Jason Isbell is in town tonight. I’ve been listening to his new record, “Southeastern,” for a few weeks now. Every song is touched with power and grace. He’s from Alabama, I’m from Georgia, and the people he knows and grew up with are like the people I know and grew up with. It’s like the first time I read Larry Brown and thought, that guy understands my people. But with Isbell it’s more personal. A couple of lines from one of his songs have stuck in me like an implant. He has put words to the greatest struggle in my life.
The song is called “Live Oak” and these are the lines:
There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me
The character in the song has led a wicked life and is trying to start over. Isbell himself spent a lot of years drinking too much and is now trying to live sober. Here’s what he told NPR about the meaning of those words:
That started as a worry that I had when I cleaned my life up, decided to be a grownup, you know? I worried about what parts of me would go, along with the bad parts. Because it’s not cut and dried. It’s not like you made the right decision and everything’s great and you’re a better person for it. … there are some things that are lost forever and that’s just the fact of it.
I have thought far too much about this notion over the years, for a different reason.
I’m a fat guy. You can say obese or overweight or heavy or one of those other words if you want. Fat pretty much covers it. I have never been anything else. I’ve gone to bed a thousand times — ten thousand times — believing I would start getting in shape the next morning. Sometimes I hang in there for a while. I’ve always backslid. There are a lot of reasons. Here’s the one that makes me sound a little crazy.
I worry that when I lose all this weight, I’ll also lose some essential part of myself. I worry about the good parts going with the bad parts.
This is terrible logic on a bunch of different levels. I’m fully aware of that. But when you’ve been one way all your life, there’s no way of knowing how it’ll turn out when you make a big and permanent change. I love my life, except for being fat. I don’t want to screw up the things I love in the process of getting rid of what I hate.
It means something to me to hear somebody confront this same thing, and deal with it, and live a better life on the other side.
I learned a long time ago not to make role models out of musicians (or athletes or famous actors). I don’t know Jason Isbell except from his music, and some interviews, and his Twitter feed, where I found out we share a love for the Braves. But I do draw inspiration from somebody who pushed his way through the door I’m headed for.
A few weeks ago I mapped out a walking route through our neighborhood. There’s a hill a couple blocks away that I’ve avoided ever since we moved here. It’s not much of a hill for somebody in shape — I saw a woman running up it the other day, pushing a baby stroller. But it’s a haul for me. The first day, I had to stop about a third of the way up. The next day I got a little farther. And the next, farther still.
I don’t always go up the hill. But I started a Seinfeld chain for walking. I’m up to 25 days.
Those of us who have one addiction or another, or just people who have a little something about themselves they want to change — there’s no way of knowing what that new person will be like. Some people might like the old one better. That’s life. One thing I know is this: Jason Isbell made himself a new man and then made one of the best records I’ve ever put in my ears. That gives me hope.