Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On Vulnerability, and Blueberry-Mango Lavender Shortbread Bars

The visiting minister who gave the sermon at our church this past Sunday said that every minister has one sermon that they keep preaching over and over again, with different scaffolding, different illustrations, different stories to drive the point home.  I think that the same thing goes for many writers: that is, that we're trying to exorcise our demons, to write our way out of a problem that we, too, are stuck inside, in one way or another.

This minister's one sermon, she said, was about the spirituality of imperfection: the profound connection that can result in willingness to be vulnerable with others, and with ourselves, about who we really are, instead of who we think we ought to be.  We've heard this before from people like Brené Brown, whose Ted talks and books and appearances on Oprah have catapulted her into the public eye.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the sermon (because for those of you who aren't UU, that's how we roll: we talk back after the minister talks, even if we do let said minister have the last word) was when it was useful to be vulnerable, given the tendency to overshare in social media.  Though the question was really more about Facebook, the question applies equally to bloggers, and about whether the kind of vulnerability Brown describes is really what we're doing here.

When Brown talks about being vulnerable, with sharing our stories of shame, she says that we can't just be vulnerable with everyone.  In fact, there are several kinds of people we want to actively avoid:
"1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.

2. The friend who responds with sympathy ("I feel so sorry for you") rather than empathy ("I get it, I feel with you, and I've been there"). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: "Oh, you poor thing." Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, "Bless your heart."

3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can't help because she's too disappointed in your imperfections. You've let her down.

4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: "How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?" Or she looks for someone to blame: "Who was that guy? We'll kick his ass."

5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: "You're exaggerating. It wasn't that bad. You rock. You're perfect. Everyone loves you."

6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: 'That's nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!'  "

Basically, Brown says, we need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it.
 In real life, I can attest to the fact that Brown's assessment feels pretty accurate.  Even as an adult, even in the past year, I've had my share of being vulnerable with the wrong people--not people who tore me down, but people who didn't value the gift of my vulnerability.   People who came back with "oh, yeah, that happened to me" ... except it didn't, because I'm not you, I thought.  I walked away from those conversations feeling hurt, strangely violated, strangely tossed aside, wishing that they'd told me instead, from the very beginning, that they didn't really want to hear my story.  But of course, that's for me to judge, not them.

Of course, we don't all share everything online.  There's a lot I don't tell you, or that I tell you only in veiled ways.  I am not my blog.  But our blogs are the places where some of us do feel we can be vulnerable.  Why is that, given what Brown says about the privilege of being empathetic?  And does it matter to us whether our audience has earned the right to hear our story, if that story is difficult or painful in any way?  It certainly matters to us when people tear us down; so how do we walk the line between productive (for ourselves and for our readers) vulnerability, and self-preservation?


Then there are others of us who blog (and, for that matter, live) like we have our shit together.  These are the people whose DIY projects and food dominate Pinterest and Foodgawker.  They're the people who win all blogging awards, who have gazillions of followers.  They're the people whose statuses you hate to read on Facebook.

Mel wrote this week about the tricky business of admitting that we don't have our shit together,  and I think this has a lot to do with vulnerability.  She talks about the fact that we are drawn to confidence, to people who seem to know things.  Smart doctors.  Well-recommended dentists.  Bakers (oh, yes, for me this hits home ... I rarely eat a mediocre cupcake on purpose).  And she suggests that perhaps we look to others who "have it all figured out" because we don't.

I don't know.  I think I actually feel better about people who openly don't have their shit together.  Do I like to read a well-written novel?  Hell, yes.  For as much as Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel has its flaws, I found myself practically weeping over the beauty and cleverness of her prose, telling myself I could never be that good.  But on the other hand, as a writer, I like reading other writers that struggle, that help me to do it better.  If I'm seeing a doctor, I like to know that she has gotten good medical training, and that she's had some success with patients.  But I also know that I'm not every other patient, and I appreciate when a doctor is honest with me about a course of treatment.  Maybe we'll try this, and if it doesn't work, we'll try that.  A chocolatier recently opened a little shop in a town not far from me, and I've already made friends with him.  He was making truffles a few weeks ago, and posted to Facebook something along the lines of "I have these truffles that are not very good yet; come taste them and help me figure out how to make them better."  So I did, of course.  I had a great conversation with him about taste and texture and mouth feel of a truffle.  I learned a lot.  And I was glad he was willing to stumble out there in public.  And yet, you don't do that with everyone, do you?


Recently, I joined what our church calls a covenant group.  These are basically once-a-month small group meetings outside of the regular church service where the members choose a topic, or series of topics, to discuss over a period of several months.  The members of the group covenant with each other to show up, to be respectful and supportive, to listen, to contribute, to value the contributions of others.  It's a lot like a vow of empathy, the way Brown might describe it.  And because of that covenant, the group becomes a safe place to be vulnerable.  I will admit, I have not become completely vulnerable with my covenant group.  But I do feel like I can trust more of them with my authentic self now, and I'm grateful for that.  I am drawn to those relationships.  I need them.  I need them even more than I need beautiful DIY crafts and perfect pictures and stunning prose.  I need to feel like it's OK to be imperfect.

I intended to make these bars from Flourishing Foodie for my covenant group when I hosted last week, but I got a little sidetracked, because I couldn't find fresh apricots in the store, then (after I'd bought the canned ones) realized I didn't have enough apricots.  It's also the wrong season for fresh lavender, and we didn't have any Grand Marnier.  And the powdered sugar went everywhere when I turned on the mixer because someone who lives in this house and who is under three feet tall likes to turn things on and walk away, so I had to add more powdered sugar after the fact.  And when I cooked the mango, there were little fibers in the bars that looked like hair, which was sort of embarrassing.  I disclosed all of this information before I let anyone eat one.  But everyone thought they were good anyway.  And maybe sometimes good enough is exactly what we need.

Where do you feel like you can be vulnerable?  If you blog, do you feel like you can be vulnerable on your blog?  Or do you feel like you need to have your shit together?  Are you drawn to people who are imperfect, or who make living look easy?

Blueberry-Mango Lavender Shortbread Bars
makes 16 squares
adapted from Flourishing Foodie, who adapted it from Baked Explorationsby Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

12 T. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1" cubes
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 t. finely chopped dried lavender
1 3/4 c. flour

1 c. canned apricots, chopped
1 c. fresh mango, chopped
1 c. fresh blueberries
1 c. white wine
1/2 c. of water
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. honey
1 T. Triple Sec
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. chopped almonds
3 T. unsalted butter, chilled, cubed
2 T. oats

Leaving a 1" overhang, line a 9 inch square baking pan with parchment paper. You can also coat it with cooking spray if that makes you feel better, but it's not necessary.

Place the powdered sugar in your electric mixing bowl, and drop the butter in.  Stir gently a few times to coat the butter so that the sugar won't fly everywhere when you turn the mixer on.  Using an electric mixer, starting on a very low speed and pulsing gently, gradually working up to a full-on high mixing level, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add the vanilla and chopped lavender.  Beat again until combined.  Add the flour and mix on low speed, until everything is combined.  Place the dough into the pan and press flat. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling.  In a medium saucepan simmer the apricots, blueberries, mango, wine, water, sugar, honey, and Triple Sec on low to medium heat.  Stir occasionally, and cook until the liquid has absorbed (45 - 60 minutes).  You may have to vary the heat as liquid begins to evaporate.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place the crust into the oven and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

In a bowl, using your fingers, rub together, the flour, brown sugar, and butter. You want the mixture to lightly clump together.  Add chopped almonds and oats.  Set aside.  Once the shortbread has cooled, spread the filling over it, and top with the crumble. Bake for 25 minutes or until the top has just lightly browned.

Let the bars completely cool on a wire rack, in the pan, before serving. Once they have cooled, pull them out with the parchment paper and slice into bars.
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  1. I think it's always tempting to blog about the successes, the ways we did things right. But I do try to blog about where I'm going wrong as well, because that's what people don't talk about and as a parent I think that's what it's most helpful to hear.

    But then, the more people I know in real life read the blog, the more I'm tempted NOT to talk about my failures. If you keep quiet, maybe everyone will like you. But if you speak up, some people might leave, but you'll have made a real, deep connection with others. It should be worth the risk.

    Still easier on the blog than IRL, though.

  2. I love the idea of a covenant group. I think a lot of us could use one.

    I haven't actually read Brene Brown or heard her TED talk, so perhaps she addresses this, but I do think that we're sometimes too hard on people, having expectations for them they can't possibly meet with knowing the right words to say. And some of the examples she gave... I would be thrilled if someone said those things to me depending on the news. Once a boy hurt my feelings, and the best moment ever was when I was telling my pacifist cousin about it and without a word, she stood up and put on her coat. When asked what she was doing she said, "I know where he lives and I'm going over there to hurt him." I still think about that all the time, the fact that someone would kick someone else's ass (who deserved it) for me. But that would fall under #4... which is why I sometimes find advice like that unhelpful since people SHE needs to avoid aren't necessarily people everyone would need to avoid. And the people she thinks would be helpful to have witness your vulnerability may not be helpful to me at all. Does that make sense?

  3. Ha! I let it all out on my blog. I used to be like that in real life too---I didn't see the point of pretending anything to my friends or colleagues. As I've gotten older & moved up in the foodchain if you will, I find that I need to maintain a certain---persona---at work and as a mother, I definitely try not to completely break down every day in front of my kids (though I do, in private these days, its been rough). I love how you describe your church and the covenant groups---this sounds so nourishing---exactly what a church or faith should offer.

  4. @Lollipop: I agree with you about the ass-kicking ... sometimes that response has been useful to me, too. And you're right; an empathetic person will know what you need, whether or not that response falls into one of Brown's categories. Maybe we *are* too hard on people sometimes ... and maybe we don't always send the right signals about what we need. But I think that's the important point about empathy. People who learn to really listen to each other, and people that we can trust with the hardest things, are usually the people who are going to display the most empathy, whatever that means for us. She talks a lot, too, about developing empathy, learning to be the kind of people who respond in the supportive way that we need ... helping us to work through whatever the hard stuff is, provided we're ready to do that, rather than just blowing it off.

    I think. ;)

  5. @(Not) Maud: I blog the imperfections, too. But I rarely blog the really difficult stuff. I don't know why ... maybe partly because people in real life DO read my blog. Which means that while we can trust the consumers of social media to be empathetic (mostly), we can't always trust the people who know us to be empathetic. Which strikes me as pretty weird.

  6. I am much more drawn to the people who don't pretend to (or don't actually) have their shit together. As a woman with ADD I don't even pass muster on the most basic of cultural yard sticks. My car isn't just messy, it's a trash heap, my classroom isn't just disorganized, it's a disaster. And my personal life is a mess as well. I have no desire to watch other people's lives look pristine because that will never be my life and I guess I'm lucky in that I'm not all the interested in that being my life.

    As for being vulnerable, I really liked your discussion about who we should be vulnerable with. I've learned that I can't be vulnerable with many people, even some women who are supposed to be my very dear friends. It was a hard lesson, to learn who I could be vulnerable with, though at the time I didn't realize that was the lesson I was learning.

    I never try to look like I have it all together. I just can't. I'm the one who buys treats when it's my turn to host something. And while I feel bad about it for a moment I long ago learned to accept my strengths and weakness and to not drive myself crazy trying to be like people who have different strengths than I do. And I guess in th same way I've learned how to suss out who I can be vulnerable with. I have little bits and pieces I put out there and as I gage responses I decided if they have earned the right to hear more. Most don't, some do. And I suppose that is how it should be.

  7. I love this post and I love the conversation you have started here. I think that vulnerability is a fine line. I have never hidden the fact that I am flawed on my blog, but I've always tried to tie in *some* kind of message of strength or wisdom. I let a little more than usual hang out this week and I am still questioning my choice to publish my last post, but I hope that my last 2 paragraphs shine through the rest of the "mess." I believe that humans can connect to others via their flaws - because we all have them. And that we can stand united in trying to face this imperfect life and imperfect humans together.

  8. Really enjoyed reading your post. I think it's important to remember as well that empathy is something that has to be learned. Maybe some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but whether or not, it's a skill and attitude that has to be practiced if one is to get "better" at it. I think the practice consists of 2 things: 1) having someone skilled at empathy listen to you and 2) listening to others and learning what to say and do (which is going to involve making some mistakes). I think 1 had to come before 2, because it's really hard to show empathy without having experienced it. So, I think another reason to be honest, and perhaps admit you don't have your shit together, is to give others a chance to learn empathy. If we all went around pretending we were perfect, we would have no clue how to be empathetic. What do you think?

  9. I'm not very good at being vulnerable. With friends, I never know what to say to make them feel better although I surely try. I'm sure I am guilty of a few of those "friends we should avoid" types. Nonetheless, I love my friends and I value them even if I am not great with vulnerability. I'm working on it. Now, as a blogger, in the beginning I was all about trying to be perfect. But I've noticed over time, as my blog gets more mature, that I am willing to put myself out there more. I use it as a space of self expression. And because of that I am more attached to it. It feels like a warm hug. A place I can throw my thoughts in to a large void. And I find people like you who leave such loving comments. That makes being vulnerable totally worth it :-)

  10. I love this post....particularly the types of responses that you receive when you express vulnerability. I've had a visceral reaction against some of the responses I've had since Mackenzie died and now I know why they irk me. I was literally just lamenting the façade of perfection that pintrest and blogging promotes. THanks for sharing.

  11. Torthuil, I do think that empathy is a learned skill ... Brown talks about that, too ... which makes you wonder, how do you develop it, if not by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, too?

    RunningMama: I'm so sorry that empathetic people are hard for you to find right now ... I wish that I could be there just to listen sometimes.

    Kimberly: I love that way you describe your blog. :)

  12. Vulnerability is indeed a thin line and its sad that empathetic people are hard to find. That's reality with the hard facts.

  13. Love this post. I ought to just copy your entire blog to Evernote. I've clipped about every single one.

    Bonus: when I make your recipes to satisfy my physical being, I also get to nourish my spiritual being.


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