On Holy Terror, Fear and Trembling

Photo by Katrina Noble, temporary tattoo by Chickadee Road

Photo by Katrina Noble, temporary tattoo by Chickadee Road

Documentary film update: I've officially hit the holy terror part of this project.

I know this feeling intimately--it's the same feeling I get when I'm working on a new story to tell onstage. It starts sometime after I say yes, after the event is announced, after people expect me to show up and deliver. It waits until I have a table full of parts and like some mystery mechanic I try to assemble them together for the first time.

I step back and see that it is all wrong, that it either doesn't hold together or doesn't stay together, or at best it looks good but is completely not operational.

That's when I get very quiet and wish my body could fold inside itself like those tiny notes we passed around the schoolyard, folded into wads the size of thimbles.

Maybe this is the time I don't pull it off. The thought sticks to me like a bad dream that still feels real after waking. It makes my body feel heavy, my movements slow and my breath shallow.

I'm not just afraid of looking bad publicly. It's true--the thought doesn't warm me, but in my better moments I can leave that out of it.

The bottom line is, I work in service of the story. The idea of not doing a story justice, not distilling out its essence and delivering it in a way that can be received, not getting to that juice that doesn't just entertain or amuse but transforms us--both in the telling and in the receiving--that is my fear, my most holy dread.

It makes my nerves raw. My body looks calm but If you look in my eyes you can see this very primal animal-on-the-run business just leaking out like invisible tears.

I used to mistake this feeling for madness.

I even got myself checked out to be sure.

She said, Do you really think that courage always feels like a cape flapping in the wind on a mountaintop? No. Most of the time it feels like fear and trembling.

That was good news, because I LIVE in the land of fear and trembling.

Okay, Loves, it's Join the Club time. Do you have a holy terror part of your creative cycle? What do you work in service of, and what is it you most fear? Scroll down to join the conversation in the comments, if you're reading via email click here, or pipe in on Facebook.

New Moves and Learning Curves

Photo by Allison Downey

Photo by Allison Downey

Do you ever get this feeling about something, where you just Know You Have That Move?

I tell my friends about the film project, The last time I felt that feeling this strongly was when I started telling stories on stage.

I hadn't done it before, but I knew I had it in me. Before I heard about the stage storytelling scene, I was studying how shows like This American Life were crafting stories for radio. And the very first time I attended a storytelling show, I was ready to put my name the hat. 

Before I'd even seen it done.

It took several weeks of repeating this before my name was finally drawn. We were at The Bitter End, and Dan Kennedy was hosting the annual Valentine's Day-esque show aptly themed "Love Hurts". That year, he'd made Valentines out of black construction paper for each of the storytellers.  (I think I still have mine somewhere.)

The acquaintances I was sitting with kept asking me if I was nervous, knowing my name was in the hat. I wasn't, and I couldn't explain it.

I remember Dan calling my name into the microphone that first time. I remember looking at my red shoes as I stepped up onto the stage and feeling just like Dorothy finally coming home.

It doesn't happen every day or even, in my experience, every year, but from time to time we are blessed with these glimmers or glimpses of being made for a moment. It's as though time suspends for the length of one long breath, and everything that has happened up until right now makes sense.

That's how it felt behind the microphone that first night.

It wasn't all magical ever after--I think sometimes as beginners we are given special graces to ease us into paths we may not have chosen if they had been too bumpy at the start. There was still a lot of craft for me to learn, and the problem posed by live storytelling was that there was no getting better at it privately. I had to be mediocre, over and over again, and publicly--this felt like a slow, tortuous death to my inner perfectionist. It was vulnerable and at times left me feeling shaken up and raw.

I keep thinking of this story in recent days. So many of the other things I've worked at, I've tried making my way up the steep learning curves somewhere away from public view. I've disappeared from this space, for instance, time after time as I taught myself design and layout, as I learned to publish and to produce. I have these long, quiet absences punctuated by these quiet announcements, "It's here!" showing off some final product that often lacks context, as you miss so many of the stories unfolding behind the scenes along the way.

So even though it feels like another slow death to me, I'd like to do as much as I can to bring you the stories unfolding behind the scenes right now as I take on my most ambitious work to date in the short documentary I'm now making. To bring you Notes From The Learning Curve, or something like that.

I'm trusting that you'd rather hear what's happening than not, that you can hold my beginner parts alongside any expertise I may also hold, and that the stories about what we make and why are at least as important as the things we make themselves.

Now, if you want to tell me I'm not alone, I won't stop you. What learning curves are you up against? What are you beginning? Or what move have you not tried yet, but are certain you've got it in you somewhere? (Don't worry--I won't tell.)

Looking Forward

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I miss you.

It keeps coming up, and then I think,  I should say something, but sometimes words are a little scarce, you know? And quiet times feel like something there's not so much permission for in these times.

But here's what I do want to tell you. There's greater work swirling about, because as I put together the short film I'm also forming a vision of my work as a whole in the coming season. And because I see my work in a context of partnership with my friends and collaborators, their forming visions of the next season of work is part of that conversation.

It's the kind of perspective that requires some distance--like seeing the earth from the moon. So these past days have been about getting that kind of distance. Stepping away, getting a little quiet, turning my mind to other things--like a new stage story--when my mind needs to work on the problem in an inactive sort of way (think new ideas in the shower). Pulling each part and piece into focus, distinguishing one from the other.

It's also meant taking inventory and a little looking back at how different experiments have played out.

