An artist I love, whose work I follow on Instagram, recently withdrew from the social media realm. I didn’t realize how much I’d come to depend on her daily dose of beauty and encouragement until I needed beauty and encouragement and found she’d disappeared. Yesterday she posted for the first time in weeks, calling herself out: “Where on Earth has Tori been lately?” Her response is a drawing of the Earth answering, “IDK I think she fell off.” This mixture of whimsy and humor quenched my soul, at which point I realized she’d answered the question earnestly as well, through a series of illustrations: she’d spent time in Sequoia National Park; she’d been doubting herself; she’d visited a therapist (which she highly recommends); and she’d wandered through Anxiety Land – a place where you can get on the Ferris Wheel of Constantly Repeating Thoughts, see yourself in the Wacky Self Image Distorting Fun House Mirrors (!), dine at the Eat + Drink Your Feelings Restaurant (open 24 hours) or go for a ride on The Shame Spiral (Feel bad! Then feel good about feeling bad!).
This is a positively genius way of describing what my everyday life has been like as of late. Part of me wants to blame the weather: it was lovely, cool and calming, then turned agitating and hot again. I mean, what do you expect? But I know it’s bigger than that. My job these days is to interview others and write, both of which require a clear mind and open heart. I’ve had the opposite – a cluttered mind and a closed heart. The world has seemed scary, mean and threatening, so I’ve spent most of my time processing things that happen and watching inherently uplifting animal rescue videos. (Animals are so loving and pure! Kind people do exist!) These things are good – even important: we have to process what happens to and around us, because the alternative is spinning out of control, and we have to do what we must to bring ourselves out of the depths.
But we also have to live.
The most important piece of advice that I’ve read lately came from Glennon Doyle, who said that “when the cyber world makes [you] feel hopeless, the anecdote is always to drop back into [the] real life, flesh and blood world – to get busy loving the world within [your] reach.” I’m done arguing with people online, trying to convince others to give more and judge less. My job is to drop back into the real life, flesh and blood world, take care of what’s in front of me and love what’s within my reach. Sometimes that means cleaning, doing laundry or playing with Rusty. Sometimes it means cooking or counseling someone who needs it. Sometimes it means rubbing my husband’s shoulders. Sometimes it means dropping off dry cleaning. All of it is rewarding; none of it is glamorous.
Lately I’ve been rereading Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden by Karen Maezen Miller. I read this book for the first time at the end of last year, and have already reread it once since. It’s a short, 166-page book about loving what’s in front of you, and right now I’m in desperate need of its instructions. How do I locate peace, love and joy within this mundanity and mess? How do I view what’s before me as important?
It’s easier than I expected. Let me share with you a beautiful passage that resonates deep within me:
“Until the day I landed on Lima Street, I was most comfortable – if you could call it that – at thirty thousand feet. I liked being up at cruising altitude, with nothing weighing me down. I did my best thinking when my head was in the clouds, or so I thought. Pursuing love and money, I’d logged enough frequent-flier miles to earn my vaunted Silver Elite status. Like most of the privileges you earn with the swipe of a credit card, it was bogus. A hundred thousand miles of air travel would get you five inches of legroom and a few cashews along with your peanuts. Oh, and seat farther forward in the plane, where you would be among the first to die.
“They gave you a plastic luggage tag to signify that your socks and underwear would be tenderly placed at the top of the heap. And the thing is, you believed it.
“While I was up above it all, my problems seemed smaller. Daily strife seemed distant. The earth seemed orderly. Other people were irrelevant. Except for the crying baby two rows back, it was as close as I could get to heaven. But there was more to my peripatetic lifestyle than business or pleasure. I was seriously invested in the idea that life was a climb, so the feel of the ground meant two things: either you were just starting out or you were crashing into a steaming pile of pilot error. Settling on the ground was not for me, not for long. I was so afraid of ending up nowhere that I spent much of my life ascending, quite literally, into nowhere.
“Consider the ways we situate ourselves in this world: by ranks of self-improvement and self-importance, attainment, worth and grade, by code and bracket – not to mention your boarding group. Here is that invisible ladder of success you’re supposed to scale, the ceiling you aim to break and a nonexistent bridge or two to cross. We buy into these pretenses as proof that we’ve moved up, gotten ahead and gone places. Separated ourselves. Distinguished ourselves. Made something. Meant something. Amounted to something. Lived a life that mattered.
