Navigating the Crumbly Days

Yesterday Liz Lamoreux tweeted about how the day after a launch felt even more vulnerable than the day before. It hits all of us at different moments, in different ways. We reach for different words in an attempt to explain what we're experiencing. Phyllis Mathis says, "This work costs something in soul." Liz Lamoreux says, "Putting from the heart work in the world feels like giving a piece of your heart."

It's a very specific kind of vulnerability to put not just your ideas into the world (Top 10 Ways To Blah Blah Blah) but work that holds the essence of who you are, the stories you carry with you always in the cavern between your ribs. The moments that made you who you are and continue to form you as you journey with them by your side and in your pocket.

You leap, and land. You say, See? That wasn't so bad. You're still in one piece. But then later--a minute or an hour or a day or two after--suddenly you feel all wobbly in the knees like your legs might give out on you. Your body doesn't feel like the solid structure that carried you off into the leap and absorbed the weight of your landing; now it feels like cookie crumbs shaped into a person-shape, held by plastic wrap. You worry that if someone bumps into you or looks at you unkindly, even for an instant, you might collapse into a pile on the ground. You put on clothes before leaving the house but it doesn't matter, nothing makes the naked feeling go away.

All those weeks and months of trusting yourself and what you knew you needed to do to say to make are suddenly drowned out by loud inner shrieks of the hysterical person on prison break in your mind. No one cares! No one wants this! It's going to make no difference!

The people who know you in your trusting and brave moments don't always know what to do with you when in the grip of crippling doubt. People forget to tell you that you're doing alright and that they love you and that it all matters deeply because they take it for granted that you know. And some days, you do. Just not these days.

I wish there were magic words we could speak to each other on these days that chases the doubt away like a very powerful spell. Or that we could wrap ourselves in some protective cloak. But the only magic and cloak I know is to wrap ourselves in love--the deep abiding love of those who are ever-present safety net whether we fly or fall. To try to take it in through our ears, our eyes, our skin. To ask to be embraced, held, listened to while we say the crazy thoughts out loud so we can hear ourselves how crazy they really are.

It is only because of this safety-net kind of love that I can ever take a leap at all. Everything begins there for me, and on crumbly days like today I remember that everything ends there, too.

Phyllis Mathis has been this kind of friend to me for over a decade. I'm so honored to have her as my guest on this week's podcast, as we talk about the way we are formed inside of friendship and conversation. Everything I do begins and ends in these deep soulful connections, but it's a relational form that feels on the brink of extinction.

Give it a listen and think about a safety net you could weave or strengthen in your own life, and the courageous leaps you could make as it holds you.

Collaboration Closeup: Ophira Eisenberg and Peter Aguero

Peter and Ophira at a show at Belleville in Brooklyn

When putting together the Telling Your Story course, I wanted to add interviews with some of my friends--people who were not only amazing storytellers themselves, but who also had experience teaching storytelling. I loved the idea of working with Peter and Ophira, and giving us a chance hear from someone from a comedy background and someone from an improv background, to explore how our varied experiences impact the way we approach the art and craft of this medium.

Also, I will own up to some purely selfish motivations: there were some conversations I was longing to have, conversations that don't happen standing in line for a show or hanging out in a crowded bar afterward. There were questions I wanted to ask these two that really require a quiet room, the chance to sit face to face, cozy into your chair and really be listened to.

Ophira at Argot Studios

Ophira Eisenberg is a celebrated comic who has appeared on Comedy Central and was named a "Top Ten Comic" by New York Magazine. I've always been drawn to Ophira because she's so damn real. So much of the time when she makes me laugh, it's this laughter of surprise because she has said something so honest, and so previously unrecognized or unnamed that I'm like, "Oh my god it's so TRUE!" She has this astute observation and this willingness to own up to all kinds of things that simultaneously inspires me and makes me feel relief at not being "the only one".

A lot of people can rock a persona or a character on stage, but it takes something else entirely to stand in front of a crowd and a microphone, under a spotlight and just be true. Ophira is the real deal, all the way, and it's no surprise that she is so beloved in our community. I love that her Sound Studio interview gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she navigates vulnerability and how she prepares stories with high emotional content.

