How to Feel Crazy and Still Make Things

I feel like I only do two kinds of blog posts any more: project posts (videos, podcasts, books we're making) and posts in which I confess to barely keeping the crazies at bay. Lately I've been thinking of dividing it all up into separate streams, in which case all that would be left in the "Journal" category would be these little check-ins I throw out to illustrate that I don't have everything together, regardless of how all the project posts might make it seem.

Remember when we were little and we used to swing on swingsets? Our family had the small, wobbly versions in the front yard, and then in 5th grade my friends and I had a really tall one on the school playground with long chains and you could go so high. For two weeks straight, we played a game where the girls would wear slip on shoes (usually dress shoes) and swing, and once we got going really high we'd kick them off to see how far they would fly and the boys would chase after them and bring them back.

I'm thinking of that giant swing set this morning because there are these times when I can trust myself, really trust myself. And I can listen for what I should say in an email or what wants to be made and I can feel the stretch of shooting my toes up to the sky. But then the chain reaches as far as it will reach, and I get pulled back.

"Oh no, I totally blew that email. Why can't I write emails like regular people? You know, the ones who always know what to say and always come off sounding so sane and normal." 

"I can't believe I thought my photo was good enough for a full-page spread."

"I got it all wrong."

"It's a disaster."

Back and forth, more like whiplash than rhythm. Pride and shame. Celebration and fear. Elation and debilitating insecurity.

This is how it feels to me: making things. I think it's also why promoting anything is such a struggle for me--I just can't get those proud, celebratory, elated moments to last. One minute I post something, the next minute I'm dying to take it back down. 

A few things help:

Making work with other artists. This gives me emotional distance from some of the parts and pieces, because when it comes to someone else's words or images or layout or design, I am the shoe flying off the foot of the little girl on the swing. There is only the joy of flight, with no chain to yank me back. I love their work through to the end, and it's easy for me to tell you how much I love it. I do feel responsibility, though--that never goes away. I want to do their work justice with whatever form we put it in. There's still so much vulnerability involved in the process that I can only do it with people who are safe places for me.

Staying connected. I talk to my friends every day. When I feel like I'm drowning in doubt, I say, It's gonna be okay, right? This happens so frequently that in the end it's like a verbal tick. Yes, everything's going to be more than okay, they say. It's this funny call-and-response that's like being rocked in a rocking chair. Their swing is going forward when mine is pulling back, and because I trust them, it comforts me. 

Learning the art of gentleness. I'm just trying to love that girl on the back swing. To get her someone to talk to when she needs it, people who will help her look after her wellness, a teddy bear to hold, a Masterpiece Mystery to watch, a cup of cocoa or peppermint tea to soothe her nervous stomach. I'm trying to schedule days off for her, time to lay down and rest when she's not feeling well, and permission to have days that feel more crazy than sane, more fearful than brave.

And somehow, by some miracle that I cannot yet explain, things keep getting done. Something is finished, and before the day is over the next adventure is born. And so I make things. And so I swing.

Confessions of a So-Called Fairy Godmother

If you could be here to witness how nervous/frazzled/questioning-my-mental-wellness I get right before releasing new work online, you might shake your head and wonder why I keep doing it. God knows I do.

It's a little bit like childbirth--so much of the painful parts fade from memory. I forget how much I dread calling the printers, and how often I end up having to call them, and how disappointing it is when a mistake is made and I arrive to find it wrong, all very wrong. I forget that we need to take however much work we estimate it will be and multiply by ten.

I don't forget how I feel suddenly shy and awkward when the moment comes to finally send something new into the world. All the worries are familiar--that I'll forget something, a clumsy drop of china plates circling in mid-air. Or that I'll fumble through the words and not really do the work justice--that passerby will shrug, unmoved, and walk on without knowing what they are missing.

I am haunted by the way my heart feels like I am throwing it over some invisible line. Or how with every offering it's like climbing up onto an altar, hopingprayinglonging for it to be welcome. For it to be loved.

Here's the truth: I don't know why I keep doing it. It doesn't feel terribly sane, and I'll soon be asking my therapist if I need medication yet.

All I know is, I feel this compulsion when greeted by beautiful dreams to make them real.

One of my friends/collaborators joked last week that she should start calling me her fairy godmother. It doesn't feel fairy-like, or godmother-ish tonight. I'm not sure it ever does. But maybe this is how things work in the real world--perhaps us all of us makers, who do what we do even when it's hard/scary/crazy-making, are allowed our anxiety, our fear, our soft blankets, soothing cocoa, and even our therapists.

 

Heading to the printer tomorrow to pick up these. Fingers crossed that they turn out just right.

