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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Thinking Too Hard About Cinderella

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As a feminist, I might be having stronger feelings than one should have about the new Cinderella movie. Y’all know I’m grumpy about Disney princess stories and the whole “be polite and pretty, and a rich boy will rescue you” narrative, but I think I like this movie, and I’m a little upset about it. I’d forgotten how much I loved Gus the mouse, and tonight I remembered and felt like a kid again. I wonder if it’s necessary to justify my love of Cinderella in the face of my feminism, and my general policy is that I explain myself to no one, but as I’m sitting at home after the movie and a couple drinks, I’m frankly perplexed at the intensity of my feelings.

My instinct going into the movie was to tear it apart. I hoped Disney would give the story a modern twist and make Cinderella something other than a passive victim, but I was a little shocked at how strictly they stuck to the old school helpless girl trope. We know how much kids idolize their favorite characters, and we know what they see in their entertainment shapes what they believe is possible for themselves. Right now, there’s a wonderful trend of increasingly complex and diverse female characters in all forms of entertainment. And yet this film plays both Cinderella and her Prince as flat and dumb as can be. WHAT ARE YOU TEACHING THE CHILDREN? Right?

But maybe this movie isn’t for kids. Maybe it’s a tribute to a classic. Maybe it’s so outdated as a story that Disney has decided to bronze it with all the glitter and schmaltz the costume department could muster. The whole thing is a bon-bon — meant only to be sweet and colorful and not to replace your daily bread. The thing I loved about the movie was not its depth but the memory of Gus the mouse and how I wanted a little mouse friend more than any of the dresses or even the prince. I had a little stuffed Gus doll that I got from a Happy Meal. It was the only Happy Meal toy I ever wanted, and I LOVED IT.

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Am I just excusing Cinderella because it’s old and makes me feel nostalgic? Um, maybe a little. It had other problems. For one thing, the cast was vastly white.

So look, this is a fairy tale. No one ever said it had to take place in a particular society or century, and the costume department took liberal advantage of that fact, dressing each character to match their personality more than any unified aesthetic. Interestingly, the men’s outfits were largely identical and almost all involved white yoga pants. Still, in a society where all centuries of fashion happen at once and girls wear dresses literally made of candy wrappers, we still only get white people. Only one named character was played by a black actor, and I only saw other people of color occasionally in the background, like during the royal ball scene — foreign princesses visiting in hopes of marrying the prince. In this century, having a cast this overwhelmingly white seems more than a bit obtuse.

I wonder if there’s a way to make Cinderella more interesting. Can you plump up the hero a bit? Can you give her flaws other than gullibility and frailty? Can you reinvent her without telling an entirely different story? And will the audience accept it? I think it would be hard to do but worth trying. Diversifying the cast on the other hand wouldn’t be so hard. You can absolutely tell this classic story without making everyone white. If they’d represented half as many ethnicities as they had fashion eras, it would’ve been lovely.

At the end of the day, I went to see the movie with friends, and we had a good time making snarky comments, but we also all basked in pure girly nostalgia — because who didn’t want to play dress-up in the step sisters’ closet? For a little while we forgot that we were grownup ladies with jobs and complicated lives. We looked at dresses, ate candy, and hated the evil step mother together — just old school girl shit. It was simple and it was satisfying — even the part where we tore it to shreds just like the step sisters fighting over a dress.

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2014: The Year of Humans Sucking and Getting Better

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2014 has been a year of massive learning.

This year, I have witnessed friends experiencing all kinds of painful stuff. Divorces, abuses, rejections and failures have been plentiful.

But I’ve also seen and experienced some wonderful stuff. This year I saw a transgender friend coming to terms with her real self. I saw her being herself and feeling beautiful for possibly the first time. I saw a friend choose to exit a toxic relationship. I saw another friend ask for help even though he hates needing help. I saw people come to yoga class who have been at war with their bodies for decades. I saw them make peace.

And as for me? Man, I fucked up a lot. It’s pretty much my greatest talent. But I also kept trying and had some little successes of my own. I did some things I didn’t think I could do, like getting on to a derby team — did I tell you I’m a Junkyard Doll now? Hell yeah. And I’ve started accepting help from my friends in the form of teaching home yoga classes (think tupperware parties for the soul), and while that might not sound like much, asking friends to host classes for me a year ago would have paralyzed me with fear. My motto for the year was, “see the fear and let it go,” and I repeated it to myself almost constantly for my first six months of roller derby.

On a personal level, I’d say this year was extremely challenging but also rewarding … although sometimes I had to look extra hard to find the happy part.