“As long as we think like that, we don’t have an inkling of what life is, or where life is or who we are. As long as we think that this great earth is merely something we pass over en route to some Silver Elite Jetway in the sky, we don’t see that this earth is itself the unsurpassable way. You can’t grab hold of anything higher than what’s ready-made for you right here, where the glories unfold at your feet, ungilded lilies in the field.”
What’s ready-made for me, right here, is cleaning, doing laundry, playing with Rusty, cooking, counseling friends who need it, rubbing my husband’s shoulders and dropping off dry cleaning. I don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but that’s okay – I’m done jetting off to nowhere in my mind. I’d much rather watch the glories unfolding at my feet.
I’ve told you before that it isn’t important why I left my last job; that the only thing that matters is why I left that career. For the most part, this is true: it’s significant that I didn’t look for another position in public and government affairs, not that I hated the one I was in; and my reasons for leaving a soul sucking occupation are inherently less interesting than my reasons for pursuing a creative vocation. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, and I feel more professionally fulfilled.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that my awful job wasn’t part of the new career equation. It was. It affected the timing of my departure, for instance, and impacted the way I felt about myself as well. Being treated horribly in a dead-end job gave me the courage to leave when I did. It also left me with a range of emotions, none of which was excitement. Mostly, I felt fear. My job and its travels and troubles had consumed all of my time – how would I spend my days, if no one else dictated my To Do list? The only future I’d ever been able to envision centered on a high-powered career – how would I feel any sense of self-worth if I wasn't pursuing the next corporate promotion?
I don’t think I’m alone in trying to answer these questions: When do I add value? What exactly does success look like? And, how can I maintain a decent sense of self-worth when life doesn’t go as planned? They’re difficult questions, made harder when you no longer have a boss to tell you when you add value, can no longer pinpoint where you are on a career fast-track and no longer have peers to compare yourself with. For the last 15 months, I’ve tried to answer those questions while working from home, alone – writing, taking care of our family, counseling other women. I’ve discovered that the value I add looks different than it ever did – it’s smaller in scope, but no less significant. Success looks less like contributing to conference call discussions and more like helping others whenever I can. My self-worth, likewise, is based not on what I do, but who I am.
It’s a radically different existence.
I got started thinking about this over the last few days because I noticed that each week is both similar to and different from the last. On Monday I worked on the book and prepared for a Compelling Women interview that I conducted that night. Tuesday, I spent hours helping a friend find a good therapist. (In the scheme of things, finding a therapist isn’t all that hard, but if you’re a woman who spends her days at work, her nights at school, her weekends studying and all the time in between raising two kids, time is a commodity that you do not have. This friend is dealing with a cheating husband and divorce preparations, too, which makes finding a good therapist critical to her personal and professional success.) Yesterday, I spent time counseling and encouraging a young woman who’s planning to leave a toxic job and chase her wildest dreams. Today, I’m listening to Monday night’s interview for the podcast, writing for the blog, doing laundry and baking for my husband’s first work picnic.
I did not do these specific things last week. But some things never change: people always need help; creative projects always require attention; there's always something to do when it comes to family finances and logistics. Life hasn’t ceased to be busy in the last 15 months, but the work I do looks like a hodgepodge of effort now, not a list of enumerated duties on a job description.
That’s why I’m grateful for messages like the one above: they’re rare but welcome external validation that what I do is valuable; that I can still be successful, even if I don’t get a raise or promotion; that my self-worth isn't in question just because I don’t work in an office. I’ve learned to trust my own compass, but it’s still nice to get confirmation that I’m headed in the right direction.
Here’s hoping you feel valued, get to define success for yourself and believe in your own self-worth, regardless of your career choices.
One of the most meaningful experiences of STORY 2017 was a presentation given by Brandon Harvey. I've intentionally neglected to tell you about it until now so that I could feature it in its own post. Brandon is a storyteller and speaker who founded the Good Newspaper. The Good Newspaper is based on the idea that "[t]here's no shortage of good news in the world. You just have to know where to look" for it. The Good Newspaper is Brandon fleshing out that idea.