Aguero at The BTKristmas Show, 2010

Whenever I think about the way that love makes us brave, I think about The BTK Band. The improvisational storytelling rock band, led by Peter Aguero, is my favorite to stand on stage with when I'm telling the stories that are hard to tell. They're the ultimate safety net--I know I won't lose their affection, even if I swing out wide and fall, and there is literally no where I can go that they won't go with me. I wanted TYS participants to feel that same safety, that same sense of bold permission, and having Peter collaborate on the project was the perfect way to create that.

Peter really embodies this mix of badassery and tenderness that gives me hope for my own budding inner baddass. In his sound studio interview, he gives participants the full range, addressing fears with compassionate, bold advice. He shares about the stories that have changed him forever and what gets lost when we hold back.

We recorded the Sound Studio first, in December 2010, and as I designed and finished the interactive curriculum I did my best to infuse the whole project with the spirit and sensibilities of Peter and Ophira, just as much as my own. The result is that this project is more urban and more rock and roll than anything I've previously produced. It's really an hommage to the NYC storytelling community, featuring photos of some of our favorite venues and quotes and wisdom from the friends and mentors that have taught me everything I know about the art and craft of storytelling.

There is no greater gift than working in the company of friends, and creating the Telling Your Story course with Peter and Ophira was nothing short of a dream come true.

You can find Ophira's comedy album, As Is, on iTunes. Her memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, will be available through Perseus Books in Spring of 2012.

The BTK Band can be found causing trouble the second Monday of every month, Under St. Mark's Theater. Peter and I will be together again for BARE on December 29th.

 

"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.

Flow

in Stanley Park, Vancouver

I dream of moving through days like these with something that looks more like grace and less like a stilted back and forth between bursts of cleaning and sound editing and cardboard box fort-building. I am wandering from room to room and task to task, trying to stay in my body while my idea factory is working at top speeds and I'm charting new terrain in the deep.

I know from experience that some kind of rhythm will soon emerge, even amidst the flow. Until then, here a few updates:

After a brief summer hiatus, the Merch page is back up and running, with apparel that's designed to be your companion on those days when you have to speak up for yourself in that meeting at work. When you're visiting your mother, your in-laws, or that person from your past who makes you feel like you're still 10. They are for the days when you need your courage close to your heart, for when you need to wear it Superman-style: tucked inside another shirt, where only you know it's there. They are for truths that are hard to live into, to soak in, to carry without losing along the way. I live in them, I sleep in them. I cook and I clean and I play in them, knowing that I need these words most of all and every single reminder brings me closer to the person I long to be in the world. I just made a few extras in case you need them, too.

Also, the introductory price for Finding Your Voice is almost over, with a significant increase coming soon.

AND, look for a new merch item here next week.

My birthday is coming up, which is a different experience every year. I'm feeling reflective about it today, and to be honest the last year has been really big and often hard, and in this moment the year to come feels daunting. It's surprising to feel so tender about it all, but I can't help but feel gratitude for this virtual home I have in the world, and for every day, moment, smile, tear, embrace, kiss, laugh, touch, gaze and step that I am blessed to partake in and to witness. For all the friends and companions who are with me every year, every day.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The Next Time Joy Comes Knocking

I've witnessed a couple of sad moments with my little one recently. The first one happened on the day of her stepping-up ceremony at school, where she had received a balloon in the shape of a little dog on a leash. We had just finished a long conversation about how fragile balloons are, how they don't last a long time like other toys. She held the balloon dog carefully, a few inches above the pavement. Then, so full of joy that she couldn't contain it in her little body anymore, she started to skip.

The second her foot left the ground, it touched the balloon dog. And the balloon popped. Much grieving ensued, to which the entire neighborhood can attest.

Then a similar thing happened today. It was time for the post-library cookie break, and she clutched the box of cookies to her chest as we crossed the street to sit down on a bench. Her body was extra-animated, the bounce and sway of glorious anticipation seeping out of every pore.

Two steps from the bench, the lid came loose, and most of the cookies met their demise on the 5th Avenue sidewalk, which is far beyond the realm of five-second rules. There were still a couple left to eat, but our hopes of sharing our bounty tonight with friends dropped into the trash can with the soiled goods.

I watch her lately in moments like these with a really familiar ache in my chest. So this is how it happens, I think. This is how we learn to steel ourselves against joy. This is how we learn that it's best not to bust out skipping, best not to let our bodies express too much of how we feel, or to celebrate too early (or at all). This is how we learn that where joy shows its face, sorrow is sure to follow.

