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Yes, I have now had the equivalent of a college education in blogging. I am taking a moment to bask in my sense of accomplishment.

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Basking achieved!

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I’ve been spending more time than usual over the past few months thinking about the future of this blog. Should I continue to post like clockwork two days a week? Should I experiment with length? With topics? With styles? What about Tumblr? Should I even continue to write the blog at all?

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My very first post on this blog was “Originality: Having Something to Say.” I spent some time last week muttering to myself: “What do I have to say? WHAT DO I HAVE TO SAY?” (Okay, that last wasn’t so much a mutter as an emphatic question.)

I think it’s important to periodically reflect on that question, as a blogger and also as an artist. Even if the answer is sometimes, “I have no idea.”

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I have heard the observation that blogging is inherently narcissistic, I suppose because it requires the belief that what you have to say matters. I’d argue that if you don’t value what you yourself have to say, it is perhaps not about narcissism as much as it is about a lack of self-esteem or self-confidence.

That is not to say blogging is for everyone. It really isn’t. Perhaps you don’t have a lot to say, and that’s fine. Perhaps you don’t want to post what you have to say publicly, and that’s fine. Perhaps you’d rather say what you have to say through fiction, or through visual art, or through film-making, or through Toastmasters, or through running for local office. Perhaps you want to keep your thoughts for yourself and yourself alone.

All fine, and none of it is automatically narcissistic. Since when did having something to say become equated with narcissism? Are we all just supposed to sit around in a state of complete apathy?

No, thanks.

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In a recent post, Penelope Trunk wrote: “Because he’s a good blogger, Noa blogs as he learns….” And a lightbulb lit up for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. I blog as I learn. That’s why I never run out of things to say: because I am always learning, and I’m always thinking about what I’m learning. Sometimes you, my readers, help me along the way with your insights and experiences. And then I get to learn even more.

Thank you for taking this journey with me, dear readers. I don’t know exactly what form this blog will take in the future, but I can’t wait to find out what we’re going to learn in year 5.

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Birthday Epiphany

I’m in the middle of birthday week. I really like birthday week. Even this year.

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I had this epiphany on Sunday night. I think it might come across as cheesy, or maybe simply incoherent. But I’m going to tell you about it anyway because it’s birthday week. That’s the great thing about birthday week. I feel completely comfortable asking everyone to humor me this week, and in general, people do. Even though most people don’t celebrate a birthday week themselves, it seems to be a concept that is easy for people to understand and get behind. Of course, that doesn’t give me license to be cruel or insensitive. But it means I can tell you stories that might lack a certain punch, and you’re more likely to bear with me.

Which is awesome. And is one reason why I am so fond of birthday week.

Here's another reason I love birthday week: Fun Times!

Here’s another reason I love birthday week: Fun Times!

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So, back to my epiphany. It was Sunday night, and even though birthday week had started on Saturday (or Thursday, depending on who you ask), the last couple of days had not been completely smooth sailing. I hadn’t let this spoil my fun, but I was definitely feeling tired. So I was thinking back on the rocky bits of the weekend, and suddenly my brain went ka-chink, and I had my epiphany. (Is that the way epiphanies work for other people? Like suddenly everything just clicks together and makes a lot more sense than it did five minutes ago?) The events of the weekend, I realized, had had no effect on the core of myself.

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Let me explain. (You’re bearing with me, right? Because birthday week?)

I wasn’t plagued by doubts: wondering if I’d done the right thing, or if I should have behaved differently, or did I do anything wrong, or how I could have avoided all unpleasantness.

I wasn’t trying to fix anything: the situation, any other person, or myself. I was perfectly content hanging out with Nala that evening, and if I hadn’t been, it felt as though I would have been perfectly all right not being completely content, too.

I didn’t think any less of myself. I didn’t think any differently about myself at all, really. Some stuff had happened. I hadn’t wanted it to happen, I had feelings about the fact it had happened, but I had responded to it to the best of my abilities. I knew there might be consequences in the future, but the future wasn’t right now.

My life, my circumstances, and my emotions were rippling in response, but the deepest parts of me were unmoved.

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I’ve always hated that saying about how people only have the power to hurt you if you give that power to them. Because I mean, really, if someone is determined to hurt you, it’s not a cakewalk to keep them from succeeding. If you’re being battered repeatedly by life, there is such a thing as getting really freaking tired.

But for the first time, I understood where whoever said that was coming from. I felt like I had a choice.

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I don’t know if this epiphany will stick. But if it does, I think it’s probably the best birthday present ever.

On Acceptance

I want to write about acceptance, but it’s tricky. I don’t know if I have any insight to offer. Maybe you have insight to offer me.

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There are some open questions about the stages of grief: how valid it is as a model, whether there are five stages or seven stages. But the stages, along with some religious thought, emphasize the culmination of grief and healing from grief as acceptance.

What is acceptance? At first glance, it seems to be agreeing with basic reality: This person is now gone. This person isn’t in my life anymore. This terrible thing did actually happen. (And of course, this can be true in situations that have nothing to do with death and still everything to do with grief.)