Brandon's presentation was based on research about how we think about good news vs. bad news: neurologically, psychologically, culturally. He rightly noted that so many of us feel despair about what's happening in the world, but: (1) if you could choose to be born at any time in history but not know what gender, race or religion you would be, or what country you would be born in, you'd choose right now, because things are the best they've ever been for the most number of people; (2) given number one, there is good news to report; (3) even in the midst of tragedy, there are people doing good; and, (4) we can be those people doing good.
As such, the Good Newspaper is built around two ideas: celebrating good news, and BECOMING good news. It's released quarterly, and it celebrates all of the good news in the world. It features uplifting cartoons by some of my favorite creators (yes, that means Brad Montague!). It also offers ideas for how to become good news at the bottom of every page. These are ranked Good, Better and Best. Good might be reading more about a specific issue; Better might be donating to organizations working on that issue; Best might be donating your time to organizations working on that issue.
More broadly, Brandon Harvey talked about the need to spend 10 seconds focusing on good news. We are wired to dismiss good news quickly and ruminate on bad news or potential bad outcomes for extended periods. This practice of spending 10 seconds thinking about and truly celebrating good news helps us see our lives and our world from a different perspective.
Here's my challenge to you, in the form of Good, Better and Best rankings:
- Good: Tell three (3) people you know about the Good Newspaper. You don't have to be weird about it.
- Better: Subscribe to the Good Newsletter. It's free, and you won't regret it.
- Best: Purchase a subscription to the Good Newspaper. You'll be supporting good work done by amazing creatives, and treating yourself to a new way to look at life and, therefore, live.
Brandon Harvey also hosts a podcast, called "Sounds Good," that I encourage you to listen to. In all of these creative endeavors he mentions a Mr. Rogers quote that I've been obsessed with for years, which I will leave you with:
"WHEN I WAS A BOY AND I WOULD SEE SCARY THINGS IN THE NEWS, MY MOTHER WOULD SAY TO ME, 'LOOK FOR THE HELPERS. YOU WILL ALWAYS FIND PEOPLE WHO ARE HELPING.'"
Dear Creative Man Who Runs a Creative Organization I Admire:
I know you’re a busy man, and I’m sorry in advance: both for sending you this* and for even momentarily commandeering your attention. I wouldn’t dream of bothering you normally, but I had a crazy, not all that creepy and very powerful dream about you on Saturday evening. (If you're still reading this after that awful introduction, fantastic! I didn't know how to get around it.) (I promise you I'm not crazy, though this may be a thing crazy people say, too.) (Also, yes, that pun was intended.)
Let’s start here: for 4 nights last week (Wednesday - Saturday), I took a tiny blue anti-itch pill before bed to combat poison ivy on my calf. (If it matters, I got it while mulching in our yard with my husband, who can vouch for the fact that I'm not a crazy person.) It served its purpose, so I’m grateful, but it also sent me on a trippy roller coaster ride to Crazy Dreamland.
On Saturday night, the dream sequence started with my husband / me doing a puzzle, which I guess qualifies as crazy because we’re 35 and this is an actual thing we do. During this activity, I looked down at my phone and noticed that an old friend**, who I rarely talk to, had called at a relatively late hour and left me a VM. My husband, who IRL tweets and follows Twitter far more than I do, then offhandedly mentioned that, for some reason, 3-note musical clips had trended on Twitter all day long. Immediately following this comment, we went to bed. (Stay with me here.)
The next morning, I noticed that you (yes, you!) were on the front page of the newspaper. The story said you’d learned that you’d contracted a dreadful illness that would take away your hearing in a matter of months. (I am so, so sorry about this. I don’t believe this is premonition, or that I’m an evil person. The night before last I dreamed I was lost in a familiar city for so long that people thought I was homeless, and when I finally found my way out, my husband had covered our dwelling in blood and oil. #itcouldbeworse)
The important part of this story, though, is that you and your wife learned this news while hearing your playing, unwitting 4-year-old hum the same 3 sing-song notes over and over again. You, in your creative genius, sprang into action and challenged all of us who are hearing privileged to identify a trio of sounds we couldn’t imagine never hearing again. The message was simple and clear: share this story and concept far and wide — because nothing precious to us should be taken for granted.