And this is how it came to be that when Joy comes knocking, we're quick to say, No, thanks. We're not interested, and then close the door quickly before anyone gets hurt.

Joy's not safe--I see my daughter experiencing this first-hand. Joy means you care, it means having a vulnerable place in your heart--delight--opened up wide and defenseless. Joy means throwing that heart over some invisible line, that heart that is like a hollowed-out, hand-painted egg shell. Impossibly beautiful and impossibly fragile. Out in the big bad world, outside of its protective case, and it's just a matter of time or even seconds before it shatters all over the 5th Avenue sidewalk, far beyond the realm of five-second rules.

No wonder joy terrifies us. No wonder we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the cookies to fall. For the balloon to pop.

Joy demands so much courage to stay in its game. I'm thinking of this now, and hoping I'll be brave enough to answer and invite it in, the next time joy comes knocking.

(little) acts of courage

Grand Central, Horizon Perfekt, Kodak Portra 400 35mm film

I've been just hanging on over here, processing some deep things and feeling really quiet on the surface.  Feeling often pretty down, if I'm honest.  But today I tried a new exercise. What would happen, I wondered, if I acknowledged the little acts of courage I'm undertaking lately?  Would it console me about not feeling up for anything big at the moment?  Would it lift my spirits?

Yes.  Yes, it did. 

Here's my list.

(little) acts of courage:

  • Showing up on stage when you'd rather be under the covers.
  • Writing one page of a project that makes it hard for you to breathe.
  • Getting out of bed in the morning and picking up a pen.
  • Knowing people are leaving, but loving them with your whole heart anyway.
  • Asking someone else to make your sandwich when you're wilting.
  • Calling your friends before your words come back.
  • Letting yourself be seen when you're irritable and unsocial.
  • Telling your story when your heart is still living inside of it.
  • Giving your most honest response, even when it means accidentally exclaiming, Hot Damn! to a religious woman when you see how hot she looks these days.
  • Choosing to be thankful for all your body has done when you're struggling to love it.
  • Lacing up your running shoes when you don't know if your feet will make it today.
  • Letting yourself be loved when you feel unlovable.
  • Being present to your emotions when loss is gripping your chest and squeezing it tight.
  • Letting yourself receive gifts when they feel too good to be true.
  • Playing chase in the playground when you feel heavy and slow.
  • Being gentle with yourself when you're inclined to crack the whip.

What little acts of courage can you acknowledge yourself for today?  Once you write them down or say them out loud, you may see they're not so little, after all.

Better

Horizon Perfekt, Lomo 400 35mm film

I'm feeling so much better now that story has been told.  It seems that my New York friends even still like me, which is a bonus.  Today I'll let myself land squarely in love.  I'll talk to my security blanket friends on the phone, and they'll say, We told you it would be fine, and I'll say, I wouldn't have done it if part of me didn't believe you.  We will poke fun at how such a small little story can turn me into a nervous wreck, and I will laugh because some people think that I'm brave but being a nervous wreck is such a funny way for brave to look.

I'll lay off writing a bit and take the cameras out for a spin. Until I start sneezing and cursing the pollen and retreat back into my little hermitage.

And then, next week, I'll put my name in a hat for the chance to do it all again.

Comfort and The Be True Game

The sky, not falling. Horizon Perfekt, Lomo 400 35mm film

It's always a dilemma for me: how many of my mental . . . quirks to spill out here?  But then, once I let you into the crazy it's hard not to fill you in on how it resolves.

Before taking a leap, do I ever ask myself, Why am I doing this again?  Yes.  Yes, I do. I ask myself over and over again while some part of me looks for a way to wiggle out of jumping.  Sometimes the answers are different, other times they are the same.

This week the answer is about comfort, maybe because that's my word for the year.  I find an endless source of comfort in other people's stories, people who are willing to be true, and I want to be a part of that somehow.  I want to tell stories that give comfort, like this: Your humanity is okay.  You can be naive and look foolish and have body odor and all of it means you belong to the human race.

