’m scared beyond belief, but instead of hiding I’ll just bust out in a really loud, gregarious and hopefully funny comment to mask my fear. Nine times out of 10 it works. And when it doesn’t? Eh, fuck ‘em. Just keep going to the next line in the play. Maybe they’ll catch up. Derick taught me that.

I’m a Writer.

In high school, I was on the editorial committee that decided which poems and stories would make it into our literary magazine. Every submission was anonymous, and the committee would first have someone read the piece aloud, then the rest would comment. My junior year I submitted a poem, one I was proud of because it stated my deepest longings, my most deep-seated fears, my hopes, my wishes. It was angst-ridden. My cry for help. After it was read aloud, the committee frowned. “It’s pretty obscure,” someone commented – the nicest comment of the ones that followed. For what seemed like an eternity the group tore apart my poem, line by line. The criticism was not constructive, but cruel. They gorged like lions at a fresh kill while our teacher looked on, silent. I never submitted another piece again, and from that point on, I kept my writing hidden from the world.

Writing was my life, my reason for living, but I pushed it down, pushed it away, because obviously I sucked at it. It didn’t help my parents never encouraged my writing, but instead pushed me into music, art, dance, anything else. After high school, I pursued a degree in illustration, which pleased my mother to no end. When that didn’t work out, I tried every other job imaginable: store manager, barista, bartender, receptionist, typist, copy editor, proposal writer, newsletter editor, English teacher. You’ll notice those last few jobs incorporate writing. I like to think of them as “writing adjacent”. Even though I feared writing, my gut couldn’t get away from it, and so I took jobs to get NEXT to writing without actually touching it.

Even if the job didn’t involve actual writing, I made damn sure it involved my time. I said yes to every project, forged ahead with every new plan and proposal and development at whatever job I happened to have. I wanted my entire day (and sometimes night) FULL, so unconsciously I didn’t have to think about the fact I wasn’t writing. For a time, I even worked two jobs, 16-hour days, which only left me enough time to come home and drink myself into a blackout stupor before starting the whole merry-go-round of denial once again.

But recently, I endured what I like to think of as an existential crisis of conscience. My last job involved some writing, so it was “writing adjacent” but it took up so much of my time. Not only that, the circumstances of the job were so stress-inducing I often found myself lying awake at night – ALL NIGHT – trying to think of ways to make the job better. How could I get up in the morning, go to this job, and not go into the bathroom stall and cry every day? How could I make it more endurable? When you’re describing your job as “endurable” it’s probably not a good thing. Not at all. I had buried my fear, my desire to write so deeply that here I was trying to figure out how to turn a job I hated into one I could at least endure another day. It was a breaking point for me.

I quit. I had to. I was so deep within it, I couldn’t see I was pushing my desire to write away, allowing my fear to act as a wall against it. I would rather die of stress at this job, constantly fighting to make it better, constantly denying my love of writing to sneak into my psyche, rather than just letting it all go. It took a good friend to show me what was going on – to take me by the hand, pull me outside of myself, and show me the scene as it was playing out. She was like the Ghost of Christmas Present in that Dickens tale, her hand around my shoulder, showing me the scene. “Do you see what you’re doing to yourself? Why are you fighting so hard?” Isn’t it funny how someone outside can see the solution so easily when you’ve been banging your head against the wall for years? I remain grateful for her insight, and her swift kick in my ass.

So I cut all ties to that job. Now I was unemployed, untethered, like a balloon set aloft except there’s no wind to carry it anywhere. It’s just there, floating, waiting for someone to blow on it. Waiting for direction. It’s incredibly frightening to feel like that, but exciting-frightening. The anticipation, the faith you have in yourself while you’re untethered is what keeps you aloft.

Elizabeth Gilbert said when you begin a major life journey, when you finally let go and do things differently for the first time, heading into a direction you’ve never been in, you have to have faith the truth will be revealed. And everyone you meet on your journey is a possible teacher.*

This is the truth I keep coming back to. My truth. I have no idea where to go or what to do next. But I keep reminding myself the truth will be revealed. I have been listening to “Eat, Pray, Love” again on audio. It’s amazing how her journey for balance parallels mine for purpose. Because that’s what I’m looking for – purpose. What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to be? In Chapter 30, when Liz finally decides not to become a mother she asks herself, “Okay, so who am I now?” It was like an arrow of light went right into my heart. Because that is me. That is so me it hurts. I say “arrow of light” because it was so validating to HEAR another woman state what I was feeling. I had read these words two years ago, but hearing them now, it really sunk in. I heard it with my heart, not my head.

