Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking: An Open Letter of Thanks

theartofasking_imageI wrote this letter of appreciation to a musician and New York Times best-selling offer (#7 with a bullet!) that I admire. And after I finished it I decided to share it with everyone.

Hi Amanda,

I’m the woman who asked you the question at the end of the Minneapolis show. Thank you for answering me. The show sold out before I could buy a ticket, but you retweeted someone from the Minneapolis house party who had an extra ticket. Her name was Kate and I walked down the line looking for her outside the show and found a woman named Kate with an extra ticket. We chatted happily as we waited to get in and then after getting inside I discovered she was not the same Kate, and the original Kate was in the row behind me. The show was magnificent. You must have been exhausted but you were absolutely brilliant.

I’m alone this Thanksgiving. Being alone on a holiday isn’t terrible. It’s the fact that everyone takes on this exaggerated pity for your loneliness on this one day and don’t give a rat’s ass that you have been alone all year. Being alone this makes me think back to when I was happiest. I used to spend weekends bringing pizza and movies over to my sister and her kids. That was my family. My dad was dead, my mom and other siblings not very kind, but my sister and her kids were enough. I loved them and would do anything for them. But my sister didn’t really want me around. Last fall I fell in love. I am on the mild end of the autism spectrum (the end where you are treated like a fraud if you reach the end of your coping skills and actually need help because you’ve been faking it so well for so long) so falling in love with someone isn’t easy for me but when I fall I fall hard. I am all in. I thought I had someone I could give all my love to for once, but he wasn’t very kind to me and walked away. Some friends have abandoned me over the past year because I had a sort of breakdown and didn’t live up to their expectations. You see, in a small community I was kinda famous and I walked away from that. People had a plan for me, and I failed in their eyes for not sticking to it. So I am alone a lot without anyone to take care of or who takes care of me, and that can be tough when you are creative in a public way.

In early 2010 I was unemployed and looking for an accounting job. Someone advertised for a religion writer and I thought that might help keep me sane while I looked for a “REAL JOB.” I ended up talking them into hiring me as an editor and after an agonizing amount of work I turned the Pagan section of Patheos.com into a huge success. Every month 12,000 people from all over the world took the time to read my thoughts on modern Paganism, polytheism, and indigenous religions. Yet working for Patheos was like working for your label, and it was as if the Catholics were Bono and I was Jonathan Coulton. Being wildly successful within my religious communities wasn’t a “hit” by the standards they were measuring me against. If it were a non-profit I could have funded my own little corner of the site and served my community and been fine. But Patheos was in the business of making money and the presence of my band of spiritual anarchists and ancient revivalists and loving weirdos actually hurt their monetary prospects. They would ignore my 12,000 fans and entertain the one asshole who hated me, talk to them for an hour, and then come back and tell me why I was shit. They didn’t get what I was doing or what my community was about, but I hope that has changed since I left. My successor has the degrees to lend her voice the gravitas that my prolific quirky hustling lacked. I hope her experience is kinder because after a couple of years there I ended up having a crisis of faith and I think a slowly unfolding nervous breakdown.

My fans were loyal and loving, but they didn’t always drown out the hate. Sometimes they helped me, like when I needed a new laptop or when my roommates kicked me out and I was suddenly homeless. But at the end of the day I was always alone. People liked what I wrote but no one wanted to grab lunch with me. People saw my social media feeds, but they didn’t see me. And I was deeply ashamed of my inability to cope on my own and rise above my loneliness. I was deeply ashamed that I had accepted help from friends and fans to get back on my feet. I am ashamed that I shut down and stopped writing. I am ashamed that I let the sheer terror and panic show as I realized I had created something bigger than myself and had no way to keep this community of readers I had created going because I was exhausted and collapsing in on myself.

Does it matter that I worked seven 9+ hour days a week? Or that I gave around 15% of my small and unpredictable income back to community projects or to people in need? Or that I have all these messages from people telling me they love what I write because it makes them feel less alone? Or that people were happy and willing to help me because it helped make them a part of what I was doing? Or that I see ideas, organizations, and writers thriving that are to some degree influenced by my work? No, it doesn’t. I still felt like a shameful fraud and my critics agreed with me.

But after listening to your music for years I am reading your book, and it is healing me. I used a lot of your methods for community building over the years to great success, even when people didn’t understand what I was doing because it wasn’t the kind of “marketing” they were used to. I failed at asking a lot but I also triumphed in unexpected ways that created great connections and opportunities for myself and others. Your experience is really different from mine but also so surprisingly similar. Your vulnerability and openness has helped me see myself with kinder eyes and consider forgiving myself for the shame that engulfed me. Most importantly, it reminded me that I was at my best when I was open and vulnerable and acted as a mirror for other people, when I helped other people feel less lonely.

