On the Art of Asking
Some months ago, on a dedicated FaceBook page, some really good people practiced vulnerability for a month. They shared with each other what they noticed, felt, recognized and imagined. I paid attention, listening and quietly sighing when I witnessed some of their raw humanness, their testing of their own edges, their venturing out onto this sharp, dark territory.
Not coincidentally, at the same time, I was reading the beautiful memoir of Amanda (F**ing) Palmer, musician, performance artist and absolute badass who has reminded me of some long-buried things I know about art, creativity and love. Her millions-watched TED talk, “The Art of Asking,” and subsequent book is a chronicle of her own journey to literally and figuratively fall into the arms of her fans, allowing them to support and carry her on her creative journey. She gained additional notoriety for her massive and most successful ever Kickstarter campaign.
The whole book is her story of vulnerability and asking, especially about how, in her asking practice with her fans around the world, she finally, and utterly was able to receive love from others (especially the man she loved) without feeling guilty or beholden. And, it’s a call for other artists (and ordinary people, frankly) to give up thinking that asking for help is something dirty or weak. That asking is often a gift for someone else to be able to give.
This got me thinking. A lot.
I want to write a really beautiful book. The kind someone gives you for no particular reason except to say, just read this. And truth be told, I’ve wanted to write this book for a long while, and sometimes I will talk about it (if you ask me) and say a few mostly meaningless things that sound like cocktail party babble because I am afraid I won’t be able to describe it in an elevator pitch or 140 characters. I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you why you’d want or value or cherish this sort of thing from me to you so much that you’d give your dog-eared copy with your name and number written inside the back cover to the strange actor-waitress, like I did last night, because you just know it’s a perfect time for her to read it. You want her to have something beautiful.
I haven’t just been dreaming about this book. It’s not a fantasy. I’ve spent hours and thousands of dollars over the past couple of years trying to get some well-meaning (mostly) men to tease the whole thing out of me. My mentor says I’m looking for approval and being impractical—just write a book your buyers can use, something you can sell or gets you in the doors of your would-be clients—and I get that. It’s very pragmatic advice; it makes sense. Plus, I, too, like stuff that’s useful. My big-sexy-idea-branding guy, after a whole year of incessant questioning and spelunking my brain, hours and hours of conversations, exercises, writings, interviews and #cometojesustalks (even though he’s an atheist Jew who practices Japanese Naikan therapy), he let me go. (WHO lets me go?) You have to write this to know what it is. I can’t help you until you do.
Oh, the voices just never stop:
Is it a book about faith? Vision? Leadership? Language? Poetry? Voice? Dangerousness? Is it a book about humanity, conversation, love? Who cares about this anyway, and hasn’t it already been done? Who has time for such a book and why would I be the one to write it? There’s such a “terrible chance I might, instead, skim the surface of my life”* and get all wrapped up in whether you might ever read it, much less hand it over to the beautiful waitress with the green eyes and tentative smile.
Today, while all this is on my mind, I’m in the middle of TKT (The Knee Thing). At the very end of a tremendous, creative, embodied time in New York, where I shared bits and pieces with my FaceBook friends (random NYC thoughts, walking around photos, fun insights) and other glorious details with my closest of friends, I literally dropped to my knees on a dance floor on East 54th, am carried up the stairs and out the door to a waiting cab which will take me to a nearby ER, where I will shiver and laugh with Tess until they take my X-rays, release me on crutches at 1 a.m. Now, I must rely on strangers and friends alike to help me. I need help with my bags. I need help getting to the toilet. I need help into and out of the cars. And, I’ve not even figured out how to ask for help when I arrive home. My car? My stairs? My office?
Did I already say this began with dropping to my knees? On my knees.
I love helping. I’ve been helpful my whole life. My mother taught me generosity and my dad taught me selflessness. If you’ve been in my orbit at all, it’s likely I’ve tried (and succeeded) in helping you. Most of you wanted it; some may have even asked for it. I don’t discriminate: friends, lovers, husbands, students, family, clients, strangers. Street people. People I cannot see and don’t know. I’ve given my time, love, money, compassion, expertise, ideas, heartbreak. Once, as a joke, my mentor told me I needed rehab from PTH (Propensity To be Helpful) because then I might be able to ask for the fees I surely deserve.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve not been perfect at this. I’m not actually much of a score keeper, but especially in old relationships, I was so perfect at helping. I was the marathon champion of helping so that in the end, I’d resent you for it—for constantly taking my help and for not calling me out on my anemic ways of receiving. I think I thought helping made me strong, and especially in control. Plus, most of the time it felt really, really good. Until it didn’t. Until my inability to ask for or sometimes receive help left me exhausted, burned out with the flu in a random hotel not remembering the city was Atlanta, much less the day. Now, people have been helping me from way back, in invisible and visible ways. Like my friend David Whyte, who actually says that—“visible and invisible help.” The first time he said it to me was after a long day of working together on one line of poetry, trying to find and feel where it resided in my body. I was tired and just needed to get away from him. Sit here, he pointed at the kitchen table near the fire place, the air outside wet and green, and take some time to write about where you need to ask for help. Help? I balked. I don’t really like to do that . . . and I know his look meant that was exactly why he’d made the invitation.
