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Well.

This was supposed to be a bright, happy, bouncy post. And we will get there, never fear. But now that I’ve sat down to write it, I find I want to provide a little context for where we’re going.

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I believe there is value in documenting the grieving process, so this is what has been happening.

My friend Jay died two months ago now. And in those two months, I have taken an emotional beating. Close readers of this blog apparently already know this, so now I’m just taking the final step and being explicit.

Very little of this beating has had much of anything to do with Jay’s death. His death was a catastrophe that put me in a vulnerable place, yes, and apparently that’s all it took to allow floods of bullshit to wash in.

I was going to call it drama, but let’s call it what it is, shall we? And sadly, much of it is bullshit, plain and simple.

I’m exhausted. And my tolerance for such things has dropped to historically low levels. I am considering keeping it there.

An unfortunate side effect of all of this is that I’ve had to put my grief on hold while I deal with other things. Yes, it’s a luxury to even be capable of doing so, but it is still not a situation that makes me happy. In my experience, putting grief on hold has a tendency to backfire in unfortunate and sometimes unpredictable ways. Not ideal. Not at all.

But that is what is happening. Hey presto, context!

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In more fortuitous news, I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. A blissful, well-deserved, drama-free, AMAZING vacation. I can’t wait.

And in the meantime, I have signed up to participate in GISHWHES, otherwise known as the GREATEST INTERNATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

At this point, I think my belief that sometimes things need to be shaken up is well documented on this blog. And there is no better time to shake things up than when life is being unfortunate. So I am extra super excited to be spending next week doing something completely different and outside of my comfort zone.

It should be especially exciting because improv makes me nervous, doing strange things in public makes me a little nervous too, and me crafting doesn’t so much make me nervous as it often yields results that are suboptimal (and possibly hilarious). Or else I’m just kind of slow. Seriously, the only C I’ve ever gotten in my life was in 6th grade art because it took me so long to complete each project. Pushing Amy out of her comfort zone? Check check check.

On the other hand, writing a real online dating profile for Nala? I am so all over that. (Yes, this was a real task from last year.)

I am sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

I am a sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

The founder of GISHWHES, Misha Collins, has this to say about the hunt: “GISHWHES is about creating art, pushing boundaries, perpetrating acts of kindness and, ultimately, redefining our perception of “the possible.””  And I am 100% behind all those things, as a creative person, sure, but more fundamentally, as a human being. It’s so easy for our view of the world, and of ourselves, to become limited and stagnant, and it is so important to do what we can to work against this trend.

I’m hoping I’ll have time to post updates on the blog over the course of the next week on how things are going in GISHWHES land, but I’m not sure how all-consuming it is going to be. So I will be playing it by ear. (Gasp!)

Meanwhile, I’ll be remembering, and gleefully celebrating, that life is what you make of it, one day at a time.

The Secret Keeper

Theodora Goss’s latest post cracked my head open, and thoughts have been pouring out ever since. There are at least three essays I could write in response to it.

This is one of them. It is about secrets.

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Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

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I have forged myself into a receptacle for keeping secrets. I have been a reliable secret keeper for twenty-five years. I know things I wish no one would ever need to know.

People tell me their secrets. Mostly men, because I’ve made an inadvertent lifelong study of being the type of woman men confide in. I’ve only realized this recently, and I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I am going to do about it. Is it so bad to be a secret keeper for other people?

I think it actually might be, at least in certain circumstances, because after a while, I disappear in the sea of secrets. The narratives unfold, and I allow them so much space that eventually I compress into hardly anything at all. Being a secret keeper can be hazardous to your health. It takes a master to prevent their encroachment and hold them where they belong.

Can I be a master? Perhaps.

Do I want to be? This is an entirely different question. I think I do, but only when my own secrets get to be a part of the sea.

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There are two types of people: those who, at the slightest hint of anything difficult in conversation, become distinctly and obviously uncomfortable, and those who aren’t afraid of talking about the hard stuff.

There are two types of people: those who know how to listen, and those who have never trained themselves to hold space for another person.

The ideal secret keeper doesn’t blink an eye at the hard stuff, and she holds space without a trace of judgment. The secret teller can then unburden himself in safety.

There is an art to creating trust.

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I have plenty of secrets. I don’t think about them all of the time, even most of the time, but when I do, I feel like they might choke me.

