Tag: Authenticity

13Nov

Where My House Elves At

(Prints available on Etsy*)

Dear Internet,
You’ve got some ‘splainin to do.

I know that sounds sitcom-silly at best and beat-cop-antagonistic at worst, but I mean it sincerely. We’ve been together a long time, you and I, from that first GeoCities homepage in ’99 (those synthesized MIDI versions of Third Eye Blind songs I had running in the background really classed up the joint!) to this morning’s reflexive Facebook scroll-through. I understand that change is inevitable over the years; neither of us is as earnest or as driven to gimmicks as we were in the early days of online socialization, and you never promised to conform to my expectations of you. Still, there is a certain version of reality that you’ve been projecting as something obvious and ordinary which continues to baffle me. And no, I’m not referring to the whole leggings-as-pants thing (though you’re welcome to explain that one too while you’re at it).

What I need you to help me understand is how the average Internet citizen of today seems to be able to juggle three or four full-time jobs at once. Let’s create a composite character for the sake of example: Harlingen Housewife is a totally average mother of four with her own Etsy shop and personal website. She gets up at 5 every morning so she’ll have adequate time to write a viral blog entry and run a few miles before making her family organic omelets for breakfast. While the kids are at school, she works on her third memoir, clears out her email inbox, and dusts the attic, keeping up a steady stream of Twitter banter all the while. After lunch, she focuses on her children, chauffeuring the older ones to extracurricular activities and facilitating art projects with the younger ones using a homemade watercolor recipe that she created on commission for Pinterest. Supper is quinoa-based. After reading the kids to sleep and treating her husband to a few rounds of lovemaking, she gets to work knitting custom convertible car tops for her Etsy shop. Only one or two tonight. After all, she needs plenty of sleep before her keynote speech at the next day’s Billionaire Bloggers Conference.

This is just a flat stereotype, of course. There are women who also manage to homeschool or run farms or travel the world or conduct publicity tours while doing all of the above. Some even hold down glamorous day jobs without missing a beat in their online success parade. Or at least that’s the picture you’re painting, dear Internet.

Here’s where my confusion comes in. I opened Twitter the other morning and immediately closed it again because—let’s be honest—99.7% of all Tweets nowadays are links to other pages, and I didn’t have time to read and compose retweetable comments on the thirty showing up on my screen, much less the thirty thousand queued up from the previous day. I didn’t have time because I was hoping to fit in a run before lunch, and adding two new pages to a writing project had already taken the lion’s share of the morning. The girls had an event scheduled for the afternoon, which meant that I would only have two hours after lunch in which to fit (or rather, fail to fit) errands, housecleaning, bookkeeping, emails, homework help, ironing, and a short lapse in judgment involving cookies… and there was the day, stretched out before me like a threadbare map, every inch of it already accounted for and found lacking.

You see, Internet, the contrast is just too great between what I’m able to do with my day (maintain a happy and occasionally hygienic home + write a little) and what you imply other moms are accomplishing with theirs (All The Things). Either I’m spectacularly incapable, or you’re skewing the truth. Or perhaps I’m just latching onto a skewed perspective of the truth that you never intended me to have. It’s hard to figure out sometimes what is real out here in the no-holds-barred glitter of your ether.

I realize that just because I can’t juggle multiple full-time gigs at once (and we DO agree that stay-at-home parenting is a legitimate occupation, right? good.) doesn’t mean that other people can’t. I also realize that the enviable personas attracting your spotlight are most likely supported by teams of babysitters and house elves and graphic designers and pizza delivery guys backstage. That’s just a hopeful guess though. For all I know, you could be the ultimate landing place for multitasking superheroes.

