“Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.”

Last week a video went around of Ash Beckham’s TEDx talk about how she responds to kids who want to know if she’s a boy or if she’s a girl. She explains that it’s confusing because her hair is short and she wears boys’ clothes, but that she is, in fact, a girl. She breaks it down: “You know how sometimes you like to wear a pink dress and sometimes you like to wear your comfy jammies? I’m more of a comfy jammies kind of girl….”

If you missed that video, here it is: Coming Out of Your Closet.

Ash’s talk wasn’t about gender, pink dresses, or jammies. It wasn’t even about homophobia or about coming out of “the” closet. It’s about the fact that we all have closets, but “We are bigger than our closets and a closet is no place for a person to truly live.”

She says that a closet is really just a hard conversation, and that we can’t compare our “hard” with anyone else’s. “Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.” In my case right now, hard is taking care of my grandmother who suffers from both hoarding and dementia, and for some people hard is the fact that I’m talking about it.

My honesty’s been met with minimal resistance, though I know that vulnerability and honesty make some people uncomfortable. But I also know this: other people’s discomfort has nothing to do with me. I’ve done a lot of work learning how to accept and own my truth, and though it was hard I’m coasting down the other side of a life spent minimizing my truth for the sake of other people’s happiness, which is basically an Acela train to frustration and unhappiness. That way of living does nothing to foster authentic connection between people.

Over the years I’ve also learned a few things about truth in writing, with my favorite being that “The more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes.” {That’s me quoting myself. I wrote that when I was just starting to become a braver writer, and the blog post it came from is here: WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES.

Laura Munson (a writing mentor and role model of mine) is a courageous writer who wrote a book about her marriage falling apart and her reaction to it. Before she had a book she published an essay in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and you can read that here: “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.”

Laura told me (as she will anyone who asks her) that a person can write about anything if she writes with compassion. It’s true. I wrote with compassion about my experiences taking care of and cleaning up after my grandmother, and I was rewarded with an overwhelmingly positive response. People wrote to me and said, “Me too.” They wrote and asked, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” “When can I come?” and “How can I help?” I didn’t have any good answers except that asking for help is scary, it makes us vulnerable, and we worry about meeting resistance.

Friends wrote and called to make sure I’m okay, to offer respite, and to commend me for both my willingness to do this hard work and my grit in talking about it. Some readers forwarded my post to friends and family who work with the elderly as nurses and therapists, and then those people reached out and offered their support. Some of these people were strangers until suddenly they weren’t, and I wept with gratitude for those hands and hearts extended in my direction. It was intense, but it felt good to allow people in to my world. I was validated and shored up by people who might not even know me if they passed me on the street.

Other folks were less thrilled. Some asked my mother if she’s mad at me for flinging open our closet doors, but she wasn’t. My mother is the person most worried about the contents of my memoir-in-progress, yet when she’s been questioned about my two recent blog posts she did something incredible: she defended me. My mother acknowledged that she’d be the first person to call me out if I’d written anything that wasn’t true, but that I’d written only the truth and that she was proud. If you know my mother you know that she adores me but doesn’t let me get away with much.

There’s a built in liability befriending a writer (in particular a nonfiction writer), but for some people there’s an overlap that is not a choice, and that’s with family. A family member called my mother to express his anger over my sharing of our family’s stories. He couldn’t believe that my mother wasn’t mad and was even more dumbfounded that she wasn’t trying to stop me. Some of the stories I told are old ones but I told them not as a rant, but as reference points to my present situation. My present situation caring for my grandmother and the ensuing story does not happen to be this angry person’s story. As far as I can see his hand has not stretched out in my direction.

I listened patiently as my mother recounted the hard conversation she had where I was pummeled for telling the truth, a truth that is also hers. She’s glad I’m telling the story because she knows how lonely it can be inside a closet, but for my mother there was an additional element to the hard conversation and her hackles went up: someone was attacking her baby.

I’ve hit the pause button on my life to help my family of three, and although I wouldn’t have it any other way it’s not without sacrifice. Unfortunately the angry family member failed to recognize either my benevolence or my hard work. He made my grandmother’s story about him and criticized my content for one reason: my truth made him uncomfortable.

My mother brought up as an analogy Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer Prize winning tragicomic memoir (um…thanks, mom….) that is basically required reading for Irish-American New Yorkers. Of course he’d read it, but didn’t see the connection, and said to my mother, “That’s different; that book is about his family.” My mother said, “Yes. And?….”

He responded, “The difference is that Jaime is writing about my family.”

Oh. My. God.

“It’s her family too,” my mother said, because after that what else is there?

In Angela’s Ashes McCourt wrote, “Sing your song. Dance your dance. Tell your tale.” Certainly there were plenty of people who opposed his truth telling, but it didn’t stop the book from being crazy successful and widely received by those who also believe that closets are no place to live. McCourt had fairly late in life success, but taught writing and gave his students the best advice: that they are their own best material.

