107 Mishka Shubaly
“I held, you know, Nate’s face as far away from me as I could so that he couldn’t hit me. And then with my right hand I tried to destroy him”
Mishka has an MFA in writing, but prefers to live out of his van while touring as a musician. He is a storyteller, a songwriter, and a shipwreck survivor.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): A note to listeners: I wrote this in the first week of April 2020 during a global pandemic.
I finally had a really good cry this week. The inciting incident wasn’t remarkable—I was just reading over something I wrote years ago when I was still in my parish. It was an essay about Holy Week and before I could even prepare for them, the tears came. At first I was crying from the grief of a beautiful time in my life that I will never have again. Then I was crying about Holy week this year being so completely fucked because we are all stuck in our homes. Then I was crying because I wondered, was I as present as I could have been during that time in my life? Then I was crying because I realized how similar this feels to when I look at pictures of my children from when they were toddlers—when I wonder if I was too caught up in the exhaustion and challenges of motherhood to have soaked up the magic of it. Then I was crying wondering if I only seem to appreciate the beauty of my life in retrospect. Then I was crying ‘cause I wish I had been a better mother and then I was crying because my friend Rachel died a year ago and I miss her.
I don’t know why grief’s delivery system is so inefficient like this, how it seems to drop off all it’s packages at once, no matter when they happen to have been shipped.
All I know is that when sadness shows up, it’s like it puts its foot in the door and waves in all it’s friends. We just can’t control the guest list. Compounded emotions like grief are just so unpredictable. And also, humbling.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. Today I’m speaking with someone who learned that anger’s delivery system is just as inefficient as grief’s. For listeners joining me in The Confessional for the first time, stay tuned after the interview for a blessing I’ve written just for my guest, but maybe also for you.
NBW: My guest today is Mishka Shubaly, he is a singer-songwriter, and I’m very curious, Mishka, what brings you into The Confessional today?
Mishka Shubaly (MS): Well, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, but I’m going to try to focus on one for today. I guess it was the spring of 1998, I was living in Denver and I just turned 21 and, young men at the age of 21, you’re not even human. You know, I lived with four other subhumans in a house off Colfax. We were all sort of in various stages of trying to drink ourselves to an early grave. And, at one point, we noticed that things were going missing around the house. My roommate Sam’s camera had disappeared, the VCR that my mom had given me had disappeared, a bowl of change from my room. And, you know, things had been bad for a while. But this was a new thing, there’d been an invasion of some kind, you know, somebody had come into our house and stolen stuff. And you know, my roommate, Kyle, you know, he was like, “Oh, there’s, you know, these roofers working next door, you know, it was probably them.” And I was like, “Nah dude. Like, I’ve seen those guys working there, they’re working there before we wake up, they’re busting their butts all day long, those are not thieves.” But I knew somebody who had a bone to pick with us and with me specifically, somebody who knew us, who knew our house, who knew we couldn’t be bothered to lock the doors. This guy Nate, who had been a friend of ours. When we were all moving into this house together, I got wind of the fact that both that he didn’t have the money for first month’s rent and also that he’d been using heroin, and I made the judgment call that considering all the other problems we had, we didn’t need to invite this into our home, too.
NBW: Like he was he was the wrong level of addict for the house of addicts.
MS: Exactly, yeah. You know, to be a drunk, I mean well hey, we were all drunks, you know, that was just how you lived. But heroin was crossing a line. And he swore, you know, publicly and, you know, in front of everybody, you know, the ways in which I was betraying him and how he would get revenge on me and all this stuff so it seemed obvious to me it was him. So despite Kyle, trying to get me not to do it, I picked up the phone. I called Nate. I was like, “Yo, I know what you did, we better not see you over here.” And he was like, “What?” you know, “what are you talking about?” And I was like, “You’re a thief. You stole from us.” I was like, “I don’t want to see your face ever again.” And he was like, “Well, I’m coming over right now.” And I was like, “That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m telling you to do. I’m telling you never to come here ever again.” He was like, “I’m getting in a car. I’m coming there right now.”
And Kyle is freaking out. You know, and Kyle is like, oh, you know, “Why did you call him? Like, why did you have to accuse him? Why, you know, why are you doing this?” And I loved Kyle and he was a couple years older than me and I really looked up to him. But he, his, you know, the rest of us held down jobs and Kyle was like drunk all the time and like, always sponging off his girlfriend and like, sponging off of everybody else. And I’d kind of like lost respect for him at that point.
