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.

Beauty Everywhere: A Portable Gallery by Jolie Guillebeau

Jolie Guillebeau, jolieguillebeau.com

We all have stories we are born into, stories we are handed along the way, and many of them aren't easy.

But some people rise above the hard stories, some become more than the stories other people started for their lives. Jolie Guillebeau is one of these people, which makes her one of my personal heroes. I've said before that the story you are writing with your life is the most important thing about you, and the story Jolie is writing every day with her life is a story of resilience, courage and hope. I'll be honest: witnessing her do it sometimes takes my breath away.

Jolie's work, her friendship and her life are living proof for me that there is another chapter after this one, and that even the stories that others start and we are given are stories that we have the opportunity to end however we choose. That we can rise with grace and even sometimes with frailty, but in the rising is our strength. In the rising is our courage.

Now you can have a whole collection of Jolie's stories, which come alive through her words and paintings, as your daily companion as you bravely write your own.

 

This is a limited edition collection, signed and numbered by Jolie. When they're gone, they're gone, so order yours while you can.

BONUS: Order before next Wednesday, 5.2.12, to receive one of Jolie's 5x7 fine art prints FREE with your order.

Beauty Everywhere: A Portable Gallery by Jolie Guillebeau

*100 Daily Paintings and the stories behind them

*8.5 x 5.5", Full-color throughout  

*92 pages, Double wire bound

*Unique easel-style back allows for easy display

$45 USD, ships free worldwide

Update: Listen to Jolie's interview on the Retrospective podcast (Released 5.15.12), where she talks about rewriting the stories we've been given and her journey as an artist.

Filling My Mind and Fueling My Body

Someone wanted to pose as a wheelbarrow...

There are a hundred other things I should be doing, but instead here I am, saying hello. We're getting ready to introduce a new project tomorrow by the joyful Jolie Guillebeau. It's really one of the loveliest projects we've ever done. I have trips to the printer about the catalog in my future, along with ironing out the details with iTunes on the new Retrospective podcast. Then there are events I'm dreaming up and planning up and I'm sure another dozen things swirling about.

But here is what is filling my mind and fueling my body these days: this very quiet awe about what we can make against a backdrop of friendship--how rich and inviting and welcoming it all is. The people whom I clutch close to my heart, whether they know it or not, and the gratitude that comes with living inside a story of love. It's a story that I hope will never end, and that we will some day find a way to tell properly.

There is much to do, much undone, and all terribly imperfect, but in this moment I am all joy.

(Make sure you listen to and download Strong by Maya Stein. It is an absolute balm.)

Retrospective: A New Podcast...and Maya Stein!

If all the people I know and love lived here in my neighborhood, I would host a party every Friday night so you could meet one another and hang out. You would be so inspired and happy to know each other, as I am every single day.

But we live near and far, and we will likely never be all together on a Friday night. So I'm creating this new podcast series as an attempt toward the next best thing.

It's called Retrospective, and it features in-depth conversations with artists, authors and visionaries about the places in which we find ourselves and the stories that brought us here. It's an inquiry into our experience of journey. But at the heart of it, it's an introduction between some of my favorite people in all the world.

It's coming soon to iTunes and all that jazz, but I can't wait for everything to be 'just so' because my first interview is with poet Maya Stein and it is a very time-sensitive conversation about her latest project, Type Rider. Here's the video trailer:

Yesterday I went in to meet Maya on the Highline Canal in Manhattan. She was here in town, and she's been setting up writing stations here and there, even though the official Type Rider trip doesn't launch for another few weeks. I wasn't sure how it would go over here in New York--would people be curious, or too cautious to investigate?

Just those few minutes I witnessed there, with passerby being drawn to her blue typewriter like bees to blossom and Maya conversing with them in a space of pure welcome, held so much beauty and humanity that I was all tears under my sunglasses. I wanted a video camera or some other way to capture the quality of playfulness and adventure that was as tangible as the warm sun on our cheeks. Some way to bottle it up and give it to you like the best present ever.

I do have this to offer you, though: a heart to heart chat, friend to friend, with Maya herself.

There are only a few more days to fund the Type Rider project--please help us spread the word.

 

Maya Stein is a poet, feral writing instructor and adventurer. She is the author of Spinning the Bottle and The Overture of an Apple. On her blog you can sign up to receive one of her original 10-line poems in your inbox every Tuesday.

