The Depth and Breadth of a Virtual Life

It’s rare that a news article brings tears to my eyes, but My disabled son – ‘the nobleman, the philanderer, the detective’ did just that. It’s about a young man named Mats Steen, who spent most of his life bound to a wheelchair, until his death, all too soon, at age 25.

His family expected a quiet, uneventful funeral, but an amazing thing happened. Friends started coming out of the woodwork, expressing their condolences. Some flew from other countries to attend his funeral. But how did the homebound Mats have so many loyal and loving friends?

The answer to that is World of Warcraft. He had been spending much of the last decade of his life in that virtual world, not just playing games, but forming relationships. And these people, to this very day, remember Mats, and speak of him often. There is even a memorial to him in there, where candles remain forever lit. Mats touched many lives from that wheelchair of his.

People who don’t spend time in virtual worlds don’t understand them at all. As a long-time resident of the virtual world of Second Life, I do. All too well.

These places aren’t games, where you fight with cartoons, all alone. There are people behind these avatars. Living, breathing people, whose personalities shine through. In Second Life in particular, the gaming aspect is practically nonexistent. It’s a social place, where you can attend live concerts, go dancing, explore wonderful alternate worlds, build outlandish and beautiful houses, go to church, meet people, make friends, fall in love… you name it, it’s possible.

For another interesting insight about what virtual worlds feel like, check out season 3, episode 4 of the series Black Mirror. It’s called San Junipero. You can find it on Netflix. It’s well worth the watch.

When you meet someone in a virtual world, you really, really meet them. Because avatars are the great equalizers. All of them are good looking and young and strong and healthy. What sets you apart is how you communicate and how you treat people. And that truth about you rises to the surface immediately. Liars don’t last long in virtual worlds, even though they are capable of doing a great deal of emotional damage during their short stays.

What I love about these places is that they expand your horizons. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can run and dance. If you’re agoraphobic, you can explore the world. If you’re unhappy with the way you look, you can look different. No one is poor or rich or tall or short. You aren’t judged by the external stuff. All of those things are stripped away.

I have made many friends in Second Life. There has been a lot of love in there for me. I’ve learned a lot about myself and others. I’ve learned the value of trust. Being there has given me the confidence to be an artist.

I’ve also had people I care about very much in cyberspace simply disappear. It’s heartbreaking, not knowing if someone is alive or dead. It’s cruel, depriving someone of closure, if that’s intentional. But there’s no way to know for sure.

I’m really glad that Mats was able to make lemonade out of the lemons of his life. He created his virtual life from scratch, as one does, and it sounds like he surrounded himself with lots of wonderful, amazing people, just as I have in Second Life. That, to me, is a life well-lived. May he rest in peace, knowing he still lives on in the hearts of so many.

(Thanks Jen, for introducing me to that amazing article!)

Virtual Me
The virtual me, standing in front of one of my fractals, with one of my fractals around my neck as well.

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My Voice

I had a fascinating conversation with some old friends recently. I’ve known them for 10 years in the virtual world of Second Life. We hang out a couple times a week, but in all that time I’ve never heard their actual voices. All our communication is via text.

Am I alone in this? When I read something, I “hear” what I’m reading inside my head. I’ve always done that.

But the other day, for the first time, it occurred to me that when I read what these two friends type, I have different inner voices for each of them. Based on their personalities, my mind has created a kind and gentle voice for one, and a straightforward, practical, no-nonsense voice for the other. Fascinating.

So naturally, I asked what my “voice” sounds like to them. I was really surprised by the answer. They said it doesn’t sound like my blog.

That’s intriguing. I think of this blog as me on a screen. I’ve taken pride in laying myself bare and being honest and vulnerable here. But my friends say that in my blog I sound like a strong positive woman, and when I talk to them, I’m more fragile.

Hmm… Yeah, I can see that. Since I write my entries several days in advance, I have plenty of time for multiple revisions. That means by the time my posts reach you, I’ve edited out a lot of the craziness, impulsiveness, negativity, and basic hysteria. (Yeah, I know. Hard to believe.) I think that makes the blog infinitely more readable, but perhaps it also makes it less “me”.

But when all is said and done, that’s the definition of true friendship, isn’t it? Someone who sees the unedited version of you, warts and all, and loves you anyway.

