The Word of the Day Is: Vulnerability

UPDATE: I linked you below to the Barley Rhymes Facebook page because they’re YouTube site was unavailable, but it’s back! Watch Barley Rhymes Episode One here!

I started out my morning reading this post on my favorite blog, Paging Dr. NerdLove, and he hit on a topic that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently. NerdLove’s piece is skewed–necessarily given his audience–toward how being vulnerable is a boon to your dating life, but underlying the how to get better with women premise of the article is woven a complicated story about the myriad ways that vulnerability affects our relationships with others and with ourselves.

I’ve been thinking specifically about vulnerability and performance, because I have plans to do A LOT of performing, both in very public, on-stage kind of ways, and in more private, among my friends sorts of ways. A while back, I saw a TED talk by Amanda Palmer (one of my pop culture heroes) called, “The Art of Asking.” This talk focused on developing close personal relationships with your fans and allowing those connections to fund your art as opposed to the more traditionally corporate way of making money via art by signing with a label and so on. The talk intrigued me in a number of ways. I was employed by a non-profit at the time and was very interested in how its themes crossed over with and might be applied to asking the community to support my organization. But perhaps what hit me the most, and the reason that it comes to mind for me many months later, was Palmer’s emphasis on vulnerability and connection.

“The perfect tools aren’t going to help us,” Palmer claims, “if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly.” I love that language, and that idea–connection with other human beings is giving fearlessly, receiving fearlessly.

Maybe I like it because I spent many years doing everything I could to be invulnerable. Because I spent many years afraid. I was prone to trying to show just how unflappable I was even as a kid, and then I spent a good long time dating a man who controlled me, in part by invalidating the pieces of myself that I exposed to him, so I conditioned myself to keep–well, myself–pretty well under wraps. Around that same time, though, although it terrified me in some ways, I found that I actually really enjoyed being on stage. I gave a talk at my college’s undergraduate symposium/benefit concert (about connecting with people actually…it’s been a long running theme in my life), and I sort of loved it.

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I totally failed to post any pictures before like I said I would...)

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I failed to post any of the other pictures I said I would.)

As I gradually started to rejoin the world, I found myself more and more interested in developing the part of myself that got such a thrill from putting myself out there, eventually on stage. I began dancing in public, singing karaoke, and reading poetry at my favorite bar. (Shout out to Barley Rhymes and their excellent new film series!) I talked to one Barley Rhymes audience member once who told me that she couldn’t do what I had done; she couldn’t make herself so vulnerable on stage. I knew where she was coming from, because I was scared every time I did it. As Dr. Nerdlove puts it, “Vulnerability is about willingly, even deliberately, opening yourself up to rejection, to judgement and humiliation.” Those are pretty valid things to be afraid of.

At the same time though, when you get up on a stage (or step onto a dance floor, or speak up about in a crowd, or sing aloud), you are saying to the world, I’m here, and I’m not ashamed of it. Some of the people watching or listening will judge you; some will reject you. You might say or do something humiliating. You might fail. Then, when you do that thing anyway–when you willingly expose deeply personal parts of yourself, all that potential failure and judging and possible bad stuff just sort of falls away. Maybe you do fine. Maybe you make a huge mistake (hell–I’ve seen countless videos of Amanda Palmer, ROCK STAR, stopping mid-show because she screwed something up, but then she just laughs it off, picks back up and keeps going). Either way, you let yourself be yourself in the world–you let people see you.

Not everyone needs a stage to do this, of course. There are plenty of intimate conversations that have the same effect. Even the fiction I’m currently writing, even this blog post, expose me to your judgement. But, I’m getting to the point where I’m interested in sort of the next level of human connection. The one where I stand in front of a crowd people and become open to their judgement. Maybe it’s an over correction after doing my best for so long not to have a presence. I want them to see me. I want them to feel like, in a way, they know me. And I want to know them.