On a grander scale, it was still a dark year. Terrible things happened in the world. I have felt pretty much gutted and useless about the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and far too many more young men who didn’t deserve to die. It’s so clear to me that racism is alive in our world, yet I can’t fathom a way to transfer that knowledge to the people who most need to get it. All the shouting doesn’t seem to help, so I work on compassion. I think compassion is what makes people realize others are human, so that’s what I try to practice and teach.

I’ve been trying to keep a positive attitude about the future of the world, and I’m tempted to write a really airy, upbeat conclusion to this blog post, but it wouldn’t ring true. I want to say that despite all the pain and suffering people are going through, we are becoming more aware. We are being forced to face each other’s suffering and experience the excruciating awakening of compassion. But you know … people are still dying. Specifically, young black men in America. But people all over the world are suffering. Every day we are confronted with it, and the only thing that can stop it is when we recognize others’ suffering, see that they are human, and care enough to help them by changing ourselves and the world. Not enough people are doing that.

So here’s the bad news: This year I learned that humans really suck. We do evil things to each other, largely out of ignorance but also out of hate and fear. All of us do it sometimes, but some people seem to live on that level, and they can be really fucking evil, especially in groups.

And here’s the good news: We don’t have to suck. We could just admit it, you know? Like, “Hey, I kinda suck. I’m human. Will you please love me anyway?” And suddenly … we suck less. And we kinda know deep down that we’re good people who are doing our best. And then — here’s the important part — we have to actually try to be better. We have to leave the shitty relationship or start being kinder to each other. We have to forgive others. We have to look honestly at ourselves and our behaviors. And we have to be brave enough to open our damn mouths and speak when we see injustice. But if we do that … then we’re not totally useless.

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Let Go and Find Flow

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Let go of what you don’t need in order to receive what you do need.  Start with the breath. Every inhale you receive is new life, new breath, new energy. And on every exhale you let go.

The moon is full now. Take a snapshot of your life the way it is today. Mental clutter. The state of the living room. How are your relationships doing?

Make a note: What would I like to let go of right now? Start with the obvious stuff: The t-shirt you’ve had since high school that there’s absolutely no reason to ever wear again. The stack of magazines on your bookshelf you’re never going to read. And while you clean out the gunk in your house, maybe you could clear some cobwebs in your head. The physical task of organizing, sorting and scrubbing the heck out of choice household items has the mystical power of also helping to sort one’s thoughts.

You may notice that the clutter in your house closely reflects the clutter in your mind. Get rid of a lot of stuff if you need to. If you are able to trim down your time commitments, let go of anything that isn’t a productive use of your time. If you have friends you constantly complain about to your other friends, either spend less time with those people or stop being a gossip. Listen to the things you say and cut out anything that casts you as the type of person you wouldn’t like.

You will begin to notice that you’ve made room in your life. Maybe you cleared off a whole book shelf or pared down your wardrobe to a small collection of things you actually like. Maybe you bought yourself some much-needed free time in the middle of the week. Maybe you occasionally hear silence where there was a lot of talking before.

Do not rush to fill these spaces. Life has a way of piling up on you, so just breath into the space right here and now, and try to go with the flow.

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Jenn’s 2013 Good Stuff Jar

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In preparation for 2014, I’ve asked my friend Jenn (who you should know from the derby experiment) to write about her favorite New Year project, the Good Stuff Jar. I think this is a rad idea, and I’m looking forward to making my own jar!

Last year around this time, I was looking at Pinterest a lot for work.  I don’t particularly enjoy using that outlet because it seems like it’s designed to make me feel like a failure.  I mean, come on, Pinterest Fail exists because some of the projects are so absurdly difficult or completed by people that are like, professional fucking crafters or something, that us lowly bedraggled working moms can rarely get the same results.  I’ll admit that there are probably some exceptions to this rule of “FailTerest” but they seem only achievable with limitless time and limitless money.

And then I saw this idea: The Good Stuff Jar

The idea is simply to write down a happy moment and stuff it in the jar. You then read the good things on New Year’s Eve to help remember all the fun stuff that happened over the course of the year.

I think that this resonated with me because 2012 had a lot of upheaval.  My best friend moved away, I broke up with my girlfriend at least 3 times, I started 2 new jobs, our in-laws decided to move in with us full time … on and on.  So, when I was about to start a brand new job in 2013, this seemed like a way to document what I hoped would be a year of positives.

And it was.  My jar is full of tiny folded pieces of paper and I can’t wait to make the new jar.  I think there will be two this time…one for public consumption and one for just me.  This is the first Pinterest project that I’ve been successful at completing and frankly, it’s the best one I’ve seen on their yet.  Let’s take more pleasure in the great things that happen and this is a simple solution to do that.

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