I have so many books inside me and I am now considering the real possibility of writing again. I am trying to figure out how to solve the problem of loneliness and lack of support system. I am trying to figure out how much I can reasonably do on my own. I am trying to figure out what I need to ask for help with, and how to ask. I am beginning to recognize that what I do is art and that there is merit and value to being an artist like me.

So I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your example and your sharing, because you have helped resurrect the artist inside of me. That is no small thing. Thank you for creating and cultivating such a loving supportive community, especially the all the generous people named Kate in it. I plan to give copies of your book to friends, and when you figure out the exchange tech, to buy copies for strangers.

All my love,

Star Foster

P.S. Fuck it all, I’m posting this on my blog. LOVE.

An Apology To My Readers and A Video About Relationships

I have been pretty terrible to my readers. I just realized that. I broke the sacred contract, in which I write and you read. In which I share something in hopes that it touches someone, and then someone is touched. I stopped giving. I got scared. That was wrong of me.

I’ve been carrying around a lot of shame about asking for your time to read my thoughts, about asking for you to consider something new, about asking you to help me when I needed help.

You were happy to read. You were happy to consider. Most of all you were happy to help. You send me e-mails, Facebook messages, tweets, and reach out in all these small ways to thank me and tell me you love what I do.

But I haven’t been doing the things that you love. Or the things that I love. I let the shame win, both the shame I created and the shame that unkind people tried to paint me with over and over. I decided it is time to let you win.

I just realized this morning that my crisis of faith began when people started treating my faith, which I wrote about so prolifically, as unimportant, unworthy, and even unprofitable.

But it is time I affirm that what I say, and what you love me for saying, is IMPORTANT, WORTHY, and AS DESERVING OF TIME AND RESOURCES AS MUCH AS ANY OTHER FAITH.

So over the next few months you will be seeing more of me. More of my words, more of my face, more of my voice. I am going to trust you more, I am going to share more, and I am going to be more visible and accessible. Sometimes I may ask for help. Sometimes you may help me. Sometimes I may touch and move you. You always touch and move me.

So here is a video, inspired by Revolution Church, and the informal discussion style I have come to love from the podcasts and from my visit there. It is about our relationship with all that which is divine, and how it is ok for that to be an imperfect, human relationship.

Pissed: How Do You Reconcile Faith and Anger?

A guy followed me for a little over 2 blocks yesterday threatening to rape me. I had just left church and I was walking alone. He described in graphic detail how he was going to rape me, at the top of his lungs. He denigrated my body, called me names, and described the sex acts he was going to force on me. I ducked into a movie theater and quickly called a succession of friends who might be able to pick me up. No one answered. So I had to walk past this guy to get to the transit station.

I was terrified and I was pissed. I am angry now thinking of it. I have been pissed all day. I keep thinking about all the things I can’t do better, about all the ways other people have failed me, and about my own inability to be able to feel safe, secure, and loved. I am angry that people feel more comfortable expressing their appreciation of my writing in private e-mail because they don’t want to deal with the people who hate me in public forums. I hate that I didn’t present workshops at Paganicon two years ago because someone persistently tried to hack into my site account and that made me  uncomfortable. I hate that there is nothing I can do about the podcast describing the imagined deformities of my vagina out there simply because I cautioned against flinging poo without having the facts. I am tired of being terrified. I am exhausted of being angry.

I’m angry that I could walk for over two blocks through a busy section of Minneapolis with a big scary dude yelling about how he was going to shove his cock in my mouth and no one stepped up to help. No one called the cops. No one answered their phone.

I’m angry that this street harasser who terrorized me felt like all the internet harassment I have experienced embodied.

I’m angry that most of the abuse and harassment I have suffered has come at the hands of religious people, and I am angry that I simply can’t stop being a religious person.

I’m angry that my friends have stopped talking to me because I’m no longer “Star Foster: Super Pagan.”

I’m angry about attending festivals that put myself and others in danger. I am angry that my religious life has cost me opportunities. I am angry that religious people took advantage of me when I was in need.

I’m angry because I do believe in some divinity/divinities beyond myself but can’t fathom what my relationship to them can possibly be. I’m angry because I am not finding the spiritual answers I need and don’t even have a community willing to support my search.

I am angry about all the things I have not written about or even shared with close friends, because if you shut me down when I open up a little how bad will you hurt me if I open up all the way?