Our stories do not exist alone, and they intersect with the stories of the people whose lives coexist with ours either as a result of biology or through choice. In my recent “brave post” I mention my mother minimally (it’s really a story about my grandmother) and the only thing that could be considered a slight toward my mother is when I mention that I summon the courage she lacks. But what I said is true and she knows it. Any shame she might have for not being strong enough to do this on her own pales in comparison to her gratitude for my strength to put into motion a plan where there previously existed only a downward spiral. My mother has never been in denial about my grandmother’s illnesses, she just wasn’t able to step back and see the way through (and eventually out of) it.

Even if my mother denied my truth, would that make my observations of my experience off limits? (If you say yes you can private message me and so we can talk about it. Or we can talk about it here. Your call.) It’s just like what Ash Beckham says about hard: we can’t compare our hard to someone else’s hard just as we can’t compare our truth to someone else’s. It just depends on which side of the fence you’re on, and I happen to be on the dirty side.

I like the dirty side of the fence just as much as I abhor living in a closet. I know that mental illness can be an uphill battle, and I also know that not talking about mental illness doesn’t make it go away. I’ve done some research in books and in real life (too much, probably), and I’m 100% certain that not talking about it makes it worse. Silence can be deadly. If you don’t believe me ask anyone who’s lost someone to suicide, depression, addiction, or a combination. Ask someone if silence helped when they worried about whether a loved one was going to use or while they waited for someone to show up alive after they’d disappeared. In silence.

After my blog post last week a few people shared an article with me that was published in Slate. The title is “Nobody Brings Dinner When Your Daughter is an Addict.” It’s amazing. Please read it.

Sure it’s hard for people to ask how it’s going with my grandmother, but the brave ones do, and many tell me about their struggles. One friend wrote about her fear of talking about her family’s mental illness and thanked me for my honesty. She said, “I hope someone is bringing you dinner,” which is just as good as someone actually doing it and the perfect antidote to the stones being thrown by people who aren’t offering anything but fear dressed in a thin veil of judgment.

I’m not wavering on my position to tell the truth nor have I even considered backpedaling out of it. Here’s why: for all the people who aren’t hearing what I have to say there’s a hundred who are, and that number has the potential to grow exponentially as one says to another, “Read this; It might help.”

I’m not delusional in thinking the sharing of my story can change the world, but I know that real change happens one person at a time and that I’ve helped more than a few. One said that enabling is a “lonely place to live,” and another told me about her experience with family mental illness and “trying to minimizing the consequences of her behavior and picking up the pieces of her actions.”

What we’re saying to each other is “We’re in this together; I’ve got your back,” and this more than counterbalances the haters. Dr. Brené Brown says, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”

Brené Brown’s been on my hotlist for a couple of years, and in her now famous TED talk on shame she said this:

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

She also said,

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive….“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

If that’s not gorgeous i don’t know what is.

Closet’s are not as safe as people think. Sounds, words and thoughts can creep in there, and those dark places aren’t as hermetically sealed from the light as the closet-dwellers believe them to be. I don’t know what makes people think closets are safe. It could be shame, guilt or some other emotion masquerading as anger.

Denial is the first stage of grief, and it’s followed by anger. We circle through denial, anger, bargaining and depression until we eventually reach the blissful place of acceptance. Sometimes a person gets to acceptance then takes another lap through the list because life isn’t always (or ever) as easy as having a checklist. The path to acceptance isn’t always (or ever) linear.

Truth challenges. It stretches. It pushes limits of comfort and safety. I know that some family members aren’t angry, but are instead sad about what I’ve written about my grandmother. It is sad, but sadness can’t erase reality. You know what helps? Yeah: empathy.

My mother and I are in this together and we’re in deep. The best part—because I’m a silver-lining kind of girl—is that my mother and I are cooperating and working together in a way we never have before. We’re living under one roof and barely fighting because we have something bigger to deal with than the pettier stuff that’s ruled us for too long. The woman who’s been most afraid of my truth is actually embracing it, and that’s a beautiful thing in the midst of a messy situation. But here’s the thing: I wish it wasn’t necessary for my mother to defend me.

There’s a very good chance that the (closet-living) people who need to be reading this aren’t. Maybe they’ve written me off, maybe they don’t care, or maybe my presence hasn’t even reached their closets’ radar. I have no control over that, just as they have no control over what I write. I also have no control over any debriefings my mother might receive over my actions, but if anyone has a problem with me it would behoove them to talk to me about it directly otherwise it just might get my Irish up.

The “angry relative” interrogated my mother, and asked her if I’d interviewed my grandmother and then wrote about what she’d told me in confidence. It was nothing like that. My grandmother and I have conversations like we’ve always had, and like a lot of the best conversations they happen spontaneously. My grandmother’s concept of time and reality is altered now, but occasionally she’s able to really be in the present and I cherish those moments.