I turned keeping secrets into a modus operandi back in middle school, and I never looked back. My survival, I was convinced, depended on my ability to keep all these secrets that no one would understand. The idea of gossip about me was unimaginably horrible.

So I simply never told anybody anything.

It worked, too. And to this day I don’t think I made the wrong choice.

Then again, I still sometimes say very little indeed. So of course I agree with my past self. Of course.

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I have secrets I might be literally unable to talk about. I do not have the words. I am a writer without words, which as you might imagine, can be disconcerting. I might have to create a whole new language in order to express these secrets accurately.

I do not have the words because that’s what happens when something is traumatic enough. The trauma leaches words of meaning, and it blanches them bone white so they are hard to distinguish.

You read about avoidance of talking about trauma, and you think, oh, that must be like when you avoid cleaning your bathroom. But it is nothing like avoiding cleaning the bathroom. It is more like, your bathroom lacks the coherence and structural integrity to be able to clean. But it’s still sitting there needing to be cleaned all the same. So then you have to rebuild the entire freaking bathroom just so you can clean it.

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Secrets are bad for your health. This seems relevant to the current discussion. It is why one bothers to go to all the trouble of rebuilding the bathroom. Which, any way you slice it, is a huge pain in the ass.

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Right now this blog post is a secret. But tomorrow morning it will go out into the world, and the act of you reading it will transform it into something else.

Now that you have reached the end, it is no longer a secret. It is something we know together.

I love selfies.

I know there is a lot of judgment swirling around the idea of the selfie, along with a lot of criticism. Apparently there are many of us who are ultra super threatened by the idea of someone else posting a photo of themselves…because…?

Heaven forbid someone else feel comfortable with how they look. Or experiment with identity through appearance. Or make a bold statement: THIS IS WHO I AM, WORLD.

This is who I am.

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OMG, world! This is who I am.

OMG, world! This is who I am.

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I was opening up the photo gallery on my phone to show a photo to my friend, and he was looking over my shoulder. “Wow, you have so many selfies.”

Yes. My phone is full of selfies.

When I find myself in front of the mirror, I make faces. I’ve done that ever since I can remember. I want to know what different expressions feel like. I want to be aware of the form of self-expression that is my body and my face. I want to know how I’m opening my mouth when I sing. I want to know how I perceive myself from the outside, just as I want to know who I am from the inside. And I want to know how the inside and the outside interact.

Mirror, selfies, what’s the difference? Mainly that I can use the selfies to trace the development of my identity over time.

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Justine Musk has smart things to say about the phenomenon of the selfie:

“I don’t buy that every time a young woman (or an older woman) posts a selfie, she is seeking external validation and approval because she’s so insecure. She is telling a story about who she is – I’m the kind of woman who goes to Positano – and in this very act of declaiming her identity, she continues to create it.”

Selfies tell a story, just as status updates tell a story, just as blog posts tell a story, just as autobiographies tell a story, just as how you behave when with other people tells a story. This is a story of identity, and when it is about your identity, it is one of the most important stories you will spend your life telling.

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Selfies have another important purpose; they are one way to disrupt the narrative of low self-esteem, of constant self apology, of being afraid of taking up space. Because they are prone to receiving judgment, they become a way to face that judgment and say, “You know what? I don’t really care what you think about me.”

They are a way to reclaim a love of self.

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We are afraid of this love of self. We throw around words like narcissistic and selfish very freely. There are people who are narcissistic. There are people who are selfish. And then there is everyone else, people who are afraid to “brag” and “toot their own horns.”

Please tell me, what’s wrong with liking yourself? What’s wrong with liking specific aspects of yourself, whatever those may be? Maybe you like the way you look. Maybe you like your smile, or your eyes, or your teeth that are pleasingly straight after years of orthodontic torture. Maybe you like the way you play soccer, or the way you’ve become an expert on geopolitics, or the way you paint, or the way you can walk out of a party with five new friends.

I fail to see what’s wrong with any of that. Good for you! And good for you for celebrating yourself. I want to celebrate you too. There is a difference between being humble and not allowing yourself to appreciate your positive qualities and accomplishments or acknowledge them in any way.

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Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

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And what’s wrong with taking selfies? As far as I’m concerned, nothing at all. A selfie is just one more tool for expressing who we are.

 

 

My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

Around my birthday, I received a request to write on the blog about my thoughts on aging. It’s a fabulous topic but oh so loaded, so I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about what to say.