My husband and I tried to have children, and then when it didn’t work out easily, we decided not to pursue it. We are happy as we are. And even though we didn’t really talk about why, now I know. Both of us, having had happy childhoods, also still possess a huge amount of painful memories and demons we’re still working through. It would be so unfair to bring up a child, the hardest job of all, without having worked through this. Without letting this go. While I might not know my purpose, I do know we were brought together to take care of each other in this life. And that’s more than enough purpose. Except it isn’t, is it? Taking care of my husband is so easy, and my greatest joy. I’m still left with the question, “What now?”

Recently, someone asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a writer,” I replied. The words felt awful in my mouth, like I had just decided to find out what rocks taste like. They rolled around on my tongue like maggots and it took all my force of will to get the words out. I wear a bite guard at night, and frequently I have dreams where I’m trying to speak, but because the guard is blocking my talk the only thing that comes out are squeaks and inhuman noises. This felt just like that. I was like Helen Keller discovering water, except I heard the words and I didn’t believe them.

For the longest time I was a quiet mousy girl, but because of all the shit I’ve gone through in my life I blossomed into a mouthy broad. You can’t shut me up now, and you better not even try unless you want your ass kicked. Now I just need to learn to open my mouth on the page. To get to the point where writing is as easy as talking. So for the time being I’m an untethered balloon. Floating and silent, but emitting a squeak here and there. And that’s fine for now. I have faith.

*I’m paraphrasing, can anyone find this quote for me? I gave my copy of the book to a friend who really needed it.

Bartleby.

All these gray, gloomy, cold days make me think of all the things I *haven’t* done in winter because of it. I have S.A.D., I know it. When winter comes I hole up like a bear, and you really don’t see me until Spring. That first day of spring I always call in sick to work, go get a big KFC bucket, and when I used to live in Richmond, go to Maymont Park with a book and my sunglasses to melt the winter crust off.

That would be mid to late April usually, but here in Pittsburgh, we really can’t expect a day like that until late June – if we’re lucky. So here lately, I’ve been forcing myself out of the house, but it’s hard. The pull of the comforter is so strong. I’m like a plant – without sun I don’t flourish.

When I was a Junior in high school I checked out that winter so bad I didn’t even turn in a term paper, which was probably the most blasphemous thing you could do at Hermitage High in 1984. I just pulled a Bartleby and stated, “I prefer not to,” when Mrs. Rasnake ordered me to write a fifteen-page paper on the Circus Maximus. I’m sorry Mrs. Rasnake I prefer not to. I’ve written 15 gazillion notecards on something I could give two farts about and as for creating something legible out of all this mess in the thick of winter and the sun hasn’t shone in three months, uh, sorry, no.

“But Juh-nell, you’ll fail English!” she gasps clutching her pearls (okay, I added that for effect).

“Uh, Mrs. Rasnake, I don’t have an ‘L’ in my first, middle, or last name,” I retorted. She points her finger out the door ordering me to the office.

Okay, I made that last part up. Mrs. Rasnake did call me that the entire school year but back then I never had the nerve to call her on it. I always wanted to and in my mind made up various clever, snarky remarks I would make in response and other more devious scenes where she would end up looking like an ass and I would finally get the attention and “coolness” I wanted. But I was always too much of a chicken. I would just sit there and Bartleby my way through the rest of the year of English – I ended up with a “D” for the semester which ruined my GPA – a big deal back then.

Those of you who spent high school competing with one another for the highest GPA’s will know what I’m talking about here. At my school your GPA meant the difference between UVA and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College down the road. And we were all just poor enough to really want that scholarship. Isn’t it amazing that something that meant so much back then is like ashes at the end of a cigarette now? Remember when crap like that was important? Weird, huh?

Why do I remember this? It always amazed me that a teacher could go 180 days and not learn a student’s name or even something that was remotely close to it. So when I became a teacher, it was the first thing I did. Learn their names and more than that, learn who these creatures were in the desks before me. More than just bored eyes and tapping fingers and shaking, bored feet in Etnie shoes. They’re not just grades in a book, they’re people.

But I digress. I suppose I’ll never flourish in winter. I’ve got a sunbox now, and at least it gets me out the door – I don’t call in sick like I used to. I slog to work with the rest of the lemmings. But I still think bears have it pretty good.