In Progress

A lovely home that my friend Ramona and I walked by in Vancouver, BC.I am in the throes of an Apartment Love Obsession. It's been going on for weeks or months now, I'm not sure. My days are punctuated by small bursts to epic projects as I purge unnecessary things, curate and tend all of our spaces. Before my parents came to visit, I actually broke a toothbrush in half while cleaning the bathroom. The spice cupboard and junk drawer testify to no space being too small to escape attention, and the days we spent on the hall closet while my mom and dad were here prove that no project is too daunting.

My soul work these days grapples with a public and private existence, so perhaps my obsession with home is fitting, as sinking into my physical, private world grounds me and counterbalances the work I am doing online and onstage. I am simply along for the ride on both journeys, letting them run parallel and teach me as I go.

There are few things as satisfying as home makeovers, really, the pinacle being the Before and After Pictures. I keep kicking myself for not taking more Before Pictures so that I can have that satisfaction--that proof of progress--at the end when you get to step back and say, "Look: once a mess, then transformation, now beauty." But the Before and After Pictures are not the whole story, because minutes or hours later toys and blankets have made their way from their assigned homes onto stray surfaces or floors. One room sparkles while another is neglected.

This is the whole picture: A Life in Progress. Minor victories and major defeats, and sometimes the other way around.

When we share what we learn, it can have a similar effect--a Before and After Picture of the Soul, if you will. "Look: once a mess, then tranformation, now beauty." And it's not that it's untrue--it is quite true. The mess is real. The transformation is real. The beauty is real.

But this is the whole picture: A Soul in Progress. Minor victories and major defeats, and sometimes the other way around.

We clean what is dirty, we mend what is broken. All that is finished is temporary, and all that is yet undone reaches to the horizon like an ocean before us.

I Feel Like I Should Say Hello

Pike Place, Seattle

I feel like I should say hello. Like I should tell you about all the good things going on--how you can see me over here today, how I'm on the cleaning kick of a lifetime (though you would never guess it from the state of my desk), how I have this dear one's voice in my ears every day as I edit our new project and how much fun we had connecting yesterday in the first Open Studio video hangout. All these things are happening, and all these things are true.

And yet.

Today I don't feel as well as I'd hoped to--my body says, Slow Down. I could use a nap and a shower more than anything. The trail of clothes on the floor and a circus of objects litering every horizontal surface are on the loose, completely untamed and mocking all my attempts at order and beauty. Just 48 hours of feeling less than tops and it all seems to fall apart.

But I'm learning this, if nothing else right now: some days are for letting it all fall apart, just as surely as other days are for pulling it all back together. Some days are for surrendering to the wisdom of our bodies when they push back against our pulsing modern pace. For trusting that if we let go, something greater just might catch us.

Say Something True

 Caren at Pearl River Market

Caren at Pearl River Market

Caren was here this time last week. "Are you taking care of yourself?" she said.

"I'm trying," I said, meaning, Not as well as you would take care of me if you were here. Caren takes care like no one else I've ever known. She's been gone for days now, and I keep finding pieces of her care and keeping that she left behind. Clementines on the baker's rack. Mexican chocolate waiting to be melted into cocoa next to the stove. Big stashes of British tea by the kettle and a jar of organic raw honey we used on last night's biscuits. Organic persimon that made the trip all the way from California to be sliced into a salad. Do you see what I mean?

I told her how the work we're doing is like an ever-present plumb line. We can't come to Berkeley and facillitate a weekend called Steady Burn with any integrity if we haven't been practicing that wisdom through all our times and seasons. So I've been doing my best to believe these things even when it's hard: the care of yourself can come first. It only helps the work. You really can step out for that walk, go buy those salad greens, go to sleep before the children.

One of my newer practices when I feel like the wheels are coming off my wagon is to say something true. It kind of un-hooks any energy that might be tied up in Looking Good and frees it up for other things. I think that's why I woke up with an inexplicable desire to post today--to say something true and find a little more freedom.

So here are a few pieces for you: I'm really operating at my edges these days. It's been awhile since I drove a car, but I remember this needle on the dashboard that measured RPMs and when it hit the red zone, you were going too fast in the given gear. My physical health and wellness is like that RPM gauge, and I keep pushing that red zone and my body pushes back. It's humbling every time, like, Okay I guess I can only edit eight pages right now (even though that makes me feel weak or lame). Okay I guess I have to take off the headphones now and lie down. Okay I guess I can't host weekend guests and have any social reserves left for the week.

There are so many things I wish I had deeper wells for, like being with people. I love it when we are together. I wish I wasn't such a hermit, and that we were having after school playdates and that I was teaching everywhere all the time. I wish I could be interested in work and food at the same time and that I was rocking crazy delicious balanced meals every day of the week instead of forgetting to buy fruits and vegetables for days at a time.

