We were in the car driving past the hubby buildings of Athens, Georgia and I was scared shitless.
They were classic American structures no more than five stories high made entirely out of brick. Refurbished factories converted into retail hotspots and trendy bars. Athens was a complex in the middle of a vast expanse, like a sturdy tree shooting high above a flooded valley that said yes sir, how’re y’all, and we’ll pray for you. Out in the distance the rolling, rolled-over fields allowed the last of the February chill to carry through town. Bryan Wish was in the front seat with his mom talking about what he was going to say when everyone arrived at the event. The Wish Dish One Year Anniversary.
I was sitting in the back holding some banners that covered my face silently venting what the hell are you doing. I was terrified. Didn’t look it but I wanted to jump out the car at the next red light and rush into Pauley’s Crepe Bar. Have a drink at the end of the bar and forget it all, that’s what I wanted. Don’t bother with these people, Matt, just go back inside yourself. But then I had to remind myself of how some wise ass kid from Reston, Virginia touched over 200 peoples’ lives in ways he couldn’t imagine.
We were living in Virginia, both in 6th grade, and we played youth football together. Never really took to each other but that was mostly my fault. I never spoke–to anyone. I was a shy kid who liked to knock his big head around. After that, we happened to play on the same house league basketball team. Don’t remember much except losing in the semi-finals.
After that we didn’t talk for over a decade. We both had amassed different lives over the years. He went into sports and marketing while I tried to be a poet, still trying. One night I remember sitting in the living room of my apartment at Providence College, after an evening of trying to forget that college was coming to an end, I get a Facebook message; it’s Bryan. His mom had caught up with my mom at a Christmas party. That night there was this distinct March chill, like it belonged among the hills of Athens but laid to rest in small, grey Providence. Bryan found out I was a creative writing major (I wanted a lucrative career…) and asked me to write a piece. He said there were no boundaries, no limits, just something true and authentic. Right away, I said ‘sure.’
Damn Matt. What are you going to write about, you’re a fiction writer, you tell lies and call them stories. You’ve never written anything true in your life. After a couple of days thinking on what I should put down, I decided to write about something I had never talked about before. Bryan’s point to make it authentic and providing a place for it to live gave me the balls to go all out. Nothing held back. It was called “The Invaluable Luxury of a Second Chance.” I’ll admit it was tough getting it on paper. But after the tears and anguish and memories washing over me, it was over. It was actually over.
My body felt underweight. Like a tumor I’d grown attached to had been extracted and what filled up was understanding, relief.
The response to my piece was incredible. Thousands of people read it. I received messages telling me how raw and powerful it was. Truth has a way of settling in people’s hearts. To this day, I hope I will never feel as proud of a piece of writing.
He asked over the next few months leading up to and after my graduation if I’d be willing to help him edit a few pieces here and there. I thought ‘sure, why not.’ I was the unofficial associate editor to the Wish Dish. People wrote me back and forth asking me: a guy who didn’t have anything figured out beyond what he was going to do in the next three hours, to lay out their deepest thoughts in the best way possible. I was more than happy to help.
Nurturing a story, a narrative of a life coming from someone where he or she expresses themselves most through language, is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Fast forward a couple months after graduation, Bryan asked me to be the manager of all content. I said, ‘sure.’ Yup, I was on my way. But not everything was so smooth in my life.
For the better part of a year after taking on the role, I went through a rough time. A combination of a bad breakup, entrenched anxiety, depression, and post-graduation uncertainty sent me down a twister of drinking, erratic behavior, and self-destructive tendencies. Longstanding issues I chose to ignore for several years came back to the forefront, like a bad chemical reaction. I reverted into a version of myself who acted savage and selfish. Kept thinking you’re nothing you piece of trash and who do you think you are Mr. Writer? Those voices plagued every portion of my mind and drinking was one of the only things that made it quiet. Drink until it went black, that was the prescription.
The time was approaching for the Wish Dish One Year Anniversary. It had already been one year…my God. I began to accept that there was no escape from what I was about to witness. Bryan was about to finally integrate this eclectic community of writers and artists that all had one thing in common, the essence of truth. I was going all-in, a commitment. There’d be no bars or dark corners to hide in.
We’d pulled up to Nuci’s Space, this venue dedicated to the club owner’s son. Nuci was a talented guitarist on his way to becoming a real staple in the Athens music scene. But he took his own life at the age of 22. On the back wall right next to a stage riddled with guitars like a shrine there was this eight foot tall picture of Nuci standing in the middle of a field looking up to the sky. It looked like he was thinking why can’t I be up there, maybe if I jump high enough…and a jab of realization got me right in the mouth. That could have been me. It was a real possibility that if I let shit get bad enough then I probably wouldn’t be able to dig myself out. If the drinking got that bad, and kept on feeling bad for myself–Right now I could be sailing the clouds up there with Nuci looking for a place to land on the sun. After a full year of looking through hundreds of stories from hundreds of people, I realized that apart from having the love and support of a wonderful family, these stories had formed me and kept my legs planted on the ground.