 

 

Click the link below to play the episode in your browser (it may need a couple minutes to load), or right-click (or control-click) to download it into your library. I have individual files of each of the poems she reads to share with you, but it looks like I need to post those separately. Look for them to be added in the coming days (along with ways to subscribe to this new series.)

Get Good Mail

Cover photography by Bella Cirovic, shetoldstories.com

Our second catalog is here--and it's a bit bigger and bolder than before. It's off to the printer now, and very soon we will have many many many to send out to mailboxes near you.

Some people have already signed up to get theirs--your enthusiasm rocks! But don't worry--it's not too late for you to get good mail, too. Simply jump over here to jot down your POSTAL mailing address (that's right--a real, live object to hold in your hot little hands) and we'll add you to the list. (And it's free. AND I will even send to you International Loves.)

We've had rich adventures together, my collaborator-friends and I. Seeing the collection we've cooked up in this last year really moves me.

This publication is a celebration of friendship and the magic of making dreams come true, together.

If you really want to make our day, help us spread the word so others can get good mail, too. If you want a button to share, you can copy and paste this code:

<a href="http://www.jenlee.net/home/get-good-mail.html"><img src="http://www.jenlee.net/storage/JLP-Good-Mail.jpg" alt="" /></a>

Ritual & Rhythm by Caren McLellan Gazley

Many people probably dream of someday writing a book, or have some version of that aspiration on a list somewhere. Caren McLellan Gazley has dreamed of many (other) things, but she wrote this book for one simple reason.

I asked her.

It's been my delight and honor to introduce people to Caren in retreat and workshop settings, where her no-nonsense, candid manner endears her to all. I hope to gather again many more such times in the future, but in the meantime I wanted people--near and far--to be able to hold some portion of her story and her hard-won wisdom in their hands.

Caren at a Brooklyn Patisserie in December

From leading faith-based communities to their current humanitarian work in anti-human trafficking, Caren's partnership with her husband, Phil, and their journey together have taken them all over the world. She’s cultivated tried-and-true, practical-as-your-mama’s-good-advice wisdom about how to stay sane and even thrive in the midst of passionate work, parenting, community, and even devastating loss.

"Many years ago I had a decision to make: pack up and quit, or figure out a way to maintain my energy for the long haul." --Caren in Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care

In Ritual & Rhythm, Caren chronicles her self care journey, sharing her struggles, challenges, and all she's learned along the way. She reminds us that body care IS soul care, and that all we do for ourselves benefits everyone around us. Through the practical examples she shares, we learn how to craft our own daily or weekly rituals for taking care and find nourishment as our everyday living unfolds inside their rhythm.

at The Integrate Retreat in The Rockies

"When my self care journey began, what I most needed was some deliberate time apart for myself. Time that required nothing of me emotionally or mentally. Time without expectations from others. And so I created a safe place in my kitchen."--Caren in Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care

Caren playing with color after dinner in Berkeley

In a world of Do More and Go Faster, and in the face of human need that can stretch like a bottomless ocean before us, this book is the permission we've been waiting for and the guidance we need to find our way into a lifestyle that goes beyond surviving, into a realm where things like thriving, sustaining and flourishing carry the day.

Special Bonus: Everyone who orders Ritual & Rhythm before next Wednesday (4/11/12) will receive a full-color printable pdf featuring four of Caren's most-requested recipes, designed by Liz Kalloch and written in Caren's own handwriting.

We are thrilled to officially release:

Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care

by Caren McLellan Gazley

Photography by Andrea Corona Jenkins, Design by Liz Kalloch

Paperback, 48 pages

$28 USD, ships free worldwide

A Story of Love and Friendship

Phyllis in her Colorado home this summer.

The story of my work is always, at its core, a story of love and friendship.

I met Phyllis Mathis when I was 22 years old. I had been married for less than a year, and out of college even less than that. I still remember every detail of our meeting--the metal folding chairs we shook hands across, that curious banter you do with strangers, the way she stood with shoulders back, head high, her face radiating warmth and welcome. It's as if some part of my memory-making mind woke up and said, Pay attention. This moment is important.

Not long afterward I attended a retreat Phyllis led and as she spoke one morning I was overcome by this strong sense of kindredness which I wish I could say happens to me more often than the rare times it actually does. I thought, Something about the way her mind works and the way my mind works feels the same. Our journeys have been entwined ever since.

