I hung out with one of my close friends last night. I hadn’t seen him in a while because I’d been sick, and then more sick, and then he’d been out of town. We sat on my couch for a few hours, catching up, swapping stories, and possibly consuming a sugary substance. And when he left I realized us hanging out had been like taking a nice big gulp of fresh air.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn’t want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

There’s something special about good friends. They make us feel more connected, more grounded, and more known. So I’m taking a moment out to appreciate all the awesomeness that is a good friend.

  1. A good friend sometimes contacts you, out of the blue, just because.
  2. A good friend will sometimes let you pick where you’re going to eat, like when you’ve been having a sushi craving for the last week and a half or a peanut butter pie craving forever.
  3. A good friend lets you tell a weird story that kind of doesn’t have any point but is also kind of interesting. Hopefully.
  4. A good friend respects you and your opinion.
  5. A good friend listens.
  6. A good friend calls you on your bs.
  7. A good friend participates in your annual birthday week glut of celebrations with good humor.
  8. A good friend doesn’t mind when you call them up crying.
  9. A good friend talks to you about their life: their excitements and their problems and their thoughts and their hopes.
  10. A good friend asks you about your life too.
  11. A good friend celebrates with you when something happy happens and comforts you when something sad happens.
  12. A good friend doesn’t judge so you can relax and really be yourself.
  13. A good friend tells you when something is wrong.
  14. A good friend doesn’t make you feel bad for feeling how you feel. But a good friend also helps you stop wallowing.
  15. A good friend can tell when you’re interested in someone even when you weren’t intending to talk about that.
  16. A good friend knows you aren’t perfect and likes you anyway.
  17. A good friend takes an interest in your dog just because they know how much you love her.
  18. A good friend asks about your book. But they don’t ask how the agent hunt is going because they know you’d tell them if there was anything interesting to tell.
  19. A good friend laughs with you. A lot.
  20. A good friend understands when you have to say no.
  21. A good friend knows how to empathize.
  22. A good friend knows how to have fun.
  23. A good friend can geek out with you about whatever you both love: Star Trek, or Settlers of Catan, or Orphan Black, or dancing, or London, or baking cookies, or something else.
  24. A good friend believes in you.
  25. A good friend sometimes offers to bring you soup when you’re sick. Or tissues. Or cough medicine.
  26. A good friend tells you how much you mean to them.
  27. A good friend allows you to be silly. Even very silly.
  28. A good friend doesn’t push you when you don’t want to talk about something.
  29. A good friend lets you make your own decisions.
  30. A good friend knows who you are.

What does being a good friend mean to you?

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

In the last month and a half, I have fallen headlong in love….

with a new hobby.

Blues fusion dancing, to be specific.

I will give a practical definition of what that means to this beginner dancer (by which I mean, take my definition with a grain of salt). Blues fusion is a partner dance (mostly), but it is a lot more loose and less defined than any other partner dance I’ve tried. And you can incorporate styles and moves from many other partner dances, like the various types of swing, or tango, or salsa, or even waltz. Someone told me the fusion part means you dance mostly to modern music, but also not always.

I know, it’s all very indefinite and fluid. That’s probably part of the reason why I like it. (There’s also a lot of history behind it that I am not entirely clear on, which I suspect might elucidate it further.)

A good friend of mine started blues dancing sometime last year, and she told me about it, and I put it on my list of things I wanted to try sometime this year, because a.) I love dancing, b.) it was possible my ankle might actually survive the experience since it had been doing better, c.) trying new things (and new dances!) can be lots of fun, and d.) I love my friend. So at the beginning of February, when we were chatting on the phone, I told her I wanted to come. And she said great, come over to my house on Thursday and we can carpool.

Thus, a passion was born.

I knew right away, too. The room was crowded with strangers, and I had no idea what was going on, having never attempted blues fusion before (or even really having a clear idea of what it was). I was wearing jeans, which were too hot, and socks because I didn’t have appropriate dancing shoes, which meant I was in constant fear of my feet being stepped on. I forgot to bring a hair band. I told every person I danced with it was my first time blues dancing, in the hopes they’d be generous and forgive any massive blunders I might make. I tried to follow my partners, and sometimes I failed. By the end of the night, my calves were screaming and my ankle was basically okay.

