This is My Letter to a Slightly Smaller World

A letter from the desk of Dirt.

Weds. Feb. 27, 2019

Dear Friends,

Recently, I tried an experiment to break a heavy creative block that I’ve been carrying around for years, and I asked people to volunteer to receive letters from me. I wanted to write letters to people who I knew were (a) open to receiving them and (b) theoretically interested in whatever I might have to say. Doing so was creatively freeing for me, and it provided a feeling of connection that made writing much easier. One of the reasons I have found it challenging to write over the past few years is that I don’t know my audience, or I’ve been writing for an audience of “everyone,” and that includes a lot of people who probably don’t care one whit about me. “Everyone” also includes my inner critics, my parents, my college advisors and mentors, my entire grad school community, and a massive chorus of internet commenters who only read headlines before forming their very important opinions. It is extremely hard to write for such a broad and hostile audience. In the age of the internet where everything has to be entertaining and the best way to succeed is to go viral, it felt like a disservice to myself and my craft to try and write in a way that would appeal to literally everyone all the time. I know there are people in the world who don’t like me or  “my kind,” whatever that means to them. I know there are and will be people who think my ideas are shit, my execution is sloppy, my research is lacking, and that I am too emotional, too subjective, too … whatever. I am no longer sorry about not appealing to those people. Instead I just want to connect with those who are willing to receive a sincere letter from a real human being without a promise of being entertaining or clever. I don’t have any big ideas to spread except that of connection — being human together by sharing genuine thoughts, feelings and experiences.

So far, I have I found this practice to be deeply healing. It has helped me to remember that I am writing not just for myself or for a monolithic audience but for real individual human beings. I make no promises about the quality of the work, just that I will write each person a unique letter, and that they can request that I write about certain topics. With each letter, I included a note that the recipients were not required or expected to write back although return letters are welcome and appreciated. Not many people write back, and that’s just fine. After all, we do live in a busy world and everyone’s got a lot going on. It’s a simple honor to be allowed however briefly to be part of the lives of these friends, acquaintances and strangers.

To be clear, these letters are not for sale. These days it seems like everyone is preoccupied with monetizing everything, as though anything people won’t pay for is inherently lacking value. While I do like to get paid for my work, I give myself permission to focus on the connection and the creative act — both with the letters and with my other current creative pursuits. Specifically excluding money from the letter-writing experiment helped me to feel  more connected to the people I wrote to. And yes, I was still receiving something from them in exchange for my letter. I received their trust when they gave me their personal mailing address and names (especially those social media friends who don’t know me in “real life”). I also received their time and attention when they read my letters. And perhaps most valuable, I received permission from them to show up on the page and in their mailbox, just as honest, vulnerable, thoughtful, and sincere as I could manage to be. That part was priceless. And in a few cases, I got very sweet, thoughtful, and inspiring letters in return. It felt great to know that those who did choose to write back did so out of their own desire and not obligation, again creating genuine human connection.

On the whole, the letter writing experiment was hugely successful in helping me set down that big concrete block of self doubt and move forward with greater creative freedom and a real appreciation for my audience rather than a fear of them. Since I started it, I’ve had a renewed inspiration in other areas of life and have been making more zines, collages, and other artwork. In addition, perhaps you’ve noticed, I’m finally blogging again. It feels so strange and new, yet old and familiar at the same time. I think for the first time in my writing life I have begun to understand the concept of audience on more than an academic level.

I hope to continue writing letters to friends, acquaintances, and strangers on the internet. If you want to receive a letter from me, I invite you to comment here with your request or follow me on Twitter where I occasionally as around for volunteers. The expectations are the same as before: You provide your name and address, and I will write you a letter. You can suggest or request a topic, but I make no promises about the quality. If you don’t specify a topic, I’ll just write some reflections on the world, my personal experience, or something that I hope will interest you based on what I know about you. If you let me know how to look you up on social media, I’ll take a peek at what you’re sharing in order to know a little more about who I’m writing to, but if you don’t want to share that info, that’s perfectly fine.

In closing, I would like to say one last “thank you” to the people who invited me to send them my thoughts and ramblings. You may not know exactly how much you’ve helped me with your participation in the project, and I don’t know what impact my letters have for you if any. However, it’s my wish and intention that each letter brings at least a little bit of joy into your life because we all need joy, and we are all in this together. So with all my heart, thank you, and good luck.

Sincerely,

Mary

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What do you want in a friendship?

friendshiplist

We’ve all heard that stupid advice: You are the combination of the five people you spend the most time with. I hate that advice because it lends itself to social climbing instead of developing meaningful connections. In 2013, I realized that while I had a lot of professional acquaintances, I didn’t have a ton of actual friends. Close friends from high school and college had drifted apart as we all moved to different corners of the country to pursue our lives, and I no longer had much in common with the people I used to work with. It was time to enrich my life with people I really love, so I started by writing this list of qualities I want in my friendships:

  • Openness: Feeling like we can be honest about our lives.
  • Intellect: Exchanging ideas and making each other think!
  • Laughter: Pure, simple fun.
  • Acceptance: Feeling OK together, not judged.
  • Adventure: Going places, trying things, meeting people together.
  • Support: Being able to talk to someone about what’s on my mind and feel heard and understood.
  • Encouragement: Getting excited about each other’s ideas and opportunities.
  • Comfort: Feeling cared for and loved.