So many messages around us are designed to make us feel ashamed of our humanity.  That way we won't stop buying scented personal hygiene products and matching throw pillows and cinnamon-flavored chewing gum.  But people who look slick and flawless are very hard for me to take.  It might make me un-likeable or unpopular, but here's what I really believe:

People who let themselves really be seen are the bravest ones of all.

There are all kinds of games we can play in life--I've been playing many of them for a long time.  There's the Look Good game, the Be Good game (much harder to shake), and I'm trying with everything I've got to switch leagues into the Be True game.  I think the hardest part for me is the way in which winning the Be True game requires me to lose the Look Good game and Be Good game, so even when I say I'm past caring about those things I still have to walk on stage and prove it.

If you want to come see me lose the Look Good game tonight, you can find the details for what will be an amazing show here.

On the Other Side of Brave

It feels embarrassingly familiar--my pendulum swing back and forth between being seen and being hidden--as if at any minute you guys could jump in and write this blog post on your own.

Yes, Jen, this always happens.  You're right on schedule, and no one is surprised.  You swing out, big and wide, with as much courage as you can muster, and then when it's over the worries begin.

"Did I say too much? Did any of it matter or make a difference to anyone?  Are we still sure we wouldn't all be better off if I was just a barista?" (Don't think we don't know you were plotting your application, For Real This Time, just yesterday.)

Here's the good news, you would say.  It comes, and it goes.  Stay under the covers, watch your movies, it will pass.  And soon enough it will be time to be brave again.  And love will be there to catch you. 

It always is.

Guest Post: If you're very lucky

Meet Phyllis Mathis, my beloved friend and mentor of over ten years.  Phyllis is co-founder and managing editor of Voca Femina, and the ontological coach behind Resonance Life Coaching.  Phyllis, with her profound wisdom and genius, and I joined our powers to cook up the Integrate Retreat in April, which promises to be the most transformative event I've been a part of yet. (There's still room for you to join us.)

Today she shares this story with us:

If you’re very lucky, at some brief moment in time, someone may come along and change your life. 

My someone’s name was Jay. That was the American name he adopted to prevent his yoga students from slaughtering his true Korean name.  

I was an ignorant, overweight, green around the gills yoga-newbie who had grown up on the belief that to darken the door of anything “eastern” was akin to dancing with the devil. Nevertheless I found myself enjoying the newfound flexibility, clarity, and strength provided by this modern/ancient practice, under Jay’s expert instruction. 

Included in my studio membership was a periodic “energy check” – a session with Jay in which he would poke around certain pressure points, looking for anything out of balance, any way he could help his students achieve a healthier balance.  

That particular autumn had been rough. My long-time business partner and close friend had turned vicious - in typical mean girls fashion - and had eviscerated me in front of my colleagues, just weeks after I had signed a five-year contract with her. I was a mess - stunned, wounded, and at a loss for how survive a whopping five years with this woman. 

I was in that condition one day after class, when Jay offered me an energy check. I warily followed him into the treatment room and lay down on the mat.  

He poked and prodded while I wondered what information he could possibly be gleaning, and for what purpose. He moved his hands to press a spot just below my left collarbone. I yelped in pain. 

“What is that?” I asked, completely surprised. 

“Ah,” he said, “You have problem with co-worker.”  

“How do you know that?” I demanded. How could he possibly know that? 

“This energy center have to do with relationships, coworkers,” he replied. “Tell me what is wrong.” 

I gave him a brief history of my humiliation and betrayal. His response startled me. 

“You have to fight!” he said, eyes narrowed, intense. 

“Oh no, I am not a fighter,” I blurted. How could I explain the situation, my cowardice, my complete lack of skills in the art of confrontation, my thorough intimidation under this woman’s glare? 

“In a fight, she is a lion and I am a chicken,” I offered, hoping a metaphor would bridge the cultural gap. 

His eyes did not lose their intensity.  

“Even a chicken knows how to fight for her chicks. You must fight like a chicken – for your soul!” 

His words hung in the air, the moment stretched out in time.  

The oracle had spoken.  

I took his words home, tucked them into my heart. Soon I managed to recover my dignity, face my partner, establish my boundaries, and get my power back.  

Not bad for a chicken. 

Shortly thereafter, the studio closed and Jay was gone.  

Five years later I realize that I was very, very lucky. You never know who might show up to change your life in an unexpected way. 