And it was glorious. Completely rush-to-the-head, fill-the-heart-to-the-brim, this-is-exactly-where-I-want-to-be glory. When I say I fell in love, I’m not being facetious. I fell HARD. Even with the uncomfortable bits, the “I don’t know what’s going on” and the “so many strangers in one place while I’m feeling super vulnerable” and the “I’m making a lot of mistakes” bits.

So I went again, and this time I didn’t tell everyone I danced with that I didn’t know what I was doing, and I tried to relax. That was it, my one goal of the evening: to relax into this new activity and new space. It was hard. I loved it all the more for the challenge.

And then, dear reader, I ordered shoes.

Canvas dance sneakers (shown) and character shoes, to be precise.

Canvas dance sneakers (shown) and character shoes, to be precise.

I knew. I knew I was in love. I knew what I wanted. My wonderful trainer/body worker was on board. My ankle was, surprisingly enough, continuing to cooperate. “You’re very committed,” my friend said to me. And I laughed, because of course I’m committed. Commitment has never been a problem for me when I know what I want. “Is there a boooooy?” another friend wanted to know. I shook my head and laughed again.

Why, Amy? Why are you so passionate about blues fusion?

I love the dance. I love moving my body in time to the music, and I love working on controlling my body. I love getting stronger. I love the endorphins. I love pushing myself. I love losing myself in the motion and the rhythm and the focus.

I love the unspoken physical communication between me and my partner. I love watching, and listening, and feeling, and making art with other people. I love learning. I love getting dizzy.

I love to play. I love to experiment. I love to express myself and my moods through dance, whether grace or flirtation or exhilaration or absolute silliness.

I love (yes, I’m going to admit it) that I finally have someplace to wear all the adorable dresses that up until now have been hanging forlornly in my closet, unworn.

I love the community. I love how friendly people have been. I love sharing my joy in the experience with other people. I love the kindness of the leads who give me feedback and help me improve. I love the passion for dance that is on constant display.

Why have I fallen in love? Because blues fusion makes me feel one hundred percent ALIVE. And that, my friends, is something worth giving my heart.

This weekend I went to a party that was basically a room full of Buddhists…and me.

Does that sound like the set-up for a joke?

Anyway, I really enjoyed hanging out with these people because they were all kind and authentic and heartfelt, and also there was a lot less small talk than usual at a party where I don’t know anyone, and as we’ve already kind of touched upon, small talk tends to bore the crap out of me, especially in large doses. (And as an aside, I haven’t gotten to ask anyone yet about the coolest thing they’ve ever done, but I am SO looking forward to it.)

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

I also had to speak in front of the group, in impromptu fashion, and I mentioned in passing that I had found my own way to work towards wholeheartedness. Afterwards, more than one person was very interested in hearing about my “practice,” and I found myself struggling to put it into words. I didn’t have a convenient sticker like “Buddhism” to slap onto myself and how I move through life.

And yet, it didn’t seem like an odd question, because I do have a practice. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time probably know a lot about it because I tend to write a lot about it, but it doesn’t have a specific label. It is a combination of many different parts, some of which would be very familiar to a Buddhist: mindfulness, introspection, and compassion, as well as a focus on priorities and strategies and investigations into how the world works and how I work.

But what I found myself saying more than once was this: I am an artist. That is my practice.

I am an artist. That is my community.

Music has always been my foundation and solace. It reminds me how joy feels. And writing, well, writing changes me. There was that moment when I realized I couldn’t separate myself from my writing. I was in my writing, whether it was in these essays or in my fiction, and therefore I wanted to strive to be the person I wished to see in my work.

And art is a practice. It’s all about practice, whether you’re repeating vocal exercises or the difficult end passage of that aria, or whether you’re memorizing music, or whether you’re writing two essays a week and a thousand words a day. Art is trying new things and challenging yourself, pushing yourself to your limits and then coming back tomorrow and finding your new limit and pushing yourself again. Art is in the way you see the world, and it becomes entangled in the way you interact with the world.

For me, there came the point where I saw my entire life as one long continuous work of art. It’s a fun way to live.

