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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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I spent last weekend at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. The theme of the conference is how to live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

I could write so many essays about things I learned this weekend (and maybe I will in the future). But right now I want to share some moments of transformation.

As some of my long-time readers know, I’ve been struggling with a lot of physical problems the last few years. I hurt both my knees in the spring of 2009, and they never completely recovered. I’ve also repeatedly injured my left ankle. At the height of these injuries, I was unable to walk a single city block.

But by far the worst parts of my injuries are the activities I’ve had to give up. Nowadays I have to tailor my travel very carefully around my limitations. I’ve spent the last four years being unable to hike, an activity I’ve been doing since I learned to walk. And for the most part, I’ve had to give up dancing.

I began to dance in a summer theater program when I was around eleven, and I was horrible at it. I was awkward, uncoordinated, as inflexible as could be, and had trouble even figuring out if I was turning right or left. But I learned that summer that I could like something even though I wasn’t good at it.

I continued to dance. I learned to dance through the musicals I performed in. I spent months learning how to do the time step (tap). In college, I took some jazz dance classes, swing classes, and salsa classes. But it was in London that I completely fell in love with dance. I took a weekly Five Rhythms (R) dance class, which is a kind of freestyle meditative dance, and I couldn’t get enough.

When I dance, it stops mattering what I look like, or how good or bad a dancer I am. All that matters is the beat and my body moving and the energy I’m sharing with those dancing around me. Everything else falls away, and I feel so much closer to the essentials of what matters to me.

And then I couldn’t dance any more. I had to be careful. I had to be cautious. I had to avoid pain and allow space for the healing that was so incredibly slow. I couldn’t put  much weight on my ankle, and what if I bent it the wrong way? What if I pushed myself too far and undid whatever progress I had made? More than four years passed in this way.

This weekend I gave up on being careful. I let go of safe. Such a large part of my injuries was related to stress and tight muscles and losing a part of myself. And I’ve been working so hard to make the necessary changes to heal.

This weekend it was time.

Me with some new WDS friends at the closing party. Photo by Armosa Studios.

I danced. At first it was hard, awkward with my left ankle in a brace. I couldn’t remember how to move. I don’t have the right muscles anymore. The few times I’ve allowed myself to dance in the past few years, I’ve been so very careful. But this time I didn’t stop myself. I paid attention to my body and experimented at the opening party, and then Sunday night at the closing party, I let myself go. I danced three hours straight with only brief breaks. Once I had started, I never wanted to stop.

I’m somewhere in that crowd, dancing with all my might! Photo by Armosa Studios.

I spent many years not feeling like I could be myself. No longer being able to dance was a symptom of that feeling. I was trapped in a prison of impossible expectations, both outer and inner. The world felt like a dangerous place.

When people tell or show us that we don’t matter, we begin to believe it. Until we consciously choose NOT to believe it.

I danced at the World Domination Summit to celebrate the experience of being myself, in all its facets: the brilliance and the mistakes, the joys and the pains, the successes and the failures. Lately I’ve often felt like I’m waiting, that something new is right around the bend if I can only hold out that long.

But something new isn’t coming. Something new is already here.

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A friend recently shared an article entitled “The Curse of the Connector.” Its tagline? “It’s easy to never be alone and yet very lonely.” The writer describes a glamorous Gatsby whirlwind of life in his social circle, in which everyone is supposed to always be doing something exciting and “crushing it.” But, he says, “The world desperately needs more “connections” to become true friendships.”

I live in the Silicon Valley, and I’ve experienced the culture the author is talking about. The “crush it” culture exhausts me because, on the surface at least, it seems to focus heavily on appearances. In addition, there is the “always busy” mentality. Meanwhile, we like to speculate on whether social media is making us more lonely. All of these ideas are interconnected, as they relate to the type and depth of connections with which we surround ourselves.

I’m going to rush right by the fact that the first mention about true friends in this article is that they make excellent personal brand consultants. (Really?!? That’s the first thing that comes to mind about friendship? Really?!?) At its heart, this article is about the realization that our lives are better when we have close friends as well as a large number of acquaintances, that friendship isn’t a numbers game or a mere ego boost.

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Yes, friendship takes time. Yes, it takes work. Yes, sometimes it can be quite difficult to find kindred spirits with whom to be close. Since last year was the Year of Friendship for me, I spent a lot of time thinking about these things, and now I have a few theories about friendship:

The Once a Week Theory: The more often you see somebody, the more likely you are to become close friends. Once a week or more is optimal. Once every other week is adequate. Less than once a month and the friendship probably doesn’t have the time to form right now. (For long distance friendship making, texts, emails, and Skypes can be substituted for in-person time. For established friendships, you can sometimes get by on less, but eventually you won’t be as close.)

It is no coincidence that many of my close friends get together every week for game night. I think of other close friends I’ve made, and there is generally either a concerted effort to see each other regularly, or a steady stream of texts or emails.

The One-on-One Theory: Sure, I can have good times with people at parties or group outings. But for me, a friendship becomes closer when I spend time one-on-one or in small groups (probably no more than four or five). The more one-on-one time I spend with somebody, the more likely we are to become close friends.