So please, dear Internet, in light of all the years we’ve spent together and my enduring love for the avenues of self-expression you’ve opened to the world, do me the courtesy of explaining:

  1. Whether or not task forces of mythical creatures are running the lives of successful bloggers for them
  2. What the primary difference is between my workday and theirs (if you say it’s a 5 a.m. wakeup time, I reserve the right to punch you in the throat even though I’ll know you’re right)
  3. What others are sacrificing for the appearance of having it all
  4. If those sacrifices have been worth the resulting success
    —and lastly—
  5. How anyone can keep up with Twitter and do anything else ever

Sincerely,
Puzzled in Perugia

 

~~~
*No

22May

[De]Constructing Art

There are the destroyers—

the rejection letter

the pregnant pause

the allegiance to duty

the comparative streak

the checking of stats

the boxing-in of style

the commercialization

the resignation

the self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-imposed silence

the slow drift away from joy

And there are the restorers—

the swell of intuition

the note of kinship

the devotion to whimsy

the confident voice

the savoring of time

the releasing of status quo

the authenticity

the intention

the self-care, self-celebration, self-administered grace

the alchemy of water and light into color

11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

When I wrote the following entry in my journal this morning, I was intending it just for me. I already had a blog post in the works, and I just wanted to get these thoughts off my chest first. However, when I caught myself writing that I need to stop apologizing for the way my mind works, I decided to stick it to shame and let you into my real Thursday morning headspace. Welcome.

~~~

I was listening to This American Life while straightening up the house and making my breakfast this morning when a short story by Shalom Auslander came on. In the story, two pet hamsters are starving to death and trying to make sense of why their owner is neglecting them. One of the hamsters says their owner has forgotten them, and he tries to forage for his own food with only limited success. The other hamster says it’s a test of faith; he sees signs of the owner’s care which, when successfully debunked by the unbelieving hamster, become additional tests of faith. He prays in thanks to the owner for starving him in order to show him his sin of ungratefulness. Finally, as the hamster is praying, the owner comes in the door. He’s with a woman, and as they fumble their way toward the bedroom, he turns off the lights.

I know that Shalom Auslander came from a severe Orthodox Jewish background that makes mine look almost liberal and that he has no shortage of bitterness toward God. I totally get it. And it’s because I totally get it that I felt sacrilegious and scared listening to the hamster allegory. The story didn’t denounce the existence of God or his roles as creator and provider; it simply made the argument that God doesn’t care about us, and that hits too close to my own doubts for comfort.

When times are hard, as these last two years in particular have been for us, we’re confronted with three possible perspectives. One is that the hardship proves that there is no God, that we’re utterly alone in this world. The second is that the hardship proves that God doesn’t care about us or that he will only help us if we prove our worthiness by pulling ourselves out of the hole. The third is that the hardship is part of a bigger plan for our own good and that God’s care for us is a constant we can cling to for comfort.

The first option doesn’t work for me because I do believe in God. I can’t help it. I’ve seen too much evidence of a divine force participating in our lives to doubt God’s existence. Choosing between the second two perspectives is tricky though. On one hand, hardship sucks. I know that if Natalie or Sophie were going through extreme financial and relational stress and I had the power to alleviate their burdens, I would do it in a heartbeat. That seems like the only loving option to me. But on the other hand, I know it’s ridiculously subjective to say that my displeasure with circumstances makes them categorically bad. I don’t know the bigger picture, and the idea is that God does, so we can trust that the ultimate outcome will be good… “good” in a philosophical sense only God can understand, that is. It’s never far from my mind that God’s idea of good could involve our destitution or death, and trying to call any pain that we experience “good” because God knows best makes me feel as pathetic and delusional as the praying hamster from Auslander’s story. Granted, we’re not destitute or dead right now, and I can’t go basing my view of God on other people’s circumstances that I only glimpse from the outside.

Obviously, I vacillate a lot between the two beliefs—God loves us, he loves us not. I prefer the loving option, but when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, I don’t know what to stake my trust on. I don’t have the kind of faith that can declare God good and caring no matter what happens to us. It does matter what happens to us! We matter! Our pain matters! When religious institutions try to placate people like me into blind faith with platitudes and Christianese and churchy aphorisms, it makes me want to abandon ship. We are not such spiritual beings that our physical realities don’t count. We have to have some kind of reason for our beliefs, and at least for me, faith comes from seeing a spiritual God interact with our physical world. Call me a weak Christian, but I can’t just glibly attribute both good and bad circumstances to God’s love. I can’t.