I could spend the next five hundred words dancing around the topic, and we all might be a little more comfortable if that’s what I did (I certainly would), but here’s the truth. My views on aging are inescapably tied to my own present experience, and my own present experience is as a woman of a certain age, and a single woman, no less. And what society and the media tells me about women like me is not palatable. I have to expend a certain amount of energy rejecting the negative messages I’m receiving, and even so, I sometimes internalize them by accident.

This is not pretty, but it is reality.

Like it or not, we live in a society that places a very high value on youth and on physical appearance. Women in particular receive constant messages from a very young age that their primary value comes from their appearances, appearances that will inevitably, because of our cultural beauty standard, fade with age. Aging, then, forces us to redefine our own value and place in the world. Women are also more likely to be defined in media by their relationships to others. By a certain age, if they’re in the movies at all, they’re most often somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife, and beyond these roles, they aren’t very fleshed out. (Television seems to do a bit better, which is why I adore Gilmore Girls, for example, in which the main character Lorelai, in spite of being a mother, consistently defines herself.)

So there are some obvious problems here, and earlier this year, I began to feel a new uneasiness about my age. I heard a comment about how it’s all downhill for a woman after 30, and I was unable to deflect. So instead I felt anxious and self-conscious about my age, and then I hit a mini-crisis point. A new acquaintance asked me point-blank how old I was, and my knee jerk response was to refuse to answer. That had never been who I was–I’ve never had any problem telling someone how old I am–but in that moment, I saw that it could become who I was, that I had begun to buy into the absurdity of belittling myself because of my age.

I had reached a crossroads, and after some reflection, I realized that no, this was not okay. We have to embrace who we are–ALL of who we are–and our ages are a part of that. There is nothing to be ashamed of there, whatever society may tell us, and if the question is framed in such a way as to create that shame, that’s on the other person. If my answer causes disappointment or judgment, well, that’s not a person who is going to enrich my life in any case.

And I told the acquaintance my age without apology.

When I contemplated which candles to buy for my “Come as You Aren’t” party, I decided to buy 5 and 0 because if I was coming as I wasn’t, I wanted to come older than I am. I wanted to say, my life would be just as awesome the way it is if I were 50. My age does not matter. My life is defined by myself and by the priorities I have carefully chosen. Not by my appearance. Not by my relationships to others. By me.

You know what I'm not thinking here? "Do I look old?" Nah, I'm thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I've worn a tie, oh my!

You know what I’m not thinking here? “Do I look old?” Nah, I’m thinking, lightsabers and tiaras and this is the first time I’ve worn a tie, oh my!

And I like being who I am. I feel more attractive than I did ten years ago, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I have such a greater understanding of who I am. When I look in the mirror, I don’t think, “Wow, I look old.” I think, “Hey, I look happy today” or “I’m tired, I need to start going to bed earlier” or “I need to open my mouth more vertically for that belted note” or even “I like the way I look.” Heaven forbid.

We think so much about age as a physical thing, and in particular how it affects the way we look. But part of age is very much an internal thing. Sometimes I feel vastly old, and sometimes I feel bright and new. (This feeling may or may not be correlated to how much sleep I’ve been getting.) Sometimes I have the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, and other times I have the world-weariness of a sixty-five-year-old. I can be as naive as a ten-year-old and as wise as a seventy-year-old. All on the same day!

Much more important to keep in mind, then, is a commitment to openness, to change, to flexibility and resilience. Much more important to cultivate is a sense of humor. Much more important to remember is to see the beautiful parts of the world as well as the painful parts in order to keep some lightness of spirit.

Because in the end what matters is not our age but who we have chosen to be in whatever time we’ve had.

I’ve been meaning to write about my birthday party, which happened a few weeks ago at this point. The theme was “Come as you aren’t,” a brilliant idea that was originally suggested by my friend Mike on this blog. It took me almost a year and a half to implement the idea, but it was completely worth the wait.

I dressed up as a hipster Jedi princess:

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

We also had some unusually smartly dressed people, a belly dancer, another Jedi complete with Hawaiian shirt (yes!), and a whole host of other oddments of apparel. It was a fun spice to add to an evening of celebration.

And here's me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

And here’s me with Petyr Baelish for good measure.

I have a confession to make: the obligatory singing after the cake candles have been lit usually makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I always do it anyway at my birthday parties because I tend to get attached to traditions, even ones that cause me slight awkwardness. But it’s hard to be the center of attention when I’m not DOING anything. I don’t usually know where to look or what to do with myself. I kind of wish I could sing along.

