If I could turn back time I would visit Harvard Square when Amanda Palmer, fresh out of college and mostly broke and “making a living in one-dollar bills,” turned the stumble toward adulthood into something meaningful by performing as the Ten Foot Bride. I would take the flower. Thank you. For seeing me. I see you too.
Amanda Palmer contains multitudes (she cheekily references Whitman to her husband, renown fantasy author Neil Gaiman, when he lovingly calls her a walking contradiction). She is a performance artist, a singer/songwriter, and half the funky cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls. She is a blogger and social media artist. She is a friend, wife, mother, and vocal Bernie supporter. Her TED Talk, “The Art of Asking,” should be required in a class called “How to be a Human.”
Palmer sparks controversy, from her groundbreaking $1 million Kickstarter campaign, to the backlash of her poem following the bombing of the Boston Marathon; love and hate pour in from around the globe. She appears fearless from the outside. Those who take the time to listen to her TED Talk, read her blog, listen to her music, or follow her on social media, know she carries as much fear as the rest of us, but she finds ways to embrace, to empathize with, to transform what is raw or ugly or painful into an affirming experience.
Life and art, according to Palmer, are about collecting, connecting, and sharing dots. Most of us prefer doing one of the three; Palmer claims she loves sharing her dots best of all, but she collects and connects beautifully. “The Art of Asking” is about creativity, part guide to crowd sourcing, part memoir of a performance artist and musician. The narrative chronicles a deep friendship and a love story that really does belong in a book. Fundamentally, Palmer’s story is a connect-the-dots for humans.
Here are a few things I learned from Amanda Palmer (in no particular order). Not every German is willing to mime drinking tea with a street performer (but some are). “The professionals know they are winging it. The amateurs pretend they are not.” We aren’t born real; we become real (to be fair, this also comes from “The Velveteen Rabbit”). Neil Gaiman is beyond adorable. “Given the opportunity, some small consistent portion of the population will happily pay for art.” If someone offers you a doughnut, take the fucking doughnut. Everyone deserves to ask.
Asking is a collaboration and a connection, and every question comes from a need, to be loved, to be real, to be seen. When does the collaboration of asking spill into the perceived messiness of begging? Palmer poses her question to her readers and one responds: “Asking is like courtship. Begging? You are already naked and panting.”
Somewhere along the line many of us unlearned the difference between the two until we can no longer ask for help without shame. We aren’t paralyzed by asking, Palmer explains, but by the fear of what is underneath—vulnerability, rejection, and the perception of weakness. When did we learn that to ask for help is to admit failure? When did we learn that we needed to deserve to ask before we could, or that we were undeserving in the first place?
Asking for help can feel like giving up power that, for women, minorities and other marginalized people, is too hard-won to compromise; accepting help can feel like the yoke of indebtedness settling across the back of the neck. This is a country of the self-made mythology, the boot-strap mentality, the conqueror and conquered. Many of us learn early on that we have to work twice as hard and ask for twice as little help to be taken with even a modicum of seriousness. Sexism, racism, gentrification—necessary wars against hatred also teach survivors that asking for help is admitting weakness to an enemy. For asking to really work we have to approach each other as humans, not as a race or ethnicity or religion or gender, just humans.
According to Palmer, “those who can ask for help without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with, rather than in competition with, the world.” This is a beautiful idea; however, some competitions we can choose avoid and some we are born into. Survival, at the very base, Darwinian level, is about competition for resources and against predators. Survival, for some, is understanding the difference between trust and qualified trust; trust all people all the time, but only with what you know they can handle, trust in letdown. We aren’t all in emotionally, financially, and mentally solvent places that allow us to ask freely, to step beyond mere survival to a place of collaboration.
The art of asking is tied up in the dance of power, the sense of self, the promises of security and the certainty of gravity. And in the fear of being hurt, the very deep and real desire to avoid all forms of pain. Which doesn’t work, ever. We will feel pain. We will ask for help and be told no. But more often than not we will ask for help and be told yes, sometimes in surprising ways. The pain will eventually transmute into something else and give way to moments of less pain. By not asking, by refusing to share power or allow risk, we keep authenticity at bay; Palmer quotes from “The Velveteen Rabbit”: “When you’re real you don’t mind being hurt.” Or maybe we do still mind, a little, but the sacrifice of being real is worth the hurt.
Palmer has made me think deeply about asking in my own life. Who do I ask for help? What help am I willing to ask for, and how do I ask? Who asks what of me and how? I struggle with asking for help; I project feelings of obligation and commitment onto the person I’m asking, which precipitates paralysis. I will sometimes fall into the trap of thinking if someone loves me they will somehow develop superhero powers and read my mind. I will assume I know the answer and so forgo the question all together. I will forget to frame my request as a question at all. But on a good day I can look someone I trust in the eyes and ask: Will you please help me?
I hear my own patterns in the questions posed by others, as though humans are so uncomfortable asking for help that we have to unconsciously trick ourselves, or the person we are asking. I hear the fear of rejection within the questions that answer themselves negatively (You don’t have…. You wouldn’t want to…). I hear the expectation of disappointment in the I wish form of question (I wish you would…I wish you wouldn’t…). I hear the passive-aggression in the request disguised as an accusation, in the always and never which add up to that ever present question of love. Suddenly, how we ask seems more important than what we ask, or at the very least equally as important.
Asking is not easy, even for someone as fearless as Palmer, who will ask a bathroom full of strangers for a tampon, who will allow her fans to draw on her naked body, who couch surfs via Twitter, who believes there is no trust without risk. To ask is to be humble, to accept is to be grateful, and to give—means understanding most of us live in the place where asking and accepting intersect.