Some days, I take comfort from what Jesus said about God caring for us, meeting our daily needs, and answering our requests as a loving father would. Other days, I can’t stop considering that Jesus said these things shortly before he was tortured to death. Honestly, what am I supposed to take from that?

I feel like I should apologize to God or Jesus or the Pope or someone for putting that last paragraph into words, but I’m tired of apologizing for my mind. I’m tired of trying to silence questions and misgivings that don’t fit within church-approved mindsets. Censoring my doubts doesn’t make them go away; it just makes me live dishonestly, and how can I love God with all of my mind if I keep trying to lock parts of it in the basement? For better or worse, I’m stuck with this brain until death do us part. The tendency to overthink and question everything is hardwired into who I am, and apologizing for who I am is nothing less than deferring to shame.

So this is me, authentic and unapologetic, admitting that I can’t figure out this morning whether I’m one of the hamsters from Auslander’s story or one of the birds of the air from Jesus’s sermon. If I decide that God is indeed taking care of us no matter how life looks through the porthole of today, am I shutting down logic and deluding myself? Or if I decide that God has left us to fend for ourselves, am I discounting the many forms that grace takes in our lives?

This no man’s land between the two perspectives is not an ideal place to set up camp, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. In fact, I’ve often encountered God here in the breathing space between the opposing swirls of doctrine and rationale and emotional charge. Grace for now is accepting that my doubt-disposed brain is fearfully and wonderfully made and resting in the certainty that life does not depend on my perception of it. What’s more, God’s character does not depend on my understanding of it. Either we are being taken care of or we are not; my outlook changes nothing except how I feel… and what I feel right now is a blanket of peace wrapped around my questions, a gentle assurance that I don’t have to have God all figured out. This, more than anything else this morning, is helping me to navigate back toward the belief that whatever my reality right now, whatever my physical circumstances or spiritual uncertainties, he does care.

5Apr

Cloud Control

I have a desk and a lamp and a chair that cradles my temperamental back like a luxury, but more often than not, I find myself set up here at the kitchen table. On one side of me, a coffee mug empty but for a smudge of foam, two pen-scribbled notebooks, the Bible I always tote in just in case my soul feels strong enough to open it. On the other side, glass doors closed against a granite-gray day. In front of me, my computer and dusky blue nails typing a haphazard melody. Behind me, pots and pans, possibly every pot and pan in the world, piled in sculptured odes to spaghetti sauce and barbecue chicken and priorities that always seem to fall just short of dishwashing.

I have letters to write and lessons to plan and approximately 30,000 hours of IRS instructions to decipher before Tax Day, and some might argue that our empty fridge and overflowing sink necessitate some motherly attention, but instead I’ve been watching iridescent points of rain pattern our balcony. It takes nothing more than this, nothing more than a leak in the sky to remind me just how weary I am.

A few years ago for my birthday hope-list, I resolved to invite guests over once a week for the following year… and I did. Some weeks, we had company for dinner three nights in a row, and the whole experience fit our family’s values and hopes like a signature style. We couldn’t keep it up though. Our job situations changed after that year, and as the worries of keeping our family afloat have compounded, our ability to reach beyond ourselves has plummeted. As we approach each new weekend, my plans alternate between trying to catch up on the bazillion errands and projects we never have time for during the week and grasping at the chance to rest. I can’t imagine summoning the energy to make our home an open invitation again.

Hospitality is one of the core values that Dan and I have always shared, and I know that he would have friends over tonight if I were willing. But to be really, painfully, embarrassingly honest, I’m not willing. I’m not willing to invite friends to view the laundry draped over every available drying surface in our house or the toothpaste splattered across our bathroom sinks or the congregation of gym bags in the hall or the giveaway pile that’s swallowing our guest room whole. I’m not okay with touching up my makeup and switching my conversational filters to Italian and acting bright and welcoming at the time of day I’m really only up for changing into yoga pants and losing myself in the sofa cushions. I don’t have it in me to pretend I’m on top of our family life enough these days to include other people in it.

So our doors stay closed, and we try to make our life fit without its signature style, and I watch the rain give our balcony the only cleaning it’s had in eight months while this weariness seeps right into my blood stream.