Maybe it was sitting in a kitchen where generations of our family’s women have prepped and cooked meals. Maybe the cup of tea steaming in front of her triggered something. Maybe the act of peeling of an orange sparked a memory. It’s impossible to know what triggers my grandmother’s reminiscing at this point, though I know that when she’s ready to talk I’m ready to listen.

We value our time together, and when it’s just the two of us she opens up more than in a group because in a group she tends to space out. It could be because she can’t hear everything or because she can’t keep up with the pace. When it’s just the two of us in a quiet room talking directly to each other our hearts engage with each other’s more specifically.

Our conversations and sharing make her happy, and the other night after our good, honest talk she made up a little song and sang it to me, “I’m so happy I could dance all night.” We danced a little then I helped her into some cozy pajamas, because it’s life’s simple acts that are the most challenging to her these days. I poured her a glass of milk, got her into her recliner with a blanket and turned on the television. My Mimi is definitely a comfy jammies kind of girl.

(The) Potential (of No)

Emily and I decided on “potential” as our topic about two weeks ago, and she streamlined it into “The Potential of No.” I wasn’t sold on the “no” part at first, but have had a lot of time to think about it, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve come up with much. But here’s what I have: there’s as much potential in no as there is in yes.

It sounds so cliché. So plagiarized. So familiar, right? Didn’t someone come up with this already? Well, I’m sort of guessing not, since a Google search for “the potential of no” came up with a odd sampling of results, none of which speak to what I’ve been thinking, which is this: a no is sometimes a yes.

There’s as much power in saying no to something as there is in saying yes, because, like my last post about the many variations on light and dark, we can’t know one unless we know the other. It’s like knowing what you don’t want is practically as clear (and in some cases more straightforward) than knowing what you do.

I want to believe that the book I’ve been busting a nut over writing has potential, but that sure is vague. Yes, I want it to have the potential to succeed when so many books don’t. I mean, I want people to buy it, read it, and if I’m lucky, think about it. I want it to have the potential to make a difference in someone’s life, though I know that at the heart of the matter it’s made a difference in one life—mine—and that potential alone just may be enough.

(SIDEBAR: On the topic of enough….Dr. Brene Brown says the two most dangerous words we can say are “not enough.” I honestly think that if everyone in the world watched this there would be an epic shift in how we treat ourselves, and therefore others. Here’s THE LINK to a four-minute, life-changing video.

As an adjective, potential is a win-win situation, defined as having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future. I say win-win because everything has the potential “to become or develop into something,” but I’ll add a kicker: it might not be what we wanted or intended and even worse, it might not be when we begged/pleaded/bargained for it. But it will be something. It might even be (gasp!) failure, though failure too has the potential to…..ok, you know the story by now.

Perhaps this is why we often attach adjectives to potential as a noun, as in unlimited potential, undeveloped potential. It’s why the word itself has as many positive connotations as it does negative, because one thing leads to another to another to another to another. I’m not a scientist, but this is all about about inertia, kids.

Too often (by me) the word potential is followed by “for disaster.”


This is not a photo of Lucky looking out at the water that I forgot to crop the chair out of; this is a picture of a chair-colored caterpillar. Now I know, the caterpillar is perhaps the most overused symbol of potential that we have, and I know I preceded the photo by talking about disaster, and what in the world is so disastrous about a caterpillar? Nothing, obviously. I’m not bound for the institution…YET…But I’m sitting here thinking about the intense book editing I have ahead of me the next few days and about potential and there’s a friggin’ caterpillar there to remind me that it too is in the middle.

{Trust me: when you start thinking about potential you can’t stop.}

But the potential for disaster part is really about the fact that the camouflaged caterpillar reminds me that this is about the time of night when the porcupines come out and start acting like they own the place. Given the fact that I have a rascal of a dog, I am, as they saying, flirting with the potential for disaster. I should could go out to the garage and try to locate a pair of pliers just in case, or at least make sure I know where the emergency vet is though even though I already know it’s a good ninety minutes away. I’m alone, and that could be a long drive for the two of us so really I should must do whatever I need to in order to avoid this potential for disaster. 

I got used to being alone last winter in New Mexico, and now, with modern conveniences such as telephone and Internet, I’m technically much less alone than I was then. So I’m comfortable leaving room for more allowing, though even then I allowed Luck to gallivant at night even when I knew he was running with the coyotes and there was a damn-good possibility he’d eventually encounter something he couldn’t handle. But he didn’t, so I won. Or I lost for the needless worrying. Hmmm….

Even when I wasn’t alone—when I was with friends in Rhode Island—Lucky gave me a run for my money and once stayed out all night. So now, in Maine, somewhere between those two scenarios, I’m pondering what to allow, because the more I allow the more potential there is for the dog to potentially get quilled.

So I don’t allow him off the deck after dark, but I do allow him to stay on the deck when I go inside for tea or to use the bathroom. So there’s a risk there, but he might confuse my absence with permission. Am I allowing life to develop (which it will anyway regardless of my fight) or am I risking the potential for disaster? Is there a difference?