So then Nate shows up and starts hammering on the door. And Nate was like, “Yo come outside, like, let’s settle this,” you know. And so I went outside and Kyle got between us and then he was like, “Oh, you’re gonna hide behind Kyle?” Right? So he was accusing me of being scared. I was totally scared, fighting sucks. And Nate was bigger than I was, I was a little bit taller than him but he probably had 50 or 60 pounds on me, and I was absolutely scared. But, I pushed Kyle out of the way and then Nate clocked me in the side of the head. And it hurt and when he hurt me, it’s like that fear turned into fury and I just became enraged not just at Nate for like breaking into our house and stealing stuff from us, but like, you know, enraged at the girl who had like was supposed to move to Denver with me and then had just dumped me out of nowhere. And I was enraged at like my cowardly housemates who had always left me to deal with the bad situations. And, you know, got mad at my mom and dad for bringing me into this world against my will, you know. With my left arm I held, you know, Nate’s face as far away from me as I could so that he couldn’t hit me, and then with my right hand, I tried to destroy him. You know. And Nate was tough and we fought for a long time and we fought all over the front yard.
MS: I hit him in the face and I was like, “Say uncle.” And he was just all bloody. And he said, “No.” I hit him three more times. And then I said, “Say uncle.” And he said, “Uncle, uncle.” And he got up, just blood all over him, just gushing down his shirt all over his face, and he was like, “Fine. You beat me, you won, but I’m not a thief.” And then I went back in the house and I was like, man, you know, like, I don’t even want to look at myself. Like Nate was so messed up, I was like, I’ve got to be destroyed. And I walked in the bathroom and like, my shirt was torn open and I was covered in blood like I was, I had jeans on and they were like shiny with blood, blood on my shoes. But the only blood that was on my face was like a spot on my forehead and when I went to wash it away it was just splatter. It was a drop of blood that had flown off of his face onto mine and my hands were chewed up from hitting him, but other than that, I didn’t have a mark on me.
NBW: Okay, so, like walk me through what happens next.
MS: So I went back out into the yard after like washing up and Kyle was out there and he was having an asthma attack just from watching me beat the snot out of Nate in the front yard. And I just, I felt horrific and I felt like a monster, but, but I also felt that I had done what my job was, what my duty was to protect my house.
So, a couple of months later and, you know, things had sort of just gotten worse in our house to the point where we finally had to put Kyle in rehab. I ended up moving to New York, and I had been in New York for I don’t know, maybe, six or eight years when I was in a bar and Dave, who had been another one of our roommates, walked into the bar and I was like, “Oh, my God. Dave, what’s up?” So we hugged each other and we sat down on our bar stools and kept drinking and kept talking. And then we were talking about like, you know, back in the day, and he was like, “You know, I really don’t think Nate did it.” And I was like, “You know, I really don’t think he did either.” And he said “I told my dad and what my dad said was the person who stole the things is the person in your house who had the greatest addiction.” And I looked at Dave and he looked at me and we both went, “Oh my God, it was Kyle.”
NBW: Oh, God. That’s why he was having an asthma attack.
MS: Because he watched me beat the snot out of Nate for something that he had done.
NBW: So Mishka, Let’s go back to that front yard in Denver for a minute. You said the rage you felt was suddenly not just about Nate but was about other things too, so, can you say more about what compounded anger feels like?
MS: Yeah, I mean, it was sort of like honeycomb, you know, where you have it all, you have all these different things that you’re angry about, separated by the little wall. And then one breaks and then the next one breaks and then they all break, you know. I will be absolutely clear that I owe an apology to Nate and I can’t say, you know, that I did more harm to myself than I did to him because who is the judge of that? Not me, you know. But I know in that moment that I did do damage to myself because it’s really, really ugly when you are forced to look at yourself and recognize your capacity for violence, how much anger are you carrying in your heart, how much fury you’re capable of.
NBW: It’s humbling, right? I mean, that’s the weird thing about, it feels like that kind of rage and violence, is like, I guess we label it as powerful, but when you realize it’s in you, it, I dunno, it’s humbling.
MS: It’s more powerful than we are. I still remember this very clearly over 20 years ago. You know, I mean that like, to hold him down and say uncle, and he said no and then I hit him three more times, and it sounded like when you drop uncooked chicken on the floor. You know, just that sound of like flesh impacting, and there was like splatter. It was horrifying, you know, I mean, literally had blood on my hands.