And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen the same haggard tightness clutch around the expressions of friends all over town, and I’ve caught glimpses of it in the social media feeds of friends all over the world, and this weariness, it’s a universal cloud cover, a granite-gray weight in the air. We don’t typically admit to it though. While busy is an acceptable, maybe even admirable condition, weary comes across as pitiful, and how can we add one more social failure to the list? How can we open up such a vulnerable reality to criticism?

A large part of me wants to delete this post right now, not even finish. I’d much rather continue saying “I’m just busy” and collecting understanding nods. But if I don’t admit that this busyness has grown into something other, something as unwieldy as the sky and draining as a disease, then I’m perpetuating the idea that it’s not okay to show what’s really going on behind the scenes. I’m holding up a façade between us and perhaps even making you think you have to hold one up too.

You don’t have to though, at least not here. This place is for practicing authenticity and chasing down grace and remembering that we’re all in this human experience together. More than anyone, I need the reminder, but perhaps you need it too—a squeeze to your shoulder assuring you that you’re not the only one plumb out of energy, that you’re not defective or pitiful or alone. I might not be to the place yet of showing you my literal behind-the-scenes (I don’t even want to look at my kitchen sink!), but cracking open the door on my weariness and letting you in feels like a step closer to the community I’ve been missing, and wouldn’t you know it, the clouds are finally cracking open too.

 

19Mar

Calling It Art

A blogger’s job description, as I see it, is to curate life. We each set up a space reflecting our own personality and artistic or professional interests, and then we cull from our lives what we consider worthy of display. We frame moments and arrange lines of thinking just so, highlighting unique shades of relevance in the world around us and hoping to strike particular chords—humor, empathy, outrage, optimism. We notice and present and then stand in the wings surreptitiously analyzing visitors’ facial expressions (or traffic stats) for clues as to how our art is being interpreted.

I imagine that the vast majority of us blog for the same reason that every artist creates art: we are fundamentally drawn to it. Curating our own little life exhibit relaxes us or engages us or keeps us intentional or gives us community, and we glow a bit brighter as we put up each new post. Or perhaps it’s all in my imagining, this great pure-hearted blogosphere conjured from the same daydreamscape as true love in seventh grade. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I tend to romanticize things I know little about, and I prefer it that way. I don’t want to know that Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe got divorced or that The White Stripes disbanded or that Van Gogh shot himself in a haze of despair less than a year after completing The Starry Night. I want to believe in the longevity of beauty, no matter what common sense says to the contrary, and the same goes for blogging. I don’t want to notice the joy and originality slipping out of career bloggers’ writing or to read the disclaimers at the bottom of sponsored posts. I don’t want to think that the glow I feel in showing up here could be doused at any time in the soapy residue of burst illusions.

I suppose I’m most afraid of what happens when art turns into obligation. I’m feeling hints of it here today, at my kitchen table, worlds away from any true constraint to the craft. We’ve had an intense year so far with few exhibit-worthy moments, but I’m driven to write anyway, to create something relevant and aesthetic and new, so I turn up the pressure on myself to notice beauty! notice a positive insight! notice something, dammit!

I sit at my kitchen table sweeping my eyes over the calcium stains on our sink, the uneven row of spices on our mantle, and the alphabet magnets wedged like unfortunate mechanics under the fridge, trying to prod my surroundings into resonating with me even as I know that this is how it happens, how a curator turns into a busker. There is only the thinnest of lines between taking inspiration from everyday life and trying to force meaning where there is none, and I am most likely to trip over that line when writing turns into a burden.

Keeping art art—that’s the challenge, isn’t it? When all our Western Civilization instincts are demanding that we justify output with results? When our work ethic isn’t accustomed to waiting around for a flighty muse? Every day that I sit down to write, I find myself face to face with a web of conflicting motivations interspersed with the usual doubts. Should I write even if I have nothing pressing to say? On the other hand, should I let a lack of immediate inspiration keep me from writing? Should my guide be a schedule or my own fickle mind? Does everything I publish have to be profound? What would make this time and effort worth it (whatever it is)?

