Symbiosis: My Readers and Me

This year has been a nightmare, and there’s only been a few things that have carried me through.  One is, of course, Sarah and my family and friends out here in Minnesota keeping me going.  Another is music, particularly the TCWC and Encore.  A third is CONvergence, which is now an enormous, life-affirming time-suck of working with awesome people to make sure we are providing and protecting a community and a space which is welcoming and safe and fun and kind and respectful for all, particularly those who really, really need it.

But the fourth is writing, both what I’ve been producing and what’s been going up online.

For this year’s writing, I’m a little behind on my yearly goals, I’ll be honest, but I should make the absolute minimum I require of myself.  By the end of Oct 31st, I need to finish enough to have 47 chapters/oneshots/installments to go up each week next year.  (Then I get to spend November on Yuletide and editing the original novel and adding a chapter to the work currently being posted because it needs a little more than it has.  I have no idea if I’ll write at all in December, or, if so, what.)  More on this after the end of October when I’m hopefully done.

The flip side of writing, though, the part where I wrote it last year but am unveiling it this year, that has been awesome.  I have developed a whole Monday night ritual of putting off posting the next chapter for about an hour because I get nervous, then slamming my laptop open and proceeding to agonize about authors notes and final edits before I publish the update to both fanfiction.net and AO3.  And then I respond to any outstanding comments or reviews.

Two or three years ago, I decided I would respond to comments and reviews left on my stories, and for the most part, I’ve done well.  Even a “I liked this, thanks!” gets a reply from me.  It may only be a few lines, or it may be paragraphs.  But I try very hard to respond to the people who take the time to tell me they liked my work.

(This is sometimes funny on my end, when the same person reviews 3 or 4 chapters all at once and I respond to each review one at a time, or when the reader who translates my stories into Spanish leaves a review and I have to dredge my lingering Spanish up out of my brain to respond in kind — they are very, very nice about my stumbling written Spanish and always offer me hugs.)

The current work that’s been going up since the first week of February has garnered rather a lot of commentary.  Not necessarily dozens of different people, but a group of dedicated readers who respond sometimes at length to every single chapter, sometimes leaving 2 or 3 comments just because what they have to say is longer than the review box.  These readers have made and commissioned art for me, have written their own AUs and crack!fics based off my story as it unfolds, and have tossed speculation back and forth amongst themselves about what is really happening and what I’m going to do next.

What was just my story has become a gathering place, apparently, a little ecosystem feeding off the environment I’ve set down, and growing all on its own.

So after the chapter goes up on Mondays, I tend to have several different people who deserve answers, considered responses and not just “Yay thanks!” on my part for all the effort they’re putting in.  These wonderful, enthusiastic, kind people are taking their precious time to heap love and interest and speculation and emotion on my stories.  The very least I can do is respond in kind.  So that takes far longer than actually posting the chapters themselves.

And then I end up having to yell at my phone, because it ALWAYS happens that I’ll JUST have finished clearing all my comments and reviews from the last week when I get one from somebody who just read the new chapter.  And I thought I was DONE but now I have to go back in and reply AGAIN to someone, sometimes with them having reacted with many, many exclamation points, and it is always funny.

And I can’t stop grinning until bedtime, and sometimes until I actually fall asleep.

Because this dedicated group of fans, of readers, of friends — they are reading and reviewing and I can almost feel the collective OMG of them taking in and responding to what I post each week.  And it just…it fills me up.  No matter how bad a Monday has been, I go to bed happy because I put something into the world that gave something to them, and they gave it back.

There is an Avengers fic on AO3 I really like by Scifigrl45 named “The Act of Creation Will Be Your Salvation” and that title sums me up pretty well.  Music, writing, even building a family out of friends and a convention community out of nerds — this is what I have to give the world.  I have this drive to take a piece of myself and put it into the ether to be found by anyone who needs it.  And doing so, producing writing and offering it to those who need it, or producing music, or working for CONvergence, it fills me back up again.  It is an exchange of energy and love and spirit, and it makes us all better when we share in it.

I’ve written so many stories that don’t get read by more than one or two people, but they are just as necessary because sometimes they are there for that one person who really, really needs it.  Just as there are stories I really, really needed and still need sometimes.

It is everything on those Monday nights to put my story, my heart, my gift into the world, and know that it has made a difference.  Even if for just one person or just one moment.  It is everything.

The way I understand myself, my job is to stand at the edge of shadow, to hold it back from anyone who seeks shelter behind me, and to find something to bring some light to shine forward.  Just as I was a scared kid when I first discovered fanfiction or CONvergence and, through them, managed to hang on, I know there are other scared kids out there.  So I protect them when they come to me, be it to read my stories or attend CONvergence or share Thanksgiving at my table.  I stand up against the shadow.  I keep the storm back.  And I find a flashlight or a lantern from inside myself and push that to shine into the dark.  So the next scared kid can find their way, too.

Every one of my 114 stories would be worth it, all taken together, if they gave just one person that moment of light.  And they have done far more than that.

