Sandpaper

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“Any one of us, over the course of our lives, can know many different existences. Or occasionally, desistances. Not many, however, are given the opportunity to wear a different skin.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

It’s a strange contradiction that when one feels most defenseless, she becomes most defensive. The armor of sarcasm and distance traveled in retreat should cry out ‘vulnerability’ but instead create all new barriers.

How does one never learn that insidious attempts to understand will not lead to understanding but rather will lead to being rubbed raw from the inside out? Being too close to a ‘subject’ and trying to get under its skin, and feel as it feels (or learn why) means that those carefully crafted barriers, built over so many battles and through so many years fall -swiftly – so much more swiftly than the time it took to erect them. And the barrier building and demolishing goes both ways. Often leading to reckless ruin and unforeseen disappointment. Closeness always brings a sensitivity that makes words sharper, or heavier, with interpretations, the ruins of barriers more perilous to climb out of, the injuries more acute to nurture back to health, and that sinking feeling, deep in the pit of the stomach, leaden with the realization that she must start all over again.

All those afternoons in darkness spent with the voice in her ear, loved and loved and loved, feeling broken down and completely enveloped in only that one being. Suddenly, abrasively rubbing against all expectation with words and images that moved so completely against the grain of how smoothness had felt up to that point, with walls falling and joints fitting together perfectly. Sanding the skin, seeing the bloody, pulpy reality underneath for the first time rather than smoothing edges out. She had never felt sharper edges or been more splintered, gasping imperceptibly, thinking, “I really got this one wrong.”

Could it be that this sudden need to wear down the surface is a need to create distance, or a smooth plane and flawlessly empty horizon? Was it a splinter she left behind and failed to pluck out? Or was it a command move of making sure no rough surfaces would assert themselves again – a reminder that nothing is joined, or even clamped, together in the way that one could so easily imagine?

Mental sorbet: Live out, outlive, feel, unfeel

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A short exchange on how strange Danes can be – or at least their language – and I recall a Danish man who thought that to “to live out” and “to outlive” meant the same thing.

And yet, I live out my life in outmoded ways – or with outmoded views – that have outlived their time. If they ever had a time.

My life has made me be the person who favors the scrappy stray mother cat scrounging through garbage in order to feed herself and her kittens rather than be the person who fawns over her adorable little litter. Always the one who looks past the surface, I value her experience and tenacity over the fleeting cuteness of her kittens.

My life has also made me be the person who sees someone who is lonely, something of a misfit, hurting, ostracized, struggling or troubled, and I feel a need to reach out to them, help them – sometimes in misguided ways (particularly when I was young and very shy myself – hard to step outside of my own confines to intervene in someone else’s being). This never necessarily works out well, but I always thought my heart was in the right place. I somehow imagine(d) that what you put into the world is what you get back from it. But this is naive: even if you put out compassion, you are likely to be met with disappointment. You have to learn either to dismiss the urge toward compassion or dismiss the disappointment that often follows.

I see and feel the rarity of my way. I am not a surface-level person (other than the initial cold read people may get from me). The surface always has the power to sway and seduce. Most people don’t look beyond it.

But then, it depends on what they’re looking for. Mismatched intentions can be crushing. Initially of course I think of my own crushed feelings throughout life’s less triumphant moments, but I recognize that it can work both ways. In my supposed compassion, I might, as I did as an adolescent, reach out to someone who had no friends, spent his time hanging out with the school’s science teacher, and try to be friendly, boost his confidence – and in doing so, give him completely the wrong idea. My actual intentions were entirely different from how he received my intentions, and the situation did not end well.

Even when your intentions match up with someone else’s – those intentions can shift, creating unstable ground. It could be that I, like most, hope to be blindsided in amazement at the unconditional and expansive love and understanding that another person can give/show. Because that is how I am (or strive to be). (But this never happens – it is not part of the surface world we live in and, in all honesty, opens up the person who shows this kind of expansive love and/or understanding to some vulnerability.)

But it could just as well be that I, in my insensitive, less than impeccable or admirable moments, wonder if a person is, disposably, just a sorbet, a palate cleanser, making way for some other main course – or perhaps that person is the main course, and I pass on it, claiming not to be hungry?

…I know what is good, and conversely, not good for me, and I know what I need to do. Live out my days and outlive my usefulness. But do I act accordingly?

What form of akrasia is this?

It is only partly true that I act against (or for) my own best interests. I often compare the ‘doing versus thinking’ concept because I am both a thinker and a doer. And most other people seem to be much better, more active thinkers but not great doers. One day, I said to someone who insisted he would take action but frustrated me for years with his all-talk, no-action behavior: “You will have many hurdles to jump to become a doer like me, and I am not even half-motivated. But for you, it’s probably a priorities issue. Some things, some people, are important, and some are not. If you really wanted something, or someone, or wanted to do something, you would do it. The end. Someday maybe you will be a doer, and that will change my mind about you. But today, and for as long as I have known you, you have not been a doer unless it required absolutely zero effort or thought on your part.” In truth, as I could see plainly in that moment: if there is no feeling behind the doing, why should it ever go beyond thinking?