It’s no wonder the original joy of creating tends to slink out the door while I’m busy untangling. This isn’t the first time I write about my internal struggles with writing, and I’m positive it won’t be the last. I am well endowed in doubts and guilts and worries (and lions and tigers and bears! oh my!), and working through them again and again is a crucial part of the process for me. It allows me to create the glowing displays, the beauty. However, sometimes an honest exhibit of my life also entails showing you behind the scenes, framing the unpolished shadow side of what ends up on your screen. Sometimes curating life means opening the doors to an unfinished mess and calling it art.

~~~

What helps you to keep art art in your life? 

30Jan

Why I Swore Off Social Networking… and Came Right Back Again

Last week, the words wouldn’t come. I tried, planting myself in my computer chair and waging blinking contests with the cursor while time ticked away. I tucked a notepad and pen into my gym bag. I took inspiring books along on errands, just in case the orbits of opportunity and creativity finally decided to align while I was out.

They didn’t.

It wasn’t that daily life wasn’t providing enough material. On the contrary, my brain was wound so tightly with big decisions, big goals, big feelings, and the big events in loved ones’ lives that I felt like the first scattered trembles of a supernova. Writing is usually how I ward off eminent explosion, but the words wouldn’t come… and to be honest, my break from blogging felt a lot less like spelunking my way to clear-mindedness and a lot more like somersaulting through space.

~~~

One of the Big Thoughts I’ve been working through this month has to do with online community. I’ve always hated reading Facebook statuses like “I’m sick of Facebook” or tweets proclaiming “So long, Twitterverse.” Besides the obvious irony of swearing off social media ON SOCIAL MEDIA, those kinds of statuses make me feel personally rebuffed, as if those friends had grown disgusted with the idea of staying in touch.

You can understand then why I cringed so violently a couple of weeks ago when I caught myself telling Dan, “I’m thinking of quitting social networks.” I could not have felt more hypocritical in that moment, but I had just spent twenty minutes reading up on the newest controversy everyone was talking about, and the end result was the same gritty black aura of criticism and outrage that so often descends on me when I click the Facebook logo. Wait, he said WHAT? How can she possibly think that? Oh no you didn’t just go there. Why would they think anyone wants to know THAT? What the hell…? I can’t believe…! Don’t get me started… etc. etc. forever and ever amen.

The truth was, I no longer liked myself on Facebook. I hated my immediate impulse to form judgments about my friends based on a parade of links, likes, and one-sentence status updates, and it stung to realize how much time I could lose in a day chasing down controversy. Beyond that, I realized how much of my self-worth I was hanging on that same haphazard system—tallying up likes, strategizing the best times of day to post links, and even brainstorming blog topics based on how much buzz they might be able to generate. I was basing my online interactions around seeking and withholding approval, and it was poisoning my creativity at its relational heart.

So I told Dan I was considering giving it all up—deleting my accounts, turning off blog comments, disabling social media plug-ins, and just creating in happy isolation. No more crowding my mind with others’ opinions. No more reliance on instant validation. If I were no longer networking, I would be free to publish my writing and then just walk away; the idea sounded glorious and not at all like previous friends’ decisions to swear off social media. After all, I wasn’t going to post about it.

~~~

Last week, I quietly stayed offline, alone with my Big Thoughts and the space to write about them without agenda… but the words wouldn’t come. What I’d thought would feel like freedom ended up feeling more like alienation, and it wasn’t validation I was missing; it was interconnectedness. It was Hey, I saw you’re having a hard week; can we bring over dinner? and Don’t worry; my babies went through that stage too, and I promise you’ll survive, and Wow, I never would have thought of things like that. I didn’t miss the controversy, but I keenly felt the lack of others’ worlds, your worlds, broadening and inspiring my own. Say what they will about how friendships conducted online are pale shadows of those lived face-to-face, social media protestors can’t explain away the very real and lasting value it has brought to my life.

In my disillusionment over the negative aspects of social networking, I had lost sight of the positive, and my week of distance sent me sailing straight into this: Encouragement matters, whether it is offered across a coffee table or across a series of IP addresses. If “encouragement” is too churchy a word (is it?), swap it out with “positive connectedness” or “affirming relationships” or simply “friendship.” The point is that what we have here counts, and while stats and retweets need to take on a much less important role in my life, that doesn’t mean the people behind them need to as well.

Author Emily Wieranga’s blogging resolutions ring especially relevant on this side of the to-leave-or-not-to-leave debate, where I know so clearly what I don’t want but so little of what I do:

“never write just for the sake of writing…
never not write out of fear of not having anything to say…
never comment on another person’s blog simply in the hopes of having them read mine…
continue to keep the comments section open, as a way to spark conversation”
(You can read the rest over on her blog.)

I suspect I’m signing myself up for a year-long, if not life-long struggle to find the balance between caring about the people in my community and not letting their opinions—even the validating ones—define me. I want to find that slim ribbon of perspective that lets me value your thoughts and learn from them and even catch ablaze on them without being consumed in the process. On the other end of it, I need to root my purpose for writing in something far deeper and more fundamental to my identity than what kind of reaction it will generate while still being sensitive to all of you who read it. Basically, my mindset needs to work on its fine motor skills.