But this year, the moment of singing was the most memorable and the most touching. I didn’t feel awkward. Instead I felt surrounded by the love and support of my friends who had gathered in my overly hot apartment to celebrate the fact that I exist and that we get to know each other. I felt caught up in a strangely physical experience made of singing and proximity and affection, like I was receiving a hug from all my friends, even those who couldn’t make it.

I’ve written about creating a chosen family of friends before, and this has been my most tangible experience of this. I used to be so afraid that having such a family was impossible, that the only way of receiving this support was through blood relatives and significant others. I’d comb the internet looking for people talking about chosen families, and I’d come up relatively empty-handed. Why was nobody talking about this? I didn’t know, but I held close the few examples I knew about. I needed the hope.

So when I say that I have never felt as loved and as safe as I did at my recent birthday party, I say it both to thank those of you who have touched my life so significantly and to pass that hope along to those of you who need it right now. Creating a chosen family of friends IS possible. Whatever your situation–if you don’t have much or any family in your life right now, if you are single, if you’ve moved to a new place, if you’ve been through a lot–none of this consigns you to a life of being alone and unconnected.

And of course it’s not just the birthday party. Regular readers of the blog may have noticed I’ve been having a tough time this last month and a half. But one of the things that has made it much easier than it otherwise would have been is the friends who have been reaching out to me. This time has been an inadvertent pressure test, and it has left me with the strong realization that yes, my life really is different now. I am different, and the relationships I have in my life are different, and these changes are a source of strength and solace.

And when it comes down to it, good friends will take you as you are, even when you come as someone different than you used to be.

Isn’t there a saying that everything in this life worth having requires a certain amount of risk?

If there isn’t, there should be.

Life doesn’t come with a guarantee.

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The trick, then, is figuring out what you’re willing to risk and what you’re not willing to risk. Or if you’re me, figuring out which risks are healthy and which risks are dysfunctional.

Fear, unfortunately, does not tend to be the most reliable indicator. Fear can exist for both positive risks and harmful risks. Sometimes we are more afraid of risks that will be good for us than risks that will be actively detrimental.

Sometimes we want to choose a risk that would be bad for us because those old unhealthy patterns are so very comfortable.

Sometimes what we want has nothing at all to do with the wise course of action.

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Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Martin Gommel via Compfight cc

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Here’s what happens when you aren’t willing to risk at all:

Nothing happens!

Unless life forces itself on you, which it has a habit of doing. So maybe a few things will happen. Eventually. Randomly. And inevitably. The days will pass, and you will get older, and the world will slowly change around you.

You can embrace stagnancy. Which, when you think about it, is actually a pretty big risk to take too. It just takes less effort.

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Here’s what happens when you are willing to take some risks:

Maybe you will fail, and you will be completely and absolutely devastated.

Maybe you will fail, and you will learn something.

Maybe you will fail, and you will realize it wasn’t very important to you after all. Or that it is SUPER important, and you are determined to keep trying.

Maybe you will fail, and you will see that you are strong. Maybe stronger than you think.

Maybe you will succeed!

Maybe you will kind of succeed, and end up taking some strange tangent, and it turns out to be the best thing that could have ever happened.

Maybe you will realize that risks are okay, and pain is okay, and disappointment is okay, and All the Emotions are okay.

Maybe you will succeed, and then you’ll realize you have to take ANOTHER risk. Darn it.

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The past few years, I’ve taken some big risks. Big enough that beforehand, I feel sick to my stomach, and I have to take deep breaths and make strange Amy hand gestures to convince myself to go forward.

(You think I’m kidding about the hand gestures?)

I’ve laid myself bare on the page. I’ve asked for what I needed, even when I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting it. I’ve said no, and I’ve said yes. I’ve taken a close look at things I don’t want to look at, and I’ve shared things I’ve been afraid to share. I’ve committed myself to change, and I’ve committed myself to holding boundaries that force me to acknowledge the painful behavior of others.

I have taken a few long shots, because the unlikely payoff would be so freaking beautiful, it makes the risk completely worth it.

I would take them again.

And I have failed

And I have lost.

And I have found things that are infinitely precious to me.

I have cried myself to sleep, and I have been blissfully happy.

And my life is so much richer for it all.

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Everything worthwhile in this life requires a certain amount of risk.

The choice is yours.

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