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Post-XOXO, an Assortment of My Feelings

This past weekend I attended XOXO, a conference for people who are creative on the internet with a special focus on inclusivity and mental health. Here are some ways I described the vibes at XOXO:

  • A company retreat where everyone gets to know each other and no one talks about work
  • Summer camp for grown-ups, but idyllic and without any drama or camping
  • Secular church camp – aggressively friendly, with constant encouragement to live your life a certain way
  • A place where everyone gets to be seen exactly the way they want to be seen – stripped of their professional labels (if they so choose), known by the creations of which they’re proudest, gleefully claiming the identities (gender and otherwise) they hold in their truest hearts (Shoutout to event sponsors Mailchimp, Intel, Intercom, and Projector for pronoun pins and other amenities that helped make this possible!)
  • A cult initiation where the cult’s objective is to make you more kind and creative

I filled pages of my notebook with recommendations for everything from fanfiction to documentaries to improv comedy troupes. I also worked with my new friends to create an alignment chart of Wine Mom names:

No really! Friends!

I made friends at XOXO! Friends who see me the way I see myself, and friends as eager as I am to see how I evolve. We entered every conversation with the shared understanding that 1) we are all interesting people who have valuable things to say and 2) the things we do for money probably aren’t the most interesting things we have to talk about. We encouraged each other to dig into obscure topics, to ramble past the point of self-consciousness. We asked abundant follow-up questions. I shared little pieces of myself I’ve never shared before simply because it did not occur to me that anyone else could possibly find them worth examining. Each piece was graciously and thoughtfully received.

Magically, I was able on several occasions to say, “I am enjoying this so much, but I would like to be alone for an hour or so and then come back and talk some more,” and it turns out? Saying that is always fine. 

Also, because I have to mention this somewhere: My friends and I crafted, in horrified fascination, the case for opening a combination gynecologist/dentist’s office. (In brief: the brain can only process so much negative physical sensation, so might as well double up. Also, the gyno and dentist can talk to each other instead of making awkward small talk with you.)

This is still not my final form

Going to XOXO was an out-of-character move for me, which is exactly why I went. I don’t want to see any aspect of my personality I don’t enjoy – for instance, my anxiety about new experiences – as permanent. I want to keep changing. I want to astonish my past self. So in the days leading up to my solo trip, I decided I would play pretend as an alternate version of me all weekend. I crafted a mantra: Confident. Curious. Ask lots of questions. I wrote it in my notebook over and over. I announced it to my Greek chorus of IM friends. 

Here’s what I learned: I can, in fact, be confident and curious, and ask lots of questions. All I had to do to become a different version of myself was be that version of myself.

I still felt emotionally exhausted. I still needed to sleep and take time alone and ask for breaks. But it wasn’t impossible. I wasn’t a charlatan pulling a Personality Scam. I was, in fact, me, still me, and hardly even thinking about me because in addition to learning about myself I was able to learn so much from other people.

Conversation starters

Being an extremely middle child – the third of five! – I automatically assume responsibility for ensuring that everyone in a conversation is participating and having a good time. Over the course of XOXO, I workshopped several conversation starters:

  • What brings you here? What’s your creative passion?
  • What’s the weirdest reason you’ve ever thrown a party?
  • What’s your favorite niche YouTube genre? (Many folx cited The Final Pam as a comfort YouTube video, which is how I knew I was among my people.)
  • What’s something you love to do that you’re terrible at?
  • What, in your opinion, is the horniest Disney movie?

It turns out, all of these were just beta versions of what became my ultimate conversation starter: What kind of bread would you like to haunt?

It doesn’t matter how we arrived at this question. (Although I will note that, when I observed that bread is porous enough to have room for spirits, my friend Cori coined the brilliant and evocative phrase “soul holes.”) It has a magical power: Everyone who hears it immediately accepts the premise. Everyone has an answer. Everyone has a unique answer, and a justification that will surprise and delight. A few favorite responses:

  • Marble rye bread, because the spiral swirl pattern is the spookiest
  • Olive Garden breadsticks (Shouted with great conviction immediately upon hearing the question)
  • A five-wheat whole grain with whole seeds in it (audience is crestfallen) because the person would like to haunt anyone who eats that kind of bread (audience is immediately won back)

And I haven’t even talked about the talks

So many brilliant, hilarious, generous people stood onstage at XOXO. I can’t possibly recap it all, but a few favorite moments from a few favorite talks:

“I put on my dumb bitch hat and decided to make more.”

Jakhara J. Smith, on when she first went viral

I genuinely find this super inspiring? Just keep creating – don’t overthink it.

This final synopsis from an invaluable talk on burnout: 

Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing:

A particular angle of this talk that blew my mind: Resisting creating a personal brand can be a powerful act. It rejects a system in which our selves are commodified. It encourages us to keep evolving. It encourages us to act and create out of more than self-interest, without agenda. It’s because of this that I’m writing this messy, honest blog post.

The talks will be posted to YouTube in the coming months. When they are, I highly recommend!

Let’s close this out with a fresh-baked poem

Am I normally a poet? Hell no! But I wrote this on the walk from the airport bus to my apartment, and rather than asking myself if anyone wants to read it, I’m going to post it just for me. I don’t care if it’s good, exactly, because it captures some of the sprawling, intangible thoughts currently overflowing in my heart, and that in itself is good.


If the bread is haunted
That means every bite we eat
Is, yes, life and death in one. 

If bread is haunted
Peeta Mellark is a shepherd of souls—
That must be why we love him so much. 

If bread is haunted
Isn’t an either/or proposition. 

If bread is haunted 
Death smells better
Than we ever hoped. 

Break bread with me
To feed something new. 

Published inPersonal

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© Mary Gaulke 2023