~~~

Back in the early days of blogging (I started eleven years ago, which now seems positively prehistoric), I don’t remember any debate over authenticity vs. boundaries, apart from Dooce losing her job and advising the rest of us to “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.” In fact, I don’t remember any drama at all over post content; my blogging friends and I wrote 1) to flex our creative muscles, and 2) to be a community. We would get together at coffee shops and read our favorite entries out loud, then go back to our dorm rooms and blog about it. Some of us sported Blogger t-shirts. It was pretty awesome.

Today, blogging has the potential to be so much more—income, book-fodder, recognition—and it’s easy to absorb the idea that those outcomes are the reason we’re here. The pressure is on to come up with exceptionally written, SEO-friendly posts in our signature styles for our chosen niches with enough punch to go viral and enough relatability to attract loyal followers (ideally those in the publishing industry). Blog traffic isn’t just a perk, it’s the point, and though all our efforts are focused on readership, we miss out on community.

That’s both why I decided to quit social networking and why I came right back again. Here, as in my face-to-face world, relationships mean nothing without authenticity, and authenticity has no strength apart from relationships. Blogging simply doesn’t work for me without both factors. As appealing and praiseworthy as the life of a technological hermit may seem at times, it isn’t the route I’m meant to go, and now that I’m acknowledging that, now, finally, the words are coming back.

~~~

How do you feel about social networking? Do you think it’s necessary for a successful creative life? 

17Jan

Lightening

I’m startled by my own weight when the alarm rings and dragging myself up through gravity feels like dueling a rip tide. This isn’t the kind of heaviness that spins the needle on our bathroom scale, though I’m surprised it doesn’t; it feels so tangible, a lead apron clinging to my bones.

I don’t need a scale to tell me I’m off the chart in soul-kilos though. I recognize the heft of each and every piece in this baggage set—

fear of who might be lurking on the other side of a shadow

anxiety over a future that refuses to be planned

disoriented terror that flits from potential disaster to potential catastrophe

every opinion formed about me that I’ve accepted as my identity

every opinion I’ve formed of others that reflects more on myself

dependence on a houseful of breakable, stealable things

my list of wants and the moving target at the end

this worry I carry around like a custom-fitted brick around my heart

stress, stress, stress

and my arch-frenemy, the compulsion to Fit In

They’ve traveled with me into the new year, and here I am, startled by my own weight when I try to lift myself out of bed, up from the table, off the sofa. It’s too much, it’s all too much, and the truth I’m trying to lift my head enough to see is that not a piece in the set is mine to lug around.

I’ve been wrestling with my “one wild and precious life” more than usual lately, and some Big Thoughts are coming to the surface, some surprising twists of perspective that I need to spelunk properly before I share. If I’m a little quieter than usual, that is why; spelunking is a mysterious and silent art, after all. I do know this though—each step back to take in a new angle is a step closer to returning a lighter woman than before.

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