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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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I remember wishing for a support system.

I don’t remember exactly when this was. It couldn’t have been high school because I didn’t aspire to anything as lofty as a support system in those years. So it must have been college, when my mom was dying. I needed a support system while she was sick, and I knew I’d need one just as much after she died. I remember writing lists, plotting out how I could create this support system that I so desperately needed.

I failed. I couldn’t find a support group. I couldn’t figure out the mental health services on campus. I found very few peers with whom I could speak openly. My mom had two wonderful volunteers who came to visit her while she was sick and then helped us organize the memorial after she was gone. But then they went back to their regular lives. I desperately wanted my relationship with the rest of my family to be close, but it was not close, and I could not force it to become close, however much I tried.

I didn’t get what I needed.

I tried a few more times later on to create this support system I’d been so convinced was a good idea. Each time I failed. Each time I became less convinced it was even possible. I never completely gave up, but my efforts became more and more half-hearted as time went by.

It occurs to me now, writing this, that when you’re chronically not getting what you need–when, in other words, you are starving–then you’re in no position to set strong boundaries. You’re in no position to set many boundaries at all.

I’ve been thinking about support systems again because the last couple weeks have been on the rocky side, and in the breaks between bumps, I’ve been watching how I handle it.

When I think of the Me of ten years ago, or even three years ago, I don’t recognize myself.

Part of the difference is that I’m now an expert in Amy care. And the rest of the difference? It’s that support system I always wanted. I have it now, and I don’t hesitate to use it. Within a few hours of my first awareness that I wasn’t exactly a happy camper about some things that were going on, I was on the phone with one of my best friends. And every step of the way through the following days, I’ve felt supported, in several different ways, by a wide variety of people and communities (and little dogs).

Granted, these have been relatively little bumps I’ve been experiencing. But I know if they had been bigger, those same people and communities would have been there for me.

I am getting what I need.

Here, then, is a message to Past Me: Your idea about support systems is as good as you think it is. I’m so sorry you don’t already have one, and I know it’s really hard to put one together, but hang in there and keep trying. You’ll eventually figure it out.

You’ll eventually get what you need.

And here is a message to those of you who are part of my support system now:

Thank you for feeding my heart.

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

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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.

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This week I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention, and I’ve sat here trying not to write about it and to write about something else instead, but my focus is already over there in DC, so I’ve decided to embrace that.

I’ve been making something of a point of spending a bit more time with writers locally for the last several months, so I am not in dire need of writer time stat, which has definitely been true in the past. But even so, there is something special about WFC, having so many friends that matter to me all under one roof.

I’ve been thinking about why the writer community has been such a robust presence in my life. I don’t have any solid answers, but I think it helps that it encompasses many people and is spread out geographically. And of course, we have our passion for writing in common with each other. And they aren’t as often a part of my daily concerns, which means they enjoy the benefit of perspective.

Perhaps it also matters that writers tend to be people who have thought about harder aspects of life. I mean, we spend tons of time crafting crises for our characters to live through (or not), so it’s much harder to avoid thinking about grief or disappointment or betrayal or what happens to a person when under pressure. As a result, I wonder if there is less fear when someone else brings up one of these topics because we’ve already been forced to take a look at the issues we have with them.

Or perhaps I just meet a lot of writers and therefore a lot of the wonderful, supportive people I know are writers.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Writers in action! Photo by Andrew Williams.

Regardless, whenever something goes off track in my life, whether it be writing-related or health-related or social-related or something else, I turn to my writer friends and they are there. They give me advice, they offer support, and sometimes they just listen and give me the space to be me in all my messy glory. I share my news with them, both good and bad, and it feels like we’re in this together, this not being publishing or other writing-related things so much as life in general.

All communities have problems, of course, and the writing community of which I am a part is no exception. We talk about the problems a lot, and that is as it should be. And all individuals have their strengths and weaknesses. I am not trying to paint a picture of a perfect utopia here.

But on an individual level, these are people who have my back. They are indignant on my behalf when I am poorly treated, they send me care packages, they are generous and happy to help when they are able to do so. When I am sick, they send me nice tweets. When I am sad, they text with me. When I have great news, they celebrate with me. And I strive to do the same for them.

It might not sound like much: a tweet, a text, a book in the mail. Many of them live far away, and I don’t get to see them in person very often at all. But you all have heard enough of my theories about life by now to know how important I think the little things are. They matter.

So I guess the writer community is a robust presence in my life because I choose to make it so. It makes me happy. And it is filled with people who think the little things matter, just like me.

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

I dressed up as a hipster Jedi princess:

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

With my shiny lightsaber that makes cool noises!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now that I’m back home from ConFusion, and after talking a bit about impostor syndrome, a few of you might be wondering how my panels went.

Short answer: I had a great time!