Mainly I am angry because I am so blessed. I do have dear friends, I do have a good life, and I have received so many blessings and I am now in a position to have begun to give back some of the love I have received, and despite having so much to be grateful for and cultivating an attitude of gratitude for months just one nasty comment can ruin my day.

So now I am faced with the possibility of going back to church, or going to the grocery store, or going to the book store, or going to see a movie and finding my harasser waiting for me. And maybe I will just be terrified, or maybe I will be assaulted. So I have to decide if this person is going to prevent me from living my life, or if valiantly going to a movie alone might cost me my life.

To a lesser degree, I have the same dilemma every time I write. Be it a blog post or a Facebook comment. What is this going to cost me?

And then I have to wonder what pain my spiritual decisions will cost me. These gods both gentle and fierce, loving and violent. What do I risk by letting Yahweh, Freya, or Chango into my soul?

I am tired of weighing the cost of being authentic and free, and it makes me so very angry.

Safe Space in Spiritual Distress: Tony Jones at Revolution Church

I was running late today, hoofing it to Bryant Lake Bowl with my hair still wet from the shower, to finally make it over to Revolution Church. Tony Jones was preaching and his exploration of his discomfort with theism perhaps becoming marginalized in the Emergent movement struck so many chords with me. I have a lot to unpack, so bear with me for a moment.

The pastor of Revolution is Jay Bakker, of the iconic Evangelical family, and it is meant to be a safe place to explore faith. It meets in a bar that has a bowling alley, and moved to Minneapolis about the same time I did. I kept wanting to check it out, and didn’t, for reasons I will go into later. Today I was seized with a sudden need to visit when I couldn’t bring myself to go to the Methodist church I had been attending. I may be ok with being spiritually lost, but I am never content to sit still for long.

Jay was out of town and Tony Jones, a theologian whose blog I helped set up at Patheos back in the day (I worked on the back end of a lot of blogs during my 2+ years there), was speaking. Despite being aware of him in a general sense I didn’t really know very much about Tony, so I had no idea what I was getting into. Tony spoke very thoughtfully, earnestly, and compassionately about progressive Christianity becoming a gateway for people to leave religion. As he spoke about how theism was beginning to become marginalized in the Emergent movement it struck me that he sounded a lot like me talking about the Pagan community. I found myself nodding a lot as he spoke and was thrilled that I felt able to participate in the discussion without feeling like the whole room was cringing every time I opened my mouth.

After years of struggling to find a safe space to be able to express and explore my own theism (whether monotheism or polytheism I can’t tell at the moment), my experience at Revolution felt hopeful. It has been a long time since I wasn’t silent or the turd in the punch bowl at a religious event. There is very little satisfaction in smiling, nodding, and keeping your mouth shut.

I liked my experience today, but I never attended Revolution before because I have always seen progressive Christianity as similar in views and values to the Pagan community, and if my theism is an issue in Paganism, then I expected it to be an issue among progressive Christians. It was just a place where politics and liberal culture was more important than faith in my eyes. I have spiritual needs to meet, and simply shaking my fist or patting backs on the left side of the culture war doesn’t meet those needs. I need a place where my GLBTQI friends are welcome as a matter of course, and where the work of the spirit can commence freely.

But I also never attended because I am spiritually exhausted. This spiritual crisis that ebbs and flows and never ends is draining me. I have no place to fill my tank. I have no community. I have no certainty to sustain me. I just spent 15 years in a community where making a declarative statement about matters of faith is anathema. I feel like I have been carrying this heavy burden of faith around for so long that I really yearn for someplace to be entirely passive and receptive. Someplace to just let go and be open to the gifts of the spirit. Paganism was never that place for me, as much as I wanted it to be.

Also, I was nervous because I have some form of religious PTSD. My time in the spotlight at Patheos wasn’t very kind to me. Weird things trigger me, and I’m not really wanting to open those old wounds. The threats, the sexual harassment, the hatred, and the feeling of being besieged with no one to turn to for comfort or support, well, that brought me to the lowest point in my life. I write less than I used to because I am simply not willing to open myself to abuse. A few months ago someone friended me on Facebook and it almost caused a full-blown meltdown at work. Although meeting Tony was a reminder of those days when I dreaded turning on my computer each morning, but he was very gracious and kind.

I thought a more liberal religious community would leave me feeling frustrated, rootless, and more spiritually lonely than I already am. But Tony Jones, despite our very different backgrounds and perspectives, made me feel less alone and more hopeful than I have felt in many years. He is having the kind of conversations that I need to hear from other people, discussing faith struggles similar to mine in his own words. He made participation in the discussion, even when it challenged him, feel welcome and wanted.

