Because I am a writer, it will probably come as no surprise to learn words are very important to me.

As such, it’s been something of a struggle for me to clearly delineate the difference between actions and words, and to make personal choices accordingly. For me, words tend to carry more weight than is helpful, and actions less than they deserve.

That’s not to say words aren’t still important. Indeed, some time ago I dated one gentleman who indulged in almost zero Words of Affirmation (we are all familiar with the Five Love Languages, yes?), a situation that was, as it turned out, intolerable to me. Words do carry a certain amount of weight and are also intrinsic parts of many actions.

However, I have observed that it is much easier to adjust words away from the actual truth of a situation than it is to adjust actions. Meaning, actions tend to be a more reliable gauge of what’s actually going on and a more accurate reflection of a person’s feelings and priorities. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story for the past week, and he emphasizes again and again that deep character is revealed through conflict; that pressure is placed on a character, forcing her to act, and it is in that action that the viewer/reader learns who she truly is. It’s not what the character says that matters, but what she does.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

This is not a new insight for me; in fact, I’ve written about it before. But it’s been getting easier to apply it in my actual life, and I think the feedback loop that is causing this improvement is interesting. It works like this: as I’m surrounded more and more by action and behavior that is respectful and positive and affirming, the instances when action and behavior is not acceptable stick out a lot more clearly. Basically, my baseline has shifted.

This shift has resulted in several differences. For one thing, I am much more capable of identifying unhealthy situations and acting on this information. I am more able to clearly state when I’m not okay with something when I think that is the right thing to do. And I am able to figure out what it is I need in order to take care of myself in a more timely and efficient way. All of this means that smaller issues are less likely to spiral and grow into bigger ones. Which is pretty great, even if at the time it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

I am even able to notice much more quickly when these kinds of circumstances begin to push me down an unproductive thought path. “Oh no, this person isn’t going to like me,” I think. But then, an hour later, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s okay if this person doesn’t like me. My job isn’t to make sure everyone likes me. My job is to set boundaries to keep myself healthy while doing my best to remain compassionate. Right.”

All of this, incidentally, supports being more compassionate. I tend not to associate firm decisive action with being compassionate, especially when said action involves saying no or otherwise disappointing someone. But I think I’m wrong in this. Modeling healthy behavior is ultimately a net win for all parties, as it nips issues in the bud that might have otherwise stretched out into longer periods of suffering for everyone. It sometimes allows for the potential for the relationship to heal and grow stronger. And since you are taking care of yourself, you are opening up more emotional space for noticing what the other person is going through and genuinely feeling for them, even if (and this is often the case) there is nothing much you can do about it.

Words are still important to me. But so often it is the associated actions that make all the difference.

I Can Live This Life

I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.



I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.


The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

On Emotion

“Feel, feel, I say — feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live.”  – Henry James

Last weekend I was at the Disney museum, and there was an exhibit of random stuff Walt Disney collected during his lifetime. In one of the cases was a few rooms of miniatures: small to-scale furniture and household items and dishes and all that kind of stuff.

And suddenly I was swept away by grief.

My mom collected miniatures. It was something the two of us did together during the hard years. It was something good, something to look forward to.

Anyway, my first reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why? Why do I have to be feeling this grief right now? It’s been SEVENTEEN years.

Actually, that was also my second reaction, and possibly my third.

The next day I tearfully discussed it with a friend, and he gently pointed out how much stress I’ve been under lately. So that at least partially answers the why question. My toe hurts. I miss dancing. I’m stressed out by a few writing projects right now. I’m upset that Jimmy died, and I miss some of my friends. I am taking risks that make me uncomfortable. I am trying to do self care, but I’m having trouble keeping up.

And grief doesn’t play by normal schedules.

So, this is what I’ve got for you today, this Henry James quotation. I really admire Henry James. He was an incredibly skilled writer and astute observer of human nature. Washington Square is possibly on my list of favorite novels of all time.

I think this is a good reminder. Feel for all you’re worth. Even if it’s grief for someone lost long ago. Even if it’s discouragement over setbacks. Even if it’s fear of what the future might bring.

These feelings, they mean we’re fully engaged in our lives. And that, all by itself, means a hell of a lot.

Nala is adorable

On My Own Privilege

I have not had an easy life.

I lived through significant trauma in my adolescence. I had to deal with some serious shit. When I tell people the highlights of that part of my history, they don’t know what to say. It’s okay. I don’t know what to say either. I tend to downplay it, because sometimes it seems like the only redemptive part of the story is that I survived basically intact to tell it.

