Tag: Friendship

25Jun

The Real World: Italy

I know we’re no longer partying like it’s 1999 here, but I still cringe every time I catch myself saying the words “We met online.”

Others try to assure me that there’s no stigma to this anymore, that everybody and his uncle these days have a tribe of friends they’ve never seen in person. Even the fact that we now say “in person” instead of “in real life” should be a comfort. But whether it’s because I’ve never been to a bloggers conference or because I have truly cringe-worthy memories of defending my chat room “ministry” 15 years ago, I feel the need to hem and haw and issue disclaimers in triplicate before I admit that any of my friends started out as a URL to me.

The fact is that I have connected with some dear, dear people online, soul-siblings whose words and photos have integrated themselves into my own story. I count every one of these connections as a treasure, and I wouldn’t take it well if anyone implied that they were less valid for having been forged over screens instead of tabletops. (I owe it to humanity to admit here that no one has ever implied such a thing since… well, 1999. Clearly my defense tactics are aimed at the wrong decade.)

The most wonderful outcome, of course, is when screen-friendship becomes table-friendship. I live on the wrong continent to take advantage of that very often, but this last weekend came with a triple dose of magic, beginning with the arrival of this pair:

Erika and Austin on the gondola 1

Erika is one of my favorite people on God’s green interwebs, and now I can confirm that she really is that rad in person too. She and Austin made an otherwise ordinary day in Venice (said with tongue firmly in cheek) a feast, a party, and a pilgrimage all at once. Dan dusted off his tour guide badge, and the four of us wandered some of the most mesmerizing architecture on earth with no agenda except to be there—reverently, giddily, exuberantly there. If you’ll forgive my deviating into photoblog format for a while, I’d love to show you some of the trillion (give or take a few) pictures we snapped on Saturday. Because, Venice:

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29Nov

Tea and Sympathy

I’m feeling a little fragile here on the other side of Thanksgiving, the kitchen still piled with mixing bowls even after three dishwasher loads (which my longsuffering and all-around-awesome husband did when I wasn’t looking) and Christmas flurrying in the 30-day forecast.

I shouldn’t feel fragile. We were gifted yesterday with a gorgeous, full-volume American Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, complete with rare-to-us delicacies like green bean casserole and (be still my heart) pecan-crusted sweet potatoes, after which we played Balderdash. No game does my word-nerdy expat heart quite as much good as Balderdash. Full of good food and laugh lines, I came home and queued up the Sufjan Christmas playlist, and I should be glowing every bit as brightly as the snowflake lights strung up around town.

Should doesn’t have much sway over my emotional life though, and I’m trusting wise women like Anne Lamott and Glennon Melton who say that it is in fact possible to sit with uncomfortable emotions, offer them tea and sympathy, and live to tell about the encounter. It’s a tough challenge, this. I prefer the Freakout And Then Disengage approach, subjecting my fragile illogical feelings to a tirade and then opening Facebook so I can stop interacting with them for a while. I’m not sure that this is the healthiest approach, however, and it is exactly as effective as covering my own eyes to prevent a monster from seeing me. It doesn’t make the thing go away.

Today’s fragility is a mixed bag, really. It’s sadness that we won’t be with family for the holidays mixed with sparkling anticipation of time with friends and of our own little open-ended Christmas. It’s abundant gratefulness for the people in our lives contrasting with good old-fashioned introvert exhaustion. It’s nausea of body and soul over a confrontation that I find myself obligated to pursue tempered with the assurance that everything most important to me is okay regardless of how it turns out. I’m hopeful and anxious and tired and enthused all at once, and I suppose, looking at it in those terms, that a little breakability is only to be expected.

Have some tea, self. You’re doing just fine.

Your turn now. How are you holding up here in these unpredictable holiday waters? If you could use a little tea and sympathy for your own fragile illogical feelings, come on over; I have plenty to share.

17May

Moving Home… On Purpose

Our rental contract is up in July, and we’ve been talking houses, cities, square meterage, our girls’ childhood anchor. They’re at that age now where location starts to send its root-tendrils into identity, and we’re all too aware that the next place we choose as home will become capital-H Home to our children—its landscapes and idioms and styles wrapping them in a mantle of familiarity for the rest of their lives. We moved here six years ago for a job rather than for the city itself. That job has since receded into our family archives, and now that our work commute consists of walking from the espresso machine in our kitchen to the desks in our bedroom, the luxury of choice is open to us. Where in the world do we want to go? Where can we afford to go? Where and with whom do we want our girls to spend their formative years? Where do we, as a family, want to unpack our nomadic lifestyle and settle down on purpose?