During the long nights of barhopping, sometimes alone, finding a shadowed corner to paint with my self-pity, waking up early trying to remember how I got back, I’d check the site and make sure everything was running smoothly. Bryan counted on me to get these stories together, these people were depending on me. I thought I had been through some shit in my time but, I had no idea how much shit life throws at you until I read these stories, your stories. They, these men and women, had allowed me to gain a perspective that my life was nothing in the grand scheme if I didn’t want it to be anything. There was this center and that was the Wish Dish.
Instead of making meaning out of every day (my old motto), I wanted people to remember that I at least tried and that was all the meaning I’d need. I was ready to leave that jerkish asshole behind and start a new chapter of my life dedicated to a higher purpose greater than my own gain—But then, another wave hit me. I was in a riptide of revelation. Shit, all those people who’ve entrusted their words to you are going to be here tonight and you’re going to see them face to face. I was finally going to see each of them, talk to them, shake their hands. Oh for the love of shit, Matt, you’re just figuring this out now?! Anxiety was kicking in two-fold.
There was no distance, no invisible fourth wall to separate me from these people. Before, they were more ideas to me who had created beautiful language, like angels. Looking these people in the eye would be like a flashback from an acid trip and that freaked me out.
Standing still in the middle of the Nuci’s giving myself a 360 degree view, I was petrified again. I needed to see if I could slug a few beers to calm the nerves. The amount of relief is almost indescribable when I found out this event had an open bar. Never said I stopped drinking and, hey, I’m not perfect. After a few Tropicalias, I got to meet the rest of the incredible core of the Wish Dish staff.
Shelby Novak, our social media director, saw me. My face was a bit flushed from the beers, Irish red, and she straight-up hugged me. I could just feel that there was a kindness and good will emanating from her, I’d like to think I picked up a little bit of that. She had the Athens vibe, happy to help someone, to give someone a blanket on a cold spring night even when she might need it more.
Not too long after we had all the chairs set up, hung all the posters, and the microphone sound tested I saw the head of content strategy, Sam Dickinson. Dressed to the nines in a blazer, khakis, and a tie he made my blue button down with Polo sneakers a bit underdressed. He shook my hand with an earnestness I don’t see in many people. Along with being as tall as a redwood he’s a great guy, he’s genuine. We three had invested so much into giving people a voice in a world where words have increasingly diminished in their significance. People use them as throwaway symbols, like inconveniences suffered through for the sake of communication. This site and these people and most importantly these stories from young, old, sad, happy, empowered, victimized—they had come into this melting pot where each was celebrated and welcome.
The event went off without a hitch. I’ll let Bryan explain it from his perspective but just let me say that he is the core of this whole thing, a molder of culture. Believe it.
Nearly 200 people showed. That’s 200 stories I’ve read. How would they see me? Would I get criticized for my methods? Do they even know who I am? Did they think their stories were just magically put up on the site?
The amount of welcome and thanks I received shocked me to the foundation.
I talked with Tom Bestul, who had written a story about his experience at Camp Kesem, a camp for children whose families had been affected by cancer. His story inspired me to volunteer more. Another one was Megan Swanson, a former Miss Nebraska who gave her perspective on the highly criticized beauty pageant process. She helped to broaden my horizons. And Denna Babul’s story of love for her dying mother-in-law demonstrated how strong a bond one can share with another. If only I could have talked to every single one of these people I would have relived every moment perusing their words. With each passing recollection and introduction the moments grew more surreal. It might have been the beer but the whole event seemed to gather this arid, temperate hue like the words exchanged between all these storytellers was adding substance to the air, filling a void. I don’t know, maybe I was sloshed. But it was beautiful nonetheless.
First I want to thank Bryan for allowing me to make the closing remarks. Standing up there, the crowd stared, all focus magnified on me like was under a hot beam on an ant hill. Matt what the hell are you going to say you have nothing prepared you never prepare for anything but can you ever be prepared for the truth, truth, yes, the truth just tell the truth—And this is a rough cut of what I said, it is a thanks to all you contributors, past and present.
Hey everyone, I’m Matt Gillick and I’m the chief editor. I’ve read all your stories and for that—well let me first that I’m sorry for any mistakes I made for any of your pieces—I’m not perfect but I try. I just thought that it would be decent of me to say a few words and to thank you all. Thank you guys for taking such a risk, not necessarily a physical risk but an emotional risk in entrusting me to nurture your words and publish them for everyone to see. Someone whom you’ve never met before and haven’t seen until right now got to see the inner you and what really makes you tick. Through language you showed me a corner of your soul. I wanted to let you all know that you are all incredible people. I have been shaped by your stories, every one of them. Let me finish by saying hopefully one day I can be a fraction of the person you all are now—when I’m older and greyer.
Later on I walked outside, into the evening. There wasn’t a chill rolling from the hills anymore. Downtown was lit up and beckoning. Bryan patted me on the back as we looked out into the night, about eight Tropicalias deep, and I was happy.
For the first time in a while, I was happy.