NBW: And it feels like such a juvenile thing to be like, “say uncle.”
MS: I know, and that’s one of the things is that it was like I was seven years old and we both were in that moment. I had a temper tantrum in my head, you know, but the reason I keep returning to this story in my head is because it has so many connections to other things in my life. You know, that when I was fifteen, a kid in my school got an assault rifle and shot a bunch of people at my school, shot six people, killed two of them, and changed our lives forever.
NBW: Oh man.
MS: Every year as the anniversary comes around, my Facebook timeline lights up with all my old classmates who are still, you know, like 25 years later, they’re still reeling from it, from losing a friend, from losing a teacher. And in that moment with Nate, with my old friend, I had loved Nate, we adored each other, you know, staying up late listening to John Prine and like drinking until the sun came up. But in that moment, I was trying to kill him. So it was so horrifying for me to have had that experience of like living through the school shooting and seeing firsthand the wages of violence and then still having that inside me.
NBW: Did you know the kid, the shooter?
MS: Yeah, we were on the basketball team together and I testified in this murder trial.
NBW: Was he bullied?
MS: Not that I saw, man, you know.
But like you to look at someone, you don’t, it’s impossible to see how they see themselves. You know, I mean, and that’s the thing is, you know, people, you know, look at me now and they’re like, oh you’re an accomplished writer or whatever. And they don’t realize I carry around in my head that, you know, the like 8 year old kid where the other kids were like, you’re gay, you know, or you’re fat or you suck. You know. ‘Cause we all carry that around inside us.
NWB: Yeah. Oh, my God, I do. I mean, one of the reasons I had to get sober was it’s like not safe for other people if I’m drunk because I have like anger issues.
NBW: So much so much fucking rage inside of me. Part of me is grateful. I mean, I was just brutally bullied, I had an autoimmune disorder that caused my face to look abnormal, and kids are just cruel. And I was so angry and I don’t know, I’m grateful to it because I think that rage protected something inside me. You know?
NBW: It kept something alive. But then it’s just you add drugs and alcohol and it’s just explosive, you know.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
NBW: Sometimes the thing that protected you is the thing that fucking tries to kill you eventually. And it’s just like knowing when that pivots, you know.
MS: The earth which fed you now consumes. Yeah.
NBW: Yeah. So tell me more about what happened with Nate. Did you ever make amends to him?
MS: I never went to AA so amends is not part of my program. You know, I quibble with the idea of amends, because, like, I can’t unpunch Nate. Right? I can apologize, but there’s no way for me to undo the harm that I did in this world.
NBW: Yeah, for sure.
MS: I don’t think I can be released from this. I think what I need to do is I need to carry this, I need to carry the dark knowledge with me that I got that day, that I have evil in my heart, that I have darkness, and I have rage, I have the capacity for violence. And I need to never forget that, you know?
MS: And you know what? It has absolutely guided my hand. You know, I was in New York at one point and a woman had her phone stolen right in front of me and I ran the dude down. And then when, you know, as when he, like, turned round, he knew that he was caught, that’s the time when I, you know, lead with your left and follow up with your right. Right? No, I stopped and I said, “Dude, give me the phone and walk away or we fucking go to war.” I gave him the option and he took it, he gave me the phone. I said, “I got you,” and I walked away and nobody was hurt. I got tackled on stage once in Chicago by this dude who was heckling me and I heckled back because that’s what I do for a living. And I hurt his feelings and he charged me on the stage, and I was very careful to use my long arms and keep him away from me, but not to punch him, not to hit him, not to do anything that would mean that he would fall off, hit his head on the corner of a table, and have his life changed forever. So, you know, it’s like I would love to go back and undo that moment, but then how would that change my life? I had to learn somehow how much capacity for destruction I carry.
NBW: I mean, I think when you have something like that inside of you to, like, deny it’s there isn’t great because it comes out. It just comes out. It’s going to come out in some weird way. I mean, it sounds to me like you, instead of battling it or pretending it’s not true, it sounds like you kinda just made friends with it. Like I see you, I see you over there.
MS: Yeah, yeah. Keep your keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Right?
NBW: Right, even the internal ones.
MS: Yeah. You know, I have grave misgivings about airing this story publicly because, you know, we live in a world now where, you know where violence is poison, you know, and, I mean, this is textbook toxic masculinity, you know. A couple of drunken idiots slugging it out, and but whenever I’m reluctant to tell a story, that’s how I know that it’s a story that’s important to tell.