Curious about this weekend's retreat?  Follow me on Twitter, and I'll keep you posted on what we're up to, as I can.

The Middle Space

Lexington Express, Diana+

Tonight I'll be celebrating my anniversary of onstage storytelling with The BTK Band, an improvisational storytelling rock band led my friend, Peter Aguero.  They are something amazing to behold, all themselves.  They have a great show lined up--one I'm honored to be a part of--and today, like many days, I'm straddling the middle space.  You know the one--the huge cavernous gap between the confidence of knowing you've got a move to bring, and the vulnerability of being true or innocent or tender in a city that's famous for eating such people for dessert.

Big and small. Brave and vulnerable. Good and bad.  These are the dichotomies that have ruled my life, and it took so long for me to learn that I could (or would ever want to) be both, to learn there is a place to stand in the gap that lets you hold all your pieces at once.

Good and bad is probably the last stand for me in this battle.  This weekend I was thinking about how much of my life (most of it) has been about labeling or identifying the good and the bad parts of myself.  This intel fed a massive engagement to hide the bad parts, hoping they would disappear if I shoved them into a dark enough corner.

I still remember the tears that filled my eyes when I looked at Jen in her kitchen last April after she did a Humpty Dumpty number on me--the moment between when she completely undid me and the next, where she would show me the way back together again.

I said, "It's like who I am is a collection of quarters on the table, and I've spent all these years and all this effort trying to keep them all heads-up, to keep only my good parts showing."

"But you don't actually know which parts are good," she said. "Some of those pieces you keep under wraps are the best of all."

In that in-between, undone moment, I knew what it was to be loved.

It's taken months of having this be the larger conversation going on in the background of my life for me to return to it again with new eyes.

A quarter is worth 25 cents, regardless of whether it's facing heads up or tails up on the counter. And so it is with all of our parts, pieces and endless complicated facets.

It's been revolutionary for me to consider that perhaps:

  • my questions are more helpful than my answers.
  • my vulnerability, worry, intensity, fears--all the things I want to keep under wraps--have their own gifts to offer.
  • inviting them all into the picture paints a portrait of me that is more true, that is humanizing.
  • welcoming our dark, unpresentable parts into the light of day is an access point to our own humanity--to our truest selves.
  • showing up in life as our truest selves creates the possibility of deep connection--the kind of connection we long for.

This is what the Integrate Retreat in April is all about.  Finding our own dichotomies and the way to straddle the middle ground, to hold it all: big and small, brave and vulnerable, good and bad--to stand and move through the world with the kind of gentle fierceness that our raw humanity makes available.

I'm inviting you into this conversation, and if you're in the area, I'm inviting you to the show tonight (Under St. Marks, 9pm). Come.

***Thanks to everyone for the moving comments on the Weekend Giveaway. Via random.org, the winner is . . . Lindsey of A Design So Vast.  Congratulations, Lindsey! Email me at jen (at) jenlee (dot) net with your mailing address and your copy of "Lanterns" will soon be on its way. The rest of you will want to get the Light and Love while you can.

Confessions part 1, or Standing Out in the Open

out in the open, Central Park, photo by Meg Brothers, www.megbrothers.comSince this week's journey through the journal is partly about the things that we regard with judgment ("uninteresting", "unimportant", "too unspeakable to write"), it seems fitting to do a brief series of confessions here to go with it.  The next post will feature a page from my own copy of Take Me with You.

But, in the spirit of Go Big or Go Home (as my husband likes to say), here's one to start us off:

When I got the email saying the Squam 2010 class descriptions had gone live online, I couldn't even open them. Now, granted, I had other things on my mind at the time, but even so this was a moment I'd been regarding with trepidation for months.

The new classes weren't easy to plan, to describe, or to send to Elizabeth. She even called one day to talk me off the ledge when I was feeling nervous about committing to so much so far ahead of time, and doing it publicly nonetheless.

"There's this book I've been working on, and I think it should be a class, and I hope you aren't disappointed because it's not really a writing class," I said, and then I told her about my emerging project that didn't even have a title but seemed something like a care-and-keeping-of-artists-kind of manual.

"I trust you completely," was her reply.  And then she gave me everything I needed to move forward: understanding, permission and space to be in the emerging and unknowing between now and June.