I have received comments and reviews from people who were struggling to remember to breathe all day long, fighting depression and worse with all their flagging strength, who said they felt better for reading my stories.  I had a year-long exchange with someone who took my chapters with her to her chemo appointments, and the novels I unfolded for her helped her cope with her battle to survive.  I have formed friendships with people I’ve never met which result in much giggling — but also which open up an avenue between us so that neither of us needs to ever feel that we are truly alone in the world.

Because we aren’t.  Max and Don and Blair and Quatre and all the rest have given us to one another.

When I do someday publish something that isn’t fanfic, it’s going to be because so many people have given me so much to get here.  Because these fans, readers, reviewers, friends made me believe I had something to offer, light worth shining, and gave me their own when mine went dim.  Writing is, at its best, a symbiotic relationship between author and reader, a circle of creation and inspiration and admiration.  I would have written those 114 stories just for myself, but it makes it so much more worthwhile to know I also write them all for every single person who has ever found and read and loved them.

(And every single person who read them and loved them and needed them but never left a comment, either — I don’t have to know them to know they’re there.)

So, to you, my wonderful, inspiring, soul-affirming friends and fans and fellow fic-nerds, thank you.  Thank you for everything.  And thank you on behalf of every author who was lifted by you.  The world needs a million more of you.

And for myself, for you, because of my heart, because of yours, I will never stop telling my stories.

Which really are my stories.

But they all belong to you.

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Myers-Briggs and Me

A friend asked me this weekend about my personality type as defined by the Myers-Briggs framework.  I retook the test, but then I also looked back at my results from the same test about 6 months ago.  Somehow, I’m not surprised I got pretty different results.

When I took the Myers-Briggs 6 months or so ago, I was an ENFJ.  This weekend, I scored ESTJ.

I took the test here if you’re curious.

The website goes into depth on each of the personality types and some of what the various combinations represent.  I think, generally, I fall somewhere between the ENFJ and ESTJ types.  What I find to be particularly amusing in the entire analysis of it, though, is that both peg me as being Extroverted rather than Introverted, and both peg me as being Judging rather than Perceiving — and I’m not sure I agree with either in its entirety!

Extroversion and introversion are always an interesting tangle.  Most commonly, they get explained as “do you get energy from people, or from being on your own?”  But the problem is that I think such a distinction doesn’t work for me.  Because whether I’m action or thinking oriented, whether I look for more interaction or less, and what exhausts me more — all these things are dependent on everything else.  Sometimes I call myself an “outgoing introvert.”

For me, it all depends on the day, the people, and how my brain chemistry has decided to line up.  I spent a large portion of this past weekend in crowds of people and felt more energized than ever — but those crowds were my two most comfortable communities: the Twin Cities Women’s Choir and the convention committee for CONvergence.  Sure, I was in a room with 100 people, and I had to be social, and I needed to be on my game, alert and quick and chatty and entertaining.  But I was with people where all of that comes more easily to me than, say,  a group at a ballgame or in the store.  The TCWC women have been my sisters and aunts and cousins for 11+ years.  They know me, and it’s fine for me to be myself, just as I am, around them.  I’ve known the CVG crew for less time, but, if anything, they are even MORE welcoming of me and who I am and how that presents today.

Contrast that with my usual circumstances at work, where I can go a whole day and sometimes a week without interacting face-to-face with a single coworker, in spite of sitting in the middle of a “cube farm” as it were.  I answer emails and IMs, and the few-and-far-between phone calls, but for the most part I find those weeks without people more restful and easier to handle.  The days when I don’t have to chat with people, or stand up in front of a room to give a presentation or training session, are the days I’m the most productive, the most relaxed, and come home feeling the most refreshed.

One hour-long meeting at work might be all the social interaction I would want in a day, but I can easily spend 3-4 days with the TCWC or CVG and never feel the fatigue of introversion.  So the “E” of the Myers-Briggs only works, I think, when I’m within a group where I already feel safe.  When I’m an outsider, though, or when I’m still finding my way, then I would challenge that “E” more strongly.

I’m probably not a genuine extrovert all of the time, or even most of it, but when I have room to be myself, then I take that room and enjoy it.

Similarly, the judging/perceiving divide doesn’t QUITE work for me.  It’s not quite as neat a divide to explain, but it seems to come down to “are you more likely to organize and follow a clear plan, or let the world give you some ideas and improvise along the way?”  And, once again, in a lot of ways I find myself to be both.

I am, generally, an organized person.  If someone asks me to make a plan, or figure out how to get XYZ things done, or set up a schedule with lots of conflicting information, I can usually breeze through it, produce something straightforward and logical, and enumerate the exact sequence of events or precise steps from start to finish.  I have the capacity to orient the world in my head and snap it into order, whether I’m doing it with my spreadsheets and plot structures or the exact to-do list before a road-trip.

But, honestly, a lot of that isn’t because I need it for myself — it’s more a result of everything else.  Living with Sarah, it helps us both for me to be able to make clear and concise plans she can use.  At work, I’m a data analyst, so my brain naturally whirls through numbers and patterns to create trends and graphs and correlations and conclusions.  I don’t know that I necessarily see the world in concretes, nor that I even need to perceive it that way.  But that’s the path of least resistance because that’s how I tend to keep life moving forward.