In thinking about all this, I also realized how important community is to any practice. Because yes, writing changed and continues to change me, but I don’t know that I would have had the courage to let it without the writing community by my side, helping me and educating me and supporting me and cheering me on. It is hard enough to transform without doing it in isolation. It is easier to challenge yourself when you are surrounded by people who understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Aside from a renewed sense of gratitude for my own community, I left the Buddhist party with the following awareness: that there are so many ways to travel in the same direction and so many ways to reach the same, or a similar, destination. There are so many ways to have and cultivate a practice. There are so many ways to embrace change. There are so many ways to strive and grow and learn.

There is no one right way.

The Buddhists and I, we’re really not all that different. In that room, we each of us had a practice, parts of which were different and parts of which were the same.

O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Surely you are a mythical creature, or if not mythical, then at least exceedingly rare (and definitely not approximately half the population).

O Woman, your skin is so soft, your breath is so sweet, your eyes are so large (enhanced, as they are, by the cosmetics industry trying to make them soft and sweet and as much like a doe’s or an anime character’s as possible). And behold, you have breasts, wonder of all wonders, and therefore you must be aware of them constantly as you move through your life with them at the helm.

O Woman, I do not wish to pierce the veil of your Mystery. I do not wish to contemplate that you think as I think, that you feel as I feel, that you dream as I dream, and that you bleed as I bleed. It is your tantalizing Difference that attracts me, and therefore must we not be different in many respects?

A Mythical Creature

A Mythical Creature

Because, O Woman, haven’t you heard? The female brain is different, in the essentials, from the male brain. This is because of evolution. It has nothing to do with socialization and our society’s obsession with gender but is one hundred percent about biology.

When you get grumpy, O Woman, I will condescendingly explain that it is PMS. (Even though it could be that you’re hungry, or that you’re tired, or that I’m being a condescending ass.) When I don’t immediately understand your behavior, I will assume it is because of Mystery. (Even though I could instead use my words and attempt to communicate.) And when you are right about something, I will attribute your success to Feminine Intuition. (Even though intuition is a tool used by both men and women in both the Arts and the Sciences, and you may simply be right because of Intelligence.)

O Woman, you are so alluring. You make me do things. You make me lose control. It’s because of the clothes you wear, or maybe it’s the way you smell, or maybe it’s simply because you are mythical and therefore I must Possess you. You are so confusing that your no doesn’t mean no the same way my no means no. Of course not. Your no contains infinite meanings, all of which allow me to experience your Mystery exactly the way I want.

I deserve you, O Woman. You are my promised prize, my reward for existing in a world in which we all suffer. And when you lead, you are bossy, and when you raise your voice, you are strident and shrill. And when you cry, you prove that you are indeed the weaker sex because emotions, as we all know, equal fragility. A real man doesn’t cry, and an unreal man is even more mythical than you.

O Woman, you are so mysterious to me. Let me use your Mystery to make you disappear.

My grandmother was raised during the Great Depression. She knew how to be frugal, and she’d save aluminum foil in order to re-use it later. That’s how I understood frugality as a small child: saving things you had now because you might need them again later.

There is nothing wrong with frugality or avoiding waste. But when frugality progresses to a pervasive feeling of scarcity, then we might begin to have a problem.

What does the world look like when viewed through the lens of scarcity? There is never enough, and whatever we do have might be taken from us at any time. There isn’t enough money, there isn’t enough food, there isn’t enough of the yummy cake from which we wanted another slice. There isn’t enough time. There aren’t enough friends, aren’t enough activities, isn’t enough love to go around.

Photo Credit: GDidi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: GDidi via Compfight cc

And what about the complex we get about missing out on things? When the cool kids are always at the next activity or the next bar or the next party, and we’re thinking about what they might be doing or what we could be doing instead of paying attention to what we’re actually doing.

When we live in a world of scarcity, we are saving for a rainy day but aren’t very likely to recognize the rainy day when it comes. We are thinking about what we don’t have or what we might lose instead of being able to enjoy the moment, right now, in which we are who we are and we have what we have. We cling tightly to what we have even if we don’t even want or need it.

We are afraid.

Having been raised in a culture of scarcity, I struggle with this all the time. I was talking to a friend about the opportunity cost of going to an event, and he laughed and said, “What, twelve bucks?” And I had to consciously remind myself, oh yeah, Amy, twelve dollars isn’t actually a lot of money.