I’ve never heard Jay or any of the other speakers that frequent Revolution preach, but my experience today hearing Tony speak has given me a glimmer of hope that there might be a way to mindfully engage with others regarding my doubts, fears, desires, and needs in my spiritual life in a safe space. Oh gods, oh sweet baby Jesus, oh sweet baby Zagreus, oh Zeus and Deus and Holy Ghost, I really want a place like that. Because work is stressful, life is hard, and passively chanting in a Pagan ritual or singing gospel I don’t believe is just a band-aid that isn’t working anymore.

I will visit Revolution again, and listen to the podcasts. Maybe it will prove a spiritual home for this old heretic. Maybe not, but if you need a place where it feels safe to express doubt, I recommend checking Revolution Church out. Regardless of your background you might find something here that speaks to you.

A Place Where We All Can Dance

I hit that wall. Perhaps it was inevitable. Everything is good. Everything is fine. And then someone asks church leaders if in outreach they will state they are explicitly welcoming to the LGBTQI community. There was no argument. No debate. No real acknowledgement of the question. People shifted uncomfortably in their seats and began to speak of more vague, inclusive language.

At the time I was amused, watching people grapple with issues that have been resolved in the light of love in the circles I have moved in most of my adult life. But the moment festered. I didn’t go to church the next Sunday, or the next, or this morning. All my joy was gone. All I could imagine was inviting people I love to come to church with me, and how they would be treated. Made me feel a little sick.

See, I can intellectually accept people grappling with homosexuality as a social and moral issue. I love many people who happen to see homosexuality as wrong, and I don’t stop loving them because of that. But those people tend to exist in specific niches in my life, and not very close to me. Where I get angry is when someone tries to make the people I love feel less-than, swept aside, irrelevant, unimportant, dirty, leperous, or unwelcome.

And all of this pisses me off. I just want to be happy and have meaning in my life, and have everyone round me treated with the love and respect they deserve. But now I feel I am stuck with this choice between having my religious impulses respected or having the people I love respected. Fuck that choice. Despite how real it feels it is a false dichotomy. Somewhere in the world is a place where I can have both, wherever that may be.

So today whatever gods may exist in the world will have to excuse me. I’m just going to sit on this sofa, cry, watch indie films, and feel miserable. Nothing in the world feels worse than lost hope.

Maybe one day I will find a place where we can all dance. But right now I’m just going to be angry.

Loneliness and Faith

I gave away almost all my books. I kept one box, and in that box was a copy of Brendan Myers’ Loneliness and Revelation. Brendan suggests that loneliness is an inherent fact of the human condition, and that perhaps the prescription for the revelation that we are not the only ones experiencing this is to share our humanity in palpable ways. Maybe I am misinterpreting him, but tonight as I flip through his words I am thinking about what it means to palpably share our humanity.

Indeed under some circumstances, a Revelation intended only for yourself can heighten your loneliness. – Brendan Myers

I have been keeping a lot of my feelings regarding faith under my hat, close to my chest, and briskly swept under the rug. In truth, I have done that all my life. Even in my verbosity at Patheos I barely scratched the surface. I wrote for others, and only rarely wrote something vulnerable and free. Too often I wrote in anger.

Lately as I have been struggling with this transition to Christianity I have found myself overwhelmed with the need to share, discuss, and explore with another human being, but I resist. Partly because my faith journey is a strange creature that most can’t relate to, and partly because I don’t trust people anymore.

Cynicism has taken the wheel here, and good faith is long gone. Which of course makes it difficult to follow the basic tenets Jesus laid out as essential:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Love and cynicism don’t mix very well. They tend to cancel each other out. It’s like mixing purple and orange paint and ending up with a rather nasty grey. Your life becomes a miserable funk and the only way out is trust and vulnerability and a willingness to risk pain.

This means trusting people and opening up to them. This means trusting yourself and your judgement. This even means trusting God, and opening to him. Sometimes it is scarier to let him in than letting in humans. After all, all of us have felt let down by the people we love at some point, and in the God we worship as well.

I pray we all learn to trust, to be open, and to risk pain, and that in response we are rewarded with love, respect, and safety.

Spiritual Consumerism: Why Using Religion Isn’t A Virtue

This post has been living in my body for some time, gently trying to break free. I poke it back behind my liver, stuff it in my big toe, or grasp it within my elbow joint, but it keeps nesting in my heart and whispering in my ear. This isn’t something I want to write, partly because I feel I have preached myself hoarse on this subject, and because I feel this is a harsh, even if apt, way to express this. This is what my pastor calls a “hard word,” and it is heavy too, weighing down my heart.