I’m a very lucky person.

voice

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Ghosting

Every once in a while, I think about the many people I’ve met on the internet who have come to be good friends. It’s a different world. As a young adult, before the internet, I could not have conceived that these types of connections were even possible. But children today are growing up taking these long distance relationships for granted. (With adequate supervision, I fervently hope.)

I’ve met several of these people face to face, and we are friends to this day. I’m going camping with one of them this summer. (Waving hello to Martin.)

But for all the good friends I’ve made, in the virtual world of Second Life, or via my blog, or on Facebook, there have been at least as many who have taken a piece of my heart and disappeared with it with no explanation whatsoever. Lorraine, Steve, John, Vicki, Brian… yeah, I’m talking to all of you.

I don’t have a problem with them not being in my life anymore. The choice is entirely theirs. Some friendships are annual, others are perennial. I get that. What I have a problem with is the lack of closure. For all I know, they’re dead. That’s a horrible feeling. It’s cruel to make someone grieve when grieving may not be the appropriate response.

There’s something about being able to hide in cyberspace that brings out the worst in people. I strongly suspect that none of them would be this rude face to face. And yeah, explaining why you’re ending a relationship is never fun. It would be tempting to skip that step entirely. It’s understandable to want to avoid the awkward stuff. But people have a right to their closure. They have a right to understand why. They have a right to learn from their experiences.

Depriving people of such rights without so much as a by your leave reveals something rather ugly about you. Just sayin’.

Ghosting

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For Pete’s Sake

Many years ago, in the virtual world of Second Life, I made a friend. Let’s call him Pete (so I can have a cool blog entry title). It was purely a friendship. We were both in relationships at the time.  I enjoyed talking to him. He had a very creative mind, and was very good at banter, which is something I appreciate quite a bit. So we’d banter.

He lived in Seattle, and at the time I lived in Florida, so the odds of ever meeting face to face were pretty long. (I remember saying on more than one occasion throughout my life, “Who would be crazy enough to live in Seattle with all that rain? Depressing!”)

As time went on, I was in Second Life less and less, but we’d keep in touch. Exchange the odd e-mail. Flirt a little. Joke around. Nothing dramatic. But it was nice.

Then in early 2014 he moved several hundred miles from Seattle. Ironically, I moved to Seattle that August. Two ships that passed in the night. But he gave me lots of great advice on things to see and do here, and good areas to look for housing. That was a big help.

Occasionally he’d pass through Seattle to visit his son, but we never did meet. He always seemed to be here on days I worked, or I’d be out of town, or his time would be limited. He did say he might be moving back to Seattle at some point.

Then, about 6 months ago, he abruptly stopped responding to my e-mails. I knew he was still alive because I’d see him log in to Second Life every now and then. But he didn’t reply to my messages there, either.

I will never know why my friend disappeared. But I have a theory. I think that he’s back in Seattle, and the prospect of actually meeting me was too daunting for him. Was he expecting me to show up for coffee wearing a wedding dress? Please.

It kind of makes me sad. I really did consider him a friend, and it would have been nice to cross paths now and then. If something more had come of it, great. If not, that would have been okay, too.

Instead, as I walk down the streets of Seattle, I’ll sometimes look into the faces of the men I encounter, and I’ll think, “Pete? Is that you?” Sometimes I wonder if he crosses my bridge, and if so, have I ever made him late for some part of his life by opening it?

One thing is for sure: He’s somewhere out there, depriving himself of the opportunity to know a pretty awesome person. What a shame.

seattle

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The Beauty of Collaboration

Currently I’m working on an anthology that will be entitled A Bridgetender’s View: An Anthology on Gratitude. But there’s no way I could do it alone. Anthologies are a lot more work than I realized! Many dear friends are taking part. Deborah Drake is my catalyst, my publisher, my editor, my web designer, my coordinator, and so many other things I could go on forever. Amy Sassenberg is doing the photography. Bronte Polette is creating the cover and making all the photos format friendly. Vicky Cabe Autry did the separator graphics which I’ll also be using on the website and my business cards. Amelia Torres wrote the foreword.

I just love collaborations. When you create something together, it becomes even better than the sum of its parts. It’s kind of like preferring a savory stew over a raw potato and a couple of carrots. And it’s fun because as everyone contributes ideas, it inspires even more ideas within you.