That kind of prolonged trauma reverberates through the years. I have made unfortunate choices based on the dysfunction I learned as a teenager. I have health problems now because of the stress of the past. My brain developed differently than it might otherwise have done, leaving me, for example, with the tendency of being hypervigilant. I have trouble convincing myself being hypervigilant isn’t a useful and basically good thing (it isn’t, it really isn’t, but it still seems so very practical).

I have had to teach myself what having a safe and happy and functional life looks like. And I have had to draw some hard lines I never wanted to draw and make some difficult choices I never wanted to make.

I am also incredibly fucking privileged.

I am a white, heterosexual, attractive, thin, intelligent woman. I was raised middle class in California in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world. I received a college education without accruing huge amounts of debt. I know how to speak, how to dress, how to behave in order to receive better treatment.

People are not randomly afraid of me. People are more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. People are more likely to assume positive things about me. People are more likely to return my smiles. People are more likely to give me opportunities. People are more likely to assume I’m competent and that my work will be good. People are more likely to offer me assistance. I have access to better medical care, to better dental care, to resources that mean I have a lot more choices and control of my life.

I am oozing in privilege.

I have had a hard life.

These two statements are not incompatible.

What I see so often in conversations about privilege is this insistence on “I.” We all want empathy. We all want to be heard and recognized. We all want acknowledgment of our suffering. And, you know, Buddha said life is suffering, and there’s more than enough of it to go around.

This desire for empathy is normal. It is supremely human. And we all deserve it.

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

But. It is possible to receive empathy and give empathy to ourselves while also recognizing our privilege. It is possible to gently remind ourselves that actually, not everything is about us and our particular concerns. That our pain and our problems do not always need to get time in the spotlight, that sometimes other people’s problems and pain needs the exposure, the airtime, the discussion, the push for change, more. That injustice, oppression, lack of privilege, these are systemic issues that are woven into the very fabric of our society, and changing these things, it is a long slow painful process that necessarily shifts the focus from individual problems to societal problems. That even if we have valid points, if part of the purpose or result of those valid points is to shift the focus back to us, that is not always a net win.

I have had a hard life.

I am extremely privileged.

These statements are both true.

Dating as a feminist has been … eye-opening.

When I began dating, I didn’t really think about this being a sticking point. I didn’t see myself as being particularly noteworthy in my opinions about sexism. I was happy to pay for myself or be treated (as long as I could tell what was happening). I didn’t mind having doors held open for me (especially with a sprain, this is actually super helpful). I didn’t even mind having car doors opened for me, even if it does feel a little bit silly. After all, we all still know I am capable of opening the car door myself, right? Right?

But I was wrong. Dating as a feminist has been different. And I have stopped dating more than one person at least partially because of their beliefs, attitudes, and statements about gender.

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: armigeress via Compfight cc


The first time I stopped dating someone because of this, I cried while delivering the news. I cried partly because I was having trouble believing it was actually happening, that this was a reason that had actually come up in my life. But I felt very strongly that it would be hypocritical of me to date this person, given my own feminist beliefs. I was also concerned it would affect my attitudes about my writing career, that I would internalize these sexists ideas I was hearing and they would make me less ambitious, less capable, and less confident.

I learned to never explicitly state that sexist attitudes were a reason for discontinuing dating. (Yeah, I had to learn this through experience. Oops. Trust me, this mistake wasn’t pretty.)

And I learned that a certain degree of sexism is a deal breaker for me.

Really, dealing with sexism is hard enough as it is. It is so easy to internalize all the messages we are receiving from media, from society, from our peers. And the little things do matter.

For example, I heard a sexist remark over the weekend, and I knew at the time it was sexist. And even still, I found myself revisiting it the next day and feeling anxiety as to how I personally fit into the scheme of the joke. At which point I had to remind myself it was sexist and that if anybody was thinking about me in that way, it was somebody about whose opinion I wouldn’t care anyway.

So much effort, because of one stupid off-hand “joke.” Meanwhile, none of the guys who heard this joke had to think about it the next day and talk themselves out of worrying that it applied to them. And this was actually a better outcome than it would have been if I hadn’t noticed and if I’d unconsciously incorporated it into my opinion of myself. This kind of cognitive load is largely invisible, but it can add up to become quite significant.

Now, imagine you’re dating someone who has a lot of unexamined sexist beliefs and who makes a lot of these kinds of jokes and generalizations and is unable to check routine mansplaining (I know a lot of you hate this word, but I don’t have another one that means what I want to say, so we’ll go with it for now). How much cognitive load would it take to avoid internalizing these self-limiting beliefs? And how many would slip through without notice?

Sometimes people laugh at my post about how I think shared interests don’t matter that much in dating. And it’s true I was supporting a rather extreme point of view. Of course it’s nice to share interests with your partner. Of course it’s nice to have fun stuff to do together.

But the longer I’ve been dating, the more convinced I’ve become about what matters more to me. Kindness, honest and clear communication, respect and compassion for each other as we are, not as we wish we were. And how can someone who sees me as a mystery or thinks women are “crazy” or doesn’t trust my basic competence truly respect me? How can they see who I am?

And why would I want to spend a lot of time with someone who listens to and shares ideas that tear me down, that make who I’m allowed to be smaller and more limited, and thinks they’re an amusing joke?

Once you discover respect for yourself, you begin to demand respect from the people around you. This is an important part of dating. And it is also part of what being a feminist means to me.

Six Months

I am writing this on Wednesday, and today is the six-month anniversary of the day I started dancing again. Many weeks ago, I put this date into my day planner along with a note to write about it.

Then I sprained my toe, and I haven’t danced for three weeks. But I decided I’d still write this post.

Then last night a colleague of mine who I really liked and admired died. So it’s been a hard day. I thought about not writing anything at all. I thought, how could I write about something as happy as dancing on a day like today?

I thought, why am I so upset? I haven’t seen this colleague of mine for years and years. But I am. I am upset. We do not need to be in regular contact with people in order for them to be important to us. We do not need to be close to people in order for them to have impact on us.

And then I thought, I will write about dancing anyway, because this friend of mine, Jimmy, he was a comedian and an actor and a director and a drama teacher, and he was one of those people who seemed so fully alive and so fully committed to and passionate about what he was doing. So it feels apropos for me to be writing today about something about which I feel passionate.

I haven’t danced for three weeks, and I feel a bit sulky about it. I really, really miss it. I think all the time about when I’ll be able to dance again, and every week, I think, well, not this week, because my toe still really hurts, but maybe next week. I can’t wait till I’m all healed up and ready to go.

But here’s what is incredible to me. Before six months ago, I hardly ever danced. And before a few years ago, I didn’t even have the option of dancing. No dancing. None. Ever.

How my life has changed.

How I have loved the last six months. Even the last three weeks of that, because even though I can’t dance right this minute, I know I will be dancing. It’s only a matter of time.

I feel like dancing has changed me, and during this last period of time of enforced non-dancing, this has been interesting to watch. Because now that I’m not dancing, it could change back, right?

But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like dancing hasn’t merely changed the way I exercise, or the strength of my muscles, or my priorities in terms of my schedule. It feels like dancing has changed something inside of me. To have a physical means of expression, and one for which I don’t place huge amounts of pressure on myself to be perfect, has grounded me in a way I didn’t expect.

Photo by Richard Seely.

Photo by Richard Seely.

And then there’s the joy. I am so happy when I’m dancing, I feel like my happiness must be shining out of me like a beacon. I am happy thinking about going dancing ahead of time, and I’m happy after going dancing, while I’m driving home to good music and then eating my instant oatmeal (brown sugar and maple flavored, of course). And I am the happiest of all when I’m in the flow of the dance, buoyed by good music, connected to my partner, and experiencing the joy of a moving creation.

When I am dancing, there is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing. And having that space to be so devoted and focused is extremely precious.

So on this, the six-month anniversary of rediscovering this joy, I hope for much more dancing in my future. I wish I could dance this week. For myself, to celebrate this milestone, and also for Jimmy. Thanks for showing us how to live with gratitude and passion, my friend. You are an inspiration.

I remember the first holiday when I had nowhere to go.

I was twenty-two years old. I had just graduated from college, and in a few weeks I was moving to London. It was Christmastime. It would have been the last Christmas in my childhood home, as the plan was to sell the house sometime the next year. Would have been, because my dad and his girlfriend decided to go on a romantic getaway for Christmas instead. I made plans to spend Christmas with my boyfriend and his family. But then we broke up like a week beforehand.

And I had nowhere to go.