When it’s just me, living inside my head, I don’t think I bother with so much organization and structure and order.  I don’t typically make plans unless plans are necessary by some outside force, and I know things will get done in their own time.  I don’t bother to pin down the 15 different scenarios for every outcome of every branch of what I might do — I just go on my merry way and adjust my steps when the path changes or a rock creeps up.  Also, the “P” type tends to attract the non-conformists and I am ABSOLUTELY a non-conformist.  I’m the person who wanders around in ratty sweatpants in the nicest stores in the richest suburb because I CAN and I find it funny when people blink at me, as if somehow I’m “doing it wrong” by existing without being perfectly put together.

I do tend to interact with the world on the “J” side of the divide, but I think, if there were no world and just me, I’d stick to the “P.”  But, part of that is that I don’t need the plans of a “J” for myself because I know even if I stumble, I’ll catch myself and keep on walking.  But I plan, because I’m trying to make the path easier for anybody else walking with me.

So…I’m not sure I’m a good candidate for Myers-Briggs.  And all this is before you get into the nuances of trying to do personality testing in a constantly-fluctuating brain with bipolar tendencies.  It’s like trying to thread the needle of a sewing machine while it’s running.  You might hit it at just the right moment, but for the most part, you’re going to miss.

I understand why these types are helpful, both for people who want to learn about themselves and to help others understand one another.  I just don’t think they help ME very much.

But then, it’s just one more box, one more set of expectations, one more world of nice clean lines for me to willfully and cheerfully ignore when it suits me.  One more way to defy the mores of conventional understanding.

Because it’s fun.

And anything worth doing or being is worth doing and being yourself, for yourself.

Even when that makes me personality type ???? and sometimes !!!!

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September 11th

September 11th really gets under my skin.

September 11th means a lot of things to a lot of people. But at the moment, I can’t get my head out of what it means for me.

September 11th, 2001, was my second day at college. Instead of adjusting to a new schedule and thinking about new classes and friends and everything else, I woke up at 8:30ish CT to my dad calling the room. He told me he was okay – he was supposed to have been at the World Trade Center because he had a monthly trip out there for work, but because of driving me to Minnesota, it had been rescheduled. And he told me there had been an attack. I remember thinking it didn’t seem real.

I wandered down the hall of my dorm, still unfamiliar, still scary in its own right, to the lounge. There, the TV was on with the live coverage. One tower had already collapsed. I remember feeling so numb, so lost. I was already in a new place alone and adrift, and suddenly even reality didn’t seem real. I sat on the floor just inside the door and watched the second tower fall. I remember thinking I should have been crying and I remember not knowing why I wasn’t.

A junior who lived on the floor 2 or 3 doors down from me (and I remember his face and his voice but I’ve long since lost his name) sat beside me and asked if I was okay. And then he put me together with my door and realized it said there in big letters that I was from New York. And he realized I wasn’t okay. So he put an arm around me for a while.

Others came in from the floor, and a few from upstairs where I think the TV wasn’t working. There was a girl on the floor from NYC who was in her room trying to call her mom crying hysterically and her roommate asked the RA to come help. The kid from Iraq and the kid from Saudi Arabia came into the lounge and were horrified, but they retreated to their room soon after and people mentioned they might be scared. Already the news was making noise about Muslim terrorists, and the kid from Pakistan wouldn’t look at any of us.

I remember going to class with a new professor and he was cold. He said he didn’t want to talk about it and didn’t want to bring it into our freshman seminar. And I understand the value of going on with the day, but that…lack of empathy. I think now it must have been a coping mechanism, but I never forgave him while I was in that class for what felt so callous.

I remember the college called an emergency convocation and we crowded into the chapel together. I remember sitting with someone…but not who; I only knew a handful of people then. I remember still feeling so cold and numb and lost and I still didn’t cry even though I tried. Fuck, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry because I wanted someone to make it okay and there was no one. I wanted someone to pull out of their feelings so they could help me with my own because I had no understanding of how to handle what I was feeling.

What’s strange is that I don’t remember much more than that from that particular day. I remember checking the news – everyone was checking the news – and finding out about Flight 93. I remember feeling instantly grateful to be so far away from New York, as though that insulated me from the reality and my reaction. And I remember the rush of gratitude and pride that, even in the days and weeks afterwards, there was no backlash on my college’s campus against people from the Middle East or people who were Muslim or people who LOOKED Muslim. The backlash that happened in other places sickened me, and I was so, so glad to be around people who did not retaliate.

For most people, it was a day of tragedy and it led to a lot of ugly politics and a war and fear and many other things, but for me, it changed everything. Because I was a political science major and had been on that path since my junior year of high school. I was an international relations student and I wanted, I desperately wanted, to save the world. I arrived at a college especially chosen for its international relations program ready to march into a chaotic world and do some good.

And September 11th changed the very world I hoped to save.