Or maybe acceptance can be thought of as letting go. Letting go of what used to be, or what you wanted to be, or what you thought was except it really wasn’t ever. Letting go of controlling what you cannot control.

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But I think acceptance encompasses something more than this.

Acceptance is also about understanding the reality of how life has changed because of what happened. Not just, this person died, but how is my life now different because of this death? Not just, this relationship ended, but what does mean for me to be single? Not just, my body doesn’t work the way it used to, but how do I have to live my life differently now that I don’t have certain physical capacities?

Acceptance involves integrating these changes, which can sometimes feel like consequences, into your life and into your concept of who you are.

Who am I now that I can no longer walk? Who am I now that I am no longer a spouse/sibling/parent/friend to this person? Who am I now that I have survived this terrible ordeal?

Who am I?

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Acceptance, I am beginning to believe, requires a generous amount of compassion for the self. Because as you sort out who you are in this new landscape, you are bound to find wounds and doubts and weaknesses and regrets. You probably won’t like everything you see.

But until you can love this new self, including any perceived drawbacks, including the tender and misshapen bits, I wonder if the process of acceptance can be completed.

I suspect it can’t.

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So then. When you are grieving, know this. It might be hard to remember, even impossible in this moment, but. You are still a beautiful and worthwhile individual.

You still shine with the light of a thousand stars.

Photo Credit: Skiwalker79 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Skiwalker79 via Compfight cc

I’m tired of writing about grief. I’m tired of feeling grief. But it’s important.

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I’m tired in general. The worst of the insomnia seems to have passed-for now, anyway-but I’m still very tired. It tends to hit me in the afternoon at a time when I usually have the most energy, and it’s all I can do to continue with activity. Sometimes I nap instead. Sometimes my stomach hurts for no discernible reason.

The last week or so, there’s been minimal drama in the rest of my life, which has been a blessing. I’m too tired to deal with it. In the meantime, I do what I do. I try to get work done, I do chores, I make plans, I go out. Everything feels somewhat flat and colorless. I do things because that’s what I do, not because I have a strong urge to actually do them. Fatigue encroaches on everything.

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An interesting part of grief, for me at least, is that a fresh grief tends to bring up old griefs that I’d hoped were buried and finished. So I’m not mourning for my friend and nothing else, oh no. That would be too simple. I’m mourning my childhood; and I’m mourning the people who have let me down, and the people I have let down; and I’m mourning the reality of death at all.

I’m learning a lot, and I speak about almost none of it.

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When my mom died, I spent a week at home surrounded by people. We had the memorial service at the end of the week, and then I drove back to college. And that was supposed to be the end of it.

But here is the important truth, so important that I’m writing this post right now even though I really don’t feel like it: grief doesn’t stop after a week. Grief doesn’t stop after two weeks. Grief takes the time it takes, and sometimes the time it takes is a very long time indeed.

Back at school, I wasn’t supposed to talk about what had happened. I was supposed to be fine. My grief made people uncomfortable. All the people who had surrounded me at home disappeared. No one called to see how I was doing. Most of my peers didn’t seem to know what to do with me. It was almost as if nothing had happened, except I had huge amounts of work to make up and I felt like I was dying inside.

I tried to force myself to continue. That was the only lab exam in my entire college career during which I choked; I completely blanked on the chord progressions I’d known perfectly that morning. When I tried to cut myself a little slack with my class load the next quarter, my teacher angrily told me I didn’t deserve a senior recital that would have been more than a year and a half in the future. I was compared to a fellow student who had lost her mom and was doing better than me. After eight months, my dad had his new girlfriend move in with him even though he’d promised me that wouldn’t happen yet. He told me via email. On Valentine’s Day. Several weeks after the fact.

My grief was packed into smaller and smaller boxes because I wasn’t allowed to have it. I wasn’t allowed to show it. I wasn’t allowed to speak of it.

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Grief doesn’t fit into small boxes, my friends. Grief doesn’t disappear just because it’s inconvenient, just because other people don’t like it, just because you’re tired of it.

Grief isn’t like a flat tire. It isn’t like a bad first date. It isn’t like a temporary setback. It isn’t likely that you’ll wake up in two weeks and think, “Oh, I guess I’m okay with this person being dead now. No big deal.”

So be kind to one another. Be compassionate. Offer support and assistance, if that is appropriate. Don’t expect someone else’s grief to be short and predictable. Allow them the space to have the experience with grief that they need to have.

No one deserves to be pressured into putting their grief into a tight little box. It’s hard enough as it is.

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“”That’s the thing about pain,” Augustus said, and then glanced back at me. “It demands to be felt.”” – The Fault in our Stars, by John Green

I’m writing this on Monday, the 16th. Today is the five-year anniversary of bringing Nala home from the shelter.

Here are the two of us on that happy day:

I look so thrilled.

I look so thrilled.

Anyone who has seen the two of us together knows how devoted we are to each other. And Nala is great at bringing out my inherent silliness. My quirky relationship with her has inspired much gentle teasing over the years…and then it began to rub off. I am no longer the only person who tells Nala she is only six. (I remind her of her age because I feel her grasp of numbers and time isn’t the strongest. And because it entertains me every single time.)

