My longest romantic relationship is not the three-year partnership I just ended. (Though I prefer to say it’s been “rearranged”, because we’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.)

My longest romantic relationship is with the Internet.

(And I have written it so. many. love letters.)

Something about the way it swept me off my feet and carried me into adulthood, the way it told me I was beautiful and valuable when I’d always been a misfit, and the way it provided me with resources and answers whenever I felt sure that I was completely on my own… the Internet has always been more than just access to other people. It’s been my home, my nourishment, my partner… the thing that showed me understanding and gave me an identity when I was so far away from society’s standards that my own sanity was in question… the thing that gave me what I needed when what I needed didn’t seem to exist.

I realize I am now speaking for the next generation of Crazy Cat Ladies — we are the Crazy Internet People — who rely on non-human replacements for human relationships. I could justify it by saying that the Internet really is all about the People, but it’s not. They’re part of it, sure, but they were always there. The Internet added something to make them better.

The Internet is about the access.

It’s about being able to shout a question to the sky and actually get an answer. It’s about being able to shape our own secret stories so they can be heard and felt by that stranger on the other side of the world who desperately needs to know they’re not alone. It’s about being able to create complete crap and fling it out into a field knowing that no one will care, unless you happened to be wrong about it being crap. It’s about building a brilliant wall of mixed sensory input that feeds you exactly what you asked for, along with everything you didn’t know you needed but it thought you should have anyway.

It’s not perfect. Like any lover, it comes with more baggage than a cross-country flight on Christmas Eve. It has daddy issues, it has a temper, it has weird fetishes that you’re not interested in, and it wakes you up at 3am to say things like, “We need to talk.”

Maybe that’s what makes it okay for us to be messy humans right back at it.

I knew this year would have me nose-to-the-grindstone building and rebuilding my foundations. It was time to stop thinking about what I wanted to do, and to just push myself to get it done. A new full-time contract. A new startup. The closure of six years worth of freelance clients. A relationship breaking down. Mix in two speaking engagements at universities on the East Coast and a meeting in Canada, and yeah, that’s a full plate.

No one would fault me for shutting up, disengaging from Facebook and Twitter except for basic updates, and not blogging for awhile.

But I do.

Not just because its professionally important for me to keep building a community, an audience, a constituency, a position in the greater conversation, and (ugh) a personal brand. Yeah, I’m a social media kid, and those things are all my life blood. And when I’m not blogging, I’m not keeping it up. (Actually, I decided that none of that mattered this year. I’ve already got all the fuel I need to build what’s next, and what’s next is for my people, so it’ll all work out in the end.)

I’m kicking myself for being quiet because I am less happy when I’m not interacting with the Internet. I could go on a long anthropomorphizing rant about how you’d be unhappy, too, if you weren’t talking to your lover of 14 years. Or I could just quote gapingvoid and make it simple:

“Sharing makes us happy. Not sharing makes us unhappy. Like I said, [it's] a fundamental human drive.” -Hugh MacLeod

Or, to expand: The Internet is about access, and access matters because it allows us to bear witness.

That’s it. That’s what we’re showing up for.

Tonight I’m listening to Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, in which she sings her heart out, making direct eye contact with every young person who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like her style of dance mixes, or that I think her bridges are trite. She’s singing, and she’s connecting, and she’s telling people they’re not alone, and I love her madly for it. Tonight, she is my Internet. She’s standing up in that role that I treasure — the one that saved me, and the one I stand in whenever I can handle the weight of it because it matters so damn much. The one where we reach out to sad strangers and say, “It’s okay, I’ll hold your hand. Now walk.

I have no conclusion. I’m just hitting publish because that’s better than not. And because if we censor our impulses out of fear of what future opportunities might think, we’re as good as having forgotten our dreams.

(And also because I promised myself no sex until I started blogging again.)

So what do you say. Does this count as showing up for you, Internet?

Can I get a witness?

“How Do You Make a Handkerchief Dance?”
My grandmother is lying on a hospital bed,
holding a small square of paper
in her hands
and pausing between words
as she reads it to the nurse.
“I don’t know, Sally,”
the nurse says.
“How do you make a handkerchief dance?”
“You Put a Little Boogie In It.”
She tells it to the next nurse, too.

Grandma kept things simple.
Red lipstick, jigsaw puzzles,
and photo albums.
Chicken salad on finger rolls and
As the World Turns at 2 o’clock.
Judge Judy, Star Magazine,
and the National Enquirer every evening.
But she read the Wall Street Journal, too.