Several months ago, Dan and I narrowed down a few possibilities, but we didn’t reach a decision until earlier this week when everything started slipping into place like keys in unseen locks. We found the house—our­ house, our next installment of Home—and it’s right here in our neighborhood. When we got the confirmation, I let out a huge breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. In fact, I was completely caught off guard by the depth of my relief. I’ve always been more attracted by fresh starts than by permanence, and if my heart was ever going to latch onto a spot on the map, it wouldn’t be here.

Except that it is. Without consciously intending to, we’ve lived in this city more than half our married life, and it’s gotten under our American skin all the way through to our minds and mannerisms. Our bodies have adapted to the weather, our schedules to the culture. We’ve made dear friends here and become part of communities that we couldn’t leave without significant pain. More than ever before in my life, I understand the term “uprooting,” and I’m unexpectedly, deeply grateful that we won’t be doing it anytime soon.

Now that we’re moving here on purpose, I think it’s high time I introduced you to the city we’ve called home these last six years.

Friends? Meet Perugia:

Perugia - Skyline

She’s not the kind of Italy that frequently comes up in chick flicks or travel guides. In fact, her recalcitrant train schedule pretty well ensures that Perugia will never become a tourist hot spot. She doesn’t sport the chic bustle of Milan, the gritty grandeur of Rome, or the romantic otherworldliness of Venice, and you would never end up here without meaning to. That’s something I like about this place though; it’s small and comfortable, and we can explore its Old World marvels without having to fight the crowds (or just give up and escape for the summer, as friends in more touristy cities often do). We have shopping malls and olive groves, roundabouts and medieval fountains. It suits us quite nicely.

Perugia - Gelato on the grass

By way of introduction, here are some of my favorite things about Perugia—things that I would try to show you if you came to visit, things that make me glad inside and out that we’re not bidding this place arrivederci after all:

The underground city. We didn’t know about the Rocca Paolina before moving here (okay, so we didn’t know anything about Perugia before moving here; 100 points for spontaneity, 0 for preparedness), so it was quite an experience that first day getting on an escalator headed up to the city center and stepping off inside an ancient fortress. I grew up in a country where everything of historical value is roped off as a museum exhibit—you can look, but don’t touch, and no cameras allowed!—so discovering that those cobblestone streets and houses holding up the base of present-day Perugia are used regularly for artisan markets and children’s festivals was like being set loose in the White House. Perhaps with another six years, I’ll be able to take it all in stride, but I can’t yet get over the thrill of sampling chocolate cheese or making origami kittens in some medieval family’s living room.

Perugia - Via Bagliona

The above-ground city. We don’t live in the city center itself (the panorama earlier in this post was taken from our balcony), but we often walk around it and gape and point and pose for photographs and act about as unlike local residents as humanly possible. It’s just… where else can you take leisurely walks on an aqueduct built from the 13th century? Or drive through an archway built by the Etruscans? Or eat chocolate gyros on the steps of a medieval government building? The history in this town is simply, unobtrusively present, and it’s so accessible that we’re not likely to stop acting like tourists anytime soon.

Perugia - Walking on the aqueduct

The festivals. So you might notice that chocolate has come up twice now in as many points. There’s a reason for that; Perugia is the home of Perugina chocolate and hosts an annual Eurochocolate festival in which the samples alone are worth battling sudden crowds. (The Gianduja of 2011 will forever live on in my taste buds’ memory.) However, it’s hard to say whether or not it’s my favorite of the local festivals. Umbria Jazz is hosted here every summer, and even though we’re not the type to turn our wallets inside out for Dave Brubeck tickets, there are plenty of funkadelic marching bands and public reggae concerts to keep us swinging. In fact, most weekends of the year offer at least one free citywide event, and we’ve had a blast at everything from old-fashioned game days to specialty beer tastings to family races to dance parties in the piazza. Party on, Perugia!

Perugia - Dancing at Umbria Jazz

The familiarity. We were showing friends around downtown a few years ago when we spotted a character we immediately dubbed The Worst Undercover Cop Ever. He was wearing what looked for all the world like those fake eyeglass-nose-mustache disguises that have delighted children for decades, and he was darting from the police station to the newspaper stand where he ducked conspicuously behind a magazine while the newspaper vendor calmly went about his business. Watching from across the street, we were equally amused and perplexed. Who was this guy? 

