I Feel Like I Should Say Hello

Pike Place, Seattle

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

And yet.

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

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

Say Something True

Caren and friends at a gathering of kindreds earlier this year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart

Central Park, last weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Hula's House

Hula's garden

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Posing for a picture

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

I trust myself all the more.

 

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

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

or how I found it inside your doorway,

how I found it in the circle of your arms.

 

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

Comparison and a Sense of Proportion

Are you the photographer?

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

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

Yeah--me, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at them until I could see myself.