For the past six months or so, I’ve been playing with the idea of receiving. Not passive, perhaps, but maybe. I know the Matthew parable is “ask and you shall receive . . . seek and you shall find . . .” but I’m wondering, always, about the asking part. I’ve been all caught up in my tango metaphor, dying to feel the way I felt when Sonny took me in his arms and commanded my letting go. It was anything but passive, and it required of me both a sense of focus and abandon. Of attention and surrender. And, I was free.
Did I mention this particular confession began with me falling to my knees?
I’ve had a long and particular relationship to prayer, which for much of my life felt a lot like begging and a little like gratitude. There were times, in my Southern childhood, that my prayers felt unanswered. An empty chapel where the priest had let me in on my own to drop down, implore the stark cross for any sort of answer to my heartache. Times when I knew they floated out on wings, making that beeline to the divine, relief and latent confirmation that everything, all, indeed would be well. Five step prayers. Affirmative prayers. Rosaries and Hail Marys. Serenity prayers. St. Francis prayers. All asking. Asking for help. Asking for small things and big things and mostly asking for understanding and answers. Ultimately, today at 11:27, racing across the sky with my hobbled knee, I think my prayers are for humility, softening, vulnerability that creates a beautiful doorway to all that longs in me to be connected to you. To you. To that stick figure representative of you, drawn by James McCauley on a chalkboard, the first night of poetry workshop where he said in his Dublin voice, why was this poem uttered? What space is it trying to close between you, the poet, and the reader or listener? Indeed, why was this poem uttered?
In my 20s and 30s, I thought good poems and good sex were the same thing, or at least mostly the same thing. When they were good, they were transcendent, painfully beautiful and ultimately connecting. Even for the smallest of moments, the release of beta-endorphins, the ah-ha of Merwin’s metaphor in an instant of pleasure and ultimate recognition. It was only later that it all got weird. When I got so good at giving and terrible at receiving. When I entertained the absurd notion that if I could just get it right (right job, right love, right body, right religion, right whatever), I could avoid heartbreak. I could be, well, you know, happy?
So, now, I’m actually on my knees, but it doesn’t feel like begging, actually, it feels like reverence. It feels like the altar of holy where I say to you, across the breakfast table or crowded room or bleacher seats . . . I say, here, let me tell you the most beautiful story of falling in love with the longest journey to say the unsayable, to laugh and sob, to celebrate and mourn. Let me, now, ask if you will be willing to lean into my asking and that I pray, on my knees, to receive.
So, here’s my tango invitation. Here’s my tiniest and smallest request in the art and spirit of asking. I ask you to support the writing of this beautiful book by letting me know—send me an email or a message here that says, Yes, Please. I want to be part of what happens next in this conversation of saying the things that are the most difficult to say—and I’ll share snippets and passages, essays or podcasts, videos or poems all in the service of creating something beautiful that you might share or write all over, read it more than once, or simply just slide it over a well-worn table saying, here, just read this.
Because finally, I decided that I don’t want to write this alone. I want to lean into you, tango style, and let my wholly body be held the best way you know how. No gift or idea is too small. I will love them all.
Here’s the first snippet for you:
BEST words. BEST order. BEST time.
The ability to find the right words, in the right order in the right time is an essential human need. Perhaps every time in history had its calling to speak out or speak up. Perhaps each social movement, revolution or systemic change began with some one person or group of persons trying to speak the truth or say the unsayable and then finally, at the right time, they did. Perhaps they felt a mixture of hopeful and hopeless or delight and despair. Perhaps every time they were poised with pen to page or fingers on keys, or just before they went on (stage, podium, pavilion, camera), they questioned their motives, their sanity, their plausibility. But then they just leaned into it or dove off or gave everything else over to it. At the time, it likely didn’t matter if they were wrong or misguided. It’s that they found their voice, their language their words, when it mattered.
I suppose today it feels like there is an epidemic of voice-less-ness because this urge is so strong, so powerful as the pull of gravity and the orbit of planets, when we feel powerlessness in it, when we become desperate beyond disillusion, we may take ultimate, irreparable acts—we kill ourselves or others, we descend into the oblivion of addiction (the utter inability to speak or dictate), we hide away or hoard to disappear. This isn’t even a call to action for leaders, rebels and revolutionaries, but it could be if that is the path that vibrates your whole being because you have chosen the best and right words for you in the best order at the best time: now.
This can be small or great, hushed or loud. It is language, that net we cast out to catch the imagination, minds, inspiration and aspirations of others. Perhaps language is limiting in its inexactness or clumsiness. Perhaps we have too many languages so nothing is universal. It doesn’t matter. Your language, your words: now. The pen is still mightier than the sword.
Setting out on this course is one of the most courageous acts of all. It is an act of faith and trust, risk and uncertainty. It is the equivalent of space travel or pioneering exploration into the unknown. It is, on every level, the notion that you cannot ever be certain of the outcome: you do not know how your language will be received. You do not know how your audience will respond. You do not know whether you will be lauded, followed or misunderstood, and yet you must say what matters now.
On some level, this is a conversation about world events or the proverbial big picture. This is a conversation about history and politics and geography, but in truth, most of us will never have a world stage, despite the small flashes of notoriety that technology might bring us or the phenomenon of social media and the Internet’s role in how word gets out there these days. We might have high ideas and grandiose notions, but most of us just want to influence and inspire those in our circles of connection—our companies, communities, colleagues and families.