The classes alone aren't my problem. The first problem is the audacity of my intention to write and publish companion books for all the classes I teach this year.  (I'm teaching in the Spring, the Fall, and at Squam by the Sea.) I'm compelled to do this, but I have no idea how I'm actually going to pull it off.  The second is the voice that is always waiting in the wings for its cue to jump onstage and declare while pointing to my chest, "Who do you think you are to do such a thing? What you know is so small compared to all that you do not."

And it's true.  I do not know many things, and anything I have to give I can only offer with humility.

So perhaps the two problems are really just one thing in disguise: fear.  Fear that I'll publicly fail to deliver all that I've promised, or that my work will be found wanting, which for me always boils down to the fear of not being loved.  These things are with me always, quietly humming in the background, but these next projects have them shouting and gesticulating and hogging the stage.

So I'm taking my own advice about courage, and recognizing that bigger leaps need to be solidly rooted in bigger love.  I'm trying to let love in more deeply than I ever have before, folding my hands quietly and handing things over to a more abiding trust than I have ever practiced, and confessing my fears so that courage can find me out in the open and not have to search for me under a rock.

Even though standing out in the open like this feels small.

 

What could you confess, in your journal or here in the comments section that would help courage find you?

"I see you just as you are, and just as you are not, and I have nothing but love for you." --Fortunes

A Year of Being a Beginner

I've been feeling nostalgic this week about the year drawing to a close.  New Year's Day feels like a lifetime ago, and so much has happened this year.  A year ago the Diana+ camera was just something on my wish list.  I thought I should figure out some photography move so I could have some visuals to pair with my writing.  My camera arrived a little into January, and so began my crash course in film, my adventures in cross-processing, and the way shooting saved me when I wrote all the way to the fence.

This year also began with the Portfolio Project game, which Jen and I hatched up in late December and many of you began playing with us in earnest on January 1st.  The game was a 12-week fast and dirty productivity burst, in which we focused on quantity over quality, trusting that even though it wouldn't all be good that some of the raw material would be.  I started podcasting then to have more time to write offline, and ran a podcast through the whole game.  The best of my work--visual and written--from those first three months became the Fortunes collection a few months later.

Being a beginner didn't stop with the photography or the new way of getting creative work done; it was the biggest theme of the year.  I started doing live storytelling on-stage at The Moth Story Slams in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I found the courage to tell the stories that I never tell, and traced back to the roots of that courage. I met a community of storytellers there that is kind and generous, and that continues to teach me more than I can say.

I attended the Blogher conference for the first time, met many of the Shutter Sisters and all the Kirtsy Girls.  Felt immediately more hopeful about the state of the world knowing that those women are in it.  Meeting online acquaintances face-to-face continued at Squam, my first art retreat and an event that itself held many firsts for me.

I felt the vulnerability and humility of being a beginner over and over again.  I had steep learning curves, which seems to be my way as I crash-course everything I can.  My word for the year was fearless, and I tried to leap into every project and event just as I was, without knowing what it meant or where it would lead.  You might expect that to feel strong like flexed muscles, but it didn't.  It felt crumbly and raw and unsettling--I felt unlaced and undone more than anything else. All. Year. Long. But looking through my photos from the year, I didn't see those things.  All I could see was the beauty of where trust can take you. 

Here's a quick, no-frills and flawed slideshow from the year (I can feel all my film friends cringing already)--just a few favorite moments and images that I'm holding close as I get ready to begin all over again. 

2009: A Retrospective from Jen Lee on Vimeo. Featuring the song, Ageless Beauty by Stars.

"Marching Orders" and A Voice Recovery Revolution

Central Park at Sunset, Diana Instant+, mulitple exposures

Dusk in The Mall, Central Park, Diana Instant+

Here are a couple pics from a beautiful little date we had in the park last night.  And a podcast to start your morning and your week.  I'm talking about receiving "marching orders" and holding big dreams.  (I mention this book.) Being bold enough to say it out loud has power, so the comments are open for you to tell us the marching orders you're currently following, the ludicrous assignments you're still regarding with suspicion, or the big dreams that make you gape and stare.

I went first. You can do it, too:

(Click on the link to listen in your browser, or right-click to download.)