And she focused on the details,
placing towels and a fruit basket on the bed
for every guest.
Suggesting a nap if you looked tired,
and complimenting your outfit.
She wouldn’t start eating until the hostess
had lifted her fork,
and always passed the food counter-clockwise.
She kept her elbows off the table, too.

But it was in between those moments
that I finally found her.
In between the hugs and kisses,
the pleases and thank-yous,
the celebrity gossip and 9 o’clock news
that I cornered her in a La-Z-boy
alone one day
and asked her about her life.
I found the pearls and blossoms of her wisdom
in those reflections, that narration,
those worries, her hopes, and all the angles of her spirituality.
My grandmother was never afraid of death.
But as long as living was comfortable, she preferred to keep going with that.

She loved through the details and I loved around them
and we met each other someplace
where line meets line.
Hand to cheek,
hour to minute,
we lost our barriers when our thoughts
melted fear back down into love,
and we decided to sit in that space for awhile,
because the weather was nice
and we had a lovely view of the birch trees.

I couldn’t fluster her.
Every time I shapeshifted,
grew into a new awkward and challenging angle of myself,
she looked me in the eye consistently,
the same way she always had,
with adoration and eager hope
for my happiness.
She loved
constantly
thoroughly
and fully,
teaching me by example
that we can overcome our egos
if we find footing in honesty and acceptance.

I’ve only met one person in my life
whose sole job was to love
and she raised me
through a family with thick, strong arms.

I loved being loved by her.

I think she knew that, too.

- Sarah Dopp
August 1, 2008
Rest in peace, Grandma Sally

(Extra mushy thank-you hugs to Dawn, Shaun, Amy, Devil Crayon, Marcie, John, and Jon for the last minute editing help.)

There’s a sour taste floating around in the mouths of personal bloggers right now because of a recent article in the New York Times. I don’t want to add to the negative criticism of the article; I want to join the positive backlash. I want to tell you why I write about my life on the Internet.

Last week something kind of amazing happened. I put out a casual request for people who have a certain kind of personality and lifestyle to poke me and say hi, and 46 people responded over the course of two days. It sparked a bunch of conversations about language and identity, and pulled some people together in a way that none of us expected. Even more surprising were the private conversations I had with people who wanted to raise their hands, but didn’t want other people to know about it. There were a lot of these, and they completely floored me.

I write about my life on the Internet because it creates a space for these connections. What else could make a complete stranger feel safe emailing me to say, “I’m queer, and I can’t tell anyone, but I wanted to tell you“?

I’ve been writing about my life on the Internet for about nine years now. I’ve learned by trial-and-error what works and what doesn’t, and I manage my presence in a way that nourishes me. Sometimes I make mistakes and have to face negative consequences, but they’ve never come anywhere close to outweighing the benefits.

In January, I bought a car almost entirely on advice from my online social networks, which I got in response to my blog posts about how confused I was. Someone even found my dream car for me online and sent me the link. Someone else saw that I couldn’t get to the dealership and offered to drive me. Some of these people (like the guy who gave me a ride) are meatspace friends, while others (like the guy who sent me the link) are people I only know online — I met them by blogging. (And by the way, the car is still perfect.)

I write about my life on the Internet because it changes the way I connect with my own experiences. In order to write down a story, I have to sort through all of the details and focus on the ones that made it significant for me. I believe our stories shape us — the way we remember something affects who we are and how we relate to the world. Writing things down empowers me to consciously decide how I want to remember something, and to me, that’s an act of personal revolution. Then, when details get echoed back to me in someone else’s words — either through a comment or another blog post — my way of seeing things gets a little big stronger, and my voice gets a little bit more steady.

I also write about my life on the Internet because I like to spend time alone. I can spend entire days in physical solitude — writing or working or scheming or exploring — and the Internet gives me a way to stay accountable and honest without breaking the creativity spell. It’s a kind of safety net — if I stopped writing for a day or two and didn’t tell anyone where I was, people would start looking for me (I know this because it’s happened). It’s also a sanity check — I can’t escape too far off into my own little world because I’m still bouncing my thoughts off a network of real people. When I start talking crazy talk, people tell me. (And they seem to love that part of their job, too…)

I’ve worked through some very hard stuff through blogging, and I’ve made some powerful connections in the process. People have thanked me for telling stories that opened doors in their own lives that they didn’t know they were missing out on. Other bloggers have done the same for me.

I believe in telling stories, I believe we’re more powerful when we’re connected, and I believe in telling fear to f*ck off.