In my dream, your story went viral. Musicians chimed in with 3 notes from their favorite songs. NBC “humbly” tweeted its station identifier. Creatives took the idea and ran. Everyday people, like my old friend, called their loved ones to share their soundbites of joy and wisdom. Phone companies went nuts, because hardly anyone uses the phone anymore. And it hit every social media platform, made its way to every home in the US — because you turned pain into purpose.
Now, this was just a crazy dream and, rationally, I know why I had it: Twitter informed me right before bed that you had tweeted (about something “genius”, no less!); earlier in the day I saw your son’s IG picture and birthday tribute. But this was my last crazy dream, because I’m no longer on the meds, and it definitely was the best. So, I've done a lot of thinking about it. Everything was so vivid that, when I woke up on Sunday morning, I checked to make sure this hadn’t actually happened. I still can see the below-the-fold clipping in my head.
I didn't always dream like this. A year ago, I dreamed of impending political apocalypse, budget deficits, spreadsheets, being yelled at by misogynists for doing nothing wrong and, even worse, yelling at others for just the same reason. A few months ago, I didn't dream at all. So much has shifted.
Life looks different now in part because I had the courage to walk away from a broken structure that took years to build, and I have my husband*** and intuition to thank for that decision. But life also looks different because I found my calling and tribe of creatives, and it’s you I have to thank for that.
Thank you for listening and for teaching me through your example to be creative and take nothing for granted.
Happy Tuesday, my friend. Be well. <3
* I'm too embarrassed to really send this.
** Hi, David Page!
*** Hi, sweet pea. I love you forever.
I had no idea what to expect when, a couple of weeks ago, I walked into Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center to attend STORY 2017. I knew it was a storytelling conference, yes. I knew it’d been widely hyped. I knew big name storytellers of all types and from all genres would be in attendance: creative geniuses from Pixar, Cirque du Soleil, Disney Imagineering, Marvel and Pinterest; spoken word artists; songwriters; poets. I knew the theme, too – A Carnival of Curiosity.
I also knew I wouldn’t belong.
This wasn’t general cynicism or a dig on STORY – it was an acknowledgement that I’ve never belonged. I’ve stood in political conferences, financial symposiums, blue collar trade shows, academic forums and community-wide summits about drugs, gangs and homelessness. I’ve been in more board meetings that I care to count. And in each and every one of those settings, I felt out of place. For a long time, I supposed this was imposter syndrome – the curse of all women who feel uncomfortable because they assume everyone knows more than they do. It took me years – if you’re counting, a decade of them – to determine that I was wrong about this; that instead of pushing ahead and making sure I was heard, I ought to listen to my discomfort and figure out where my people were.
That’s how I ended up at STORY 2017, looking for my tribe. It helped that my husband, usually soft-spoken, put his foot down and said, “Buy the damn ticket already. This is the right decision.”
I was greeted at the door by a ringmaster, decked out in full regalia, welcoming me to the circus. It took a minute to register that this had actually happened. As I walked around the venue – to check in, get my program, go to the restroom – I realized I’d wandered into a Disney-like immersive experience. There was a literal carnival of characters roaming the halls: clowns juggling, wise men predicting the future, acrobats, fortune tellers telling you your secrets, snake charmers drawing you in. And that was only the entrance.
The performers themselves still defy explanation, but each one encouraged us to embrace childlike wonder. The past year has left most of us, I think, in a state of perpetual fear and cynicism, so this was no small task. After the opening acts – an accordion player and one-act play about throwing off of our fears, the absolutely extraordinary Brad Montague took the stage. Brad, for those of you unfamiliar, created Kid President and, on its heels, the uplifting and imagination playground that is Montague Workshop. His mission in life is “joyous rebellion.” Brad was the primary reason I knew about and came to this event, and I wasn’t disappointed in his session. After that, the chief storyteller at Pixar for 20 years – who created everything from Finding Nemo to Monsters, Inc. to Cars – implored us to embrace play, even and especially as adults. Following that, a German-based artist put forth a whimsical robotic show that no one – even a girl I met who sat in the front row of the audience – could figure out how he pulled off.
