Today’s Entry

I am currently working my way through Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking:

So far, it’s very, very worth reading.  Reading about someone else creating, and struggling to create, has me doing creating of my own, and that, alone, makes reading this book a good decision.  But it’s also a good decision for other reasons.  You should read it.


Today’s Entry

Amanda keeps coming back to this concept: “On a good night, you couldn’t tell who was giving what to whom” (Palmer, 104). She writes it specifically about flowers. Flowers she gives as a thank you for dollars in her hat as the Bride, flowers at Dresden Dolls shows. She’s writing about the back and forth appreciation between artist and patron; and recycling that love: giving the flower to a third party, someone in need of that rose, or petunia, or daisy.

My senior year of college my American Literature professor, an extraordinary Polish woman with whom I am still in awe, invited a writer she knows to come speak at our school, a woman named Suzanne Strempek Shea. As with everything at my college, it was a small gathering. My professor suggested (in the same manner my mother “suggests”) I stick around afterward and speak with her since she is a writer and that’s what I wanted to do.

We had been assigned one of Suzanne’s books the previous semester. I’d read it in the way I “read” many books in college: read the first fifty to one hundred pages, skimmed some, paid close attention during discussions in class (can you believe I have a degree in English?). I felt weird about speaking to an author (one with actual published novels), let alone one for whom I hadn’t had the decency to finish the one book of hers I’d encountered.

But I had won one of her novels in a raffle that afternoon so I could use asking her to sign the damn book as an introduction. I cannot tell you what we talked about. I remember we both had somewhere else to be. She was very gracious in telling me I could email her whenever I wanted. Her email was on her website, she said.

Right. Like I’d ever have the confidence to do that.

About a year later I was working as a teacher in a seasonal outdoor school program. Which meant, amongst other things, that I was unemployed half the year. One of those bouts of unemployment occurred from Thanksgiving to Easter. I spent that first winter out of college drifting around my parents’ house while harrowing, frozen gales wailed without (I don’t like winter). To occupy myself I began writing a modernized version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in America with the full expectation it was going to be terrible.

At some point I thought maybe my story could go somewhere and I panicked about some of the concepts and language I was using and, dear gawd, what if my mother read it one day… or my grandmother? Gawd, what then?

That’s when I remembered something Suzanne had said at Caz. She said, as a writer, you can’t let what someone else might think hold you back. You’ve got to write it anyway. It’s your story, your voice, your authenticity. Forget about what would please your mother or your grandmother and just write. I was so overwhelmed remembering that piece of advice that I immediately, at one in the morning, looked up Suzanne’s email and wrote her to tell her my exact epiphany as it had happened.

She’d tossed a flower into the crowd that afternoon in New York, and I was handing the one I’d caught back to her to show my appreciation.

Little did I know just how much.

Some time later Suzanne’s book Sunday’s In America came out. I’d known of the project. Either she had mentioned it at my school, or else I’d read about it on her website (or both), I knew the book was out and that she was doing readings in the area. My sister, K, had heard NPR’s interview with Suzanne about the book. I mentioned to K wanting to figure out if I could get myself to one of the readings.

Excited, K was on board.

The only one we could both attend before I had to return to my teaching job in the woods was in an area of south central Massachusetts where no one goes unless they live there. In reality, it was probably only a little over an hour’s drive. It felt like K and I were driving forever. We eventually found the combination library/town clerk’s office/auxiliary firehouse/town municipal building, parked, and filtered into the library.

There were, maybe, twenty people there. Thirty, tops. K and I were clearly outsiders. All the (mostly older) ladies seemed to know each other. Many seemed to know Suzanne. But, as she grew up in the next town over and still lived there, it wasn’t surprising.

I don’t remember any of the reading.

Afterward, we were invited out into the hallway that ran the center of the municipal building where we could meet Suzanne, buy her book, and have it signed. When it was our turn, which was almost immediate — I think the nice town ladies were being polite giving the out-of-towners the chance to go first — I, very nervously, reminded Suzanne that we had met before, that her friend was my professor, that I had emailed her a few months back.

That’s when she said: “Rebecca?”

She stood and came around the table. I remember her being very tall. I don’t know how tall she is, but she felt tall; and I felt young. Very young. And insignificant. There was no reason for a locally known, published author to remember a recent college graduate/aspiring writer with severely limited Life Experience who was, at that moment, on a day trip with her Big Sister.

“I’ve been meaning to thank you for your email.”

What the fish?

She went on to tell me, when she received my email, she’d been struggling with the exact same thing. She was working on Sundays In America and was having trouble. She’d gotten stuck worrying what Other People would think of what she was writing. Then she read my email that parroted back the words I’d heard from her only a year previous.

“I printed out your email. It’s taped up over my writing desk. I look at it whenever I start to doubt myself.”1

At this point I was completely speechless.

Suzanne hugged me, repeated her thanks. I left amazed that my small, seemingly insignificant action, one done impulsively and spontaneously, had a very large, very real impact. My email, in part, gave a woman back the state of mind she needed to finish working on her book.

The one we were there to purchase and hear her read.

The flower was back in my hands.