But here’s the thing on a bigger scale: when we deduct allowing (and not just the risky kind) we diminish the possibility of potential.

And allowing, I think, is where it’s at.

A few days ago I went for a run on a trail that made me feel like I was in the Blair Witch Project. This was not an out-and-back trail, nor was it on an open hillside (like my daily hiking/running trail in Missoula), nor was it along the ocean or following the double yellow line. It was a serpentine mess in there that required keeping a constant eye on trail blazes. In this case the blazes were either white or yellow—two different trails snaking around—and all I really wanted was to not think. I just wanted to move without having to pay attention or keep track of anything. Really what I was doing was earning another lobster roll, but that’s a different story…

In the thick woods you can convince yourself that you’re lost and have completely misplaced the trail you were just standing on because all you see in front of you is an enormous slab of rock. But if you turn your eyes up and scan the trees the blazes are there to guide you. Finding the blazes on the trees gives a person the confidence to keep going; not finding them can be paralyzing. Knowing where to look and keeping calm is key. There’s so much potential for a situation to turn either way, and here’s the sucker punch: it’s kind of more-or-less totally our responsibility.


But really, the potential for the upside of potential—the getting found instead of staying lost, the triumph instead of disaster—boils down to this something simple and elementary: pay attention.

I went on a boat trip this morning to Monhegan Island. It was supposed to be a beautiful, ninety-degree day, but at 8:00 am it was cool and foggy. I wore jeans and a long sleeved shirt with a vest, knee socks and sneakers on my feet. I packed a down jacket and knit cap, but also shorts, a t-shirt, and a brimmed hat. I packed sandals and a rain slicker. Yes, all this for an eight-hour excursion.

I used every single thing I brought with me. I was prepared for the potential that the weather forecast was correct, but more than that I was prepared for the potential for change, and if I had to set my heart on believing in one thing in the world it might be in the potential for change.

Now, I’m back at the house generously loaned to me for writing, and I’m sitting on the deck. The temperature is still hovering around eighty though the sun is down, and that caterpillar is still giving me the stink eye. I’m starting, again, to think of the potential for disaster.

I’ve given myself a tremendous gift lately of time, and with that time I’ve been able to allow my life to unfold. I plan some things in advance, but most I leave to chance. This would not work for everyone, but it seems to be working for me though it isn’t without intense, incredible (personal) responsibility.

I’ve given myself the task of not only writing a book, but also of rewriting it, now for the second time. That’s three times for the non-mathematicians out there. That’s a lot. Trust me. It means, in practical terms, that no matter what else I’ve been doing, I’ve also been constantly, incessantly thinking about writing. You should see all the text messages and voice memos I send to myself; it’s  b a n a n a s.

But sometimes I say no to writing. I give myself permission to go on a boat ride or to read the great book I can hardly put down. When I go out for my nightly lobster roll I might, instead of bringing a notebook to the picnic table, just simply sit and observe. I allow the potential to strike up a conversation with a stranger or see something I might otherwise have missed

So. As it turns out, we can’t talk about potential if we don’t also talk about permission.

I addition to three seasons worth of outfits, I also packed my iPad in my backpack today for the day-trip to Monhegan Island. I planned to find a nice spot to sit and write. I planned to write this blog post there, instead of tonight. But I never took the iPad out of my bag, and only even considered taking it out one time. I walked, took pictures and talked to people. I learned about a not-to-be-missed country fair that I’m now going to hit next Friday morning before I head south.

Near the end of the day I was walking back toward the ferry dock and I saw this huge cocoon. I have no idea what insect larvae hatches in that beast, but I found the mass impressive:


I wasn’t sure how I felt about this blog post about potential being driven by the metaphor of the caterpillar, and now, the cocoon, impressive in size or not. But in the midst of the writing, I decided to play it safe, and I went to the garage to take a look around for a pair of pliers just in case, and on the way there I saw in the driveway a beautiful, dead butterfly. I wasn’t sure it was dead at first; it looked too perfect.

So I found the pliers, put in a load of wash and came back out. Still there, still dead. So I did what any normal person would do: I brought in inside, put it on a piece of paper, and took a photo of it.


I did not make this up. Honest. I swear I didn’t spend the day looking for the caterpillar, cocoon, and dead butterfly just so I could find some way to talk about potential, but there they were for me to see. For me to pay attention to. It’s a confirmation that, as always, what happens in real life is better than anything we can imagine.

And by the way, locating the pliers was simple, though I doubt I’ll need them. But I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do right now: as impressive as it is, I’m not going to go take pictures of the lightening that’s going on outside. Instead I’m going to do this: I’m going to give myself permission to get in bed and read. The sun will rise tomorrow on a new day filled, as always, with potential.



Me. Unedited.

The other day I was all sorts of a frazzled mess, but mostly it was the good kind. I was possibly over caffeinated or excited about this book that I’m finishing (and finally not “just” writing), or a little nervous to go skiing again. Maybe it was all three. A trifecta of nerves = lovely.

