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  • Aarik Danielsen

Playing Against Type

Newsletters lap at my inbox like minor tides; quiet, persistent in their promises.

Dispatches offer closeness and clarity—access to a beloved writer’s inner monologue, chances to borrow their glasses till fine insights achieve focus.

Beyond the friends I see as celebrities, two household names keep me company. One arrives on schedule, addressing questions my soul didn’t know to ask, lending language enough to express myself with others. The other makes a single visit, prodigal and meaningful, in words that explain me to myself.

Nick Cave, the singer, screenwriter, and novelist, a cathedral of a man folded into the most wind-whipped territory of the Wild West, pens his Red Hand Files. There, he handles readers’ common grief, disappearing into the midnight hours of the soul to emerge with unplanned poems about art and religion.

Recently, he kept time with a mystified query, a reader’s inability to “work out” the rock star’s brand of belief. Cave fit an entire volume’s worth of spiritual reflection into a few paragraphs, describing his perpetual sense of Emmanuel—or what Flannery O’Connor called a “Christ-hauntedness”—the god he cannot shake in shiver or sunshine.

Humming an ancient waltz tune, Cave bore witness to doubt and faith clinging to each other in 3/4 time. To some, this torrid love and hate signals apostasy; to me, and it seems to Cave, the dance is a sign we’re breathing.

Then he sang one long sentence, so wondrous and awful I sent it to my wife, shed light to see the man she loves:

I live for the moments my disbelief loosens its hold and allows me to experience that lovely lightness of spirit—that elevated oneness with things, that feels like God, that feels like love.

Brother, let me scrape and borrow enough money to tattoo these words across myself—and it will take the whole torso; not to bare for others, but to remember in clandestine photographs, to feel as the script daily brushes raven psalms across my skin.

I am afraid of being typecast, and always have been.

Another bulletin appears, spilling from the mind of Josh Radnor, writer-director of the indie feature “Liberal Arts,” a folk-music partner for songwriter Ben Lee, a thoughtful sojourner through the world we long ago named “prestige television.” And as the matter of Radnor’s email “No Bad Parts” swiftly confesses, the actor who inhabited How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby.

Radnor’s newsletter—or Museletter—assumes you have, indeed, met Ted. He soulfully sifts personal history and professional legend in real time, pronouncing the sure blessings and faint curses of being best known as someone else, of people willingly sharing their interest in just “one version of you.”

Subtitled “Calling a Truce with Ted Mosby,” Radnor’s letter works out a shift along these fault lines, freed to embrace the character, not murmur swear words at his memory. Then he offers his own cornerstone truth, worthy of memorializing as an epigraph or scrawling in lipstick across a mirror:

Like you and everyone else, I have a massive cast of characters in me, some that are more forward-facing and others that lurk in the shadows.

Radnor, the owner of a generous heart, chooses celebration—no matter how tenuous—and stakes a claim to gratitude rather than judge any single character congregating inside him.

I am afraid of being typecast, and always have been. This comes natural when you grow up before a different set of watchful eyes, a pastor’s kid forever on the stage your father built. Witnessing Radnor broker, then sign treaties within, I try to sort parts I once played, the scripts I’m still called to read.

As with Radnor and Ted Mosby, all these parts resemble me. No doubt, friends made in one season or another look my way and experience a flash of recognition, hear that character’s words in my timbre. They still see traces of a part I played somewhere up around the eyes but, in time, feel whatever sadness or resignation or acceptance comes in realizing he doesn’t define me.

Some types were cast on me; others self-imposed. Still others I accepted for fear of turning down work.

First, a spiritual prodigy who grew into the adult rehearsing ready answers. Once I studied theological blueprints, then built towers that couldn’t help but lean. Now a tour guide with tired, thankful eyes, I gather driftwood for a raft to float down crisp, cloud-tinted waters. I point to trees and outcroppings, then sit with their silent, sacred implications. Ragamuffin wonder is all I have to offer.

What I’m saying probably sounds like second-rate poetry. But I am learning to make everything a prayer without knowing the right words. I am pressing myself to stop and show kindness to a boy who once walked into the wind, striving to know what God wanted to hear.

I used to stay awake by lamplight, writing dialogue for a born romantic, an early Cusack type. A Ted Mosby type. Extending him compassion is complicated. That character committed real sins, tripping over the name of some low-rent patron saint for sensitive boys.

Twenty years later, I make a turnstile of the confessional, make restitution, learn to help misguided fervor age gracefully, slouching toward tangible love. And I’m learning to love that damaged character like a man loves his fading tattoo: not Nick Cave along the rib cage, but something more foolhardy, a starling in freefall across my shoulder blade, a Wallflowers lyric at my wrist.

Pushing back on peace with one more character, I flick cigarette ash at the writer of overly earnest prose, the guy whose writing you might even label “nice.” Some days, I hate his rainy eyes, his sincere features.

This world—too “small, and hard, and full of meanness” as Saint Mary Oliver observed— will not settle for nice and kind and sincere, but craves a measure of those qualities.

Forty-two years old, and I’m still learning not to flinch when someone calls me or my words “nice.” Nice is the anti-cool; nice never burns a hole or creates an ache; nice rarely gets its own shelf in the library. But now I hear the compliment in what I thought was a dismissal.

This world—too “small, and hard, and full of meanness” as Saint Mary Oliver observed— will not settle for nice and kind and sincere, but craves a measure of those qualities. If my countenance, on or off the page, eases the meanness, why keep flinching?

I like who I’m becoming—at least I want to.

Radnor writes of loving Ted Mosby as a part, not the whole, and of being caught up in the present tense while fully realizing what the past still holds. And I think I know what he means. I like who I’m becoming—at least I want to.

Dedicated father. Evolving husband. Altar boy at whatever church Nick Cave attends. Writer of weird-ass prose poems. Drummer counting in the band, 1-2-3 as doubt and devotion return to the dance floor. Still earnest, to a fault and as his true power.

Reading artists like Cave and Radnor keeps me playing against type while tucking every part I’ve known inside this character I’m becoming, the character I was born to be.


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