By then, we were less than two hours in.
Other highlights over the next day and a half, so I don’t lose you: the former creative director from Cirque du Soleil, who taught us how to physically and creatively reduce the debilitating effects of fear; a juggler flown in all the way from Spain who, amongst other things, juggled with his mouth and then with five boomerang hats that he put on each time he transitioned; the Pinterest creative lead, who asked us “What If…” and encouraged us to imagine only dream-like scenarios; a small orchestra that specializes in light shows, who put on a dual performance with Cirque du Soleil like acrobats; a spoken word poet who shared creative lessons learned from her grandmother; a soul singer who challenged us to dig deep; a sports documentarian who showed us how to make nonfiction stories as visually and audibly compelling as fantastical ones; a Disney Imagineer, who demonstrated how they create immersive theme park experiences, not rides; a photographer who straddles the line between fashion, fine art and surrealism; a psychologist who teaches former child soldiers in Uganda and the DRC to rewrite their own stories after trauma; a woman who played the #likeagirl campaign she created for Always, which made me sob openly in public.
And those are just the presenters I can remember.
I could go on and on about other things that blew my mind, too, but there are three things I want to share with you in depth, because those are the three that changed my life:
First, despite my fear, I fit right in. The world of storytellers is a world where I finally feel in my element. I’m now Twitter friends with people whose artistic endeavors blow my mind; I’m Instagram buds with a Ringling Bros. trained performed who juggled on ever higher unicycles. I’ve never felt more at home. This group of misfits fits together because we see the world of possibility instead of just the one that is. At previous conferences I’ve felt self-conscious about what I wore and what I said, but at STORY 2017, that never happened. I laughed, I cried, I yelled, “WHAAAAAAAAT” so loudly some people could have questioned my sanity. But they didn’t, because they were yelling, too. We’re introverts and weirdos, for sure, but also interesting as hell. My husband forced me to buy this year’s ticket, but before I left for lunch on the second day, I ran down to the registration desk and secured my 2018 ticket.
Second, I’ve struggled my entire life to find my calling. I’ve tried on so, so many different hats: nonprofit hats, business hats, political hats, fashion hats. But nothing ever clicked until I went to this conference. I thought I’d come away with some storytelling techniques: How can I make the podcast better? How should I structure my book? Instead, I came away with a totally different perspective. So much emphasis at the conference was placed on telling our own stories, as well as those of others. And even more emphasis was placed on the fact that, in order to change the world, we have to change the narrative. That’s where my story and the role of storytellers in general converge: I am called to be a storyteller; by changing the narrative, I can change the world. There’s nothing more powerful than that realization.
Finally, I want to share a story about Brad Montague’s presentation that I hope will inspire you to see the world in a different way than you think it is. “Your life is a musical,” he started. “It’s your job to sing.” Singing is different for everybody, of course; it’s not always literal. He just means: do what you’re supposed to do, do it with joy and do it so others can take notice. Sometimes our talents and callings are hidden, and this is a shame – because the world would be better if it heard them. Martha is a perfect example of this. She’s an older woman living in a nursing home in Tennessee, who the world has largely forgotten. But for years, Martha had been sitting at her piano, singing and composing songs that she hid from view. Her dream had been to have her songs played at the symphony, but this was never going to happen – no one knew those songs existed. Until a year ago, when a local filmmaker heard about her, asked to tell her story and helped her record her songs, so her grandchildren will have the opportunity to listen to them.
Brad had heard this story from a friend, and planned to bring Martha to STORY 2017 – again, held at the Symphony Center – to sing and play her songs, and realize her dream. But Martha broke her hip, and was unable to travel that distance. When he told the audience this, there was audible sadness in the room. This was the lesson, we thought: do what you love and share your gifts, because life and good health are not a guarantee. But then Brad did something unexpected: he brought a younger, female musician holding a ukulele upon onstage. And then he made an announcement: we as an audience of 900 storytellers, were going to take it upon ourselves to make Martha’s dream come true. We were going to play and sing her song, right there at the symphony she dreamed of. And we did. 900 voices lifted in unison, singing a simple but beautiful song about going to the fair. We sang three full verses. We sobbed, right there in our fancy chairs.