I met a friend for a pre-ski lunch, and on the way there I listened to all of my favorite songs and (dangerously) glanced at my best friend in the rear view mirror, but when I got there I actually got horizontal on the bench we were sitting at in a moment of pathetic dramatic despair. Our server peered over the bar at me and raised her eyebrow; I sat up. I ate, I drank, and I tried everything to calm myself—including not stop chatter-boxing—but the nerves, they just wouldn’t settle.

On the chairlift I described myself as a spastic out of control toddler, then downgraded myself to an infant in need of a swaddling. My friend is something of a saint, and he told me to breathe and assured me that I’d feel better when I got my skis on the snow because the movement and meditation of skiing would take my mind off all of the baloney that had gotten me into my tizzy.

“Look up at Kachina,” he said. “Those lines on the right are super steep, but over there on the left—you’ll be skiing that soon.” I suggested he was out of his mind, but his smile and laugh said no. When we got off the chair he told me to pose in front of the peak for a picture. “You’ll love it,” he said “When you ski it this will be a great reminder of when you thought you couldn’t.”

It’s just an incredible thing when your friends believe in you more than you believe in yourself, and whether I ski up there or not (I’d gamble that I’ll hike it regardless, being the lover of uphill battles that I am….) what this really boils down to is faith. Faith in ourselves and each other to be just a little bit better tomorrow than we are today.

And I believe this is what it’s all about: embracing the courage to be yourself when it can be scary, bravery to be yourself even when that self isn’t exactly what you’re striving for. Because we’re all works in progress, and the unedited versions of ourselves are usually always far better than any mocked up, phony version. As I always say: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

So here I am with my butt stuck out a little too far, smile a little awkward, stance totally goofy. But this is child’s play compared to those pictures I posted last year of learning to surf with my rash guard hiked up and belly out and my face all “woah.” Oi.


P.S. In the coming days there will be a part 2 to this: My love-hate affair with skiing.

The Places That Scare You

The skies have cleared in Missoula and I’ve been running again. It feels so good. I went on a few runs in the particulate thickened air, and didn’t realize how bad it felt—how hard it was to keep moving and breathing—until I had a taste of clarity.

The skies gradually and intermittently cleared, but we basically went from smoke to snow in a single day after breaking a record of forty-two precipitation free days. And as I always say: strike while the iron is hot.

My body hurt from a month of inactivity, and I went from a month of maxing out with three slow walk-jog miles to running five. I tallied those miles in the woods, with my phone in my pocket to count the miles, but my headphones left behind. How nice, right? The woods….the solitude…the longish run…the meditation of feet hitting dirt and breath going in and out.

My motives were not pure, though, and my sedentary-too-long body could have used a little Katy Perry pick-me-up. Except that it wasn’t on the menu. The fact is I’m terribly scared of being in the thick trees alone. I prefer the open hillsides where you can see for miles, and the only wildlife hazards are harmless snakes crossing the trail and making sure the dogs don’t chase white-tails.

{Image by Blake Nicolazzo}

I think it’s good to go to the places that scare you, especially if they aren’t very scary, but sometimes even if (and because) they are. American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote: “A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”

Look directly. What an idea.

I am not scared when I’m in the woods with friends, and most of that is attributed to the fact that when I’m with even one friend we yack it up so consistently that we’re not liable to startle a bear, and are far more likely to scare the wildlife than be scared by them. All bets are off when I’m alone in the thick trees. I hear things so little, so big, so not even there.

Birds flushing out of the brush or a chipmunk snapping a twig can freeze my blood when I’m alone. The hairs on my body stand up and my muscles lurch to a stop. What happens next is that I’m embarrassed. There is nothing to be afraid of. Birds and chipmunks? Really? “Pull it together,” I tell myself. Then there are the facts: these woods are home to bears, wolves, and mountain lions. There are things to be afraid of, but not so much so that I can’t put one foot in front of the other.

There’s another aspect to this madness. I forget to carry bear spray. Always. Actually, I forget to buy it, which is just downright silly because there are plenty of things, like these Frye boots, that I would never “forget” to buy. I also forget to put a bell on Lucky so the jingle can frighten off bears and so I know, when I hear the cracking, rustling sounds that lead to my bristling, that it’s just the dog exploring.

We humans seem to avoid doing the things that we know will help us. Ok, I can’t speak for you, but I know this human often makes things more punishing than they need to be.

Sometimes a perspective shift is all that is needed. Instead of seeing the shadows you can see the sunlight. Illumination makes everything less scary. Go ahead, shine a light into all the dark corners.

What about when you can’t see? There is a sweet, tree lined country lane that bends a hundred yards ahead of you. Instead of fearing what is around the corner, you can rest assured that there’s no way to know what’s on the other side unless you go there. You can stall out, or you can go.

The places that scare you can be external—woods, public speaking, pages of a book, standing up on a surfboard with your rash guard hiked above your belly—or they can be of a far graver version: they can be internal. (For what it’s worth you can shine light into those dark corners too…)

A hill rises before you. It’s a mile long and you’re not sure you can make it up the grade. You might have to walk and would that be so bad? You think it might be “that bad,” but what would be worse: going and having to walk, or not going and not knowing?