This is not the first time I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with someone. I also create fractal art under the name Serenity Questi. (You can see some of my work here.) In the virtual world of Second Life, I met a wonderful artist who goes by the name of Treacle Darlandes, who runs the St@rt gallery, and she has for many years taken my fractals and worked her magic on them, making vases, sculptures, and art in motion among many other things. If you are familiar with navigating Second Life, you can check out her virtual gallery here.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of our collaborations. These photos don’t really do them justice without the movement and the three dimensional feel, but it will give you some idea of the amazing things that can come out of collaborating.

So relax your grip on your creativity. Let others take ownership of a portion of the final product. You’ll be amazed at the results. Give it a try!

I’m Tweeting

I have been Twitter-resistant for years. I just didn’t see the point. Between this blog and Facebook and e-mail and Second Life, I already felt as if my social media world was rich and nuanced. I also worried that if I added one more thing, my introverted little self would be crushed under the sheer weight of the stimulation.

In addition, in case you hadn’t noticed, I tend to be rather verbose. How could I possibly restrict my thoughts to a mere 140 characters? And then a funny thing happened. I decided to publish a book.

One of the mistakes many writers make is thinking that once their books have been written, their job is done. Au contraire. That’s when you’re just getting started. Many a book has died aborning because the feeble promotional effort has left it moldering on some dusty shelf.

As my first book approaches its final edit, it became obvious to me that I’d have to have courage to take flight in the Twitter-verse, or I’d be missing a vast potential audience. Thank goodness I have a dear friend who was able to answer all my silly, nervous questions.

Now, instead of thinking of each little tweet as a restriction of my words, I’ve come to think of it as a sort of haiku. I have to get creative to force my thoughts into the restrictions imposed, but what that has done is oblige me to get innovative.

But, having leapt off the twitter cliff, I seem to have plunged into the wallflower abyss. I’ve only managed so far to get 8 followers. And some mornings I’ll wake up and find I have lost one. Heartbreaking. It’s reminding me of all the times I got picked last in gym class.

I really need to put this in perspective. It took me years to build up a following on my blog. It’s ridiculous to think I’d get a million twitter followers in a few days. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

And along the way, go figure, I’m starting to like it. Tentatively. Hesitantly. Perhaps that had been my fear all along–that I’d like it too much. That I would turn into one of those constantly twittering people that I’ve made fun of for years.

Well, be that as it may, I am now a tweeter. Follow me here if you so desire!

Twitter Bird

People Who Go Poof

I don’t think I’ll respond well to my first serious earthquake. Of course I won’t. But it will hit me on a variety of levels because I take great comfort in thinking that things are unyielding. I like things that I can touch– things right before my eyes, and I like to be able to count on the fact that they are going to stay put.

The first time I feel the earth truly move and things begin to fall, it’s going to alter my sense of reality completely. Even though I can anticipate that in advance, it’s still going to happen. I can’t seem to help but rely on the solid.

I feel the same way about human beings. I like to believe that they’re not going to simply disappear on me. I suppose that’s because I can’t imagine disappearing on someone else. At least not without fair warning.

But people have definitely gone poof in my life, like that last flash of light you used to see when you’d turn off an old-style television set. My last boyfriend died so unexpectedly that I really don’t think I’ve properly processed it. One minute he was there, and the next he was gone. My life changed forever, in the space of that minute. That does not do good things to one’s sense of security and stability. Life is as fragile as a soap bubble. Pop.

And one of the things I hate most about changing jobs is saying good-bye to old work friends, friends who have been in the career foxhole with me, people that I think I’ve bonded with. Many of them say they’ll keep in touch, but it’s been my experience that the vast majority of them do not.

But by far the worst (yes, even worse than death, because death is inevitable and usually not intentional), is when people disappear for no known reason. My best friend in junior high school was in foster care, and one day, after many years, right in the middle of the school year, she was no longer there, and nobody could or would tell me what had happened. And I’ve had many friends in the virtual world of Second Life who have abruptly disappeared without saying good-bye. It feels like a death, and for all I know it could be, so it’s extremely upsetting.

My best friend for 14 years broke all ties with me based on a misunderstood sentence fragment as far as I can tell. It still causes me a great deal of pain. More horrible than the fact that I miss his presence in my life is that I’m now having to reconcile my sense of reality with the actual truth that our friendship must have been much more frail than I realized. That makes me wonder what that says about me and how I perceive the world.

Things fall apart. The center does not hold. I don’t like that. Not even a little bit.

fly away