I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about the list once it was written, but looking back over the year, I can see that I navigated my social life differently after writing it. I invested more energy in relationships that meet most of these desires, reached out to old friends, and took the risk of seeking out people I thought might share my interests and intentions. In some cases it worked out, and in others it didn’t. Here are some of my favorite results from this new approach to friendships:

  1.  Got to know some incredibly cool people in San Francisco through my husband. I don’t get to see them often, but we stay in touch online and have a great time when we do meet up.
  2. Reconnected with best friends from high school — we had the BEST night in Lafayette when we were all home for Christmas.
  3. Emailing and Facebook messaging old acquaintances to rekindle an exchange of ideas — you don’t have to be ultra close with everyone to be able to appreciate them!
  4. Meeting Jenn and starting the derby experiment and a host of other adventures.
  5. Bar hopping in DC for Stan’s birthday with a bunch of new friends. (Stan is actually another Jenn, but The Ladyfriend Committee has renamed her for practical reasons.)
  6. Girls movie night — we watched The Little Mermaid and drank … a lot.
  7. Coffee dates, book exchanges, and anime nights with a lot of new people I’m grateful to have in my life.
  8. Developed a very special friendship with a feminist friend in Bolivia — we’ve never met in person, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends!
  9. Reconnected deeply with my husband and fell in love with him about a dozen times. After all, he really is my BFF.

I’m extremely grateful for the people who’ve come into my life and for the old friendships I’ve been able to renew. My social life is now a much more accurate reflection of my real values instead of being just a list of people I kinda know from work.

This year, I encourage you to seriously look at who is in your life and what kind of give-and-take you have with them. Do your friends support you and make you feel like your best self? Are they people you want to give back to? Do you get excited when you see them learn and grow? Try making a list of the attributes you most want in your friendships, and see how that changes the way you interact. And remember to always act with love. 🙂

xoxo~

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Metro Conversations

Washington D.C. Metro Tunnel
The other day, I got into an accidental conversation with a stranger in a DC Metro station. This is exactly the sort of thing I usually avoid, but roll with it for a minute.

It’s tourist season, and navigating the metro gets a bit hectic, so I’m standing as far away from other human beings as possible, leaning against the concrete half-wall hoping to cool myself off against it. I notice a young black woman standing about 10 feet away doing the exact same thing as me — leaning against a wall and avoiding eye contact with strangers. She looks about my age, her outfit is cute, and she has blue hair. Us Crayola-haired people aren’t super common in DC. We make eye contact for a split second, say nothing, look away. The next train is 13 minutes away. We continue casting meaningless glances all around the metro station as though it were a very interesting place. Eventually, we make eye-contact again, and I open my mouth to say, “I like your hair,” but she’s already looked away. I feel silly and ask myself, “Why would this stranger in a metro station want to talk to me? What, are we gonna be best friends now because we both have weird hair?” I go back to scrolling through Tumblr on my phone, occasionally looking up in the manner of a small forrest animal that must look out for predators while it eats.

On one of my furtive scans of the station, a man intercepts my gaze and saunters up  to stand beside me, blocking my vision of the young woman I would have made eye contact with to silently plea for help if I needed to be rescued. He’s an older man, black, thin, with spots of grey in his short facial hair, and a sizable gap in his lower front teeth. He wore grey sweatpants and a white v-neck t-shirt, and stood closer than I would have liked.

He sighed in a way I took to mean, “Damn, there’s too many people in here.”

Without making eye contact, I said, “Yup. It’s tourist season.” And quick as that, we were having a conversation about Washington DC, race, class, and how the city has changed in the time he’s lived here — born and raised in the District, he says, but I didn’t ask how old he was. On one hand, it was one of those casual conversations you have where the subtext is simply, “As long as we’re standing here waiting for this train we might as well chew the fat a little.” On the other hand, in the matter of 30 seconds, I went from being afraid of this stranger to exchanging our views on why there’s such poverty in our nation’s capital and what’s been done to improve things lately. He seemed convinced things are slowly getting better in DC, especially as the Marion Barry crowd sifts out.

There’s always a risk when you talk to strangers in metro stations or on air planes — like the time I sat next to a preachy Hare Krishna on a six-hour flight from Philly to SF. Part of me wishes metro guy hadn’t come up and invaded my personal space because I really wasn’t comfortable with it to begin with. Another part of me is glad we had the chance to talk just because it’s good to connect with your fellow human beings now and then.

And I keep wondering about the blue haired woman who seemed so interesting. I felt I had no right or reason to so much as compliment her hair. Maybe talking to her would’ve been fruitless, but so what? Instead, I left this huge gulf between us where a man stepped in because he felt at liberty in a way that I did not. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do think it’s related to the ways that women don’t reach out to each other. It might also be related to race, although I’m not sure. I think it’s related to a lot of issues that I don’t quite have the finesse to pin down.

Humans are an interesting species with our complicated social codes about who speaks to whom and under what circumstances. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we all just said “hello” to anyone we please just for the sake of being nice? I’m adding that to my Ideal World Wishlist.

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Writing to Connect

Scritture epidermiche

Narration, description, exposition and persuasion. That is why we write, according to the elementary school curriculum I learned.

Narration? Cool story, bro. Description? Same. Persuasion? Politics and sales is all I see there. Exposition? I think you mean mansplaining. Ok, fine, each of these things totally has a valid place in the world, but isn’t there more to creativity than these four categories?

I think there’s another reason for writing or creating any type of art, which includes and supersedes all of the above: Connection. (Note the bold type like a key word in your middle school text book.)

I noticed this because I’ve been emailing with an old writing buddy lately. He’s been trying to get back into writing, so he sent me an essay.

He wrote about his life as a grownup, just a general reflection about the choices we make and how they lead to us becoming someone different than we thought we would be. There was no judgement, no argument, no “point” really except to share. Reading the essay I felt like, “Yeah, I know how you feel. I’ve been there.”

So, if you’re not trying to sell anything, you’re not trying to tell an urgent story, you’re not describing anything I’ve never seen, and you’re not teaching me anything, there is still one really important purpose for writing. If you manage to connect, you’re getting somewhere.

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