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Posts Tagged ‘experience’

I was talking to a friend last week, and he said, “So what about the blog?”

I explained to him some of my thoughts about the blog. And then he said, “Well, why don’t you just be honest about it? What I always liked about your blog was how honest you were about everything.”

There are several reasons I haven’t been blogging much this last several months. The primary one, of course, is my health, and I’ve already written about that. But given what has been going on in the world, I’ve also been reluctant to blog because in some ways, it feels…weird. There is a dissonance between my personal experience of the world, which is what I blog about, and the greater events that are unfolding right now. And I have been uncertain about how to deal with that.

I feel like I want to give a constant disclaimer: I know there’s a lot of crazy shit going down in the world right now, and I’m aware of it, and that is the background context upon which everything else sits. Did you read that article last week about how an economist at MIT believes the U.S. is turning into a developing country for something like 80 percent of the population? That is the country I am living in. Anxieties about immigration, about health care, about nuclear war, about civil rights, about the rise of kleptocracy, these and many more are issues that those of us living in the United States are now stewing in.

I am also aware of exactly how lucky I am to be where I am now in my life. I write a lot here about taking opportunities to create personal change, to live an examined life, to heal what needs to be healed. I still believe this is incredibly important. In the past I have spent a lot of time thinking about why people don’t take the opportunities that are presented to them, and I have a lot to say on that subject. But recently I have been thinking much more about the many people who never received those opportunities in the first place, and I have little to say about it that other people are not saying better and from a stronger base of experience.

Finally, I spent all this time working on changing, and I’ve tried to give you a window to that experience through this blog. I spent years toiling away. And then I moved to a new place, and I was in an accident, and I sat and waited to heal, and now…

Everything is different.

It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, but it is the essential truth of my experience over the past year. Moving shifted everything, giving me a new foundation from which to work, and the changes I’d been working on for so long came together. Now I can see them informing my life in a variety of ways, and many of them no longer take so much work to maintain. It feels sudden even though it was anything but sudden.

So I’ve needed time to process how things are different, and it’s also a little uncomfortable that just when the outer world completely explodes is when I’m doing so well in many ways personally (except for health stuff, of course.) It feels strangely perverse to feel so much gratitude and well-being when so much shit is going down.

But I’ve had some downtime now, and I do still hope to blog sometimes. Here on the Practical Free Spirit, I write about my experiences, for better or for worse. My friend is right; I’m very honest in my writing here. I try to say what is true even when I’m playing with language or can’t get into specifics. So that is what I will try to continue to offer you: the truths as I see them, both small and large, and mostly personal.

I know these might not be what you need, but they are what I have to offer you. I know in the grand scheme of things I am not important; I say this not to be humble but to put things into perspective. I know times are hard, and it looks like they might get worse. But if my story can entertain you, or divert you, or give you a modicum of comfort or insight, then I am not wasting my time.

Writers write, even in challenging times. In the novel My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, a writing teacher tells the protagonist, “You will have only one story….You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

This is my story. It is the one I have to tell.

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I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.

But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?

And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?

I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:

My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.

But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.

So what are my fundamental stories?

I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.

Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.

I recognize my experience as part of my identity.

For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.

But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?

Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.

I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.

Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.

I determine for myself who I am.

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I received a good reminder earlier this week, so I thought I’d share.

If you aren’t familiar with the website Meetup.com, it’s a website where people put together activity groups. So you can join and then find groups in your area that host events that you can attend, and if there isn’t any group in your area, then you can start one yourself! There are hiking groups, book groups, parenting groups, board game groups, support groups, and on and on.

Meetup.com is a website that comes up often in online advice about how to make new friends. The idea is that you can meet people while pursuing your interests and hobbies that you want to do anyway. And you instantly have something in common! I personally know a few people for whom this strategy has worked quite well.

However, I myself tried a Meetup group some years ago now, and I was not impressed. I went to one event, and I didn’t click with any of the people present. It was hard to get there, and then it was all small talk, small talk, small talk, and someone suggested we should arrange meetings to all work out together at the gym, and I threw up a little in my mouth. (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having a Meetup to hang out at the gym; it is just really not my thing.) I was relieved to go home, and ever since then, I’ve thought, “Oh, Meetup. That totally doesn’t work for me. At all. The end.”