I think we all know we have the ability to make a difference in the lives of individuals. That’s where we invest a lot of our time, as we should. But the more we try to make a difference, the more people witness it and are changed in the process. That’s what storytelling is.
Here’s hoping I’m able to tell stories that change the narrative. Here’s hoping they resonate with others who hear them. Here’s hoping I learn even more next year.
A few years ago, almost three years before the Compelling Women podcast would become my life’s work, I had another idea: to interview everyday heroes whose work and lives embody empathy and grace. It came to me after I saw a Diane Sawyer special on Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark. Gabby, as you may recall, was a congresswoman shot in the head by a psychopathic man while speaking at a campaign event in 2011. Her recovery was slow and never full, but fascinating and brave, because she allowed it to be documented. The world watched, captivated. I, too, watched, amazed.
But in that Diane Sawyer special, someone on the sidelines stood out to me: a speech therapist, patiently and lovingly working with Gabby as she trained her brain to recognize and give language to items she’d learned to identify and name decades ago, then lost in the wake of unspeakable trauma. I felt like a witness to something I had no right to see, but Gabby had shared this video courageously, to give others a window into her struggle and hope to overcome their own. The speech therapist never failed to cheer and reassure her, and during one particularly frustrating exchange for Gabby, encouraged her to sing. Before my eyes, together, they did: “This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine.”
It was an ordinary yet extraordinary moment between the two of them, and I sobbed openly. This was grace embodied. This was empathy at work. And though I wept primarily at Gabby’s raw pain and valor, I found myself in awe of her speech therapist, too, whose role was quieter and humbler, but no less important.
I spent weeks, then months, then years thinking about this story. And two years after it aired, I did the unthinkable: I tried to locate the astonishing woman who’d led a prominent congresswoman through her darkest hours. It took work. I’ll spare you details, but she has a common name (for our purposes, I’ll call her Jane Doe), works in a relatively common field, and no longer lives in the state where Gabby sought treatment. But one day, I got lucky, and then, atypically brave. Inspired by the courage of both women in that years old video, I called the hospital where I thought Jane Doe might work. I introduced myself to the receptionist as a writer interested in her story, fumbling over each and every word.
“Would you like me to connect you to Jane?” asked the voice on the other end of the phone.
I had no answer for this.
“No, that’s okay,” I stammered. “I’m sure she’s seeing patients. It’s not urgent. Would it be possible just to get an email address where I can send a request?”
And that’s how I came to email a woman I’d seen in a 90-second television cameo. I introduced myself, told her what I did and what I wanted to do. I asked if she would like to be interviewed. She said she would, but required Gabby’s approval, which I understood. Sometime later, she received it, and our interviewer-interviewee relationship began. We chatted for hours on multiple occasions, documenting every step in her journey but also forming a bond. Though she wasn’t, I thought of her as a friend. She was no less remarkable after hours and hours of conversation.
I wish I could say the story ended well: that I told her story faithfully, honestly, beautifully, as she deserved. But I did not. Life intervened. My relationship that spanned over eleven years ended. I left my job, and started another. I took my own time to heal, though from wounds less visible and traumatic. I left that once new job. Met my husband. Started a career as a writer. And then, as fate would have it, started to tell other women’s stories – quieter, humbler, but no less important. I found my way and, in the process, lost touch with her.
On Sunday, two days ago, one of my dearest friends told me that the nonprofit I’ve done some work for was scheduled to host a very special guest yesterday. Yes, you guessed it: Gabby Giffords. The world she inhabited once again came into contact with mine, but this time I wouldn’t play a part. My friend would, and their interaction would occur on the morning we all woke up to the news that the nation’s deadliest mass shooting had occurred. Our hearts are broken all over.
It’s hard to know how to talk about tragedy, isn’t it? Of course, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Of course, we have to take action. Of course, it’s not one or the other. And while I struggle with racing thoughts and competing emotions, this morning all I can think about is Jane Doe. Given my experience with her and women like her, here are the things I know for sure: