A Timeline of My Journey, and Turning the Corner

The Cloisters, NYC

The Cloisters, NYC

There's a certain perspective that one simply doesn't have in the moment. We rarely think, Today is the day I begin a slow but tangible downward spiral. When we speak of hind-sight, part of what we are aiming at is this ability to see life events in the context of all that came both before and after.

And sometimes it takes someone from the outside telling us the view from Out There to help us even identify the shifts which have occurred. I've had these conversations lately, and I spent some time revisiting the events and milestones of the last few years.

Here's what I can see now.

I remember when I started my blog in 2005. I remember my mom being really perplexed by the idea that anyone besides herself or my grandparents would care to read it. This space has meant many different things to me since then, but more often than not it's been a quiet little corner of the internet where I could stay under the radar while still saying the things I had to say.

In July 2008, I released Don't Write, a Reluctant Journal. Near the end of that same year came a collection of audio poem/stories called Solstice: Stories of Light in the Dark. In June 2009 I released Fortunes and then in September of that same year was Take Me With You: A Journal for the Journey . That same month, I started teaching workshops about the dilemmas we face around truth-telling and its consequences and how to craft our stories. 

In 2010, I taught at six intensive events--three of them were retreats I hosted with friends and collaborators. I hadn't calculated yet how much this work costs me in soul, and on top of that 2010 was a year filled with grief and loss from beginning to end. It was too much. We lost family members and friends (there were too many funerals), and one of my primary relationships unraveled, taking part of my creative community along with it.

I cannot always tell the stories of the failures and departures and unravelings with the same vivid enthusiasm as the stories of finding our dear ones and the joy that initially follows. There are no Flickr groups for those moments. And to only be able to tell one side of that coin placed me in a major bind. I'd been struggling for some time with the relationship between my public and private worlds, and this is probably when I tucked my head down even more.

head down.jpg

I felt exposed and grief-stricken from a year that had just snowballed down the mountain and finally caught up with me. All I wanted to do was hide away in my studio, make beautiful things, and drop them into mailboxes.

And so that's what I did.

In 2011, I turned my live workshops into multimedia home study courses and manuals, and embarked on some amazing creative collaborations.  Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Story, and The Care and Keeping of Creative Souls all came out, quickly followed in early 2012 by The Iconic Self, Ritual & Rhythm: A Guide to Creative Self Care, Beauty Everywhere: A Portable Gallery and The Liz Lamoreux Collection.

at Teahouse Studio

at Teahouse Studio

I made new friends, built a new community, and dedicated myself to creating a really rich private world. I sunk in deeply and deliciously with my husband and my children, I spent time with my peers here in New York and traveled to see friends far-away. But this time I've been quiet about so many of the good things and so many of the good times, not knowing when it might all shift again in a way that ties my hands from making retractions.

Because let's be honest: how are you really going to say, Hey everyone, I'm not friends with this person anymore--just wanted you to know. Or, hey everyone, I'm not working with this other person anymore. How do you say, Your heroes are not who you think they are? There's no photo album of it all crumbling and going terribly, horribly wrong in a way that even begins to balance the vivid stories that were told of it coming together and for a moment feeling full of promise and hope. And even if there was, I wouldn't post it.

In the fall of 2011, I was taking increasing risks in my stage storytelling, and my public/private anxiety hit a climax in early 2012 when I started feeling agoraphobic. I couldn't have my web browsers open without feeling like people were 'watching me', and I was wearing brimmed hats and sunglasses to pick my kids up from school, hoping not to talk to any of my parent-friends because I simply couldn't handle talking to anyone.

Photo by Bella Cirovic, shetoldstories.com

Photo by Bella Cirovic, shetoldstories.com

I've come a long way since then, and I'm ready to stop flying under the radar. I'm ready for my work to be seen.

That looks like many things, like turning the comments back on (which I've abandoned at times when I felt too vulnerable), and learning to use Facebook, which has been one of my top anxiety triggers. (So, if you've ever had the thought: Wow, it's like Jen doesn't know what she is doing on Facebook At ALL, you've been right.)

If things are a little clunky or awkward as I transition back from the quiet, burrowing mode into something resembling the freedom and ease I felt when I thought only my five friends were reading, I hope you will extend your understanding and generosity my way.

It's hard to feel completely remedial at things I 'should be' better at, given what I do. It's hard to feel tender, it's a slow process to learn how to let the world see something true while still holding close what is sacred and private. It's hard to feel like Humpty Dumpty, climbing back up on that wall.

If this does not sound completely crazy to you, please comment and say so. Do you have any idea what I'm talking about here? What can you see about the seasons you've traveled through or the one you're currently in? Or come like my page on Facebook and tell me it's going to be okay.

*P.S. Many of the offerings mentioned here are available in the shop.

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.)

Show Your Work

marla's housd.jpg

My aunt and uncle's home in New Hampshire is a place of refuge for me. It's a place to spread out and rest, to cozy in under blankets and warm socks by the fire.

So much of what is said there sticks firmly in my memory and travels with me on the way, including a conversation I had with my aunt once about a book she had recently read. It was by someone like Thomas Moore, and her complaint was that it was heavy on conclusions but light on narrative. She said, "I wanted him to show his work--I wanted to know how he got there, what he was reading, who he was talking to, what was happening in his life."

And I knew it wasn't just the science teacher in her talking.

The journey doesn't only matter, but it in itself is instructive, even though it is still common practice to separate wisdom from the stories that landed us on its shore.