The Diminishing Returns Theory: Not everyone is going to be a perfect friend match. Maybe she’s too busy, maybe he’s going through a rough patch, maybe the two of us just didn’t click (or it was a one-sided click). Maybe there’s something in the friendship dynamic that isn’t working too well. It doesn’t mean you aren’t both great people, it just means you’re not going to become close. Happily, there are many more fabulous people out there who might become good friends. It works better to invest time with the people who will invest their time in you and can be part of a balanced and positive friendship. (Yes, friendship can be surprisingly like dating.)

Taylor’s Party Corollary: The closer the friend, the earlier you plan to arrive at their parties. It’s nice when a close friend arrives close to the start time. They can help set up, chat comfortably, hang out before the party picks up speed, or occupy early-arriving acquaintances and help the conversation flow. (Note: I am not good at this. I almost always arrive late to parties.)

How about you? Have any theories of your own about friendship?

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Here is a beautiful thing.

In the midst of stress, there is connection. In the midst of sorrow, there is laughter. In the midst of fatigue, there is anticipation. In the midst of loss, there is appreciation. In the midst of chaos, there is the act of kindness that matters because of its mere existence.

In articles about dealing with stress, the idea of gratitude is repeated over and over again. Whether or not it is an active strategy, I find that gratitude and its cousin appreciation bubble up so easily these days. Perhaps because I need more help I have more to be grateful for. Or perhaps the contrast makes my appreciation keener. Or maybe I’m always this way and I just don’t usually pay as much attention. It is hard to know.

I stood in the grass at Shoreline Amphitheatre this weekend, my vest zipped up against the cool evening air. I watched Passion Pit play their song “Take a Walk,” and I was so happy to be there. I watched a friend of mine win the Andre Norton Award on Saturday night, and in the middle of tearing up, I was so happy to be there. I ate a late evening snack at my favorite local crepe place with a group of friends old and new, and I was so happy to be there.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

A friend told me this weekend about a friend of hers who read my blog post about stress last week. Apparently it had a big impact, being the right post at the right time for this friend, who has been going through a lot herself recently, but she was embarrassed to write and tell me. I laughed and said, “I was embarrassed to write that post too.” I am so happy I decided to write something that mattered to someone.

I am so happy that so many of you have reached out to offer support and tell me it’s totally fine to spend some time staring at trees. And I completely agree. Staring at trees can be pretty great. So can eating pie and reading fluffy novels and petting little dogs and wearing a fantastic dress.

I am so happy to be here right now.

I am always looking for reasons to be happy, and I found so many of them this weekend. And perhaps that’s what I feel the most grateful for: my ability to find those reasons, and your willingness to create those reasons with me.

Thank you.

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Homes of the Heart

I drove down to Santa Cruz with my dog this weekend. I’m not sure when I had been there last, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was for my birthday last year, which would mean a whopping fifteen months between visits. I felt lighter the minute my car was in the midst of the pine trees that line Highway 17, and by the time I’d reached my favorite view of the ocean, the entire world felt like a better place.

The egregious cute dog picture here.

This got me thinking about the homes of my heart. I have two places I’ve lived in the past that have the same effect on me. I feel happier thinking about them, and when I am actually physically present within them, I feel this strong sense of homecoming. Of rightness. One of them is Santa Cruz, and the other one is London.

That’s not to say that Silicon Valley, where I live now, isn’t my home. I know a lot of people here and have some fabulous friends close enough to see often. I really like the park near my house. I know my way around. I know where to obtain goods and services. I have spent several years of my life here. But it isn’t my heart’s home. I don’t feel joy from simply living here. I feel grateful for the mild weather, but that’s not really the same thing as joy.

Now Santa Cruz, I can tell you what makes it special (even though I do not go down there anywhere near often enough). London, I can talk on and on about why I love it. I wish more people would do that, actually: give me the opportunity for a long London monologue. If we are together and you want to make me happy, bring up London, be ready to listen patiently, and we’ll be all set. But Silicon Valley, well. If you want to be involved with a tech start-up, this is the place to be.

However, I am NOT involved in a tech start-up. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would be fascinating. But it’s not what I’m doing right now.)

What effect does it have, I’ve been wondering, when you spend so many years not living in one of your heart’s homes? I’ve been here for eleven years this winter, and even the first year, when I lived in San Francisco proper, was not what I’d call an unqualified success (although that might be related to the neighborhood I chose to live in). It must happen to a lot of people, living in a place because of work or family or finances or because that’s just how it worked out, even though it doesn’t resonate with them. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. Your friends and communities are probably more important in the grand scheme of things than your geographical location.

And yet, here in Santa Cruz, I look so much like ME.

But I miss looking out my bedroom window at redwood trees. I miss walking by the ocean. I miss London’s parks and the indifferent sandwiches I’d eat on the omnipresent benches, and I miss taking the Tube down to the Tate Modern on a Sunday afternoon. I miss rambling on the Heath and getting lost beforehand and afterwards, and I miss carrying my A to Zed everywhere I went (although now, I suppose, cell phones have replaced A to Zeds). I miss the late night excursions to the physics building’s merry-go-round and the cheap music concerts and the two pound coins and the inevitable pub and the scarf shops.

I could go back, I suppose, but I think there’s an element to heart’s homes that is related to time and context. I don’t think we can simply return to living in our heart’s homes whenever we feel like it. They might no longer fit exactly right. Sometimes we may be lucky and another right time to live there may come along. Other times we have to discover new ones instead.

Where are your heart’s homes?

 

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