Years later, when the first thread gave the first tug that began the unraveling of my life as I then knew it, Phyllis was the first person I called. She sat across from me and watched in real time as all the pieces I had so carefully crafted and constructed fell to the floor and shattered.

She later said it was one of the most beautiful things she's ever seen.

There is not a secret in me that she has not held. Not a single place she has been unwilling to journey with me, no matter how dark or embarrased or unfit for public consumption I become before it's all over. Her friendship has been a safety net that has caught me and reassured me and given me courage time and time and time again.

Cover photography and design by Liz Kalloch, lizkallochdesigns.comThis week we're sending our collaborative project into production, and today as we do the finishing touches, I'm so present to the depth and richness of the wisdom and stories we've mined in over a decade of friendship, the ways we've helped one another weave in and understand even the stories which began long before. It's the most epic piece of work I've undertaken yet, and I am just humbled beyond belief to be able to share it with you soon.

I'm a big bundle of feelings in the meantime: excited, a little nervous, very tender, but most of all deeply grateful for this woman and this friendship which have shaped and comforted and guided me all along the way.

The Iconic Self (available now for pre-order) releases January 24, 2012.

 

Missing Mel

Mel and me, yesterday on the stoopIt's our farewell visit, but I can't really wrap my mind around it because it feels like every other day. Like every other day when the kids are running on pure bliss in the bedroom or snacking from a shiny silver bowl around the kitchen table, Mel and me sitting on red stools and talking of ordinary things as if they are not going to be on the other side of the world soon. She asks if I'm ready for the show tonight and I shrug, saying I haven't really rehearsed because we're playing it loose and making it up as we go on this one. She teases me a little, the way only people who really love you can. She tells me about what happened at the dentist office and we both feel that ache you get when you're worried about your little ones. I tell her I finally found a gift for my husband for Christmas.

 

I don't have many friendships that span all my many worlds. School/playground friends who are also artist friends who are also storytelling friends. Only this one, and I felt spoiled with it the whole time.

 

We're both travelers, and we know the hard parts about leaving like a recipe you've learned by heart. Maybe this is why we don't say the things that don't really need saying—like what a gift it's been to be together for this season. How nothing in the world is as good as red stools and snacks in shiny silver bowls and friendships that catch stories like What Happened at The Dentist Today.

 

We say, send me that picture, and, I'll email you that link. And, we'll see you soon on Skype. And when it's time to go, we go, even though it aches all the way home.

Collaboration Closeup: Liz Kalloch

Top of the Rock by Liz Kalloch, from "Telling Your Story" (also current website banner)

If I were really telling the truth about this story, I would tell you how alone I felt back then. How I'd started thinking that the kind of partnerships I dreamed of were just that--pipe dreams. I would tell you that I did the Finding Your Voice course largely on my own, even though I can't stand working that way, because it was getting me through a hard winter. And it took half a dozen friends to hold me together.

Liz draws me for "Telling Your Story"

I thought about people who felt soothing to my soul, and Liz Kalloch was one of the first people to come to mind. I was trying to figure out a way to see her and spend more time with her, (we met at Squam and she lives on the other coast) and she said, "It would be really fun to create a project together".

It was like when you've had a really bad fall on the sidewalk, and you're sitting there staring at your bloody knees, too sore and dazed to try standing, and someone stops and reaches out her hand.

It was just like that.

I remember talking to Jen Gray back then, telling her how I received Liz like a gift from the gods. She said, "Liz Kalloch is an earth angel," and I said, "Oh my god, YES. That is EXACTLY what she is."

Plenty of people are talented, but not everyone is kind. Plenty of people can do the work, but not everyone can do the work in love.

And for me, the kindness and love are everything.

I wanted Telling Your Story to have as much visual beauty packed into it as possible, so we came up with this idea for Liz to do line art based on the photographs that were going into the project. The simplicity of her pieces, along with the subtle repetition, really infused the whole curriculum with visual interest without making it feel too busy. We even added her work to the "blank" pages in the back that can be inserted throughout the 3-ring binder wherever they are needed. She was my design consultant for the project as I put together the layout, working the cover with me and doing the entirety of the Telling Your Story Sound Studio design this fall.

