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Posts Tagged ‘Amy Sundberg’

On Being Single

By now we’ve talked about several aspects of dating here on the blog, but I want to talk about something different.

I want to talk about being single.

This period of my life marks the longest time I’ve been single since…well, probably college. I’m also probably the happiest I’ve been in my adult life. I see a lot of portrayals of being single in the media that dwell on the negative aspects (which do exist, of course), and I also know a lot of people personally who are fairly unhappy about being single. But that’s not the only facet of the experience.

A portrait of the artist as a single person.

A portrait of the artist as a single person.

What I like the best about being single is the space. And I’m not talking about the space in my closet (although that’s pretty great too), but of the space to live. I love being me, being Amy, and not being in reference to anyone else. It is during this time of being single, more than any other time that came before it, that I’ve been able to truly get to know myself.

When I was first single after my longest relationship, I spent a huge number of hours simply sitting, in the same chair I’m typing in right now. I was devastated, of course, and I would just sit there in the living room, the ridiculously fancy living room with the domed ceiling and the rich hardwood floor, and I’d stare off into space, or at the perfect white columns in the foyer, or at the iron curlicues of the bannister. Everything was changing, in chaos, soon this wouldn’t be my home anymore, but at the same time, I could breathe. I could really breathe. And I could sit there with myself and exist in a certain kind of peace.

And so I sat there. A lot. Sometimes crying, sometimes meditating, but mostly just sitting. Nala lay in her bed beside me, the refrigerator hummed stoically, and I didn’t have to think about anyone else. No one else would be judging me for sitting there, no one else would be worrying about me sitting there, no one would interrupt the pristine silence, and I had the time and space to begin to piece myself back together.

It was an awful time, but it was also a beautiful time.

And that is what being single is like for me. I do what I want when I want. Plenty of people are happy to give me their advice and opinions if I want them, but I don’t have to check with anyone before I make decisions. I don’t have to apologize for what I want, or what I eat, or even often when I make mistakes, because the mistakes I make often only affect me, and I’m totally okay with myself making mistakes. And if I suddenly decide I want to start dancing a whole bunch, it’s so simple to make the shift.

I used to be afraid to be alone, but now I’m mostly not. Surrounded with friends as I am, I have never been less alone in my life. And that has given me the space to learn what it’s like to be myself without restraint, without pleasing, without compromising to the point that I’m squeezing up in a small corner of what my life could be.

I’m not saying that all relationships don’t allow this kind of space. But I do think for those of us who never got to have this space, it can be easy for us to fall into relationships that are like what we have known before. And so this time to get to know what a spacious life feels like has been invaluable to me.

Our culture tells us we need a romantic relationship to be happy. But really, we need to learn to be happy on our own terms, relationship or no relationship. A relationship will never be enough to fill whatever void lives inside of us; we can learn to fill that void ourselves, or we can make our peace with that void, but no one else can truly touch it, only plaster themselves over the top of it like a cheap Band-Aid.

I decided earlier this year to make my life as amazing as possible, and it worked better than I thought it would, to be honest. So now here is what I look for when I date: I look for someone who will make my life even more amazing than it already is.

It’s not a low bar, but I think it’s a good bar. And it’s only because I’m comfortable being single that I’m able to have it.

So what is my least favorite part of being single? I’ll tell you all about it next week.

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“In the end we always act in the dark.” – Rebecca Solnit

I have always been a big planner.

My parents were also planners. My mom made a to-do list every week, even though she had a weekly schedule that didn’t involve a lot of variation. We rotated through the same dinners on a weekly basis: Monday was spaghetti night, Friday was pizza night. My dad planned road trips precisely by mileage. I started learning how to budget when I was eleven.

I enjoy planning. A well-laid plan skillfully executed gives me joy. I like planning trips and parties and my social calendar and my writing projects. I like analyzing, and I like strategizing. I like the sense of accomplishment I receive from meeting goals and milestones.

But.

I also agree with Rebecca Solnit. There is an uncertainty inherent in being alive, in being human. We don’t know the time of our deaths. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We might have a good guess, we might hope, but we don’t know. Not for sure.

And sometimes life takes a sudden swift turn, and we end up on a train to Transylvania just because it sounds cool. Or we end up spending five days lounging on the couch unable to leave the house because we are so ill, or two years struggling to walk more than a block because we are so injured. We end up breaking hearts or having our hearts broken. We end up having one of those perfect moments that bubble up from time to time, whose very essence lies in their unpredictability.

Some things cannot be planned.

Some things–and I feel like I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this–some things cannot be practical.