“Artist” was my first identity on the web. From 1998 – 2003, I scribbled poetry incessantly and read my work at open mics and poetry slams whenever I had the chance. I was honored with a handful of feature performance gigs and a place on the 2003 NH poetry slam team. I’ve been the Editor-in-Chief of two different literary magazines, and heavily involved in local writer communities. I learned to build websites so I could share my poetry, tell my stories, and visually express myself. I’ve built a lot of websites for poetry. Most of them are gone now. One is still fighting to stay alive.

Also in 2003, I made the decision to become self-employed as a website developer. This changed my relationship to the Internet pretty dramatically. My identity became “Consultant” and my work became my art. I set poetry aside, stopped performing, and threw myself into the tech industry. It was exciting and satisfying in a different way. I still love it.

sarahdopp-reading.jpgAnd now the art is back. And it turns out, it never really left — it just went quiet for awhile. My dirty, dirty secret is that I’ve been writing new stuff and performing it at microphones for the last year and a half, and not telling people about it. I was trying to keep my web presence simple.

But the problem with art is that it doesn’t like to stay quiet. It creates community, encourages conversation, and finds ways to grow. It’s challenging and evocative and compelling. It evolves in a direction that forces disclosure.

So this is me coming out of yet another closet (heh…): I’m a poet.

I write about my life. Like this blog and my twitter stream, I spend a lot of time telling my own story. My story is messy and beautiful. It’s full of joy and fear, crisis and heartache, identity and adventure, sex and relationships, family and spirituality, and lots of different kinds of exploration. Most of the stuff I write is so deeply personal that I have a responsibility to keep it away from Google’s prying eyes. But there are other ways to share.

And like my “Queer” post, this isn’t meant to be a surprise. I expect that you already know I float toward written art like a moth under a streetlight. But I need to make a statement of intention: This is who I am, and I’m walking in a direction that honors me.

On that note, I invite you to check out my new page, which I’ve linked to from my blog header. It’s called My Art.

Hope to see you from the microphone soon…

credit: photo by emchy, who also provided the microphone.

The following article will appear in Riseup.net‘s upcoming educational publication about safety and security in online organizing. You get to have the sneak peak here.

Blogging with Split Personalities:
How I Created and Reconciled My Separate Spaces On the Web

by Sarah Dopp

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m a compulsive blogger. It all started in high school when I created a website under a pseudonym and used it to tell stories about my love life. It was a thrilling and introspective project that resulted in a lot of great writing. Unfortunately, though, I was so terrified someone would connect it to me that I never saved a backup copy. That website has since expired, and those words are now lost forever in the murky underbelly of the Internet. First lesson learned: If I’m not going to claim something, I can’t hold onto it.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Occasionally, I run across a piece of literature that embodies the tone of a chunk of my life. I don’t go looking for these; they just arrive and surprise me. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about–that moment of recognition when realize your perception of reality isn’t isolated. Some writer out there went through it, too. This happened to me recently on The Writ. Nicole Elizabeth Chapin’s Tiger Chai describes my late teenage years–if not word-for-word, then at least in intention. If you identify at all with the path I took to get to where I am, you’ll probably see a piece of your own experience–genuinely inspiring and fashionably constructed as it was–in this reflection, too. I give you the piece in its entirety:

Tiger Chai There was a time in my life that I actually felt I had a little something special over the next person walking down the street.I drank my tiger chai. I read my Kerouac and Bukowski. I sang poetry in my room late at night.The smell of Nag Champa eases the burden of my discontent.Inquisitive, I was. I was a writer. I played guitar. I belted out sensual blue from the depths of a bari sax, man. I wrote at his computer with my legs crossed. I smoked cheap cigarettes. I had to smoke to write. And smoke the other so sleep. I drank cheap beer. I wrote cheap lyrics. Wasn’t I nineteen?I spoke Japanese in the park. I studied symbols and people, nestled deep in my special cafe booth. I was invisible. I served coffee in that cafe. I had a red bow and a black apron. I loved tips.I loved road trips. I loved a late afternoon drive to a polluted lake with a thousand other people watching. I loved changing in the car. And a cooler full of snacks. I miss getting lost. On purpose.I am lost. Without purpose. I work. I play. I get high.I have lost me. A cloud of smoke, my memory, me. Exhale. Go drifting by, bye.I stopped reading. I stay at home. He took my guitar and the sax and her car keys. I have a real day job; I don’t think. I still smoke. I smoke too much. I stopped to think; stop thinking. No inquiring mind here.I think I’ll go read. Get me my wine. –Nicole Elizabeth Chapin