That summer I finished my story. Not awesome. But finished. For me, that alone, was cause for celebration. And while that particular story has gone nowhere (it’s been on a bottom shelf for six years), the lesson I learned while writing it made the act itself worthwhile: The smallest act (poking a child’s nose, mailing a card, handing a stranger a flower) can do volumes of good.

It was a good night.


1My recollection of her words are approximate, but I am confident they capture the spirit of what she said to me that day.


One of my Stupidest Thoughts:

Sometimes I feel like I have an obligation to my single friends to remain single, so when they feel badly about being single they can think, “Well, Bex is single too,” and they can feel better about being single.

This thought didn’t occur because I think I’m awesome and some man ought to have snapped me up by now, but more because I’m ok with being single and I want my single friends who might not be ok with being single to feel better about being single by seeing someone who is ok with being single (I hate this sentence).

It’s The Holidays; that daunting time when between Hanukkah, Kwanza, and Christmas extended families gather together and plenty of people begin to feel the pressure.  There is pressure to get everyone an appropriate gift; there is the pressure to look a certain way; there’s the pressure to be jolly and happy all the time; there’s the pressure to cook the right thing or bake the right dessert; there’s the pressure of guilt of not being able to be with one part of your family; there’s the pressure from family members (‘Why haven’t you gotten your Ph.D. yet?’  ‘Why aren’t you married?’).  The Holidays put a lot of stress on people.

For many people with real, grown-up jobs, there’s work pressure as well.  In the rush to get everything done before the holiday vacation things can slip through the cracks, people can put extra stress on themselves to make sure that doesn’t happen and end up over-checking everything and having regular panic attacks.

Then there’s present shopping.  I hate malls as it is, but malls between Thanksgiving and New Years makes me crazy.  I have zero desire to go anywhere near a shopping center at this time of year.  There’s never anything worth getting and there certainly isn’t anything worth getting plowed down by an industrial baby stroller for or trampled for when the doors open at midnight.

There’s a lot of stress surrounding the month of December (especially this December what with the world ending this week and all).  Not being in a relationship really shouldn’t be one of those factors.

I mean, the majority of us, as the sitcoms teach us, have an abundance of love in our lives in the form of friends and family.  And even if we are not physically near those people around the holidays (I, for example, am upwards of thousands of miles from some of my most beloved “family”) we can still spread joy and love; we can let each other know that we are thinking of our loved ones and that we appreciate them through cards and presents, the Internets and the Postal Service.  (Sidenote: don’t neglect your mail carrier around the holidays; they appreciate gifts.)  There is plenty to be thankful for and plenty to appreciate around this time of year even without a man or a woman by your side.

And, I think we all know this.  Single, committed, heartbroken, I think, like knowing cigarettes are bad for you, I think we all know that it’s ok to be single.  Which is Reason #1 why the above statement is stupid.  I am not the World’s Greatest Single Person, by any means.  I am no real role model.  I don’t want my friends looking up to me and using me as their “Main Excuse Person“, nor would I expect them to; I have much more faith in my friends’ security and sanity than that.

Reason #2 is a little more personal: it comes down the fact that I don’t necessarily want to be single.  I’m still alright with it, but I also think it would be a fun experiment to actually date someone in a traditional sense.  My entire adult life as of now has been so qualified and disjointed, constantly moving, constantly recreating my social circle, constantly having hyper-intense relationships that are “safe” because they are destined to end along with the season.  The seasonal life encourages short-lived, not-serious relationships, embraces them, you could say.  It fosters superficial attachments, dresses them as real ones, ones that hurt just as badly as real ones when they fall apart.  I think it would be fun to finally find some sort of Grown-Up Job and live in one place for a minimum of six months and maybe date like an adult and not like an overgrown teenager.

Oddly enough, it is the Holiday Season that is making this Life Plan more and more attractive.  I have spent the last two months at either my parents’ house, my brother’s house or my sister’s house.  And as much as I love spending time with these people (and I love the lack of monetary rent that I pay in each location) I would really like a place of my own.  A place where I can spend my own time and not have to worry about making up for my freeloading in other ways.  Also, having a steady Grown-Up Job would mean a steady income with which I would be able to pay my student loans and phone bill with better regularity and buy Christmas presents for my nieces and nephews.  I could, also, if I weren’t a seasonal gypsy, potentially, feel better about starting a Real Relationship with the man I’d like to start a Real Relationship with (Reason #3 why the above statement is stupid).

I suppose the main thing to keep in mind is what Colin says in An Abundance of Katherines:

The future is unpredictable.

And that is also ok.  As long as you know what makes you happy and you actively seek out those things, then the rest doesn’t matter.  The rest will take care of itself.  I enjoy baking, reading, crossword puzzles, walks, spider crabs, narwhals, Pilates, dancing, coffee, science fiction, travelling, writing, martinis, talking with friends, talking with my sister about religion, cats, cartoons, chocolate, painting, baseball, art, the ocean, boats, planes, trains, Jorges Luis Borges, Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, crime shows, high heels, getting my ears pierced, owls, talking to kids, sleeping, eating, breathing, smiling, laughing, and not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring.  These things make me happy more than they cause me panic.  I’m going to stick with them.

Happy Holidays.