Here, in this new place, I’ve picked up some hobbies, that I am planning to use to further my education in being vulnerable…and reap the benefits of the confidence and sense of self it gives me. I am learning to play the guitar. And while I’m doing in because it is just a really good way for me to spend my time (I’ll likely post another time about that…), I am also doing it with an eye toward performance. My goal is to be good enough to perform at an open mic night by the time my birthday rolls around in February. I think I can get there–I won’t know many songs, but all I really need is one!

I’m also singing with a group, which will improve my open mic performance, but also gives me a broader range of musical skills, especially when it comes to harmonizing and connecting with other musicians. I’m still getting used to sharing my voice with others. I had a sort of confidence crushing moment years ago that I’m really working to overcome, so using my voice at all is a huge level of vulnerability for me. Singing with this group is a good conditioning for getting me ready to sing on stage.

Additionally, I’m joining a group of newbie burlesque dancers. I’m looking forward to the kind of control and command of my body that dance will give me. I’m also looking forward to participating in a performance that allows me to communicate that I not only to I have a presence, but also a body and a sexuality, and I’m not ashamed of any of them.

I hope that in communicating those elements of myself, I am able to leave things open for a reciprocal exchange–that by saying hello people, this is me, I will open the door for others to authentically share themselves with the world as well.

Korea for me is turning out to be a place where (at least in my off-time) I am much less prone to letting life happen to me, and much more ready and willing to take charge of it. I am becoming an agent in my own experiences. I am choosing to be vulnerable. And I feel stronger and more capable than I ever have.

Being a sand mermaid…

There are a lot of fantastic things about living in Korea. The beach being SOOO close to my house is one of them (and the temperature of the water here in October is another–still super fun to swim in!).

But even better than those superficially good things is this: I can do anything I want in Korea.

Okay… not anything exactly. I still can’t fly (unless I just happen to fall and miss the ground one day like Arthur Dent, but since I don’t have any missing luggage to be distracted by, I find that somewhat unlikely), I can’t eat fire, I can’t really do anything that would make my school look bad, causing me to lose my job and get kicked out of the county, but that’s not exactly what I mean. At home I was a certain person, people expected me to act a certain way, to do certain things, to be the person they knew me to be. I liked that person–or more accurately, by the time I left, I had learned to like that person and was working on making some minor adjustments to the parts I liked a little less.

But the rules for the person I’m supposed to be were left somewhere back in the states–probably at the airport in California. Now being different, pursuing different things, having different priorities is not only acceptable, but a really easy thing to do, because I don’t have everyone I’ve known my entire life here expecting things of me. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t necessarily think those expectations are always bad. Having people in your life who care about you and what you’re doing with yourself is a definitively positive thing. (And since my readers are mainly those people, let me just say–thank you all so much for the support and caring and expectations you’ve so far had for me.) But having a template version of yourself as defined by everyone around you can make it extra difficult to make a change even when that change is going to be good for you, even when it’s something you may really need.

Becoming mermaid

Becoming mermaid

Here I find myself just doing things–not harmful things, not dangerous things, just things that I otherwise probably would have hesitated over. So, yesterday I was a sand mermaid. I rode on the back of some Korean guy’s jet ski. I ate Indian food. A few weeks ago, I went to a club. A month ago, I bought and started learning to play guitar. Many of the spontaneous things I’ve been doing are not specific to Korea–I could buy and learn to play a guitar anywhere, eat Indian food anywhere, ride on a jet ski anywhere with a beach. But I’m here, and I’m alone, and I don’t feel like I’m being monitored in the same way I was in the small town I grew up in (although I am… Korea has cameras EVERYWHERE). This lack of watchful eyes gives me the chance to do things–things that I might not follow through with, things that I might screw up, things that I might turn out to hate–and to try them all without worrying what people will think of me for trying…or what they will think of me for failing.

My world opened up a lot when I started living it for myself and with my happiness as the priority. Here in a new place it has opened even further. I miss things about home–especially the people there, but I like the person I am able to be here–the person it is easy for me to be here. I hope to take some of her with me when I go back to my country.