I’ve long said that I chose not to continue into government work because of Sarah and the friends I had whom I didn’t want to leave, but I think that may only be fifty percent of the answer. The other fifty happened when the United States reacted to the attacks with war and hate and despicable rhetoric. The other fifty percent happened when September 11th scared me, both for what might happen to me out in the world if I served the US government, and for what the US government might do with me.

How could I lend my will and hope and talent to a government run by a warmonger who went into the wrong goddamn country just to appease what looked like latent daddy issues? How could I serve abroad when my very name and face and job could make me a target? How could I work in Washington DC and try to “protect” this country from a threat when that threat was defined by those in power as anyone whose skin and beliefs vaguely (and sometimes not even vaguely) resembled the hijackers’?

The world I wanted to save died on September 11th. Maybe not in reality, but certainly in me, it died. And I found I didn’t want to be a part of a system that killed civilians while arresting and detaining and torturing them. I found I didn’t want to be affiliated with the lies that my advisor debunked in class within days of the US presentation to the UN of the so-called WMDs in Iraq. I found I didn’t want to carry the United States like a badge into a part of the world we had rightly pissed off just because we were too stupid or too clumsy to tell the difference.

I saw the videos. I read the news. I followed the reactions. People worldwide started to view the United States as a racist, bigoted, violent, war-hungry nation because that is how we were acting. And I decided I didn’t want to help them do it.

I love this country. I have always loved this country. And to join in such actions and decisions felt like a betrayal to everything I love about the US, everything that makes it good. Everything that makes ANY nation good. I could not be a traitor to the ideals of justice and equal treatment and peace, not when those very ideals were coming second to ideas like “security” and “prevention.”

After September 11th, it’s possible the United States needed someone like me more than it ever had, but I just wasn’t strong enough to answer that call. I wasn’t strong enough to face down those men in power. I wrote my final senior thesis on the political philosophy behind espionage because it was the closest I could get to actually studying What The Hell Is The US Doing And Here Is What It Will Do To Us All without grief.

September 11th was a national and international tragedy and the beginning of many more. It was a day of death and sorrow and pain and fear, and it kicked off far more to come. What it is to the world cannot be understated.

It’s not remote to me now. I didn’t lose a friend or loved one in the Towers like my dad did. I didn’t breathe in the carcinogenic dust like the brave men and women who did their best to save lives.

But something in me died that day, and it is a pain that never goes away. Any time I see the NYC skyline, I ache for what is no longer there. Or in movies that haven’t been edited, I ache when I see the Towers stand. I ache because when they broke and fell, they took a piece of me with them. They took my future. Me the Diplomat-to-Be died that day, too. I hurt for the people of my nation and my state and my city (because NYC is MINE as much as it is anyone’s who has ever loved it, anyone’s who has ever walked its streets and felt strangely at home) and I will never stop hurting for them.

And I have never yet stopped hurting for myself, either.

September 11th, 2001 happened to me. It happened to me and it changed me, and while my suffering is nothing, NOTHING, like those who lost loved ones at Ground Zero or the Pentagon or in a field in Pennsylvania, it is no less real. And after it happened to me and it happened to the world, then the suffering went outwards in wars and bombings and retaliation and detainments and invasions. The cycle of violence and pain was exacerbated and spread to hundreds of thousands or millions of people who were just as innocent as those on the planes.

People forget what 9/11 began when they remember 9/11, but I never can. Because I remember my Iraqi floormate whose hometown was involved in fighting before we graduated. I remember my childhood friend and companion and protector, who was called to two tours in Iraq and for whom I was scared all the time.

It happened to me and then it happened to the world. And it KEEPS ON happening because we have learned NOTHING as a people. And maybe, maybe I should have found the courage and stood up and tried to be the change that is so needed. But I don’t have that kind of power.

And maybe that’s also why September 11th gets to me so much. Not only was it traumatic and tied up in the biggest period of upheaval in my life to date, and not only was it a defining moment for my future and choices and career, and not only was it outright horrific in every particular but for the selfless, wonderful heroes who ran into fire and ruin to save lives. But because I can’t forget all the people it happened to, people whose lives were never the same, people who have to live with it in their hearts even if they were nowhere near the attacks themselves. 9/11 isn’t just about the Towers and the Pentagon and Flight 93. It’s about Afghanistan. Iraq. Guantanamo. All that suffering, all those lives, all the weight of that terror and trauma in the world, and it happened to us all.

And there was nothing I could do to stop it, not any part of it. Not the hijackers. Not the invasion of Iraq. Not the prisoners STILL FUCKING HELD without their rights. I was just a little girl, 19 years old and without having grown any true courage yet. By the time I had courage enough, it was too late. The world had been broken and there was nothing I could do to fix it.

They say “Never forget.” But people do. People hoist flags and make speeches or just go, “Oh, it’s nine-eleven. That was so sad.” And they go on. They forget.

But September 11th is STILL HAPPENING to people. It’s still happening to me, too. I will never be able to honestly look at my life and know in my heart that it was all okay. Because September 11th scared me off a hill where I believed I was born to stand, and that future was lost.