Longer answer: Once I was at the convention, any nerves I had melted magically away. I had been afraid I’d be that panelist who sits there silently while everyone else talks, but that didn’t happen. I always had a lot to say, and most of the panels went by very quickly. Plus I had the great fortune to share the panels with a lot of intelligent and well-spoken people, talking about subjects that I am very interested in.

My favorite panel was “What Does Rejection Mean?” Not surprisingly, I can talk about the psychology of being a writer (or more generally, being an artist) all day long, and I also really liked what my fellow panelists had to say. I moderated three of the five panels, having only prepped to moderate one of them. I’m a planner so the idea of moderating on the fly is one that filled me with a certain horror, but as it turned out, I was able to improvise without too much difficulty.

Getting ready for battle

Getting ready for battle

I decided a couple of months ago to set myself a few goals that I could have confidence in my ability to complete while definitely still stretching myself. So many of my goals are long in duration, very challenging, and involve a lot of me stumbling around and making mistakes. This is necessary; I am ambitious. But sometimes it’s good to balance all the striving with achievement I know I can reach quickly if I commit myself to it. Participating on these panels at ConFusion was one of those short-term achievable goals, and it was a welcome change to try something that made me nervous but that I knew I had the skills to do. (I have another of these goals coming up in a few weeks, so more about that soon!)

More generally, I always have a great time at ConFusion, and this year was no exception. I was struck by how much value I receive when I have the opportunity to spend time with my fellow writers, whether they’re just starting out, have been around a few years like I have, or are at more advanced stages of their careers.

I’d been feeling a bit bummed out ever since my last novel fell apart, operating under a cloud of discouragement. I didn’t let this feeling stop me from planning my next novel project or continuing to query agents, but it’s been there, and it hasn’t been pleasant. For lack of a better way to describe it, I haven’t been feeling writerly. ConFusion reminded me of who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, and talking to other writers about our projects and our processes has given me a renewed sense of focus.

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan, 2014

More generally, I’ve been thinking of how important my writer community is to me. As a consequence, I’m bumping a Seattle visit up the priority list this year and considering the possibility of scheduling some Skype writer dates. Too much creative isolation does not a happy Amy make.

All in all, it was a very successful and productive weekend.

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Shortly after I published Friendship Can Be Like Dating, I received a text from a long-distance friend of mine. How did internet friendships play into my theories, he wanted to know. He had a point. After all, he and I are good friends and we definitely don’t see each other once a week. If we see each once a year, it’s time to break out the party hats. And thus, an idea for another blog post was born.

Do I think it’s possible to be close friends with people who don’t live locally? Definitely. Do I think it’s possible to be close friends with people whom I’ve met on the internet? Yes, if certain things happen.

Basically, in order to be close friends, you’ve got to find some way to have both time and intimacy with one another. Without these, it’s hard for a relationship to grow beyond a pleasant acquaintanceship. Luckily for us, both of these things are possible using technology, which means we’re no longer as limited by geography in developing friendships.

Photo by Al Bogdan (another long distance friend).

Photo by Al Bogdan (another long distance friend)

I still think the Once a Week theory holds true in the online realm. The friends we interact with on a weekly basis feel like an active part of our lives. The friends we interact with on a monthly basis still feel present. Less than that, and we become less aware of and engaged with each other. (That’s not to say you can’t still be friends; it simply means you won’t be as immediately close and involved.)

But interactions look different when we live far apart. A few of my friends and I are what I call “text friends” because we communicate primarily via text. We might have an entire conversation over text, or we might just send a quick “You are my favorite brand of awesomesauce” kind of text. But what we’re doing whenever we send one is saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about you, I love you, and I value our friendship.” I have other friends who are “Twitter friends” because we mostly chat on Twitter. Still others are e-mail friends or Facebook/Facebook message friends or Skype friends. Time spent interacting is important, but interacting at all also plays a larger role in these LDFs (long distance friendships).

One of the great things about LDFs is that it is often easier to get one-on-one time. Although there are group-focused ways to communicate, many of the most common methods require forming a personal one-on-one relationship. Whether I’m sending texts to my friends in Ohio and Washington or Skyping my friend in Boston, we’re focusing on each other.

Some of the communication techniques are also great for balancing friendships to be more two-sided. In both e-mail and text, for example, both people will get a chance to speak, talk about their lives and viewpoints, and be heard. And because there’s an inherent delay built into the communication, it’s a lot harder to be interrupted in a way that’s truly disruptive.

I do find that my LDFs are greatly enhanced by any amount of face-to-face time. Often, in fact, they begin with face-to-face time and grow into something closer over the internet. Many of my convention writer friendships have started like this. In person time can be hard (and expensive) to arrange, but when it works out it’s worth its weight in gold.

What do you think? Do you have close LDFs? How do you maintain these friendships?

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