You can focus on what you might not achieve, or you can take it one step at a time, or until your favorite song is over, or until you reach that fence or that tree, or maybe, god willing, the top. The thing is: you will not know unless you try.

Today: go to a place that scares you.

We Tell Ourselves Stories

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a great line, and the first line of the first essay in Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM, published in 1979. In 2006 she used that brilliant line as the title of another book of essays, which is a collection gleaned from her first seven nonfiction books.

No topic is off limits for Didion. She writes about politics and gangs, the Hoover Dam and Georgia O’Keefe, counterculture and permaculture. She wrote bravely about the death of her husband, which was followed by the death of her daughter. She wrote about that too. Didion confronts dichotomy and contradiction head on, and creates heartbreaking portraits of both people and place.

She’s unapologetic and unsentimental. Her observations are astute, her prose is spare, and she untangles life in a way that makes the reader feel she’s looking her in the eye, saying, “I get it.”

There’s this theory in storytelling that the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes. It’s curious, really, and it seems the opposite would be true, but when a storyteller trusts the reader, the reader trusts herself.

I like to craft stories on paper. I’ve been writing a lot this summer, and I love the process of telling a story then cutting it up. I love choosing what to reveal and what to keep hidden, where to be overt and where to be a little bit coy. The end becomes the beginning, there’s a narrative thread for the reader to hang on to, and there are a few twists and turns in the middle. It’s on paper, a permanent record of sorts.

Back in May I did something different. I got up on a stage in front of a few friends and a lot of strangers and I told a story. No notes, not even an index card. I thought about writing on my hand or arm, but figured that would be weird. I practiced a little beforehand, but every time I did I blew it. I went over the allotted ten minutes, I forgot a detail, I told too many details.

When the time came to tell the story I thought about blowing it off, faking sick, or just saying, “I can’t.” I took ballet and tap dance lessons as a kid, and all year I’d practice for the recital and order the costume then I’d back out in the final hour. I’d tell my mother, “I can’t get on that stage,” and she’d say, “You don’t have to.”

At thirty-eight years old it was time to stop making excuses. You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Ten minutes on a stage isn’t a lot. Telling a story about how I met my dog is easy; it’s a story I’ve told many times. But fear is a power deterrent. I started my “story” by talking about how what we’re most afraid of is rejection. I needed to hear my voice tell someone else’s story before I could tell my own. Wrap your head around that one. {My friend Heather wrote a great blog post on fear yesterday. It’s good stuff. Check it out here.}

For some public speaking is no big deal, but we all have our things. I know people who dig in their heels like a dog headed to the bathtub if they’re pulled onto a dance floor. I know people who are afraid of success, intimacy, and abandonment. You know them too. I know people who are afraid to do things with their bodies while others are afraid of doing things with their minds. Some are afraid of both, rendering themselves paralyzed. People are afraid to speak up, stand out, fall apart.

And then once in a while you have to say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and you just go for it. I washed and brushed my hair. I had a cocktail and ate a banana. I sat with my friends. I listened to others tell stories and I didn’t run out the back door. Then I got on the stage, said a few things I didn’t mean to and forgot a few things I meant to. And I survived. People laughed, but not at me.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’m okay with two steps forward one step back, but no steps forward? I’m all full up on that.

I was nervous about what I’d do with my hands while I told a story/freaked out on stage, and I had a dog biscuit in my pocket from Bernice’s bakery which I fingered like a worry stone while I spoke.

When I was done one of my friends let Lucky off his leash (we’d smuggled him in after intermission) and he found his way to the stage, but was terrified to go up the steps. Marc Moss, the mastermind behind the event (TELL US SOMETHING)  encouraged Luck up the steps, but it turns out the stage fright apple didn’t fall far from the tree. We can both ham it up just fine among friends, but on a stage…hell no!

Then I remembered the treat. I pulled it out of my pocket and Luck found the courage to make his stage debut. Here we are. When I first saw this picture I wondered what I was doing with my arm, then I saw my sweet boy reaching up for his prize.


And finally, last but not least, here’s a link to the podcast for my story called “Picked By Luck.” 

You can explore several dozen Tell Us Something podcasts HERE and you can support future storytellers by showing up at the Top Hat on October 9th. The topic is “Forgiveness.” Um, what’s not to like? Ok then, see you there.

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison 

Love and Trust

“Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Your courageous spirit helps make Missoula a great place.”

This is the thank you note I received (along with a book, a journal, and a “Reading is Sexy” sticker) from the University of Montana bookstore the other night after I told my story at Tell Us Something. So I send a thank you back to the bookstore and to Missoula; without you to listen our stories wouldn’t be told.

