On Embodiment: Laughing Through the Darkness
I’m finding that embodiment is a really difficult topic to write about. For me it has meant embodiment of everything except for my own body. Everything is an extension of the self. Shoot as if it is an extension of your arm. Command the crowd by mere presence alone, as if they are an extension of your being. Make them laugh, even when you don’t feel like it. Learn to really embody your space and control it. Which is easy for me because there is usually more of me than there is of anyone else in the room.
What does embodiment mean to you? What does it mean to me? It’s hard to say with certainty. Is it how we embody the physical space around us? Is it how we embody our soul? Our memory palace?
My grandfather loved life, and cherished the people around him. He hated guns, but loved comedy. I love comedy, but… Again, I am thinking of another song, by the same singer we both loved:
When I was just a baby, my mama told me son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns,
I love stand-up comedy.
Growing up, Friday nights were always my favorite, not because it was the end of the school week, but because my Grandfather would almost always let me stay up late to watch Real Time with Bill Maher, which in turn was typically followed by a stand-up comedy special (usually George Carlin). Both Maher and Carlin would become comedic idols of mine.
In a way, the writings of both (among many other comedians) have influenced me perhaps just as much as any other writer I have ever read. And that’s what comedy is at the end of the day. Writing. Writing that is just as real as anything else, even if it takes the final form of spoken word rather than printed pages.
And inside the funny, raunchy, and oftentimes morally offensive bits about various topics, there is a dark truth. And it’s not typically far from the surface.
I am recalling now a time when my grandfather was in the hospital, for what doctors feared was Alzheimer’s.
“Well, there’s a bright side to everything,” my grandfather began, smiling as always.
“What could be the bright side of dementia?” I asked, only about twelve years old at the time.
His smile grew.
“Well,” he started again, “I’ll get to meet new people every day!” He laughed for a while at that one. My grandmother didn’t find it as amusing.
I reached and pressed the button and watched the little orange disk sail into the sky. I pulled the trigger and by the time I felt the recoil reverberate through my shoulder and heard the explosion of the 12-gauge shot shell, the pellets were already a thousand feet away.
I couldn’t imagine my grandfather’s laughter on the range. I couldn’t imagine him at a range at all.
The little orange disk exploded into a cloud of dust, hanging on the breeze for only a moment before disappearing entirely. I worked the slide, saw the empty blue Fiocchi shell fall to the ground out of the corner of my eye, and reached down to hit the second button marked B in faded red lettering.
A second orange disk materialized in the sky, and as I pulled the trigger for the second time, I thought again about Hemingway, and the choices he made.
I missed the shot, only causing the disk to break apart and tumble to the earth in larger chunks instead of dusting it for what would’ve been a winning point in a competition.
Though skeet shooting is typically done in pairs, I walked off to the next station alone, a strange sight to all there except those who’ve seen me there before. It was a fitting feeling on that day more than others. Though bouts with loneliness and feelings of depression come and go, I have always found something therapeutic about shooting.
Strange, I know, finding peace with guns, but sometimes it is the only thing that works for me.
For me, it is a mechanical, rhythmic hobby and something I don’t have to think much about beyond some standard safety rules I’d learned years ago. It is not like writing or reading. There are rarely solemn silences where I have to be alone with my thoughts. Just the little orange disk sailing through the sky and me.
There is a strange feeling that comes with the process. An embodiment of the space around me, of the sky, the firearm in my hands, the jolt of the recoil when the trigger is pulled, knowing the hit was good as the little clay disk explodes into dust. And strangely enough, there is a feeling of interconnectedness with the world around me that I rarely feel at any other time. As if the world around has closed to what I see in front of me, and I am a part of it.
I have read that Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity by working in a post office, sorting mail. Einstein believed that by working on one menial task which required little to no thought, the rest of his mind could wander freely, pondering the deeper issues in some corridor of his own mind that he did not have to be immediately concerned with.
But you always have to come back to reality sooner or later, and unfortunately for me, I found that I was breathing heavier than usual as I walked to the next station. Gut protruding more than it had the year before, it was a painful reminder that my self-image wasn’t all mind games.
Like a lot of people, I have always had difficulty feeling at home in my own body, and like a lot of people, there was always one issue that was a focal point for all of my frustration.
For me, it was always the weight.