If Peter didn't keep coaxing me into shows, I'd probably be deep underground right now and never leave the six block radius around my apartment. But when you have someone creating the framework for you and holding the safety net while you work out stuff in your soul, it's hard to turn down. Even so, I had to change my story for the upcoming show when my body was tweaking out over the one I originally had planned. I wish some things didn't hurt for as long as they do, but I think it's good for me to wait until that one heals a bit more before I give that story away.

I'm feeling pretty humbled these days by my limits, by my humanity. But the more I welcome my limits, the more I listen to my body and back off when I need to, the more I feel freed up from this idea that I have to do it all or be good at everything. It's a crazy-making, unattainable idea. I'm NOT good at everything. (Quick Top Ten List of Things I'm Not Good At: parties, small talk, acting cool in bars, crowds aka groups of more than four, calendar/clock, rowdy play, rest, daily showers, balanced meals, meeting new people). And I don't do it all. You won't find me at a PTA meeting or very many places at all, really, outside of our six little Brooklyn blocks and the--very--occasional storytelling show.

So try it--say something true today about your limits, your humanity. You'll find it creates space for your tired parts, your hurting parts, your parts that feel ashamed that they're not as (fill in the blank) as everyone else appears to be. In that space, your breaths can come a little deeper and just a little more kindness can make its way in.

Not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart

Central Park, last weekend

Did you hear that Martha Stewart's daughter has a new memoir out about her childhood? I heard just enough about it to breathe a deep sigh of relief at the realization that not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart.

It's inevitable that there will always be gaps between what you see of people and their work, whether it's being shared on television or in a magazine or online, and what the whole story is. But it's also this very human trait to fill in the gaps with our imagination--and we usually cast it in a very idealistic hue. To find evidence of this, just look back on all the crushes you ever had, how shining and shimmering those people or things appeared until you got a good look behind the curtain.

Some people will be fast to call this "inauthentic", but I don't think that's always the case. Are some people really invested in the Looking Good Game? Yes. Some are. But this phenomenon is unavoidable for all of us, because even the most honest glimpses into our lives cannot hold the whole truth of us. We are all of us far more deep and rich and complex than any public way of being known can hold.

I'm bringing this up now because I have a lot of productions that are releasing in close succession, and I'd prefer to avoid that giving anyone a complex if I can. Already I've received a few dazed comments and questions about how I'm managing it all, so please allow me this attempt to keep it a little real.

One of the first things I wrote in my early days writing in Brooklyn--back when I was trying a bunch of different forms like throwing spaghetti on the wall to see which would really stick for me--were some short essays for an anthology called Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing. That anthology is complete and will release in January 2012. With the galley here for review, I'm looking forward to reading the whole collection. I know as well as anyone how, let's say, delicate writing on family can be. My contribution is a very humble one (and I am not exaggerating when I say this I swear), but I am happy to be included in such fine company.

Many of these other projects have been in the work for not months, but years. I started teaching my voice and story courses at Squam Art Workshops in 2009. In 2010 I taught a lot, and wrote companion texts for my students for four different courses. The first editions were shared with my students in pdf form. At the same time, I started leading Integrate Retreats as a way to develop and share work that was unfolding in the present, at my developmental edge.

By November, I was weary from travel and teaching and a string of personal losses. All I wanted to do was hibernate in my apartment and make good things that I could drop in the mail slot. In December I ventured out to Argot Studios to record the audio portions of Finding Your Voice and Telling Your Story. In January and February I was like a little winter-time hermit, finishing FYV and letting it pull me out of bed every morning.

Sometime in the spring, I connected with designer Liz Kalloch. (A partnership that changed everything forever: more on this next week.) We planned to release Telling Your Story in the fall, and worked on the 3-ring bound curriculum so it would be ready for my SAW students in September. We also put together the idea of doing a new edition of The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls (another course companion I had written in 2009) to also have for September SAW students and then to release for sale online for the holidays. We blazed through the two print projects so they could be done (or very very close to it) before my summer sabbatical.

And then I took off almost twelve weeks to be with my kids, take a trip up through the Pacific Northwest, and to visit my family in Colorado.

Since the September SAW session, I've been editing the Telling Your Story Sound Studio that we recorded last December and putting the last pieces in place. Now I'm working on The Iconic Self, which Phyllis and I recorded in March of this year but really started developing at those Integrate Retreats in 2010. I'm also excited to be producing work by Caren Gazley and Liz Lamoreux in the spring. I put in a quick order for a small batch of a new shirt design a couple days ago, on a complete whim. Look for those December 1st.