I love my life. I love the people in my life. I am not usually sorry for the choices I made; indeed, being in this life has given me opportunities and friends and chances I never would have found otherwise and I wouldn’t give them up for anything. But on any September 11th, two painful days after my birthday, I can feel the difference. The difference of what I could have been. Of where I could have gone. Of the other work I could have done. Of a time I put my head down when I could have stood up. Because who knows what might have changed and whose lives might have been spared if I had been there?

On September 11th, 2001, heroes shone bright against hate and evil. And I was too busy being numb and shocked and scared and lost to join them. I didn’t hug anyone else. I didn’t help. And I went on to not help. I went on to evade the hard work of making things right rather than digging in. It took me several years to analyze that day and what I did right and wrong, so I could teach myself to do better next time. So that I can be one of the helpers, and not one of those needing the help in the moment of crisis.

But I also never forget that I went on to become what I am because I had that luxury. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t have that choice. It wasn’t just my perceptions of the world that died in the aftermath of that day; it was my perceptions of myself. And all of that is completely worthless compared to the lives lost worldwide. I may have my own memories and feelings to deal with, but I will never, ever forget that my feelings are NOTHING to the true harm that came to the world that day and every day since.

 

So on any September 11th, you’ll find I lapse silent throughout the day. I get melancholy. I have trouble laughing or relaxing. I retreat and stop reaching out. I have a small downswing into depression.

It’s the day so many, many lives were ruined forever, and not just in NYC or the Pentagon or on Flight 93.

It’s the day fear spread far more quickly than a wildfire, and it was followed by pain and violence that has never since let up.

And it’s the day my dreams died and were replaced with a profound awareness that nothing I ever did with my life, no matter how spectacular or mundane, would ever make the world right again.

Forget September 11th, 2001? How could I?

Its shadow still falls all over my life, even on the brightest days. And I’m just a nobody in the Midwest who DIDN’T lose limbs or liberty or loved ones.

So when you remember 9/11? Don’t just remember the towers and the planes. Remember the people in other countries whose lives have been torn up. Remember every person who ever looked up in the sky of NYC and felt like running and hiding. Remember every person in every country who felt like they would never be safe again because of their heritage or their religion or their culture. Because 9/11 happened to us all.

Never forget that.

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One Thing

Welcome to 2017!

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  It seems to me that if you’re going to do something, DO IT.  Don’t promise it for a year.  Decide and go.

So my 2017 goal is the same as my 2016, my 2015, all the way back to the fog of…whenever I started thinking about it, I guess.

To follow, unflinchingly, my version of what a slightly-cheesy 90’s movie so aptly sums up as the One Thing.

There’s a movie I used to watch with my parents a lot, and probably before I was old enough to really be comfortable with all its subject matter (hooray for discussing issues of adultery and the male gaze at age 12!).  But it’s one of those things where 80% of the movie was about something fun and meaningful and 20% was about something even more meaningful if entirely opaque to a kid.  It’s not a *great* movie by any means, but it was important.

Because City Slickers taught me about the One Thing.

(Spoilers for the movie from here on out, just in case)

Basic synopsis for those not willing to Google: 3 friends in their late 30’s take their vacation on a cattle drive where everything goes wrong and ultimately figure out how to return to their lives and live them with enthusiasm.  Billy Crystal is the main character, backed up by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, and the three of them are challenged, threatened, terrified, and finally inspired by an old cowboy played beautifully by Jack Palance.  They get saddle sores, they rope cattle, they ride badly and then less badly, and they face down the vapidness in themselves to find something worth bringing home.

There’s a scene that takes place between Billy Crystal’s character Mitch and Jack Palance’s cowboy Curly when the two of them are out on their own before they catch up to the rest of the herd and its hapless vacationers.  Mitch is wound tight and is on the brink of despair in his life and Curly, in a moment of insight, just shakes his head at him.

Curly: You city folk worry about a lot of shit…  Y’all come up here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend about fifty weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope.  Then you think two weeks up here’ll untie ‘em for you.  None of you get it.
[pause]
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?  [points index finger skyward]  This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great but, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch]  That’s what you gotta figure out.

 

By the end of the movie, Mitch figures out that his One Thing is his family, his wife and kids, that they are what he is living for and what gives him reason to breathe.  That they make him his best self and give him back his smile.

It’s a noble place to plant your flag, but there’s a problem with that choice — he’s set his sail to a star that will fade.  He ends the movie triumphantly happy, with no note of what is to come.  But someday, just as he says rather despondently at the beginning of the film, his life won’t look like it does when he is 39.  Someday his kids will grow up, leave home, and maybe not be the people he hoped for.  Someday maybe he will be a widower, or his marriage won’t be what makes him happy.

Mitch designates his One Thing at a single point in time — and the only way that works is either if his family literally never changes from how they are right now, or  if he is willing to adjust its definition as life frays his current reality into the future.

On the other hand, that is enough for some people.  How many people want to become something, like a doctor, a grandparent, a *success* however you define it?  How many people, mainly women, unfortunately, claim that their wedding day is the best day of their life?  Or that high school, or college, or one free summer is the best time in a person’s life?

It seems to work for lots of people.  But it never worked for me.  How could it?

