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Real Girls: What Amanda Palmer Taught Me About Vulnerability

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 Rock pile I have a friend who has this gnarly summer job—she calls it an "opportunity." The thing is it's not, in truth, gnarly at all. I mean, if picking rocks in the broiling sun is immensely amusing, or if spending most of a day uncomfortably bent over with a linoleum knife hacking away the weeds from inside small prickly spruce trees is an escapade of frivolity, or if cutting heavily tractor packed sod with a shovel is a thing to delight in, then I guess her job really is "gnarly." When she gets back from her summer job—at least she has a rocking hot tan—I offer my sympathies to her: "Whatever, pays the bills, right?"

"No!"she says, "whatever makes me happy ... or at least makes it possible, THAT’S why I do it."

"Cool, cool," I reply in a mollifying tone. Hey, you don’t want to ever mess with someone who can chuck rocks, slash deftly with curved knives, or is used to manhandling (personhandling, I should say, just in case she is reading this) large chunks of sod or tree stumps. She could easily devour a prissy MBAer faster than she can slay a patch of undisciplined barbellate thistles, which is very quickly. So, I keep all this in mind. It’s healthier that way. Mainly for me.

My friend though, despite being able to kick serious ass probably will never have that sinewy side seen by more than a select few people. Other people see her and think she is little other than peach cinnamon pie with prettily puffed whip cream. "Oh, if only you knew," I muse under my breath. And yet, while she is a pugnaciously hard worker and tougher than titanium, she is also a delicate artist and girl, and thinker, and saint. (You should see her with baby birds.) I mean, if Wendell Berry were younger and single, he would be after her.

No, really.

In the same vein, don’t a lot of us feel that way about our parents? Or that heroic individual that few others, except us, really know? Why is that? How can we know—deep down inside—that our mum or dad or brother or sister or certain friend is such a supremely groovy gift to humanity?

Here is a thought: is it because we are open to them and they are open to us? Like, in a way that is unique and allows for vulnerability? There is more, of course, but the act of being vulnerable to another person seems to be, to me anyway, significant.

A little while ago I had the pleasure of reading Amanda Palmer’s biography/philosophy/guide to life. It’s called The Art of Asking. Her words went inside my softer parts and made my emotions do exercises which they weren’t used to. Maybe it was like emotional yoga? Anyway, her startling honesty and willingness to uncover/divulge/display the tender parts of her artistic musician soul and heart made me wonder just how much better those of us who are more prone to emotional seclusion would be by being more vulnerable. (Not to everybody, because without a certain degree of interpersonal-confidentiality there could be little interpersonal-intimacy.)

One of Palmer’s central points is that everybody desires to be seen. Because to be seen means that something in us was recognized. Something of our identity was noticed by another and recognized as unique to us. And yet, for Palmer there are two parties responsible: the outside viewer who actually gives a hoot to see beyond just themselves, and the person themselves who must be willing to be seen. And this last part is where the vulnerability comes in.

And so going back to my friend, I wonder what she would think about Palmer’s philosophy of vulnerability. Surely there is a satisfaction in knowing certain parts of ourselves are neatly packaged and hidden, only to be seen by those select few who have been invited into the sanctum of knowing. But if, as Palmer suggests, vulnerability begets vulnerability, perhaps by learning to gradually expose ourselves, we could in turn increasingly recognize the beauty that surrounds us—and sometimes be the beautiful too.