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.