How Did I Get Here? An Origin Story

I am moving to Korea! In August! And I’m thrilled. Really.

But in thinking about what’s to come, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how I got to this point in my life.

All super heroes have their origin stories, most involving some kind of tragedy. All adventures are preceded by normal, if sometimes unsatisfying lives. (Really–Bilbo was just sitting around the Shire until some mother fucking wizard put a mark on his door and a bunch of crazy dwarves started showing up. Then there was this whole thing with a ring… LONG story short, three and a half books later, Middle Earth is saved, but first Bilbo had to come out of his hole.)

Especially if there's a TARDIS outside!

Especially if there’s a TARDIS outside!

So this is the origin story of Jessica–the type of person who goes out and drinks and talks to people she’s doesn’t know, who writes and reads her work in public, who dances, who sings karaoke, who backpacks 12 miles in and 12 miles back out (if very slowly…), who lives by herself, who sees her friends and her family, who takes vacations, and who in two and a half months will be living by herself in South Korea. Pretty big transformation from the Jessica who spent the majority of every weekend at home on the couch watching Doctor Who and napping.

One year ago, if you told me I would be well on my way to moving to another country… by myself… to live and work for one year, I would not have believed it. In fact, if you told me that one year ago, I probably would have ended the conversation with you, and gone home and cried, because some random person on the street decided to fuck with me–telling me I would have all these beautiful things that at the time felt completely unattainable.

That’s because up until October of last year, I was in a pretty bad place in my life. I was in the tenth year of a relationship that had lasted since high school and was really not working for me. AND I was about to take the plunge into making that relationship really, really permanent. I was engaged and on the verge of buying a house, two actions that if fulfilled would leave me unhappily married and cohabitating with not only my spouse, but his parents whom I would be expending a lot of energy to care for.

Some part of me knew this was the worst idea EVER, but the rest of me kept telling myself things like: but they NEED you and he’s really not that bad, you’re just being crazy/need to try harder and maybe things will be better once you’re married and perhaps worst of all you have nowhere else to go.

Fortunately for me, a dear friend of mine who had been away came back into town briefly and during his visit, staged sort of an impromptu drunken intervention, inviting me to hang with him and a couple of his friends (one of whom happened to be a certified therapist). This drunken, pseudo-therapy/Cards Against Humanity hangout did a couple of things for me. First of all, it was fun–that game is excellent! Second, it gave me independent, external confirmation that the negative feelings I’d been having about my relationship were valid and that I deserved better than I had given myself up to that point. Third, it encouraged me to be really honest with myself about why I was unhappy and what would need to change to make me happy. And fourth, it prompted me to go home and write the following list:

Things I want for myself:

  1. To be happy more days than I am sad
  2. To travel to other countries & experience other cultures, languages, foods, etc.
  3. To write more, progressing toward publication
  4. To pursue my other interests, art, crafts, gardening, etc. + reading
  5. To see my dad more
  6. To get outside more like Nick [my brother] does (hiking, fishing, backpacking, etc.)
  7. To feel like I am in control of my life and not vice versa
  8. To spend more quality time with friends
  9. To stop worrying so much about money
  10. To feel physically healthy, mentally stable, and confident that I can do the things I want to do and be the person I want to be

The next day I had lunch with another friend, and unlike in the past when I would sort of mention that something might be kind of wrong, but let the conversation move on to something else (because who really wants to hear about my problems), I kept bringing it around to this topic. At this point, Friend #2 confirmed that yes, I did actually deserve to be happy, and no, this relationship did not seem to be working for me. Further, she confided that she was not the only one among my friends who was worried about me. Further still, she told me that if I needed somewhere to go, her home was open to me.

I left my partner the next day and within the week was working on plans to get out of this country. Eventually, I landed on teaching English for a program in Korea, and have been working on getting there ever since.

(Oh, and as far as my list goes–nothing but checkmarks!)