I read an essay in the New York Times last week that hit me hard in the gut. Life: An Unspooling, it was called. The writer, Rachel Louise Snyder, was writing about loneliness:

“I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not…. People who know where they’ll go on holidays and with whom and for how long. People with plans. With extended family they complain about, but then spend the most important days of the year with.”

I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not. There’s the rub, isn’t it? We have these ideas in our minds, maybe even expectations, about how things are, about how things should be, about the way other people live their lives. We feel the rawness of the intersection of how we imagine other people live and how our own lives fall short of this ideal. And all of these mental gymnastics make the loneliness ache that much more acutely.

And then there’s that feeling of free fall. Because there are most important days of the year, however arbitrary they may be, and to have nowhere to go for them–to lack that comfortable sense of belonging–it is hard. And knowing there are many people who also lack that certainty about those important days doesn’t lessen the loneliness of it.

Those of us who know this reality have to create anchors in other ways. And there is no instruction manual on how to accomplish this.


I read this essay in the Times, and then I got in my car and drove to the movies to see Mr. Holmes with one of my close friends.

Oh, Mr. Holmes. The movie is a meditation on loneliness. Every character is lonely in his or her own way, alienated in his or her own way, and the loneliness we see is profound. Alienation between father and son, between mother and child, between two best friends, between husband and wife, between oneself and one’s aging and failing body. People who fail to understand one another, who let each other down in terrible ways. Who feel like they do not belong.

Oh, this movie. I love it, I hate it, thinking about it now makes me want to cry, the ending is sublime. I want to find my own field somewhere and a bunch of big white rocks (even as I was watching, I thought to myself, where in the world does one obtain rocks like those).  I want to remember the people who are not here anymore. The people whose absence still speaks. The people who, in their own ways, have taught me about loneliness, all unknowing.


This last Christmas I did my best to let go. It was actually a very good Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with two of my favorite people, and I looked through the year’s photobook for the first time, and I spent time with Nala, and I ate well, and I Skyped with my sister.

Tree Day, however, I spent alone.

Tree Day, for me, is perhaps of an equivalent importance to Christmas Day itself. It is the first Saturday of December. It is the day I go pick out a tree and bring it home and string up the lights and decorate it. It tends to smoosh out into two days and sometimes even more.

For last Tree Day, I thought about asking around and trying to find someone who would go with me, someone who would help me carry the tree in from the car, someone who would decorate with me and perhaps even listen to the occasional memory ignited by one of the many old ornaments in my collection. I thought about it, and it was an exhausting thought, and so I just went by myself and hoped for the best, and then a neighbor I didn’t know helped me carry the tree into the apartment, and everything worked out.

I was happy because my anchor held. I could do it on my own. I could let go, and I wasn’t deeply unhappy about it. I was just a tiny bit unhappy. And I was still able to create the beauty I wished to see.

It looks like fairies live here.

It looks like fairies live here.

But I was also sad. Because I knew–because I know–that I will always want that. I will always want people I belong to and who belong to me. I will always want one or more people who will of course spend Tree Day with me because it is one of my Most Important Days. I will always want a place to be.

It’s okay. It’s okay that I will always want this and I won’t always get it. But it is also sad.


I want you to know the only reason I can publish this piece is that I’m not feeling particularly lonely right now.

Also, the holidays are still a safe distance away. I won’t start to feel a hollow pit of dread until at least October.

I hope you won’t feel sorry for me. I hope, instead, that you will experience some kind of resonance, reading this. That you will think of your own way of being lonely, whatever that looks like, and that perhaps its edge will be slightly dulled hearing about one of my ways. That you will gain a greater appreciation for the place you have to be, or that you will find courage in not having that place, in knowing that the not having is workable and that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.

That perhaps we can continue to understand each other better, you and I.


I spend a lot of time feeling deep gratitude towards the people who give me less obvious places to go.

I don’t know if these people know what they’re giving me. Every invitation, whether accepted or not, I gather them up and they become part of that all-important anchor. They help me remember my place in the world.

I did not have to spend Mother’s Day alone. I did not have to spend Christmas alone. I did not have to spend Thanksgiving alone. There is no price that can be put on things like this.

That Christmas, back when I was twenty-two, it had a happy ending. One of my best friends from college invited me into her home. Her entire family welcomed me and included me in all the festivities. To this day, I think about the generosity and warmth they showed me, and I tear up, and it changes how I see the world.

They didn’t have to offer me a place to go. But they did.

It meant everything to me. It still does.


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