And some of what I've seen back there has made me feel tender, and I've tried to hold myself with as much gentleness as I can muster. To forgive myself for sustaining injuries along the way, for the way those injuries made me want to pull back a little from view, for the string of vulnerabilities created by releasing so many heartfelt offerings in such a short time and the way it's been easier to stay quiet and small than risk being seen on any grand scale.

Some of it has been a self-protection mechanism, I can see that now. But I think there's a certain kind of grief that accompanies any realization about how we've been withholding from the world. So I'm traversing those feelings and gathering myself--along with a new sense of strength and well-being and resilience--and looking FORWARD to all the good and brave things to come.

The best remedy for the quiet is connection, so if there are things *you* are wanting to say, just jot them down in the comments section and I'll be happy to catch them.

Love and Bravery: Not Just for Grown-Ups

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The apartment is sometimes unkempt and the meals aren't always locally-grown masterpieces, but these girls are well-loved. They swim in the kind of compassion and acceptance that isn't contingent on their compliance, their submission or silence. It's the kind of belonging that's there for them just as fiercely in their moments of struggle as in their moments of ease.

I watch them spring from this board and take dives I still can only dream of--they risk being themselves. They stand for what they know in their souls is right. And their hands are quick to reach out to others, whether they are falling off swings or fearing the worst.

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Their small hands are there for me, too, at the end of my day. Slipping into mine as we walk down darkening sidewalks or pounding out the gentlest pizza-making-massage-moves you could ever dream of.

Our love is a circle, and bravery is a dance we do together.

 

 

Love Makes Us Brave shirts now available in girls' and women's sizes, among other styles, in our store.

Holiday Bustle and Dreams That Come True

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Lots of holiday bustle over here--but the very best kind. I'm in this very serious nesting-kind-of-kick as Thanksgiving approaches, giving the apartment some love (and getting happier and happier in my space with every minute), gathering food and having my mind just a little bit blown when I realize that visitors will arrive tomorrow. Creating clearings for rest and play and love.

We're also bustling here at Jen Lee Productions with a holiday special like we have never had before, just for those who have requested our catalog or to keep in touch in some other way with our offerings and happenings. You can go here to make sure you're on the list for our virtual postcard going out on Friday, and there's a couple days left to tell your friends.

I am feeling a sacred quiet and like my heart is busting out of my chest all at once when I think about the way you read along, journey alongside and support us as we make the good things of our dreams. It's been a landmark year: around this time last year we released Telling Your Story, then The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls. At Christmas time we were wrapping up The Iconic Self, then in the spring we introduced you to Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care and Beauty Everywhere: A Portable Gallery. The Gift of This Moment carried us into summer, with a CATALOG to hold it all together.

I still get that wobbly-knee feeling, just remembering how vulnerable it's been to take so many close-to-our-heart dreams and to make them real. To order boxes full of vision and to have faith they would be greeted with kindness and even open arms.

It's because of your encouragement, your belief and support that we've been able to do this. You literally make our dreams come true, and for that we are truly thankful.

The Limitations of Black Boot Armor

The Moth GrandSLAM at The Music Hall in Williamsburg, photo by Justin Lee

The Moth GrandSLAM at The Music Hall in Williamsburg, photo by Justin Lee

I thought if I had the perfect outfit, I wouldn't feel so vulnerable up there on stage.

Of course, one part of me is too wise to believe that, but another part of me couldn't help giving it my best shot.

I've been feeling a little angst-y about my clothes lately. Earlier this year I pinpointed some major food intolerances and when I stopped eating them a couple things happened: my skin cleared up for the first time since I was 12, and I dropped a size. Or two. I know that this is a problem that feels like no one has the right to complain about, but it didn't feel good to feel like my body was getting lost in a bunch of extra fabric--it felt like I was disappearing. And I didn't want to disappear on that stage.

So I went out and found some clothes that fit. I had my black boots that make me feel a little badass (not a lot, mind you, just enough). And then it was time to go. I pulled on my first boot and grabbed the zipper, which promptly fell off its track.

I wish I could say that on my way to sound check I am preoccupied with loftier things, but the truth is I was cursing those damn boots and mourning my perfect outfit. I threw on my rain boots, tossed a second pair of shoes in a bag and ran out the door.

On the subway I decided I was also wearing the wrong bra, and it was all I could do to not call Justin while I was going over the bridge and ask him to bring me another. Now you're really being crazy, I thought.

It's not like me to be keyed up about the shows, but this time was different. I was telling a story that happened pretty recently and is still close to the surface. It's also important to me, and I worried that I wouldn't do it justice in the telling. As long as I obsessed over my clothes I could avoid thinking about my story and that final moment when it's just me and a microphone and a whole lotta people listening.

It's easier to walk out into the spotlight with a funny story. I don't have a lot of experience in this department, but it's happened once or twice. I think what is much harder to me is giving the audience a window into my sadness. When I get really quiet alone with myself, or really really true, an ocean of sorrow is there, its tide rocking underneath everything.

Sorrow doesn't rank so highly in the entertainment department, but some stories won't let you go. You have to give up "being bulletproof", as Brené would say, leave behind your black boot armor. The things that are hard to say are just hard to say.

Nothing makes me feel more fortunate than being received by a compassionate audience, or spending a night among friends who let themselves be seen, who create together a night of big belly laughs and damp eyes and the courage to be just as we are, to say even the things that are hard to say.

My friend Micaela Blei won the night with a story that was tender and chilling and fierce, all at once. You can hear an interview with her on Retrospective.