If I wrote you a song

Carriage in Central Park, Diana+It was a few weeks ago when I was trying to wriggle out of the work unfolding before me, and I was having a really hard, fragile-feeling day.  I went into Manhattan for a story slam, and realized once I got there that I was there on the wrong day.  It was Tuesday, and the show wasn't until Thursday.  On the subway ride back home, I watched the sun set behind the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.  The sky was glowing with color and light, and the water below the bridge was a mirror next to the flame.

I was listening to one of Jonatha Brooke's songs on my iPod, and thinking how magic it would be if she was there right that minute.  If she could take one look at me and write the song I needed to hear.  What would that song be, I wondered. And I came home and jotted down these lines.  Then I forgot about them until this morning when I was thinking about a friend. 

If I wrote you a song, it might be something like this.  Because maybe at the end of the day, we are asking the same kinds of questions, trying to work out a truce with the same kinds of fears. I think we all have less frightening lives that woo us from time to time (the coffee shop barista apron beckons me more than you can know).  But I've never regretted being brave.  If you've been thankful, even once, for another person's courage, use that memory to help you believe that someone will be thankful and loving you on the other end of yours.

Love Me This Big (or Song I Wrote for Myself on a Shitty Day)

Can you look in my eyes
and see all that I carry
set it to a sweet tune
so it won't sound so scary
Will you write a lyric about dreaming
and another one about fears
Something that will make sense of
this laughter and these tears

Will you love me this big
will you love me this small
hold my power and passion
and my fear that I will fall
Do you see me on the mountaintop
and crying in my bed
Will you love me this big
will you love me this small

If you say what I need to hear
but put it in a rhyme
it will sneak up on me
when I'm having a good time
Tell me to come out of hiding
because it's not all about me
others are counting on me to speak
so they can also be free

Will you love me this big
will you love me this small
hold my power and passion
and my fear that I will fall
Do you see me on the mountaintop
and crying in my bed
Will you love me this big
will you love me this small

A Category for "I Love Your Guts"

Photo: potato heads and pieces, Diana F+ It was years ago when I was sitting in a room with a group of people who were engaged in an inquiry about authenticity, that one man got up and began to tell the story of how he had done something so heinous to another person that we would usually shrink back or lock one up behind bars for such a confession.  He was ashamed, and frightened to be so exposed in front of so many, but this thing was not going to let him go until he cleaned it up and left it behind.  He wasn't making any justifications or excuses, he was seeing and understanding the harm he had done and he was completely broken over it. 

I wasn't shrinking back, I was leaning forward.  I wasn't locating evil over there with him, I was seeing my own humanity in his eyes and I was filled with compassion.  He went on to tell about how he had called the woman he had hurt, so long ago, and how she forgave him.  I watched the forgiveness undo and then mend his soul, right before my eyes. 

I had been frightened, too, when he began to speak--I always was when anyone pulled back the curtain on their true selves, because I thought that some cruel abandonment was surely looming.  But I learned that day that I, too, could be brave.  That I might tell it the way it really is and magically find the room filled with love and not judgment.

I forgot that story, until yesterday when Phyllis told me another one like it.  She told me about a mentor who would point out this phenomenon in one of her groups.  When authenticity broke through like a ray of light through the clouds, he would say to them, "Look at this face. Have you ever seen such beauty?"  He would do this with men and women alike, and he challenged them all:  dare to be beautiful.  When we pull back the curtain, when authenticity breaks through, we are stunned by the beauty of the human soul.  It's sacred.  It's holy.

Phyllis and I talked about this kind of love for a long time.  It's distinctive from friendship because it doesn't really require a past or all the other kinds of knowing that friendship entails.  It's a kind of love that stirs you, wakes you up inside.  A kind that makes you want to reach out and take someone's hand or fold them into your arms or just look into their eyes in a way that says, I see you.  I know. Or, amen.

Classic movies like When Harry Met Sally have long occupied themselves with that old tennis match: friends or lovers?  Friends or lovers?  But I was so relieved when Phyllis told me these things.  "Thank you," I said.  "I just needed a category to put that in."  And I knew I wasn't the only one. 

This is an occupational hazard of doing authenticity work, whether you're a storyteller or an artist or even the rare scholar.  You can't help being wakened by the beauty of others' souls, or falling in love over and over again.

"It's really sad, isn't it," Phyllis replied, "that we don't have a category for I Love Your Guts."  Yes, I said. It's time for that to change.