Showing your work isn't easy--it's hard to sometimes understand the way different parts or pieces synthesize together inside of us. It's hard to acknowledge the influence of people we'd rather forget, to talk about the breaking and losing in equal measure as the building and finding.  And no matter how we try, the closest we can get is an approximation of the whole, which is more richly textured and multi-dimensional than our screens and pages can hold.

And yet. Showing Your Work doesn't leave me, it keeps beckoning me to try. To tell the stories behind the thoughts, to acknowledge the people and conversations and moments that bring me there. To let the journey itself teach us all.

Lost and Found

Cross-processed Lomo Tungsten 64 film with Horizon Perfekt camera

Cross-processed Lomo Tungsten 64 film with Horizon Perfekt camera

It has been a strange year for me and photos. I was still shooting at the start of the year, but misplacing several finished rolls was disheartening. Then there was the new camera I was so excited about getting last year for Christmas that ended up being too much work in post-production. (Over a hundred tiny scans per roll that then required straightening and cropping.) Then my scanning software"expired", which I didn't even know was possible.  

Then I got a new camera: a digital movie-making one and started learning it.  And I had a lot of emotions about all of these things.

And then something strange happened in the last week or two. I started finding lost rolls of film, in studio drawers and winter coat pockets--I mean there's really no explanation for how I could not have looked in those places before. So I developed them and scanned them, and in the coming weeks I may be sharing all kinds of images from the year in no particular order.

That's the outside story.

Here's the inside story.

But the end of February I knew I wasn't okay. I had taken a week off while the girls were on mid-winter recess and my parents were here visiting, and the night before children were going back to school and I could get back to work, I was just overcome with anxiety. I mean lying in my bed wide awake with dread and despair washing over me. This was super strange because my work is usually a place of refuge, safety and joy for me. That's the exact moment I knew I wasn't alright.

I've had a lot of support since then, the kindest assistance with taking an inventory of my "internal scaffoldings", re-wiring and redesigning and rebuilding in the places that haven't been serving me.  And sometimes it feels I am always writing about learning curves and growing pains, but I've gotta tell you--they just don't slow down over here.  Perhaps a brief plateau or pause, but then it's back to shedding or becoming or whatever this process is.

Here's one thing that is dis-equilibrating: the way my vision gets stripped down in these seasons. It's hard to see the world (or myself in it) with enough clarity to capture. Everything feels dull on the outside while the inside is under such scrutiny or even just care.

I knew I was feeling better when I felt like pulling out my camera and shooting again, maybe a month ago. And Bella said, "You need new pics." And Christiane saw the photos on my bulletin board and said, "love the pictures, but this is not how I see you at all." And so I know this is now what's next--adjusting my eyes to this new place, and to myself in it. To align my body and my senses with this new inner landscape. To let myself be found.

Two Journeys and the Bridge Between Them

Transient

One of the reasons why I feel so behind or backlogged when I've been out of touch is that there's not just one batch of stories to tell. Sure, I was away for a week working on the documentary project, and I came home to sick children and caught what they had and we spent a week together on the couch. And then we squeezed in a birthday celebration before the next round of illness hit and then there was a super storm and we were all home another week. There were a couple close calls and so many dishes to wash. 

This journey itself holds plenty of stories, its portion and then some of emotions. It could criss-cross maps with its starting and ending points. 

But that's just the outer journey. While all of that was happening on the outside, there was another journey happening on the inside. There were books read and provoking films watched, there were conversations to both soothe and aggravate. There was an invisible terrain to navigate, paradigms and expectations, courage and discernment, trust and grace.

I'm not sure exactly what to say when people ask how I am or how it's going and there is so much, inside and outside. Often I say very little, especially while it's all still swirling. Maybe there's a way to tease out the contained moments and smaller episodes, to take one's time telling them and resist the pressure to live blog one's life.

What I'm learning most of all is this: my body is the bridge between the two journeys I am concurrently traveling. It is both bridge and barometer. On Monday I can wake up with ideas of all kinds of things I 'should' do, and then Tuesday I can feel tight and tense and headachy and it's a reminder that I physically can't swing living inside of external expectations at the cost of internal calling. All those things I 'should' do undergo fierce examination and are either discarded or have to take another form.

I wish I could say it comes naturally just to trust my body barometer, but the truth is it takes a lot of encouragement and validation--especially when what it's telling me is to simplify and dial down the outer production to hold space for all that is happening, unseen, in the interior. I have to send my inner Performance Junkie packing.

There will likely be more to say about this later, but I just wanted to offer what I have right now--these thoughts trying to take shape in a mess of words before I tend to my body and what it needs from this day.

Conflict, story and real life with Christiane Fröhlich

Maybe it seems unlikely that a Brooklyn storyteller and a German conflict researcher would find each other online and become fast friends, but that's pretty much what happened. Christiane Fröhlich has been one of my touchstones and anchors for many years now, and our friendship runs the spectrum from paradigms and theories to everyday life with work, partnership and parenting.

I am thrilled to introduce you to her today on Retrospective, where she shares the story of how she followed her areas of interest and magnetism and found passionate work that influences and informs politicians, educators and decision-makers throughout her country.

Click here to listen as she shares about:

  • seeking peace close to home
  • coming from a post-war personal family history
  • completing a PhD thesis as a new mother
  • building an urban community, and
  • pioneering a career as a freelance conflict researcher

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