And sometimes embracing the reality of the darkness, of not being able to see the hand in front of our faces, of not knowing and sinking into the uncomfortable truth of not knowing–sometimes this is the only way forward.

It is through not being able to see or know that we are able to sink deep within and become aware of those truths that endure through the uncertainty, in spite of or perhaps even because of it.

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Rebecca Solnit discusses the role of uncertainty and darkness in the life of the artist in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” which is in her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me (how could I not read a book with a title like that?) and which also was adapted for the New Yorker.

My discovery of this essay last week was timely. Unpredictable, even. I’m in that gap between novel drafts that I always find uncomfortable, and meanwhile I had a conversation that made me question what it means to me to be a writer.

Being a writer, or really any kind of artist, is filled with a weird kind of uncertainty. The creative process can be planned, it can be quantified, it can be optimized, and yet…. there’s this point, for me, when all of that falls away. The plans, the ambition, the practicality, no longer speak so loudly. It’s not that they’re gone, exactly, and they can sometimes be forced to the fore when necessary, but they are in service to creation, not the other way around. And things click the way they click. Unpredictably. Not not always in the way I planned.

Onto this conversation about my writing career. We spoke about the timescale, and the other person said (paraphrasing) he’d write as much as possible in order to succeed as quickly as possible. And, he said, regardless of questions of money, I wouldn’t want to keep writing forever if I never succeeded in getting books published, would I?

And practically speaking, I’d have to agree with him. But the funny things is, I don’t actually agree with him. Not at all. I’m a writer through and through. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing songs and music. It is so fundamentally folded into who I am, this compulsion to create, I would be bereft without it. It is one of the forces that has shaped who I am, something that feels simultaneously like something I chose and like something that chose me. I’m all in. And success (or at least this definition of success), while it is something I would like, is not the only part of the equation.

Being fully committed to being a writer in this moment feels like another definition of success.

Perhaps this is one of those things that has nothing to do with practicality. Perhaps being a writer is like swimming in the dark. You never know what you will find. In spite of your best efforts to chart your course, you never know exactly where you’re going.

I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I write.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” So wrote Virginia Woolf.

Yes. The future is dark. It defies even the most perfect plans.

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A few months back, I made a new friend, and we spent a fair amount of time chatting and getting to know one another. And I was struck by something he was doing.

He was asking me a lot of questions.

He asked me my opinion about a lot of things. He asked about my past. He asked about my work. He asked random questions, about my favorite color and Nala and what I like and don’t like. He asked follow-up questions. When I referred to something obliquely, he asked about that too.

In general, I have tended to be the one who asks a lot of questions. (More recently, I’ve been deliberately pulling back so as to strive for more conversational balance.) So I was fascinated by this turn of events, and I resolved to sit back and observe. And what I realized is, it is super flattering when someone asks a lot of questions. I was basking in the attention. And since I was asking questions in return, it built connection and rapport comparatively quickly.

And the result is now I have this new friend who, no joke, knows more about me than friends I’ve known for years.

That is the power of asking questions.

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Okay, now bring this knowledge to dating. This is a bit more complicated.

Asking questions can potentially turn a date into an interview, and personally I don’t think this is a desirable outcome. However, I think the interview date isn’t too hard to avoid as long as you’re paying attention. As long as the questions are more or less organic (as opposed to sounding like a list you’re trying to get through), and as long as you are also speaking about yourself (which will be easier, of course, if your date is also asking you questions), the interview effect isn’t as likely to happen.

And then there’s knowing which questions are appropriate. There is more than one opinion on this subject. There are those who try to keep the first couple dates on the lighter side, and those who want to dive more deeply right away. I don’t know that there’s a right answer here, but I do know a few subjects I don’t want to talk about right away:

  • Money. I hate when people ask about this on a first or second date. Obviously I am solvent and, you know, doing stuff like paying rent and feeding myself and Nala, and we can discuss the details when I’ve spent more than a couple of hours with you.
  • Past relationships. A little of this is okay, but being on a date with someone who goes on and on about an ex….means this will be the only date. And I’m certainly not going to ask detailed questions right away.
  • Asking questions for the purpose of then being able to deliver a critique on how I live my life. Just…no.

But there are so many potential questions to ask, whether you’re looking to go deep or stay lighter. Movies, books, the article you read yesterday, music, pets, travel destinations. What makes you the happiest. What makes you sad. How you’ve changed over the years. The favorites game. What you’ve learned this week or this year. And on and on.

And yes, I’ll even take my least favorite question over no questions at all.