That mentality means that you’ve hit your peak before you’re even partway into your potential lifespan.  Does that mean you are condemned to nothing but disappointment from then on?  Like, yay, I lived everything worth living before I was 25?  I’d rather not.

Time happens.  Life happens.  And it changes.  The people we love and live for might not always be there.  The success or job we set our hopes on may change, or fade, or turn out not what we wanted after all.

It always seemed to me that if you set your One Thing on shifting sands, someday it will fall.

Ultimately, I think a safer One Thing is one that isn’t tied to circumstances but rather movement or perspective.  If a person decides to walk the path of a religion, or a philosophy, no matter who comes or goes from their life, they will have their dedication and their beliefs and ideas to lead them on.  There’s an argument to be made for ‘what if your philosophy changes?’ which I think means that you might end up with another One Thing to find and follow eventually.  But overall?  A One Thing which isn’t a *thing* and is instead a path has a better chance of staying with you while you walk through the changing, unexpected years of messy, real life.

My One Thing isn’t a goal.  It’s a trajectory.  It’s not pointing at the fence, Babe Ruth-style, and hitting the single shot I called.  It’s choosing a spot on the horizon and heading for it, unflinchingly, without stopping.  For me, my One Thing could never be a single state of being, nor a single achievement.  My One Thing had to be a journey, the arc of an arrow shot through the sky — not its landing at the end.

It’s true that there are people I love with deep and abiding affection, people I would die and live for.  There are people who are my friends and family without whom my world would become cold and ash and empty.  And I do live for them.  They are my foundation.

But they can’t and shouldn’t be my One Thing because my One Thing must sit deeper than that.  Before I can be a friend or sister or wife or aunt or anything else, I have to be myself.

So my One Thing is to become the version of myself I want the most — from that comes everything else.  If I am the self that burns inside, the self I have chosen, then I can be an artist.  I can be a wife and friend.  I can be a citizen of the world.  I can be a defender and a refuge.  I can be a home.

And the truth is that this One Thing actually did unknot my rope, as it was.  Because making that one choice, following that one star I found to be my Polaris, had consequences.  To follow it, to stay on the path forward, I had to let other things go.  I had to BECOME other things.  And every step towards my one point on the horizon brought me closer to everything I wanted — and farther from everything keeping me from it.

Everybody’s One Thing is different.  But mine, for my own reasons, has to live within me.  It’s the one thing that is utterly constant, with me at every breath.  And it means I never have to face resenting pinning my life to One Thing that turns out to be transient.  It means there is no crisis of faith to be had, because I am still alive in myself.

And if I’m not, well, I’ve got bigger problems than a loss of direction.

So my goal for 2017?  To keep following my inner star over whatever lands await me.  To live my One Thing which gives me the power and clarity to be the person I want to give to the people who matter, the art that matters, the world that matters.  To be the soul which is only mine — and to help it shine in the world alongside my 6 billion neighbors.

When I am honestly myself, bruised and proud, running between some mix of integrity and disaster, that’s when my rope unknots and everything else really don’t mean shit.

That’s when I get to be myself for everyone who needs me.

That’s when the noise of the world goes quiet and all that’s left is what I put into it.

Thanks for the advice, Curly.

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Rowena

On Wednesday, I finally broke down and bought a copy of a book I remembered my grandmother reading to me on just about every visit to her house throughout my childhood.  It was a little book, only a few pages, with vivid line drawing in only white, black, and teal.  It took me until recently even to learn what it was called: I Can Read about Witches by Robyn Supraner.  (In my defense, for the story that follows, that is not the most intuitive title ever.)

(Spoilers)  (Not that it matters, really)

In the simplest terms, the story tells of a town which has lost all memory of joy and laughter.  It is a town torn by cruelty, derision, and anger.  There are no smiles.  There is no forgiveness.  There is no kindness.  There is no love.  There is no understanding.  There is no peace.  It has all been stolen by a witch.

But one girl, named Rowena, carries the memory of laughter in her heart.  She vows to find the witch and retrieve the stolen joy, no matter the cost.

Rowena ventures into the deep forest alone.  When she stops to rest, she dreams of a fairy who warns her that the witch knows she is coming and will try to stop her.  The fairy tells Rowena that the only way to defeat the witch is to know her when she sees her and to catch her — to hold onto the witch no matter what happens.

The witch disguises herself as a bird and pretends that her baby is caught in a thorny bush.  She cries for help and begs Rowena to crawl into the thorns and rescue the baby.  But Rowena lures the bird close and grabs onto her.  She tells the bird she will not let it go until the witch agrees to grant her wish.

The witch transforms herself into a series of monsters — giant snakes, dragons, threatening to eat Rowena, threatening to turn her to stone.  But Rowena holds on and never lets go, no matter what the witch says or does.

The witch has no choice but to surrender.  She agrees to grant Rowena’s wish and leads her to where she has locked up the hope and joy and love of Rowena’s town.  Rowena sets free the light stolen from her people in a great rush of laughter.

The book stuck with me all the way to adulthood.  And now I think I know why.