I rarely add ‘feeling’ to the equation. ‘Doing-thinking-feeling’. But would most people feel motivated to think and then do without that spark of feeling to push them to take action? I take plenty of risks and live freely in the thinking and doing realms. Ultimately, I may not make the riskiest choices from the heart’s standpoint. It makes me think a bit about school days, when teachers would tell certain kids that they really have a lot of potential but no follow-through. I was always the thinking-doing overachiever but had “a lot of potential but no follow-through” when it came to feeling, which is not to say I did not feel: Only that feeling did not, and could not, come first, lest it crush me. Perhaps I have always felt much too deeply.

Even this, I sometimes think, is not entirely true. My life has made me a person who prefers to be alone, who is mostly not interested in personal intimacy while at the same time being overly curious about other people’s personal intimacy. That is, I am less a partner or lover and more a would-be, unqualified, armchair therapist, wanting to know people deeply and intimately, but only from an observant and almost clinical distance (but not entirely dispassionately).

I am still trying to figure out whether – or how – feelings just leave, like a flock of birds migrating away for winter, or whether feelings morph into this “observant-supportive-caretaker” mold that I seem to adopt. I am not afraid of feeling now; I do not suppress it now. But no longer trying to control feeling, I find that feeling is much more unpredictable than I would have imagined. Yes, I knew feelings like love, as an example, were uncontrollable, messy, sticky, and up, down and all over the place, but I did not fully appreciate that they could be as fickle as they are. That, for example, one could be completely in it one day and wake up the next morning feeling absolutely nothing. Is it some unseen barrier that the inner, protective self builds? And if so, how can the lack of all feeling – this indifference – feel as real and as deep as the love once was? Did feelings, however briefly they lived, outlive their expiration?

Photo (c) 2008 Angela Schmeidel Randall

It’s Personal – Networking and Admitting Needs

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There are about five million articles out there about “how to network”, “how to build a network” and use networking to find a job. Most of these articles are generic and repeat the same things. I am not going to echo the repetition. You can get some fairly good insight from a veritable library of online resources. But I am thinking that the right way to network is a personal journey. Articles can provide pointers, but the building process is about finding the right ways and means for you as an individual. It’s not a prefab house, after all.

About networking, I can say from a personal perspective that when it comes to advancing my own career, I am not a person who is skilled at networking in the social and schmoozy sense. I have friends who are pros at this, making personal and genuine connections almost immediately, and I am in constant admiration. (I can turn on the schmooze in a professional setting when it is not for my own gain or self-advancement because then it is impersonal.) I have largely been a highly productive, behind-the-scenes doer who believes that the work product speaks for itself. But this is not really true. After many years, I believe that both the network and the built-up work reputation are important. (Not that that is a mystery or rocket science – it is just that I think maybe many people struggle because they rely too heavily on one or the other. I have known some who schmooze their way into situations in which they are way over their heads; I have been guilty of relying too much on the work and not being as driven by relationships as I could be.)

In the early days of my freelance experience, this was one of my biggest hurdles. I did not even have a personal, let alone professional, network because I was working in a new country. I knew no one. But little by little I met one person here, one person there, I awkwardly dropped hints about needing to find work, and eventually I had a flow of freelance jobs coming in and, mostly by word of mouth, had more clients popping up. This happened because I worked hard, fast and usually overdelivered. People remembered me, both when they needed work done and when others needed work done. There is a lot to be said for willingness and the inability to say no. Bottom line, though – when there are personal stakes and personal interest – or some form of a relationship – networking is at its most effective.

As the Lifehacker articles I point to explain, networking requires a personal and genuine approach. This means that networking is a two-way street. I have needed help, but more than that, have been first in line offering my help to others in their own professional pursuits. You’ve got to give to get – and being able and readily willing to reciprocate actually improves the networking channels. Everyone needs a way to get their foot in the door.

For me, as for most introverts, it is incredibly hard to admit to needing help or even to making the kinds of connections one could eventually turn to for help. Another Lifehacker article cites a New York Times piece that tells introverts to force themselves into in-person meetings and into small talk. Any introvert would react with something like, “What fresh hell is this?” It is also a bit too much like cold-call sales versus the kind of networking I would prefer to do – which is both based on my work performance and my own quiet, observational analysis of people and situations. I eventually prove my value this way. My approach to networking is the long-game approach.

Lately, though it has been many years in the making, this approach has really begun to bear fruit. At this point, people are coming to me without my having asked for help or having reached out at all. My network has become so strong and trusted that it spreads on its own.

The positives are adding up, and the first step was finally coming to a point where I could speak up for myself to say I needed help. When I needed it, help was there. It is not unlike the incredible difficulty of admitting a need for love, really. The whole concept of surrendering to some need that you cannot completely fill for yourself invites vulnerability.

In a slightly unrelated matter, of course admitting and facing what we really need can also be comical!

We accidentally played a clip from the Al Jazeera America channel that was threatening to get inappropriately in depth about foreign policy. Obviously Al Jazeera America is new here and don’t know how we do things.” (From The Daily Show on 11 February)

We need real information and news, but we have managed to fool ourselves into thinking that we need to know the salacious details of politicians’ personal lives. We are blind and never focusing on the right things. And how this relates to what I started writing about in the first place? Well, we live in an era that makes heavy use of comparatives – and I spend too much time comparing, particularly the present against the past. And where that’s led me, now, is the path toward figuring out how to get beyond all the wrong triggers, targets and foci to get to who, what and where I need to be. And of course, in keeping with the generous and reciprocal nature of real and valuable networking, helping other people get to their right places as well.

Tennis – “It All Feels the Same