Over the past few months I have noticed a trend in how people react to my attending a Christian church. They are entirely supportive until they realize I might be serious about embracing the Christian faith. Then their tone changes entirely. It’s not one person, or even two who have reacted this way. If I were to count them off I would run out of fingers and be forced to take off my shoes.

I have tried to be polite when people have this reaction, even when I feel betrayed by it. It’s not just one kind of person who has been supportive and then balked. I’ve gotten it from secular friends, from Wiccan friends, and even from hardcore polytheists.

No one has a problem with my using Christianity to get my spiritual needs met. No one has a problem with my putting up a Christmas tree or going to Easter dinners. No one has a problem with my singing hymns or listening to sermons. No one has a problem with my seeking out community in Christianity, and several have even admitted there is no option for community in much of Paganism and polytheism. No one has a problem with my reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison with a church full of Methodists as long as I don’t mean it.

Ironically participating in Christianity, being a hipster in the pews smirking inwardly, gets me praise. Being a sincere seeker gets me criticized or shunned.

If I were to use Santeria without believing in it just because it makes me feel better, I would have people waving virtual pitchforks at me. If I started using Native American spirituality without being invested in that faith, Pagans everywhere would be angry with me. If I started using the trappings of Judaism without being invested in that spiritual tradition, people might suggest I was racist.

So why is it Christianity gets a pass but no one would be ok with my simply using African Diaspora or Eastern European indigenous traditions? Because Christianity is part of the overculture? Because it is mainstream? Because it has a problematic past and present? Because it is so diametrically different from modern progressive spiritual inclinations? Does that really make it ok?

This attitude pisses me off in so many different ways, and is one of the big reasons I walked away from Paganism and polytheism.

If you make a virtue of using other faith traditions, then why build anything of your own? Why build your own temple when you can simply co-opt the local Unitarian-Universalist church? Why develop your own theology and cohesive tradition when you can throw some yoga on top of some kabbalah mixed in with some low-fat NeoPlatonism and a dash of European fairy tales?

Why on earth would you consider it better to use a faith tradition for your own selfish purposes rather than fully inhabiting it to give your life shape and meaning? Doesn’t this simply lead to your not valuing relationships, using both Gods and people as they are useful to you? Doesn’t this virtue of using affect the ability to build lasting community?

Why is being a user a virtue? Why is being serious about your faith a failing? I think back about all the times I have been preached to about the virtues of spiritual consumerism, about not taking shit so seriously, about just using the pretty comfortable parts of various faiths, and about how if I really just tried to do Paganism right I would learn to stop worrying and hug a tree. Beauty of nature, poetry, image, and doing whatever works to make me feel right is all I need. Pretty thoughts and sexy darkness and everything ephemeral.

Religion isn’t a tool to be picked up when convenient, to get me high in the moment and then be discarded until I need whatever spiritual jollies I currently desire. I feel like I have said this so many times my brain is ready to explode at the thought of articulating this again: religion isn’t a matter of style. Faith traditions aren’t tools. Plug ‘n’ play spirituality is both disrespectful and ultimately harmful. Spiritual but not religious ultimately means you are making a virtue out of using things and people for selfish reasons.

I’m not entirely sold on Christianity yet, certainly not on traditional theologies, but I am trying so hard to inhabit this tradition because it nurtures and disturbs me. I am engaging in this as thoughtfully and sincerely as I engaged in Paganism and polytheism for the past 15 years. Mostly I am learning to love people rather than use them, I am overcoming bad habits, and pushing past my comfort zones. I am struggling towards compassion, and every time someone thinks I am merely using Christianity to fill the gaps in a Paganism that takes pride in not being whole, it makes me angry. It makes me bitter towards Paganism.

This attitude is so prevalent that I could easily rattle off a list of prominent folks who promote it, who wrap themselves in a supercilious cloak of righteousness even as they hold all religious impulses and traditions in contempt. To paraphrase the lovely phrase from Practical Magic: you can’t practice religion while looking down your nose at it.

So be disillusioned: I am not some hipster smugly smirking in the pews as I get off on vibrant gospel music. I am struggling for my soul’s liberation in a community that has the capacity and compassion to support me in that struggle.

Though I am trying to embrace a more loving and compassionate attitude, I am still me. Assume I am using Christianity, smile approvingly at me while calling me a user, and I may throw some foul and salty language your way.  Forgive me, I am only human, and, as I keep being reminded, a fundamentalist to boot.