It’s an understatement to say that I was nervous in the days leading up to the event, but when it actually came time to get on stage and tell my “I Got Lucky” story I was calm. I forgot some things, but I didn’t pass out, pee myself, or cry. I didn’t run off the stage.

I forgot to talk about Lucky’s Rottweiler/wolf father and his Labrador mother. I forgot to talk about how he was the runt in a litter of eleven. And I forgot to talk about how when the box of puppies were given away at the river he was the only one nobody wanted; he was too little, too meek, too sick looking. Nobody wants to fall in love with a pup that may not make it.

But I did. I loved, I trusted, and it worked out.

I forgot to talk about all of the wonderful people I met when I first moved to Missoula and that even with all of the ups and down of a wild decade I still call the majority of them “friend.” I forgot to talk about how these supportive, loving people helped me locate solid ground and discover the place I’d call home. For a very long time.

Instead of breaking right into my story, I started by talking about a study done at Harvard on what people consider to be the worst possible experience. Public speaking ranks ahead of death or nuclear holocaust. I get it, but the deck seems to be unfairly stacked. How is it that we’d rather be dead (including the annihilation of our entire human civilization) than risk humiliation or rejection?

Does this not seem a little effed up? What is wrong with us?

Next I said that our brains are hard-wired to anticipate disaster, with rejection being one of the primary disasters we fear. I then announced that I’d turn off my cerebral and emotional brains and let my reptilian brain take over so I could tell a story.

I loved that I had the opportunity to tell the story of how Lucky picked me to be his mama just three days before our tenth anniversary. It makes a girl think, this business of ten years, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure what all to make of it. All I know is that I’m the lucky one.

I know that Lucky dog has been and will continue to be the best teacher I ever had. We went for a night run together last night in the misty rain just as it was getting dark. He had steak for breakfast and he’ll have ice cream as a mid-day snack.

On our tenth anniversary I’m simply going to try to be the person my dog thinks I am.




I’ve wanted to write more about surfing for the past few weeks, but there was a writing conference (awesome), my birthday (also awesome), and wonderful visits in Colorado with old and new friends. And then there was returning to Missoula and falling in love with it all over again.

I’ve been working hard on my memoir-in-progress, I FORGOT TO START WITH MYSELF, and have neglected to give attention to my public writing life. These writing lives will soon be one and the same, but for now they remain mostly separate. {Thanks for sticking with me and for continuing to tell me that you enjoy these posts, few and far between as they may be. You make my day. Every time.} So…

It’s hard to describe surfing without lurching into clichés. It’s powerful. It’s humbling. It’s liberating. It’s like being at one with the water. I could go on, and pretty much everything I have to say about surfing has been said before, but it’s not like me to know when to zip it, so on I go.

You’re vulnerable out there in that water. There are stingrays, sea urchins, and the other “s” that everyone tries not to talk about but can’t stop thinking about.

You could end up in a riptide. You could end up with your bathing suit wrapped around your neck, shackling your ankles, or both. As a worst-case scenario you could end up not even getting in the water because there are just too many things to worry about.

I don’t know about you, but for me sometimes the vulnerability associated with the limitations of fear is worse than the potential for vulnerability when going toward the frightening thing. It’s downright dizzying to wrap your head around all of it. For real.

Exploring the when, why, how and what (the hell) for? of vulnerability is what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s daunting to take that long, slow look at yourself. It’s far easier and more convenient to look away. It can be so ugly that you can’t bear to look. It can be so horrifying you can’t take your eyes off the mess. {think Jerry Springer.}

I often talk to my massage clients about how emotional distress manifests as physical pain and discomfort. About how it can be so uncomfortable to keep certain things in the six inches between our ears that we push them down to necks, shoulders, abdomens and hips. This can be uncomfortable too, but we seem to tolerate it better. We push and plod along until our bodies scream “STOP! NOW! UNCLE!” and even then we only sometimes listen.

Because this can be an overwhelming process I occasionally like to make myself vulnerable in other ways. Like posting bathing suit pictures of myself on the Internet. Yes, I did this in my last blog post and almost every day have wanted to delete them and have had to talk myself down from the tree and into keeping them up.

These are not posed pictures. Not pictures with a strategically placed sarong. Not pictures with shoulders back and chin up. Not pictures that cut off mid-thigh to give the illusion of longer, leaner legs. These are not pictures of me laughing with my arm around a friend. They’re pictures of me learning to surf, standing awkwardly, face contorted, rash guard rolling up. But this is me in real life. {Ok, surf camp is not real life, but you know what I mean….}

I look at pictures of other beginners surfing and I love them. I love the ones of the friend with her ragdoll arms. I love ones of the friend who always looks of the verge of leaping off the board. I love the ones of the friend who looks like she’s been waiting a long time to do this and like she’s been doing it forever. It turns out that pictures of beginners surfing are all sorts of awesome if that surfer isn’t you.

When I look at these surfing photos of myself I see a bathing suit bottom that was not a great choice. I see dimples that do not exist in my antique bedroom mirror where the lighting is always ambient. I see a struggling woman, and I have to ask: what’s so wrong with that?