We all, every single one of us, we all carry a terrible secret, we’ve all done things we’re horribly ashamed about—you can’t deny it, that’s the human condition. And we’re here not despite our weakness but because of our weakness, and the way that we’re gonna get through it is not by saying it doesn’t exist, but by sharing it, acknowledging it, connecting with each other because of it, communicating through it. And that’s how we get better, you know?
NBW: What more can we ask of ourselves in a way? I mean, we can’t ask that we don’t have flaws—-it’s just unreasonable. I think the only thing we can ask of ourselves is that when they rear their heads in such a way that so much damage incurs, that we fucking learn something from it. You know, like one of my children, Judah, when he was, oh gosh, maybe twelve, I got a call from Twist & Shout, the record store on Colfax.
MS: Yeah, yeah!
NBW: Saying that they had him in the back, he was caught shoplifting. And you know, I was humiliated, had to go get my kid. And he’d never, I don’t think it was a practice he had regularly, but he tried to steal this Doctor Who keychain, like such a nerd. It wasn’t even something cool, I’m like, not even a Ramones album? And when we’re driving away, I said, “Look, like it was really embarrassing for me to come and get you, and I don’t want to ever do that again. And so here’s what I want to tell you, is that I stole some candy when I was your age and I got caught, and I was so horrified that I just didn’t do it again.” And I said, “So, here’s the deal, you’re not going to be punished for this, because I want to see if you learned from it. So if you don’t steal again, you will never be punished for this. If you do steal again, you are going to pay compound interest on it.”
Right? The important thing is that you learn, not that you don’t make mistakes. So, I don’t know, I appreciate the way you told me the story and the sort of insights you had about it. Because you can kind of enumerate, here’s the shit that I haven’t done again yet, and that’s important. So thank you, Mishka for telling me about this. I’m really, I’m so grateful. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
MS: Yeah. I hate this story, but, you know, hopefully, this will sort of help in putting it to bed, you know.
NBW: Yeah, I hope so too. I hope so too.
A Blessing for Mishka:
Mishka, you mentioned how, before you beat the snot out of him, that you would sit in the basement with your friend Nate and sing John Prine songs. And I wonder if you ever sang that lyric, “An old man sleeps with his conscience at night, young kids sleep with their dreams,” from Prine’s song, The Late John Garfield Blues.
See, I am writing this blessing for you on April 8th 2020 and John Prine died yesterday.
So I offer you his words as a benediction for having told a story you didn’t want to tell about a thing you did you wish you hadn’t felt like you had to.
An action that caused your conscience to companion your sleep and not your dreams.
You spoke of needing to keep your capacity for violence close—to not take your eye off of what you are capable of.
I get that.
So yes, hold that dark knowledge you carry of the violence that is in you. Sleep with your conscience, Miska, but know that the anger you carry need not be weaponized to hide your fear, or to protect your seven year old boy-self, or to defend your manhood. But the anger you carry also need not be completely tamed.
Because maybe it is there for good, as in forever, but also as in for the benefit of those who need protecting and defending.
So, as you grow into an older man, may your rage be detoxified and repurposed.
Go ahead and lead with your left and follow up with your right when it comes to things like protecting drunk young men from themselves and getting some lady’s stolen cell phone back.
Sleep with your conscience.
But may you still dream like a young kid.
That is my blessing for you, Mishka, you, another child who’s grown old. I wish you a beneficent masculinity. John is gone now, and the world needs it.
NBW: Next time on the final episode of season one of The Confessional, I speak with a writer about some of her romantic regrets.
Melissa: That’s what 10 years of sobriety will get you.
NBW: It’ll get you not laid.
Melissa: Not laid. Total betrayal. No orgasm.
NBW: In the meantime, enjoy this confession from a listener in a segment I like to call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Destiny: Hi Nadia, this is Destiny from Boise. The shit that I am not proud of is that when I was in middle school I was dating this guy and we had this traumatic on-again off-again relationship that only thirteen year olds have the energy to maintain. And, after we had broken up, when I was in high school I ran into him at a store and I said hi and he called me a bitch and I got really upset but I didn’t actually do anything. He had moved out of town, he was just in town visiting, so after he left I told everyone that he had called me a bitch and I punched him in the face and broke his nose, and I maintained that story for way longer than I should have and now I don’t talk about it ‘cause I am really embarrassed. So that’s the shit that I’m not proud of, thanks.
Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message about an embarrassing moment I might play it on the show.
NBW: The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.