The other idea we cooked up all those many many months ago was a new print edition of The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls manual I'd written and taught from last fall. It would feature Liz's original line art drawings, my full-color photos and some new writing. The final result is so exquisite to hold in your hands that people literally go speechless for a moment when I hand it to them.

 Front Cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls

A peek inside of "The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls: A Manual", line art and design by Liz Kalloch

 

Back cover: The Care and Keeping of Creative SoulBy now we have so many good things cooking, I can hardly stand it. Liz is my vision catcher, my collaborator, my magic-maker and dear friend who talks me down from the tree. I couldn't be more honored to be on this journey with her, hand-in-hand, or more thrilled to share her and her work with you.

 

 

Liz Kalloch has been dancing to her own beat from an early age, when she thought the Brownie badges were ugly and made her own. (So clever, and yet so unappreciated by her troop leaders.) Her creativity bursts forth through more mediums than we can name here, but her greatest work is what she creates out of love, friendship, beauty and an adventurous heart.

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.

Out the Train Window

Horizon Perfekt Camera, xpro Lomo Chrome 100 film

There were times this summer when I would have given anything to just ride and ride these tracks up and down the west coast for days, alone. Staring out the window, breathing into the motion and the miles while my soul caught up with its own changing terrain.

I didn't get my days, I got hours. I didn't get my alone, I got two children and interruptions at 30-second intervals. But I did get my train, and my window--for a few magical moments. And I am still staring out at the big big sky, whether I'm back on an East Coast beach or on a ferry or just standing by the kitchen window. Still breathing into the motion and the stillness while my soul catches up.

So many gifts have kept me company these last weeks, including some books I found on the stoop. I read The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and this passage made me feel certain that we knew some of the same people:

He will not ask the name of the movie star; he actually does not care. Richard, alone among Clarissa's acquaintance, has no essential interest in famous people. Richard genuinely does not recognize such distinctions. It is, Clarissa thinks, some combination of monumental ego and a kind of savantism. Richard cannot imagine a life more interesting or worthwhile than those being lived by his acquaintances and himself, and for that reason one often feels exalted, expanded, in his presence. He is not one of those egotists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be--capable of doing more good and more harm in the world than you've ever imagined--it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you've left him, that he alone sees through to your essence, weighs your true qualitites (not all of which are necessarily flattering--a certain clumsy, childish rudeness is part of his style), and appreciates you more fully than anyone else ever has. It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but becase he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures. Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come even to depend on it, the way they depend on coffee to wake them up in the mornings and a drink or two to send them off at night.

Sharing your journey with such a character can give you the feeling of flying with Icarus--super-human and close to the gods. It can be exhilarating and inspiring, until you realize your companion has forgotten who he is, a mortal, and is married to some alternate reality in which he supercedes all boundaries and rules.

It's not easy to trade in your wings and return to the dirt, to feel yourself face-down in the kind of divot a body makes in the earth after a great fall. The ground itself is not the problem, for the ground is a great comfort--a reminder that gravity and sanity reign. It's the fear of never again feeling the wind in your hair, the worry that all your magic was an elaborate ruse.

There's a time to lay there, face-down in the dirt. And there's a time for getting up, for dusting yourself off and assuming your true height in the world. No more or no less than all you truly are, feet planted and head high. And maybe (just maybe) a little wind in your hair.

A Little Valentine's Day Magic

The girls and I roll out the sugar cookies with a rolling pin and cut them out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter while I tell them the story of how my mom made these cookies for us growing up. How they weren't the kind that we ever made together or watched her bake. When we went to sleep the night before Valentine's Day, there was no sign of them.

And when we woke up the next morning, they were there.

You were lucky, Amelia says. That's a lot of work.

Damn straight.

This is how traditions were in my family--steady, simple, without a lot of flash. You never needed much to make a little magic or to make someone's day.

These are the cookies my mom sent me on Valentine's Day in a care package when I was in college. I ate the whole freaking batch, sharing them sparingly. They are the cookies I made for my fiancee on Valentine's Day a month before our wedding because every penny I was making at my part-time job in the Men's Basketball Office was going toward the purchase of his wedding ring. I baked them in the apartment that would be our first home together.