It's all going to come out in a burst, and it will look like so much is happening all at once. But I've been hammering away at all of it, a few swings a day, for so long. A little bit every day over time seems to build exponentially. I'm all the time working with an amazing team of collaborators who do so much of the heavy lifting. I call at least one friend a day (or three) and say things like, "Everything's gonna be okay, right?" My apartment still hasn't bounced back from when I was sick. There are about three zones that are clean and operational: the kitchen, the bathroom, and the shipping center in the studio. The rest is all markers and balls of yarn on the floor and empty coffee cups sitting around.

I'm sometimes so rattled by the vulnerability of releasing new work that my appetite drops off. (One side effect of this is a complete failure to plan meals for my family or grocery shop.) I have to keep pulling my shoulders down and away from my ears. I can't stay up late or miss my morning meditation or it goes from mild apprehension to Crazy Town in 60 seconds.

It's important for me to say these things because it's too enticing to turn the small pieces we see online or elsewhere into some imagining of The Whole Story. Try to notice whatever mythology you're building up about me or anyone else you see or know in a public arena, bring your awareness to it and Let It Go. Because I promise you, if not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart, you can be sure that not even Jen Lee is Jen Lee.

"There are times to have a guide, and times to be the guide."

I wish you were here today, dear friend that sees all the way down to my soul's bones. We would sit on my red sofa, and I would wriggle my cold toes under your warm legs and tell you that I'm struggling with that existential loneliness that's always and ever unrelated to how many people are in the room. I would tell you the long long story of all that is happening within and without me. I would tell you I'm working really hard, the kind of deep soul-shifting work that is like doing a 90-degree turn in snowshoes. In a blizzard.

You would say, Jen, it's so much.

And I would nod silently, because having this seen chokes me up.

I would say I wish there was more confirmation along the way, that after that bulky snowshoe turn there were neon signs saying: It's true! This really is the way for you! Or: Bold Future Ahead. Or even better: Rest Area Soon.

You might hold my hands in yours, and look deep into my eyes the way you do when You Really Mean It, and say, There are times to have a guide, and times to be the guide. And we would both know my number's been called for the latter. And that it kind of feels like bad news.

I wish every trailblazer had someone to follow, the way I wish every new mother had someone to mother her. This is the hardest thing about pioneering anything--this staring into the blizzard in bulky snowshoes with not a single neon sign or rabbit track before you. Just this swirling uncertain future. Trust. Hope. And the knowledge that there's no going back now. There probably never was.

It's not easy for any of us, this gathering of the raw materials of our living--the heartbreak and sorrows and joys and jubilations--and crafting out of them, somehow, a soul. Neither is the going where we've never gone before.

What is there to do? we would say. Put another kettle on, and keep going, I guess. But just saying it and being heard makes us feel better. Reminds us that neither of us are really alone.

At Hula's House

Hula's garden

I dare not confess the far reaches of my newly-born skepticism or tell you about the Disillusionment Series of t-shirts I designed but never made because few people want to wear their cynicism so openly. I will tell you I now have these things I say to myself, like the sentences a teacher makes you write 800 times until you know the principle by heart. People are not magic, people are just people. People are not magic, people are just people.

But that's one former conviction that is hard to shake when I think about Andrea Jenkins, aka Hula. Try as I may, when I think of her I can't deny that there are still people who fill me with wonder, who make me consider a little longer that perhaps beauty and love are deep, deep seas worth dropping our anchors down into. Since coming home to Brooklyn there have been moments--a song playing in the market or a memory of her daisies landing on my shoulder while I cook dinner--when the remembrance of our time in her dear home brought tears to my eyes. Some gifts are so great, they are hard to speak of.

Hula's presence is just like this light--it has the power to make you feel beautiful, to make you feel seen. Polaroid by Andrea Jenkins, hulaseventy.blogspot.com

In all my days, I'll never forget the welcome of your table

or how the morning light spills across it before anyone else is awake.

 

In all my days, I'll never again wake under forty white paper stars
and the love that dreamed them up and put them there.

 

Posing for a picture

We'll never stop wanting the children to have their fun
or worrying that they will throw themselves off balance and fall.
I won't fear it's just my imagination when things are off
because we had that It's not just me moment and now

I trust myself all the more.

 

Ward and Justin in the Grilled Cheese Grill double-decker bus

In all my days, I'll remember how I dreamed our families
would fit together like two puzzles pieces finding their way home
and how it was so very true,
like a taste of heaven to throw an already-sweet summer
deliciously over the top.
In all my days, I'll watch you spin
your beautiful life into your greatest work of all.
I'll never forget how I needed refuge

or how I found it inside your doorway,

how I found it in the circle of your arms.