Going back as far as I can remember, I have always had issues with weight management. Even with the recent popular resurgence in body positivity, I have always known that there was something wrong. People I know insist that I am fine the way I am, that there is nothing wrong, that it’s a self-confidence issue, that I don’t love myself enough, that the right one is out there somewhere, that it’s not the weight, that I should just be happy.
The problem is that for every you’re doing just fine there is another back pain. For every you’re a great person, there is another day spent alone, added to the collection of days dating back to when I first became old enough to realize that it was a problem. For every you need to love yourself more, there is another sleepless night having trouble catching my breath.
Where most people had fond memories of times past, I could only recall trying to avoid bullies in high school, or trying to find clothes that fit; both battles I frequently lost.
It was always the damned weight. And before the pandemic, I was doing just fine.
Yet during those darkest moments, a ray of light poked through; the irony being the ray of light came from one of the biggest cynics I have ever encountered.
Bills Hicks is a comedian who spent a lot of time on stage appearing to be the verge of a breakdown. My favorite comedy hour of his is called Sane Man, and the special begins with Hicks telling a semi-serious story backstage about wanting to hijack a plane. When he tells the story again on stage, there is nervous laughter in the room; most of the people aren’t sure if he is joking.
As Hicks works through his bits, taking aim at everything from phony rock stars to toxic commercialism and small-town anti-intellectualism, he paints the world with frustrated tones as a paradoxically unlivable place. He jokes, he gets a lot of laughs, and yet he never seems comfortable on stage; one angry man whose anger is being mistaken for comedy by people who just don’t get it.
Regardless of where his mind was, he really knew how to embody the room. Something I have tried to learn from.
What I have noticed about the stage (and public speaking) is that for a long time it made me just as uncomfortable as my weight.
I’ve stood in front of classrooms and given presentations on a myriad of topics, I’ve conducted trainings for coworkers at various jobs and I’ve only just realized it was all preparation for stand-up comedy. I’d get nervous, and my response wasn’t to buckle at the knees or run from the room; it was to tell a joke.
As the pandemic continued to drag on, I didn’t get much writing done, though I did dive deeper into the hole of comedic gold. Hicks, Carlin, Maher, Sam Kinison, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, I would spend days watching and reading, only to rewatch and reread and absorb any little bit of stand-up material I could find.
What I realized is that the best comedy is rooted in pain and tragedy. These weren’t comedians who told polite jokes that made people feel good. They were people who found they could make others laugh through their pain. That felt much more transformative to me then anything else I could ever imagine myself doing.
And I felt at home in that moment. Suddenly, every time I was standing in front of a room full of people, I felt a sense of relief, of being at home, because whether or not they laughed didn’t really matter anymore. For once I felt alive, at home, with the ability to embody the space around me. I didn’t have to spend long days or nights wondering whether I belonged or whether or not anyone really saw me.
I felt alive. Laughter was the soundtrack to this catharsis. It was true embodiment.
I still feel like crap sometimes.
Even if I am on the range. Or on stage. Even if I am watching a lot of stand-up. One exercise I learned from a high school teacher a long time ago was a simple one: When in doubt, write it out.
When in doubt, write it out.
Recently, a lot of my writing has erred on the side of comedy. The funniest part is that I never intended for it to happen. I would begin to journal out my day and something would just come out of some dark corner of my mind and I would start giggling about it.
One day I’d had an argument with my father and suddenly a bit was born:
I recently graduated, and my father, who never paid any attention at all, asked me what kind of degree I got.
So, I told him “I got an English degree.”
“An English degree?” He asked. “What the hell are you going to do with that?”
“Well,” said I, “I was thinking about becoming a stand-up comedian.”
He just looked at me and laughed.
Comedy doesn’t have to be self-deprecating and weight will always be a sore point for me, but with comedy, life got a hell of a lot easier. Maybe it was just the subtle art of learning not to give a shit what anyone else had to say while I work on myself. Perhaps that is true embodiment.
We all have ups and downs. I had one last Saturday night at what was a great event right up until it ended and I saw myself in Instagram stories from three different angles looking bigger than I had ever looked before. I was angry at myself. Still am, honestly.
But if you can’t laugh through the pain, then what else do you have? The laughter eases whatever that pain is; that darkness lurking just below the surface. For whatever reason, I’m thinking of Johnny Cash’s low rumbling voice again as I type out these last few words. Life is good, supposedly. Just so long as you keep laughing.
God help, the beast in me.