They are the cookies my sister, Kendra, made for us the night before our move to New York. But instead of the traditional red sprinkles, she spelled out letters in the icing with the tip of a toothpick. All together they said, "Good luck in NY". We had some at our last meal all together that night and took the rest with us for the journey.

The girls and I are baking ours all together this year, a few days early for a party we're throwing for some of our second-grader friends. I frown when I realize too late that we don't have any red sprinkles, just some multi-colored, flower-shaped ones. My daughters don't know the difference, but I do. Then I taste-test one and cringe. Not like Mom's at all. Not like my sister's. I should have iced them the night I made them, not the day after, I lecture myself.

As the party creeps closer, my performance anxiety kicks in. I remember what a bad party-goer I am--how parties put my three greatest weaknesses (small talk, relaxing, having fun) on wild display. I worry that as a result I'll be a bad party-thrower. I remember the looks on our friends' faces the day before, brimming with anticipation and animation as they jumped up and down and said they already knew what they were going to wear.

Would our steady, simple, without-a-lot-of-flash party be nothing more than a big let-down? Would they look at our decorations and think that if we really cared we would have searched a little harder for the clear tape instead of settling so quickly for the masking tape?

Would they think the flower sprinkles didn't look very valentine-y, that the cookies were a bit too hard, that our heart-shaped doilie valentine craft was too juvenile or plain (for God's sake, I didn't even have glitter)?  Is it possible, I wondered, to make magic from such humble ingredients as these?

Too soon it's time to get them. I rally my adult supporters and walk ten girls home from school. Lead ten girls up to our third-floor walk-up.

I always get nervous when I go to someone's house, one of them confides.

That's okay, I say. I always get nervous when I have people over to my house. I just want them to have a good time.

Coats and backpacks come off, and it's immediately apparent that the girls have brought some magic of their own. Sparkly shirts, frilly skirts, and odes to love of things like horses proudly displayed. One of them brings a bag with candies--the heart ones with messages that it didn't even occur to me to get. The party's a hit before it even begins. Turns out, their enthusiasm and love for each other are all we really need.

It's actually a lot of fun, the nervous one reports back to me. I'm stunned as the humble ingredients and simple traditions work, and a little teary as I watch the best parts of girlhood spin around in a dance with joy.

And no one says anything but good about the cookies.

Traditional Sugar Cookies

3/4 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 tsp lemon extract

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

Mix thoroughly shortening, sugar, eggs and flavoring. Blend in flour, baking powder and salt. Cover; chill at least one hour. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll dough 1/8 inch thick on slightly floured wax paper. Cut into shapes. Place on ungreased baking sheet or stone. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until very light brown.

Icing: powdered sugar, a little milk, a splash of vanilla. For Grandma's touch, add a dollop of coffee. Ice as soon as cookies cool--not the next day.

When the Cameras Break

photo by Tracey Clark

Every summer, I gather for a few days with friends on the Oregon coast.  It's a refuge, really, from work and worries and woes, to revel in the simple pleasure of being together. 

I was so excited to have my panoramic camera this year, dreaming of wide ocean views, but it broke within minutes of my arrival at the shore.  Then I thought I'd switch to instant film, but that equipment, too, stopped working. I dug through my bag for back-up plans and equipment, and grabbed my digital camera for a day-long outing.  We were there five minutes when the battery died. 

I just kept trying to breathe, and to move from Plan E to Plan F to Plan G.  I ended up with a few Diana shots (with a standard shape I've never tried before), but after recharging I mostly shot with my digital camera, which is rare for me.  I also remembered to pull out my new Flip Video and play with it a bit.

I put this little project together with the digital shots and clips.  I'm hoping that it reminds me all year long that surprising (and even beautiful) things can happen when it seems like everything's going all wrong. 

Photos taken with a Canon Rebel XTi and a 50mm f1.4 Lens .  Thanks to the good people at Lomography for solving all my equipment problems when I got home.  And thanks to my friends for all the ways in which they restore my soul.

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.

Some Friends

KateSome friends take you just as you are.  They don't need you to dial back or simmer down.  Some friends will go there with you, wherever "there" might be today. They'll dig in and pull apart the tangles with you, or just sit with you and your coffee and the best chocolate on earth that they arrive with as a matter of fact.  They'll join you in your fantasy of how one might thank such chocolate-makers properly.