 

Discover Hula's magic for yourself at Instant Magic, her upcoming workshop at Teahouse Art Studio September 17th.

Comparison and a Sense of Proportion

Are you the photographer?

Uh, I'm the sister-in-law, I said. I just thought I'd take a few pictures, you know, as a gift.

We'll work together, the hired photographer said. I'm not actually a professional, she said, like she'd just been discovered running around in her mother's high heels.

Yeah--me, either.

It was just a small idea I had when we went to my brother-in-law's wedding. I'll pack the cameras. Take a few shots, and maybe some will turn out and I can give them as a gift. I have a Canon Rebel, after all, (that mostly my husband uses) and a 50mm lens.

In my world, this doesn't count as overly serious photography equipment. When you're friends with mind-blowing photographers with lenses as long as your forearm and badass lighting equipment, well, they feel like pretty basic tools for an internet artist to have.

Why did I say I wasn't a professional? I wondered later. For god's sake, I've had business cards that said "Writer and Photographer".

But I'm no Wedding Photographer. Digital isn't even really My Thing.

Wow! someone said. That's like, a PROFESSIONAL camera. I looked around and realized that I had in my possession the only DSLR in town. Including the hired, self-described "non-professional" wedding photographer.

I did a lot of thinking in that southern town about comparison and the way it creeps in when we're not looking. I have colleagues who are so incredibly accomplished that everything I do can feel dwarfed in comparison, and I DO compare, automatically and almost always without even realizing it. They take my accomplishments more seriously than I do, which is a gift. Their work inspires the hell out of me; it expands my sense of possibility and makes my big dreams feel like things that happen to people I know, and might actually happen for me.

But sometimes I can feel it skewing my sense of proportion about my own growth, my progress, and my ability. It's so much more difficult to see ourselves--who we are, and how far we've come. Nearly impossible to recognize our own potential and all that's within us, waiting to be born.

Sunday night I put together the loveliest little wedding album you can imagine with so much love I thought I was going to burst. I hope they like it, I hope they like it, I kept saying over and over like they were the only words I knew. I looked at the pictures again and again, until I no longer saw just the beauty of the day or the sweetness of being together with our dear ones.

I looked at them until I could see myself.

Pioneers

New Jersey through the train window, Horizon Perfekt, Lomo X-Pro Chrome film

I come from pioneers.

I think about this a lot, whether I'm trying to make sense of a whirlwind cross-country move or just wishing for a journey that led me uneventfully down some well-trodden path.

Of course, I remind myself. This is who I am--it's in my blood and the cultural fabric from which I am crafted. This is what we do, not because we are special or talented or enlightened. Simply because someone has to go first, and the longer I wait for someone else to come along and lead the way, the more I realize that no one else is coming.

Some trails are mine alone to blaze.

Sometimes the hunger for adventure or the vision of what could be overwhelms the need for the familiar and the secure. Sometimes I think that vision must mean that I am hopeful, but mostly I think it just means I don't know what else to do but to write what I hear, to follow when I hear my name called, to build some small piece of a world I imagine so clearly. The waiting around for someone else to come along and do so is tiresome and dull.

I want to write you a book about what this means to me, how these parts of my soul are shaped and align. But I am only beginning to understand, like a dim flashlight at the entrance of an earthy cave.

I sit with the sentence, turning it over and over again in my mind and on my lips, as if these small words hold my whole world. As if they can explain all that you or I don't yet understand. As if they are a prophecy of undreamed-of things to come.

Just Slip It Out the Mail Slot

Remember the part in The Wizard of Oz when the white-haired guy says, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"?

I love that line.

I'm all the time wishing that I could do the work appointed to me--skillfully and with diligence--and just slip it out the mail slot into the universe, without fanfare or notice. And then I would climb back up to my studio and begin the next one. Pay no attention to the woman behind the mail slot, but please pick up this treasure because it could change everything forever.

"How do you what you do?" people sometimes ask. "How are you so brave?" You know, dear readers, one of my answers. But another one could go like this: Through an elaborate ruse I've constructed and mind games I play to pretend that no one knows I'm in here.

I wish you could have seen the confused looks between my students and myself when I started teaching at Squam Art Workshops (maybe you were one of them). I pretty much believe that five people read my blog, so the first time I met two of the five in person, I was completely floored. The large dining hall with over a hundred people filling it gave me the perfect cover (so I thought) to fly under the radar, completely undetected. This is perfect, I thought. No one here even knows who I am--I bet everyone will think I'm an attendee, like them.

Let's just say, some of them knew who I was. And I was completely shocked, every time. Their surprise equalled mine when they realized that while they knew Who I Was, I apparently didn't.