Now I have to be Rowena.  I have to hold onto the memory of joy and peace and love.  I have to venture out, bold and undaunted.  I have to beat back the trickery of that which presents itself as bigger than me, or scarier.  I have to hold on and never let go.

I know virtually nobody reads this site right now.  That’s okay.  I’m not putting this site here for the present.  I’m putting it here for the future, for the day I’m a published author and need a “platform.”  And I’m putting this particular story here for the day it matters, even if I can’t guess when or why that might be.

And I’m adding this promise, too:

I promise to hold the memory of all that is right in my heart, and to walk into whatever comes without losing it, without giving up, without backing down.  I promise to resist cruelty and indifference and violence with all my strength.

I promise to hold on, and to never let go.

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In My Skin

(AKA: Why I avoid makeup like it was chasing me with a knife made of hepatitis and hand-grenades)

This weekend I will be performing in a vocal recital along with several of my favorite people in the world.  It’s not my recital but I’ve got several pieces to contribute and I’ve been looking forward to it all summer.

And you know what makes me the most nervous?  It isn’t the singing, even though I’ll be singing some very exposed parts in front of some people whose opinion I probably value too much.

It’s how I look.

How I look in the dress and how I look in my own skin.  And since I don’t feel like tackling issues about women and body-image in the sense of physical shape, I’m going to focus on the latter.

I don’t wear makeup.  EVER.

I can count on both hands and a few toes the number of times I have worn any form of makeup in my life.  One dance recital, age 4.  One day at summer camp, age 12.  Four drama performances, two at age 14, two at 17.  Two gigs in a band competition, age 24.  Two job interviews and one first day, age 24.  One wedding, age 24.  Two choir concerts, age 24.

That is literally it.

Now, when I say “makeup” I mean EVERYTHING.  Lipstick, eyeliner, blush, foundation, anything and everything one might paint upon oneself for the purpose of changing one’s appearance.

Of course, the question is — why?

If you’ve ever seen a picture of me, or if you watch our videos, you’ll note that I do not have perfect skin.  I don’t even have nice skin.  I have the skin of a 14-year-old whose hormones have been turned up to 100 and have been this way since puberty began.  I have blemishes you couldn’t cover with a hubcap and scarring besides.

But then, wouldn’t that be the perfect reason for makeup?  To cover that stuff?

I’m so glad you asked.

Yes.  But no.

One of those makeup-wearing days up there was the one from summer camp.  It’s a good story and it informs most of what came after.

I attended a week or two at the same summer camp for 9 years of my childhood, and it was one of the best and most formative things I ever did in the summer.  In a cabin of 12 girls, though, you start to see the years take effect as little girls begin the steps to adulthood.  Girls I had known for years started showing up with bikinis and put on makeup to go to the beach.

I was never into that stuff.  I never wanted to be.  But one of the girls who had always been kind and friendly offered to do a bunch of makeup for me so I wouldn’t feel left out and soon the whole cabin was in on it, on giving me a makeover.  I sat and let them do as they wished and they put on my makeup and braided my hair and lent me a dress (because who brings a dress to summer camp when you’re playing sports and climbing in trees and swimming all day long? Not me, apparently.).

When they were finished, they called over our cabin’s head counselor and asked what she thought.

And her answer stayed with me forever.  “You look very nice, but you don’t look like yourself.”

I remember that the horn blew for afternoon ballfield right then and we all headed out to go play, but I went to the bathroom first.  I remember looking at myself in the mirror.  I looked…polished.  Feminine.

I smiled at myself.

And it tore a hole in me.  Because that was NOT me.  Not really.

At age 12, almost 13, I realized that that stuff on my face wasn’t for me.  It was for other people that it made feel good and happy.  For me, it was me bowing to expectations and becoming the girl that girls were supposed to be since it certainly didn’t apply to boys.  It was me looking like a “better” version of myself.

And I decided then and there that I would rather be the true version of myself no matter what.  That the only “better” me would be the me who lived fearlessly and shamelessly.  Also — I decided that ANY standard applied to boys or men could just as well apply to me too and who cared that I was a girl?  I’m a person first.  And I’m a person who didn’t care about being the right-looking girl.

So I washed it off, ran and changed, and got out to ballfield in my shorts and sneakers and threw balls around with everyone.  And I never tried it voluntarily again.

Now, if you look at my history, you can forgive me wearing it a few times when I was in a play — theater people will tell you that you need makeup to look normal under the lights.  I kinda disagree, but when you’re in school, eh.  I always looked orange, but we were all orange and it was only slimy for a few hours.

But at age 24, well, I had a crisis of faith.  Faith in myself.

Sarah and I were performing as a different band then, and we were in a competition — and the judges didn’t like us without makeup because we were girls.  (It took us a while to figure out that the whole competition was rigged against us anyway because even though we weren’t “out” to them, we were clearly out to one another.)

At the same time, I had to change jobs and I was incredibly nervous.  I wanted to be paid more and I thought I needed to dress and look more like the women who were paid more in order to get through the interview process and actually land a job.