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Sometimes I call Nala my Wisdom Dog. Her life is relatively simple, and it’s all about love. She is sad when I leave, and she is beside herself with joy when I come home. She is enthusiastic about making new human friends. She gets so much happiness from rolling around on the carpet and chasing her cow around the room and licking her already completely clean Kong. She takes pride in her fierce barking that protects our apartment from strange noises. She is a happy little dog, and watching her be happy reminds me of all the things I have to be happy about too.

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Nala is my best friend. I don’t mean that in a sad, isolated kind of way; I have so many lovely people in my life, and they are each special to me. But I spend the most time with Nala; she is here all day while I work, she is here at night when I go to bed. She is here when I write, here when I’m bouncing up and down with excitement, here when I cry. She is a dog, which means there are so many parts of me she can never really understand. But she knows some essential part of me better than anyone else.

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I have often said that adopting Nala is one of the best decisions I’ve made. Every decision in life has its tradeoffs, and this is no exception. But when it comes down to having an easier time finding a place to live versus having Nala in my life, I don’t hesitate. She enriches my life beyond calculation with her presence.

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Nala teaches me how to love every day, and that is a beautiful thing.

Best friends.

Best friends.

It has been a grim few weeks.

This morning I painted my nails purple and sparkly to commemorate a little girl who died of cancer on her sixth birthday and to support my close friend who is grieving her loss.

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When I first thought of painting my nails, I almost decided not to do it. I thought, do I really want to think of something so sad whenever I look down at my hands? As if the last week and a half hasn’t been hard enough?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. This is what it is to love, and this is what it is to be human.

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I first met Jay Lake when he’d already been fighting cancer for some time. I’d heard tons of stories about him, and I’d passed him in convention hallways. I put off reading his blog because I knew it was all about cancer, and my mom died of cancer, so I thought it might be too much for me.

But then I finally got the chance to spend some real time with him at my first ConFusion. And I began reading his blog. And we became friends. And at the time I thought, do I really want to open myself up to becoming friends with someone who is this sick? Do I really want to allow the possibility of the pain of losing someone I’ve come to care about?

And then I thought, of course I want to do it. It is worth it to me to have the chance to know this incredible person.

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I’ve been falling down a lot lately. Part of that is because I’m still learning, and part of it is because I’m practicing and practicing requires a fair amount of failure. Part of it is simple fatigue.

And part of it is because this is what happens when I don’t wall myself off from the rest of the world. This is part of what it means to care. So I fall down, and then I get up, and then I fall down, and I get up again. And then I fall down, and I fall down again before I’ve had a chance to get up in between, which is a special brand of awful.

And then I get up.

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There is a part of me that thinks the best thing ever would be if everything about my life was just easier. That this should be my supreme goal for my life. That if everything were easier, then I’d be very happy and I could stop trying all that hard and enjoy a nice coast through the next decade or two.

I think I want everything to be easy.

But when I look at the choices I make, it is obvious that this isn’t actually what I want at all. I don’t pick the easy choices. I’ve never made a habit of picking the easy choices. I majored in music, I moved to another country, I started my own business, I started writing seriously, I’ve changed huge swathes of my life.

I became friends with Jay Lake. And I painted my fingernails purple for a little girl I never got to meet.

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This is what it is to create meaning. This is what it is to be human.

This is what it is to love.

I hung up pictures in my apartment this weekend, the last step of turning it into a home.

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A friend told me that what made my place into a home was not merely the items it contains, but the deliberation with which the items have been placed.

The items, of course, are important as well, but I’m the only one who knows the complete story they tell.

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The tapestry from Thailand hangs over the couch. I bargained for it in the Night Market in Chiang Mai, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to haggle. But I wanted this tapestry for my apartment, and I was alone, and I launched into the fray, emerging with this beautiful piece of art.

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Part of home.

Part of home.

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The hand-woven red rug from Egypt lies untidily on the carpet in front of the TV.  Egypt, my first and so far only foray into Africa. I wrote much of The Academy of Forgetting on this rug.

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The dragons pose on either side of the TV. I brought one home from Cornwall when I was in college, a symbol of my new-found resolve and courage.

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A stuffed elephant holding a big heart, having improbably survived a host of purges, has made a new home for itself among my travel books. I thought it was cheesy when I received it years and years ago as a Valentine’s Day present, and I still think it’s ridiculous, and yet there it sits.

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A framed photo of Nala. Books and more books and sheet music. A warm soft blanket in a welcoming heap on the couch. A painting from my childhood hung over the console: if you look closely, you can see where the artist painted in my dog Muffin, waiting under the tree for the picture me to get out of the picture schoolhouse. Sparkly coasters from last summer in France scattered across two tables. The board game bookshelf, almost completely filled. Aprons in an untidy heap on top of the refrigerator, along with the cookbook filled with cookie recipes and an empty cookie tin from Christmastime, red and green and yellow.

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I could walk you around my house, and I could touch each item, and I could tell you what it means to me. Souvenir means to remember. It’s not the items that matter; it’s the memories they allow me to keep. It’s the stories they whisper almost inaudibly about who I am and where I’ve come from.

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