If I were being really honest here, I would confess that this is the frontier I'm at in my own development. Right here, right now. These hiding out moves served a purpose in the past, but they don't serve me any longer, and now I'm trying to set aside my imaginary invisibility cloak (which only ever worked in my head) and learn to still do what I do and be who I be without it.

And it is so hard. (And here is the part where I tell you how I am really suffering.)

Do you want to know what's hard for me--I mean, really hard? It's not getting onstage, or 'fessing up to embarrassing things in a sound studio. It's not admitting on my blog that I worry that someday, decades from now, I'll look back and realize I was beautiful, or strong or fierce, and never knew it or enjoyed it at the time.

What's really hard for me is promoting anything I make or do. Every word of copy, every guest post and tweet I write makes my stomach hurt. Makes me want to walk around with my hands covering my face or curl up into a tiny ball in the corner. Breeds fantasies of a change in careers. I think I would probably make twice of what I make and host or attend exponentially more gatherings if I simply didn't have to promote them. It literally makes me want to crawl out of my skin and hide under a rock.

How about that for brave?

But then what happens is that I look at these treasures I made, and think about how I knew a specific number of them needed to be made--that they are intended for very specific homes. I'm not making 1,000 of these things, I remind myself. Just a few stacks, for the people who need them, right now. And then I think about what will happen if I just try to slip them out the mail slot into the universe, and if the people who need them never know they are even there. And then my heart breaks.

So I make another cup of cocoa for my quesy belly, and I write another email. I draft another post. I show another person and ask her what she thinks. But God, I just want you to know that this part is really wrecking me. And the truth is, I don't want to change careers. I just want to work through whatever this is in my soul.

Please help me spread the word about Finding Your Voice, and be with me while I am doing this part. I know I need to do this, I just really don't want to be in it alone.

Here are some ways you can partner with me:

If you love this work, or have loved your experiences with me as a teacher, send me a short quote about why you're excited about this project that I can use here on the site.

Embed the making-of-film, Content and Containers, on your own site if you would like to share it with your own community. Invite me to do an interview or a guest post.

Share this Finding Your Voice badge on your own site using this html code:

<a href="http://jenlee.net/multimedia-resources/"><img style="width:
150px; border:0px;"src="http://www.jenlee.net/storage/FYV_button.jpg"/></a>

And keep the kind words and encouraging comments coming. Every word is like manna to me right now, I promise. If I seem quiet it's just because I keep having to climb back out from under my rock and into my skin. Over and over again, day after day, and praying that maybe someday this will get easier.

 

Dread and Cover-Diving

Phyllis and I settle into the sound studio and I remember our list of stories for the day, suddenly overcome by dread.

"Oh, no--I can't believe I am going to tell some of these stories with Paul listening in the next room." I try like crazy to be present through the hard parts, even though part of me is praying he will magically step out of the room during my most embarrassing confessions.

Some of the stories have unfolded recently in these last winter months--some are the kind I don't expect to ever tell on stage. Even this morning I don't know how much of what we told will make the final cut.

My love for storytelling is like an addiction to truth serum--if you want to be good, I mean really good, you have to leave the bullshit and your ego at the door. You come toe-to-toe with your own unreliability as a source, even about your own life. It's tempting all the time to try to look good--or just a little better, more attractive, more charming or sexy or confident than you really are. It's so hard to hold the bruised and battered apples in your hand and offer them to the audience without even polishing them first with your shirt.

The story can be crafted and tightened, but who you actually are in it cannot be polished and shined without shaving away at the ring of truth in your tale. And if you lose your audience's trust, you've lost everything.

After the leap it is to tell such things, there's still a trembling feeling that lingers even after landing safely. I'm feeling that way today after laying so much bare for so many hours behind that microphone. The only remedy I know is to rest and ground myself in love, which is my plan for the next several days. That, and a good amount of time under the covers.

On Being a High-Functioning Mess: Pros and Cons

I am a high-functioning mess. If you heard me list the happenings in my mental and emotional life during troubling times, and then the happenings in my activity or productivity, the equation would seem to not compute. This has its advantages, and its disadvantages.

Pros:

  • I can pretty reliably get shit done, rain or shine. I can be like a machine in this respect.
  • If I want to misrepresent my troubled state, and say, Yeah . . . I'm good, everyone will believe me.
  • My ego gets to be all, Yeah. I get shit done.
  • Sometimes work gets me through hard times, like Tom Hank's character in Sleepless in Seattle when he says, Work will save you. It's something to keep me getting out of bed and the tiniest bit hopeful.