Some friends feel like you've known them forever.  They come with the kind of connection that defies time or geographic distance.  You love them as though you've been loving them your whole life long, and they understand you so instinctually that they might as well have been with you since the beginning.

Some friends know how to be brave.  How to dream a life and make it, how to dream a love and hope for it.  Some friends know how to greet the coming future with hearts cracked open wide.  They sit patiently with sadness through the long, quiet hours of night.  But when it is time, they slide off sorrow like an evening gown that is out of place at dawn, and they run with bare feet to greet the morning sun.

Now it is time

Photo by Stephanie Roberts, www.littlepurplecowphotography.comWhen a Rwandan woman named Odette asked Jen if she could use her phone, so many months ago it's now been years, Jen's intuition told her, "This one will cause you trouble."  We joked about that last week, calling it the understatement of the century.

The road she's been on ever since that day--reuniting Odette with her two daughters--has turned her life so upside down and inside out that the internal workings of her heart and her soul are nearly unrecognizable.  She would be the first to say that this is why she has received more from this adventure than anything she gave.

When the rest of us were invited into this story, we were welcomed into it in the same manner.  Many of us have felt surprise at how much room in our hearts Odette and her girls have inhabited.  How deeply we've cared, how strongly we've longed for this famly to have a happy ending.

But Odette's gifts were for all of us, as well.  She gave us long stories, and the kind of friendship that only comes from long telling and long listening.  Her stories kindled our hope and fueled our dreams.  They fed our belief in love, especially the kind of love that can turn strangers into sisters.

A community of hope was born through this story, and now, along with the longing, we all get to share in the knowledge that we do not hope in vain.  That we ourselves can be a source (and when we are in need, a recipient) of the kind of fierce love that hears, This one will cause you trouble, and says, Yes, anyway.  This love could break your heart--I won't lie--but it has taught me that in the end, it always gives more than it takes.

This journey has lifted us, sobered us, humbled us, and at times brought us to our knees.  It has pushed up against and then broken down the boundaries we constructed around love, the ideas we had about how much was too much to give to, or too much to receive from another person.  We will never be the same.

Now it is time to join our hearts and hands and give thanks.

Love always wins.


It's not too late to help cover the costs of this amazing reunion.

On Light and Love: A Weekend Giveaway

A lot of people throw around words like Light and Love, but when my friend, Jenna McGuiggan, speaks of such things, she does so as one who really knows what it is to long for them, to hope for and then find them.  She speaks as someone who shines her light and bestows her love onto humble hearts like mine.  This makes her the most beloved kind of friend.

Sometimes we cook up ways to share the love, which is exactly what Jenna did with her latest project, Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories.  There's an intimacy in the way she shared her journey into friendship and togetherness in this project, a generosity in the way she gathered her friends to extend their gifts to her on to you.  There's a hope these stories plant in your own lonely places that assures you there is no dark corner that light cannot eventually reach.

It is my sincere honor to play a small role in this moving work, and my extreme joy to offer a free copy to one of you!  Just leave a comment on today's post telling us about someone whose light has illumined your path, and I'll announce the winner on Monday morning.

But if you really want to win big, head on over to Jenna's site, where you can hear an audio excerpt of Lanterns and find an amazing package this month called Light and Love, that includes:

  • one signed copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories;
  • one 5"x7" color print of "The Chocolate Room" by Jennifer McGuiggan;
  • an audio recording of the book's opening poem, "Oceans Vast: A Blessing," by Rachelle Mee-Chapman
  • a handwritten love note; and
  • a sweet treat, all thoughtfully packaged.

Time for Holiday Cheer

Share the Love, in limited-edition holiday gift bagsI love giving gifts.  To me, the only thing better than giving a gift is giving a REALLY GOOD gift.  One that says to my dear ones: you are seen, you are known, you are cherished.  I love letting them know they were thought of, considered, provided or cared for.

The Trio, a limited-edition holiday gift set

I love giving things that are soulful, inspiring, and beautiful. Things that will be good companions for their journey.  Things that will remind them that I carry them in my heart.

Limited-Edition gift bags, each available with The Trio

Because at the end of the day it's not about the things we have or the things we want.  It's about celebrating friendship and love.  It's about taking time to remember the richness every dear presence brings to our lives--the big picture and the daily kindnesses. It's about expressing gratitude, and receiving love.

May love and gratitude be yours as we enter this season of holiday cheer.