But I still get their emails because I am lazy about getting myself off email lists, and a few weeks ago, I saw a new Meetup group that was exactly my thing. Of course, the first Meetup group I’d tried had also seemed to be exactly my thing and look what happened there, but this was maybe even more so. So I decided I’d try it out.

My first meeting was on Monday evening. I was nervous, and I kept thinking of all the ways in which it might be uncomfortable or boring or plain obnoxious, and I kind of didn’t want to go. But I’d RSVP’d and I’d spent considerable effort preparing for the meeting, and this felt like one of those times I needed to ignore my brain and push myself to go anyway. So I went.

And it was FABULOUS. It was interesting and informative, we had a wide-ranging conversation about topics that I want to learn more about, the people were respectful and articulate and insightful. I was so glad I went.

Nala used to hate her kennel, but now she wants to hang out in there all the time. (Yeah, I might be reaching a tiny bit, but...cute dog photo!)

Nala used to hate her kennel, but now she wants to hang out in there all the time. (Yeah, I might be reaching a tiny bit, but…cute dog photo!)

So here’s the reminder I took away from this experience: Just because you’ve tried something once doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t try it again. Generalizations can sometimes be a useful shorthand, but when they’re formed with too little information and without being aware of variation, they can be inaccurate and potentially harmful.

Also, sometimes brains are overly negative. And sometimes we have to do our best to ignore them until we can prove them wrong. Being able to tell the difference between a real threat or issue and unfounded negativity is an incredibly valuable life skill.

And Meetup.com can sometimes be awesome! Good to know.

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“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

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Photo by Werner Kunz

I attended a birthday party a couple of weeks ago, and I had a conversation that’s become stuck in my mind. I was talking to a friend who was foregoing travel for a period of time (maybe a couple of years) in order to save up for a car he really wants. He said something like, “I always prefer spending money on things instead of experiences because I can keep on having great experiences with material objects for a long period of time.”

This statement caused me to begin questioning the culture of consumerism and my own relationship with the materialistic world. If questioned, I would have answered the exact opposite of my friend, that I prefer to spend money on experiences because those experiences will make me happier and more engaged in my life as a whole. There’s even research supporting my viewpoint.

But it’s not that simple, is it? I like material things as well as anyone else. My husband and I own a house, and we just purchased a new car since my old one (a ‘95 Corolla) has become finicky in its old age. Plus I have my three consumer weaknesses: books, sheet music, and clothes & jewelry. Hence the main storage problems in my house are bookshelf space and closet space.

I remember when I was starting my studio business, and I had to strictly prioritize my budget to make my earnings stretch. I allowed myself to buy sheet music (within reason) because I used it in my business. I only bought books on special occasions (thank goodness for libraries), and pretty much only mass market paperbacks even then. I did go clothes shopping, but I was careful to visit stores like Mervyn’s, Target, and Ross, where my money would go a lot farther.

In return for this thrift, I allowed myself experiences that I desperately wanted. I always allowed myself gas money if I wanted to drive somewhere to visit friends or enjoy a particular sight. I’d occasionally splurge on a dinner out with friends. And I’d save everything else for my annual trip abroad—the experience of travel and seeing other cultures was my highest priority. Sometimes I wished I could buy “pretty” things, but more often I worried about unexpected medical expenses taking away my travel budget. Experience trumped all.

One year, however, after I had received some gift money, I splurged and bought the complete set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs. I was so excited about this purchase, and I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched those DVDs—over and over, and I’m sure I’ll be watching them many more times in the future. So I understand what my friend meant about material objects giving lasting pleasure. What about a good piano? Does that count as a material object or do we purchase what a piano represents: the experience of making music? And driving in an expensive car (like my friend wants) is a completely different experience than driving my rattling old Corolla.

I wonder how often when we’re spending money on something material, what we’re really buying is the experience the object represents. I think I’d personally still prioritize straight-up experience expenses over more object-oriented ones: a night at the theater, a delicious meal, being able to spend time with non-local friends, traveling around the world. But perhaps my friend and I aren’t so different in our thought processes after all.

In which case, here’s the lesson I’m taking away from this: if I am making a purchase, I will try to remember to stop and consider what experience a given object represents, and then decide whether it is an experience that I truly want and that the object will actually deliver.

Objects are never going to be what makes me the happiest, however. My husband, my dog, my friends, intellectual stimulation and challenge, music and stories—these are the most important to me.

Which do you prefer—spending money on experiences or physical objects? Care to share a particularly memorable experience or purchase? I’m all ears.

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