Why? Why are we all so hard on ourselves?

I have a friend with a to-die-for-body who says her post-baby belly looks like a scrunched up brown paper bag when she bends over. I laugh at her hilarious description, but I don’t see what she does. Not even close.

I have another friend who wears shorts over her jogging pants because she feels more comfortable concealing her hips and thighs. She’s in great shape, and probably runs or walks fifty miles a week (not including the miles spent chasing her toddler) and doesn’t have a damn thing to hide. Regardless, she feels self-conscious about some of her moving and shaking parts that are bound to jiggle a little when set into motion because, well, that’s kind of what they’re supposed to do. She happens to have one of my favorite booties in town, but that’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what I (or anyone else) think(s). It’s about how she feels. If she feels better wearing a skirt over her jogging pants then all the power to this woman who knows what she needs to feel good and to keep getting out there.

Every woman I know has spent too much time hating parts of herself (inside and out) that just don’t deserve that ridicule, that scrutiny, that betrayal.

One woman hates her arms. Another her neck. Another her hair. Knees, hairlines, toes, teeth…it seems nothing is off limits. The laundry list of things that women loathe about their bodies is heartbreaking. For what? What in the world does all that self hatred do except create more of the same. Ick. Be gone with it, people.

More than one friend has a full-length mirror leaning against a wall in her bedroom to create the illusion of increased height and decreased girth. I ooh and aah at myself in these mirrors as I think “Holy crap! That looks like me in 1997!” These friends say with straight faces: “I’d never get out of the house if I didn’t have that mirror.”

It’s serious business these distorted images.

Another friend was married to a man who was raised in a home attached to his family’s fun house. Slanted floors, distorted mirrors, a place where gravity and perspective are both challenged and skewed. Floors drop, people shrink and grow, light and shapes shift. When it didn’t work out with him it was hard not to shrug our shoulders and say, “Well….think about where he grew up…What could you expect?”

But those of us who didn’t grow up in fun houses also seem to have no problem distorting images, for better or for worse, to either build ourselves up or to break ourselves down. What’s wrong with the real thing? What’s wrong with reality?

I woman at surf camp had recently lost seventy-five pounds. She told me that even when she got down to a size 8 she’d pull size 18s off the racks, not realizing they were no longer for her. She could not see herself as anything but a big woman. She brought a sweater to Mexico that was one of the first things she bought in “her size,” and now she wraps it around herself as a reminder of both who she was and who she is.

It seems everywhere we turn these days there’s a story about models being photoshopped into unachievable perfection by which we determine our own inadequacies. Photographic artistry tightens jowls, smooths armpits, and sculpts legs, but it also removes crucial body parts, makes waists unnaturally slim, and occasionally attaches a completely disproportionate hand to an arm. Magazines do features (front page stories!) about stars in the morning, stars without their makeup, stars bending over in bathing suits, stars picking wedgies, stars, they tell us, looking just like US. Through all the smokes, mirrors, and lens distortion it’s becoming increasingly harder to decipher what is real.

In The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams the Skin Horse said to the Rabbit when he asked “what is REAL?”:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

In the 1990s a prominent women’s magazine did a spread featuring grey-haired women. It was a huge success until Clairol threatened to pull all advertising unless the magazine stopped implying that “older” women could be beautiful without coloring their hair. Scarier than Clairol’s demand was the reaction of the magazine, which promised to “never again feature grey-haired women in a positive light.”

Photographers take photos of brides both before and after the ceremony. Before she’s coiffed to perfection, but her face is hard, nervous, edgy. These are sometimes interesting, telling shots, but rarely the best of the day. Later—after the seal-the-deal kiss, after the receiving line, after the first dance—the photos looks much different. A few tendrils (from a once-in-a-lifetime hairdo) may have slipped out, she may have smudged her mascara and she may have forgotten to reapply her lipstick. If it’s Montana her dress may have a ring of dirt around the bottom and she may have changed out of heels and into cowboy boots or flip-flops. She’s twirling, she’s laughing, she’s cheersing, and for a few moments she may be focused on how she feels and not on how she looks. These are the keepers.

I don’t know what you see when you look at me, but I know what I see when I look at you.

Where you see dimples I see definition.

Where you see wrinkles I see smiling.

Where you see junk-in-the trunk, I see curves.

Where you see tree trunks I see a strong foundation for your center.

Where you see football player shoulders I see a base that holds up a beautiful mind.

Where you see a woman being lazy I see a woman giving herself what she needs.

Where you see a woman struggling I see a woman trying, absorbing, accomplishing.

I see a confident short-short wearing role model of living, laughing, dancing joy.

I see grey hairs that naturally highlight your hair and tell me you’re not fighting reality.

I see your salon-dyed hair and a woman who says, “I don’t think so. Not me. No, I’m not ready.”

I see happy.

I see that you enjoy life.

I see that you’re not trying to fool anyone.

I see your vulnerability.

And I like it.