I was cleaning out my closet a few months ago, and I had to try on almost every piece of clothing to show myself, Hey Amy, see, it really is too big, so you for sure don’t need this anymore. (And those clothes are still folded neatly in stacks and haven’t yet made it out the door to Goodwill.)

When I need to say no to someone, I have to remind myself: yes, Amy, there will be other opportunities to see this person. There will be other chances to show them I care. There will be time.

Sometimes I take the idea of seizing the day way too seriously.

And so I’ve taken to giving myself these gentle reminders, repeated day in and day out. I’m slowly changing the way I’m thinking about scarcity versus abundance. There will be more. There will be enough. Somehow these things will work themselves out.

There will be a tomorrow.

And if I don’t re-use the aluminum foil, if instead I chuck it into the recycle bin, it probably won’t make much of a difference.

The Tipping Point

I’ve been sick this week, which isn’t exactly surprising since I just got back from the Rainforest Retreat, which means airplanes and airports and hanging out late with writers who are sick and sleeping not especially well in the strange cabin bed and working my butt off.

I’m not seriously sick, I just have a cold, and so I’ve almost been enjoying watching how everything slows down. Because I don’t have a lot of energy, my life as a result gets pared down to its essentials: putting on clothes, feeding myself and the dog, taking the dog out, drinking ridiculous amounts of fluids. And then, you know, trying to put at least a few words down through the fog of illness.

And now of course I’m sitting down to write this blog post, and my main thought is, how do I make being sick compelling? And I probably can’t, of course, because the overriding experiences of being sick are those of physical misery (throat that burns every time you swallow, limbs that ache and feel strangely heavy, tightness at the temples) and tedium (because you’re really too tired to do much of anything), and neither of those are particularly interesting. Being sick sometimes feels like the spaces between when all the good stuff might happen.

But the spaces between do give me time to reflect on the good stuff. So I’m going to tell you a story. It is about a tipping point. Unlike being sick, tipping points do tend to be compelling because they represent that moment when everything our unconscious minds have been working on coalesces and comes out into the open. And then we, story-loving creatures that we are, turn that into a narrative of the tipping point.

The time: About a month ago, a Sunday evening. The place: My living room, the same chair I’m sitting in now, in fact. It’s an awful-looking chair, I’m told, but I don’t even see it when I look at it anymore. I just know it’s comfortable.

I’d spent a few hours earlier in the evening working on tax-related stuff, and now I’m making a hard phone call. Also, I’m irritated. And I have hurt feelings. Nala lies at my feet.

So I’m sitting there trying to have this conversation, and honestly, this is not a real conversation I’m having. I mean, there are words coming out of both of our mouths, but I’m certainly not being myself, nor have I ever been myself with this particular person (a reality that has been troubling me), and I have no idea who I’m actually talking to. It’s all mirrors and masks and a maze made of brick and a series of painfully careful steps leading to this moment.

And I’m engaged in some waste-of-my-time chain of thought, and then all of sudden, I interrupt it. It is so abrupt that before I have time to think about it, I blurt the interruption out loud: “This is not my problem.”

Not my most tactful moment, but that sentence continues to resonate in my mind. This is not my problem. And most of my other emotions fall away, and I’m left with a sense of profound relief. Because this is not my problem, and that means I don’t have to do a thing about it.


And I didn’t. I let it go. I was grinning like a maniac for several days, and the next day I sat down and wrote “What I Really Did Last Summer.” Because now I could see that what had kept me from writing it before was, in fact, not my problem either. I could see that all that careful footwork had gotten me precisely nowhere except all tied up in knots and estranged from authenticity. And why? For something that wasn’t even my problem in the first place.

My most adorable problem.

My most adorable problem.

I’ve spent much of the past month noticing what else is not my problem. It’s an interesting exercise. It doesn’t remove all the hurt or disappointment from life, but it does remove a lot of stress. It turns out there are many things I thought were my problems that really aren’t. So many situations I don’t have to fix, so many people I don’t have to charm or make feel better. Which means I have a lot more energy to throw at the things that actually are my problems, like making my current novel as awesome as possible or getting myself to Rainforest and back or hydrating obsessively to get rid of this cold.

And now that I’m sick and everything has slowed down, I can sit back and appreciate this feeling of having fewer problems, of letting other people do what they’re going to do while I take care of myself.

I could get used to this feeling. It feels like happiness.


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