Now, there are some people who seem to rarely ask questions in conversation. And, um, I have eventually asked them the question of why they never ask questions. (Of course I have.) The answer, inevitably, is this: “I figured,” they say, “you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”

No. Maybe this works for some people? But it certainly doesn’t work for me.

Having been in a huge number of conversations with people who don’t ask questions, I can tell you the stuff I never talk about tends to have very little to do with my desire to talk about it (with a few exceptions) and everything to do with whether I’m given an opportunity. I find myself looking for a moment where I can drop in a morsel of information so someone can actually–*gasp*–get to know me better. But looking for those moments, well, it takes effort, and it’s never as good as a conversation in which I don’t have to look for those moments because, hey, the other person is actually exhibiting active interest in me.

Now, I know sometimes conversations on first dates in particular can be…awkward, to put it mildly. And I know sometimes a good question simply doesn’t present itself. Even as a lifelong question asker, I sometimes come up empty.

But asking questions gets easier with practice. And it can be a powerful tool, in dating and in relationships in general. Questions allow us both to get to know someone more deeply and to make that person feel special.

What questions do you like to ask when you are getting to know someone? What questions do you like being asked?

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A couple of months ago a friend of mine told me I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

At first I argued with him. But that ended pretty quickly because his argument was actually convincing. My favorite point? “How many men,” he asked me, “have you helped ‘discover their joy’?”

My reaction to that question was, “Oh, shut up.” Although of course, I didn’t actually say that because it wouldn’t have been a discovering the joy kind of thing to say.

So then I thought maybe I could write a memoir called “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Because how much fun would that be?

Bringing the joy! With BAKING.

Bringing the joy! With SWEET TREATS.

The idea was shiny but not without its drawbacks. For starters, to write that book properly I’d have to show a lot of the past messes in my life, and even though I know everyone has a lot of mess in their lives at one point or another, it’s still not the most comfortable proposition. Plus I know if I wrote that book the way I wanted to write it, I’d get rape threats for sure. Which, I mean, I kind of feel is inevitable, but it does have a dampening effect on my desire to pursue the project.

Also, I feel the need to point out that yes, we live in a world where female writers think about rape threat potential when planning their careers. Yup.

One of the great things about this hypothetical memoir is that it has a great redemptive arc. And I just read a blog post by Penelope Trunk telling me publishers want redemptive memoirs. (As an aside, I completely agree with her about Jeanette Wallis’s The Glass Castle. I was so disappointed when it ended. I wanted to know how her crazy childhood affected her adult life. To me, that was the interesting part, more so than the redemption. And then the book ended right when we got there!)

Anyway. Note the title of my memoir. I WAS a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Past tense. Because I don’t really think I am one anymore. How’s that for some redemption?

Why do I think I’ve changed? Well, I’ve been meeting a lot of people for the past several months. Including a lot of guys who I’m sure I could have helped discover their joy. Or at least made myself very unhappy trying. But I’ve lost almost all my interest in doing that. (I mean, okay, not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of my interest, but hey, no one’s perfect.)

Like, I could never date a workaholic again, and I would be completely happy with that outcome. Ecstatic, really. Workaholics are thick on the ground where I live. And they are the perfect people to help rediscover their joy and the fact there’s a world outside their offices and all that jazz. Also, I totally disagree with their life philosophies. I think they’re more likely than not to regret being workaholics later in life. I mean, look at the top five regrets of dying people. But, I mean, whatever. Maybe they won’t, and in the meantime, it is so amazingly lovely to have that not be my problem.

It is amazing how liberating it is to realize how many things are not my problem. He can’t ask me to do something with a reasonable amount of lead time? Not my problem. He doesn’t see the importance of a social life? Not my problem. He has deep existential pain? Or, you know, some kind of complicated problem? Not my problem. He doesn’t like that I don’t drink? Not my problem. He doesn’t like some detail about my past? Not my problem. He’s unhappy and lost his ability to appreciate the little things? Not my problem. He lacks a sense of wonder? Not my problem. He tends to mansplain? So not my problem. Especially if it’s anything remotely related to writing. I’m currently perfecting my “Why do you think I want to sit here and listen to this?” face. (It needs some work. I’m still way too nice.)

I know to some of you that last paragraph will sound cold. Of course I help when I can and it is appropriate to do so. But refusing to take on other people’s problems means I can take a lot better care of myself. And a lot of that stuff is, frankly, a waste of my time and energy. As it turns out, it really sucks to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s a hell of a lot of work for very little reward.

So yes, I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But now I’m just Amy, and I’m pretty happy with that.

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This is a hard post for me to write.

I often don’t have much difficulty with Mother’s Day. My normal strategy is to try as much as possible to ignore it, and to spend very little time on Facebook on the actual day.

I don’t usually talk about how it can be hard. I know Mother’s Day is supposed to be a happy day, a day of appreciation and celebration, and I don’t want to take away from that. I want my friends to celebrate their moms, and to have their own motherhood celebrated. That can be a beautiful thing.

And talking about death and grief, well, it can be awkward. People don’t know what to say. I find that when the topic comes up, I’m usually spending most of my energy trying to make it easier for my conversation partner. “It happened a long time ago,” I say. Or, “Yes, it was the anniversary of my mom’s death, but I wrote about it, so that made me feel better.” Or I change the subject as quickly as possible.

I don’t know how to stop doing this. Sometimes, with people I don’t know very well, I think it is the best strategy for me. When I called a friend for support after my friend Jay died last summer, he later told me he thought I should have called someone else, which is sometimes par for the course. Not everyone has the emotional maturity to engage with these issues. But I also know that it is important to talk about the experience of grief. It is by talking about it that we normalize it, and normalizing it cuts down on isolation and shame.

I was at a dinner party the other night, and my hostess had tried out one of her mother’s chicken recipes for the first time. She joked about how she’d called her mom four times asking for advice as she cooked. I commented that it was nice her mom hadn’t minded the constant phone calls. Another friend laughed and said moms never mind constant phone calls.

And oh, this innocent comment gutted me. Because I realized this was a completely foreign experience to me. It sounds so nice, having somebody who doesn’t mind if you call over and over. Having a mom. It sounds really nice. And I don’t have that. I haven’t had that, and I’ll probably never have that.

I don’t have a mom to turn to when I need advice. I don’t have a mom who will fly out to take care of me if I need surgery or get really sick. I don’t have a mom who has been there for all of my major life events. I don’t have automatic plans for holidays. I don’t have a mom’s unconditional love to lean on when times are hard, or, you know, even when they’re pretty good.

And so this week before Mother’s Day, I’m feeling really, really sad. I can’t figure out what I want to do this weekend. What I really want to do this weekend is spend time with my mom. And I can’t. She’s not here.

This is what Nala looks like when she is comforting me.

This is what Nala looks like when she is comforting me.

Grief is such a funny thing. So many Mother’s Days have gone by, during which I’ve barely batted an eyelash. And now suddenly, the grief is here, and I don’t really know what to do with it. I keep trying to shove it away; “It happened such a long time ago,” I tell myself. But grief doesn’t have a schedule. And I think maybe grief never goes away. Not entirely. It grows more manageable, but it doesn’t disappear.

So here it is. I really miss my mom. I miss her voice. I miss her hugs. I want to give her everything I’ve ever written and have her read it all. I want to sing for her. I want to take her to Disneyland, and I want to sit on a bench with her in New Orleans Square and watch the people go by. I want to introduce her to Nala, who I know she’d completely adore. I want to tell her that every year I hang up the Christmas stocking she made for me, and every year I read the note she left with it for me to find the first Christmas after she died.

I want her to know the Amy I’ve become.

I’m not going to get what I want. Instead I will wipe away my tears, and I will work on my novel that is about a girl traveling through the Underworld to bring her dead mom back home. Of course that’s what it’s about. And I will think about her. And I will miss her. And life will go forward, the way it always does.

And I will write about it here on the blog, because grief is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply another reflection of love.

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Last week I went to the grocery store, and on a whim, I purchased a cheese ball.

It was a gorgeous cheese ball. Port wine cheese, mottled orange and red, pleasingly symmetrical and encrusted with nuts.

I’ve never purchased a cheese ball before, and I was excited about it. I was looking forward to trying it, especially since I also got these fancy crackers at Trader Joe’s. And as I was dancing with someone that evening, I mentioned my excitement over the cheese ball. Because apparently that’s what I think of as fabulous dance conversation.

“It sounds like you really like cheese,” my partner said.

This is the cheese ball in question.

This is the cheese ball in question.

#

The week before, I had not been feeling the dancing. I’d been really sick, and even though I was better and no longer contagious, I was annoyingly weak and easily fatigued, and my center of balance felt off, which for dancing is particularly unfortunate. And then one of my partners told me THREE times while we were dancing how I’d gotten worse at dancing since the last time we’d danced. I tried to laugh it off the first two times, but by the third time I’d lost all patience (big surprise), so then I was not only tired and weak but also irritated. Not the best night. I went home early and watched Star Trek instead.