Also a friend asked me to wear makeup at her wedding “so the pictures would look nice.”  I guess I should have figured then that maybe a friend who thought I needed to look different to look nice wasn’t quite as kind of a friend as I wanted for myself.

And the choir we sang in wanted people to wear something on stage, too, for the lights.

They all conspired against me, but really, it was me that fell down on the job.  Because I thought, “eh, I don’t like it, and it makes me uncomfortable physically and emotionally, but the reason to wear it makes sense and I can deal with it for a little while, right?”

But you’ll note that there’s nothing at age 25.  Or ever since.

I broke under convention for a little while, but it never manages to hold me for long.

Because what was true at 12 is still true.  I like who I am.  I like who I am and I don’t want to look different from myself.  Even when that means major skin issues or unfashionably mascara-less eyes.  And while it becomes more acceptable for men to wear makeup if they choose — which is great for them — they still don’t have to.  And I still don’t have to.  I am a person long, LONG before I am a woman.

And, actually, it makes for a really good test of people.

Because someone who won’t give a woman respect because she’s not wearing makeup probably won’t give her respect anyway.  Someone who decides based on a woman’s looks whether or not she is smart enough for a job is probably not going to pay her fairly or recognize her full contributions.  Someone who looks at a woman without makeup and a man with makeup and thinks they’re WRONG is not someone I need in my life.  Ever.

This is who I am.  I am me.  I am that person over there with that face and that skin and that smile.  And no, I won’t ever look like a gorgeous model or Hollywood star.

But I could.

The thing about a life without makeup is you figure out that EVERYONE could be beautiful with enough paint and work.  Look at the pictures of celebrities without their hours of makeup and hair-dressing.  They look like regular people — perhaps lovely regular people, but no more and no less.  If everyone could be heart-stoppingly beautiful after some hours in a makeup chair, then we are all just fine right now, today, without an instant of effort.

(Also — there’s a whole argument to be made about this weird preconception that women are supposed to be beautiful, and the reason for that is that they are supposed to be beautiful FOR MEN.  That women are SUPPOSED to be attractive and…well, it comes down to gender politics and sexual dynamics — and me?  I am NOT INTERESTED.  And not just because I married a woman.  I am not interested in being ANY man’s object of…whatever.  My worth is inherent to me, and I’m not going to play by archaic rules of society that reinforce an inherent inequality between men and women.  NO WAY.)

So, getting back to this upcoming weekend.

The friend holding the recital  will be wearing makeup which she’s having professionally done.  But she is fine if nobody else bothers.  She would be fine with us all up there in jeans and sneakers performing with her because she is awesome like that and just doesn’t care how we look — she loves us, no matter what.

But I do care.  I hate that I care.

I hate that I’m going to be wearing one of the few dresses I love and I’m going to wonder if people are looking at the inevitable blemishes that are scattered across my skin like raging birdshot.  I hate that I have to remind myself that my outside has nothing on my inside and that I could look like a sack of hockey equipment but the point is that I’m there to sing beautifully alongside people I really love.

The thing is that a person can decide that on the course they’re going to follow and still wonder about it, still doubt, still have insecurities.  And that’s me and makeup.  I know, in my soul, that I would rather go without and hold up my ideals than wear it and reinforce my insecurities while hiding my skin’s flaws.  Because for me, to bend to the insecurity and the pressure would be a greater betrayal than to perform as I am, splotches and all.

However.

Even if it hurts, even if it leaves me shaking apart inside OR outside, I don’t bend on my ideals.  No matter what.

Would it be easier to cover the marks of life and bad skin?  Would I be more confident in my dress and in my smile?

No.  It wouldn’t be easier and I wouldn’t be more confident.

Because it would mean I had put the bad opinions ahead of the good ones.  The bad opinions of those who would judge my skin ahead of the good opinions of the people who love me and don’t see it at all.  The bad opinions that rattle around my brain telling me that beauty is about flawlessness and I need to aspire to it ahead of the good opinions that tell me beauty is what I do and how I live and even perfect skin couldn’t make me beautiful.

Just because I’ve decided to face the world with bare, awful skin doesn’t mean I don’t feel the judgment and the ill opinions.  They’re there.  They sink into me and they add to the shouting that makes it hard to breathe some days.

But I’ll bear their shouting with my skin showing anyway.

Because I had it right at age 12.

Fears or no fears, insecurities or no insecurities, acne or no acne, this is who I am.  This is the life I live.  And for me to live it wholly, without shame, with integrity, I have to live it exactly as I am.  Frizzy hair and imperfect skin and awkwardness and brash courage.

The better me, the BEST me, is the me who lives in my skin.  Just the way it is.  And faces the world without flinching away.  The me who lives with the integrity of knowing that I am not afraid to be myself and I am not afraid of my flaws and scars.  That I am defined not by how I look or how I am seen, but by the choices I make and the ideals I hold.

And even if it makes me nervous or uncomfortable, even if I can’t help but wonder if people are staring, I won’t back down.  I won’t compromise.  A person should never compromise that in which they truly believe.

No matter how hard it is, I choose to believe in myself.  Now and forever.
See you at the recital.

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