An Evening with Amanda Palmer

Paramount Theater, Austin – April 14. Doors 7p, Show 8p.

“If you’re not allowed to love people alive, then you learn how to love people dead.” – The Thing about Things, AFP

I left work and walked north on Congress.  I wore a blue dress with pink polka dots. A woman at the burger bar called to me, “I love the dots!” “Thank you,” I called back, utterly surprised at this new burger bar, and at not being invisible. I am still getting used to the fact that people can see me. I don’t think I understood that until much later than most – maybe when I was twenty-eight? I knew the optics and the physics and the biology of them seeing me, but that’s not the same as SEEING. It’s SEEING Amanda Palmer means when she says, in her TED Talk, “I see you.” That’s more than just light waves, perhaps it’s a side effect of the enigma that is wave-particle duality.  As I walked down the street on the night of the concert,  evening sunlight brightened my path in an exact replica of my anticipation. I was going to meet a writing friend, T., who I hadn’t seen in almost two years, and we were going to see a woman with a controversial approach to making art. We were going to spend an evening with perhaps one of the most influential musician-philosophers of our generation: Amanda Palmer. At one of the smaller cross streets, I saw a woman wearing a great pair of boots. She had a confidence to her stance and there was something about her that seemed familiar. Her large sunglasses obscured her face, and as she passed me, I heard a rich, contralto voice say, “And the venue was…” I didn’t hear the end of the sentence. I don’t know what the venue was, or where it was, or if the venue has been devoured by Cthulhu. What I do know is that the woman with the great boots was Amanda Palmer. I saw the artistic arabesque of her eyebrows behind the rim of her sunglasses. I had a moment where my step faltered, and I considered calling her name. Then I remembered that she has no idea who I am. And I remembered that T. was waiting for me and I kept going. I had a small moment of horror when it occurred to me that one of us, either Amanda or me,  was headed the wrong way, and maybe it wasn’t her…

T and I stood in line for tickets, catching up on the last couple of years of life. A woman sat at a small table, typing poems for cash donations. We discussed rotary phones with our line-neighbors, and then we were inside the sumptuous and aged elegance of The Paramount. T treated us to plastic cups of wine (sauvignon blanc for her, chardonnay for me). We went to the second floor and stood at a balcony overlooking the lobby. We discussed the particular, agonizing decisions we face as women. We moved into the theater, talking there of times when the bruises from writing transmogrified into in to an inability to read. It is the worst kind of paralysis, to be a non-practicing writer who is unable to read. The Smiths played in the background, reminding me of college and the overweening rush of being young and not yet realizing I could be SEEN, or even that there were people who wanted to SEE me. I got us a second drink (more chardonnay for me, water for T), saying, “This will guarantee the show will start because I won’t be in my seat.” I was right, and entered  the theater just as Amanda Palmer took the stage; I was her shadow, cast in a dark room.

Amanda didn’t say a word. She wore a gold dress that flowed like water over the curves of her pregnant body. Her feet were bare.  She touched her keyboard lightly, and innocent notes floated out like heaven-bound souls. Then she raised raised up, Kundalini energy personified, before slamming her hands on the keys. A harsh, angry sound swept through the hall. The show went on like that, rolling waves of contrast flowing through the high-ceilinged, classically painted theater. Abortion, pubic hair, statutory rape, fear of how her art will change with motherhood, more abortion, several songs about the nature of love – all of these topics were channeled through Amanda, into songs, and received by open, hungry souls. There was transcendence. There is always transcendence when we are emotionally vulnerable and humble enough accept and follow our calling. Amanda Palmer incarnates her calling with a purity that is untouched the number of f-bombs she drops (a lot!). She is the archetype of the artist. She’s completely human, and completely supernatural – all at the same time. I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if we were all brave enough to stop playing as if being our own shadow was enough.

Amanda is funny. The show was in Austin (still weird), so of course there was a lounge upstairs for cuddling – by professional, “non-rapey” cuddlers. At one point Amanda discussed that after the show there would be cupcakes, and the cuddlers would be back in their lounge. She said, “This is a nice night. Cupcakes and cuddling. The days of blow and hookers are in the past!”

My favorite part of the show was when Amanda answered questions from the audience. Someone asked if Amanda knew how she could stop being afraid to make eye contact with strangers. Amanda had the house lights brought up, and had us each pick someone sitting near us who we didn’t know. I smiled awkwardly at the slender girl sitting to my left. Amanda told us that now, we’d spend thirty seconds just looking at one another. Not laughing. Not making a joke of it, just really SEEING. My partner said, “I can do this all day. I’m in customer service.” I said, “I’m in software, Engineers don’t look at people!” Then, for half a minute, we looked each other in the eyes. Blinking. Smiling, but not laughing. Two strangers, who, for thirty seconds took the time to really SEE one another. She cried. It was incredibly overwhelming. There is something that resonates when you strip bare the act of looking, and it’s beyond words. In the silence, we saw it together. And, yes, at first it felt really, really strange. Overly intimate. But it was worth it. If more people took the time to SEE “strangers,” I think the world would be more loving, less cruel, and the horns of impatience would stop blaring at every crossroads. If one person following her dream can inspire one moment of transcendence and truth, maybe if all the millions and billions of us followed our dream, the world would become the welcoming, compassionate paradise it yearns to be.

May you find your inner Amanda Palmer.


