A Manic Life, by David L. Robbins

By David L. Robbins | February 17th, 2020

What moves one man


David L. Robbins reading a book at twilight Image

I am not good still.

By that, I don’t mean that I’m not good yet. Or not good despite my struggles.

Though that interpretation has merit, I mean to say I’m not good motionless.

I cannot lie idly on the beach in summer, I cannot sit by a fire in winter. I cannot gaze at leaves in the fall or birds in the spring. I don’t sleep in. I do not rest on the seventh day, the Sabbath, holidays high or low. I can’t watch a whole baseball game and nothing of soccer. I can’t paint landscapes or babysit infants.

I was that child by the ocean always building sandcastles, sand walls and moats to redirect the inevitable. I was the elementary student always asking questions, opining past my years, never called “precocious,” always “annoying.” I was the son my mother laughed with and my father made work in the yard.

When you lack a tranquil spirit, you miss a few details. Once, the cops brought me home after a friend and I threw rocks to break the already broken windows of wrecked cars in a junkyard. They weren’t wrecks. It was an auto glass repair shop.

I worked as an attorney for one year. In that short time I accomplished my tasks so fast I was admonished by my boss for not spending more billing hours at my desk. I loathed filling in the time sheets, and asked if I couldn’t just do my job? He insisted I follow office rules. To test the thesis that there really was no one on the other end of the time logs, I for a month wrote in things like lunar exploration, maternity leave and spy training. After that, I stopped filing them altogether. No one said a word.

I am a terrible sick person. No, again, I don’t mean that I’m a terrible sick person. I mean I’m a poor patient when ill.

I can’t lie in bed, unwell and flu-y, days on end. I quickly forget what it feels like to be healthy. Flat on my back, all I can conjure is an infinite sea of dim, burdened, sweaty ache. Every injury I’ve suffered in my life comes home to roost. The ankle that got spiked in minor league baseball back in Sandston throbs like it happened that morning. The scar on my left forearm sears after almost 60 years, gotten at Parker Field when I raced another kid to a foul ball that had rolled to a stop against the chain link along the third base line. I crammed my arm under the fence to grab the ball; the kid kicked the fence. Stitches for me, a busted nose for him after a baseball in the schnoz. When I’m sick, I re-suffer every scrape, scab and plaster cast of my stumbling childhood. I whine. I turn into that infant I cannot babysit.

Nowadays, at night, I’m a prowler. No, for Pete’s sake, I’m not saying … look, forget it. Think what you want. I’m a night owl. I stay engaged with the awake world until I can’t. If I get in bed with any energy left, my mind rivals the state fair; not the current iteration but the great carnivals of the ’60s and ’70s with fireworks and roaring rides and a bright midway where a boy might wear his letter jacket, stride the carney games and sideshows with his buddies, find other boys from other schools in their jackets and compete with ring tosses to see who could win the biggest stuffed toys.

I don’t sit well in one place. I wind up writing. My mother used to say she could scatter a handful of Cheerios in front of me in my highchair and I was good for hours. I wouldn’t eat them but arrange them, as if they were proto-words.

As a sophomore at William and Mary, I once checked into the student clinic because I was too distracted by my heartbeat.

Yes, that’s manic. But it’s the kind of mania that became me. I don’t know if this is fear of death, but if it is, I’ve had it lifelong.

I feel the passing of every day like traffic, it has a breeze. I awake to thank God and ask if I might continue at this speed.

I suppose I’m very different from you. Even with my distinctness, we are all remarkably alike. That’s where the stories reside. I study myself to write about you.

There is, in the end, something wonderfully, rivetingly, restful about that.


Best-selling author David L. Robbins is founder of the James River Writers, co-founder of The Podium Foundation and creator of the Mighty Pen Project veterans’ writing program.

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