And then the next week, I took a lesson before the free dancing period, and I was completely lost for pretty much the entire hour. I was supposed to be learning both how to lead and follow all these different turns, and I’d never really led before, period, and trying to learn both sides at the same time meant I was learning nothing at all because having my focus divided meant I didn’t have enough focus for either side, plus there simply wasn’t enough repetition for me to get it down. By the end of the lesson, I felt like my brain was oozing out of my ears in goo-like fashion.

As I walked off the dance floor afterwards, I realized I had a choice. At that moment, I felt stressed and like a terrible dancer. If I encouraged that feeling, I’d be super tense while I danced, which isn’t good. I’d lose a lot of my connection with my partners, which isn’t good either. And I wouldn’t be having fun, which is definitely not good.

Or I could shake it off to the best of my ability, and believe BY FORCE OF WILL that I was going to have an amazing time dancing that night. I could think of all the other amazing times I’d had, and I could think about how much I love dancing, and I could be happy to see my friends and partners, and I could simply do my best and be okay with that.

I chose option two, and I had a fabulous evening. By getting out of my head and cranking down the perfectionism, I danced better and had a lot more fun. But I could have just as easily have chosen option one and struggled through the evening.

In the end, it came down to my own state of mind. Nothing more, nothing less.

#

Back to the cheese ball. “I’m so excited about it,” I told my partner. “I can’t wait to try it.”

“Wow,” he said. “You must really love cheese.”

“No,” I said. “I really love life.”

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Facebook is an amazing social tool. I know a lot of us love to hate it, and it has its problems, but we don’t leave for a reason, that reason being its extreme usefulness.

Aside from allowing me to stay in some kind of light touch with people who live far away and giving me a curated set of articles to read, Facebook is the single easiest way I’ve found to grow my local social life. You friend someone and then they invite you to their events, and then you meet people at those events and friend them, and they invite you to their events, and your social circle grows with much less effort on your part than back when you had to wait to be on email address exchange terms to get an invitation. (Or phone number exchange terms, heaven forbid!)

Likewise, I’ve found Facebook to be indispensable for dating. Basically, there are two ways most of the single people I know date. One way is to use internet dating sites: OKCupid is super popular among my friends, but there are a whole slew of sites to choose between. You don’t even have to choose! Some people are on a bunch of them all at once.  (And I guess a corollary of this would be speed dating, which I kind of want to do just because then I could write a hilarious blog post about it, and we’d all have fun with that.)

The other way, the Facebook way, works like this: You go to a social event. Any event where there are people will do; parties are perhaps the most common, but this also works with game nights, group dinners, conventions, classes, dances, etc. You meet another single person and spend some time chatting. Maybe a lot of time. Sometimes they then pull out their phones and add you on Facebook on the spot. Other times you friend each other in the next day or two or three. Regardless, now Facebook is your main point of contact.

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Peter Samis via Compfight cc

“But Amy,” you say, “surely you could exchange phone numbers or email addresses instead!” Yes, you are right. Surely you could, and occasionally you even do. But I’d say ninety percent of the time, you don’t. You friend each other on Facebook. And then maybe you switch to email or texting after that. Maybe. At some point. Or not.

Anyway, now you’re Facebook friends, and you begin messaging back and forth. There may be some banter. At some point the possibility of hanging out in person is discussed. All of this is very casual. After all, this is the exact same way you might go about creating any new friendship. Occasionally someone is very explicit about asking the other person on a date, but more often than not it’s all unspoken subtext. (I know from my Maybe-Date post we all have lots of opinions about this. Regardless, this is in my experience what tends to happen without making deliberate effort to make it happen differently. Not always, but often.)

I was talking to my friend about hipsters because I find the hipster movement fascinating and slightly confusing, and the conversation turned to hipster dating conventions (of course it did). My friend said that for hipsters, it’s all about plausible deniability and avoiding possible embarrassment. I don’t know if my friend is right, but the relaxed technique of hanging out and testing the waters with potential romantic interests happens all the time. And Facebook forms a cornerstone of this strategy.

(Of course, my friend went on to say, “Limbo can continue for months.” Months! Who has the patience for months? I certainly don’t. I’d simply turn my attention elsewhere. But apparently this too is a thing.)

In any case, I would not want to be dating right now without Facebook. It is simply too ubiquitous and useful. Plus I haven’t done any online dating since January because I was so appalled by Creepy Neighbor Guy (met on OKCupid, for those keeping track) that I just got annoyed with the whole thing. So at this point in time my dating prospects are all people I’m meeting first in person, and Facebook is the easiest way to facilitate that.

Of course, Facebook is a convenient way to encourage new friendships and grow existing friendships in general. Dating is just one facet of that. But it’s definitely an interesting part of the Facebook experience!

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