The Fear of Asking

So. I entered a raffle to win tickets to see Amanda Palmer at the Paramount Theater in Austin. I’m not sure why I did it, except that I know that when someone or something disturbs me, that means I have something to learn. When I first heard Amanda “Fucking” Palmer’s TED talk, The Art of Asking, my initial reaction was one of … disquiet. I thought I didn’t like her. I thought, “She’s too brash, too – herself?”  That startled me. Can a person be too much of who they are? It’s taken some introspection to realize what makes me uncomfortable about Amanda Palmer is that her way of being challenges my way of being. I feel like there are certain immutable requirements governing how I need to be; for instance, and very trivially, I feel like it’s a requirement to shave my arm pits. It is a requirement to feel like my body is something that must be hidden because it’s not “perfect.” It’s a requirement to feel like I should bottle up my emotions or repackage them so as not to seem like a “bitch.” It’s a requirement to have a traditional job. It’s a requirement to keep my yard looking at least as nice as the neighbors. And on and on and on. Amanda Palmer throws away every single one of those “requirements,” except maybe the one about the yard. I don’t know if she has a yard. The point is that Amanda Palmer decides for herself how she’s going to live life, rather than letting society tell her how to be.

I didn’t dislike Amanda, but myself. Of course, it’s easier to blame her. It’s really scary to think that maybe all these requirements that guide and order my life are only optional. This doesn’t mean I want an open marriage (I don’t), or that I want to be naked on stage (I don’t), or that I want hairy armpits (I don’t). The point is that I can CHOOSE what I want, and how I want to live. How has it taken me thirty-seven years to finally realize that!?

A lot of my fear, and my knee-jerk loathing of Amanda came from my own sense that I’m not being enough of an artist. I know that to write is my calling. It is not a requirement, but a personal, deeply embedded categorical imperative. Amanda’s way of living makes me realize I’m a coward. I’m too scared to take a chance and put writing first. I’m too afraid to trust. I’m afraid of having to ask for help.

My mother in law passed away a little over two months ago. Her death was sudden, and entirely unexpected. It shocked me to realize that her years ticked past, my years are ticking past… it was upsetting to realize I’d never taken the time to ask her the real questions about who she was. It was upsetting to realize I’d never asked myself those same questions.

I’m asking now. I’m still afraid. But, I’m asking.

And I won those tickets.


Is Fiction Frivolous?

Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is frivolous. In a world where animals are mistreated, and people are eating out of dumpsters, where does fiction fit? Stories don’t stop abuse. Stories don’t feed starving people. I am fairly sure the couple I saw taking turns wearing the one pair of shoes they had would prefer more sneakers, not a story. As a writer, it’s a bleak thought to wonder if storytelling might not just be a frivolous pastime.

I refuse to bow to bleak.

Art is a valuable expression of our humanity. Art transmits ideas, and fiction is the perfect vehicle for new modes of thinking. Stories are a way to put what is in my mind into your mind. The best art illuminates the mundane by refuting the very concept of “mundane.” Every moment is a revelation. Every experience is an opportunity to encounter the prosaic from a new perspective. Art gives us a way to share our revelations.

Do I think fiction is frivolous? No. I think we need more of it, and more of all other arts, too. I encourage everyone to create that which makes them excited about being alive. It will change the world. Your joy will spread to those closest to you, and your art will carry your message places you would never expect and could never plan. The seeds of changes are in your creative power. YOUR art is not inconsequential. It may bring a person out of the dark. It may bring you out of the dark.

I love the era of digital freedom. Now, more than ever, groups of like-minded individuals can “meet,” without leaving the comfort of their own continents. Ideas cross borders, and there is no reason for the masses to be homogenized into some manageable, marketable stereotypes. If there are seven people on the planet who LOVE making fake sausages out of textiles, and this brings them joy, those seven people can find the thousand people who want to support fake-sausage artists. We don’t have to understand what they see in it, but I believe we do have to encourage creative joy in all forms. The world is a better place when we are able to create and share. If small groups way out in the “long tail” of the creative markets bond and support one another, we stand a chance to solve those bigger societal problems, one situation at a time. The fake-sausage artists won’t let each other starve or go shoeless. They will have found their net, their way out of the dark, but it couldn’t happen if they didn’t reach out from their creative joy first.

I guess maybe it sounds a little Pollyanna (or Penny, from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog!) to advocate that creating even the strangest, niche art can change the world. But think about it: when I am a happy creative, I am not wallowing in self-pity. I’m engaging the world. I’m able to be aware of the plight of others because I am no longer wrapped tight in the winding-sheet of my own unfulfilled needs. When I’m creating, I’m engaged. When I’m engaged, I notice what others need. When I notice what someone else needs, I can do something to help. Small kindnesses, yes, but these are the foundation of a better, less painful world. I can’t fix everything wrong with the world, but I can make this moment better for someone, somewhere. I can do that in person if I am not wrapped up in selfishness. My stories allow me to be there for someone even when I am not there in person, and wow, isn’t that some powerful juju?!

Now that writers can go straight to readers, there is no reason for anyone to remained mired in that half-alive state of waiting for “acceptance.” They can share their stories NOW, and use the momentum of sharing to propel themselves into more empathetic modes of being. This means that some writers will, gasp!, publish things that aren’t as polished as you want. Personally, I like it that writers are able to make mistakes in front of readers. I like it, even though I’ve read several indie books that were huge disappointments in terms of craft. You know what? Despite the imperfection of their delivery, those stories are still with me. I love well-crafted prose, but even stumbling prose that tells me something new is a gift. I encourage those who are stumbling to keep on writing. If they are teachable, if they are willing to listen to their readers, if they keep following their bliss, they will improve. Their readers will love them for it, because they’ve been included in the journey. The world will be better because of those stories, and there’s nothing frivolous about it!




If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my newsletter.

I adore and reply to comments.