Cons:

  • When I'm really not making it, practically no one can tell.
  • It makes it hard to be true, because it's not easy to say, I'm having a hard time, or I need support. Sometimes these things are hard to even know myself. Am I? Do I?
  • Sometimes when I do try to say these things, my high-functioning-ness makes it hard to believe.
  • It can feel like Really Falling Apart is an option I'm somehow excluded from.
  • It's hard to discern what taking care of myself in hard times should look like. (Keep going? Take a break?)
  • It makes it hard to be true. (Did I mention that one yet?)

If You Were Here

"God, is she so lazy now that she can't even be bothered to crop these before posting them?" Yes, yes she is.

I would make peppermint cocoa for two

on the stovetop

and we would sit side by side on my red loveseat,

our backs leaning against the arms and our feet

meeting somewhere in between.

 

Either your presence would perk me up,

or I would hang a cheered expression on my face

like the fresh hand towel in the bathroom.

 

If I could coax you into it, you would tell me about

what winter was like when you were in third grade.

I've been thinking about third grade a lot lately.

You might pause at the sight of new flakes floating

outside the window and we would both say,

This January has been so strange.

Banks of snow lining the street for a whole month now

when most winters it scarcely lingers long enough to run

the sled up the hill to the park.

 

I might confess that I'm working too much

for a season I had allocated for rest,

and you would believe me when I say that

I don't know what else to do

but keep making things.

I don't know any other way out of my bed,

which threatens to close me into its cozy comforter cave

until April.

And let's face it:

my optimism won't last that long untended.

 

I pray for other kinds of rest now--

that like all these falling flakes

each cup of cocoa and quiet conversation

and every long gaze out the window

will accumulate into something that will last.

That they will line my long, thin, upward-reaching places

and pile into a covering that sends the deep places

even deeper.

A Slow Emergence

The Brooklyn version of "Two roads diverged in a wood..." Horizon Perfekt camera, cross-processed Lomo 200 film.

After making it to the other side of what felt like The Great Wall of Sickness for myself and my little ones (and the Fall Traveling Tour that preceded it), I feel myself slowly emerging, with steps that are sometimes resolute, sometimes tentative.  It's easy to overdo it at the first signs of feeling better, when the reality of the apartment disarray sets in and there are gifts to arrange and ornaments to hang on top of it all.

I'm feeling ready for some things, like:

  • dusting the really scary bookcase behind and under my desk
  • cleaning other nooks and crannies that shall not be named but may require vacuum attachments
  • a paring-down of possessions project
  • sending out lovely packages and
  • going back onstage. (I'm performing at Belleville in Brooklyn at 8pm on Thursday.)

Other things I'm not quite ready for yet, like:

  • long hours of writing or editing
  • late nights
  • big calendar commitments and
  • trips without my children.

I'm still regarding some of the things that are coming next with reservation.  I can know what's coming, I tell myself, but I don't have to like it.  But these things come in time.  The sprints and spins are best suited for the middle of the meadow, and I am only now making my way back into the light.

Underneath it all

I was steadily preserving my optimism all morning, despite small disappointments tugging at my ankles.  I put money in the bank, I went to yoga, I bought books by Barbara Kingsolver and Virginia Woolf at the Community Bookstore with a gift certificate I got for my birthday. 

And then I took a nap.

I woke up sad and teary, and then I called a friend to try to figure out if anything was wrong.

"Maybe this is the sadness that is underneath it all, all the time," I confessed.  "Perhaps all the activity is just my attempt to outrun it."

I wish I could remember which author I read this year who said that underneath everything in the human heart is longing, mystery and romance.  I would pour over the pages looking for the exact quote which does the insight far more justice than my recollection, and slap up the attribution as proof that I'm not the only one, that it's not my imagination.

Maybe it's not sadness, I think.  Maybe it's longing.  I close my eyes and a montage of scenes passes by, each one showing how messy and confusing and complicated it can be to love.  All the things I don't know how to say; all the places I haven't been.  All the ways in which I am still stumbling in the dark.

When I slow down, all the things I haven't properly felt along the way are right there like a giant tidal wave arching over my head onto the shore.  I can see now that there are so many stories to tell that I just haven't gotten to say.  I can still feel so many dear ones who I've been with these last weeks in my hands, in my arms, on my cheek.

Tonight we are all weary, so we will eat something good, drink a glass of wine, and I'll knit a new pair of socks, letting all my memories and questions and the deep wave of longing trickle out, stitch by stitch.

Pull Back to Gentleness

On the dock, Horizon Perfekt, xpro Lomo 200 film

So much is swirling around over here.  My husband and I have had criss-crossing business trips all month long.  It feels like I haven't seen him since August, though it hasn't actually been quite that bad.  Then there's been poor health while I've been flying solo with my kids, first with that nasty virus and now with some serious fall allergies.  Squam was an amazing time last week, but it's not until I get home and feel like I've been hit by a truck that I realize how much that work requires of me.  And then this week I sent my littlest girl away to school, all day and every day.  Holding her this morning I could feel how much I am missing her.