Perugia - Mauro the Prophet

Later, with the help of a funny online guidebook, we found out his name (Mauro) and profession (prophet), along with those of a few other personalities we had encountered from time to time… such the ZZ Top Santa Claus who sings Jingle Bells with terrible pronunciation but great enthusiasm every December and the accordionist from Amelie who makes me feel like I’m walking into my favorite movie. 

Perugia - Pigeons in Centro

Perugia may technically be a city, but it has the soul of a small town, and we never go out without running into people we know. One of my favorite ways to spend sunny weekend afternoons is heading to the enormous park below our house where the Perugini congregate as if by some unspoken rule to kick soccer balls, push their children on the swings, and socialize with all the friends and neighbors who are sure to walk by. The close sense of community here means that we as outsiders have a harder time fitting in, but it also means that the time we put into our friendships is warmly reciprocated. We would never have hand-picked this place to be our home when we first moved to Italy, but we’re picking it now. We’re moving Home.

Perugia - Percorso Verde

~~~

What are some of the things you love about where you live? What would you want me to see or experience if I came to visit?

7May

Respectfully, No

We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.

I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.

Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.

But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.

Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?

Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?

Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.

However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.

Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…

But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?

No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.

The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.


Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi

3May

Life All Around

We’ve had an odd schedule lately. Italy celebrated a national holiday on Thursday last week and another one two days ago, and it seems like weekends keep popping their heads into our lives and then backing out again, mumbling apologies. We’ve spent more time with friends over the last week than we have in months, and it’s felt like coming back to ourselves even as work piled up around our ears, even as the haphazard routines in our life gave up altogether and ditched us to go out for commiserative drinks.

This is an odd season of life, actually. We’re never quite sure if we’re on the verge of change or if we’re putting down roots into our version of normal. Those things that make us feel most alive—traveling, spending quality time with friends, writing (for me), playing music (for him)—have taken a back seat to the sheer madness of trying to establish ourselves as self-employed. We know the work we’re doing is valuable, but we don’t know when we should stop, what shape the big picture is taking, whether we’re in a sprint or a marathon.

One day, I’m sure I’ll look back on these in-between years and see every pattern and nuance through the clear vision of hindsight. I may even develop nostalgia for this time when our lives revolve around possibility (nostalgia-speak for “How the hell are we going to make it??”). For now, though, I’m trying to focus on one bite-sized day at a time and on the snippets of loveliness that carry me through the crazy:

* The drone of lawnmowers all across the city on Sunday afternoons. Even though I know that the tiny wild daisies that I love are being cut along with the wild allergy grass that I don’t love, lawnmowers sing the surest tribute to sunshine I can imagine.

* The quaint ruckus of Umbrian architecture, pink limestone houses and terraces and arches piled up on top of each other like a Medieval slumber party. We’ve lived here almost six years, and I still can’t get over the layers of our landscape: the base of silver-dusted olive trees posed like elderly modern dance troupes, the jumble of sun-warmed stone climbing out, and the Mediterranean sky pooled above. I still can’t stop pulling out my camera, a tourist in my own home.

Umbrian layers

* Coffee, in the social sense. I’m always amazed at the kind of long, easy conversation that can be carried by something as small as an espresso. Don’t try to tell me there’s no magic in that dark liquid.

* Re-falling-in-love songs:

* Handwritten letters addressed to me.

* Baby apricots, cherries, and figs in the backyard we share with our landlord’s family. (We live on the top floor of a “family condo,” which is a vastly more common living arrangement than standalone homes are here. I adore how this setup allows me to have fruit trees without my having to do any work whatsoever to maintain them.) Seedlings, snapdragons, and an explosion of strawberry buds in our balcony garden. Flowers on the kitchen table again. Little growing things, life all around.

Snapdragons - 3

* Sleeping on freshly washed sheets that have spent the afternoon cavorting outside with the breeze. I remember the luminous Mollie Greene commenting once on Instagram that washing your sheets “makes all the difference in everything,” and I’m inclined to agree.

* Tolkien with the girls before bed. After enduring series like The Faraway Tree, which the girls enjoyed but which made me want to stick forks into my own eyeballs, I’m thrilled to be reading good literature as a family. Also, I’d forgotten how funny The Hobbit is. (And what a bad-ass that Gandalf is!)

* Chocolate-covered grins.

Chocolate grin
(Picture by Dan, outfit by Sophie, decoration by gelato)

~~~

Tell me about the snippets of loveliness carrying you right now. Ready, set, go!

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.

 

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? 

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