It's safe to say I've logged some serious time on the couch, trying to recover and stay afloat.  Alternating between feeling ashamed for not being able just to plow through and keep doing something that looks like productivity or optimism or general mental wellness, or feeling really present to all I've done these last days and the littlest bit satisfied or even proud.  Jen is coming today, and even though I know she needs no such considerations, I nagged myself into making my bed so I wouldn't look clinically depressed.

The crazy-making part, Jen says, is the gap between what we actually do and our ability to see it and understand it.  To call it valid or hard, to acknowledge that a week laid out on the couch is an appropriate response.  To sink into the knowledge, as she told me yesterday, that if we died today it would be enough because to work in the intangible is to work in the eternal.  It is to give away something that will change someone else forever, whether our paths ever cross again or not.

And so I pull myself back to gentleness, over and over again.  To practice the soul care I've been preaching, to hold my voice and my story with cupped, careful hands.  To hang in there until my personal calvary arrives to replenish all the love that I have poured, spilled, given and gushed.  I remember the lapping of the water on the dock, the laughter that has been my fuel.  I give myself credit, in my fledgling and faltering way, for all that I have given and to give myself a chance to receive.

 

Lead with Your Weakness

Fiber Notion, Horizon Perfekt, Redscale Film

This morning I was thinking about all the workshops and retreats I've done so far this year, and how one thing they've had in common is that they all came at times when I was going through sorrow or grief or illness or injury--mostly more than one at a time.  I've talked through tears and propped my head up against the high back of a rocking chair.  The workshops coming up this week are no different as I nurse myself back to health after a wicked virus that's had me (and my kids) down and out for almost a week.  My appetite and energy still haven't recovered, and I leave in less than 48 hours.

The parts of me that believe my worth is tied to my performance always get snagged by these scenarios.  I get pangs of concern about not Bringing 100%, or Being My Best or some other bologna.  Every time, there are other scenarios I have to walk myself through, like these:

What if people who are always leading with their strengths are hard to be around?
What if your weakness is your best move--the one you want to lead with every time?
What if embracing our tender places invites others to do the same? 
What if you could do what you do in your sleep, because it's actually who you are? 
What if your presence is a healing balm? 
What if everyone around you already has every answer, and all she needs you to do is to really see her, and to hear it? 
What if telling the truth about your humanity and your limitations creates a space of permission and grace? 
What if we're all in this, and being in it together is all we ever need? 

In the spirit of the Bare Minimum Game, I'll be letting go of anything that hasn't already been done.  I'll tuck myself in this afternoon for a nap and take good care of myself.  And then I'm going to take my small appetite and my tired bones, and I'm simply going to go.

Hoist

In just a few days, I'll gather with friends on a pale, cloudy shore.  When I think about it, this joy swells up in me at the anticipation of being together, immediately followed by a wave of tears.  This happens every year.  I don't know if it's related to having little children around, the distraction of daily routines, or just this expedient thing where I shove my emotions to the side so I won't be slowed down by them--but at any rate, on the eve of these trips I feel the degree to which I haven't been fully inhabiting my experiences.

There was a time in life when I could lay in bed until it was all laid out, when no one clamored for help with her morning cereal or a trip to the playground, but I can't remember if I ever took advantage of that time.

There has not been enough weeping to properly acknowledge the heartbreaks and losses of this year.  I've longed time and again for proper mourning rituals, like ashes on my head.  There has also not been enough celebration and acknowledgement of our victories, which seem few and far between in this absence.

"I can't remember the last time I felt like magic," I tell her.

"I can't, either," she says.  "Feeling like magic may be overrated. There are times to be of the earth, humble and broken."

And so we are. 

This year has brought me low.  It ended my belief in happy endings after painfully pointing out that I was still holding out for them.  A real life ending may be good, or right, but it is guaranteed to be more complex and contradictory than happily ever after.  It is also likely to not look like an ending at all, but merely a passing into someplace new.  Often that place is something we never asked for.

Reality has a conversational nature, he says. We neither get exactly what we would have, nor do we get exactly what the world would give us.

We may speak often of hope and of love, but I assure you--we do not live in a land of pipe dreams.  We live in a world of thwarted plans, heartbreaking compromises and unbearable loss.

And yet, all there is to do down here in the dirt is to hoist the heavy places in our hearts out to sea or into the flames.  To weep for our sorrows and celebrate our joys.  And to keep hoping anyway.  To keep loving anyway.

Even as we limp. Even as we crawl.